The Tao of the Commutetree

by Joseph Panzetta

lfbridgeThe sun is rising in a cloudless sky as I push off on my bike for the morning commute. It’s 1997, and I’m 28 years old. Peddling along the edge of the road, around 12 minutes into my journey I rise up with the slope of the Longfellow Bridge, cross the Charles River, and at the bottom of the far side enter the infamous chaos of downtown Boston. These streets allegedly crisscross in their haphazard way thanks to an evolution from old cow paths rather than the work of colonial city planners. I believe it. It’s a maze, and on any given weekday morning these streets are hemorrhaging with delivery trucks, hell-bent cabs, a potpourri of cars, busses, bicyclists, and large groups of pedestrians.

Inevitably at some point, it happens – someone does something I find questionable at best: a driver mindlessly changes lanes and nearly causes an accident; a taxi takes a hard right, cutting me off and makes me throw on the brakes; or a pedestrian mob spills forth in jaywalking mayhem right in front of my speeding path. This I find particularly frustrating. As I approach they perch curb-side en masse like rain about to fall out of a dense cloud. Those on the packs periphery wait for the cars to pass and then jump off the curb despite seeing me coming. They trot and scamper across the street with coffee cups in hand, and in doing so unleash a lemming-like following, some of which see me coming, some of which are blindly following the procession. I let out with a loud “Coming through! Heads up! Heads up!” and make them give way to my trajectory.

It’s all about the trajectory, which spreads out in front of me like an invisible extension of myself. It’s as if my immediate path-to-be is my property, and if it’s interrupted I feel wronged.

Residing in my backpack is a dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese book about aligning oneself with the natural movement of life. Central to Taoism is, of course, the “Tao.” Paramount to its’ true essence is that it cannot be defined and thoroughly understood with words. It is to be experienced rather than conceptually deciphered. The book opens with this passage: “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao.” We can talk about it, and indeed the Tao Te Ching itself is an example of this – it being a tool we can use to learn about the Tao – but conceptual understanding is different from experiential understanding.

Knowing is not being.

img_0872I had started reading the Tao Te Ching while hiking in the Pacific NW a few years earlier. Walking there in the company of trees, I saw many Taoist ideas reflected in the effortless synchronicity of the rain forest. Trees are like great Taoist masters. Reaching into the earth while reaching into the sky, they gradually take shape, following what is natural. Endless possibility exists within a framework of complete interconnectedness. The old-growth elders tower up to the sun covered with soft green moss and lichen, predating everything except the mountains. Trees that died and fell to the forest floor lie with their form mostly intact, slowly decaying. As if finding a second wind on the doorstep of death, new growth sprouts from their sides. The ground is spongy and soft, the very soil itself made up of long ago disintegrated tree matter. Everything around me is “tree”. They are there in every possible stage of development and decay from the saplings, to the ancients, to the ghosts in the soil. When in this setting, I’m very aware of my interconnectedness with everything around me.

Back in Boston, I wonder how those same ideals that are so easy to see in the forest might be found in the chaotic commute. Can’t I experience the same ease I feel in the forest while peddling along Milk Street and taking a right onto Congress?

Surely it’s possible. But whether commuting by bike, automobile, or the crowded subway cars, I find the same irritation arising within myself and observe it in my fellow commuters. The trajectory is something each of us wears throughout our daily journey like a garment. When our perceived path-to-be is interrupted, we get upset. I’m much more apt to find the edge of where “I” end, and where everything else begins. Becoming angry with another commuter, I create in my mind a distinct separateness between him and me. Indeed, at times I am more apt to see each entity I encounter as being contra-related and in conflict. It’s “every man for himself” so to speak. Dog-eat-dog.

I’m pedaling.

Bicycling in the city requires a certain ownership of space. If you are timid and too accommodating of the cars, you’ll soon find your path compromised as you’re squeezed into a situation that forces you to stop. You have to own the lane – but always with an eye towards safety, of course.

I’m approaching an intersection and my light is green. However, I see in front of me that a car on the side street is inching out. I stand on my pedals and make eye contact with the driver. He breaks, giving me an annoyed look. “Whatever, dude.” I think to myself and stare back at him. He suddenly gives me the finger! Without even thinking about it I explode with a loud “Fuck you!” as I coast past him into the next block. “What an asshole” I think. “I had the right of way!” I see his expression in my mind. I’m fuming. Asshole. Then just as suddenly, I realize how stupid this thought exercise is. I drop back into the saddle, grip the handlebars hard, and pedal ahead. I tune-in to what I’m feeling in my body: anger. What a dick. My face is tense. My brow. My jaw. My heart is racing in my chest. My breath is shallow. There’s a vibration through my whole being that is… angry. Peddling ahead, I take one long inhale, hold the breath a moment, and then exhale slow and long, consciously releasing the tension and the bad mojo.

