12 ways to make your morning commute Zen
More than three-quarters of American commuters drive to work solo, and their trips average 25.1 minutes each way, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a lot of alone time in a not-so-relaxing place. Traffic, fear of being late and harried fellow drivers can get the blood pressure soaring and take a toll on your mental health. Small or imagined slights can escalate to outright road rage -- or at least put the kibosh on your Zen factor. “We tend to become fairly insular inside our vehicles, developing a ‘me versus the world’ mentality,” says Joseph Rose, commuting columnist for the Oregonian and author of the blog Hard Drive. Common transgressions like tailgating or forgoing the turn signal may seem like an affront to your very existence. But with small changes to your car’s interior and your attitude, commuting can be much calmer.
Wash your car
Moss on the outside and cookie crumbs on the floor mats do not make for a Zen ride. Cruise through the car wash or get out the hose. Vacuum the floor mats. “Turning your car into a mobile storage unit can only put you on edge,” Rose says. In addition to daily removal of gas receipts and banana peels, Rose recommends dusting your dashboard and console every month. A clear view through your windshield improves both cleanliness and safety. While most drivers clean the outsides of their windshields, many neglect the inside, says Rose. Grime and dust collect there, too.
A visual reminder
You don’t have to turn your dashboard into a full-on shrine, but adding a visual reminder of your intention to be a calmer driver helps. If you follow a spiritual tradition, a small Buddha or saint may be a good choice of dashboard companion. Catholics can choose between several patron saints of driving, including Christopher and Elijah the prophet. If you’re not religious, pick something that has meaning to you, such as a shell or a rock you found while visiting a peaceful river. “A child's or spouse’s picture reminds you of the values you hold,” says Lisa Bahar, a licensed professional clinical counselor. For drivers prone to road rage, Bahar recommends keeping an affirmation about safety in the car and reading it before you turn the key. Beware dangling things from the rear view mirror. Obscuring your vision can make your car decidedly un-Zen in a heartbeat.
Set the mood with music
You don’t have to listen to whale sounds or classical music to find serenity in your vehicle. In fact, a London Metropolitan University study claimed that listening to classical music, with its crescendos and diminuendos, caused more erratic driving than hip-hop or heavy metal. The study recommended music with 60 to 80 beats per minute to jibe with your heartbeat. Rose doesn’t get that scientific about his commuting soundtrack. “Play music you like,” he says. He favors songs he can sing along to that remind him of fun times like camping trips with his kids.
Car mantras and breathing
In heavy traffic, bad weather, or other trying situations, shut off the music and do a car meditation. The modern world trains us to multitask, that is, be distracted from our primary task. The best car mantra is, “I am driving.” It sounds simple, but it sharpens your focus and reminds you to concentrate. Bahar suggests incorporating mindfulness skills into all areas of your life by taking a meditation or yoga class. Then when you’re sitting in gridlocked traffic and feel your blood pressure rising, you can draw on those skills. Conscious breathing helps. Try slowly counting to three while you inhale, then exhaling to a count of six. The exhalation is the part of the breath associated with relaxing, so this breathing pattern signals your body and mind to calm down.
Since most cars take a while to warm up, and early commutes may be downright icy, buy yourself a cushy steering wheel cover or warm driving gloves. You’ll be looking at the cover a lot, so get one you like rather than settling for whatever is in the bargain bin. Strive to keep your car’s interior temperature comfortable. Either too hot or too cold makes for a stressed-out, irritable driver.
Some 12-step programs use the acronym HALT, reminding members not to become too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Good advice for commuters, too. To ward off hunger-worsened road rage, pack some healthful snacks. Nuts, granola bars, apples and bananas are all good options. You never know when a traffic jam might cause unpleasant fluctuations in your blood sugar.
While reading and driving don’t mix, having a book in the car is still a good idea. If you’re carpooling to work and have to wait for a lagging co-worker to finish her hair, or you get stuck in a long drive-through coffee line, reading is better than obsessive thoughts about how the co-worker or barista is going to make you late. A daily meditation book or religious text could serve you well, or choose something funny to lighten your mood.
If you work in the average office, you’ve heard plenty about ergonomics. But how comfortable is your car? Take the time to experiment with your seat. Maybe you’re a hair too close to the pedals, or perhaps the head rest pushes your head forward. A small pillow behind your lumbar spine or an inflatable pillow behind your neck could offer relief. Deluxe commuters can install a massaging seat cover. Just remember, you want to be comfortable and relaxed, but only to a point.
Laws vary between states, but even if talking and texting are legal in yours, the term “distracted driver” is apt. According to studies conducted by the Governors Highway Safety Association, distractions such as phone use contribute to 15 percent to 25 percent of crashes. Predictably, texting is more hazardous than talking. If you want a Zen car, make no calls and silence your ringer. You can check your messages after you’ve switched off the ignition. If you’re carpooling and conditions get hairy, ask your passengers for a little quiet.