Transcendence in Los Angeles traffic: On gridlock and mindfulness

This is the first noble truth of living in LA: There is suffering, and there is traffic

Published September 2, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Traffic on the northbound and the southbound lanes of the Interstate 405 freeway near Los Angeles International Aiprort (Getty/Kevork Djansezian)
Traffic on the northbound and the southbound lanes of the Interstate 405 freeway near Los Angeles International Aiprort (Getty/Kevork Djansezian)

Excerpted with permission from "Still, In the City: Creating Peace of Mind in the Midst of Urban Chaos," edited by Angela Dews. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

vWhen a New York subway becomes a mobile temple, when Los Angeles traffic becomes a vehicle for awakening, when a Fifth Avenue sidewalk offers a noble path through craving, generosity, and sorrow—that's the fierce practice of urban Buddhism. And that's what two dozen Buddhist teachers share in Still, in the City, in their cities, as they practice the story-telling teaching tradition of the Buddha. The teachers are: Margo McLoughlin, Sebene Selassie, Gary Singer, Harrison Blum, Alex Haley, Wildecy de Fatima Jury, Eve Decker, Alice Alldredge, nakawe cuebas, Tracy Cochran, Bart van Melik, Joshua Bee Alafia (Jbee), Diana Gould, Paul Irving, Nancy Glimm, Ellen Furnari, Nobantu Mpotulo, JD Doyle, Rachel Lewis, Rosemary Blake, Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Tuere Sala, Walt Opie, and Diane Wilde.

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Living in Los Angeles is a little like living in a castle surrounded by a moat in which lives a fire-breathing dragon. In order to leave the house and go anywhere, you have to first do battle with this beast—a struggle so drain­ing that one hesitates before embarking upon it, often opting to stay home rather than enter the fray. And yet, inevitably one has to leave the house; to go to work, go to events, go to places of interest, go out to see other people, and so, one must develop strategies for getting past the dragon. The dragon in the analogy is traffic.

It is virtually impossible for any two Angelinos to have a conversation without mentioning traffic. It is the inescapable ordeal we all live with. During peak traffic times—meaning, the times when you and everybody else needs to go somewhere—the time it takes to get anywhere has more than doubled. What used to take twenty minutes now can take over an hour. It’s hard to get it through your head how much time you have to allow to get anywhere. A study done three years ago found that people in Los Angeles spent an average of ninety-two hours a year stuck in traffic. That seems low to me; it must be more by now. But that means, if you work an eight-hour day, five days a week, with two weeks off for vacation, you spend more time stuck in traffic than you get for your vacation. It is the first noble truth of living in Los Angeles. There is suffering, and there is traffic.

Since it cannot be avoided, can it be transcended? Is there a spiritual solution to being stuck in traffic?

Yes, and perhaps the word “stuck” is the key.

When difficult emotions overtake us, we feel we are in their grip— “stuck.” Either we’re caught on a hamster wheel of repeating and rehashing the incident we’re regretting or resenting, or we are unable to budge from our fixed position, holding a point of view or opinion very much at odds with one or more opponents. Perhaps we can use our difficulties in traffic to stand as a metaphor for the obstacles we face in the rest of our life. Per­haps traffic is the perfect vehicle for awakening. Perhaps we can even reach a stage where we are grateful for traffic jams because of the oppor­tunity they provide to learn and practice techniques that will serve us in other areas of our lives.

Or not. But at least we can learn how to have a healthier response to being caught in traffic.

If traffic is the first noble truth, then the second noble truth is its cause. While the scientific cause of traffic might be more cars entering the road than the road can handle, requiring cars to slow down to let them, which then causes a wave of slowing reaching back for miles; the cause of suffer­ing in traffic is wanting it to be different. The speed limit is sixty-five mph, you are going between two and five mph. You don’t want it to be that way, but it is. Our first response is usually to get angry, either at our­selves for not leaving sooner, or at the other cars and drivers for preventing us from getting where we need to be. But where does that get you? You can stew in frustration, anger, resentment, exasperation—or you can let go.

Letting go is the third noble truth. It is a general, all-purpose solution to almost any problem we face. Let go of the way you wish it could be, the way you would prefer it to be, and the way that it would be if only you ran the world (to the world’s great benefit), and respond skillfully to the way that it is.

A skillful response to being stuck in traffic begins with practicing mindfulness. Begin with body sensations. Notice the tension in the muscles, in the shoulders, in the hands gripping the wheel. Sometimes all that’s necessary is to open to the truth of the way it is—tension, tightness, gripping, clenched jaw, gritted teeth—to open up a bit of space, or spaciousness, for the gripping and tightness to ease. Telling tension not to be there is as futile as telling the other cars to get off the road. But by noticing the body sensations, allowing them to be there, investigating them without resistance, we can create the space for them to fluctuate. And when we can tune in to their fluctuations, we create the space for them to dissolve.

A curious function of impermanence: what you resist, persists. If you resist the tension, it freezes it in the body, causing stress and blockage in the muscles and arteries, increasing blood pressure, and causing tightness, stiffness, and spasm in the muscles. When you allow the tension to be there, open to it, accept and investigate it, noticing the tiny variations, the pulsations and vibrations, you open the space for it to dissolve into impermanence and flow.

Similarly, being stuck in traffic offers many opportunities to observe unwholesome mind states arising. Anger at ourselves for not allowing enough time, or at the other drivers for cutting in front of us, for changing lanes, or simply for existing; fear of being late; shame and guilt, as we project our condemnation onto the waiting party; dishonesty, as we rehearse the lie we will give as an excuse, blaming traffic when in truth, had we left in time, traffic could have been accommodated. Aggression, competitiveness, ego, frustration—traffic gives us endless opportunities to watch the arising of unwholesome mind states.

When we practice unwholesome mind states without mindfulness, they result in stress, difficulty, and unhappiness to ourselves and others. Yet the Buddha tells us that all we need do when unwholesome mind states arise—as they inevitably will—is notice their arising, and rather than nurture or feed them, abandon them. We have no control over the thoughts that arise in our mind. But we do have control over our response to them. We can feed, nurture, repeat, and “retweet” them, or we can recognize them as unwholesome, and let them go. We can use them as an opportunity to learn about the nature of self, of ego, with its tendency to prioritize our wishes over those of others, and we can use “right effort” to choose a more wholesome response, such as kindness, generosity, patience, and equanimity.

Patience, according to the Buddha, is “the supreme virtue.” It is one of the paramis, the qualities necessary for liberation and enlightenment. Patience is the ability to be with the difficult and the unpleasant in a non-reactive way.

From the moment we are born, when we are yanked out of a womb where we were housed and fed effortlessly as we floated with ease in amniotic fluid, only to be spanked, then gazed at lovingly as we’re held in our mother’s arms, only to become tired, hungry, or wet, life is a series of ups and downs. Much as we might like a life where we encounter only pleasant sensations and gratifying experiences, this is not the case for any of us, no matter how fortunate. This is the first noble truth of suffering, as the Buddha has taught, and it is true for everyone. Life includes many moments that are difficult, unpleasant, irritating, aggravating, infuriating—a whole spectrum of circumstances, which have as their common root that we don’t like them. And they are inevitable. Patience is the quality that allows us to respond to unpleasant circumstances with courage, perseverance, acceptance, forbearance, and forgiveness.

Patience is the opposite of compulsive behavior and reactivity. It requires effort and intention. Patience means not succumbing to anger, aggression, or despair when threatened. It means being mindful of our reactions and emotional responses. There is no more excellent training in this virtue than being stuck in traffic.

When we are unable to get where we want to go in the time we want it to take, due to traffic congestion resulting from accident, construction, or simply too many other people wanting to go someplace at the same time, we can get angry and upset, but what good does it do? Does it get us there faster? Does it result in any benefit to ourselves or anyone else? Alterna­tively, if we practice patience, we are learning a skill that will be valuable in many other circumstances.

Patience has many levels. The most basic is grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it endurance. The next level is forbearance, using self-control and tolerance, allowing the situation to be as it is. Ultimately, patience can be a form of forgiveness, liberating ourselves from any feeling of anger or resentment, recognizing the truth of the way it is, and letting go of any expectation that it be different.

