How mindfulness can transform your hellish commute into an oasis

How we commute to work sets the tone for the rest of our day, but for too many of us, it’s a lousy experience filled with rotten smells, honking cars, and miserable passengers.

Laurie J. Cameron, author of the new book, “The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy From Morning to Evening,” wants to change that. She’s a mindfulness teacher for the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute developed at Google, and as the founder of PurposeBlue, a mindful leadership consultancy, she has trained thousands of employees around the world on how they can be more mindful by paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and openness.

With this science-backed practice, you don’t have to resign yourself to a terrible commute. You can teach your mind to go to a happy oasis even if your body is stuck on a delayed train with no end in sight.

Cameron talked with Ladders on how we can make small yet significant adjustments in our daily commutes to do this:

Observe your surroundings without judgment

You may encounter your first roadblock on the road to zen when you whiff sweaty armpits or garbage on your crowded subway train. Use these smells as a teaching moment. “With mindfulness, we’re cultivating a mind that’s nonjudgmental, so we’re trying to get away from ‘that rotten, terrible, bad smell’ to more neutral words like ‘unpleasant’ and ‘pleasant,’ ” Cameron told Ladders.

Instead of judging and making assumptions about everyone around you, try being curious. Notice the unpleasant smell, think about its origin, wonder why it’s stronger today than other days. That’s how you start to tune into what’s happening in your body and you stop walking through life on autopilot.

Pretend you’re an alien

Mindfulness means cultivating a fresh way of observing your life so that you are open to new ideas and outcomes. You can build this fresh awareness of your surroundings by narrating your commute in your head. “You can say: Here I am — on the BART train, under the San Francisco Bay, on my way to the city,” Cameron writes in her book. “You’ll start to see everyday scenes more vividly, to detect subtle differences in how you feel, and to be more conscious of how you conduct yourself.”

For regular commuters, it can feel hard to find a fresh story to narrate every day. If you want to inject newness into the mundane act of commuting, pretend you’re an alien observing two-legged creatures commute for the first time. Then you’re observing the rich human experience of commuting. “Now you’re not just observing the way New York City runs, or the way the subway runs, but the way these humans are pouring onto this car and they all have headphones on, and they don’t talk to each other, or they do talk to each other,” Cameron said.

By bringing our attention deliberately to the life that’s right in front of us, we learn to notice the life within us.

“For me, it invites wonder when I look at my life with freshness,” Cameron said. “I get this inspiring feeling of delight to look at the miracle of this life.”

Listen to music

You don’t have to entirely unplug and commute in silence to be mindful. You can use technology to facilitate mindfulness as long as you set boundaries about how you’re using it.

If listening to one album causes you to ruminate about past relationships, it’s going to be more difficult for you to stay present. But if you can focus on what’s going on in the song over what’s going on in your wandering head, go for it. Cameron suggests focusing on the lyrics of the song, the melodies, or the quality of the singer’s voice. “When I’m tuned into the direct experience of listening to music, that’s mindfulness,” she told Ladders.

Use social media wisely

Can you scroll mindfully through social media on your commute? It’s hard yet possible. Cameron acknowledges that this is more of an advanced mindfulness technique because, for many of us, our phones trap our attention. “The challenge is that we’re going to get distracted,” she said.

But on visual-focused social media platforms like Instagram, you can use photos as a chance to practice taking in the good about what you are seeing. If you see a great photo that your friend posted, don’t scroll past it, stop and savor what’s so delightful about it. Notice the topography of that nature photo or the faces of your laughing friends.

“It’s possible and it can be joyful,” Cameron said about using Instagram mindfully. “We’re looking at an Instagram image that’s so gorgeous, and we actually take it in. We don’t just quickly flick by, but we observe it.”

Wish your fellow commuters well

Instead of grumbling about that one passenger who bumped into you without apologizing, take the commute as an opportunity to graciously wish your community of commuters well. This way, you train yourself to meet situations with compassion. You teach your brain how to weather unexpected circumstances like a sudden delay with equanimity.

“Wherever you are, you can actually direct your attention to one person at a time — going right down the bench on a subway or looking into the neighboring cars around you — and wish the other people well,” she said.

Cameron suggests some goodwill phrases like “I hope the day goes smoothly for you,” “May you be happy,” or “May you have a day of grace and ease,” but she believes you can use whatever language works best for you to wish that someone’s day goes a little better.

By spreading joy to your fellow passengers, you are shifting your mood and physiology, and that positive mood gets noticed by others. “When we use the commute to train ourselves to do that, we are more likely to do that when we walk in a meeting because it starts to become our default way of being,” Cameron said.