April 05, 2011

Awake at the Wheel

Last week, several Tricycle staffers traveled to Carmel, New York to visit the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi at Chuang Yen Monastery. Sam Mowe describes it here and provides some visual aids. (The monastery was pretty mind-blowing.) But he left out the driving part. Carmel is a bit off the beaten path and it's easiest to get there with a car. I drove. I don't remember why but it was a bit like musical chairs: We were at the car rental place and everyone piled into the car and I was left outside and the only empty seat was the driver's. So exercising the millennia-old "driver's privilege" of controlling the radio, for the ride back I decided to pop in Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving with Michele McDonald, which we've had in the office for a little while, but, since we live in New York City, we haven't had much chance to put into practice. (Mindful subway-riding? Mindfully being swung around the back of a taxi? There is a section of the program known as the Taxi Driver Exercise.) Listen to an audio sample of Mindful Driving here.

Michele may be best known to Tricycle readers as the author of the article, "Finding Patience: How to survive a traffic jam—on the road, or in the heart." It's a great article, and I can now report that she has a mellifluous radio voice as well. (You can read more about Michele at the Vipassana Hawai'i site, where she is a guiding teacher. I've been told Hawaii's traffic can be fierce!)

routeWe played Disc 1 (there's two in the set) and I followed the indications for marking distances and feeling the vibrations of my hands on the steering wheel for measured intervals. It is, as advertised, basic Vipassana meditation translated for the driver. Michele explains everything clearly and calmly. While some of my passengers reported sleepiness listening Michele's soothing voice, they weren't driving and I (luckily) as the driver did not, at all. It's incredible how lost in our daydreams we are while driving, while part of our brain is hyper-attuned to every small change in the road. Michele delves into this but (since our trip was a short one) I didn't hear it all. We discussed how driving can be an experience of intense present-ness, when your consciousness explands to overtake the entire body of the car, but that is just part of our brain, and the other is madly planning and remembring like always.

While I think the exercises on this CD set may be better suited to calmer drives than our cannonball-shot down the Hudson River into lower Manhattan (see our route at right—Evelyn Waugh once compared city driving to infantry advancing into machine-gun fire, clever man) I found the exercises useful as well as relaxing. I can recommend this to drivers with predictable, not-frantic commutes or long solo trips to take. If there is a section on other drivers veering madly into your path while honking frantically and shaking a fist in your direction, that would be well-suited for the kind of drives I usually do in the greater New York area. The idea of mindful driving is a very good one, considering the huge portion of so many lives spent behind the wheel, and anyone who is bored by  the drives they do daily  and looking to do a little mental muscle-building will be well served by it. You can pick up a copy of Awake at the Wheel at More Than Sound. It's available for download as well if you have iPod port in your car.

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