How to Practice Mindfulness in Austin Traffic
I had just pulled out of the Cove, stopped at one stop sign and proceeded to my place in line behind the string of cars waiting to get onto 38th Street. It was something that I do on a daily basis and usually without incident, but this time would be different because the second I pulled out another car almost half a block away began honking. Were they honking at me? Surely not, why would they be? I was behind a long line of cars but I was safely out of the intersection. And as someone who spent several years living in New York I know all about “blocking the box” and I know better than to be the guy who gets stuck in an intersection and keeps other people from moving. Yet the honking continued. I leaned over to look out my passenger window and sure enough this person was honking at me. The weather was beautiful that day so we both had our windows down and when the gentleman saw my puzzled look he began explaining to me why he was honking. Except the only words I could pick out were not the kind of words that one uses in polite company and they were delivered with such hysterical rage that when he finally drove off I was just as confused as I had been before.
As I sat there waiting my turn in traffic I realized that I was not just puzzled over this encounter, I was shaken up. I was actually having a physiological reaction; my heart was racing and my adrenaline was pumping. It was not so much what he had said to me that I was reacting to, but the energy that was behind it all. It was an energy that was simultaneously violent and powerless. Thankfully, it is not an energy that we encounter every day and I would like to say that I began to compassionately wonder what had brought him to such a crossroads in his life where the only reaction to a perceived offense was this red-faced tirade.
What I did and what I should have done
Compassionate reflection is what I should have done. What I did instead was come up with all of the ways I could have told the guy off or attempted to embarrass him in front of all the other commuters who were looking on in dismay. And while that type of thought exercise does satisfy some part of the ego, I knew this type of reaction would only have reinforced his anger and made him feel justified because I chose to meet his hostility with my own.
I spent the rest of the drive home and every commute since then thinking about what I can do in Austin’s ever-increasing traffic to not only resist meeting hostility with hostility but to actually become an agent of change on the highway. How can I make my commuter car a vehicle for peace?
How can you make your commuter car a vehicle for peace?
It’s easy for me to look back on this situation and point out all the ways that this guy was wrong or a jerk or a raging lunatic. We can do that reflexively without even thinking, but when we do that we are just meeting hostility with hostility. I know that there are over 100 people moving into Austin every day and I would love to know that I am doing everything in my power to make our increasingly congested roads better, safer and more peaceful. But how can I, as just one person, do that?
“Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.” -Eckhart Tolle
First, I think it is vital to understand that where there is anger or, in this case, road rage, there is pain underneath. I can’t imagine the level of inner frustration or powerlessness or desperation it would take for me to get as worked up over traffic as the man I encountered. It is also important to add that none of that excuses his deplorable behavior. But what I am interested in is being an agent of change and to do that I have to focus on what I cando, and not on what other people should do.
What can we do?
I have put a lot of thought and energy into this topic and for this reason I have put together this email series on Practicing Mindfulness in Austin Traffic. I have found a number of very practical things that I have started doing as I traverse the Austin landscape and I would like to share these with you.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Traffic
One of the best bits of advice I have found comes from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When you drive around the city and come to a red light or a stop sign, you can just sit back and make use of these twenty or thirty seconds to relax-to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy arriving in the present moment.”
This is a great way for us to remember that even when we have not yet made it to our final destination we can still enjoy arriving in the present moment.
We Austinites are in uncharted territory as we navigate our changing roads and the changing Austin landscape so I hope you will sign up to join me in this free series on how we can respond mindfully and responsibly to Austin traffic.