Distracted Driving (written 2016)

03/11/2016 09:18

Not everyone agrees with the details of the distracted driving law, but if we examine our own behavior behind the wheel we have to admit that given the power of the machine we're operating and its potential for damage, it's a good idea to pay attention. For me, as a long-time mindfulness/meditation practitioner, it's also a great metaphor for life.


Most of us live too much of the time on a kind of autopilot. Sometimes a mistake that is especially silly or painful reminds us to slow down and pay attention, but once we've navigated beyond that problem, we fall readily into our old patterns of habit again. It's human. And often it's efficient. But it's dangerous when we trust to this process completely. It's sort of like having a running chainsaw in one hand while you try to comb your hair. We can be lethal to ourselves and others.


One of the Buddha's central instructions is to look at your own experience, to test out his teachings for yourself. What happens when you don't pay attention? What happens when you don't check in with body, mind and feelings throughout your day? When you act, speak, choose from pure reactive impulse?


When you tune into your body and realize you are feeling queasy after a conversation, what replays itself in your mind? Did you unintentionally hurt someone with a tone of impatience? Did you agree to something you don't feel comfortable about now? Are you worried about the consequences of what you said? Are you wondering if you understood correctly what someone might have meant? These kinds of mistakes often happen because we don't see the window that opens between thought and speech. We let ourselves be tugged by our moods and the conditions of the moment. We speak and then we think. And as we all know it's much more difficult to undo the tangle after the fact than to avoid it in the first place.


Who hasn't hurt themselves in embarrassing ways because they were guilty of distracted driving in this body, never mind an automobile. Closing a gate on your own fingers. Forgetting to step up at a doorway ledge. Reaching into an oven without an oven mitt. Over-pouring into a glass or cup because someone called or the phone rang during the process. And annoying inconveniences are even more commonly the result of such inattention. Lost keys, misplaced glasses, the milk left on the counter to spoil as you rush out the door after breakfast. I've even heard happy-ending but scary tales of kids forgotten at the babysitter's; or handbags, groceries or even baby seats left on the trunk of a car in a parking lot as the car pulls away; candles left burning that might have caused a fire.


These are the neon lights that remind us we're inattentive. The visible embarrassments or physical injuries, the churning belly or headache or bout of insomnia. But these are equivalent to the fender benders and accidents distracted drivers may be involved in. What about the near-misses we aren't aware of. In the car, this may be because someone else swerved in time or there was no one else on the road. In our lives, inattention may leave a trail of mistakes we are unaware of that negatively influence our relationships, our work, our health and our happiness.


Laws are often made, rightly or wrongly, to protect us from ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of our energies may go into seeing how we can circumvent them rather than seeing the benefit. But this is only a metaphor here. We're dangerous to ourselves and others in so many ways when we are unmindful. It would seem common sense that we should pay attention. Yet, this takes effort. New habits can only be formed with practice. The benefits are reaped over time. It starts with noticing whether the way you're operating now is effective. Only you know the answer to that. Check in and check it out.