“Although we speak of attaining the tao, there is really nothing to obtain.”
15th November 2019, Friday — Finals results just came out the day before, and I decided to treat myself to a movie — One that I longed for, and it was “Ford v. Ferrari”. I forgot to bring my jacket, which meant that I couldn’t smuggle my coffee into the cinema — And so the security boy had to take it away. I smiled smugly because at least I managed to hide a Kinder Bueno in my pocket, and I was excited to see Matt Damon and Christian Bale, two actors that I greatly admire, in the same picture.
Driving back home later, I thought often of a line from the movie — Matt Damon, playing as Carroll Shelby said that there comes a point when you’re driving really, really fast at a certain speed, and you begin to experience the feeling that you’re just a weightless matter in time and space — And in that moment, the only question that matters is, “Who are you?”
Rather coincidentally, I was driving to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty”, a song that I had on repeat all week long. In symphony, my thoughts started to brew.
It’s said that the greatest songwriters can create genius from the most routine situations. And according to Browne, he was inspired to write the song when he didn’t have to travel far from his home to the recording studio where he worked on his album “The Pretender” — So he rarely bothered to fill up the gas. He said, “I was always driving around with no gas. I just never bothered to fill up the tank because — How far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.”
Cleverly, he used his dissipating fuel as a metaphor for a lifestyle that revolved around speed and movement, at the expense of lasting connection to other people, and to life around us.
A few years earlier, his contemporary Bruce Springsteen sang about being “Born to Run”, romanticizing the open highway and youthful restlessness. But Browne’s song is a wiser, more careful look at the road, reminding us that the restless feelings that impel one to get behind the wheel and drive often stay unresolved, no matter how far he has traveled.
“Running on Empty” was the title track of Browne’s album of the same name — A whole record dedicated to portraying life on the road; it’s glory, and it’s ugliness. To emphasize this theme, Browne recorded the album in hotel rooms, in buses, and in the case of this song, live in concert.
But a beautiful thing is that you don’t have to be a musician to identify with Browne’s malaise in the song. He confides of a life spent running, in pursuit of something for so long that it’s hard to tell where it all started, or where it will end — He sings, “I don’t know when that road turned out to be the road I’m on.”
Browne initially declines that he is speaking for society, as he sings, “I don’t know about anyone but me.” But he eventually comes to terms with the reality that he isn’t alone in his restlessness : “I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through, Looking into their eyes I see them running too.”
This applies to a lot of us, more than we would like to admit.
We keep ourselves very busy doing things that we don’t like to gain the praises and approval of others, we work more and more hoping that there will be a life-changing reward at the end of the tunnel, we dream of getting more awards, more recognition. Always something more.
Once we get there, we will immediately want something better, and the wheel keeps on turning. We become our own versions of Captain Ahab, vying and searching for our Moby Dick, chasing and chasing, until we don’t even know why or what we’re chasing after anymore.
Marcus Aurelius once wrote in his journal, “If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what is essential.”
If you could take the time to reflect, maybe you would notice that some things that you work towards aren’t exactly what you want, or in other words, they aren’t essential. They are tied to other people’s opinions or notions about them being “a good thing to do”. Perhaps they aren’t enmeshed with your calling in life– At the end, they leave you feeling unfulfilled and restless, as you’re making everyone happy, but not yourself.
So what can you do now?
Or (more accurately), stop running on empty. Instead, run with purpose, with a clear direction, one not weighed down by ego.
Take the time you need to know yourself better. Go and have real fun. Play with kids, imbue your spirit with theirs, reattain your childlikeness. Return to the things that you have always loved to do. Do your utmost to live in the present. Contribute to the world around you in ways that only you can — And you can’t do that if you don’t know you.
The writer Leo Tolstoy observed that love can’t exist off in the future, that love is only real if it’s happening right now. And it’s the same for everything that we do, think, and feel — It’s only truly real when you’re in the game playing, enjoying each catch and throw of the ball, when your mind isn’t elsewhere as you’re thinking so much about winning the championship.
Teach yourself to enjoy the moment, to not make the ephemeral rush of elation that you get after you’ve achieved something you longed for, your prime concern. Because it’s right now that truly matters.
As a student once asked where he might find Zen, his master responded, “You are seeking for an ox while you are yourself on it.”