Meditation doesn’t always have to take place in a room free of distractions. Indeed, meditating on the go, or what Maria Gonzalez, a mindfulness leadership coach and author, is The 9 paths to self-knowledge, self-transformation and inspiring othersCalling it “mindfulness in action” might be a more effective way to combat the commute to work that so many of us loathe.
Almost 50% of people living in the country’s largest cities say they hate their commute, and about 40% of workers said in a survey that they would rather clean toilets than go to their pre-pandemic office to travel. If your commute takes about 30 minutes (the average US commute in 2019 was 27.6 minutes), you spend about 10 days a year commuting to the office, so why not fewer awful?
Gonzalez, who has been teaching mindfulness since 2002, sees meditation as a way to still the mind even during times of transportation. Aside from training the mind to be present when distractions are around, meditating during your commute can help improve focus for the day and you don’t have to close your eyes to participate.
“We’re built to multitask, and there’s no way to be a proficient multitasker. There’s just no way,” she says, explaining that working on this exercise during the commute is a perfect way to improve our attention later. Experts tout meditation as a way to improve focus, reduce stress, and improve mood. So I thought I’d try mindfulness in action on my commute.
My commute starts with a five minute walk to the subway, followed by a 20 minute ride to my station, then I walk another 12 minutes. As you can imagine, every day of the New York City subway commute is never the same, and myriad factors can increase irritability, whether it’s a train delay, a crowded car, or a thunderstorm hitting just when I do coming out of the train station (which has happened three times this week).
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Set an intention and observe your surroundings
Wherever you commute, Gonzalez says you should go in with the intention that you want to work on exercising the mind. Notice your feet on the pedals or the steering wheel if you happen to be driving, or in my case your feet on the floor of the subway car. When you can sit down, feel your back against the chair. Think of the sounds, smells and sights you see. Just let your brain take note of these observations and let them pass through your consciousness.
For drivers, Gonzalez says mindfulness is the safest way to drive because you’re the most aware of your surroundings.
As I rode the subway this week, I kept my eyes peeled in front of me to notice a young woman’s bright yellow raincoat sitting across from me and a puppy-print lunchbox dangling to my left by its parent. Most people seemed preoccupied with their Airpods, leading me to wonder what everyone was hearing: Was it a daily news podcast or a pump-up playlist?
Entering this practice in a non-judgmental way can help create calming thoughts, says Gonzales. If the train car is crowded or someone’s headphones are blaring right next to you, think a mantra — even something like, “It’s just sight and sound, I’m not judging it,” says Gonzalez. I’ve noticed that it also helps to view the area with the best of intentions, knowing that everyone on your route has a complex history that led to them crossing paths with you that day. Feeling empathy for others around you and having gratitude for even being able to ride the train (instead of the 1.5-hour walk Gonzalez found out my commute would be without it) puts things in a new perspective.
I found how I’m usually preoccupied with my own thoughts about the day’s work, catching up on messages to my family, or mindlessly scrolling around on my phone to ever be genuinely curious about the sounds around me.
”You have a very wide view, and that happens when you are present. Your gaze gets pretty wide,” says Gonzalez.
Put down your phone and take a deep breath
For my roughly 35-minute commute, Gonzalez says the notifications can wait. Do your best to keep your phone in your pocket during your commute and focus on your breath. We subconsciously pick up our phones even when there’s no urgent email to reply to, Gonzales explains, and once we get used to it, we lose focus.
“If you watch it once, you’ll watch it twice,” she says, and when you’re driving to work, the phone should never be pulled out. Gonzalez doesn’t even turn on the radio or a podcast while driving, using the drive to focus on her breathing and what lies ahead.
With my phone tucked in my pocket, I decided to put my feet up and focus on breathing. I usually stick to the 4-7-8 technique, where I breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds. I noticed that my heart rate, which was higher than normal from coming in after exercise, getting ready quickly, and going to the subway, was finally slowing down.
Don’t be hard on yourself when your mind wanders
One of the most important things to keep in mind is not to give up just because your mind is busy. Counting how many times you freak out is counterproductive, causing you to feel frustrated with the exercise. In previous meditations I’ve tried, it’s been helpful to imagine wandering thoughts like a train going by: let the thoughts come and pass without wishing them away.
“You train yourself to constantly return to that awareness, and it’s a very gentle thing,” says Gonzalez. “When we encourage ourselves, we are more likely to succeed.”
Once you’re able to try this as a form of mindfulness, introducing calming music, even a joy-inducing podcast, can work alongside observational and breathing exercises, depending on your preferences. Gonzalez, who works with a variety of executives to develop practices to increase focus and productivity, sees the simple ways we can train our minds toward a busy day as essential to the health of our brains and bodies . If you’re working from home, try mindfulness on the go when you’re out for a walk or on an errand.
Ironically, doing less and thinking more narrowly for a period of time can help prime the brain to focus on what’s really important during the day. I’ve found it helpful to try to breathe, notice, and feel gratitude for where I was, rather than starting the cycle of worry that usually rules my mornings, triggered by what’s on screen. I’m used to doing tons of things at once because it feels normal, so it feels counterintuitive — and even a little uncomfortable — to do something that feels like nothing. It’s never going to work perfectly, and I’m sure some days will be easier than others, but it’s the trying that counts, says Gonzalez.
“We can’t be anywhere else. We’re right here, right now,” she says. “When we’re present and aware, life is exciting…it spills over into other things because you carry that attitude with you wherever you go.”