Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Driving as a Spiritual Discipline

I have become a wary driver. Since my recent accident I have become keenly aware of how fast and close cars travel. Sometimes all I can do with my fear is to pray while I drive. I pray for protection and use a mantra to try to relax. I repeat a name for God over and over as I watch drivers swerve between lanes at 80mph. I repeat a Sacred Word as large SUV’s zoom in to fill up my rearview mirror. As my mantra teaches me mindfulness, I try to be thankful for this moment in my life; this split-second filled with fear and a quick, defensive maneuver. Since my accident, driving has become an intense spiritual discipline, providing me opportunities to practice patience, forbearance, and trust.

Before my accident I was like many on urban roads today: arrogant and strong-willed. I didn’t admit this to myself at the time. I ignored the fact that once in the car, I was a changed woman. I loved driving fast. Speeding was a habit. I drove fast even if I was early to my destination. I drove fast because speed felt like power. If I was stranded behind some slow-poke (I had more colorful terms then) I took control of the situation. I got around my persecutor one way or another. To move slower than my wish was agony. I couldn’t tolerate delays from anyone. Still, because I often witnessed others who were even more reckless and addicted to speed, I saw myself as “just right;” somewhere between the overly fearful and the excessively aggressive driver. Slowing down, taking care, allowing others their space--these are my concerns now. I still get angry behind the wheel, but now my persecutor is my old self, the driver who impatiently follows too close, the impetuous one who roughly passes in the right lane.

In a world where humans manipulate stock markets and shred documents--simply because they can--slowing down is a radical, almost counter-intuitive act. Why go slower when you can get away with going faster? Speed is a habit that says, “Get out of my way, the world is mine.” Driving with restraint is a perfect spiritual discipline. I can learn to relish the present moment as I follow someone leisurely moving 20 miles below the speed limit. I can practice forgiveness with the man who cuts me off. I can practice trust when I seek to change lanes during rush hour. Still, a spiritual driver isn’t simply passive. She must retain a healthy degree of assertiveness to make it past the entrance ramp on many urban freeways.

I am a crusader now. I wave in my rearview mirror to the BMW traveling inches behind my bumper at 70mph. My sincere attempts to remove our separateness and anonymity often work. As the driver behind me backs away, I hope he isn’t grumbling, but now more aware of our shared humanity. We must remember that a unique soul is hidden within each metal box on the road.

I had one accident and was tremendously lucky--I lost a car but not my healthy body. I also lost my naiveté and unconsciousness. There are still drivers that are far too slow for me. I am not a Buddha behind the wheel yet. But now I am aware of how the unmitigated egotism of our society is mirrored in the way we drive. We do not want to believe that the unthinkable accident could happen to us. It can. We need to slow down in our lives. We need to relinquish control and make room for everyone. Let’s practice these skills on the road and learn them for our daily lives.

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