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Road Zen


With my teenaged son now learning to drive, and my daughters only driving for a couple of short years, I find myself revisiting the previously routine act of driving.

Once, in the Buddhist discussion group to which I belong, a visiting Sri Lankan monk advised us of a neat little trick of mindfulness on the road.

“Red lights,” he told us” are the perfect places to meditate.”

We must have looked dubious at best, imagining zoned out drivers awakened by a cacophony of horns the second the light turns greens.

But he clarified. He meant we should be mindful at the red light, looking about and noticing other drivers, pedestrians, shops and houses, the elements of the moment when we come to a stop. And mindful of when the light turns green and we can proceed again, still ever mindful.

He extended the metaphor to other moments in our lives that are perhaps confrontational or confusing.

“These are red lights in our lives,” he said. “Just stop, breathe, notice and proceed only when the light turns green.”
The monk’s words have made an enormous impact on my daily life, on the road and off. But the difference on the road has been the most impressive and, I hope, the most enduring to my newly fledged drivers.

Among other things, I’ve adopted the habit of driving 3-5 mph. below the speed limit, wherever that’s reasonable (which is actually most places). The speed limit is, after all, just that – a limit of speed not to be exceeded, not the limit at which I must always drive. Driving just below the speed limit has both raised my gas mileage and lowered my blood pressure.

I have this little computerized monitoring device in my car that gives me a read out of the average mpg of my car. It’s become a vehicular biofeedback device. In angling for the high score, my overall sense of calmness and well being commensurately increase.

It does seem to have an opposite affect on other drivers, though, as the more closely I adhere to the speed limit, the more frenzied my co-drivers become, crossing double yellow lines, passing on curves, and flashing their lights to impress upon me their sense of urgency. And they leave me remembering and ashamed in the dust of their passing for having felt the same impatience in the past, at others who were the driver I’ve become.

Where, I wonder now, had I been in such a hurry to go? I’m getting to places on time easily now, earlier in fact, as my measured driving agrees with timed street lights and gives me more time to make informed driving decisions. It’s as if, by pressing less urgently on the fabric of time (and the accelerator), I pass through the world more easily, with less resistance.I’ve heard the argument that “slow drivers” – essentially anyone not exceeding the speed limit or otherwise “keeping up with traffic” – cause accidents. But I don’t buy that argument and God forbid should my children. People for whom other people don’t matter cause accidents; people like those passing me on double yellow lines, speeding, and impatiently darting in and out of traffic cause accidents.

We raise our children to resist peer pressure to smoke, drink or use drugs, and then we dare to suggest that they accept peer pressure from other drivers because everyone else is in a hurry?

I don’t think so.

I hope my daughters carry their self awareness and independent mindfulness with them on the road always, and that my son will as well, and that no amount of pressure from impatient strangers will compel them to do other than their conscience and sense of safety and well being dictate.

If you find yourself behind a driver doing the speed limit, or even a little less, especially a youthful looking girl with a pony tail, or a tall skinny boy with tousled hair think twice before you hit the horn.

If you’re in a hurry, pass at your own risk. But remember that every decision you make on the road involves others, and my children’s lives are also in your hands, no matter how late you are or how important you feel. Whatever you do, make it your choice though, and don’t insist that other drivers cater to your impatience.

Consider that leisurely drive an opportunity to reflect on and truly appreciate, being alive, and helping keep others alive, too.
My family and I thank you.

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