That felt good.

I do it again.

The last few blocks. I envision the bagel and coffee that await me from Au Bon Pain in the lobby. I think about the Red Sox game I heard Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano call the night before. Nomar went 3 for 4 and Wakefield lasted 7 and 2/3s. Red light ahead. I come to a stop. I watch the people crossing the street. I look to my right and catch eyes with a guy steering a hand truck filled with produce boxes into a restaurant. There is contentment and some degree of humor held in his brow. He’s enjoying his morning. Just for an instant we catch eyes and I feel some kind of kinship. And then he’s gone.

Green light.

I push off and think about wu-wei.

riverI first heard of wu-wei from my Dad. Where the backyard ends and the woods start behind his house in Pennsylvania, there’s a break in the trees that opens to a path. We sometimes follow this path out together with the dogs and eventually sit by Hough creek. He named the trail “wu-wei” after the Taoist principle that speaks of effortlessly moving around life’s obstacles. He explained that just as water in the creek moves around a large rock or fallen tree, it’s possible for us to move through life without struggle. Wu-wei is dancing with life’s difficulties and moving past them with the least effort. It’s a concept I reflect on a lot during these Boston commutes. I think about how quickly I lost it with the guy who flipped me off. It seems I have a conceptual understanding of interconnectedness and moving with the Tao, but when encountering something I see as justifiably wrong, I can’t help but react emotionally.

Knowing is not being.

This is a hard pill to swallow. I don’t like seeing my behavior as unskillful and contradictory to the lessons I’m trying to align with. But nevertheless, part of me feels strongly that that guy deserved an F-bomb. I think of his stupid expression and that middle finger assaulting me and suddenly I start to get pissed off all over again. But another part of me sees how he was just a boulder in the creek that I could have slipped past. “Could” have slipped past, or “should” have slipped past? I notice that I’m wishing I were more… spiritually advanced, and note I even feel some degree of guilt around the way I reacted. I’m sure that suppressing emotion is not the answer, because trying to will away emotion just bottles it up. And wishing I were more advanced than I am seems both ridiculous and counterproductive. And yet… there it all is. I take it in, and wonder how I can… learn with my body – so to speak, not just my mind. When does conceptual understanding become a way of being? Is it just a matter of practice?

Trajectories. Paths. They’re curious things. Off that main trail in the Pennsylvania woods are narrow deer paths that part the thick underbrush. As days turn into seasons and seasons into years, these smaller paths sometimes grow, and sometimes disappear, reclaimed by the brambles. Life paths are similar. They exist for various lengths of time, either cutting their way into our life landscape and taking permanent residence, or eventually disappearing over time back into the undergrowth of possibility.

img_3259I boarded the 6:10 water taxi this morning and looked out at neighboring Blake Island as we left Vashon. Blake is uninhabited. I love taking it in each morning. A 45-minute kayak trip away, it’s a picturesque backdrop that changes like a mood ring with the weather. Some mornings Blake is veiled in fog. Sometimes choppy waters jump between us. Sometimes, like today, it’s brilliantly clear and calm. It’s 2015 and I’m on route to Bellevue from Vashon Island. I do this ritual 3 days a week, working from home the other two. I viewed Blake from my seat on the Sally Fox catamaran, which 25-minutes later docked at Seattle. I disembarked with my fellow Vashonites onto Yesler Way, and now a few blocks later, I descend a staircase to the bus platform. 50 yards ahead of me is the stop for the 550 express, and on this particular morning at this particular moment, I have the platform all to myself. I deduce of course, that a 550 has just left. I walk up to the post and Iean against it with my right shoulder while taking my phone from my back pocket. A woman walks up and stands behind me, starting a line as I put in my ear buds and select “all songs” and then “shuffle.” A track from Mingus Plays Piano begins, and the phone goes back into my pocket.

We wait.

Charles Mingus was, of course, a bass player not a pianist, but this is one of my favorite albums of his. His piano technique is a little unrefined perhaps, but man – these pieces are super cool. I think I recognize a melodic line that appears in another Mingus song, one that he did with Eric Dolphy and the full band. I try to place the title but can’t.

Two more people have queued up in line behind me. A bus pulls in on the other side of the platform. People get off, other people board. It drives off.

