Meditating doesn’t always need to take place in a room rid of distractions. In fact, meditating on the go, or what Maria Gonzalez, a mindfulness coach and author of Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, calls “mindfulness in action,” may be a more effective way to combat the work commute so many of us loathe.
Nearly 50% of those living in the nation’s biggest cities report hating their commutes, and about 40% of workers in one survey said they would rather clean toilets than travel to their pre-pandemic office. If your commute is roughly 30 minutes (the average commute in the U.S. in 2019 was 27.6 minutes), you spend the equivalent of 10 days a year commuting to the office, so why not make it less dreadful?
Gonzalez, who has been teaching mindfulness since 2002, looks at meditation as a way to calm the mind even during times of travel to and from the workplace. Beyond training the mind to be present when distractions are near, meditating while commuting can help improve focus for the day, and you don’t need to close your eyes to participate.
“We are geared towards multitasking, and there is no way of being a competent multitasker. There’s just no way,” she says, explaining that working on this practice during a commute is a perfect way to improve our attention later on. Experts tout meditation as a way to improve concentration, reduce stress, and bolster mood. So, I thought I’d give mindfulness in action a try on the way to work.
My commute starts with a five-minute walk to the subway followed by a 20-minute ride to my stop, then I walk another 12 minutes. As you can imagine, a subway commute in New York City is never the same on any given day, and a myriad of factors can increase irritability, whether it’s a train delay, an overcrowded car, or a thunderstorm hitting right when I emerge from the station (which has happened three times this week).
Set an intention and observe your surroundings
Wherever you may be commuting to or from, Gonzalez says to go into it with the intention that you want to work on training the mind. Notice your feet on the pedals or steering wheel, if you happen to be driving, or in my case, your feet on the ground of the subway car. If you get to sit down, feel your back against the seat. Think about the sounds, smells, and sights you see. Let your brain simply take note of these observations and pass through your awareness.
For drivers, Gonzalez says, mindfulness is the most safe way to drive, being most aware of your surroundings.
On the subway this week, I kept my eyes peeled in front of me, noticing the bright yellow raincoat of a young woman sitting across from me and a kid’s puppy printed lunch box dangling to my left next to his parent. Most people seemed preoccupied with their AirPods in, causing me to wonder what everyone was listening to: Was it a daily news podcast or a pump-up playlist?
Coming into this practice in a nonjudgmental manner can help produce calming thoughts, Gonzalez says. If the train car is overcrowded or someone’s headphones are blaring right next to you, think about a mantra—even something like, “It’s just sight and sound, I’m not judging it,” Gonzalez says. I’ve noticed it also helps to look at your surroundings with the best intentions, knowing everyone on your route has a complex story that led them to cross paths with you that day. Feeling empathy for others around you and gratitude to even get to take the train (instead of the 1.5 hour walk Gonzalez figured out my commute would be without it) sets things into a new perspective.
I noticed how I usually am too preoccupied by my own thoughts about the day’s work, catching up on texts to my family, or mindlessly scrolling around my phone to ever really feel curious about the sights and sounds around me.
”You’ve got a very wide view, and that’s what happens when you’re present. Your view becomes quite wide,” Gonzalez says.
Put your phone down and breathe
For my roughly 35-minute commute, the notifications can wait, Gonzalez says. Try your best to keep your phone in your bag during the commute and focus on your breath. We subconsciously grab our phones even when there isn’t an urgent email to respond to, Gonzalez explains, and once we get in the habit, we lose focus.
“If you look at it once, you’re gonna look at it twice,” she says, and if you’re driving to work, the phone should never be pulled out. Gonzalez never even turns on the radio or a podcast while driving and uses the ride to focus on her breathing and what’s in front of her.
With my phone tucked away in my bag, I decided to plant my feet and focus on breathing. I usually abide by the 4-7-8 technique, where I breathe in for four seconds, hold it for seven, and breathe out for eight. I noticed that my heart rate, which was higher than normal from coming out of a workout, getting ready fast, and hitting the subway, was finally slowing down.
Don’t be hard on yourself if your mind wanders
One of the most important things to keep in mind is not giving up just because your mind gets preoccupied. It’s counterproductive to count how many times you snap out of it, leading you to feel frustrated by the practice. In previous meditations I’ve tried, it’s been helpful to think of wandering thoughts as a train passing by: Let the thoughts come and let them pass through without wishing them away.
“You’re training yourself to constantly come back to that awareness, and it’s a very gentle thing,” Gonzalez says. “If we’re encouraging ourselves, we’re more likely to succeed.”
Once you’re able to try this as a form of mindfulness, introducing calming music, even a podcast that sparks joy, can work alongside observation and breathing practices depending on preferences. Gonzalez, who works with a host of leaders on developing practices to bolster focus and productivity, sees the simple ways we can train our mind on the way to a busy day as imperative to our brain and body’s health. If you work from home, consider trying mindfulness on the go when taking a walk or on the way to an errand.
Ironically, doing less and thinking more narrowly for an allotted time can help adjust the brain to focus on what really matters during the day. I found it helpful to try to breathe, notice, and feel gratitude about where I was rather than begin the cycle of worry that usually defines my mornings, triggered by what’s on the screen. I’m used to engaging in countless things at once because that’s what feels normal, so it doesn’t feel intuitive—and is even a bit uncomfortable—to do what feels like nothing. It will never work perfectly, and I’m sure some days will be easier than others, but it’s the trying that matters, Gonzalez says.
“We can’t be anywhere else. We’re right here, right now,” she says. “If we’re present and aware, life is exciting…It spills over to other things because you carry that attitude with you no matter where you go.”