The Mystical Experience of Driving

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 6:04 pm

The Mystical Experience of Driving

We all have a few dirty little secrets. Mine is that I love to drive. It’s not that I have my spiritual life, and I also love driving. Nope. Driving itself is a spiritual experience for me. Driving reminds me of the little boy inside me who loved cars and the man who still does.

I read my first car magazine when I was six years old — full of pictures of BMW and Lotus cars. Mind you, I wasn’t reading to learn how to do something useful, like how to change oil and tires. I wasn’t interested in the car races or even car shows. No, what I loved most was reading the magazines, admiring the lines of the car, the aesthetic of it all. I still do. Not a week goes by that I don’t check out some online car reviews, especially from the more knowledgeable folks.

My father taught me how to drive. We used to drive around in our old station wagon, the kind with the third-row seats facing out of the back of the car, with the wood panels on the side. We would get up early on Sunday mornings and drive down from Jacksonville to Green Cove Springs. The backroads were winding. The speed limit was between 35 and 45. I remember when 35 miles per hour felt like such a fast speed. The scariest thing was the two-lane road. The car coming at me from the other lane always made me veer to the right, to the shoulder. Somewhere along the way, I came to befriend 35mph, then 45, then… well, a little bit faster. There was a time that driving for pleasure meant driving 100 or 125 mph on highways in South Carolina. (I hope my parents are not reading this one. Baba, I promise I don’t do that any more.) That’s no longer the case for me.

Then life came. I got married and inherited a step-son and eventually welcomed three more children into this world. I went from a 1989 Toyota Corolla (the car that wouldn’t die) to an old, beloved, beaten-up Subaru to an SUV to a minivan. Then another minivan. For a while, we had one minivan and one “fun” car. The fun car went away in the divorce, leaving me with the beloved minivan.

I love this minivan. My kids are comfortable in it, and they have room to spread out, even watch a movie. The minivan has some 86,000 miles on it now. I am… content. I have no plans to change this car, and I hope to have it for another 86,000 miles. I have even taught my children how to drive safely — as my father taught me.

For a while I made do with the minivan, telling myself that it was time to let driving for pleasure go. I let go of something that had brought me joy since I was a child to be a “grown up.”

Then something funny happened on the way to being a grown up. I happened to go test drive a convertible. I wasn’t really planning on buying anything; this was more like wishful thinking. It was so exhilarating — the sun on my skin, the wind in my face.

I came back home, and a few days later I was driving around in my old minivan on a crisp autumn day — my minivan with 86,000 miles. And I remembered the feeling of driving the convertible. I looked up and noticed that my minivan had a sunroof, one that I almost never open. I opened up the sunroof. The sun came in, caressing my head. It felt so good, but I wanted more. So I opened up my driver side window. Then the passenger side window.

The wind rushed in. I have spent so much of the last 86,000 miles with the windows up, cherishing the quiet and peacefulness of the van, listening to my favorite podcasts or music. This was different. No music. No words. Only the sound of the wind rushing in, swirling around the cabin. Whatever little hair I have left on my head moved in a thousand different directions. It was convertible-ish. No one makes a convertible minivan? I just kinda did.

So why did the experience feel so primal?

I thought about what the Greek philosophers and Muslim physicians taught us: We have elements in our body: earth, wind, fire, water. Here is how that relates to my minivan convertible. I could hear the sound of the tires on the road for a change. The car was connected to the road and me, this spiritual being having an earthly experience, connected to the soil. The wind, that air, God’s own breath, swirling around me, through me, and connecting me to the spirit. The sun’s own fire shone on me, warming my head.

Why is this experience so primal? I think the car companies have it all wrong. I am not looking to be isolated from the road. I am not looking to be connected to an iPad or see how much technology I can cram into a car. No, I want driving to be a time when I feel connected to the natural world around me. It’s almost like flying with wings of tires.

(Alexandre Perotto / Unsplash / Public Domain Dedication (CC0))

Here’s how driving is (bear with me) a mystical experience. Spiritual experiences are about letting go of the illusion of separation, rising above that myth of being cut off from our own true selves, from nature, from God. Sensual experiences are about having our bodies connect with one another, so that we no longer know where our bodies begin and the beloved’s body ends. The mysticism of nature is to walk in the woods or tap our feet in a river or gaze up at the stars — we feel simultaneously so, so little and connected to all that there is.

Driving is a taste of this. I don’t go to the tracks. I don’t tune my car or put special tires or shocks on it. Nope; I just want to feel connected to the world around me.

I get it. Driving is complicated. It is still (largely) dependent on fossil fuels, and public transportation is much better for the planet. Our homes and roads are built around private vehicles, and this cuts us off from each other and reduces other modes of being in this small planet. The church and the mosque, marriage and everything else that connects us with each other and God are complicated and have their own problems. Driving, like these other practices, is beautiful and complicated.

It makes me wonder: What else is out there that is like driving? What else in our lives has a sunroof we have never noticed, windows we have yet to open?

What else do we do that has become so mundane, so ordinary, so boring? What else can be opened up, like a sunroof, to reveal the luminous inside? What else is there in my daily life that could stand to have its sunroof opened up and the windows lowered?

What else is there in your life, friends, that could stand to have sun shining down on it with the winds swirling around, connecting you to the core of your being, your friends, your neighbors, your beloved, the soil under your feet, and the stars above?

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Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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Reflections

  • Gabby

    What you describe of the sensual feeling of driving the car with various windows open is similar to many people’s feelings of riding a bicycle (particularly without a helmet), running, or walking fast.
    I understand and appreciate your question about what other things in life could be opened up, where we have allowed obstacles to settle unnecessarily. I had this experience recently in throwing clay on a wheel. There was a step I had not allowed myself – for months- because it somehow seemed like “cheating,” as if a way of handling clay could possibly be construed as cheating! It would be as if a person were to draw a picture in pencil and consider it “cheating” to erase and move a line over.
    If only all barriers were so simply pushed aside!

    • Judy Montel

      I’m inspired. Perhaps by practicing with the simpler barriers, we will gain greater ease and expertise with the larger ones.