Meditation in Motion
When most of us think of “meditation”, we think of someone sitting motionless in a cross-legged position with their eyes closed. And, yes, generally, the quickest way to make positive progress in meditation practice is to regularly spend time sitting still on a cushion, doing nothing else but meditating.
But most meditators eventually find that it is also helpful to practice formal meditation techniques when out in everyday daily life, off of the cushion, as often as we can. Meditating while in action serves three main purposes: (1) to help with the integration of the meditative state of mind from our silent seated periods out into our daily lives – similar to how we would want to translate our musical skills from a structured session of practicing scales at home to improvising tunes at a party in front of friends, (2) to increase the amount of time that we are able to meditate in a day, which means more time to cultivate the focused, allowing, even-keeled, detail-rich, expansive, and liberated mindstate that meditation is, and (3) to get at least some meditation time in for people who cannot otherwise find the time.
The ideal situation in which to practice a formal meditation technique while in motion is while engaged in a simple and repetitive physical activity. Such menial tasks as sweeping, raking, scrubbing and wiping, gardening, chopping vegetables, and chopping wood are all great simple activities in which to maintain a meditative mind while moving around and getting things done, which is one reason why monks throughout eras and nationalities have spent so much time doing them.
Experienced meditators also look for “down time” during the day as ideal times to practice as well. These are times when not much thinking and speaking are required, for example while showering, waiting for an appointment, or sitting on a bus or train. (And long-time mindfulness practitioners eventually develop an ability to stay mindful even when engaged in processes that require thinking or talking, for example working on a spreadsheet or carrying on a conversation – activities that they had formerly found inevitably drew them into unconscious mental busyness.)
Driving a car is sometimes a relatively simple and non-conceptual activity, and it can be an excellent opportunity for meditation in action, if done right. There are a few techniques and pointers for the practice that I will recommend in this article, as well as dangers that I will caution about as well.
What Meditating While Driving Is Not
The first step towards clarifying meditating while driving is, is to clarify what it is not. Obviously, the practice starts by turning off ipods, radios, and CD players, and leaving cell phones and headsets aside too. (I am not however going to recommend that we end all conversations with other people in the car, because, if there is another adult in the car with us and we want to meditate, then that other person should be driving.)
Another element is to keep our eyes on the road, and to not read the billboards, to not check out the new construction going up, and to not peoplewatch folks walking along the sidewalk.
Ever since I started a regular practice of meditating while driving, I have noticed that, when I am driving but not using a formal mindfulness technique, I tend to think a lot. I often think about pleasant things – for example, some success that I have just accomplished, or some fun upcoming event that I am excited about. I also notice that my mind has random swirls of thoughts on such topics as people I know, the Giants baseball team, politics, or how to proceed on projects that I am working on. I often make mental maps of where I am driving, how best to get there, and how long it will take. I also ponder the people, buildings, and advertisements that I see out my car windows.
Many of us of course also get emotional and reactive while driving. At the extreme end of this, we’ve all seen, and perhaps even perpetrated, episodes of road rage that were frightening and almost inexplicably irrational.
Add all of these factors of distraction and emotional volatility together, and trouble can be the result: in the nineties, I was at cause for one car accident because I was checking out a woman on the sidewalk and another because I had my eyes off of the road while I messed around with a tape deck. I also got one speeding ticket after I had my eyes off the road, staring at a raging bushfire off in the hills, and another one after I sped along while fuming in a rageful anger.
Meditation while driving, if done right, can help us to be more calm and present while driving, and therefore help us to avoid negative circumstances like those. In other words, the practice can not only help settle our mind and deepen our meditation practice, but it can also make us safer drivers.
Meditating while you are driving is, in fact, the safest way to drive. I would go so far as to say that if you don’t meditate while you are driving you are a dangerous driver. The reason I say this is because the ultimate meditation is all about being present. It is about being right here in the present moment and concentrating on the task at hand. — The Daily Minder
Posture And The Body
The practice of meditating while driving begins, as with most forms of meditation, with finding an appropriate posture. As usual, this specifically means cultivating a straight spine and a settled body.
