I’m driving and I see people flipping out around me all the time. Knuckles white, yelling at someone who can’t hear them, and banging on the wheel. I don’t get it. There’s nothing we can do, and this is beyond our control.
Yes, this traffic sucks. Yes, I’ve been going less than 10 miles per hour for over 10 miles. Yes, I’m going to be late. But somehow, it doesn’t bother me. I turn up my audiobook and delight that I have some extra time to listen to it today.
There are other times when I’m flipping out over something that’s beyond my control. Long lines at the market, for example, make me do a weird conga checkout dance from line to line, searching for the one with the fewest people, while I inwardly curse whomever scheduled so few checkers for this time of day.
The difference is that I learned to drive in LA where gridlocked traffic is as plentiful as sunshine. Miles of barely moving traffic were a daily occurrence, and I’d never known any other way.
When I got my first car at 16, it meant freedom. I could go anywhere, with anyone, anytime. I could get myself to and from school, the mall, and my boyfriend’s house. One of my favorite things to do was get in my car alone, put KROQ on the radio, and drive for hours up the winding, coastal Southern California highway. It cleared my mind, gave me perspective on whatever was whirling in my life, and allowed me to be free from all responsibilities. My time in the car was exactly that, my time. I could listen to whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and I was free.
With this attitude, any time in my car felt like a break from life. Even when I was stuck in traffic, I had the freedom of heading in the direction that I wanted to go, listening to my music, and being free from all the drama waiting for me back home.
I could be present.
Looking back now, this was one of the first consistent mindfulness practices I had. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know what mindfulness was, but on some level I knew that I needed it. So, I found a space to be mindful. And that space just happened to be on the freeways of LA, in mind-boggling gridlocked traffic.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to translate the Zen of Gridlock into other areas of my life. When I find myself in a similar situation, in the checkout line at the market, for example, I remind myself that this is just like LA traffic. It doesn’t matter which lane I’m in, I can’t make this go faster. So, here I am. I give up the idea that I can control this or do anything to make it go faster. Instead, I watch the mother and her son, playing peek-a-boo in the cart ahead of me. Or I watch the elderly couple, holding each other up for support, as they place their groceries on the conveyer belt. Sometimes, I plug in my headphones and listen to music, or grab a magazine and read an article. If it’s a good article and I haven’t finished by the time I get to the front of the line, I find myself wishing the line had been longer. Then I laugh at myself because 10 minutes earlier that long line had been the last thing I’d wanted to see.