Meeting Your Mind Head On

Kathy Kaiser eloquently conveys how driving can be a mindfulness and tonglen practice. Maybe in reading this blog we can remember that there are human beings inside the vehicles of the 405 freeway!

images  I’ve come to realize that the act of driving is where I crash into all my attempts to be compassionate and full of equanimity toward my fellow humans. It’s where I drive head on into society’s speediness and aggression, its indifference to others, as well as my own impatience and judgmental nature.

It’s when I put the pedal to the metal that I silently steam at the big SUV sitting on my bumper, this anonymous creature that seems to be threatening me to driver faster or else, or at the drivers who won’t let me merge into highway traffic. I feel anger and helplessness at the same time.

We’re all anonymous behind several hundred pounds of metal and tinted windows, isolated in our cocoons of tailored music, leather seats and controlled temperatures, alienated from our fellow human beings. It’s easy to be judgmental: the rich pushy guy in the Lexus, the burly, beer-drinking construction worker in the SUV, the too-slow driver in front of me who, I just know, is texting rather than paying attention to the road.

Face to face, we would never treat each other this way: cut someone off in traffic, yell obscenities, aggressively sit on someone’s bumper. Hidden behind our tinted windows, we imagine the worst and stereotype each other. So I have to remind myself that these are fellow human beings subject to the same daily stresses and push of society that I feel: too much to do and not enough time, too much daily pressure coming from all directions, heavy traffic that’s constantly slowing us down when we’re just trying to get to our jobs or homes.

When I’m in a hurry, late for a meeting, have twenty-seven things to accomplish in an afternoon, I’m impatient myself, angrily wondering why the driver in front of me is going 10 miles under the speed limit or silently mouthing off at the driver who is not reacting fast enough to the green light. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve given the finger more than once to the SUV driver who has sat on my tail for the last 10 miles, their intimidating grills almost hitting my back bumper, or that I silently mouth off against the driver who pulls right in front of me, forcing me to brake.

Last winter I did a one-week retreat in the Colorado mountains, a time when my brain slowed down and started noticing water melting from the roof and the way the dried grasses angled out of the snow, a time when I felt my heart opening, not just to myself, but to all those around me. When I finally had to leave, I drove slowly along a gravel country road, entranced by everything I saw: the citadels of rounded granite boulders, the white breath of horses standing in a snowy field, a red farmhouse standing alone in a field of white snow.

As I approached the next county road, one that was paved, I was horrified to see trucks roaring down the road, as if the drivers were fleeing a fire. But when I got on the road, I discovered the speed limit was 40, only fast to a mind that had slowed down to a walking pace for a week.

As I made my way onto larger roads and then into the congestion of a city, I had to wonder why everyone was in such a hurry. Although most of the time, I’m as fast as everyone else — in a rush to get where I’m going so I can then hurry back and speed through another chore — coming back from this retreat, I wanted to maintain my sense of wonder at the world, and my tender-heartedness. I tried to imagine a world where everyone was polite and kind, where we all slowed down to see a spectacular sunset or a line of flying geese or felt protective of the frail elderly couple driving too slowly for the rest of the world.

I once had a teacher who said that whenever she got an aggressive driver on her bumper, she did tonglen for him (or her), extending a sense of peace and compassion to someone overheated with impatience and aggression, caught up in uncomfortable thoughts and sensations.

In that spirit, I’d like to extend a sense of compassion to other drivers as well as myself — all of us caught up in a world we didn’t necessarily create. I  want to wave to other drivers, acknowledge our shared humanity; smile at drivers who try to cut me off; stop for every pedestrian who wants to cross the street and for every driver who needs to pull into heavy traffic. I want to try my best to feel compassion toward the man in the SUV behind me. I want to invite the world to slow down and enjoy this very precious moment.

Kathy Kaiser is a writer, editor and Buddhist practitioner in Boulder, Colorado, who writes a blog about nature and spirituality: