Mindfulness... for Drivers
I listened to the Yokohamas grip damp asphalt. Smelled the blur of Douglas Firs and mulch and laurel bushes. Felt the fog-cooled air buffeting the cabin, the feedback communicating through the steering wheel, the G-forces pushing me against the seat as I looked through a corner. For that brief moment, absorbed by verdant surroundings, I was fully present, thinking about the road, my driving, and nothing else.
Even though I had plenty to worry about.
Like everybody, I’ve faced challenges. I’ve suffered losses, disappointment, heartbreak. Like everybody, I've tried coping through hard times in different ways, some constructive and healthy, some not so much.
One way I’ve coped? Behind the wheel of a car, driving through times bad and good.
Todd and Paul have referred, playfully, to driving as therapy; if my experience is representative of others’, I would attest that driving can, in fact, prove therapeutic.
Let me get one thing clear, though. I am not equating driving with therapy in a clinical context, nor am I making light of therapy. I credit seeing a licensed therapist with helping me survive bouts of crushing depression and come to terms with my brother’s suicide, among other hardships. Without professional help, I honestly don't know where I’d be right now. With that uplifting caveat, back to the road.
By “driving can prove therapeutic,” I mean that, under certain conditions, piloting a car can serve as a beneficial exercise in mindfulness. For others, it’s surfing or crocheting or playing the ukelele that’s similarly beneficial. And for me, it’s not just while driving that I’ve achieved this state of mindfulness; playing hockey, cooking, listening to music, and, yes, meditating can also become “vehicles” for reaching a certain level of mindfulness. What appears common among these vehicles is they require focused attention and usually some modicum of skill.
Another, perhaps more apt term I could use for this phenomenon is flow, the kind of flow Ken Miles must have felt when he (spoiler) drove that perfect lap at Le Mans.
You don’t have to drive like Ken Miles to achieve flow, of course (otherwise, I would never, ever reach that state of consciousness). From my experience, such states of flow are fleeting; nevertheless, there are ways I’ve cultivated flow while driving which I describe below. Though I’m no vehicular yogi and don’t assume my specific approach here applies to others, I do hope that this list helps readers think about how they might take a mindful drive. Cue up soothing notes of flutes and wind chimes as we proceed.
Drive with no specific agenda other than to drive.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten remotely close to flow while crawling through a traffic jam on my way to work (though breathing exercises definitely help calm my nerves!). And if I’m running a bunch of errands, I have a hard time not thinking about lists and tasks (even as I pay attention while behind the wheel). I have the most rewarding driving experiences when my only agenda is to take a drive or take a detour for the sake of it. When I took that corner I described in the opening paragraph, I had decided to take a break from a particularly difficult morning and go for a drive through some local canyons. I had no particular destination in mind other than away from the busy highways and bustle of the city. I spent an hour exploring the beautiful hills just off the coast, soaking in my surroundings and enjoying being behind the wheel of my Miata. I returned refreshed and more prepared to face the rest of the day.
Drive with focus, not emotion.
Sometimes, I’m simply too upset to “just go for a drive.” I don’t ever want to act out emotions behind the wheel of a multi-ton vehicle. Better to just sit down and meditate or do something safer in those cases.
Turn off all distractions.
For me, that means no hands-free calls, no This American Life, no Hey Siri, no travel mug full of coffee, and--almost always--no music (though I still remember a ride I took as a high school kid with a friend who was hooning his father’s 944 down La Honda while blasting Beethoven’s 9th through the Blaupunkt stereo. Neither of us uttered a word as he drove and as the symphony enveloped us. What an experience).
Roll the windows down and turn the awareness up.
One of the Miata’s characteristics I appreciate the most is the roadster’s analog-ness (for an excellent piece on the pleasures of driving older cars, check out Christopher Jensen’s latest New York Times article); with the top down in the little NA, it’s impossible not to feel connected with the road. Whatever the vehicle, though, I can still feel that connection. The important thing is to ratchet my awareness up a few notches. As a novice meditator, I can count on one hand the times I perceived a blurring of boundaries between my thoughts and the world around me (at which point, for example, the sound of a bird singing off in the distance feels like an integral part of my own consciousness--a “one with the universe” sort of state). With driving, which requires one’s attention not only on the mechanics of navigating a car but to the road ahead and the potential hazards surrounding that road, achieving a variation of that state is much easier (if less profound). When I’m “driving with flow,” all my senses are engaged.
Focus on breathing.
I actually do this while driving for the sake of it. I also consciously relax my shoulders. This may read as excessive, “woo-woo”, or strange, but I encourage you to try this sometime.
Don’t race; just drive.
Unless on a track or autocross course, there’s no place for driving excessively fast and at the limit of traction. I actually slow down a little sometimes when I’m truly concentrating while taking corners and taking in my surroundings.
Many meditators, including me, want to meditate “correctly” and get frustrated when thoughts and feelings distract us. We judge ourselves as terrible at meditating. Instead, we’re better off taking note of those thoughts and feelings without any judgement, then turning our attention back to the breath (or whatever we’re supposed to focus on). Similarly, I’ve gotten frustrated by failing to heel-toe downshift perfectly before taking a corner or catching myself thinking through my to-do list as I drive a beautiful stretch of road. I’m better off noting the distraction or imperfect downshift and resuming the drive.
What about you, Dear Reader? Have you tried driving mindfully? If so, what works for you?
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.