Traffic. Who likes it? Growing up in Smalltown, Arkansas, I never really experienced traffic until I was stationed at El Toro, California, which is south of Los Angeles. I remember thinking that thea person must be truly, and deeply nuts to drive on the freeways there in the best of conditions. And I saw people driving in a way to make it the worst of conditions. It seemed that nobody had a shred of concern for human life as they darted in and out of the smallest of spaces. If regular automobile drivers were nuts, my opinion of the motorcyclists who opted to travel on these freeways was that they had already came to a sense of peace with their impending doom, that they were traveling Buddhas without any attachment to their lives. Either that or they were the very definition of insane.
A few years later I lived in Houston, Texas and another knot of traffic jams. Now I was a civilian and had to move from one location to another on a regular basis, from school to work to home to shopping, all using the city freeways. Such frustration was never an issue in when I was a Marine, lived and worked on base. Now I was in daily competition with other drivers to get to the next opening, the faster lane, ahead of that slow-moving truck, hitting the red-lights just right, and so on. Now my fellow drivers were not nuts, we were all competitors. Once, while trying to merge onto the freeway, a little old lady in a large Buick, closed the gap and would not let me in. I was suddenly faced with the choice of slamming on my brakes, causing the dozen cars behind me to pancake me, drive over the railing and off the overpass, or nudge her out of the lane. I quickly chose the nudging. For my troubles I got tire marks down on my left side of the car and her flipping me the bird. To me these paled in comparison to hospital bills and vehicle costs from the alternatives. When my girlfriend told me that her friends and her would all pile up in a car, grab a cooler of coca-cola, put some tunes on, and jump into traffic… for kicks, I looked at her with another deeply felt sense that this person was utterly, and completely insane. Why would anyone subject themselves to this rat race intentionally? Also, they were adding to the congestion, making it worse for those of us stuck in the morass.
A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. -Lao-Tzu
A few years later and I have moved to Eugene, Oregon. My car is on its deathbed and so I give it away to charity and become one of the bicyclists everywhere. I’ve been narrowly missed by cars, I’ve purposefully laid the bike down onto the ground to avoid getting smashed by a careless driver, and I’ve been hit by a car that turned into my bike lane. I developed an acute sense of defensive driving, so much so that when I rode in a friend’s car, I couldn’t help but check around me when ze turned the vehicle. I was constantly looking for the next car to come out of nowhere. Some days did suck, when it was stormy or cold and rainy, but most days it was a pure joy to ride the bike. I remember riding up Skinner Butte and passing a minivan. The driver had the windows rolled up and was mindlessly driving along the road. I, on the other hand, was exposed to the wonderful scents of Summer in the Willamette Valley, the sounds of my beloved city (Eugene is still my favorite), the feeling of the breeze. I remember looking at the driver with a feeling of pity that they were losing part of their life by not being present.
Flash forward a couple of years and I am driving an 11,000 lb up-armored Humvee. I’ve deployed with A Co, 2-162 Infantry to Baghdad, Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. I was the driver, there was another E5 in the TC seat, we had a soldier manning the .50 cal machine gun in the turret, and sometimes 1 or 2 soldiers in the backseat. My defensive tendencies now switched to an entirely offensive tendency. We operated with the “3 P’s”… that is be polite, professional, and prepared to kill. Instead of fearing the hit, I was looking to hit. This doesn’t seem to make sense because in this environment, more so than Eugene, OR, I was constantly under threat of being attacked. Roadside bombs with IED’s, ambushes, carbombs, erratic civilian drivers, were always a threat. And yet we knew that one of the safest protections for us, more than the armored vehicles, was our posture. We constantly displayed a posture of vigilance, of a readiness to fight. The thinking was that the enemy would rather attack someone that appeared sluggish, mindless, hesitant or afraid of fighting, than they would someone that appeared on ready and eager to fight.
When I left Iraq I moved to Portland, Oregon and fell into another routine of school, work, home commutes. This time I had the feelings of competition that I learned in Houston, with the feelings of defense I learned in Eugene, with the now stronger feelings of offense in my driving. Offensive driving was more than mere competition, it carried a greater urgency and a moral imperative to it, and coupled it with the fight/flight response. I could not drive 2 miles on the highway without completely losing my cool. I would routinely slam my fists into my passenger seat, curse the people around me, and anger filled my heart. Twice I have gotten out of my truck on a busy street and started to move toward the vehicle in front of me with the purpose of beating the person within it. I lived 10 minutes from work and even in such a short drive I would arrive to work in the foulest of moods and it would take me hours to get out of this mood, if I could do it at all. I began therapy and for two years I worked to regain control of my emotions. I did not like the person I was. I was not who I used to be. I went through a lot of brake pads and rotors on my truck due to aggressive driving styles.