My thoughts drift to what I need to do this morning at work. I have a long list of deliverables that I start to go through mentally, assessing priority. As this happens, a portion of my attention notes it and investigates the subtle feeling that accompanies the shift in thought – a kind of excitement or interest that has a distinct kind of energy all it’s own. Keeping this awareness of my thoughts and the feelings associated with them, I also bring my attention to the sights and smells of the bus tunnel, the feel of the air temperature and my clothes on my skin, the way my weight is distributed, and the sound of Mingus playing over my headphones. They are all witnessed as objects that I’m simultaneously aware of in an experience of mindfulness. I’m there for a few moments, and then I’m off on the next thought-train without even realizing I boarded it.

That’s the thing about unconscious thought, it’s so… unconscious.

Mindfulness is remembering to pay attention to what’s happening, while it’s happening. Most of the time my thoughts move from one thing to the next and I’m completely unaware of it, transfixed by the thought-stream. When I become aware of a thought, it changes from being a quality of mind, to an object of mind. If I’m thinking about something I find annoying, for instance, my quality of mind is annoyance. This probably manifests in my face having a disgruntled expression of some kind, and my whole mood and way-of-being emanating annoyance. When I become aware of these thoughts, the quality of mind – in this case, annoyance – shifts to something I am now objectively aware of. I may still be annoyed by whatever was bothering me, but there is a fundamental change that releases the all-encompassing nature of unconscious thought. Instead of being on a run-away thought-train, I now have some level of control. Depending on circumstances, I might have varying degrees of success in executing a wise choice. Of course, many times I’m unwillingly aboard for the ride despite some level of objectivity. I might become aware that I’m angry for instance, but it’s so encompassing, so powerfully justified in my reasoning (“that guy deserved a F-bomb”), that I just can’t help myself. In this sense mindfulness is not a silver bullet that changes what I’m feeling, but rather, a window to opportunity. When I’m blindly cruising down that thought-stream, there’s no one at the wheel. Free fall. Good luck, buddy. But within a moment of mindfulness, there is opportunity for perspective and choice.

No sign of the 550 yet. A woman walks up and comes standing to my left, clearly ignoring the line behind me, and a moment later another guy queues up next to her. Hmmm. I casually look back and see that the lady behind me is also noting the line ambiguity and giving them a concerned look.

I know what you’re thinking,” I think to myself.

sunflowersMy thoughts turn and look in the mirror as I start thinking about thinking. It seems that at its’ foundation, thought is in constant relationship with attraction and aversion. Perhaps this is a result of evolutionary forces, as it seems that all beings do at least a simple version of this yes/no binary dance. Even amoebas know what’s good for them – so to speak – being attracted to sugar and adverse to salt. Likewise, just as a sunflower turns towards the sun, everything alive seems to pragmatically turn towards the useful and desirable while turning away from the undesirable. Of course, thanks to our more advanced intellect and sensory abilities, humans experience attraction and aversion in much more complex and nuanced ways than the reflexive movement of a sunflower. But still, there seems to be an important connection. That reflexive mechanism for survival is the steering wheel of natural selection and evolution, while also being the framework from which human discernment, choice, and creation originate. It blossoms into a nuanced interplay of opinion, aesthetic, pragmatism and pleasure seeking.

The fabric of our existence makes us want “good” and not want “bad,” however they are manifested. Out of this binary fabric we navigate all our creative efforts. Whether we’re creating a sculpture, a business plan, a mathematical theorem, or an omelet, we are following the same process of maximizing the good and minimizing the bad. Even in the moment-to-moment of mundane experience, we are doing this same yes/no dance as we surf the constant flow of urges and desires. From the pull for pleasure through substance and/or stimulus, to even the framework of discernment that Buddhist wisdom and “Right Understanding” is based upon, attraction and aversion seem to be the unavoidable catalytic guides of the human experience.

Mingus has finished and Van Morrison starts singing about Cypress Avenue just as a third person joins the miscue line. “WTF!” I think. Then I notice that I’m getting agitated and laugh at myself for being so attuned to the lines. Who cares? Apparently I do. Some premise of “right and wrong” is being challenged in my mind, and it bugs me.

The Zen and Taoist scholar, Alan Watts, illustrated wu-wei with the parable of maple and willow trees in heavy snow. The maple branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight and breaks off. The willow branch yields to the weight, and the snow drops off. Practicing wu-wei is to have the bend, the give of the willow that lets the weight of conflict drop off. So… if I’m the tree branch, what is the heavy snow? Is it miscue-woman? I don’t think so. I think the weight I feel in the form of agitation is of my own devices. It’s my thoughts, of course.

