Heavy Traffic

How I learned to find acceptance in a traffic jam.

For much of my life, I’ve been able to position myself such that I avoid the rush hour traffic. I was able to time shift, live close to work to get short commutes or simply avoid the beaten path. My shortest commute was 8 minutes. That was a cool commute, but that was in Utah, not in Southern California.

In SoCal, everything is spread out over one of the largest metropolises in the world. In 2007, I bought a new car and in that first year alone, I put 24,000 miles on my car. Long commutes, grilling in traffic, running errands, and visiting family — it all adds up.

I used to commute from Costa Mesa to Carson, California, on the 405 every workday. It sucked. From Costa Mesa to Seal Beach, everything was fine. Once I passed the 605 I joined the line of people entering Los Angeles County, a county where the Board of Supervisors once admitted that for the previous twenty years, they had no coherent plan for transportation. And it showed.

Sitting in traffic is boring so when I’m there, looking at the next car, my mind is looking for something to do. When I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway, I play this guessing game, pretending that I’m using my intuition to figure out which lane will go faster. I was commuting alone so I smiled with glee when the diamond lane got clogged. But when that was clear as the sky, I got busy guessing lanes.

I was a lane changer in heavy or slow traffic. I did this to pass the time. Eventually, I got to my destination, but it really was a form of slow-moving detention. It wasn’t made any better by listening to NPR, or what I like to call, “resentment radio”. I called it resentment radio because they talk about the stock market as if most people own stocks. Here? In America? Not really. And if we do, our 401k is going sideways.

Then NPR goes on and on about American foreign policy. Every day, they’re talking about Israel as if what happens in Israel has any bearing on my day to day life.

What about us? Why aren’t they reporting on US? Well, they are. They’re talking about who just got appointed to that plush job with the FCC in DC. They’re asking serious questions like, what is the Fed going to do next? Who cares? But if I want to hear about us, I will have to wait for This American Life.

Anyway, I’m sitting in traffic and guessing lanes and feeling the frustration. Then for what seemed like an eternity, I’m in lane 3 and I’m stopped while watching 30 or 40 cars go by in the lane to the left and right of me. What is going on up there? Did someone just drop a quarter and stop to pick it up? I was furious that I could not get out of the lane that was stopped!

Then something clicked in my head. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I heard a voice say to me, “This isn’t working. Let’s try something else.”

So I took a few deep breaths to decide what to do. This is important. The brain uses 10 times more oxygen than any other organ in the body. When under stress, remember to breathe, everything else follows. Then I said the following words:

“I accept everything exactly as it is right now, without reservation.”

That felt better. So I said it again.

I began to repeat that sentence over and over, like a mantra. A few minutes later, I forgot what I was pissed about. Traffic started flowing again. I could see my exit. I was done.

There is something about acceptance that calms the mind. Once we can accept our circumstances, we can do something about them. Until we accept them, we can do nothing but bitch and complain. But once we accept it, well, then the brain goes to work, meaningful work.

The brain operates in two modes. The first one, the one we’re really familiar with is the left side, the side of judgment. Left and right, right and wrong, black and white. The left side uses logic and words to make sense of reality. There is no grey area.

The right side is that gray area, with more than fifty shades. The right side is a continuously adjusting targeting system. You pick a target, a goal, and the right side will get you there without shame or judgment over mistakes. Did you miss? Don’t worry, the right side doesn’t get upset about missing. The right side will adjust and try again until the target or goal is achieved.

My goal was to stop the torture in traffic. The left side was too busy judging the situation and the right side was listening to music. Neither side was fully engaged in reality until I said those magic words, “I accept everything exactly as it is right now, without reservation.” Once I accepted reality, I became fully engaged in my existence. I didn’t even have to click my heels.

Now I could make some meaningful choices. I could change how I think about my situation. I could change my behavior. Once I changed how I was thinking about my circumstances, I could also change my attitude, how I was feeling about my circumstances. Input and output are related. Change the stimulus and you will change the response.

I have found that whatever change I want to make in my life, that it must start with acceptance of everything in my life exactly as it is. Without reservation or qualification. I don’t have to like it, acceptance is all that is needed. With acceptance established, harmony with the world around me becomes a lot easier to find. Even when sitting in traffic.

Write on.

Originally published on my blog, The Digital Firehose, on August 6th, 2014. Updated for grammar, clarity and new ideas that tend to pop up on another review.

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