May 12th, 2015

tree_face

Never be Mindful on the Motorway!

I didn't take driving lessons until I was in my first job and could afford them - which was in my mid-20s. I passed my test then, but didn't have the use of a car until I was in my thirties. So I came to driving, and particularly motorway driving, rather late.

At first I didn't enjoy the experience much. I was painfully aware that I was travelling along in a flimsy metal box at a speed that would make any injury very dangerous, and quite possibly fatal, to myself and others. That thought didn't make for relaxation, and being tense isn't what you want when you're driving: in fact it created a vicious feedback loop of tension and fear. My touchstone experience of this came about 15 years ago, when I was returning from Wales back across the Severn bridge in the rain, and found myself in the middle lane just behind two spray-squirting Tesco lorries either side of me. There were three small children in the back of the car, and I was terrified because one small movement of my arm to right or left might mean the end for all of us.

The problem abated as the years went on, and I grew to tolerate motorways, though at night or in the rain they still gave me problems. I found that distracting the top level of my mind (which likes to dwell on unpleasant contingencies) with music or the radio helped a lot. In automatic pilot I was a safer driver.

Just in the last six months, though, I seem to have become more prone to these panicky motorway moments again. It happened the other day, as I was overtaking a lorry on the M4.

"What should I do?" I asked myself panickedly.

"You need to relax," I replied. "Why not try mindfulness?"

"Oh, er, okay. You know I don't have a very good history with mindfulness, though, don't you?"

"I know, I know."

"You remember how it seemed to be telling me to 'Suck it up, one moment at a time!' as a cure for unhappiness rather than encouraging me to do anything to change my situation?"

"I was there, and I suspect you judged it hastily. Anyway, it's worth a shot, right?"

So I tried to be "in the moment": "I am travelling along in a flimsy metal box at around 75mph right now! Right this fucking minute! Jesus Christ!!"

Somehow I managed to get through that, but it convinced me again that there's a time and a place for mindfulness, and the place is probably not my head. On the contrary, I think it helps (me at least) to be relatively out of the moment when driving, because the reality is too ghastly to contemplate.