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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

By Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Commuters are sentenced to spend part of each day stuck in a compact space, all to get to work.

That time can be stressful, full of other drivers’ raging honks or crammed-in strangers’ blaring phone conversations.

But it doesn’t have to be drudgery — in fact, if you can believe it, some say it should be a time of Zen.

“We can say, ‘OK, I’m going to be in the car for an hour,'” said actor Jeff Kober, who teaches meditation in Los Angeles. “‘Now, what can I do to improve my quality of life during that hour?'”

Resist the urge to relinquish that hour to an inner monologue of traffic complaints, work worries and side-eye looks at coughing riders. Instead, treat it as a time when you can incorporate more contentment, either by getting more meditative or taking measures to create your own oasis.

“Because we’re essentially captive, why not make it into something really productive?” said Maria Gonzalez, who teaches the benefits of mindfulness in business as founder of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting in Toronto.

She cautions that she doesn’t mean productive in the sense of pulling up work email. Relaxing your commute can include parts both physical and mental — focusing on breath, rearranging posture, tiny massages while waiting at a red light.

Plus, taking time to refocus thoughts and transform your mindset from zombielike zoning out to borderline pleasant can influence your life and workday.

“I can’t change the thoughts that are coming through me; I can’t change my emotions; I can’t change the way my body feels; I can’t change the traffic,” said Kober, who recently created a meditation guide for Buick’s “24 Hours of Happiness Test Drive,” geared toward curbing stress.

Experts say, however, that it is possible to change how you embark on, endure and exit your commute.

Before: First, build an enjoyable space for yourself within your commute.

If you drive, choose your car carefully — make sure it’s something comfortable that you enjoy spending time in. Try to keep it clean.

“Become conscious that a car itself is a destination,” said New York spine specialist Dr. Kenneth Hansraj.

“You would think better if you realize you’re spending all the best hours of your life in this machine.”

Then, think through how pleasant a commute can be. Sure, “pleasant” is not a word many would associate with it, but consider the possibilities.

“If we could just allow it to be what it is, which is slightly uncomfortable, we have an opportunity of being able to enjoy it sometimes, if the right song comes on the radio or somebody smiles at us from a car,” Kober said.

Consider setting a goal or an intention. Recognize that you’re putting expectations on it either way.

“The intention that naturally exists — my intention is to get done with this commute,” Kober noted. “So I’ve just doomed myself to an hour of discomfort, because my intention will not be met until I get out of the car.”

A goal can be to simply become present: paying attention to your surroundings in a way that acknowledges what’s around you. Clouds in the sky, feeling of the seat, your hands on the steering wheel.

Kober said that if you can focus your thoughts even just three times — at the very beginning, middle and end of a commute — you’ve accomplished something.

During: Those traveling by bus or train can listen to a 16-minute guided meditation led by Kober available on YouTube. An idea for those new to meditation might be listening to it once, during one commute, and noting any effects.

“See what the world looks like before you do the guided meditation; see if anything has changed (after),” Kober said. “See if it’s a little brighter.”

The easiest way to fold Zen into your commute? Simple breaths.

“Before you actually start driving, just focus on the breath,” Gonzalez said. “Take three mindful breaths. Be aware that you’re right there right now, as opposed to, ‘I wonder how long it’s going to take me today. I wonder how many meetings are going to be on my calendar.'”

Cultivating awareness can force your mind to slow down.

“You become aware that you’re right there, right now, and that’s incredibly powerful,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez added that this also stops us from our mind’s natural wanderings toward the past (How long was the commute yesterday? Will today be better?) or the future (I really don’t want to go to lunch with my boss today).

She acknowledges that this isn’t an easy task.

“We’re bombarded by unconscious thinking, thinking that just happens to us,” she said.

Finding one central focus is the key, she said. And good news — this doesn’t mean you have to give up scrolling Facebook.

Focus on one thing that relaxes you, and return to that if you’re distracted. So whether music, a book or even perusing social media makes you happy, home in, and if you get distracted, return to that thing.

“Just come back to what you’re reading, because how many times have we started reading something and we say, ‘Oh my God I’ve read this paragraph 10 times,'” she said. “The mind did not stay focused.”

As a bonus, this serves as a separation from work.

“This moment means there is a point of separation, and you’re going home,” Gonzalez said.

Keeping your brain on topic helps calm it, she said. And training it to do that can carry over into other moments, work and otherwise.

“As you’re doing this, you’re gaining a benefit, because you’re seeing how you can apply this in your day,” she said. “Going into a stressful meeting or a deadline, now you know what to do.”

Of course, don’t relax so much that you fall asleep.

After: Effects of a commute can persist after you settle into your cubicle chair or your couch at home.

New York masseuse Dot Stein, known by the name of her business, Dr. Dot, which employs masseuses around the world, crafted car-focused massage techniques. Designed to ease pain in the head, ears, jaw, neck and shoulder, they’re targeted at places that tense up while traveling.

She knows of what she speaks — Stein built her career giving musicians massages, building up a lot of on-the-road experience.

For example, she said, during driving, stress can tighten the scalp. After your commute, or even during if you’re on a bus or train, slowly massage your temples. Grip small handfuls of your hair and tug, she said.

And the ears also need comfort — honks and screeching tires take a toll.

Squeeze earlobes as if you’re ironing out the folds of your ears with your fingertips, Stein advised. Place a palm over each ear, and use your hands to move your ears up and down

From the moment you leave home or work, traveling to the other, think of your commute in a fresh way. Besides, experts point out, you’re expending energy either way. You might as well make it positive.

“If I have determined that that’s just wasted time, then there’s no way I’m ever going to be OK with it,” Kober said. “I’m just going to be waiting until it’s over.”

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Obviously, you have to pay attention while driving, but you can create a climate in which you no longer dread the experience. (Darren Baker/Fotolia)