At the outset, it is helpful to put our car seat’s back rest as straight upright as our car physically allows us to. I also put a small pillow between the seatback and my lumbar/lower back, so as to facilitate a spinal orientation as upright as the one that I take in a meditation hall.
Driving a car is, of course, a dynamic activity that requires motion and activity – we must move our bodies in order to turn the steering wheel, pump the gas and brake pedals, swivel our necks to check mirrors, and so forth. Nonetheless, it is helpful, when meditating while driving, to relax the body as much as possible, to fidget as little as possible, and to do one’s best to move the minimum that is necessary. Putting a car in cruise control, where possible, is ideal for developing physical settling when meditating.
The “Focus Out” Technique
The technique that I have found most useful for meditation while driving is to simply be present and focused on the sense impressions of the act of driving – to see what is going on around us, to keep our ears open for the sounds of traffic, and to be aware of the bodily feeling of sitting in a car seat holding a steering wheel. We can developing an all-round awareness of what is to our sides and behind us as well as in front, inside our cars and outside, repeatedly releasing wandering thoughts so as to bring ourselves back to the richness of the present moment.
The formal technique that I have found that best supports such awareness is what my teacher Shinzen Young calls “Focus Out” (which he explains here, here, and here). The instructions for the “focus out” technique are simple enough: we let out attention broadly float between external real-time physical sights, external real-time physical sounds, and external real-time physical (i.e. non-emotional) body sensations.
We let our awareness fully merge with the details of our external sense experiences. We see the colors and shapes of other cars, the road, and the environment without unnecessary analysis about what we are seeing. We hear sounds – the noises made by our car, the sounds made by other cars, and the hum and buzz of the world around us – as vibrations of energy, without analyzing too much what we are hearing. And we simply feel body sensations – the feeling of our hands on the steering well, the feeling of our butt in the seat, perhaps a knot of tension in the belly – without analyzing them. Often in simply noticing body sensations, without trying to do anything about them, any tension will drain out of its own, and our muscles will relax – our body will, as Buddhist call it, “self-liberate”.
In what you see, let there be only the seen. In what you hear, let there be only the heard. In what you sense, let there be only the sensed … That is how you should train yourself. — The Buddha, in “The Teachings to Bahiya Scripture”
In general, with the “Focus Out” technique, people find that it is relatively easy to learn to be aware of body sensations in a detail-rich and matter-of-fact manner. And many people report that they enjoy the process of mindfully hearing sound, finding it to be simple to learn and do, and usually pleasant in content. But seeing with mindfulness is unfortunately often the most difficult process of the three for most people to comprehend and master – it often takes years of practice before a person is no longer subtly seduced by our normal survival-rooted, object-based way of looking at the world.
One way that “Focus Out” helps us to become more tranquil (not to mention safer drivers) is to dissolve our agitated subjective, internal world of thoughts and thought-based emotions. Any time we notice ourselves engaging in analysis and inner conversation, or holding images in our mind’s eye (say, a vision of the location you are heading towards) – or any other form of memories of the past, plans for the future, or general fantasy – we simply let those thoughts slide away, and we return to refocus on the simple experience of driving.
Focus Out … the Way of the Physical Senses, is a tangible strategy for pulling you out of past, future, and fantasy, and into the Power of Now. — Shinzen Young
(“Focus out” also a great technique for other contexts in which we may practice meditation in motion, for example while preparing food or while working in a garden)
Besides “Focus Out”, there are several other meditation techniques that I have also found to work well in conjunction with driving a car:
One is to practice a simple form of breath meditation – we divide our attention between the actions of driving on the one hand, and being aware of the feeling of breathing in the pit of our bellies on the other. When I do this, I often try to see how high I can count my breaths without spacing out and missing one. This technique, like belly-breath watching in general, is especially useful for helping to tranquilize and focus a scattered mind.
