According to the most recent census, the average American spends 26 minutes commuting each way to work. That’s 52 minutes a day, 260 minutes each week, 1,040 every month, and approximately 12,480 minutes—or 208 hours—spent getting to work each year. These are precious hours. How do you usually spend them? Listening to music or a podcast? Reading? Playing games on your phone? Answering emails? Planning the day ahead or replaying the day that passed? I know I have done all these things.
There is a saying written on the han, or wooden block, that is struck at the start of each meditation period at the Brooklyn Zen Center, where I practice. It reads, “Great is the matter of birth and death. Quickly passing, gone, gone. Awake! Awake! Don’t waste this life.” Those words jar me each time I read them. How much of my life am I wasting on my daily commute? How can I be more awake during this time?
Here are five practices that can help us do just that.
PRACTICE ONE: Walking Meditation
No matter what form of transit we use to get to work, most of us have to do some amount of walking as part of the process. The Buddha listed walking meditation up there with sitting, standing, and lying down as one of the four postures of meditation. If you are like me, you often spend those walking hours on your phone or going over your mental to-do list. Switching gears, you can use that time to practice. It can be a powerful way to ground you in the present moment.
Start by pocketing your phone and turning off alerts. Pause for a second and feel your body in space, standing firmly on the sidewalk or in the parking lot. Take a moment to shift your attention entirely to the soles of the feet and their connection with the ground. Take a breath. Then take a step, feeling your weight shift, and notice the moment when your other foot knows that it is time to come forward. Even if you need to walk at a brisk pace, try to pay attention to each step as you go. You can try to time your breath with the steps, or you can softly label each movement (lifting, placing, stepping, and so on). If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the next step. The Zen master Thich Naht Hanh suggests that we think of each step as kissing the ground, creating an intimacy with the earth.
This practice of being aware of our bodies’ movements can also work for those who commute by bike, wheelchair, scooter, Segway, or cross-country skis (and if that’s you, can I have your job?). Instead of each step, we can be aware of each rotation of our leg, each push of our hand against our wheels, each propulsion forward. It is all meditation in motion.
PRACTICE TWO: Body Scan and Breath Meditation
If you are feeling zonked at the end of a busy day or caught in a whirlwind of thoughts, a body scan is a powerful way to get out of your head and into your body. Once you’ve scanned, you can settle into your breath and feel anxiety fade away into calm.
Starting at the top of the head and moving downward, scan the entire body, softening any place that feels tense while bringing your attention to the bare sensations of the body. If you are holding a subway pole or squashed up next to other people (I see you, New Yorkers), notice the sensations, the smells (I know), the temperatures, and the materials as your body sways.
Once you have completed the scan, settle on the part of your body where you feel the breath most prominently. In Zen, we do this practice with our eyes gazing softly about 45 degrees from the ground, usually facing a wall. You could instead use the back of a seat on a commuter train or plane, or the subway floor.
As thoughts arise (and they always will!), simply bring your attention back to the breath. Don’t worry if a train conductor, automated announcements, or a noisy passenger distracts you. You can use the punctuated noises as a mindfulness bell, bringing you back to the moment. Or try the practice of listening.
PRACTICE THREE: Listening
It’s a noisy world out there. Cars honking, babies crying, trains screeching. Tibetan Buddhists (and many others) have been using sounds in their meditation practices for centuries through chanting and bell-playing designed to help the listener achieve deep states of healing, calm, focus, and clarity. While the sounds of your commute may be decidedly less melodic, the method of meditating with sounds, rather than trying to screen them out, could turn your trip into a refreshing sound bath.
After you’ve taken a few breaths and settled into your body, allow yourself to open entirely to the sounds around you. If it is safe to do so, close your eyes. Meet each sound with a sense of openness and curiosity. If you find yourself labeling the sounds (someone’s music, train announcer) don’t worry too much—just gently let each label go. If you find yourself tightening in response to sounds you don’t like, or chasing after sounds you do, gently let those preferences go as well.
If you’re driving to work and find yourself stuck in traffic, try listening to the sounds of idling cars, honking horns, passing sirens, and the ticking of your turn signal. Experience it with the same sense of openness, letting go of each label.
Pretty soon, the cacophony will sound more like the symphony of life swirling around you.
PRACTICE FOUR: Intention Setting
When we set intentions in meditations—particularly at the start of a day at work—we are not mentally rehearsing what we will do or planning a check-list of imagined accomplishments. The Buddha defined right intention (or right resolve) in the eightfold path as “being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness.”
So ask yourself whether you are harboring ill-will toward anyone (Marsha from HR) or anything (that dreaded meeting at 2 p.m.), and see if you can release those negative projections. Rather than assuming you will know how people will act, take a deep breath and open yourself to the possibility that today is a new day.
Ask yourself how you want to approach the day to maximize the amount of love, compassion, and light you bring to the world. If this were your barometer of success, how would you treat our coworkers? Staff? Customers? How would you care for yourself?
Don’t rush to answer these questions. Let them float through your consciousness as you breathe and relax. Allow the answers to come from a quieter, deeper place. Let any intentions that emerge simply rest in your heart as you embark on your day.
PRACTICE FIVE: Metta (Sending Love)
Metta, or lovingkindness, is the practice of cultivating compassion toward oneself and others. The four phrases extrapolated from the Metta Sutta are “may all beings be happy,” “may all beings be secure/safe,” “may all beings be at ease,” and “may all beings be peaceful.”
When you’re wedged into a stranger’s armpit on a cramped train or stuck in bumper-to-bumper-traffic, it’s easy to get lost in anger, born of a feeling of powerlessness and discomfort. Once, on a overcrowded subway ride home, I overheard a man slowly chanting the “F” word for about 25 minutes straight. I understood how he felt.
Practicing lovingkindness at these times can flip the script on rage. Start with yourself if you are feeling particularly agitated, taking deep breaths and sending wishes of happiness, safety, and ease to yourself. With each inhale, mentally say the words “may I feel” and with each exhale, say the quality (“ease,” “safety,” “happiness,” “peace”). On the exhale, let the quality wash over you, trying to fill your body with it.
Then begin to send these same qualities to other people on the train or in the cars next to you. If you are able, look at these commuters closely in the face. Take in their humanity and the fullness of who they are. After some time with this practice, your heart may crack open, revealing a patience and an appreciation you didn’t know was possible.
Our commutes can be reminders that, as spiritual teacher Ram Dass said, “ultimately, we are all just walking each other home.” After all, in the end, we are all heading to the same place. With some practice, we can turn our commutes into a treasured time to be with our bodies and minds, helping us to wake up and live life more deeply and authentically. Just don’t miss your stop.