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Illustration by Brittany England

When you hear the word “mindfulness,” you might think of a serious meditator sitting on their cushion or a yogi twisted in a complicated posture.

The reality is that mindfulness can be found anywhere.

In fact, it’s most powerful when it’s integrated into mundane activities, like washing dishes, folding clothes, grocery shopping, or caring for loved ones.

If mindfulness is only reserved for the meditation seat or the yoga mat, it doesn’t become a part of our lived experience. When we evoke it in ordinary activities, mindfulness can enrich our lives and the lives of others.

That’s where mindful commuting comes in.

For many, the image of a commuter sitting in traffic or flying down the freeway might represent the opposite of mindfulness. But a central tenet of true mindfulness training is to be present wherever you are.

Every moment is an opportunity to wake up to the present, no matter how unglamorous or profane it may appear to be.

With more and more people returning to work, you might find yourself giving up late wake up times and leisurely mornings to return to a long commute.

Whether your trek to work involves a plane, train, or automobile, the practices below will help you find stillness on the go.

Loving-kindness, or metta practice, involves evoking a felt sense of compassion and empathy for yourself and others.

Stepping onto a crowded train car or sitting in rush hour traffic can be an unpleasant experience for most. It can lead to feelings of impatience, agitation, and even dislike for fellow commuters.

While it may seem counterintuitive, this is the perfect opportunity for loving-kindness practice.

Rather than being cause for embarrassment, guilt, or shame, feelings of irritation or resistance offer an opportunity to reflect and gain perspective. They can serve as a reminder that:

  • you’re human
  • now is the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness

Let negative feelings be a gateway to evoking a sense of loving-kindness for all of humanity, especially those in your immediate environment.

Benefits

According to a 2015 study, 38 individuals who participated in loving-kindness meditation showed reductions in self-criticism and depressive symptoms and increases in self-compassion and positive emotions. These improvements lasted 3 months after the study concluded.

A 2018 study indicated that both mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation may be effective in treating a wide range of clinical conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How to do it

The process below is just one of the many ways to practice loving-kindness.

Step 1: Accept without judgment

First, remind yourself that the feelings you’re experiencing are natural. They aren’t good or bad. They just are.

Compassion for others begins with compassion for yourself.

Step 2: Remember, we’re all human

Next, connect to a felt sense of shared humanity with those around you. This isn’t always easy to do, and it’s OK if it feels a little contrived.

When this comes up, think of the word “sonder.” It was coined by writer John Koenig in his creative project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and it was adopted by the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness… in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

Remembering the word “sonder,” and the shared humanity it expresses, can help to stir feelings of relatedness, camaraderie, and empathy for others.

Imagine that each and every person stuffed inside the train car or zooming by in their vehicle has a life of their own, a family at home, and a story to tell.

Let it work in you to open up a new sense of compassion and acceptance for yourself and the world.

Step 3: Connect with your breath

Finally, connect the practice with the breath.

In his book, “Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness,” Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa offers an in-depth description of a beautiful practice called “tonglen.”

In tonglen, the practitioner imagines breathing in the pain, suffering, and discomfort of others. On the exhale, the practitioner imagines sending out relief.

This simple yet powerful practice combines feelings of compassion and loving-kindness with a focus on the breath, giving the mind a resting point to return to over and over.

Whenever the mind wanders, return to the intention of inhaling pain, transforming it with the alchemy of the breath, and exhaling relief.

This practice can include your own pain, as well as that of others.

Watch a tonglen meditation guided by American Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on YouTube.

When your car is inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic or you’re packed in like sardines on public transportation, you may feel a rising sense of impatience. Often, this impatience can be felt collectively by everyone involved.

One way to ease the rising tension is to focus on accepting the situation. As uncomfortable and intolerable as it may feel, it won’t last forever. In the meantime, the feelings of discomfort that arise are an opportunity to be with what is.

Acceptance and surrender are major components of mindfulness practice, but they aren’t always easy. Remember to give yourself some grace.

Benefits

A 2017 study in healthy young adults indicated that acceptance practice may facilitate emotional regulation and prevent the mind from wandering.

In another 2017 study involving relaxation, attention, and acceptance exercises, the acceptance exercise was the most effective in preventing worry and negative intrusive thoughts.

A 2019 study showed that an adaptive strategy of acceptance may aid in cortisol recovery, or faster recovery from stress.

How to do it

Step 1: Focus on bodily sensations

Ask yourself questions, like “Do I feel hot and tight?” and “Am I finding it difficult to sit or stand still?”

Step 2: Experience the feelings

Gently allow yourself to experience these feelings without pushing them away. Let them be as they are.