A second technique is to repeatedly vocalize a phrase, either speaking out loud, or just internally and mentally. This phrase can either be a traditional religious mantra like “Om Mane Padme Hum”, or, as I do more often, a Western-style affirmation. The repeated vocalization of the mantra can help us to be more focused and aware of what we are doing, as well as cultivating a deeper experience of whatever meaning the phrase has. (For example, while driving, I will often repeatedly say, “We each live in a world of our mind’s own creation”, which seems to help me to cultivate an experience of freedom and spaciousness).
A third technique is to practice “Metta“, or loving-kindness, meditation. In this practice, we generate a warm, expansive feeling in our heart, and we repeatedly vocalize “May you be well, may you be happy”, sending waves of positive vibrations out to other people in their vehicles, as well as any other people and beings that we can see or sense.
A final technique, and one that is compatible with all of the others that I have listed, is to simply slow down and take our time. We can take a moment to breathe deeply and get present before turning on the engine, or after arriving at our destination and before we get out of the car. When we stop at a traffic light, we can take a deep mindful breath, fully and languidly letting go on the exhalation. When in motion, we can take our foot off the gas and slow down our speed.
The idea of “meditation while driving” might seem dangerous or even impossible to many people, given popular vision of meditation being something done with the eyes closed, or that involves going into a trance and ignoring the outside world. Hopefully, this article has explained how meditation while driving is not only an achievable practice, but also one that can actually make us safer when behind the wheel. Nonetheless, there are certain dangers to be aware of.
First off, meditation while driving is a technique that I would only recommend for experienced drivers, people for whom the mechanical acts of driving are second nature. If someone is first learning to drive, or otherwise needs to think much about the act of driving, then I think trying to mix in conscious acts of mindfulness at the same time is probably a bad idea. For similar reasons, meditating works best when one is driving on a familiar route, when one doesn’t have to think too much about directions, turns, and street signs.
As I said above, putting a car in cruise control is ideal for developing physical settling when meditating. Cruise control is, of course, designed for travel down long, straight freeways. Long, straight freeways are, generally, the ideal environment for meditative driving. It is also possible to engage in meditative driving while weaving through city traffic, while confronted with stoplights and traffic signs, other cars turning across our path, pedestrians walking in crosswalks, bicycles alongside, making turns, winding roads, climbing hills, and all the rest. City driving however requires more thinking and reacting than freeway driving, and therefore makes meditating more difficult. So, mindful driving on surface roads is perhaps something to not try until one has first mastered meditative driving in the comparatively simple freeway environment.
Also, I recommend meditation while driving only to people who already have quite a bit of experience with more traditional meditation practice. In my experience and observation, the first thousand hours or so that a person sits in formal meditation is the most likely time in a meditative career to be visited by strange, hallucinatory reactions of body and mind. These are usually natural and usually harmless, and are simply an aspect of how the settling and opening that we do when meditating burns off the grossest of our psychospiritual impurities. However, if a mindful driver starts to feel drawn into a trance, starts seeing swirls of colors instead of the external world, or starts feeling like their body is floating above the seat, then I would say it is time to drop the meditating, and return to normal “unconscious” method of driving. In such situations, it is best to take the time sitting on a meditation cushion to work through the intense phenomena that come up in reaction to the process of purification, and only come back to meditating while driving when things have cooled off a bit.
Above I listed several meditation techniques that I have found to be positively compatible with the act of driving. There are, however, many meditation techniques that are incompatible. Here, for example, another blogger describes: “Since I have a long commute, I’ve sometimes tried to listen to meditation tapes while driving, but this can be dangerous. Wayne Dyer’s Japa meditation CD, for example, had me in such an altered state that the physical world I was driving through lost importance – which is not a good state for driving.”
Sometimes, when facing with feeling drowsy while driving, meditation can help increase a driver’s alertness. For other people and at other times, however, starting to meditate can have a person, in the short term at least, start to feel more sleepy.
Generally, I recommend using common sense. There may be moments when starting to meditate while driving feels strange, frightening, or unfamiliar, and this is just part of learning something new. But, if someone is trying to implement mindfulness in their driving, and notices that it starts to feel dangerous and destructive of their ability to fully follow the customs and laws of driving, then I recommend returning to the normal mode of consciousness for the time being, and returning to mindful driving only when conditions are more favorable.