Therein lies our greatest challenge: navigating the contradiction of the usefulness and destructiveness of thought. On one hand we know that conceptual thinking is what allows for everything we do – all of our creative efforts in art, business, philosophy, construction, cuisine, space travel; all of it. It’s a wonderful, amazing gift that manifests through our unique talents and personalities. But on the other hand, we are being led around like a dog on a leash by our thoughts, unconsciously reacting to the ever-changing circumstances around us. In our interpretation of events, we often create stories that build on themselves and proliferate into destructive mental states. Worse yet, the mental states that we revisit frequently (for whatever reason) can harden over time into habitual ways-of-being that we begin to regard as undeniable truths. In this way conceptual thought is both our greatest tool and also our Achilles heel. Assessment, discernment and opinion allow for human advancement and expression while also being the source of mental suffering and self-repression.

It’s our nature to try to maximize the positive. It’s not right or wrong, it just is. But from this comes an inherent challenge with accepting things we don’t like. We do everything we can to avoid displeasure, but it is, of course, unavoidable. People we love die. We get sick. We age. We want some things not to change while other things can’t change fast enough. Within this framework our thoughts proliferate into clinging, wanting and grasping. The Buddha taught that this is the cause of suffering. Thankfully, he also taught that the cultivation of awareness frees us from this cycle.

The bus appears out of the tunnel and everyone shifts their weight, inching forward towards the pole just a bit. Van Morrison sings over xylophone, bass, fiddle and guitar. I wonder, as I often do, what it looked like in the studio during the Astral Weeks sessions. There is an improvisational quality to those recordings that continues to grow on me after years of listening. How prescriptive was Van? How much rehearsing happened before they rolled tape? How were they situated in the room? How many takes did they do? Was there any over-dubbing? Who does this woman think she is, anyway? People got here before her and formed a line. How unbelievably rude of her to set herself up to cut in line! The bus driver hits his brakes and it creates a sound that penetrates my headphones and mixes with the music – a new, curious instrument. I observe that I’m feeling self-righteous, judging miscue-woman as terribly wrong and myself as in the right. I catch myself feeling an urge to give her the hairy eyeball. How ridiculous! I’m feeling hostile over a perceived injustice of line etiquette.

As the bus pulls up I shift my stance and squarely face the door that has just come to a stop before me.

It opens.

I gesture to miscue woman and invite her to board first.

We all get on. Everyone has a seat.

Photo Credit: Mike Reid

A few minutes later I look out the window as we rise with the slope of the onramp to merge onto I-90, heading east, and soon we emerge onto the floating bridge over Lake Washington.

“Cypress Avenue” transitions into a moment of silence before the next song kicks in. I listen to the sound of the bus engine, the tires on the road. Vince Guaraldi suddenly floods my head. I fast forward. Santana is met with aversion as well. Glenn Gould launches into a Goldberg Variation. Nope. Curtis Mayfield’s “Choice of Colors” starts up with that drum fill that gives way to horns and the full band hitting the slow groove.


Soon, the commute will end and the workday begin. I think about how beginnings always give way to endings. Songs, days, meals… Thoughts have a beginning and an end, too. But… maybe the edges are not so clear, actually. Aren’t all of my seemingly distinct thoughts really interconnected? Deeply interconnected? Thought X is the proximate cause for thought Y, but even beyond that simple connection, after a thought-train is done and it’s direct influence is spent, isn’t it like the ghost of an ancient tree long ago decomposed, making up the forest floor of my mind, somehow still exerting a thread of influence over all new growth to come?

I’m guessing there are over 60 of us on this bus, all silently lost in our own little worlds, just vaguely aware of each other. How odd that this is normal. It’s a rather miraculous moment, really. I stop the tunes and listen. I become aware of what’s hitting all the sense gates, and for a moment, I’m present. Sitting on a bus, crossing Lake Washington at 50 miles an hour next to a stranger who’s surfing Facebook, I’m aware of being aware.

And then a thought comes: what is the present moment? Does it have a beginning or ending? I don’t think so. It seems to be absolute immediacy, free of any kind of arc, free of time itself. What is awareness? Or rather… who is being aware? All of the thoughts that usually come, all of the experience of being “me” – all of that evaporates with awareness. I think of that Zen Koan: “What is your original face?”

The bus hits the east side, leaving the bridge behind, and my thoughts drift to the Mariners game I listened to Rick Rizz and Aaron Goldsmith call the night before. Felix lasted 8 strong but we only mustered 1 run and the bullpen blew it in the ninth.