Generosity is another of these paramis, or wholesome qualities. In the West, we tend to associate Buddhism with meditation. In the time of the Buddha, however, the gradual training began not with meditation, but with generosity, because it is a training in letting go. Generosity is the opposite of clinging, holding on, and craving (causes of suffering); it is the act of releasing, opening, and allowing, a recognition of the equality and interdependence of all (effecting the end of suffering). Generosity is related to karma, the law of cause and effect. When the Buddha was asked to describe karma, he said, “There is what is given.” Or, as the Beatles put it, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

I like to think of generosity as conceding the space between the way it is and the way I’d like it to be. Treating each driver the way I’d like to be treated myself—with kindness, caring, and compassion. Allowing other cars to enter our lane. Letting others go first. Not honking our horn in rebuke. Giving other drivers the benefit of the doubt. Understanding that nobody’s perfect, least of all us.

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The four Brahmaviharas, translated as “dwelling places of the gods,” are four qualities that are innate in every one of us, but need to be practiced, developed, and—to the best of our ability—perfected. They are the most wholesome mind states, and minds that are imbued with these qualities experience the ultimate happiness. The words in English are awkward in translation, but they are lovingkindness or friendliness (metta), sympa­thetic or empathetic joy (mudita), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha). Practicing these qualities on the streets and freeways of Los Angeles is the fast way to Buddhahood, even if it is the slow way to get anywhere else.

We can practice metta, or lovingkindness, by sending thoughts of well-wishing to other drivers sharing the road with us. One way we learn to do this in meditation is by repeating phrases, such as, “May you be happy and peaceful,” “May you be safe and protected,” using each phrase as an intention, not pretending to feel something we do not, but a recognition of the value of the benefit of this kindness. There is no downside to wish­ing for the happiness and safety of the other drivers on the road with you, and it is a lot more beneficial for our own nervous system and well-being than wishing they’d go to hell.

Meditators cultivate these qualities by repeating the phrases, in medita­tion, towards various categories of beings, beginning with ourselves, eventually including loved ones, mentors, friends, “neutral” people who we know slightly but have no feelings towards, enemies, and eventually all beings without exception. One phrase I like to use is, “May I awaken to my radiant true nature as boundless love.” As I am someone who usually has a song going round and round in my head, I give each metta phrase a little tune. Once, on retreat, I spent a lot of time visualizing the streets and roads on which I’m often stuck in traffic, picturing the people in all the cars smiling to each other and singing, “May we awaken to our radiant true nature as boundless love.” Now, when I find myself trapped on these same streets and roads, the image returns, and it makes me laugh and feel more kindly toward the people in the other cars.

Mudita is taking pleasure in the happiness of others. Rejoicing in the good fortune of the one who made the left turn before the light changed, even if you are still stuck now that it’s red, might take a lot of practice, but as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, if you take happiness from the happiness of others, and there are six billion others, you increase the odds of your own happiness six billion to one.

Compassion, karuna, is the third of these Brahmaviharas. How often has it happened that you are frustrated at the pace at which traffic is moving, only to drive past its cause: a catastrophic accident in which people were undoubtedly seriously injured or worse? Frustration can quickly turn to compassion. Perhaps we can practice compassion even without needing such a drastic motivating factor. For surely, just as you are experiencing frustration, so is everyone else in this traffic jam. Compassion is an ability to feel tenderness towards the suffering of another, and to hold their suffering without turning from it. It is a recognition of our common humanity.

Equanimity, upekkha, the last of these qualities, is the recognition of impermanence. It is the opposite of attachment. Equanimity is the awareness that all things change, and the ability to be with the difficult without rejecting it, the pleasant without clinging to it. Equanimity is the understanding that even this traffic jam, which seems so intractable and unyielding, will, in fact and in time, change. The Buddha tells us that there is no thing that exists separate from the conditions that gave rise to it. This is helpful to remember when stuck in traffic. There is not “me” over here, and “traffic” over there; we are, as Einstein pointed out, part of an indivisible whole called the universe. Although we experience ourselves as something separate from the rest, this is in fact a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. In other words, I am not stuck in traffic: I am traffic. Perhaps the best method of dealing with the difficulties of driving in Los Angeles is the one that, in this city at this time, might be the most challenging, the most arduous, the least convenient, but in the end, the most beneficial for the most sentient beings, now and in the future: use public transportation.

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