The foundation of all Buddhist meditation is mindfulness of the in and out breath. This is one of the meditations Gauthama Buddha himself taught. This means locating where you feel you breath sensations, and then quietly paying attention to their ins and outs, their various qualities and textures. One effect of this practice is a slowing down, a return to the present moment. This enables us to begin paying attention to things as they are, to how mind (which includes in this context all cognition, all emotion, all nervous system activity) creates individual reality and experience, and to how random and unmeasured our responses to the external world can be.
We begin to get some wiggle room between our thoughts, feelings, and nervous system reactions and the our sense of who we really are. We begin to see the difference between how we as individuals react to experience, and what the experiences actually are.
For example, while driving the car, Joe reacts to the red light with impatience and frustration, raising his blood pressure, inhibiting intestinal peristalsis, increasing stress hormones like adrenalin, increasing hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
Jane, on the other hand, reacts to the red light by taking a deep breath and slowing down inside for the brief duration of that experience, an experience that can be negative, neutral, or positive, depending on what we make of it. That does not mean denying that you are in a hurry, late, and would prefer nothing but green lights all the way to work. But what it means is being aware of that desire, being aware of the body sensations and breath (whole body awareness) as you move through experience, so that you can, among other things, short circuit the disease producing fight or flight response. It means becoming aware of you own frustrations and anger that you carry to the table, and that can spill over into an unpleasant present, when under pressure blocks are put in your way, blocks you cannot control. Like a red light. Like a car in front of you driving too slowly.
One of my teachers Thich Nhat Hanh put it this way. He found it curious and sad how much stress Americans create for themselves with their traditional culture of impatience. “When you reach a red light in your automobile, why not take that as a time out, as some time for yourself, as a time to be still?”
I learned how to drive driving a taxi cab in Chicago! And I am, by nature, impatient and nervous, I would never deny that. That is exactly why I became a monk at age 17. Nevertheless, as I am still far far away from becoming a Bodhisattva, I still have the tendency to drive as if I were a New York cabbie.
But I often, often am able to access Bhikku Hanh’s automotive awareness meditation, and it slows me down, makes me a safer driver, more aware of my surroundings, and healthier as a person.
When you reach a red light, take that as a chance to drop out of your head and into your body. Start with the breath. Where do you feel your breath sensations. I like to start with the warm air leaving my nose and crossing the skin just below the nostrils on the out-breath, and the cooler un-warmed air coming back in on the in-breath. Then, see what is going on in your lungs, in your diaphragm, in your belly.
What does it feel like to be you, in this space, at this time. How does your body feel sitting in the car? What do your arms and hands feel like? How do you grip the wheel? What are the sensations at the points of contact between your skin and vehicle, at the points of contact between your skin and the air?
How are you feeling emotionally. Is there joy? sadness? frustration? peace?
If there are uncomfortable emotions, don’t run away from them. Anchored by the awareness of the breath, even soothed or enraptured by awareness of the breath, allow mindfulness of discomfort to settle in and see what happens.
We are tormented at times by too much thought, too many thoughts, too much thinking. Random thoughts, wild thoughts, fantasies, revenge, let downs, repeated should haves and wish I hads. Beautiful thoughts, yesterday’s ice cream sandwich, the vacation in Greece, floating on the water looking up at the blue sky, snorkeling and seeing the amazing array of fish, mother’s touch and voice, father’s reassurance. Memories, dreams, recollections, ideas, plans.
None of them exist. They are all just thoughts, in fact they are all just biochemicals. Well, really, they are all just sub-atomic particles, created at the big-bang and recycled to eternity. So if our brain and its biochemicals are just a temporary arrangement of atomic particles, how much less fixed are our thoughts. They are just thoughts. Not solid, not permanent, less so than our bodies. They come and go faster than a speeding bullet.
So let them go. We don’t need to push them away with any special effort, and we don’t need to exert any effort to hold onto them. When you notice an awareness of thinking, of that action, thinking, which produces thoughts, which are not solid at all, even though we hold on to them as if they were flotsam and we were alone in the ocean with nothing else to hold on to, just return to the breath sensations, the mindfulness of the in and out breath. No need to push the thoughts away. Just return, softly, gently, lightly, with a sharp awareness, to the sensations in the belly, and chest, and nostrils. To the sense of rapture that develops as you get better and better at cultivating whole body awareness by mindfulness of breath and bodymind, as you learn to “spread the breath sensations” throughout the body.
All of this at a red light! How wonderful, yes, you can.
From another one of my teachers, S.N.Goenkaji, I learned that you can actually practice the above the whole time you are driving. It’s actually an excellent practice, especially for ex-cab drivers. If you pay attention, though, you will notice that alone in the car, like lying in bed at night, can be a time that anxieties and worries naturally arise, even if not consciously. So we distract ourselves with talk radio or music.
Try using your driving time for meditation. Keep your eyes on the road. Pay attention to the breath in and out. Pay attention to your belly, and lungs, and nostrils. Pay attention to your hands on the week, and you body against the seat, your leg and foot against the pedal, your other foot. Every time you get lost in thought, return to the body sensations, as you would keep bringing a puppy back in front of you so she doesn’t get lost. In fact a great deal of car accidents, really accidents of all types, occur when we day dream, losing ourselves in thought, not paying attention or being mindful of the present space and time experience. Try it. As Mr. Zia used to say, in his humble restaurant on 30th street, “if you don’t like it, you don’t pay!”
With gratitude to the mindfulness instruction of Thanissaro Bhikku of Metta Forest Monastery, Valley Center, California. http://www.watmetta.org/
Ayurveda, Acupuncture, and Chinese Medicine in San Diegohttps://www.bodymindwellnesscenter.com