Sunday, October 29, 2017

Holistic Driving: Can You Meditate While Driving?

Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen master and poet

The average American spends 50 minutes a day getting to and from work. If you commute by car, you're probably all too familiar with many of the downsides of driving: being stuck in rush hour traffic, dealing with incompetent or inconsiderate drivers, and the possibility of an accident, among others. It's easy to feel stressed out, anxious, even enraged behind the wheel.

The stress of driving is made even worse by distracted drivers—which, if we're honest, is all of us at some point. It could be our phone, the baby in the back seat, our dog, the food wrapper we're trying to open, or even just the thoughts in our heads. Every day as I walk home from work I see the effects of distracted driving: stopping short just in time, being slow to start at a green light, failing to notice stop lights or pedestrians. 

Practicing mindful driving can be a powerful antidote to these driving-related problems. As with any activity, being mindful while driving means first focusing attention on what we're doing right now.

There are many experiences that can anchor our attention in the present when we drive, such as:
* noticing what we see in front of us
* feeling the movement of the car
* being aware of physical sensations, like the feel of the steering wheel in our hands
* sensing the movements, we make to pilot our car
* hearing the sound of the road and the wind

Present-focused attention in mindful driving is coupled with an attitude of nonjudgmental openness to the experience, just as it is. This openness while driving includes practicing acceptance of the things we can't control, like the volume of traffic, whether we make a green light, the actions of other drivers, and so forth.

You will be surprised, but if you try, you might find out, that acceptance when driving can be extremely helpful, when you remember to practice it. We often add so much stress to our drive by fighting things we can't change. For example, there are countless times we are silently (or aloud) cursing a stop light for turning red, or another car for "getting in my way." When we deliberately let go of the need for everything to work out exactly our way, much of the stress and anger we experience can dissolve.

Acceptance, while driving, doesn't have to mean liking or condoning something. We don't have to convince ourselves that other drivers don't make mistakes (as do we), or that we don't care what time we get home, or anything else. All it means is that we don't add unnecessary resistance to what is.

Mindful Driving

The idea with mindful driving is that you really have to tune in and focus on—driving. That’s it. But it’s not as easy or common as it might sound to pay complete attention while you’re behind the wheel. How many times have you arrived at a destination, but didn’t really remember the drive there? We get lost in thought, in music, in phone conversations (over blue tooth, I hope,) and all of a sudden, we are there! Or we are lost … either way, we realize our mind was not present while we were driving.

Next time you head out on your morning commute or take off on a road trip, see if you can tune into all the details from behind the wheel.

Mindful Driving Practice:
·         Get in your car, but before you put your key to the ignition, sit for one full minute with your eyes closed. Tune into your breath and your internal space, noticing how you feel and setting the intention for a mindful car ride.
·         Start your car, turn off your music, silence your phone, and ease into a state of complete attentiveness.
·         Keep your focus on the road and observe the sounds you hear as you drive, the people, buildings, and landscapes you pass … notice the wind on your face if your window is down, the temperature, the whole experience of driving. Even if you’ve taken that route 100 times before, you’ll notice something new when you set the intention of driving mindfully.
·         Slow down. As an experiment, try driving at or just below the speed limit. Most of us tend to want to push the speed limit, driving just a little faster than allowed. Driving just a fraction under the speed limit can take away a lot of tension. Shift over into the slower lane if necessary.
·         Wish other drivers well — Think, “May you be well, may you be happy” as other drivers pass you. Try it out loud too. Use it when cars cut you off. You’ll be amazed how much this helps. If you see ambulance passing by, or you hear the siren, when you see the minor crash victims on the side of the road, or you see the police vehicles in action, send mental “good luck” wish to those, who might be affected by the accident.
·         Each time you notice that your attention has shifted away from driving to other thoughts or sensations, gently bring it back to the car, and continue to observe, listen, and feel as you drive.
·         Become aware of any emotions or urges that surface as you drive—notice how you respond to that someone who cut you off; notice if you find yourself speeding up at a yellow light; notice if you want to reach for your phone at a red light. Try to remain in observation mode and resist any temptation to act. Just focus on the experience of driving.
·         Notice three things you can see (visual). Notice three things you can hear (auditory). Notice three things you can feel (tactile). Simply notice, without judgment or analysis. Repeat as necessary.
·         Notice if you are speeding, and ask yourself “why am I in a hurry?” It’s always best to leave yourself a few extra minutes to get to your destination so you don’t feel the need to speed. Slow down.
·         When stopped in traffic or at a red light, crease your mouth into a half smile. It doesn’t have to be a huge, toothy grin. Think of the Mona Lisa. Try it even if you don’t feel like smiling. One more exercise which is recommended while you stop at the red light – perform 5 Kegel exercises. You can extend this practice to the situations when you stop in traffic or at the stop sign.
·         When you arrive, turn your car off and take another minute of silence before dashing off into your day.

