In New York it is illegal to use a handheld cellphone while driving. Although drivers have the option to use hands-free devices, studies show that talking or texting on any cellphone while driving is so mentally distracting as to suggest it is a serious safety hazard. Nevertheless, not a day goes by that I do not see drivers talking on both hand-held and hands-free devices. Safety aside, what does all this chatter in the car portend about one’s ability to be alone?
More than 50 years ago Clark Moustakas, a psychologist and the author of the existential study Loneliness, wrote, “Being alone, for me, usually means an opportunity to think, imagine, plan. I choose to be alone because I desire to be quiet for awhile to consider aspects of my life. It is usually a tranquil time of self-expression and self-renewal.”
Can you remember a time when a solitary ride in the car offered such an opportunity, to simply be alone with your thoughts, feelings and sensations—maybe with your favorite soundtrack playing in the background?
We now live in an era when, because we are plugged in 24-7, the simple pleasure of being alone is something that we avoid. For many people, young and old, aloneness is a source of discontent. Why? Are we afraid that it might lead to loneliness?
Loneliness is not just about a lack of companionship but an inner sense of being alone, regardless of the external circumstances—of feeling lonely even when with friends or family.
I believe that the recent popularity of mindfulness—a mental state achieved by directing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly noticing and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations—is a counterforce to the busy-ness of our perpetually plugged-in lives.
As if to foreshadow the current era of mindfulness, Moustakas said, “Loneliness anxiety is a widespread condition in contemporary society. The individual no longer has an intimate sense of relatedness to the food he eats, the clothing he wears, the shelter which houses him.”
According to Maria Gonzalez, an author and corporate executive whose most recent book is Mindful Leadership, 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, “The daily commute is a great opportunity to train the mind.” She recommends practicing simple techniques, repeatedly, to train the mind in three areas:
1. To be more focused and better able to concentrate;
2. To experience more clarity in our thinking and decision-making; and
3. To approach all of life with a sense of balance, whereby we can “go with the flow” when a situation cannot be changed in the moment.
“The idea,” Gonzalez says, “is that you are continuously aware of three things: your body, what you see and what you hear. This is what it is to be mindfully present as you drive. Do your best to stay present for the entire commute.”
Although it seems elementary, it’s not as easy it sounds. As your mind wanders you may have the impulse to check your phone, or give in to some other distraction. When that happens, intentionally pull yourself back.
Like all things worth mastering, being mindful takes practice. As you do this you are preparing yourself to be present, to be at ease in your own company and, at the same time, you’re making the road a safer place for us all.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. Visit www.northshorechildguidance.org to find out more.