A couple of years later I got a job that required a lot of travel. I had a company Prius and the entire state to cover. I was constantly on the road. Soon into the job I thought I would die of a heart attack. Every day on the road was another increase to my stress. Even though I was no longer in therapy, I was still using the tools and skills I learned. I was still making progress. I learned about some signs that I was going to lose my cool. The first ones was that I was cursing and slamming my fist on the dash. Before this I was clueless and if asked I would’ve said that the anger came over me all of the sudden. This is not true, in reality I was constantly angry. It was just that I was not aware of it until I was hitting things. My next tell was that I was not satisfied with the music on my iPod while driving. I learned that if I skipped 20 songs to find one that felt right, then I was on edge and needed to use some calming tools. But I kept at it, trying to learn an earlier sign. I soon noticed that I would begin to tense my thighs up, in preparation for gas/brake use. I don’t have a tell earlier than this one yet.
For the past 15 years I’ve read a lot of Yoga magazines. I am constantly buying one. I have some DVDs, a mat, and several books. I’ve attempted some of the asanas at home, but I’ve only been through one class out in the world, something that I want to change, though I’m spending a lot of money on CrossFit currently. I’ve started meditating 3 years ago and have become more and more regular in it, mostly every day. I am not a yogi, but I am constantly working on myself.
As I understand one approach to asanas is that they are difficult poses to hold. While in one I am unsteady, shaking, breathing erratically, mind is moving from calf to stomach to this to that. And yet, if I can sit in this pose, without rushing it, allowing myself to be in it without judgment, and focus on my breath, I gain self awareness that is wider than whatever part of my body is struggling at the moment. This, over time, lends a calm serenity to life. I understood this with asanas… but what really hit home was that traffic was the same thing. By being present with myself in traffic, without judgment of myself or others, by focusing on my breath, I could gain greater awareness, and then acceptance, of my situation.
I finished my degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, and readily applied all that I learned into my own life. One school of thought that stuck well was that of Stoicism. I began to read Marcus Aurelius as well as contemporary writers influenced by the Stoics. These writings matched well with what I learned in Positive Psychology, my own therapy, working as a group co-facilitator in a domestic violence batterers intervention program, experiences in the military, and practical knowledge as an infantry instructor. I am convinced that much good could be accomplished if our public schools taught mandatory courses in Stoicism. A thought that took shape was the Stoic idea that difficulty in life was a good thing if one viewed it as an opportunity to develop virtue. Virtue is not something that a person is born with, it isn’t something that is learned from a book or in a class. It is learned only by application of one’s reason in one’s daily activities. Each situation that upsets us is an opportunity to deepen our soul, to broaden our perspective, to actively engage our selves to the end of becoming virtuous. With this in mind, I saw traffic as an opportunity to develop patience and kindness.
It was not easy at first. I failed every day. Yet there were moments when I made progress. I started to string those moments together. Then they became lengthier periods, then days. Now the norm for me is to be a better person while I am driving. It was this year, 9 years after returning home from deployment, that I noticed a new behavior, and when I did so I was filled with joy. I’ll explain… in Iraq if a vehicle came towards our patrol it was my job to stop it. This first meant deploying weapons, but if it were too close, too fast, it meant ramming it with my own vehicle. You see, it is better that my vehicle, which was the rear vehicle in the patrol, to be destroyed by a car-bomb than the possibility that it get past me and near the center of the patrol, possibly taking out my Patrol Leader. Sacrifice is a part of the job. For 9 years after, whenever an oncoming car would cross the center-line and into my lane, my immediate reflexive reaction was to point my car toward it, regardless if it is a small car or a bus. This is, needless to say, a very dumb thing to do. Now, years later, a car crossed into my lane and my reflex was to avoid it.
I have my days, when I am tired, poor diet, stress, boredom, or whatever, when I slip into past habits, and find myself gassing the car forward simply because the person that came up behind me is driving faster (competition) or weaving in and out of traffic (aggressive). When I catch myself I will use a variety of things to gain center again. Breathing, music, purposefully driving the exact speed limit (everyone else is driving faster), critically examining my assumptions about the other drivers, and more.
Fifteen months ago I put my truck in the shop for the weekend and the loaner car the dealership gave me was a convertible Mustang. I drove that car all weekend and fell in love with it. Though it was the winter time, I put the top down and was taken back to the days when I rode my bike around Eugene. Two days later I traded my truck for that car and never looked back. I’ve found myself sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the freeway swollen with cars at a standstill. I would look around and see the faces of people in their cars, faces twisted with frustration and angst. Then I would look up at the blue sky, feel the warmth of the sun, and smile. It was hard to be in a hurry when one was savoring an experience. Driving to work in the morning I will sometimes put on a chill music list, put the top down, leave with an extra 10 minutes, and enjoy the drive without hurry. Around me drivers are jockeying for position, trying to beat red-lights, or fit into a space with their vehicle. I’ll notice that a car, driving with anger and aggression, will reach a point across town at roughly the same time that I do, or perhaps 60 seconds faster. Is 60 seconds worth increased stress in my life? No.
I might not have been ready for my car five years ago. But doing the work, meditating regularly, viewing difficulties as opportunities to develop my best self, realizing that I am not the center of the universe and that others have their own interests also, has helped prepare me for this car. Now I can drive my car, enjoying the experience, being energized by it, instead of the other way around.