Mindfulness means being fully present and aware of the present moment, and when learning to drive, mindfulness is especially critical. Driving requires your full attention if you want to operate your vehicle safely. Letting your mind wander while behind the wheel can lead to dangerous errors.
The Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen spoke about the importance of mindfulness in his teachings. He wrote, "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things." To practice true mindfulness as we drive is to let go of our small self lost in thought, and fully engage with the driving experience.
When we drive apathetically, we are trapped in our heads. Our focus narrows, and we lose sight of the full scope of the road around us. With mindfulness, we open our awareness to take in everything happening inside and outside the car. We become equipped to respond and adapt to changing conditions smoothly and skillfully.
The commentary driving method is a practical approach to cultivating mindfulness behind the wheel. As you drive, calmly narrate out loud what you see, what you're doing, what hazards there may be, and what actions you plan to take. You engage your brain fully with the driving experience by putting your observations into words. Commenting helps stop your mind from wandering into distracting thoughts about the past or future. It keeps you anchored in the here and now.
Some useful mindfulness techniques that a student may use while driving are as follows: verbalizing actions aloud to an instructor. For example, "I'm checking my rearview mirror and over my shoulder to change lanes now. I'm using my signal. I see there is room to move over. I'm gently accelerating to merge into the lane." This trains the student to intuit the step-by-step process of operating the vehicle.
A driver can also practice breathwork at stop lights. When you come to a red light, take a few deep breaths. Observe how you are feeling emotionally and physically in that moment. Notice any anxiety or excitement. Feel the way your hands are gripping the wheel and relax them. This brief mindfulness exercise will help you keep equilibrium as you continue driving.
Practicing mindfulness takes effort, especially when you're first learning to drive. However, the benefits are immense. Mindfulness makes you a more alert, responsive driver. You will have faster reaction times to hazards and make better decisions. Your passengers will feel more relaxed and safer, and you will feel more confident in your abilities.
As Dogen would say, when we drop our ego and open our awareness to experience, we allow ourselves to be "actualized by myriad things." Each time we drive mindfully, we actualize our potential to be safer, more skillful drivers. Mindfulness is the key not just to becoming a good driver but to living a more awakened life.