Learn to pay attention behind the wheel

I have been thinking about writing an article regarding mindful driving on our roads and highways for some time now.

Although, to be more topical and current, I should actually be writing about Afro-textured hair and its policing at our institutions, instead I am focusing on a topic which I am reminded about daily as I traverse the highways and byways of Cape Town.

Driving here has become a “hair-raising” (excuse the pun) experience and that for me, and I am sure for many, has become more of a priority issue than the frizzy curls on my head, which incidentally and thankfully, I have never allowed to be policed or controlled, directly by oppressive policies or indirectly through fashion trends.

My interest in thinking, talking and “doing something” about the issue of driving on the roads in Cape Town has been sparked by several incidents where I was nearly driven off the road by impatient and speeding drivers who seem to have very little thought for speed limits let alone fellow road users.

One such incident I recall vividly took place on the M3 at 10.30am.

Two speedsters aggressively sat on the tails of other vehicles, then sped past when they did not move out of the way quickly enough.

These two speedsters continued racing each other in the yellow lanes on either side of the road next to me. This was frightening and I switched to the slow lane, watching (and admittedly cursing) them, thankful that they passed me but praying that they don’t cause an accident upfront. I thought to myself, how dare they put others people’s lives at risk. Travelling vehicles do not drive themselves, they are filled with people including pregnant women, sick people, children and families.

When we speed and drive recklessly and mindlessly, we are not only being careless about our own lives, we are also saying I don’t care about anybody else on the road.

Motor vehicles, like guns, if not used with the caution they require, can become weapons of destruction. Just listening to daily traffic news on the radio, we are reminded of the carnage on our roads through reckless driving, much of which could have been prevented by more mindful driving.

Yes, we all run late sometimes, yes we all need to get to our destinations and on time. But is this really worth putting our and other people’s lives at risk? I too have had moments when I thought, Jinne, just get out of the way, I am gonna be late for my appointment!

But, more regularly, I remind myself that there is precious cargo in this vehicle, including myself and other VIPs that I carry in my car, people whose lives matter. I remind myself to be responsible – including to depart early – to choose to be calm, cautious and mindful while driving so that I do not risk anybody’s life and arrive safely.

This made me think about what I could share with regards to mindful driving. I need to emphasise though never to meditate or listen to meditation recordings while driving, as this is a complex mental task and requires your full attention.

These suggestions for mindful driving are worth pondering on the next time you hit the road:

* Switch off the radio and experience the silence. It might seem at first as if something is missing, but you’ll quickly learn that the silence gives you an opportunity to fill your awareness with other perceptions, some of which are more enriching and could be life-saving. Not listening to the radio for periods can leave you feeling calmer, more focused, and more at ease than you otherwise would be.

* The extra attention that’s freed up because you’re not listening to the radio or other gadgets is now available to notice other things. You can notice any tensions in your body, such as a knot of tension in the belly, or your hands gripping the steering wheel, or a clenched jaw. Notice these experiences, and let your body relax more. Notice how your experience changes and becomes more enjoyable as your muscles let go.

* Slow down. As an experiment, try driving at or just below the speed limit. Most of us tend to want to push the speed limit, driving just a little faster than allowed. Driving just a fraction under the speed limit can take away a lot of tension. Move into the slower lane if necessary.

* Notice your attitudes. Often we become competitive while driving, and this leads to tension. Make a practice of noticing cars trying to enter the road, and adjust your speed so that you can let them in/out if it’s safe to do so. Notice if you’re in a hurry. How does this make you feel? How does it feel if you let the pace slacken a little?

* Practice being more aware of the other traffic around you. Sometimes we become very focused just on what’s in front of us, but it can be very fulfilling (and much safer) to develop an all-round awareness, using our mirrors as well as what we can see in front on us.

* As drivers pass you, wish them well. Repeat in your mind, “May you be well, May you be happy” as cars cut you off. This may seem silly but it helps reduce aggressive feelings.

* Use every necessary stop to practice a fuller mindfulness of your body. When you’ve stopped, it’s safe to let your awareness more fully connect with your breathing.

At those moments you can also notice what’s around you — the sky, trees and other people. Wish those other people well. This will also help you feel connected to others and nature.

* If there are other people in the car with you, wish you and them well. As you drive, a part of your mind can be repeating “May I/you be well, may I/you be happy”.

* As you get into your car, before you switch on the engine, and before you get out of the car, after you’ve switched off the engine, just sit for a moment and take three deep breaths, really letting go on the out breath.

* If you don’t drive, but take public transport instead, then wish your fellow travellers well, radiating loving kindness towards them. Again, this reduces a sense of alienation from others.

* When you get into the car, turn off your cellphone, or at least silence it. And by “silence” I mean turn off the vibrate function as well. No call or text message is worth either dying or killing someone for.

* This column appears every two weeks. Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist.

Email helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.