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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Distractions, Interruptions and Concentration

Years ago I read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a book of teachings by the late Shunryu Suzuki-roshi. I thought of that book last night. At 10:30PM a man knocked on my door and asked for gas. His girlfriend's car was roadside in front of my driveway.

I offered what I could: he was welcome to siphon a few gallons from the tank of my Subaru. I pulled my car out of the driveway and parked behind their car. My daughter cut an old garden hose to a length that reached both cars. The bloke took the hose and we watched. After drawing on the hose like a hookah he coughed.

"This is killing about a million brain cells," he said. He turned and looked at my seventy-five year old father, who replied, "Ian, I would not do that for anyone." He then looked to his girlfriend and said, "Chrissie, come try." She replied, "No f***ing way!" After a moment or so he pulled out a cigarette and I thought, kaboom, a breath of fire! He lit it.

We offered to drive him to the nearest gas station; he said he had no money. We offered them a lift; he said they did not want to leave their car. At this stage I thought of what Suzuki Roshi said in the prologue to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." There seemed to be few possibilities for Ian.

Back in the house my daughter googled, "How to siphon gas," and determined the garden hose needed to be in a loop and held at a higher point for the gas to flow from one tank to another. If she ever becomes stranded without gas, she will have a resource of technical know-how. For my part, switching from the "cultivated" beginner's mind- the mind that sees loads of possibilities- to Zen mind- the mind of an expert- was an ironic reversal. I was unwilling to go back out to the roadside.

Eventually their car battery died. The situation had progressed from bad to worse: in addition to needing gas and being without money, they needed a jump. I offered help, I had become absorbed by their plight and by 2:30 in the morning I no longer wanted to think about them. I had reached my limit of distraction; their presence on my driveway was an interruption to the peace of my home. I wanted to think about my next day of painting and ideas for my artist talk in Troy.

What to make of Ian and Chrissie in their red Chevrolet? Whatever happened involved four more cars- I lost interest and just wished they would hurry up and go away. My concentration was reinstated.

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