Everyone in my immediate family drives as if they’re in a contest. You win if you stay ahead of the traffic by exceeding the speed limit and passing others without drawing negative attention from law enforcement. It helps to be a middle-aged white woman in a nondescript car if you’re going to play—as evidenced by my single speeding ticket in over 30 years of driving. Everyone in my immediate family also swears, a lot, while driving as we continuously observe and evaluate the drivers around us. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to say that cruise control plays no role in our driving experience.
Each day I try to perform daily tasks like making the bed and brushing my teeth concentrating only on the task at hand and my immediate surroundings. My goal is to increase my tolerance for staying present to the moment. I decided to add driving to that list because it’s a frequent task and, given my family’s approach to driving, a challenge to both mindfulness and equanimity. On a recent solo trip from western Illinois to the Twin Cities I had four hundred miles to see if cruise control could help me on my path.
I was reluctant to use cruise control on the county road that takes me out of town and 50 miles north to the interstate. I thought slowing down for all of the small towns would be a hassle but in the spirit of giving it a try, I turned it on as soon as I cleared the last stop light out of Galesburg. I gained a lot of practice at tapping the brakes to slow down as I entered each town and hitting the resume knob to get back to 60 mph on my way out. Once I made it to the interstate, I thought about turning it off because there was so much traffic—the condition that makes me feel the greatest need for control. With some trepidation, and in the spirit of trying and all, I used it for most of the 60 miles from Davenport to just west of Iowa City. I became increasingly comfortable passing when I needed to and learned that the car resumes the set speed when I take my foot off the gas. When I left the interstate to head north toward Cedar Falls, Rochester, and eventually the Twin Cities I stayed on cruise until I came to a giant construction zone just north of Cannon Falls that led directly to rush hour traffic south of St. Paul. Using good judgment, as my car’s manual suggests, I estimate that I was on cruise for about 300 miles of the 400 mile trip.
As I drove, and now reflecting on the experience, I ask myself two questions. First, what was my body doing? The primary thing I noticed was that my body was relaxed. Not couch potato relaxed but not dominated by tension. I didn’t have a death grip on the steering wheel and I didn’t get that weird cramp in my left hamstring that often happens on long drives.
Second, what was my mind doing? I am mostly aware of what it wasn’t doing. I wasn’t engaged in a continuous evaluation of myself and other drivers. Am I getting too close to the car in front of me, why won’t that guy get out of the left lane, should I pass this truck or wait for this car that’s bearing down on me to go first? I wasn’t constantly checking or adjusting my speed. I’d set it just over the limit (not encouraged by my car’s manual but I am my mother’s daughter). I knew I was going an appropriate speed, not unconsciously speeding up or slowing down when someone was trying to pass me. I was also strangely unperturbed when others passed me.
Jonathan Foust encourages the practice of non-judging awareness on the path toward equanimity. That was at the core of this experience. I would also say it was, for the most part, an experience of mindfulness. I was in a comfortable state of alertness. There was plenty to think about without overanalyzing myself and other drivers or drifting off to worry about the past or future. I was intensely aware of and engaged by my surroundings—the traffic around me and the beautiful rolling farmlands on either side of the road.