Or what driving can teach us about living mindfully and effectively.
The other day right after I got this tire size calculator after my last stop-on-request, my teen-age daughter asked me: “How do you drive a car?” It was an interesting question for me, because I have been driving so long that I don’t even think about it and was really unable to explain this complex, yet conditioned set of skills to her. Of course in a few years, she will have to learn and integrate those skills.
Yesterday, in the ATSTP group, we were discussing DBT and mindfulness. One of the guidelines for mindfulness according to DBT is part of the “how” skills: “One-Mindfully — Focus all your attention to every task you do. When you’re driving, drive. When you shower, shower. When you talk with someone, talk with them. Put everything you have into everything you do, one thing at a time.” One of our group members questioned the facility of leaving the past out of the current situation. He made two statements, one which is typical: “Didn’t someone say ‘those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it?’” The other was more interesting to me: “The resentment part makes sense, but ignoring the experience part is like telling someone ‘drive the car in the here and now, and not according to your experience.’” That lead me to responding this way (with some modifications for this blog)…
I am glad you used driving as an example of remembering the past. Driving is one of the most mindful activities we do as adults trying to reduce the odds. We are conditioned with the skills of driving and we do them automatically and mindfully on the road. Traffic is a process, not a thing unto itself. It is different each day, each moment in time. You don’t avoid an intersection because there was an accident there two weeks ago. You go and see (or check the traffic report first) and the conditions are bound to be different. The same people are not on the road, the same drivers, the same cars. It ever changes. You also don’t think about the skills when you drive. You’ve made those second nature. It is a very mindful activity.
It is also a very complex activity. When I learned to drive, I learned on a manual transmission (stick shift). At first it was difficult. When you first start driving, you haven’t made the skills and awareness of speed, distance and road conditions second nature. Yet, once you master the skills necessary to drive effectively, you don’t even think about the fact that both of your hands and both of your feet are working in synchronization for the common goal of getting you some place safely. That’s why first-time drivers are not very good (and can be dangerous) and elderly people can be bad drivers. Their bodies and minds are not working together in an agile, mindful way.
When you’re impaired – by drugs or alcohol – or distracted – by cell phones, conversations or tiredness – you shouldn’t drive. It impairs your mindfulness and the skills that you’ve learned and made part of yourself. The same can be said of interpersonal relationships. If you’re impaired by whatever – emotions, substances – it is sometimes best to take a step back from the situation as not to cause a two-car pile-up.
A Thought Experiment
Let’s start by saying you were taught to drive backwards by looking into the rear-view mirror. You learned and conditioned yourself and you can do it very well. Everyone thinks you’re crazy, but you say “this is how I drive”. It is effective? Probably not. You put yourself at risk and those on the road with you at risk as well.
Let’s go on and say everyone has been taught to drive that way. In fact, maybe there’s no forward gear in cars. One day, you discover and install the forward gear and you begin to drive forward. Everyone thinks you’re crazy again, yet you have discovered a safer more effective way of driving. Yet, you have to re-teach yourself to drive. You have to unlearn all of the skills you learned when you drove backward. It is damn hard reconditioning your body, your reactions, your senses. You will by habit look to the rear-view to guide you to your destination, even when you’re driving forward, because it has become a habit. Yet you persevere and learn to drive forward, safely and effectively. You recondition yourself. Of course everyone in the situation must learn to drive more effectively. That’s what I am doing, what DBT is doing.
History is not a good guide for human relationships. Emotions are every-changing, like traffic. If you acquire the effective skills, you can react to someone cutting you off in traffic. Sure, you may get angry at the driver, but the greatest concern is not getting into an accident yourself. Your greatest concern it getting to your destination. Many times people use history as an example, but it’s not the same conditions as before, just as the traffic is ever-changing.
I am encouraging you to learn to drive forward, safety and effectively – and not to worry about past accidents as a harbinger of future ones. If you can develop the conditioned skills to interact effectively with other people (and yourself), you will not even think about using them. It will be second nature. And you can break the habit of looking in the rear-view mirror and thinking that past traffic conditions and past approaches to driving (i.e. backwards) have an effect on today’s world. I would encourage each of you to relearn your driving skills in your life and relationships. You can more effectively and safely get where you’re going.