We could all use a little help being more mindful when we drive but that’s the last thing we’re thinking about when we’re behind the wheel. We’re too busy rushing to get to work, feeling irritation at the drivers around us, and, even taking surreptitious glances at the latest incoming text. So what if we use this everyday act as an opportunity to deepen our practice and change the wiring of our brains.
Turning driving into an opportunity for mindfulness can be done with a simple strategy we call Notice-Shift-Rewire. Noticing is the act of awareness – the moment we wake up to the distractions of the inner and outer world. Shifting is the act or redirecting the mind to the experience of the present moment. And Rewiring is staying with and savoring the experience. Through rewiring we have the opportunity to take advantage of the neuroplastic nature of our brains to our advantage.
What makes this inner technology different from many other forms of meditation is that it’s designed to be integrated into the everyday moments of life. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed. You could be standing in line at the airport, waiting for an appointment, or, the subject of today’s practice, driving your car.
That’s right. It turns out that driving is the perfect time for mindfulness practice. And that is because, when many of us are driving, we are anything but mindful. In our experience, we often spend the better part of each drive oscillating between random mind wandering, feelings of agitation, and a background anxiety that we are not getting there fast enough – even when we have plenty of time!
And that’s why driving is such an amazing practice for cultivating the skill of Notice-Shift-Rewire and changing your life (and your brain) for the better.
Three Road-Tested Mindfulness Practices
1) Use Stop Signs to build the muscle of presence
It’s almost funny. Most of us treat stop signs as a general suggestion to slow down rather than a command to come to a full stop. In fact, one news station ran an experiment to see how many drivers came to a full stop at a residential four way stop sign. It turned out that three quarters of the cars failed to come to a complete stop.
The truth is that, for most of us, we’ve been conditioned in such a way that it feels odd when we do come to a full stop. Enter the Stop Sign practice.
- As you drive, use stop signs, which are designed to grab your attention, as your reminder to return to the present moment.
- The next time you approach a stop sign, Notice. Let the approaching stop sign heighten your awareness.
- Then , Shift, bring your car to a full stop and do it with complete presence.
- And finally, Rewire. As you continue driving, stay with the experience of “driving here now.” Notice sights and sounds. Let them ground you in this moment.
2) Yielding – Compassion strength training
Here’s another powerful opportunity for merging driving and mindfulness: compassionate yielding. Many of us are guilty of putting ourselves, and others at risk when we don’t yield to others on the road. This sometimes happens in parking lots – darting into an open space before that guy in the other car can get it. It also happens whenever two lanes merge into one – tailgating the car ahead so that drivers in the other lane can’t take our place.
The fact is that much of the game of driving is about keeping your advantage, not loving-kindness. So what would happen if you used conscious yielding to other drivers on the road as a compassion practice? Sure, it might slow you down a bit. But imagine how this shift could change your day and the day of those around you.
- Notice each time you’re in a yielding situation – become aware of the sensations in your body, your habitual way of responding.
- Then, Shift to compassion. Do this by letting the other person in, while simultaneously repeating in your mind, “may you be well.”
- Rewire by savoring this powerful shift.
3) Rushing – Non-Judgmental Awareness
Have you ever noticed that regardless of whether you are actually in a rush, you drive as if you are in a rush? Traffic jams make you cranky and irritated. Too many red lights in a row lead to agitation. Bad lane choice? More agitation. You find yourself thinking that the slow driver in front of you, whose only crime is going the speed limit, should “get off the road!”
Aversion is a big part of the problem fueling the continual state of rushing. On some level, we simply don’t want to feel the uncomfortable sensations that arise when we’re going “too slow,” held hostage by other drivers, stoplights, and road crews.
- Use rushing as your cue to shift to non-judgmental awareness – to be with, rather than resisting, the uncomfortable urges that arise in these moments.
- Notice the next time you catch yourself rushing.
- Then, Shift by slowing down to the speed limit and brining your full attention to the sensations happening in your body. Become an investigator of the sensations in your body that accompany this rushing state.
- Then Rewire by staying with this experience of driving the speed limit or waiting patiently in a traffic jam for just a few more minutes. It’s a practice in building what the great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau calls “the determination not to be hurried.”
The goal of these practices is to turn an activity that has the potential to create intense irritation and anger into an opportunity to experience greater presence, loving-kindness, and awareness.
Of course, this isn’t easy. Our habitual pattern of driving in a state of rushed agitation is so strong that these practices require extreme attention and will. But if you are successful in integrating even just one of these practices into your everyday life, you will experience a profound shift in your life. And even more importantly, you will also improve the lives of everyone you meet on the road.
Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, PhD. are co-authors of the New York Times Bestselling book: Start Here – Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing and co-founders of the wellbeing training company Life Cross Training (LIFE XT).