The Trains of Sodor

A few years ago, when my son was very young, he started watching Thomas the Tank Engine. He got deeply into trains, and I was always so glad when he chose to watch earlier versions of the show when it was a stop-motion animation narrated by Ringo Starr. We had Thomas t-shirts, Thomas toys, Thomas bedsheets, and such.

One day, while chatting with a good friend who had a child of a similar age, I mentioned my son’s obsession with Thomas. He looked at me and, in the nicest way possible, said that he doesn’t allow his son to watch Thomas because he doesn’t like the show’s central message. Puzzled, I asked him to explain.

“Utility,” my friend said, “The show is about being useful. The best thing a character can be is useful.” He paused, but then went on: “My son is a human being, not some machine to be used for or by others. I want my son to know he’s more than just useful.”

I felt like this was an excellent point. I, too, want to feel like I’m not just “useful” to others.

But American culture doesn’t particularly hold with this. A key part of the American brand of individualism is the constant need for improvement. This, one might say, is a version of the American Dream: the idea that I can work to constantly improve myself. We live in a productivity culture where we measure our value based on how much we improve and how much we produce. While this isn’t exactly the same kind of utility that Thomas and his train-friends value, the cult of productivity certainly does seem related.

I, for one, am often obsessed with this idea of self-improvement:

  • I keep metrics on my workouts.
  • I read books about self-improvement.
  • I sit in meditation every day in an effort to better myself and my relationships.

When I get particularly into this frame of mind, I spend much of my time thinking about the most efficient ways to improve myself.

Look at little Thomas. He's ready to get some shit done. :)

The Need for Productivity and Improvement

If we were to ask ourselves what drives this need for productivity and improvement, one of the obvious answers would be capitalism. In the U.S., we look constantly to corporations to produce and improve. We want more efficient systems, more efficient means of products: we want more for less.

We also seek this kind of efficiency in our personal lives. We want to be able to do more with our minds and bodies, and we want to be able to achieve all of that in less time. Very rarely are we encouraged to take the long-view. Instead, we want results, and we want them now.

The idea of improvement is also embedded into the American Ethos in the bootstrap narrative that governs our education system. As a young person in the 1980s and 1990s, I was constantly told that if I continued improving, then I could “succeed,” I could “make something of myself.” The overarching ethic of the time — and this is still true today, at least based on what I’m seeing — was “work hard, stay in school.” Doing so would result in some future “success” which was defined largely by financial security (and not much more).

As the American economy has evolved and specialization has become king, we see not only the need for improvement as a key value in our education system but also the need for productivity, for efficiency. What is the quickest way I can get through this degree program? How can I avoid becoming a generalist (because being a generalist requires a lot of time)?

I know I certainly fell prey to this kind of thinking in the mid-2000s when I discovered I could shave a year off my master’s degree by switching to a different program. The degree I earned has a similar title, but the education was definitely sub-par. Why? Because I was in a damn hurry to get to the finish line! I wanted to improve in the most efficient way possible.

We might understand this need for improvement and productivity as a manifestation of dukkha: the Buddhist principle of suffering. The best way to describe dukkha is by simply understanding it as that overwhelming feeling that things aren’t quite right, the notion that things could/should be better.

Something should be different.

Dukkha produces tanha, craving, the feeling that we want to make a change. This thirst for change, for something else, drives our need to improve.

American culture, in this sense, is an engine of dukkha which creates tanha. We see this, for example, in advertising, an industry whose sole purpose is to help us to see that our lives aren’t quite right. When we understand that our lives could be better (because of the images we see in the ads), then we start to crave that improvement.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this sort of thirst, this desire to improve. No, we can’t so quickly judge it or place a value on it. Instead, we start by understanding that it is; we don’t need to label it positive or negative. Then, however, we have to ask ourselves, what is it that I’m really thirsting for? What is it that I’m really craving?

I sometimes worry that my American-ness, my need for constant improvement and productivity, has turned me into one of those trains of Sodor: a cog in the machine that keeps the owning class happy. Nothing wrong with helping other people find happiness, but what has it done to me? Well, it’s turned me into the sort of person who struggles to appreciate things as they are. The need to constantly improve breeds the kind of myopic worldview that identifies the worst in people and systems: it makes me judgmental.

Allow me a silly example…

Every day I go through a typical morning routine: showering, brushing teeth, etc. It’s basic hygiene and it requires little thought. However, sometimes, I put an inordinate amount of thought into the way I do this. For example, I might think to myself: “Brush your teeth while the shower warms up. Doing so will result in the greatest efficiency.”

There’s nothing wrong with this because it doesn’t really affect anyone or anything. It’s my personal little efficiency, and that’s fine. When I move outside myself, however, the inefficiencies I see around me become sources of judgment. The need to improve and produce creates in me a value called “efficiency.” When I see something inefficient (like the way my ten-year-old son performs his incredibly long hygiene routine), I see it as a problem. Now the world is out of whack (dukkha) and I want it to be different (tanha), so I have to come in and fix it.

This is a silly example, but you probably work with someone like me, someone who looks at systems and immediately recognizes flaws and inefficiencies. That person is sometimes invaluable to the engines of capitalism, but they are also probably pretty annoying and aloof.

Vintage voltmeter
Photo by Thomas Kelley / Unsplash

Just This

How do we get out of this trap? If you’re reading the unruly buddha, then you probably already know the answer: mindfulness, meditation, be here now, or what I call just this.

In the mornings, lately, I’ve been writing the following phrase at the top of my journal:

This. This. Just this.

This, whatever it is, is all I need right now. This, whatever it is, doesn’t require my judgment. It just requires my attention and my awareness. When I do this, whatever it is, it breaks up that need for improvement and productivity. Improvement and productivity are about dissatisfaction with the present and projection into the future. They aren’t about appreciation for the now. They don’t come out of sufficiency but out of insufficiency. They do not express abundance but lack. In short: improvement and productivity as core values produce dukkha, which leads to tanha, which leads to an overwhelming feeling of discontent. Therefore, we must counteract all of this by getting a little radical, getting down to the root, by coming to appreciate the now in all its fullness.

How do we cultivate this? Well, we take the one seat, and we practice. We practice and practice and practice. As Jeff Warren said in a recent meditation, we are “always getting started.”

Pick a practice. Take up your seat. Start today.

Need some help starting, check out the praxis section of the site for some ideas.

A serene gradient from red to smoky blue-gray seems to mask a chaotic scene underneath, expressing a wide range of emotion. Looking like a NASA closeup of Jupiter, this image reveals sediment in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast.
Photo by USGS / Unsplash