What if Your Commute Could Be Good for You?

Driving could be more than just a way to get from A to B if you use the time mindfully. (Photo: mimagephotography/Shutterstock)

Have you ever had road rage? I have. My worst reactions usually occur when someone does something dangerous — cutting across multiple lanes of traffic while speeding or rolling through a stop sign. But sometimes even regular driving can be frustrating, yet many of us have to do it most workdays to get to our jobs. It seems like a necessary evil.

But what if you could not only avoid road rage, but even better — use your commuting time to create positive personal change? Curt Rosengren thinks you can. He's written a book, "The Drive to Inner Peace," which is about "reclaiming the time you already spend behind the wheel and using it as a rolling learning laboratory for developing greater peace and ease."

Rosengren didn't start out as a super-chill driver — he was just like the rest of us. "Like many people, getting behind the wheel could turn me from the good Dr. Jekyll into a monstrous Mr. Hyde. It was something I never liked about myself, but felt powerless to do anything about," says Rosengren.

One day, while out driving to meet a friend, his short trip turned long when he hit rush-hour traffic. He realized he'd be late, got stressed and felt trapped and angry at himself for not leaving earlier. That turned into getting upset with the other drivers — and even the stoplight. But instead of banging the steering wheel or cursing under his breath, he tried a different tack.

"As I sat there, I took a breath and imagined looking down on myself from up high. There was this guy who looked just like me, sitting in a metal box, surrounded by a whole bunch of other people sitting in metal boxes. He expected to be where he was going at a particular time, and because of the traffic he was going to get there quite a bit later than that.

"I thought, 'Those are the objective facts. Anything else is just a misery-making story I'm layering on top of it.' I found the frustration and anger start to subside as I focused my attention on the objective facts without that story," says Rosengren. He got where he was going and felt better than he would have if he had continued fuming. Later, he reflected on the experience, and realized he arrived to meet his friend in a much better state of mind than he would have otherwise, and decided he needed to do that more consciously in the future. "Over time, it became a habitual practice."

How to find peace behind the wheel

man driving in a car
Make your time in the car a time for awareness and letting go. (Photo: conrado/Shutterstock)

If this sounds like something you'd like to be able to do, but have no idea how, here's his advice.

"Approach it with the right mindset. Many of the practices I talk about in the ebook can help you feel less stressed in the moment, but the real power of this comes from ongoing practice and repetition. It's not just about flipping a switch and suddenly being your ideal self," says Rosengren.

There are four good starting points:

1. Intention: This one is simple. Make it a habit, after you've put on your seat belt but before you turn the key, to pause, take a slow, deep breath, and make an intention to use your time behind the wheel as an opportunity for growth. It's a simple way of starting with a reminder so you're more likely to remember.

2. Awareness: The first step in any personal growth practice is awareness. You can't change what you don't notice. Awareness is the portal to growth. So as a simple starting point, take a week and just pay attention to your experience. Where do you notice a constriction? When do you find yourself irritated, impatient or angry?

3. Letting go: Any time you notice one of those negative reactions — say traffic unexpectedly slows down and you find yourself caught in a surge of impatience — you can just take a slow, deep breath and let it go. As you breathe in, notice how that negative response feels. As you breathe out slowly, imagine letting it go. When I do this, I find it helpful to imagine the container I have been holding that negative response in dissolving, so there's nothing to make it stay put. It just flows away naturally. It can also be helpful to notice where you're holding that reactive tension in your body and relax that area as you breathe out.

Another way to play with letting go is asking, "What if it's OK?" That doesn't mean, "What if I approve of this" or "What if I'm happy about this." It simply means, "This is what's happening right now, whether I want it to be or not. What if I don't have to fight it?" We create a lot of misery for ourselves by the unspoken refrain, "This isn't OK."

4. Emotion surfing: Finally, time in traffic can be a great opportunity to practice surfing the ebb and flow of negative emotions without getting swept away by them.

In addiction recovery, there's a concept called urge surfing, where you simply allow the urge to be there and watch as it comes and inevitably goes. Emotion surfing is a similar idea. Let's say someone cuts you off and you feel a surge of anger. That anger isn't a single static block. There's a motion to it. It surges, and then it ebbs away. When you're emotion surfing, you can watch that process unfold.

Be an emotion connoisseur. What do you notice? How is it showing up in your body? Notice how it feels as that anger naturally subsides. You don't resist it, but you don't feed it either. It's a form of letting go, allowing it to run its natural course, rather than continuing to feed it with even more anger and righteous indignation.

Rosengren says he's found very real benefits to his drive-time mindfulness practice. "In a nutshell, it has helped me be much less reactive. I feel a lot more grounded and much less of a puppet on a string to my negative emotions," he says. Driving overall is now much less aggravating for him, and while he can still get annoyed here and there, he says he is now "much more at peace behind the wheel."