Could Mindfulness Cure Austin’s Mopacalypse Traffic Woes?

Mindful Driving

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

When I first moved to Austin over 15 years ago, I was struck by how much people complained about the traffic and the weather. And then I realized, because there wasn’t much else to complain about. Austin is good livin’. But coming from the Bay Area and commuting daily from the city to Silicon Valley, I scoffed at the cute little traffic woes that Austinites claimed. And then, just a couple of years later, I caught myself complaining about the traffic and the weather in the same sentence. I was home.

With recent construction on one of Austin’s main thoroughfares, Mopac or rather #slowpac or #mopacalypse as it seems to be termed in the twitterverse is challenging individuals with patience and companies with concerns over loss of productivity.

As a mindfulness and meditation coach, I appreciate when the lessons are so apparent you can’t help but welcome them. With traffic literally at a standstill for extended periods of times and signs to slow down at every mile marker, you would think we could take a hint. Perhaps we actually need to SLOW DOWN in our lives. And let’s face it, it’s not a choice.

Unfortunately for our Type A “doer driven” culture, this is not a welcome message. We have been trained into thinking the busier we are and the more we can multi-task the more productive we are – even when driving. The truth is, research shows that multi-tasking can reduce productivity by up to 40%. And driving is certainly not the place to be flexing our multi-tasking skills.

The good news- mindfulness can help with this.

The catch – mindfulness requires a willingness. For many drivers who are white knuckling their way through their commutes, a lack of willingness which can sometimes be masked as skepticism, may keep them from experiencing the many benefits that mindfulness can provide.

I personally was drawn to mindfulness as a stressed out entrepreneur on the verge of burnout. After attending a mindfulness meditation training, I discovered a set of tools that allowed me to cultivate a practice that fit my lifestyle. And I experienced some immediate results; sleeping better, feeling more calm, and even less reactive in my daily commute. But my real appreciation came 9 months into my daily practice when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I’ll spare you the details of that journey. But in many ways, it was like being stuck in standstill traffic (for 18 months), with nothing left to do but surrender to the moment at hand. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t honk my way to make my surgical wounds heal quicker. I couldn’t yell at the chemo to hurry and get it done. And I certainly couldn’t give dirty looks to my many friends and family surrounding me who in many ways were in this journey just as much as I was.

So what is this mindfulness thing and how can we all benefit?

Well, it doesn’t require a catastrophic event (although for many this Mopac situation could be considered that). Mindfulness is really about bringing our awareness into the present moment. Through practice, we ultimately are able to see what’s going on in our head without getting carried away by it. Where we are able to experience a space between impulse and action.

This can be as simple as taking deep breaths. When we breathe in and out of our nose, we access the parasympathetic nervous system which automatically calms and relaxes. Another effective tool for bringing us into the present moment that can be practiced as we drive is smiling. Smiling releases endorphins that reduce stress and help us feel better. Even faking a smile can lead to feeling happier. I mean imagine a Mopac full of smiling drivers. Ok, maybe not, but you get the idea.

This mindfulness thing may not be suitable for all drivers caught in a traffic standstill, but it can’t hurt to try it (and no one needs to know). All I ask fellow Austinites is to give it a try. Because the fact remains, there are simply things we can’t control but we will ALWAYS get to our destination. It may just not always be in the way we expect. But wouldn’t it be nice if where getting to where we need to go can be accompanied with less reactivity, more focus, and more connectedness to ourselves and others? Well we all have the ultimate invitation to do exactly that with Mopac as the ultimate mindfulness classroom.

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