The Mindful Commuter: Find Inner Peace on Your Way to Work or School
April 22, 2014
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Set a positive tone for the day by practicing mindfulness during your commute.  While there’s nothing wrong with listening to pandora, reading a book, or even just “zoning out,” the commute time also represents an opportunity to take care of yourself in a more deliberate way.  This is particularly true for busy people who have difficulty carving out space for rest and relaxation.  Mindfulness practices foster inner peace and clarity of mind, among many other documented psychological and health benefits.  What a great way to start your day or wind down on your way home!

How to Practice Mindfulness While Riding the Bus or Subway

How to Practice Mindfulness While Driving

Please note:

Mindfulness practices can sometimes make one feel sleepy. The intent of mindfulness meditation is to maintain a relaxed, but alert focus, and not actually fall asleep.  Safety is the priority with these exercises: don’t put yourself in a compromised position, where you could lose control of your car, miss your stop, be vulnerable to theft, etc. 

1.)  How to Practice Mindfulness While Riding the Bus or Subway

The following instructions are for the mindfulness of breath practice, which can be done while sitting or standing:

-If you can safely do so, close your eyes; otherwise, pick one object to focus on and soften your gaze

-Scan your body from head to toe, noticing any sensations of tension or tightness; send yourself a gentle message to let go of that tension if possible

-After that, notice your environment by tuning into any sounds you hear and noticing the temperature, like whether you feel hot, cold or neutral

These first few steps are designed to bring your attention to the present moment.

-Next, put your attention specifically on your breathing, noticing that the breath happens on its own; try to follow your breath from start to finish.  Notice subtleties with your breathing, like whether it’s shallow or deep, slow or fast.

-You can count one on the in-breath and two on the out-breath to strengthen your awareness

-As your mind wanders, which it will (probably quite often – that’s normal!), gently bring your attention back to the breath and the counting

-Each time the mind drifts away from the breath, just notice where it went and then gently bring your focus back to your breathing.  For example, the mind may wander to: thinking certain thoughts; hearing certain sounds like the engine of the bus or other commuters talking; noticing emotions like frustration, boredom, or anxiety; or feeling the movement of the bus or subway.  Go ahead and name where your mind wanders to (e.g., “thinking, thinking” or “boredom, boredom,” or “sound, sound”) and then gently bring your focus back to the counting of the breath.

-It may seem hard to “block out” the other experiences on the train or bus, such as loud sounds and the movement, but remember, you’re not trying to tune those out; rather, you’re trying to continually tune in to your breathing in the midst of all of that. [Alternatively, you can use earplugs or headphones (with the sound off of course), if that feels helpful]

-Keep in mind that this is a fairly “simple” practice, but it actually takes quite a bit of effort, especially if you’re new to mindfulness meditation.  Just wanted to normalize the effort involved, as sometimes people associate calming practices with more passive, lower effort activities.  It can feel discouraging to notice how much the mind wanders, but remember that the mind wandering isn’t the problem; the objective of mindfulness is to continually bring the mind back to the present moment whenever it strays — the benefits come from this process of returning to the breath over and over again.

-Do this for at least 5 or 10 minutes during your commute.  You can either set a timer on your phone or watch, or keep track of the time more informally (e.g., practice mindfulness for 10 stops on the subway line).

Mindfulness Meditation Apps

You may also want to try the following meditation apps for your commute, which offer both free and paid versions.

1.) Mental Workout

2.) Headspace

2.)  How to Practice Mindfulness While Driving

The Cliff notes on mindful driving are: Pay Attention to What You’re Doing: Driving!  (And, safety first.)  

For those of us who like more detail, go ahead and read the following section.

When driving, it’s so common to tune things out and get lost in thought.  Fortunately, our impressive brains are able to do this and still get us to our destinations safely (most of the time!).  Have you ever had that experience where you got on the road and all of a sudden you arrived at your destination, but in the back of your mind, you’re wondering, “how did I get here?” That’s getting lost in thought. We all do it.

Mindful driving is about cultivating presence, being in the here and now. We are so conditioned to engage in habitual behaviors that take us out of the moment.  Studies show that the more we engage in the present moment – even if it’s not that pleasant (e.g., sitting in traffic) – the happier we are.

Our commute represents a time of transition – going to work, returning home, or heading out to see friends. In times of transition, we are even more prone to be leaning toward the future; after all, we are going somewhere!  Alternatively, we may find it hard to “leave” work, unconsciously choosing to obsess over the day’s events, for instance. Hence, it can be easy for our minds to get a bit stuck in the past or absorbed in the future rather than the present, as we spend time on our commute.

Again, the commute provides a good opportunity to practice mindfulness.

Note: As mentioned previously, getting to your destination safely is the most important part of your commute, so I’m going to make a few suggestions to start.  If you are trying mindfulness meditation for the first time, I would recommend doing it at home for a while, in a quiet place with the least number of distractions, before trying it while driving.

**(You can read the article entitled “What is Mindfulness?” (and follow the links provided on that page) for basic instructions on mindfulness meditation, if you haven’t already learned a meditation practice yourself).

Once you’ve practiced at home several times and have an idea of how you respond to 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation practice, then it’s safer to try this mindfulness exercise while driving.

In traditional meditation practice, one typically closes their eyes. Please don’t do this while driving :-).

Mindful driving is not like other meditation practices that focus on the breath. Simply put, mindfulness while driving is about paying consistent attention to exactly what you’re doing – driving!  With this practice, you’re continuously putting your focus on the elements involved in driving a car – such as the movement required and how you use your senses, like vision and hearing.

You may want to do this mindfulness driving exercise for about 5 minutes at a time.  After 5 minutes, take a break and then return to it for another 5 minutes. You can do just 5 minutes on your commute, or spend the entire time engaging in the practice in 5-minute increments.  Mindfulness is a mental workout, so each 5 minutes you practice is akin to 5 minutes you’d spend at the gym, only the benefit here is on your mind.

Here are the specific steps for practicing mindfulness while driving:

-Start by making sure your radio is turned off.  Spend a few moments noticing what it’s like to be in the car in silence.

-Next, bring your attention to the physical experience of driving, by noticing your hands on the steering wheel, what it feels like to be sitting in your seat, and what it feels like to make contact with the pedals.

-Notice any other physical sensations you may be experiencing while driving, such as tension in your shoulders or a hunched posture. If you notice tension, you can send a gentle message to your body to let go of that tension or tightness.

-Next, tune into your surroundings as you drive. Notice the elements of the road, what the nearby cars look like and what sounds are in your environment.

-You can establish mindfulness “rituals.”  For example, each time you stop (e.g., at a stop sign, light, or crosswalk), take that as an opportunity to pause and take a deep breath.

-Anytime the mind wanders – which it will – your “job” is to gently bring your attention back to the elements outlined above. Don’t get caught up in how “well” you’re doing the practice or how difficult it may feel to stay in the moment. Our minds are very conditioned to jump around – in Buddhist psychology circles this is referred to as “monkey mind.”  Mindfulness practice is about noticing when you stray and gently bringing your awareness back to the present experience (of driving – in this situation).

Try practicing mindfulness during your commute everyday for one week and notice how you feel at the end of that week. Like anything, the more we put into it, the more we get back.


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