Sandi Schwartz on the importance of mindful driving…
I admit it, I am a distracted, impatient driver when stuck in traffic and stopped at red lights. Sometimes I even forget I am still in my car. My kids know it, too, as they often remind me to “stop checking your phone, the light just turned green!” It is time for me—and many other parents—to change. According to the National Safety Council, cell phone use (including texting) leads to a quarter of all motor vehicle crashes. We all want our children to be as safe as possible, so we need to start paying closer attention to the road by practicing mindful driving.
WHAT IS MINDFUL DRIVING?
My typical driving routine involves waiting in carpool lines and idling at one traffic light after another. During this time, I feel bored and stressed that I am wasting precious time. I wish that I was doing something more productive, so I grab my phone and respond to emails, check the news, and scroll through my Facebook feed.
But these distractions end up making me feel even more anxious and annoyed since I know the light will turn green at any moment and cars behind me will start honking. Also, I always get interrupted in the middle of writing an email, and then it takes twice as long to remember where I left off.
There is a much healthier way to fend off the boredom and stress during stop-and-go driving. What if instead of constantly looking for a distraction to fill the void, we simply just enjoyed the ride by being more mindful?
Mindfulness is the act of being fully present in the moment in a non-judgmental way. By incorporating mindfulness into our daily driving routine, we become more focused, relaxed, and effective throughout our day. This makes us better drivers and parents. In fact, Maria Gonzalez, author of Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, insists that mindful driving is the safest way to drive. It allows us to be more attentive to the road, ensuring the utmost safety for our precious cargo.
WAYS TO PRACTICE MINDFUL DRIVING
Whether you are alone or have a car full of kids, you can practice these mindful driving techniques before you depart, while you are driving, and when you are stopped in traffic.
In order to start your travels in the right frame of mind, try a few simple steps before you even back out of your driveway.
- Start by getting into the car and acknowledging your intention to be mindful during your drive.
- Take a few deep breaths to calm your body and mind.
- Once buckled up, become aware of your body as you sit quietly. Feel your hands on the steering wheel, your body on the seat, and your foot on the pedal. Are you hot or cold? Are you tired or energetic? Are you calm or anxious?
- Consider reciting (either silently or out loud) the following driving meditation. Written by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, it encourages drivers to be mindful during the journey and to not get distracted by all the worries about how, when, and where you are going.
Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
Practicing traditional meditation while you are driving can be a safety risk, but there are still some ways you can ‘focus on the now’ while the car is moving. In a Washington Post article about mindful commuting, one women explains how she pays attention to her breathing and relaxes when her jaw tightens or her fingers clench the steering wheel. She notes how practicing mindfulness has expanded her field of vision beyond traffic to include trees, architecture, and cloud formations.
Adding mindfulness to your driving repertoire is simple. The idea is to become continuously aware of your body, what you see, and what you hear so that you remain mindfully present as you drive. First, notice how your body feels. Are your hands clenched tightly to the steering wheel? Are you hunched over? Is your leg getting tired from pushing the pedal? Next, notice what you see through your windshield and in your mirrors. Finally, become aware of the sounds you hear as your drive. Are they soothing, irritating, or distracting?
Do your best to stay present for the entire ride, knowing that it is normal for your mind to wander. You will be tempted to check your phone or start worrying about your To Do list. When this happens, deliberately pull yourself back to the present moment.
Being stopped can be a major source of stress and frustration when we are trying to get to our destination on time. Try using these tools to keep your cool and return to a mindful state.
Listen To Your Children: Although it can be challenging to focus on your children’s chatter while you are maneuvering through traffic, make it a point to talk to them when you are stopped at a light. You can even create a game out of these special mindful moments by asking them a question and directing them to answer it in one sentence before the light turns green.
Taillight Meditation: Ronald Siegel, author and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, suggests drivers practice a taillight meditation while sitting behind other cars. Simply focus on the colors and shapes of the taillights in front of you while remaining relaxed and alert.
Red Light/Stop Sign Meditation: Instead of getting angry and frustrated that you are stuck at a red light or stop sign, smile at it and thank it for helping you return to the present moment. Think of these symbols as friendly chimes to remind you to be mindful even amongst the hustle and bustle of the traffic around you.
Soak In Nature: Driving gives us the opportunity to see new places and enjoy our surroundings. When you are stopped, look around and savor nature’s beauty. Notice the luscious trees, colorful flowers, and ever-changing clouds in the sky. Nature provides so many health benefits to us, offering peace and comfort that can’t be found in any manmade environment.
Loving-kindness Meditation: Author and meditation expert Sharon Salzberg recorded a meditation practice to use while stuck in traffic. She asks the driver to stop, breathe, notice their own bodily sensations, and observe their surroundings such as other cars and drivers. She then explains how we can take the stressful moment of being stuck in traffic and transform it into a positive time to focus on peace and love by practicing a lovingkindness meditation. This is the practice of directing positive thoughts and well wishes to ourselves and others. The four phrases that you either say out loud or think silently are typically:
May I/you be safe.
May I/you be healthy and strong.
May I/you be happy.
May I/you be peaceful and at ease.
CALM DRIVERS=SAFE KIDS
When we are relaxed and focused in the car, our children are safer. Try adopting these fun mindful driving techniques the next time you hit the road.
Sandi Schwartz is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher specializing in parenting, wellness, environmental issues, and human behavior. She enjoys analyzing everyday life using science, humor, and a passion to improve the world. Her blog Happy Science Mom (www.happysciencemom.com)