While watching current and former parking lot attendants of The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, VA contemplate mindfulness and order within a closed lot, I couldn’t help but think of the teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and place him in dialogue with the self-proclaimed “deviant romantics” of the film. Meghan Eckman’s 2010 documentary film The Parking Lot Movie sets up a clear microcosm of our American standard by forcing its viewers into a compartmentalized space that seems to safely lie outside of the boundaries of any “typical” capitalist system. The parking lot becomes a place where the attendants are allowed to pause and engage in self-reflection while contemplating the “existential implications” of their place within this world. In his famous book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh states that, “Machine thinking is the opposite of mindfulness.” With cars going in and out of this closed area, and pausing for only a brief moment in time, as an audience member, we begin to see how the attendants themselves have temporarily taken this job and how they strive to be the polar opposite of the automatons they believe to inhabit all of corporate America. These men are aware of their daily actions and claim to be fully present in each action; but, while it is obvious that things like detachment and impermanence are being cultivated, it seems that the Buddhist notion of compassion has fallen by the wayside.

In his book, Hanh writes that mindfulness is defined as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.” Early on in the film, one former parking lot attendant describes implementing this very practice: “If six hundred times a day you are taking a ticket from someone, you have six hundred opportunities to take a ticket from someone with your full awareness and to really be present in that action.” The constant repetition of one action throughout one’s daily life seems to reinforce the need to be fully mindful of the importance and the ramifications of that action. Yet, what about the aforementioned “automatons” that the attendants scorn because they also conceivably repeat the same actions on a daily basis, yet get paid more for doing so?

As an adjunct professor, and someone who lay well outside of corporate America, I graded more papers than you would care to imagine. My life was grading papers, interspersed with moments of lecture and office hours. I could argue that each time I graded a paper, I was fully aware of my own actions and of the fact that I was, indeed, grading a paper. Yet, the attendants speak of their job as if it is the only place they could go to for refuge from an unforgiving capitalist market.

Scott Meiggs looks back to his parking lot days with nostalgia and remembers it as a time when he and the other attendants “had it all in a world that had nothing for [them].” In one part of the film, two male attendants sing the lyrics to a Minor Threat song and demonstrate how they are, in fact, “out of step with the world.” We can clearly see how they are different from the average 9-to-5 worker. They are philosophers, academics, and misfits; however, they fail to see that they are not separate entities from the “large army” they describe. Throughout the film, the attendants express their bitterness and rage towards the majority of the people who venture into their safe haven by parking their car in the Corner Lot. They admit to overcharging drivers whom they deem as “dicks” and openly deride the “mid-life-crisis guys” with their large cars and the sorority girls with their “smug [sense of] entitlement.” Although I confess to having felt the same way about bad drivers and the occasional sorority girl back in college, it seems that for people who are trying to cultivate detachment, few are actually reaching their goal of self-actualization. Tyler Magill, a former parking lot attendant, states that “to work there you have to have a certain disregard for the people.” It appears that the word “disregard” here has morphed into something more malicious and anger-ridden.

Yet, elements of Zen still can be detected within this film. The parking lot scene is ripe for meditation. Hanh gives directions for sitting meditation and states that, “This spot where you sit is your own spot.” It then follows that the place that we choose to inhabit while meditating becomes sacred in itself. Rick Slade, a former attendant, notes that, “When you’re at the parking lot you do nothing. You literally sit there…I was the guy that sat there.” The only difference though is that while Rick was sitting in a makeshift, cardboard booth, the people who likely parked their cars in the lots during the weekdays were sitting in front of a computer screen in an office cubicle, or a large office room. Do they meditate while alone in their Ivory Tower? Who knows? Yet the class division, and the drivers’ awareness of this division, was pointed out time and time again throughout the course of the film. The wrongdoings of the drivers that the attendants tried to correct by themselves were often caught on camera and served to display not only the lack of consideration on the part of the drivers, but the lack of detachment and compassion on the part of the attendants. The film came to a point where each day seemed to amount to a constant battle between the attendants and the drivers; yet, people like Scott Meiggs and parking lot owner, Chris Farina, understood that people must move on from this job in order to “restore balance,” and perhaps, regain sanity. Chris Farina saw that the job of parking lot attendant was “a stop” for most people and not an end.

The movie concludes with a “Where Are They Now”-type segment, which only reinforces the temporary nature of the job at the Corner Lot. Hanh writes that it’s important not to be “attached to the future,” and it seems that the attendants have following this teaching remarkably, even possibly without knowing it. The attendants loved their job and presumably lived in every moment of it; yet, regardless of the job, we must remember that our mind is connected to both the objects and the people that exist in the world around us – be they cars or consumers. Hanh writes that, “We must be conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves” – this means, we literally must be conscious of everything. Yet, if you are to quote Buddhist teachings in a documentary film, I suggest that you remember all of the Buddha’s lessons – including those on compassion. Just a thought.

