Awake at the wheel

It's possible to meditate even while driving

woman texting while driving

As a long-time meditation teacher, I'm inspired by the possibility that all of us can take more care with our driving. Driving is something a lot of us do every day, and it always involves other people. As such, it's a true opportunity to develop more care for ourselves and others.

Over the past 30 years I've led thousands of Vipassana meditation retreats all over the world. Travelling so often, I meet a lot of taxi drivers. They've always fascinated me, because they work under such stressful conditions. Traffic and aggressive drivers are their daily reality. As a result, they are some of the most stressed-out people I meet. I also find that they are almost always interested in meditation. They know they're stressed, and know they need help.

A few years ago, I flew to Vancouver for a week-long retreat. I hailed a taxi to my hotel. The driver was frustrated with the traffic. He was from India, and when I told him I was a meditation teacher, he became more agitated. "I can't possibly be in the present moment while I'm driving!" he said, as though I'd challenged him. "I need to be thinking all the time! And planning!" He was upset by the very suggestion of mindfulness in the midst of thick traffic and honking, as he weaved through the downtown streets.

He was expressing a difficulty that even the most dedicated meditation practitioners encounter: how can we be mindful when life is so busy? On retreats we're protected, and it's easier to cultivate mindfulness. In our normal, busy lives, we've got things to do. That's why being mindful in this relative, conceptual world is difficult. The driver was also expressing a common misunderstanding about meditation—the point in meditation is to stop thoughts. So, you can't do anything while you meditate.

Truth is you can't stop thoughts! Even sitting in a cave, human life is mostly composed of our bodies, thoughts, and emotions. Mindfulness meditation is simply an intentional effort to 'notice' the thoughts and emotions, and once they become conscious, to stop identifying so deeply with them. This is how we gain freedom, no matter what we're doing.

Back in the taxi, I told the driver that if he'd like to try some mindfulness meditation, I'd guide him while he drove me to the hotel. He accepted. Traffic light by traffic light, I guided him to become aware of the sensations in his hands, in his body, of the sounds around us, and finally, of his thoughts and feelings, all the while planning his route and driving normally. By the time we pulled up at my hotel, he was quite excited, and didn't even want me to pay for the ride. As I left the taxi, he turned to me appreciatively and said simply, "I get it!" He understood that he could actually be in the present moment while driving.

I'm around so many people who are interested in mindfulness, and yet mindfulness while driving is almost never stressed. Driving is such a perfect place to learn to maintain an open awareness and respond to your moment-to-moment experience, which is an essential skill set for mindfulness. In the years that followed that taxi ride I began to develop mindfulness techniques for driving. At least in the US, where I live, it couldn't have come at a more needed time.

We've been hearing a lot about distracted driving in the news since the advent of smart phones, which make texting and emailing so handy that it seems almost everyone on the highway is half-driving and half-communicating with someone else. This cultural norm has had huge implications, and it's only getting worse. Recent studies by the Department of Transportation show that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes that are serious enough to injure themselves. Talking on a cell phone while driving, even if it's hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol level at the legal limit of 0.08 per cent. The average texter takes his eyes off the road for nearly a full three seconds at a time. The obvious risks here are borne out by statistics: texters and cell phone talkers get into crashes more often than anyone except the very drunk.

Why do we have such impaired driving habits while simply texting or talking on the phone? It seems like something we should be able to handle by now. The answer lies in the basic facts of attention and neurobiology, which, as it turns out, do not keep pace with technology.

Studies have shown that when we start any task, driving for example, our brain's anterior prefrontal cortex lights up. This is part of the Executive Network of the brain, and it sends a signal to locate and activate the neurons that are capable of performing that task. This process takes several tenths of a second. When we switch attention from the initial task, driving, to talking on the phone, the brain must go through these exact steps again, in sequence. The anterior prefrontal cortex needs to find and activate the neurons capable of talking on the phone. To shift the attention back to driving requires the same steps as the first time, once again. These switches in attention all take tenths of a second, and the time adds up. Considering that a car going 70mph travels 51f in half a second, we can see that the time it takes for our brain to switch tasks can be very dangerous indeed.

Mindful driving is meant to help us become highly responsive to constant change. And that's what driving is—constant change. If we're not able to develop these skills, we're not good drivers. And, frankly, when we drive mindfully, it becomes actually enjoyable to drive again. So much time in our car is lost in trying to distract ourselves from the experience itself. Turning on the radio, calling someone, getting lost in a fantasy—all this because we are afraid to engage with our real experience. We're always looking for a way to check out. But mindfulness teaches us that engaging with our moment-to-moment experience actually makes us feel alive for the first time—it's a wonderful feeling, so much richer, more peaceful and simply better than distraction.

We should recognise that 'distraction' is omnipresent in our lives these days, facilitated by media, technology, and the orientation of culture itself. Distraction is not only a problem while driving. It's simply more evidently a problem when we're piloting a ton of steel at high speeds and less evident when we're sitting at a computer, or talking to our children. Similarly, road rage is just rage. It's not like cars have some special property that causes rage. People have rage to begin with, and it becomes quite visible when they have a giant, speeding podium for it.

Years ago, I was in a major car accident. I was stopped at a red light and just as the light turned green and I was about to step on the gas, a pickup truck rear-ended my car at 60mph. The driver was talking to his girlfriend and didn't even see me stopped there. It's amazing no one was killed, but the amount of harm that was caused in that brief moment of distraction was massive.

So we need to take more care while driving. Mindful driving will help you be less distracted. Once you learn how to be mindful with one thing, you can learn to apply that to everything in your life—your body, your thoughts, and your emotions. Step by step. We actually can be better drivers. We can actually be better in all aspects of our lives, by training ourselves to be mindful. All it takes is learning and practice.

The goal of this The Taxi Driver exercise is to simply be aware of thoughts and feelings, not to shut them off. We're not changing anything; we're just becoming alive to what is happening.

This exercise is similar to walking meditation. In walking meditation you pick two points close to each other and then you walk between point A and Point B so that your awareness doesn't get constantly pulled off by the thoughts about getting somewhere.

  • Select some fixed objects on the road in front of you— stoplights or stop signs if you're driving in the city or telephone poles if you are driving in the countryside. If there's nothing around you at regular intervals, just choose some object in front of you that it will take you about 5 seconds to get to. Between boundaries I'd like you to focus on the sensations in your hands— hot or cold, vibration, hardness…. Whatever it is… just let it be, and bring your attention to it.
  • After you choose your defined boundary of experience, plan for a second how you will get there. Always remember to include your visual field in your awareness. Then come back into your body and feel the sensations in your hands. Try this 3 times.
  • As you feel the sensations in your hands, don't forget the visual field in your awareness. Look ahead to the next boundary. Then bring your attention back to your hands as they touch the steering wheel.
  • Use each boundary as a reminder to bring your attention back to the sensation in your hands. Each boundary that passes you is a little whisper in your mind saying… "hands", "hands", "hands".
  • As you get to the next boundary, notice if you've been asleep at the wheel–lost in thinking. Just bring your awareness to the physical sensations in your hands as they hold the steering wheel—vibration, pressure, heat.

This is what it means to be in the present. Whenever you are able to do this, you are being present.

Adapted from Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving CD by Michele McDonald. Available at morethansound.net

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Michele McDonald
Michele McDonald co-founded Vipassana Hawaii in 1984. She has taught Insight meditation for over thirty years. She teaches extensively throughout the United States, in Canada, Burma, and various locations around the world. She encourages an understanding of the path of insight and a gentle strengthening of mindfulness and concentration so that, ultimately, people can access the peaceful depths of their experience in every moment.

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