As harried commuters filed aboard a Metro Red Line train at Cleveland Park — jockeying for seats, hoisting bulging tote bags — Denise Keyes gazed straight ahead, took deep breaths and searched for inner peace.
There were no lit candles, no incense, no chanting of “om.” But Keyes was meditating.
Finding stillness on a subway during rush hour might sound impossible. But those who practice “mindful commuting” swear it brings tranquility to the daily misery of crowded trains, late buses, honking horns and traffic jams.
If it sounds too New-Agey or out there for you, consider this: Almost 2 million people use one meditation-on-the-go app, and plenty of others are downloading what has been a recent explosion of guided meditation podcasts and Web recordings. Others, like Keyes, take mindfulness classes.
“It gets me into the mind-set I want to be in for work,” said Keyes, who lives in Bethesda and is a senior associate dean at the Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. “I want to be somebody who — not to sound all Oprah — but I want to be my best self. I want to be compassionate and really listen to people. This helps me do that.”
Potomac resident Nancy Kaplan, 63, said she initially hesitated to tell colleagues about her mindful driving because she didn’t want them to think she was “involved in woo-woo stuff.”
Kaplan, chief operating officer at a management consulting firm in downtown D.C., said she pays attention to her breathing and relaxes when her jaw tightens or her fingers clench the steering wheel during her hour-plus commute. She said practicing mindfulness has expanded her driving field of vision beyond traffic to include trees, architecture and cloud formations.
“I think it actually makes me a much better driver,” Kaplan said. “I’m not sitting in a field staring at the clouds. When you drive, you have to be aware of everything around you. I think I take in more.”
Of course, Kaplan isn’t always what she calls “perfectly calm” behind the wheel.
“I still say things like, ‘Don’t block the intersection!’ ” Kaplan said. “But I can calm myself down very fast, and then it’s gone. That didn’t happen 10 years ago.”
Kaplan and Keyes have plenty of company. Andy Puddicombe, who created the Headspace meditation app in 2012, added guided commuting meditations this year. Puddicombe said Headspace serves people who want to meditate regularly but feel like they don’t have time. About 1.7 million people have listened to the guided meditations on the Web site and app, he said.
“We know increasingly people are looking for ways to incorporate mindfulness into their daily routines,” Puddicombe said. “Commuting is just a really simple and obvious way.”
Those who walk or ride Metro or the bus often practice formal meditation: focusing on their breathing, noticing when their minds wander and repeatedly returning to their breathing as a way to “train” their attention. Those who can’t focus inward while driving or riding a bike say they practice mindfulness, a more informal kind of meditation aimed at increasing awareness. They focus on sights, sounds and physical sensations that root them in the present moment rather than in their topsy-turvy minds.
While other Red Line passengers became absorbed in cellphones and newspapers Wednesday, Keyes’s body swayed gently with the train in a personal sea of tranquility. As thoughts popped up — the whirring sound of the train tracks, the day’s busy schedule, an upcoming meeting — she paid attention to her breaths and let each thought drift past before her mind could latch on, she said.
Mindful commuters say they feel less stressed — they can dismiss thoughts that might otherwise spiral quickly from “Oh no, I’m going to be late!” to “I’ll probably get fired!” — and more compassionate toward the rest of us jamming the train or clogging the roads.
There’s no specific research on the impact of mindfulness on commuters’ emotions or behavior, experts say. However, they say it’s logical that the general health benefits of mindfulness discovered in years of scientific studies — lower blood pressure, improved concentration, reduced anxiety and depression — would transfer to a calmer, more clear-minded ride.
And while Londoners are told to “mind the gap” — a recorded message warning subway riders of the gap between the train door and the station platform — Americans probably won’t hear mindfulness-based safety messages anytime soon. But transportation experts say anything that keeps people at ease and focused could help curb aggressive driving, prevent road rage and reduce distraction-related accidents.
Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, said she, too, needs a regular dose of mindfulness. When the Capital Beltway comes to a standstill, she said, she reminds herself to breathe deeply and that “being late is not the end of the world.”
Feeling like we’re not moving when we’re in a hurry, Brach said, taps into a deeper psychic fear of not having enough time.
“We think, ‘If I don’t get there on time, I won’t get things done, and I’m going to fail,’ ” she said. “It brings up a lot of fear and tension in our bodies. . . . We think of commuting like we’re on our way somewhere else, and it’s wasted time — time we didn’t choose. But it’s a big swath of time in our lives. What if we thought of it as time to examine our hearts and minds in a way that calms us and brings more equanimity?”
District resident Glen Harrison, 45, said he realized five years ago during his bike commute that it wasn’t riding in traffic that made him tense. It was the frustration that he brought to it.
Harrison said he began taking in the trees and the feel of the breeze on his face, making him a safer cyclist because he’s more attuned to his surroundings. He said he also reminds himself that he’s sharing the road with others trying to get somewhere, too. That gives him more mental “space” so he doesn’t react as quickly when aggressive drivers cut him off or scream at him.
“Road rage for me became much less personal and a less frustrating experience,” said Harrison, who rides 15 to 40 miles a week as an event coordinator for Brach’s group. “I can navigate situations better with a more compassionate attitude. . . . Traffic is just traffic. I bring to my commute what’s inside of me, and I need to be aware of that.”
Ronald Siegel, an author and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, called his commuting practice “taillight meditation.” Siegel, who teaches mindfulness to health-care professionals, said he focuses on the colors and shapes of the taillights around him to remain relaxed and alert. Observing feelings that arise during a commute, he said, trains the brain to notice and respond more wisely to emotions throughout the day.
“We realize they’re simply thoughts and feelings and not necessarily realities,” Siegel said. “Mindfulness practice trains us to use all the moments of our lives productively, including the commute, rather than seeing the commute as something to get through so we can get to the good stuff.”