The Urban Retreat, Day 3: When the rubber hits the road
When the rubber hits the road is a great time to practice lovingkindness, and I mean literal rubber and a literal road.
There’s a lot of irritation involved in driving, even far short of the extreme of road rage. It can be irritating to be in slow traffic, or busy traffic, or to be cut off, or to be held up by roadworks, or stuck at traffic lights.
We’re emotionally cut off from other drivers because we’re all in our own semi-private metal boxes, and so we don’t have access (usually) to their body language and facial expressions. So we often take things personally that aren’t necessarily personal. As comedian George Carlin said, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”
And the mind wanders when we’re driving. We drive “on autopilot” and the mind gets distracted. And you might think that the mind, having meandered away from the unpleasant grind of the daily commute, would find something enjoyable to think about. But research shows that most of the time we think about things that make us even unhappier! So our internal experience is unpleasant, and we don’t much like what’s going on around us.
Next time you get a chance, look at drivers’ facial expressions. They’re often frowning, or at best neutral. You’ll rarely see anyone smiling while they’re driving. It’s a serious business. It’s an unhappy business, for the most part.
Driving lovingkindness practice can liberate us from all this. When I do driving lovingkindness, I keep myself mindful by remaining aware of my surroundings, and I say the phrases, “May you be well, may you be happy,” as I drive along. Sometimes it’s “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”
I might just have a sense that I’m imbuing my field of awareness with lovingkindness in this way, and every perception of a person (or a vehicle that a person contains) is simply touched by my kindly awareness. Or I may focus my attention on various vehicles as they pass in either direction, and wish the drivers and passengers well.
This can become very joyful. One of my meditation students wrote:
For my entire 30 minute ride to work I sent lovingkindness to each passing driver on the road. I can’t tell you the effect the that it had on me … I felt like a protective mother sending all of her children off on their day.
That’s rather lovely.
It’s so much more satisfying to wish drivers well than to have thoughts of ill will about them. When I’m driving with lovingkindness I find I want to let drivers merge, and it feels great. I can see why the Buddha described lovingkindness as a “divine state” — I feel like a gracious deity bestowing blessings as I slow down to create a space for a driver to enter the road. Even if it looks like the other driver is trying to cut the line, I have a sense of magnanimity and forgiveness as I let them in. It feels so much more enjoyable than trying to “punish” the driver by refusing to let them cut in.
And the act of well-wishing also helps prevent the mind from wandering into areas of thought that cloud my sense of well-being. The constant stream of thoughts like “May you be well, may you be happy” make it much harder for my mind to drift. So, despite some people’s fears to the contrary, I find I’m able to pay more attention to my driving, because I’m not getting lost in thought.
And smile! Smiling helps activate our kindness, and it makes us happier. And if some driver or pedestrian happens to see us smiling, they may be reminded that life doesn’t have to be cold, grim, and distracted, but can be warm, kind, and mindful.