For many of us, our commute to work is filled with frustrated feelings and stressed-out thoughts.
“We have a tendency to focus on what’s threatening. We can naturally think about things that are stressful and go over them,” said Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City.
Sometimes, this is helpful. You’re reviewing potential solutions and brainstorming productive ideas. Other times, it just makes us more stressed, he said.
So how can meditating help?
For instance, on your way to work, you might be mentally composing your to-do list, already overwhelmed. You might be annoyed that the train is crowded and hot. As always. You might be hyper-focused on the traffic, and before you know it, honking your horn. Repeatedly.
You might be fuming because the person in front of you is deliberately driving slow, you just know it. You might be freaking out because your bus is running late.
If you live in a big city or far away from your job, that’s anywhere from one to four hours of unpleasantness or downright misery each day.
But your commute doesn’t have to be drudgery. There are many ways to make it less stressful and more enjoyable. Meditating is one.
Meditation helps us train our minds. “We can establish new patterns of thinking that allow us to have a more relaxed existence,” said Kaplan, also author of the book Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence and Purpose in the Middle of It All.
He shared these four tips for meditating on your commute.
1. Embody an important value.
For many people, a key personal value is kindness. But it tends to go out the window when you’re behind the wheel, Kaplan said. Still you can consciously practice kindness.
For instance, you might decide you won’t honk. You might let others get in front of you. You might “look at other cars around you and extend them well wishes or blessings.” If you’re a religious or spiritual person, you might say, “May God be with you.”
If you’re riding transportation, you might wish people a good day, a good laugh or even a raise, he said.
This practice helps you reduce anxiety and cultivate appreciation and connection. Instead of viewing the people around you as a hindrance, Kaplan said, you realize that you’re in this together. You’re in the same space, and in this very moment, you’re heading in a similar direction.
2. Send compassion.
Another way to connect with others is to breathe in their suffering and breathe out compassion, love and kindness, Kaplan said. For instance, seeing a homeless person can trigger a variety of reactions. You might become hardened, have a critical thought or feel sorry for them, he said.
“This can create a distance between us and another person. Personally, I like meditations that help to break down some of these barriers and recognize our mutual connections with each other.”
3. Tune into your physical sensations.
You can “notice the vibrations in your feet as the bus or subway is moving along,” Kaplan said. If you’re standing up, you can notice all the muscle activity in your thighs, knees and ankles, which helps you maintain balance, he said.
If your attention wanders, simply notice that your mind has drifted, and bring it back to the sensations of your body.
4. Notice your own impatience.
When you’re waiting for the bus or subway, how long does it take before you’re looking down the street or train tracks? How long does it take for your impatience and frustration to rise and bubble over?
Instead, while you wait, “feel your breath going in and out of your body,” or focus on one thing (“concentration meditation”), Kaplan said.
When he’s waiting, Kaplan likes to gently shift his weight from side to side, as though he’s almost rocking. He also periodically notices his mind saying, “Where’s the bus?” When this happens, he simply brings his attention back.
If you’re meditating in a public place, don’t forget to be vigilant about your safety, Kaplan said. He suggested meditating with your eyes open and gaze down. You can listen to music, or just wear your headphones, he said.
Kaplan also suggested recognizing that your commute is an important part of your life. It’s not just wasted time between two destinations, he said. “It takes a certain amount of time to get from one place to another, and we can’t control that. Once we can accept that, we can think about how we want to use that time.”
Kaplan recommended these additional resources:
- Sylvia Boorstein’s CD, “Road Sage,” which is meant to be listened to while driving.
- Guided meditations from Sharon Salzberg, Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.