LA Coping Kit: Mindful Driving

As a rush-hour commuter, figuring out how to wade through the miseries of LA traffic has been has been an important to-do for me. What I did, what I recommend: Driving mindfully.
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This is the first in a series of posts about things you can do to help take care of yourself living in a city that doesn't always seem hospitable to everyday calm or comfort.

If you're not a full-time pedestrian, bicyclist, public transportation-taker, or otherwise auto-avoidant and live in L.A., there's a good chance you spend a fair amount of time on the road. Some significant portion of that time is likely spent in an annoyed simmer if not an all-out rage. As a cross-town, rush-hour commuter, figuring out how to wade through the miseries of L.A. traffic has been has been an important to-do for me. What I did, what I recommend: Driving mindfully.

Mindfulness is a sort-of secularized Buddhist practice adapted for mental health purposes. Boiled down, it involves focusing on one thing in the moment. That one thing, in mindfulness meditation, is the breath--noticing each inhalation, each exhalation, how it feels, what it does. But mindfulness also works well throughout the day--you can mindfully walk, eat, or wash the dishes. (See Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are for a very readable tour of these concepts.)

Mindulness has increasingly turned up in psychotherapy offices due to mounting evidence that it actually works. Focusing on the experience of the present moment as fully as possible, people find symptoms falling away--past regrets and future worries fade, at least for a time, to the background.

To give your road rage or commuter's despair a brief vacation, give mindful driving a try. (Do it parked, before you get going or at a traffic light. No mindfulness accidents, please.)

First step: Turn off the radio, turn off the cell phone, set distractions aside. Multitasking and mindfulness aren't a good fit. Next step: Focus on one thing. Notice your breathing. The way your stomach lifts with each inhalation and falls as you exhale. Focus on a sensation--the stuff we've all learned to more-or-less tune out. Focus on what you see: Colors, shadows, lines. The way your eye responds to the glint of the sun or to a passing headlight. On what you hear: Passing tires on the pavement, fragments of music from other cars, the hum of your car's engine. On what you feel: The steering wheel in your hands, your feet against the floormat, your back against the seat, the breeze of the a/c.

Whatever catches your attention, give it your full attention. And then notice it some more. Your attention is bound to wander; notice that and then gently bring it back to what it was you were being mindful of.

If you can, try not to judge anything that you're experiencing, but simply notice the moment as it is--not good, bad, or ugly....just there. For many, noticing is one thing. Accepting? Easier said than done.

This all may sound like nonsense. Just give it a short trial run. Take a mindful minute before you start your drive this week. You may soon find yourself regretting that your clogged, smogged, familiar ride gets you where you're going a little too soon.

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