Any discussion of Real Happiness at Work for me would be remiss without a mention of TRAFFIC. When I remarried five years ago, I relocated to my partner’s home across town, which puts me squarely in the jaws of the nation’s worst traffic as I trek each morning from Maryland into Washington DC and out the other side into Virginia. I joked with a fellow practitioner at the time that having survived a tough divorce, I was now going to take traffic as the object of my mindfulness practice, as the tough things in life are the juicy ones to work with.
Little did I know the truth of this at the time. As I began my new life commuting 3+ hours a day to and from work, my initial thought was, “I am going to die.” But it is interesting what happens to those things you say in the presence of sanghamembers or a teacher, because the words I had thrown out there jokingly returned to me as I sat in traffic, and I decided to bring my mindfulness training to the part of the day I liked the least. Could something as miserable as commuting be transformed by bringing intentional awareness to it? Everyday life, in all its mundane details, is where the rubber hits the road (so to speak) as far as mindfulness practice goes.
While the travails of job or freelance work or child raising are hopefully counterbalanced by some sense of purposefulness in the value of our work, few of us in urban areas set out in the morning imagining our commute will bring us satisfaction. I do know a few enlightened souls who walk or bike to work and find it a highlight of the day… but even they deal with ice storms, thoughtless drivers and the occasional stolen bike seat. For those who battle the rush hour crowds, the subway, or traffic, the commute can be pure agony, as we wish we were anywhere else but right here, right now.
In a way this makes traffic a great metaphor. There is some destination I am always trying to get to, and I can’t seem to get there fast enough. I am stuck! And everything is out of my control! Thousands of other people who seem slightly less than human have suddenly poured out of their homes at the very the same moment just to get in my way. “They are the traffic, of course, not me!” Sharon Salzburg hilariously quipped in a talk I heard, describing that experience of exasperation we feel, caught up in the “me program,” as we rush into our busy day. Aren’t we always racing through our lives leaning to the future like this? Studying hard to get through school so that we can get into another school, and then another… all so we can get a good job someday. But then we can’t wait to get promoted. And then just get to retirement so we can do the things we really want to do. One of my teachers, Ethan Nichtern, describes this as a “commuter lifestyle,” which becomes a sort of mad race to our deaths, if we take it to its logical conclusion.
Mindfulness is the antidote. It brings us back to the present moment. It is the act of placing our attention on a particular object or experience. Those objects and experiences are always in the present. We can place our attention on our breath, on the people around us at that moment, on the world we perceive, even on the experience of traffic. Why not?
When I began to try to bring mindfulness to the experience of my commute, I hit a lot of internal resistance at first. I wanted to stay in the cozy movie theater of my wandering thoughts or in radioland. But then something amazing began to happen as I kept gently bringing my attention back to the drive, turning off the radio and taking an interest in my surroundings, at the same time that I felt a sense of hopelessness at the situation I was in.
Turning attention to my breath as I hit traffic jams, I began to bring my attention to the moment and label the feelings that came up. A commute is a great opportunity to just watch the flickering of your emotions – sleepy, angry, distracted, grateful. I find it helpful to label them, and it almost becomes a game. And noticing the emotions, I become just a little less identified with them and also less reactive. This turned out to be a really interesting opportunity to become familiar with the workings of my mind.
This also happened, which changed my life: I realized that the time I was trapped in the car was the most remarkable chance to talk with my two children, who were growing up way too fast. Try and pin a 13-year old boy down for an hour’s conversation with his mother… it’s nearly impossible. But we were stuck for hours a day in a small space, and the conversation began to just flow as we sat side by side, but without the direct eye contact that teenagers find confrontational and so full of anxious parental expectation. That time became the most surprisingly precious time with my boys as they slowly opened up about their days and shared their world with me. We laughed a lot. I can’t even remember why. As they grew older and began studying really interesting things, I began to learn crazy amounts of stuff from them during that time. Our discussions ranged from the micro-biome to the Heart of Darkness to octopuses to Buddhism to the hilarious language teenagers invent, always returning to some talk of human nature. By the time we got home, we had connected, and we could set to our evening busy-ness without feeling like we were ignoring each other.
When my kids weren’t with me I began to sing along to music. I grew up singing with my parents and in a choir, and I’d forgotten how much I love it. There is an energy in the resonance of your own voice that is a kind of basic “yes” to life. I see why so many religious and spiritual traditions include song and chanting as part of their practice.
I also began to notice so many things I had been overlooking when I was lost in my thoughts. The world outside the window – sunrises, sunsets, the birds in flight, the river level, the light on the buildings, the flow of the seasons. The other commuters! Who are they? What whole lives did each of them have? As I read and fell in love with Sharon Salzburg’s bookLoving-Kindness, I began to do Loving-Kindness practice for them: “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you live at ease.” I realized that I am theirtraffic, and I’ve become a more thoughtful driver.
Sometimes, as I bring my attention to my breath as I drive, I just notice that I am alive. This noticing always comes with the startled realization that I’d been moving along in a dream-like state unaware of the miracle of just being here in this life. All of the day’s perceived difficulties pale in comparison to this realization.
Mindfulness is a remembering. But it is not a remembering of the past. It is remembering to come home to the present. Even when we in the heart of difficult times, or merely annoying times, stuck in traffic, eternally commuting to some imagined future, there is the possibility that we can wake up and find ourselves home in this very moment and this very life.