I gave my partner a ride to work today. On the way back, I noticed that the GPS wasn’t turned on. I actually had a brief moment of anxiety, even though I know perfectly well how to get home after dropping him off. Just to be stubborn, I resisted the urge to turn it on. Usually I don’t even program it to show me the way home, but I realized that I’ve come to rely on it as a safety blanket and a backup. Most places in the city I don’t know my way around, and I do end up relying on it completely at times. But it’s made the transition from being additional help to being something I expect, something I think of as normal, even when it’s not necessary. I was telling myself, “You don’t need it. Stay focused on what’s actually happening on the road; immerse yourself in the act of driving at the moment, not the plan for the next turn…” And then it hit me: I was using the same kind of language I do when I get myself to ground and center, when I start to meditate.
That’s a good way to express what grounding and centering is all about: turning off the GPS. Now that I’m accustomed to it, the little on-screen map can seem more real to me than the actual road I’m driving on; sometimes my memory of how to get to a place has as much to do with what the animated abstraction shows as what’s really there on the road, on the buildings, all around me. Likewise, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the stories we’re telling, the plans we’re making, the mental map we’re drawing and revising all the time. I’ve got a plan for the day, and I’ve got problems to solve, and I get so focused on those things that I stop paying attention to the reality of right now – the kitten in my lap (have to pick up cat food…), the tea in my mug (need to clean the kettle…and the stovetop…and…), the sunshine and my breath…all these things turn into symbols, reminders of something to do or worry about or write down. The real things get abstracted into little icons for something else, for thoughts inside my head, just like the very real road gets turned into a little blue stripe on the LCD screen of the GPS.
The map is not the territory. The GPS is not the road. And my thoughts, real though they are, are not the same as external reality. That’s one of the things that grounding and centering in preparation for meditation is about: coming back to reality, not just our abstract symbol-worlds, whether they’re on screens or inside our heads. So take a breath, turn it off, and pay attention to where you are, not just where you’re going.
Epilogue: As I was almost home, the GPS suddenly turned itself on. I reached over to turn it off, and realized that earlier, when I had noticed it, it wasn’t showing its “battery charging” message, which is normal when the car is on but the GPS itself is off. I checked – it was plugged in, the cable was solid, and there’s no reason it should have been off like that in the first place, and doubly no reason it should have turned itself on randomly. Sometimes, magic is what happens to us, rather than what we do.