05 May My Mindful Challenge? Harnessing Anger Behind the Wheel
I’ve been involved in mindfulness practices in some form or another for over 25 years. I dabbled in meditation related to my karate classes during high school, began studying yoga early in college, started teaching yoga in my mid-20s, and embarked on a study of Chinese martial arts in my late 20s which included tai chi, qigong and various forms of martial arts-related meditations. I discovered the writings of world renowned mindfulness advocate Thich Nhat Hanh in my early 30s, and since then—for the last 15 years or so—I’ve applied his mindfulness teachings to just about anything you care to name: walking, cycling, housecleaning, yard work, interpersonal relationships, workplace dynamics, raising my daughter, and my addiction recovery. There’s one area in my life, however, where I just can’t seem to be mindful. In fact, in this one sliver of my life, I’m a lower-self dominated Neanderthal jerk.
The time and place I’m 100 percent mindfully challenged? When I’m driving my car.
Addiction, Anger and Traffic
I’ve been working my addiction recovery program for over 20 years. Like many people in recovery, I developed my addictions as a direct result of childhood trauma. Along with that trauma came a lot of anger. Anger is something that almost everyone going through addiction recovery has to deal with. In the years that I’ve been facing my anger and doing battle with my personal demons, I’ve learned a lot of extremely effective coping strategies, and honestly, I feel like I’ve done a good job processing the residual anger from my childhood. I’ve worked the steps, identified the people with whom I’m angry, forgiven them when possible, talked it out with those with whom it was possible, and made amends when it did no harm. I’ve come a long way, and made a lot of progress—I’m definitely not the same guy who walked into that first AA meeting 23 years ago. The anger that arose from my childhood experiences no longer dominates my life, and no longer has an unconscious hold on me.
But when I get behind the wheel of my car and start driving, suddenly I have anger to spare. I have enough for 10 men. Where does it come from? I don’t know. Why is it there? I don’t know. All I know is that when someone cuts me off in traffic, I start to curse. I’m a cyclist, but when I’m driving and a cyclist gets in my way, I’m all driver. I think to myself, “What is this guy on the bike thinking? Sheesh. Cyclists think they own the road.” When I’m on my way (late) to a meeting and a stoplight turns red as I approach it, suddenly I’m angry—at an inanimate object. This is the irony of ironies, because when I’m on my way to a meeting, my mind is supposed to be on my program and the techniques that have been so effective in helping me process my emotions.
Mindfulness and Driving
Where does all my mindfulness training fit in with all this? Where’s my yogic balance, my meditative calm? And where’s my understanding of the yin/yang of the universe so hard earned through all my work in Chinese martial arts? Furthermore, how can I teach yoga and meditation, preach about equilibrium and equanimity, and even write articles on mindfulness, when I get behind the wheel of my car and become a modern-day Mr. Hyde?
The answer is simple: despite all my years of training, I still have work to do. I have to get back to basics, and make sure my fundamentals are sound. Just like my journey through addiction recovery, my work is never done. It’s always valuable to go back through the steps and check in. Where mindfulness and driving are concerned, my review work is to look at each little frustration, each time someone changes lanes in front of me without using their blinker, every person trying to make up their mind whether to turn left or right, every stoplight, stop sign, and every minor delay as a gift that allows me to practice a mindful approach to living. Each setback is a new chance to learn to deal with my anger in a positive and productive way. Each little roadblock is an opportunity to practice patience, balance, compassion and understanding.
And believe me, considering the way people drive in my city, with all these opportunities I’m presented with every single day, driving in traffic just might lead me to enlightenment.