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The average American spends 290 hours driving each year.
If that’s the case, shouldn’t we use this time wisely or at least to be present?
Many people loathe driving. But driving can be an opportunity to be mindful. Mindfulness is defined as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” And mindful focus on the present cultivates joy.
In life, we don’t always have control of our final destination or the speed at which we arrive. But in driving, we do. We can create driving experiences that cultivate presence, joy, and spaciousness for new ideas.
I live in Nashville and am in Louisville, Kentucky (my hometown) a quarter of the year. Frequent drives designate time for my mind to clarify—a meditation in motion.
Stationed in the car, I face hot topics I’ve brushed in between the silky folds of my brain. As trees twirl by the car window, they inspire me to breathe deeply. I resist silence at first. But, as I breathe and drink in passing scenery, I fully experience the present moment.
On a recent drive back to Nashville, practicing mindful driving prevented a wreck. A big, white van was merging into the left lane without looking and without using a turn signal. If my undivided attention had been off, he would have slammed into the passenger side of my car. In the past, I would’ve let this road drama ruin my entire drive. But I chose to breathe and let it go.
Mindful driving not only keeps everyone safe, but allows us time to reflect—to unplug in a world that is constantly buzzing with noise and movement. Yes, there is noise and movement while driving. But driving can teach us to be still in motion.
How can we use our drives to cultivate more joy in our lives? Here are my top five ways to create happiness, inspiration, and presence while driving.
1. Driving as a mindfulness practice. In the Harvard Business Review article, “Your Car Commute is a Chance to Practice Mindfulness,” Maria Gonzalez found that if you are continuously aware of three things: your body, what you see, and what you hear, you will remain mindfully present.
As soon as you buckle your seat belt, set your intention for a mindful drive. Close your eyes and take three deep belly breaths. Open your eyes and begin. How does the steering wheel feel on your hands? Are you cold, hot, or just right? Straighten your spine and continue to breathe.
Take in your surroundings. Actually see the car in front of you. What color is it? Who is in the car? A bearded man toking a cigar? Little kids making faces at you through the window?
Then, notice sounds. Can you hear the kid’s ruckus in the car ahead of you? Or is there a nice hum brewing between the car and the wind of movement?
Maria Gonzalez says, “By training yourself to remain in the present moment, you train yourself to avoid unconscious thinking. This frees up a great deal of energy, allowing your brain to become more creative and effective once you resume conscious thinking.”
2. Music. Research shows that listening to music, especially on monotonous roads or road trips, can improve focus. Singing while driving infuses me with inspiration. Don’t enjoy singing? Listen to the lyrics. What is the song’s message?
Gridlock traffic leaving Nashville occurs frequently. Many times road rage begins to boil my blood. A business meeting or a dinner date will be late, ugh. Through presence, I realize I cannot control traffic, but I can control my reactions.
Science Daily says, “People need a certain degree of ‘arousal’ (a state of being alert caused by external stimulation of the brain) to stop themselves getting bored. In monotonous traffic situations, music is a good distraction that helps you keep your mind on the road.”
Instead of letting bumper-to-bumper be a bummer, I roll the windows down, blast Lake Street Dive, and belt. Neighboring cars either stare in astonishment—how is this woman having so much fun in traffic? Or cheer me on with grins and pantomime high fives.
Alan Watts says, “The object is not to reach any particular stage; it is to find the right attitude of mind in whatever stage one may happen to be.”
How can you surrender to your current experience? Instead of fuming with road rage, I invite you to sing or listen—especially if you’re late.
3. Books on tape or podcasts. As an avid reader and visual learner, who loves to hold real books, smell newly printed pages, and scribble notes in the margins—listening to books on tape was an adjustment. I was resistant at first. And when I resist something, it usually means I need it.
In September of 2017, I drove alone for 10 hours from Nashville to Ocean Isle, North Carolina. My mentor told me the book Stealing Fire would inspire me. So I listened—the entire ride. Not only, did it inspire me, but it gave me the idea for my coaching business—to specialize in flow.
When the analytical brain drives and the creative mind listens, it creates space for new ideas to sprout roots. Lateral thinking, or an epiphany, connects two disparate thoughts from different parts of the brain.
As this idea was born in my brain the Pisgah Forest, near Asheville, passed outside my window. A red-tailed hawk flew along my traveling car as the sun put on her best pink and orange broach before setting behind bluish green mountains. This scene cemented in my mind, because I was present.
Got a long drive? Get a book on tape. Focus on the road first. Then, soak in the scenery, the story, learn, and let new ideas grow.
4. Phone dates. I have moved 29 times in 29 years and lived in five different states. My best friends are scattered across the country. I love to utilize my drives to schedule phone dates or surprise call a loved one.
Connection and community are imperative to human health. Many Americans are constantly traveling or in go-go gadget mode and thus, experience loneliness. Recent research has proven that “a lonely person is significantly more likely to suffer an early death than a non-lonely one.”
You can make someone’s day by a simple call. Now, on my drives, when an old friend pops into my mind, I dial in or leave them a goofy voicemail.
Yes face-to-face time is priceless. However, hearing a loved one’s voice over the phone who you miss or lives thousands of miles away creates connection too. Next time you feel lonely or crave connection, I dare you to call your friend. It will be a blessing for you both.
5. Quiet reflection. When was the last time you designated space for your mind to wander? In a society where we are rewarded for drinking more coffee to send evening emails, write one more proposal, pick up the dry cleaning, and embody the energizer bunny, taking a holy pause is rare. But quiet reflection is imperative for joy.
On my long commutes, I always take at least 30 minutes to drive in quiet reflection. As my eyes flicker from cows to exit signs to cotton candy colors of the sky, these moving visions encourage my mind to run free. Here my mind wanders over challenges I’ve avoided. What is working in my life? What isn’t?
The need to focus and control my car gives my mind permission to be out of control, to run amuck in the fields filled with cow pies. It is during this quiet driving time some of my best ideas or greatest realizations have been born.
Drive one highway dash at a time and let that be your guide. Sometimes it’s scary to think with conscious intent. What a great time to clear out the cobwebs of your mind.
You may arrive at a new poem, a new idea, an old friend, a good cry, or a deep sense of peace simply because you gave yourself the space to do so.