Summer offers a wealth of opportunities to incorporate meditation into daily activities. Most of these are enjoyable, such as cycling or hiking, but it’s also possible to bring some mindfulness to hateful activities, like driving long distances.
There are many rules to meditation and mindfulness practices. This kind of practice has one special one. Don’t crash your car. Nobody needs to tell you not to close your eyes and meditate while driving, but it’s easy to see a situation where someone might get so focused on breathing that they forget to brake. Conscious driving means concentrating on the act of driving, so if you end up in a ditch or field, you probably did it wrong. Here are some suggestions for using your next long drive to improve your practice.
Practice posture and breathing
Sitting and breathing is really the majority of what you’ll be doing on a long trip. Whatever techniques you use, you might as well use the interminable time you have to do them really well. Start your drive with a straight spine and a relaxed posture. You’ll obviously be doing stuff as you go—checking mirrors, pushing on brakes—so try to move with intention and re-centre your body after each motion.
There’s a measurable mathematical correlation between how much traffic is around a driver, and the proximity of their shoulders to their ears. As you drive, notice when and where tension pops up in the body. One person might carry tension in the neck. Another might grip the steering wheel, or curl their toes. When you notice your tension spots, exhale deeply and ask that body part to relax.
Long trips offer us a wonderful and terrible opportunity to practice sitting without fidgeting. Keeping muscles relaxed should help the body stay still, and paying some attention to the depth and regularity of our breathing should keep our minds from wandering and impatience.
Just hear me out. It’s mentally difficult to slow down on the highway. Nobody anywhere has ever wanted to spend a minute longer in the car than they absolutely had to. Also, other people speed more than we do, so when they pass us there’s an instinctive part of us that tenses and speeds up, too. Speeding is an indication that we’re distracted from what we’re doing. We’re trying to hurry up and get it over with, instead of enjoying the journey.
Actually just slowing the hell down relieves us of one of the biggest stressors of the long drive: having to “get there in good time.” If the pressure of “getting there” is removed, we can relax and pay more attention to our surroundings. We needn’t feel a boiling frustration when we hit construction, or a sense of competitiveness with other drivers. Maybe we won’t ever learn to love, love, love sitting in traffic on a major freeway, but we can make the decision to stop wishing we were someplace else.
This is a unique challenge when driving. The car is, with any luck, moving forward, so that the environment that surrounds it is constantly changing. New objects, vistas and signs are introduced to our views and then move behind us. The road trip is a physical manifestation of what we’re supposed to be doing while meditating, anyways: noticing what arises, experiencing it as fully as possible and letting it go without becoming preoccupied with it.
More challenging is the concept of staying in the present moment. The car is moving forward in time; usually, not fast enough. To focus on this particular moment of the drive, and not the destination, is a hefty mental exercise to undertake. Staying open to all sensory impressions, from traffic sounds to the feel of the gas pedal and paying attention to what’s beside and behind, what’s inside the car as well as out, helps us experience the fullness of our immediate surroundings.
Wish other drivers well
Even when they piss you off. Anger will naturally and justifiably well up within you when that complete pylon with the red Maserati runs all up on the back end of your car, rides in the trunk for a while and then swerves wildly around you before cutting you off, sans signal, and throwing a not completely empty milkshake cup behind them onto your car as they accelerate into the sunset.
That person’s incomprehensible rudeness offers you—the sensible driver—the opportunity to practice not reacting in a negative way. Stay aware of when anger and frustration start to appear, and let those knee-jerk emotions go. Try deep breathing to release your understandably negative emotions, and turn them into a positive experience by directing a wish for health and peace towards other terrible drivers. If you can manage to extend loving-kindness even to unnecessary brake-tappers and people who forget to turn their signals off after they’ve changed lanes, you will indeed be a mindfulness superstar.
Mindful driving has a ton of benefits. It makes us less distracted and less frustrated drivers. It makes us safer drivers. Unless the external world in which you’re driving ceases to have importance. Then you should pull over and stop being quite so meditative. It also increases our chances of getting out of the car at the end of a trip feeling energized, less stressed, and more ready to enjoy whatever it is we’re doing at the end of the road.