The Zen of Western Kansas

A friend of  mine says that driving across Western Kansas is meditative and restorative. I thought about that yesterday as the prairie spread on with barely a ripple in the landscape, the highway straight on forever.

I’d always thought of driving it as a torture, something that Dante would have created for the souls of the damned, had he but known of Western Kansas. It doesn’t help that this is the point that Steve, exhausted from sleeping in a hotel bed and hypnotized by the road, stops talking to me.

Really, what is there to say? Nothing on the landscape inspires comment. We’ve usually finished discussing our exciting plans by that point. The noise of the car and the wind create a white noise that just increases the hypnotic effect.

But what if I thought of it as my friend does? Is Western Kansas a tool a skillful meditator welcomes into her life?

From Salina, Kansas, one of the few redoubts of civilization in a sea of yellow grass, to the Colorado border it is about a 3.5 hour drive through the type of blank sameness that Zen meditators pay good money to sit in front of and meditate.

I tried.

I even succeeded about as well as I succeed at meditating. My inner child kept looking at the clock, expecting at least a half hour to have moved forward, but finding a mere five minutes. I do that when I meditate as well. It’s one of my worst habits. So success?

No obvious enlightenment, though.

When we arrived at the Welcome Center at the Colorado border and the talkative man there offered me coffee and wifi, I wanted to kiss him for placing himself in the middle of nowhere specifically to offer me conversation, coffee and brochures. Bless the Welcome Center men and women.

Which brings me to a question, the one piece of enlightenment offered that day and like all enlightenment is phrased as a question: How is a life spent at sea different than driving through Western Kansas? Isn’t the ocean an undifferentiated landscape in the same way? There were times when the fields covered with a light coat of snow looked like a lake as we drove past.

Preet Bharara interviewed Admiral James Stavridis who spoke about his new book True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.  It sounds like a fascinating book and I’ve picked up a copy for myself and Steve to read. One thing he said really stuck with me. He said the life of a Naval officer or enlisted at sea is the best of all possible lives because it is a job where you always have “a room with a view.” But what kind of view? A view like Western  Kansas?

Finding new questions is probably the best one can hope for from enlightenment. It leads you on to other amazing places. I want to know more of this alchemy of places whose stolid sameness is a catalyst for the life of the mind.

May you transform the monotony in your life to meditative excellence as my friend did and may your own travels through Western Kansas be short with an excellent cup of coffee at the end.

Be well, friends!



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