Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving

Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving
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Trying to kick that texting-while-driving habit? Or worried about someone who gambles with fate by indulging some such risk?

Here's a just-in-time holiday idea: Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving - that helps you hit the road fully alert, calm, and focused.

Given the driving habits most of us have fallen into, that's a much-needed antidote to the mortal dangers of phone calls, texting, and otherwise multi-tasking while hurtling down a highway in two tons of steel at 88 feet per second - a high-risk endeavor in itself.

Mindful driving gives us a way to up the odds of getting there in one piece, first by making us less of a risk to ourselves (and our passengers), and second by making us more alert to the split-second dangers posed by those other drivers bobbing and weaving their way down the road while they are distracted by god-knows-what.

Mindfulness, as you may know, is an ancient attention training method that has been applied to a range of modern malaises -- everything from weight loss to living with chronic disease.

Now Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving takes on our bad road habits - and about time. About 6,000 people die and more than half a million are injured in a given year because of distracted drivers, the Department of Transportation tells us, and those numbers are climbing year by year.

Using a cell phone - even hands free - delays a driver's reaction as much as having blood alcohol levels at .08 percent, the legal limit.

Research on mindfulness tells us that regular practice:

  1. Speeds up reaction time, that life-saving factor when the unexpected comes along. Dr. Richard Davidson's neuroscience research group at the University of Wisconsin finds that mindfulness practice speeds up reaction time.

  • Calms us, so that we are more patient and relaxed - the antidote to road rage. Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, reports that mindfulness enhances "vagal nerve tone," the circuitry that quiets the body again after, say, a near-miss with a gigantic Mack eighteen-wheeler.
  • Keeps our cool. Mindfulness, Davidson's research finds, strengthens the circuits that quiet emotional hijacks, quelling the impulse to road rage.
  • Sharpens alertness. Unlike some kinds of meditation that make us spacey, mindfulness amps up focused attention, as many studies have found - including a study by the Davidson group of the impacts of a three-month mindfulness intensive.
  • There's a kind of psychological judo in using a guided mindfulness session to help a driver pay full attention. Awake at the Wheel takes that impulse to listen to something - anything - that will distract us from the boredom of the long road home, and flips it around so our entertainment helps us focus smack on what we're doing: just driving.

    Michelle McDonald, our guide, keeps it engaging. Instead of our minds wandering off in that state where we crave some distraction, she keeps us rooted on the usually unappreciated details of the task at hand.

    We tune into the sensations of gripping the steering wheel, and keep an eye on the passing show of the visual panorama that surrounds us. With these anchoring our attention in the present, McDonald then leads us through exercises that transform a daily drive into an attention workout.

    I tried Awake at the Wheel while tooling along a route I've traveled hundreds, maybe thousands of times. My standard routine to pass the time on that too-well-worn road has been to daydream, flip through the radio dial, go through my playlist, make a call or two - whatever will distract me.

    But this time I found the same stretch of Interstate a journey of a wholly different kind. My mind was continually engaged in one or another aspect of my direct experience, from the feel of the wheel to letting go of mental distractions - with not a moment of spacing out.

    When I arrived, instead of the usual relief that I had gotten that boring drive over with once again, for once I didn't want to stop.

    This may be the one holiday gift that shows you truly care.

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