The traffic light meditation

Welcome to the third in our summer series of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this post was first published on 14th May 2013:

How often do we say – I’d like to have time to stop and smell the roses? Yet when we do get some rare time to ourselves, we may hardly know what to do with it. Even worse is being stopped in our tracks against our will. Traffic jams, computer problems, queues at the bank, being on hold to our telephone company for forty minutes, waiting at the doctor’s. Finally, an opportunity to stop, but do we enjoy it? Once we’ve finished arguing with the telephone company, do we turn to our nearest and dearest and say, ‘gee, I needed that, forty minutes of muzak and being told my call is important, I feel quite rejuvenated now, having had that unexpected time out in the middle of the day’?

Probably not. Many of us complain about being too busy, but being forced to slow down can really annoy us, even bring us to the brink of rage. A few years ago, the health organisation I was working for had frequent problems with their computer system. There would be days and weeks where the computers worked at half their speed, if at all. I was teaching mindfulness, but did I enjoy being slowed down like this? Not one bit!

Yet a simple shift in attitude can transform the way we experience these unexpected frustrations. A great example is traffic lights, but if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with few traffic lights, you can choose any other circumstance where you’re being forced to slow down against your will – perhaps being stuck behind a slow-moving horse float up a curvy road, or trying to get your children going in the morning. Now, imagine you’re running late to something important, and you’ve just come across your fifth red traffic light (or slow-moving truck) in a row. What do you feel? When I ask this question at workshops, the answers range from ‘frustrated’, ‘annoyed’, to ‘furious’ and ‘enraged’. So you have a choice. You can either get yourself more and more worked up, until your arrive at your destination red in the face and with anger pouring out of your pores, snapping at the first unfortunate person who greets you with a friendly good morning (‘Good morning?! It hasn’t been a very good morning for me so far, let me tell you!!’). Or you can use the opportunity for some quiet mindfulness practice. Relax back into your car seat. Become aware your breath. Allow the shoulders to drop. Notice the environment, the sounds, the weather. If you have music playing, listen to it. And then, once the light has turned green, or the truck pulled over, you can proceed with your journey feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. You’ll arrive glowing with serenity, and people will say to you, good morning, you’re looking well today!

A colleague of mine recently came to her second mindfulness workshop with me, and told us a wonderful story of her traffic light meditation. She has to turn right into the car park at work, and the lights can take forever to change. Before the first workshop, she used to get really annoyed, and sometimes she even drove through a red light in sheer frustration. After hearing about the traffic light meditation, she decided to use her waiting time to send loving energy towards the traffic light, surrounding it with love. She says she arrives at work feeling great, having spent those few minutes generating loving energy. As she told her story, I had a vision of traffic lights all over the city being bathed in a loving glow by waiting commuters!

Weekly practice idea:

The traffic light meditation (or whatever frustrating circumstance you come across). With any luck, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practise this!

Anja Tanhane