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CLARISSA OLIVAREZ holds a Master's degree in Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master's degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives with her husband and two dogs in the Washington, DC area. Her writing has been published in Haggard & Halloo, Blood Lotus, Fogged Clarity, Midwest Literary Magazine, and an anthology entitled Winter Canons. She has taught at American University and Northern Virginia Community College.

14 responses to “Partial Traces of Zen Buddhism Found in The Parking Lot Movie

  1. Jeffro says:

    My wife and I just watched this Monday. I loved it. I live in Charlottesville and attended UVA, so a lot of these guys I’ve seen many times over . . . and some I still see whenever I head to the Corner. I have to agree with your assessment: that traces of Zen Buddhism are present in a couple of these cats. The Parking Lot Movie is what you get when you throw in a handful of philosophy, sociology, and English majors in a box smaller than the urinal at Little John’s sub shop, and leave them to think and twiddle their thumbs at all hours of the night.

    I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome of this documentary. I have to admit: I didn’t know how a film about the Corner parking lot in Charlottesville would turn out. I think they pulled it off. The only thing I would have left on the cutting room floor is that one kid’s bit where he just pretty much said, fuck everybody, fuck everything over and over again. He was kind of annoying and entirely too immature as compared to everyone else. He needs some Zen Buddhism.

    Glad to see this doc making its rounds in other people’s living rooms.

  2. I haven’t seen it, but now I’m gonna. Welcome Clarissa!

  3. Tawni Freeland says:

    This is the second time today a movie review on TNB has made me want to see a movie. This website is becoming my go-to place for good film recommendations. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on The Parking Lot Movie with us, Clarissa.

  4. Kathy says:

    This is a masterful – I’ve never felt any particular connection to parking attendants or the Bhuddist faith but Clarissa’s well-thought out comparison between the two clearly shows the relevance of these ostensibly disparate experiences to someone like myself. A very enjoyable read, indeed!

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Fascinating stuff, Clarissa – I hadn’t previously seen any trailers for The Parking Lot Movie so I’m glad you’ve brought it across my radar.

    I’ve also have had little in the way of exposure to Zen Buddhism and mindfulness; a semester in uni and a half-read book on mindfulness is about the extent of it. But I have met a number of practitioners, or at least, self-styled practitioners, and what has always bothered me is the missing component of compassion (and it certainly was missing in them).

    Something to pursue more deeply on my own time, I think.

    Welcome to TNB!

  6. Clarissa Olivarez says:

    Thanks for all of the great feedback. Glad you enjoyed it!

  7. Remy says:

    I feel people simplify compassion only into this human emotion of sympathy including the auther of this review

  8. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Excellent post! I really want to see this film!

    Do you think that Eckman feels her subjects are successfully demonstrating Zen techniques, or do you think she presents these people to force the reader to question the extent to which Buddhist teachings are manipulated by a Western audience?

    Welcome to The Nervous Breakdown!

  9. dwoz says:

    I think flicks like “parking lot” are just (and daresay I, INTENDED as) mirrors.

    One man’s living in the moment is another man’s banality. One man’s sneer is another man’s “but for the grace of God, there am I” indrawn breath.

    Do the circumstances define the man, or vice versa?

    What is the sound of one metaphor miming?

    Ok, so that last one was a little zinger. My apologies, all in good fun. But seriously, where does compassion come into play? It seems so ecliptic? Aren’t you just projecting here, or are you asserting an intended subtext?

    • Clarissa Olivarez says:

      To Dwoz,
      Thanks for your comments – all good questions, and I totally agree that the movie holds up a mirror to society. I think that, yes, I probably am projecting my own ideas onto the film in some way. In my previous comment to Arielle, I mentioned how the Zen mindfulness notions are a small part of the film that I found interesting and relevant. I think that the parking lot tended to breed certain “characters” that perpetuated the driver/attendant behavioral dichotomy. So, in that sense, I think the circumstances/environment do make the man here; but, while I admit it is a sub-subtext, I do think it was intended. I could be wrong, though. 🙂

      • dwoz says:

        well I think you’re right in one respect…what on earth ELSE could a movie about a parking lot be about, than about zen?

        “…the driver/attendant dichotomy…” are we witnessing the birth of an archetype? 🙂

  10. Clarissa Olivarez says:

    Thanks, Arielle. Honestly, it’s a small part of the film that I chose to expand upon. I think the purpose of introducing the somewhat veiled subject matter to the audience was, yes, to some extent, to make us question how mindful we are of our daily actions in the workplace and how we can incorporate a greater awareness of others in our job environment. Mostly, the film just aims to showcase the lives of these attendants, and then I think we’re supposed to do the rest.

  11. Well done, Clarissa–and Welcome!

    My wife and I lived in Charlottesville and remembered some of those attendants. We just watched it a week or so ago.

    I was blown away by the film. Been hearing rumors about it for a while, but it exceeded expectations…

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