Can you reorient the feeling of resistance to a feeling of tolerance? Can that feeling of tolerance dissolve even further into a feeling of acceptance?

Step 3: Reorient your thoughts

Can you reorient even further and begin to feel a sense of gratitude for those uncomfortable feelings? After all, they were the trigger that reminded you of the opportunity for mindfulness.

Let the fact that you remembered to practice at all be enough. The ultimate goal isn’t to feel differently, but to be with whatever it is you’re feeling — without pushing it away or grasping for something better.

Another way to bring mindfulness into your commute is to focus on your sensations. One way to do this is by practicing body scan meditation.

Benefits

In a 2019 study, participants were randomly assigned body scan meditation, spiritual-minimalist music, or a control activity. Those who participated in body scan meditation experienced greater increases in happiness, a feeling of being in harmony, and unified consciousness, or a sense of connection to something greater than the self.

A 2017 study found that 8 weeks of body scan meditation resulted in improved interoceptive processes, or the ability to detect sensations arising within the body.

How to do it

Driving a car? Feel your hands against the cool leather or the soft cloth of the steering wheel. Feel your back against the seat and the seat against your bottom.

Riding the bus? Feel your fingertips against the cold metal of the handrail.

Ask yourself:

  1. Can I feel even more deeply and sense the texture of the terrain I’m driving on?
  2. Can I sense the hum of the engine or the weight of the vehicle beneath me?
  3. Can I feel the sheer velocity as I hurtle down the highway or lumber down a side street?

Let the sensations that arise bring you more into the present moment.

The environment you find yourself in, even the environment inside your car or a train, can be another opportunity to engage more mindfully with the moment.

Benefits

Simply expanding your awareness in this way can help you settle more into the present moment, becoming aware of where you are in space and in relationship to the world.

Awareness of your surroundings is one way to connect to your environment and your relationship to it. You can do this by tracking, a somatic experiencing technique that can be adapted for transit.

While there isn’t much research on this specific technique, it’s aim is to help you feel more grounded and connected to where you are in space.

How to do it

Instead of letting the mind wander, bring it back to the moment-to-moment reality of the surrounding scenery.

  1. Take a few breaths to relax.
  2. Begin to take in the details of your environment that aren’t immediately obvious, noticing what you see in your peripheral vision.
  3. Have a gentle awareness of what comes up.
  4. Repeat until you feel calm and ready to stop.

Make sure you don’t take your eyes off the road if you’re driving while practicing environmental awareness. You can simply open up to the details in your periphery without compromising your attention to road safety.

Commute time may be your one chance to listen to a can’t-miss podcast or rock out to your favorite music. While it may be tempting to fill the space, give yourself a little chunk of time to appreciate the silence.

Benefits

A 2021 review noted that silence has a connection with stillness and the absence of concepts, mental noise, thoughts, and disturbance. The review also noted it has as a connection with increased relaxation, improved mood states, altered perception of time, and an orientation toward the present moment.

Still, more research is needed to determine the benefits of silence on the individual and societal level.

How to do it

Start by setting aside 5 minutes for nothing but silence. Put your phone on airplane mode, turn off any music, and just listen.

  1. Hear the surrounding sounds, both close and far away.
  2. Listen to your thought stream with gentleness and detachment.
  3. Observe your breath. Can you hear the inhale and exhale?

This empty space can help calibrate the senses to be more deeply attuned to sensory input. It means that, when your 5 minutes are up, and you switch on your favorite song, your experience of it may be that much richer.

Allow this space to give rise to a deeper kind of listening.

When you’re commuting, you’re probably navigating a lot of things. You might be dealing with a bus timetable, rideshare alerts, or delayed trains. If things are feeling overwhelming, it’s perfectly alright to enlist help.

Guided meditations abound. And many offer practices of different lengths, so you can cater them to your commute. Try the options below to give yourself a leg up on mindfulness when there’s a lot going on.

Mindfulness is a journey, not a destination. Remember to be patient with yourself as you embark on the process of slowing down and tuning into the present moment.

While mindfulness offers many benefits, it’s not known to be easy. The more you let go of attachment to your performance and results, the more you’ll be on your way to true acceptance and equanimity.

If you find that your practice brings up difficult emotions or past traumas, be sure to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

Stay safe

Mindfulness is meant to help you feel calm and relaxed. For some, this may result in sleepiness.

If your practice is affecting your alertness while driving or navigating transit, stop immediately. Put on some high energy music or a podcast instead.

Mindfulness practice is just that: a practice.

By gently incorporating mindfulness into your commute, you may find yourself calmer, more present, and ready to take on the traffic that life throws your way.


Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.