How to Drive Mindfully

Driving doesn’t have to be stressful. Roberval Oliveira offers mindfulness tips for cruise control, road rage, and more.

Roberval Oliveira
25 March 2024
Photo by Aerial Perspective Works via

One day, while driving, I noticed that I was lost in thought. As I brought my attention back to driving, I was reminded of meditation. On the road, like on the cushion, I can try to be present with the body, then get lost in thought, then return to the body. That’s mindfulness of thought.

Driving can be stressful and many of us spend hours a week doing it. But if we bring mindfulness to driving, it can actually improve our well-being. Mindful driving begins with clearly seeing the relationship between cause and effect, a cornerstone of Buddhism. American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches that in our search for well-being and happiness, it’s important to question: “What, when I do it, leads to ease and well-being, and what, when I do it, leads to stress and suffering?” This insight can be applied to all aspects of our lives, including how we drive.

Mindful driving relies on clearly understanding cause and effect, letting go of what is beyond our control, and bringing mindfulness to what we can.

Though we cannot predict what will happen on our commute, we can take actions, which are likely to lead to a peaceful drive. To create the conditions for things to go well, prepare yourself for getting behind the wheel. Meditation and exercise have calming effects for many people. Is it possible to engage in one or both of these activities before driving?

Next, try to leave early. Stress or ease can start right there. Is it worth speeding to beat a yellow light? Does the time you save make much difference at the end of the day? If you left home earlier, that yellow light wouldn’t be a problem. Do you feel relaxed or stressed as you speed up to make the light? Mindfulness will help you answer these questions.

If you use your phone or GPS to give you directions, set directions before pulling out, as this will avoid multitasking.

Now, can you accept the arrival time your phone or GPS predicts for you? One of the causes of stress is not accepting things we cannot change. Traffic is one of them. With the exception of a sudden accident, your phone has calculated everything on your drive, that is, speed limit, normal traffic, and traffic lights. Can you let go of the desire to get “there” and instead be “here” in your car? We may have a destination in mind, but in order to get there, we need to take care of details right here in the present.

Try cruise control on the highway. I set cruise control a few mph below the average speed around me. It allows me to relax as much as possible, while most cars pass me. And as speed limit fluctuates, I adjust it. I don’t have to drive fast just because other people are driving fast. Mindfulness can help us notice our habits.

How much time do you save driving above the speed limit? Perhaps a few minutes. Driving fast is sometimes required, but how often is it necessary? Is it relaxing to speed, keeping an eye on who’s coming up behind? Isn’t there virtually always someone faster than you? There’s the possibility of a ticket to consider as well. These are questions for each of us to answer.

Try traveling in the middle lane if there is one. You’re again creating the conditions for a relaxing drive. In the middle lane, you don’t have to worry about cars entering and leaving the highway. This is mindfulness of your surroundings.

Some of us continually change lanes as soon as our lane slows down. We may think we will get ahead of some drivers that way. But will we? How much ahead? Traffic will eventually slow down in the new lane, too, and constantly changing lanes increases chances of accidents. Can you stay in your lane, wait and see, and observe your impatience? Does the traffic untangle itself after a moment? Mindfulness teaches us to be with discomfort—to watch it arise and pass away, instead of continually reacting.

There are parallels between pushing away discomfort in meditation and doing the same while driving. If there’s a real need to move, go ahead and move to the other lane. But can you leave extra space between you and the car in front of you? That way, as speed fluctuates, you don’t have to brake often. If another driver moves into that large space, you can try slowing down to create more space. If not, mindfully notice how it feels in the body to tailgate and to keep braking as you drive close behind another car. Can you bring awareness to your body and notice physical discomfort? Can you relax and breathe in those uncomfortable areas?

Are you multitasking while you drive? Does this create stress or ease? If you are multitasking, can you be mindful of it? Simplicity enhances our ability to be present. As you limit distractions, you’ll notice that you can you look at the sky occasionally. Take a few deep breaths as stress arises. Do you need to stop for a break?

Can you notice anger when another driver cuts you off? Understand that the driver cut the car off and not you. You’re the one making it personal. You can choose to let it go or add fuel to the fire. Mindfulness allows us to choose how to respond.

I have a friend who drives expecting aggression or distractions from other drivers because he presumes that everyone behind a steering wheel is a person with ego, worry, and stress—lost in his or her own thoughts. By driving with these expectations, my friend doesn’t make himself angry over people’s actions. Can you drive with a similar expectation?

Mindful driving relies on clearly understanding cause and effect, letting go of what is beyond our control, and bringing mindfulness to what we can. It’s also helpful to have some humor toward our unhelpful habits.

Mindfulness trains us to see experiences arising and passing away. It also enables us to see that we are active agents in creating our experiences. That realization is empowering. When navigating our lives, it puts us in the driver’s seat.

Roberval Oliveira

Roberval Oliveira is a mindfulness meditation teacher and the author of Silence: Journals from a Meditation Retreat.