Can Traffic Bring You Calm?

Can Traffic Bring You Calm?

Ah, traffic. Few things can ruin a good mood like traffic, and the Northern Virginia area has some of the worst of it in the country. My morning drive often includes Fairfax County Parkway, which can be a morass of stop-and-go traffic punctuated by red lights that seem to last eons.

Sitting in traffic, it is hard to not think of where you are “supposed” to be, how late you are running, and just how terrible it is to be right where you are at this very moment. It is so very hard to be mindful. And yet, each red light can serve as a reminder to be mindful. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s most beloved teachers of mindfulness, writes about finding a personal Bell of Mindfulness, which he defines as a stimulus that reminds us to come back to the present moment. Here’s a brief reminder of what mindfulness means: being aware, on purpose, of the present moment, without judgement (for more on the definition, check out my post on another mindfulness strategy here).

In meditation practices, bells such as singing bowls or small cymbals are often used to ground the mind in the present moment. But Thich Nhat Hanh pushes us to go further, finding stimuli from our daily lives to serve as a “bell.” When we encounter this bell, he suggests we take three present, mindful breaths to ground us in the here and now before moving on with our day.

What might this bell be? Some people choose to use the buzz of their phone as a bell of mindfulness, pausing for three breaths before picking up the phone. Or perhaps the “ding” of an email coming in at work might work for you. Or the pleasant chirp of a bird during a walk outside. But we can also push ourselves further, using something we find really annoying as a reminder to stay present! Perhaps the sound of your child whining? How about the dog barking? Or your own voice, yelling?

And here we arrive back at the red lights on my morning drive on Fairfax County Parkway. They are my bells. Instead of being mad at the person who cut me off and “made me” miss that green light, I can see the red light as a bell of mindfulness and take three present breaths. It’s like pushing the refresh button. With just a change of intention, a usually aversive stimuli can become a call to calm. When my son is with me, I try to bring him into it too. I might ask him what he sees out the window. Or to count how many colors he can see. The point is to shift my attention from the “I should be somewhere else right now” frustration mode to the “what is right here, right now” curiosity mode.

Mindfulness often helps me manage the stress and frustration of these long waits better, but I am certainly not perfect at this. There are many an extended red light when there’s nothing I want to do more than check my email for the 23rd time this morning. And sometimes that wins out. There are also days when I feel furious that I got cut off, mad at myself for not getting out of the front door earlier, or resentful of even the idea of paying attention to my breath. But I have noticed that since I started using red lights as a Bell of Mindfulness, I am more aware of my mood and my thoughts, even if I choose not to take those three present breaths. I’m more mindful just because I have been stopped by the red light.

What could you use as a Bell of Mindfulness? Could turning something you hate into a bell improve your mood? Make you more present? I challenge you to pick your own personal bell and try it for a week. I hope it will bring an extra moment of stillness to your day, and perhaps even a change of perspective!