This type of mindfulness practice can not only lower your stress levels on the commute, but also help you become more focused and present when you’ve arrived at your destination.

Posture and The Body

The practice of meditating while driving begins, as with most forms of meditation, with finding an appropriate posture.  As usual, this specifically means cultivating a straight spine and a settled body.

At the outset, it is helpful to put our car seat’s back rest as straight upright as our car physically allows us to.  I also put a small pillow between the seatback and my lumbar/lower back, so as to facilitate a spinal orientation as upright as the one that I take in a meditation hall.

Driving a car is, of course, a dynamic activity that requires motion and activity – we must move our bodies in order to turn the steering wheel, pump the gas and brake pedals, swivel our necks to check mirrors, and so forth.  Nonetheless, it is helpful, when meditating while driving, to relax the body as much as possible, to fidget as little as possible, and to do one’s best to move the minimum that is necessary.  Putting a car in cruise control, where possible, is ideal for developing physical settling when meditating.

Driving Zen Meditation Technique

How to start? The following is the popular and simple Zen meditation technique that can be easily done while in transit.  The warning applies to those trying this meditation while driving: Please DO NOT practice this meditation if it distracts you in any way from your driving.

Zen Meditation techniques all have their roots in mindfulness or being in the moment.  This meditation tip is no different and is also designed to help you come into the “here and now” as much as possible.  Below is a step by step guide of how to practice this meditation.  It is given assuming you are driving, but can easily be extrapolated to other modes of transportation.

·         Start the meditation by taking 5 long deep slow breaths.  This will relax you.
·         Now, bring your attention to your breathing and just observe its flow without manipulating it in any way.  Meditate on its physical characteristic as closely as you can.  Feeling it’s temperature, texture, depth etc.  Continue this meditation for 1-5 mins.  This will settle your mind down.
·         Now begins the heart of this meditation.  Begin to watch the scenery go by as you drive with an unfocused, holistic gaze.  In other words, let your vision relax, incorporate the periphery and without any point of focus just observe the world as you journey through it.  Just observe the trees, sky, clouds, houses, cars as they pass by.  Just be empty within and allow the world to pass through you.  That’s it.
·         To add another component to this meditation technique, whenever you come to a stop return your attention to your breath and then when moving, meditate once more on the scenery.
·         If at any time driving requires your focused attention please stop the meditation and pay attention to your driving.

Other Techniques

Besides Zen Meditation and General Mindfulness Techniques, presented earlier, there are several other meditation techniques that may work well in conjunction with driving a car:

1. One is to practice a simple form of breath meditation – we divide our attention between the actions of driving on the one hand, and being aware of the feeling of breathing in the pit of our bellies on the other.  When you do this, try to see how high you can count your breaths without spacing out and missing one.  This technique, like belly-breath watching in general, is especially useful for helping to tranquilize and focus a scattered mind.

2. A second technique is to repeatedly vocalize a phrase, either speaking out loud, or just internally and mentally.  This phrase can either be a traditional religious mantra like “Om Mane Padme Hum”, or, as I do more often, a Western-style affirmation.  The repeated vocalization of the mantra can help us to be more focused and aware of what we are doing, as well as cultivating a deeper experience of whatever meaning the phrase has. 

3. A third technique is to practice “Metta“, or loving-kindness, meditation.  In this practice, we generate a warm, expansive feeling in our heart, and we repeatedly vocalize “May you be well, may you be happy”, sending waves of positive vibrations out to other people in their vehicles, as well as any other people and beings that we can see or sense.

4. A final technique, and one that is compatible with all the others listed, is to simply slow down and take time.  We can take a moment to breathe deeply and get present before turning on the engine, or after arriving at our destination and before we get out of the car.  When we stop at a traffic light, we can take a deep mindful breath, fully and languidly letting go on the exhalation.  When in motion, we can take our foot off the gas and slow down our speed.

Sources and Additional Information: