A Lesson on Impermanence

Neal Pollack's freelance gig test driving and reviewing luxury cars is a constant reminder what's real and what's temporary.
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Neal Pollack's freelance gig test driving and reviewing luxury cars is a constant reminder what's real and what's temporary.

I've been driving a lot of cars lately. A freelance assignment has come along that's not only got me flying all over the world, testing out new luxury models in glamorous locations like the south of France, the Pyrenees, and the Istrian Coast of Croatia, but I also get a car dropped in my driveway every Wednesday, always shinily washed and always with a full tank of gas. I didn't try to get this gig. It just sort of happened because an editor liked my other writing. Still, it feels like I won PowerBall without buying a ticket.

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From time to time, I'll read something about yoga and cars. Mostly, these pieces practically advise about how not to get angry in traffic, to stay mindful behind the wheel and focus on your breath when situations get hairy. Or, to quote Daniel Day-Lewis from Last Of the Mohicans, "Stay alive, no matter what occurs. I will find you." It's all quite useful. I often remind myself, when I'm rocketing around in a close-to-the-ground BMW coupé, to not do anything stupid, to keep an eye on the rear-view and the blind spot, and to remember that the first rule of driving is to get home safely with your groceries, not necessarily to have fun. Staying focused in the present moment is a useful skill to have when you're manipulating several thousand pounds of supercharged alloy on wheels.

But, to me, that's not yoga's most important lesson when it comes to cars. No matter how cool and slick these vehicles are, I always have to remember one thing: They're not mine. None of this is real. At the most, I get them for two weeks. Usually, it's one week. Often, on the first-drive trips that I take, I get to drive the cars for two or three hours, maximum. Then it's over. This job personifies the concept of impermanence, the temporary nature of all things.

Samkhya, an ancient Indian philosophy that undergirds much contemporary yoga practice, teaches that life as we perceive it is divided into two separate categories of reality. There's prakriti, or matter, which is impermanent, solid, and continually changing form, and purusha, which is eternal, unchanging, essentially unknowable, and present in all things. When we practice yoga, we clear our minds to allow the purusha to shine forth and observe changing reality in its true nature. This can be disorienting at times, but it also can liberate us. If we grasp the truth about the impermanence of the physical world, including our own bodies, then we can be free.

That lesson certainly applies to the cars I get to drive. It's all temporary. So when some guy from Dallas appears in my driveway on a Wednesday morning, my first reaction is, "Holy crap, look at that awesome new car!" I drive it around the block, enjoying its feel and smell. And then I catch my breath, focus, and remind myself that this isn't mine. I try, not always successfully, to treasure the experience in its true, impermanent, nature.

A few months ago, I was supposed to fly to Portugal to test-drive a new convertible Mini Cooper. My wife dropped me off at the airport but the airline had no record of my ticket. That's because I'd read the reservation wrong and had left a day early. So instead of flying first class to Europe, I found myself sitting at home in my shorts on a soggy Wednesday, eating a tuna sandwich and watching Gypsy on Turner Classic Movies. Then I took my 1998 Nissan Sentra--the car I actually drive--in for an oil change, and later took my son to Hebrew School.

I had to remind myself not to get depressed, that this, too, was reality, just in a different form. Twenty-four hours later, I was off to Lisbon like some sort of super-spy. But I tried to keep the same lesson in mind, to not let my ego confuse my good fortune with some sort of birthright. If you're open, then life, in whatever high or low form it might be taking at that moment, will unfold before you delightfully. Sometimes it'll even unfold at 100 miles an hour.