Three years ago today I was stopped at a red light near Harvard Square on a sunny afternoon when it hit me. A Chrysler minivan, to be precise. A traveling salesman from Cleveland, oblivious to the stopped cars in front of him, was talking on his cell phone as he plowed right into my little Corolla. Today, I’m actually kind of grateful to him.
The rear-end collision left me with whiplash, and a frozen shoulder that lasted for months. While super painful at the time, the injury allowed me to take a much needed break from teaching yoga without having to tell my students that I was, in truth, burned out. It also took me on a healing journey that introduced me to my talented acupuncturist and my equally talented personal injury lawyer, a man who used the word “broads” more than once in conversation, but whose wily ways secured enough compensation to recoup my medical expenses, buy a few goodies, and grow my savings.
But the biggest impact of that collision is how it changed my own driving, because I used to be “one of those.” You know…a tailgater…sometimes.
I cringe to admit it. And it’s especially embarrassing to reveal that I occasionally did it on the way to teach yoga, yelling things like “Choose a lane, buddy!” or worse a mere fifteen minutes before presenting myself as Ms. Equanimity on the mat. I’m truly lucky that none of my victims ever stopped short, and I call them victims because I was an aggressor during those tense moments in the driver’s seat. Now I’m keenly aware of tailgaters behind me, feeling the anxiety that I must have caused others as the skin on the back of my neck begins to tighten and my blood starts to boil. I considered buying a nasty bumper sticker, but decided that tailgaters aren’t likely to heed them. It was fun to peruse the choices, however, like, “Back Off – I’m Not That Kind of Car,” and my favorite, “Are You Following Jesus this Closely?”
Today I always leave plenty of space between me and the vehicle in front of me, and I leave earlier for appointments so I don’t have to speed. But there’s no halo over my head yet because I still make and take cell phone calls while driving, and I often risk getting pulled over for DWG (Driving While Grooming) as I apply mascara or tweeze an errant hair behind the wheel while waiting for the light to change. Nonetheless, I am consciously trying to become a safer, saner driver. I’d like to imagine that others are doing the same, but what I see through my windshield (and in my rearview mirror) tells me otherwise.
The other day I had this thought: What if the state began to inspect not just cars, but drivers? What if, once a year, an inspector could ride beside us for 20 minutes and watch for things like good judgment, rule obedience, alertness, and, dare I say it, patience and courtesy? I wonder how many drivers would pass? Probably the same three people who slow down for yellow lights, make a complete stop at stop signs, and truly yield when entering highway traffic (and rotaries, folks!).
My bedroom sits above an intersection with a delayed green light. It’s also a popular cut-through route for commuters. This means that I’m often awakened by loud car stereos and even louder car singing. Occasionally I’m serenaded by a way cool baby blue Cadillac that plays classic jazz as it passes. (Thank you, my mystery driver.) But all too often, and many times when I’m praying, my ears are assaulted by the angry honking and verbal violence of livid morning drivers who feel that the person ahead of them is ruining their life (i.e. causing them to miss the green light). Some of the incidents border on road rage.
We’re all so impatient, over caffeinated, stressed out and wired for multitasking that it’s no wonder we’re crashing into each other. The other day I learned the name for this cultural malady: continuous partial attention. God forbid we just focus on driving as we drive. And whatever happened to silence? The other day as I was pumping gas, I heard voices coming from the...pump(?)...where a small TV screen was replaying the latest football highlights. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t need to be entertained while I fill up my car. And yet I myself am not immune to Monkey Mind syndrome. I still catch myself reaching for the cell phone a few minutes into a long drive because, well, I have the time to talk.
But there are those precious moments when I’m quiet and contemplative behind the wheel, letting my own thoughts entertain me and allowing for some space between those thoughts. I even pray and chant in the car sometimes, glancing at my dashboard altar where Buddah and friends remind me to calm down and find peace in the driver’s seat.
Like any good spiritual practice, it only works if I work it. And so I try, one mile at a time.
Buddah and company on my dashboard altar