This is going to be a blog about a motorcycle trip, but of course it’s going to try to be more than that. Or maybe not. It’s going to be about Buddhism too, but one of the truths of Buddhism is that after you’ve reached the supreme ultimate, when you’ve finally penetrated the veil of surface experience to sense the underlying matrix of interacting pure forces that make up existence itself, you nevertheless end up back where you started – in the flow of “ordinary” life. I’ve done a motorcycle trip before, and written about it. Now in this account I want to do something a little different – to go into philosophy, into science, into psychology. Yes, it can be hard to do that in a blog without being boring, which I don’t want to be. Robert Pirsig, that eminent midwestern sage, used the device of switching back and forth between the secular and the abstract in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but it only worked to an extent – the long philosophical sections still drag – and he is a far more skilled and intelligent writer than I’ll ever be.
So this account is going to be about experience. Not just experience though, although that will be an important part, but experience itself. Five different people can go on a motorcycle trip for six weeks across the U.S. and have five different experiences. One might come back and write a book, one will have the experience of a lifetime and come back to inspire all his friends, and three will make some memories but return more or less untransformed from before. We want to understand the difference between these, and, ultimately, to become more likely ourselves to have the first (or the second) kind of experience. I’ll try to avoid the explicit philosophizing like I said, but this is what we’ll be aiming for. Relax, though! Pirsig didn’t go on his trip with just the idea to have some experiences and write a journal about them. He had a whole plan, a huge agenda and outline of what he wanted to convey. I have no such plan and am just going to write a journal.
So anyway, airports. Maybe you’ve been in one and had that wonderful, “floating” experience one can have there, where you just sit back and watch the people and the goings on, perfectly satisfied for yourself. Your bags are packed, your arrangements made, and all you have to do is wait for your plane. It’s going to take you someplace new and far away, and you’re excited about that. But it’s a kind of tranquil excitement, because it’s still somehow separated from you. And yet you’ve already left home – that’s all behind now, all the cares, all the responsibilities. Your work is left to run by itself for a while. Thus between, you relax, maybe sip a beer or a coffee, and look out at the humming activity. Things are happening here. Planes are coming in, planes are heading out, vehicles and men zip efficiently about serving them. Families meet and say goodbye, strangers encounter one another on adjacent seats, maybe you catch the eye of a cute girl (or guy) across the way. Meanwhile the sun slowly sets, casting deepening red rays through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Maybe you have to be alone to have this experience to its fullest, but you can still experience it with companions. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about at all though, Yoshinori Sunahara expressed it in another way in his album Pan Am – The Sound of ’70s.
But there’s another kind of experiential mode you can be in in an airport – the one characterized by aggravation, boredom, discomfort. The food sucks, the chairs are uncomfortable, you’re tired, there’s an annoying woman blabbing her whole life story into her cell phone, this kid keeps running back and forth where you’re trying to stretch your legs, and there’re no pretty women anywhere to be seen. In fact everyone is just ugly, ugly, ugly. You’re worried about some loose ends you left hanging at work, and when you get where you’re going to visit your family you’re going to have to deal with a whole other set of issues.
You get the idea. Same airport, same person, different attitude. And if you talk to the person who’s had both experiences five years later I can tell you which one he’s going to remember. It’s tempting to say it’s not about the circumstances, but where the mind is. But it isn’t that simple. Actually we might want to look at it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But this post is getting too long and philosophical. We’ll come back to that another time.