Don’t Just Enjoy Your Commute—Enlighten It!

By Radha Marcum
Senior Editor

I’m writing to you from the road—from a 900-plus-mile road trip, to be more precise. Kids and husband (driving) are captivated by the latest Rick Riordan audiobook, while I alternately type and look for patterns in the last tatters of high-country snow. Born and raised here in the West, I have always loved the feel of pavement sliding beneath the wheels. I’ll take this open road over our in-town commutes any day.

I’m not complaining. Most days I don’t spend more than thirty minutes in the car. In American cities with the longest commute times, the average is between twenty-five and forty minutes each way. I grew up in California, where living part-time in your car is a way of life. I didn’t go to neighborhood schools, and by the time I was twelve I had spent approximately two full months of my life on school buses, breathing a mix of diesel fumes and adolescent sweat. As an adult, as the parent of two kids under the driving age, I’m certain that I have spent years in the car.

Far from wasted time, commutes have become some of the best times of any day. What could add up to thousands of hours of boredom and irritation has become welcome sanctuary between one form of busyness and another. Here’s how I have enlightened my commutes.

Wish them well

For nine months of the year, our city’s streets here in the university town of Boulder, Colorado, are choked with students who drive as if they’ve just had a lobotomy followed by a Starbucks quadruple shot in the dark. Summer is—yes—“road work season.” The other day, thanks to massive ongoing construction, it took an hour and forty-five minutes to get to Denver, normally a thirty-minute jaunt. Add cranky kids in the back seat to this madness, and to say that it isn’t a challenge to preempt road rage would be dishonest.

The best remedy? I use these charged situations to practice metta, or lovingkindness practice from the Buddhist tradition. If it sounds exotic, it’s truly not. It’s as simple as wishing your fellow road warriors well. Traditionally, you start by wishing yourself peace and happiness, followed by wishing the same for a close friend or loved one. Next, you do the exercise for strangers; finally, for all sentient beings.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice lovingkindness. Someone cuts you off? Wish them well. (If they felt peace and happiness, they wouldn’t have felt the need to speed around and cut in front—right?) I don’t know about the other drivers, but you’ll certainly reach your destination feeling more uplifted and at ease. For a more in-depth look at the practice, I recommend Sharon Salzberg’s classic book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala, 1995).

Feed your brain

For rote drives, the ones that I do over and over and over, the ones where I start to recognize particular delivery trucks and license plates at certain times of day, I’m an audiobook and podcast addict. Mind over matter, they help me get through the drives that would otherwise flatten my mojo, like weekly carpools for third, fourth and fifth graders.

I keep my phone loaded with faves—all available completely free—such as podcasts from the Poetry Foundation, On Being (thoughtful interviews with leaders from every walk of life), and NPR’s Live in Concert series. Our public library also makes scores of audiobooks available—downloadable to my phone, via an app—so I get to “read” books that I would never otherwise have time for. Downloaded a dud? There’s none of the guilt of a purchase. I love a good think—but I also love the occasional mind bubble gum. Without audiobooks, I may never have understood the buzz around Eckhart Tolle or The Hunger Games.

Make it your meditation

The siren call of my cell phone’s bright red case is on the seat next to me; I will grab it at stoplights to check texts or e-mails. It’s a setup for irritation. As soon as I’m engaged with something—an e-mail about an author I’d like to interview or an important notice from the elementary school about head lice—I am yanked out of it by a green light. What’s more, I’ve missed the shape of lenticular clouds or the funny scene of a crow crossing at the crosswalk to get at a fresh squirrel kill.

These are the very real moments of our lives. Why let them go to waste? Open the window. Smell the air. Notice your fellow drivers. Connect with what’s in front of you. Find your own breath; feel the blood coursing through your hands on the wheel. There is nothing electronic that cannot wait. Put your phone where you can’t get to it—at least not easily.

Cancel your gym membership

Simply not getting in the car in the first place prevents all that potential stress and anxiety. OK, you may want to keep your membership for the pool, but getting there by bike is ideal if you’re within ten miles of wherever you’re headed. It builds baseline body strength, burns about 540 calories per hour, and is an instant mood booster. And it doesn’t always take more time: in fact, when I worked downtown, I’d often beat my car commute time by a full five minutes by bicycle.

You don’t need a fancy commuter bike. You certainly don’t need a lot of Lycra. If you’re worried about sweat, stash a washcloth and a change of clothes in your backpack or bag. In the open air, you’ll feel the freedom of two wheels—that bliss you felt before you ever got your driver’s license.