[Since I first wrote this page, Michele McDonald has recorded a wonderful audio guide to Mindful Driving, which is available here.]
Driving can be a very stressful activity, but it can also be a tremendous opportunity for developing mindfulness and metta (lovingkindness), and it can even become a kind of meditation practice in its own right.
Obviously, when you’re driving it’s not recommended that you close your eyes and focus on your breathing, and I had to put a warning on my meditation CD when one customer wrote saying how excited she was about receiving her copy and how she couldn’t wait to listen to it in the car. The thought terrified me, but I hope that she’d have quickly realized even without me telling her that sitting meditation and driving don’t mix.
Then one time that I was leading a meditation workshop in Spokane, Washington, a young woman told me about a time she spaced out and rear-ended a truck, totally destroying her own car. She rather sheepishly confessed to the fact that she’d been listening to a tape on mindfulness by the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh at the time she’d crashed. She’d been paying so much attention to what the tape was saying about the need to pay attention that she stopped noticing what was going on around her. Fortunately no one was hurt.
So here are a few suggestions for ways that you can use driving as a meditation.
1. Switch off the radio and experience the silence. We often drive along while listening to the radio or to recordings on tape or CD. Just as an experiment, try seeing what it’s like to have the sound turned off. It might seem at first as if something is missing, but you’ll quickly learn that the silence gives you an opportunity to fill your awareness with other perceptions, some of which are more enriching. But before that, I’d just like to suggest that not listening to advertisements, the news, music, and opinion can leave you quieter, calmer, more focused, and happier than you otherwise would be.
2. The extra attention that’s freed up because you’re no longer listening to the radio is now available to notice other things. You can notice any tensions in your body, such as a knot of tension in the belly, or your hands gripping the steering well, or a clenched jaw. Notice these experiences, and let your body relax more. Notice how your experience changes and becomes more enjoyable as your muscles let go.
3. 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.
4. Notice your attitudes. Often we become competitive while driving, and this leads to tension. Make a practice of noticing cars trying to enter the road, and adjust your speed so that you can let them out if it’s safe to do so. Notice if you’re in a hurry. How does this make you feel? How does it feel if you let the pace slacken a little?
5. Practice being more aware of the other traffic around you. Sometimes we become very focused just on what’s around us, but it can be very fulfilling (and much safer) to develop an all-round awareness, using our mirrors as well as what we can see in front on us.
6. As drivers pass you, wish them well. Repeat, “May you be well, May you be happy” as cars cut you off.
7. Use every stop light or any other necessary stop to practice a fuller mindfulness of your body. When you’ve stopped, it’s safe to let your awareness more fully connect with your breathing. At those moments you can also notice what’s around you — the sky and the trees, and other people. Wish those other people well.
8. If there are other people in the car with you, wish them well. As you drive, a part of your mind can be repeating “May you be well, may you be happy”.
9. As you get into your car, before you switch on the engine, and before you get out of the car, after you’ve switched off the engine, just sit for a moment and take three deep breaths, really letting go on the out breath.
10. If you don’t drive, but take public transport instead, then wish your fellow travelers well, radiating lovingkindness towards them.[Bonus: 11. When you get into the car, turn off your mobile phone, or at least silence it. And by “silence” I mean turn off the vibrate function as well. No call or text message is worth either dying or killing someone for.]