Tao and the Art of #VanLife
This isn’t an article about my experiences as a #vanlifer. If you haven’t lived in a van, here’s the gist: it’s great in all the ways you think it would be great. You blast old rock n’ roll and drive into sunsets and spend the night in the forest and wake up to sweeping vistas and open roads. You feel free. It sucks in all the ways you think it would suck. Cooking is more difficult and showering is ad-hoc and sometimes you can’t find a spot to sleep in and if your car breaks down, well, there goes your house with it. You feel fragile.
There aren’t many surprises, just the qualitative shift in understanding from imagining something to experiencing it. That shift — that’s what this article is about.
Spiritual teachers the world over have been telling us all for centuries that we need to stop identifying with ourselves in these forms if we want to be happy. Whether they tell you to detach from your body or from your Ego, from your self-concept or from your conditioning, from your thoughts or your beliefs, from the past and future — the point is, there’s something in your way of looking at yourself, what you think you are, that could be changed for the better.
Let’s break down the idea of identification first. To “identify” with something is distinct from to “be” or to “experience.” It’s more along the lines of claiming something as yours: thinking, “I am a happy person” versus experiencing happiness. The former is a defined, conceptual understanding, that brings with it a host of expectations about its meaning and what it ought to be like. It has rules, assumptions, beliefs and rigidity rolled up in it. The latter is an unidentifiable, fluid experience, that you could endlessly describe without ever being able to define it.
So when the great spiritual teachers tell us not to identify with ourselves as these forms, they mean that we might try not thinking of ourselves as bodies, as identities, as concepts, as our pasts, as our individual selves. They’re telling us not to claim the concept of our lives in these bodies as What We Are.
For some, understanding this in the negative might be enough. When I say, “you are not this body,” that might be all you need to come to an experiential understanding of what you are. In truth, this is the only way it can really be understood; if I tell you what you are, then there comes with that a concept, an identity, a calcified understanding of yourself as a particular form. I can’t tell you what you are, because what you are cannot be told.
But I can tell you what your body is. I can tell you what your incarnation is. I can tell you what your Ego is. The “form” of you — the You you call by your name, the identity of this body, in this life, with this past — it’s like a mobile tiny house you live in.
For me, Anna is essentially a van I drive around and live in. I am that which dwells within her, and drives her. I can tell you all kinds of things about my tiny-house-van named Anna: she’s a 1993 model, American made. She takes non-dairy fuel because she’s lactose-intolerant. She has a lot of inked-in decals. She needs gas and oil and windshield washer fluid, in the form of material and emotional needs. She needs regular tune-ups. Sometimes she gets worn out and needs specialized attention. I take her with me everywhere I go.
I care for her like I would a car, or a house, or a tiny-house-van. I put her to good use. I expand to fill her. I keep her clean and make her look pretty. I revamp the space inside of her to fit my needs. I drive her to the horizon, and I drive her back home. I keep it warm inside her when the rain comes in. I treat her well, like a beloved thing with which I am in a deep and healthy relationship. When we crash, physically or emotionally, she is dented — I am unscathed. When she overheats, she needs to cool down, and I am patient.
I drive her. I live in her. I love her. But I am not her. This life, this body, this temporal self, this experience — this is simply where I live.
And so, like turning a random van into a beautiful off-grid tiny home, I make this temporal self my utopia: my paradise, my refuge, my space of strength, my school, and my strategy desk. I fill it with everything I want to have around my home: all the thoughts and experiences, the practices and beliefs. I choose them carefully like I would in decorating a house. And I keep it sturdy enough — with care and attention and good health — to be able to withstand the adventures I want to take it on. I learn its needs and tune it up lovingly, like I would a beloved car.
Looking at myself-in-this-form as a mobile tiny house has shifted my understanding of the sentiment “I am not this body.” Rather than understanding it as a concept, I’ve started to inhabit it. I am not this body — this body is my mobile tiny home, and I am the driver who lives in it. The winds and rains and potholes of existence impact my home, and so I care for my home and choose its course carefully, but those impacts do not reach me. They only seem to when I mistakenly believe that I am this van, rather than the driver.
What I’ve found is: the more I turn what’s inside the tiny home into my utopia, and the more I view this tiny home as the space of my utopia, the more the view outside the windshield looks like paradise. I turn on rock and roll and whoop and laugh and drive all night until the sunrise, knowing my home, that I built myself, goes with me always.
The challenge is, the van never stops driving. It wanders into all kinds of places. While I’m staring out the window at the horizon, suddenly something comes undone and crashes out of place in the back seat. I duck back to tend to it, return to the driver’s seat to find I’m veering wildly off-course, and correct my path just to hear the next thing fall out of place.
It’s a constant practice: creating and recreating a utopia inside this incarnation. Inside the walls of my body, or outside, never ceasing to move, attention always being put somewhere. Whether this is a joy or a punishment, well, that’s just a story you tell, because being alive on this earth is great in all the ways you think it’d be great, and sucks in all the ways you think it’d suck. There are no surprises. We do it to shift our understanding from imagining existing to experiencing it. The lesson is simply to flow with it, learning that limitations catalyze creativity. It is Sisyphean, but so is rock and roll.