It is not always necessary to meditate in a room free of distractions. In fact, meditating on the go, or what María González, mindfulness leadership coach and author of The 9 ways to self-awareness, transform yourself and inspire otherscalled “mindfulness in action,” may be a more effective way to combat the commute that many of us loathe.
Nearly 50% of people living in the nation’s largest cities report hating their commute, and about 40% of workers in one survey said they would rather clean toilets than travel to their office before the pandemic . If your commute is about 30 minutes (average commute in the US in 2019 was 27.6 minutes), you spend about 10 days a year commuting to the office, then why not? less terrible?
Gonzalez, who has been teaching mindfulness since 2002, sees meditation as a way to calm the mind even during times of transportation. Beyond training your mind to be present when distractions are near, meditating on the go can help improve your focus for the day, and you don’t need to close your eyes to engage.
“We are geared towards multitasking, and there is no way to be a competent multitasker. There’s just no way,” he says, explaining that working on this practice while traveling is a perfect way to improve our mindfulness later on. Experts tout meditation as a way to improve focus, reduce stress, and improve mood. So, I thought I’d try mindfulness in action on the way to work.
My commute starts with a five-minute walk to the subway, followed by a 20-minute ride to my stop, then another 12-minute walk. As you can imagine, New York City subway rides are never the same on any given day, and a myriad of factors can add to irritability, whether it’s a delayed train, a crowded car, or a thunderstorm just when I leave the station. (which has happened three times this week).
Set an intention and observe your surroundings
Wherever you are traveling to or from, Gonzalez says do so with the intention that you want to work on mind training. Watch your feet on the pedals or the steering wheel, if you’re driving, or in my case, your feet on the floor of the subway car. If he does sit down, he feels his back against the chair. Think about the sounds, smells, and sights you see. Let your brain simply take note of these observations and pass them through to your awareness.
For drivers, González says mindfulness is the safest way to drive, being more aware of your surroundings.
On the subway this week, I kept my eyes wide open in front of me, noticing the bright yellow raincoat of a young woman sitting across from me and the puppy-print lunchbox hanging to my left next to her father. Most people seemed preoccupied with their Airpods, which made me wonder what everyone was listening to: was it a daily news podcast or an animated playlist?
Going into this practice without judgment can help produce calming thoughts, says Gonzales. If the train car is crowded or the sound of someone’s headphones is blaring next to you, think of a mantra, even something like, “It’s just the sight and the sound, I’m not judging you,” says Gonzalez. I’ve found that it also helps to look around you with the best of intentions, knowing that everyone on your route has a complex story that led them to cross paths with you that day. Feeling empathy for the people around you and gratitude for taking the train (instead of the 1.5-hour walk Gonzalez found my commute to work would be without it) puts things in a new perspective.
I’ve found that I’m usually preoccupied with my own thoughts about the day’s work, catching up on texts for my family, or mindlessly scrolling through my phone to get curious about the sounds around me.
”You have a very broad vision, and that is what happens when you are present. Your view becomes quite wide,” says González.
put down your phone and breathe
For my roughly 35-minute drive, notifications can wait, Gonzalez says. Do your best to keep your phone in your bag during the trip and focus on your breathing. We subconsciously grab our phones even when there isn’t an urgent email to respond to, Gonzales explains, and once we get used to it, we lose focus.
“If you look at it once, you’ll look at it twice,” he says, and if you’re driving to work, you should never take out your phone. Gonzalez doesn’t even turn on the radio or a podcast while he drives and uses the ride to focus on her breathing and what’s in front of her.
With my phone tucked away in my bag, I decided to plant my feet and focus on breathing. I usually follow the 4-7-8 technique, where I inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, and exhale for eight. I noticed that my heart rate, which was higher than normal coming out of a workout, getting ready fast, and taking the subway, was finally slowing down.
Don’t be hard on yourself if your mind wanders
One of the most important things to keep in mind is not to give up just because your mind is worrying. Counting how many times you give up is counterproductive, leading you to feel frustrated about the practice. In previous meditations I have tried, it has been helpful to think of wandering thoughts as a passing train: let the thoughts come and let them pass without wishing them to go away.
“You’re training yourself to constantly return to that awareness, and it’s a very gentle thing,” Gonzalez says. “If we encourage ourselves, we are more likely to succeed.”
Once you can try this as a form of mindfulness, the introduction of soothing music, even a podcast that sparks joy, can work in conjunction with mindfulness and breathing practices as preferred. Gonzalez, who works with a host of leaders developing practices to bolster focus and productivity, believes that the simple ways we can train our minds on the way to a busy day are imperative for our brain health and Body. If you work from home, consider trying mindfulness on the go when you’re out for a walk or on your way to run an errand.
Ironically, doing less and thinking more narrowly during an allotted time can help fine-tune the brain to focus on what really matters throughout the day. I found it helpful to try to breathe, notice and be grateful for where I was rather than starting the cycle of worry that usually defines my mornings, triggered by what’s on the screen. I’m used to getting involved in countless things at once because that’s what feels normal, so it doesn’t feel intuitive, and even a little awkward, to do what feels like nothing. It will never work perfectly, and I’m sure some days will be easier than others, but trying is what matters, Gonzalez says.
“We can’t be anywhere else. We are right here, right now,” she says. “If we are present and aware, life is exciting… it extends to other things because you carry that attitude with you no matter where you go.”