Urban Practice: Mindfulness tools for dealing with traffic

Mindful living calls us to bring attention to the present moment – without turning away from anything.  Accepting things, as they are – pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  It also calls for doing this with a tender and compassionate heart toward ourselves and towards everyone and everything around us.

When I first was introduced to the compassionate part of the practice, I thought it seemed a little too idealistic and too impractical for the day-to-day challenges.  Compassion was easy to feel on a silent retreat at a secluded beautiful monastic center on a warm sunny afternoon – but I had my doubts if it would work with everyday stress and urban living.

One of the comments on Facebook for my last blog post asked me: “Which is the best tool to deal with stress created by traffic in cities?”  It prompted me to think of my “before and after” experiences of driving in rush hour traffic.

For many years, before I started my mindfulness practice of paying simple attention to breathing and daily meditation, I used to rush through life – always feeling like I had to get so many things done with so little time on hand.  I worked for several years at the University of Texas in Austin and my daily commute was often a crawl that averaged 10-15 miles an hour.  Looking back I am amused at my daily reaction to the traffic jams.  Every day I would get to the backed up ramp and tense up and sigh.  Why was this always a frustration and surprise… should I have expected anything else after years of that same commute?  Somehow there was still an expectation and fantasy in my mind that it would be different every morning – and every morning I was disappointed and upset that I was stuck “wasting” time because of all these cars that were “in my way!”   I have to laugh at the fact that I never saw myself as part of the problem, never saw that I too was one of the hundreds of cars that were slowing every other car down.  We all had places to get to fast, and we were all stuck – all of us trying to control a situation that none of us could control!  The worst emotions came up when there was a merge in the road.  Every day my heart would contract and I would feel angry at the cars cutting in front of me out of turn.  I would try to make sure I edged up every inch to not let anyone in – so I could reach just a second or two earlier to my final destination!  And when someone else was more aggressive than me I often muttered some expletive under my breath – never seeing my own behavior not being any different than that of the other car.  I even remember being exasperated with cars that slowed down to let other cars in…  Every day this battle was fought, and every day I arrived at work gripping the steering wheel with considerable force and was usually pretty exhausted from this ordeal.  It was often worse on the way back home, when the stress of my workday compounded the stress of the commute and shortened my patience and perhaps my life a little more than the morning commute.  I don’t ever remember myself breathing or noticing the lovely wildflowers of Austin along the roads.   And even now, as I write about it, I find my heart contracting, my shoulders hunched over and my jaw clenched!  Yikes!!

In the years since, I have started a daily meditation and mindfulness practice. I have been surprised at the results over time.  Slowly I have started bringing mindfulness to my everyday life. I have started being aware of the sights, sounds, smell, tastes, touch, and thoughts I have.  Most importantly I have started viewing the world with my heart and my mind.  I am slowly awakening from the auto-pilot mode of life I was in.

Here is what happened when I was stuck again in traffic on the same road at the height of the rush hour just last week.  I found myself taking a deep breath.  These were my thoughts: This is the way it is.  Nothing I do will change anything or get me home faster.  I might as well just practice being present.  I relaxed my shoulders and started to pay mindful attention to what was around me.  The first thing realized is that I was noticing the people in the cars instead of just seeing the cars on the road.  I could feel that the people around me were people with hearts just like me, with their own stories of joys and sorrows and like me, each one was trying to do the best they could to just navigate through the traffic and indeed through life with all its gifts and challenges.

There were several people talking animatedly to themselves – a few years ago they would have been considered “crazy” but with the advent of Bluetooth, it now seems perfectly normal behavior.  There was a woman driving with three kids who were demanding a lot of her attention.  There was an old man really trying hard to merge into my lane and I slowed down to let him in.  I saw him wave with gratitude when he got into the lane.  I was touched by that simple gesture and surprised by how good my heart felt with such a small act of generosity.  I saw a couple arguing furiously on one side of my car and on the other I saw a young woman jamming to music and singing at the top of her voice.  I saw a dog sticking his head out of a car window, enjoying the afternoon and looking like he was laughing at this whole show.   I realize that I was really seeing my fellow commuters for the first time with my full attention.  And naturally my heart opened up with a wonder about all the lives around me – their sufferings and their joys.  The commute felt much faster than usual and I came home with a feeling of having been touched ever so briefly by these lives that brushed past me.  All of us on that road had our own dreams and ambitions, our joys and tears, our heartaches and triumphs.  I felt gratitude for being part of this crazy but gifted life that we all share.

So what are the tools that shifted my response to the same traffic from extreme stress to this true appreciation of being alive?  I started by coming back to my breath and relaxing my body.  It seems too simple to be true – but the first step really is as simple as that. This simple act of constantly coming back to noticing our breathing helps to cultivate our daily mindfulness. Over time I have learned to let go, be and relax my body.  And with time, I do notice that when I give up my struggle of trying to change or control situations I can come to actually enjoy life much more with all its colors and shades.  I am certainly not perfect all the time, but I find that I am starting to incline more and more toward kindness and compassion when I create this space to notice life in the present moment – just one breath at a time.

My commute times have not improved but I am gifted with much more grace and joy because of this simple shift of perception.