Some would say I'm a fool. I've been successfully employed before. Heck, I held one job for twelve years! I also lost one job before the month was out. But I was a software engineer for twenty years, and good at it. Come on now: an Aspie software engineer? Of course you could find work! Yeah, I could go back to the IT world, but I'd be miserable. And if I were miserable at a job, it certainly wouldn't last. So, does that make my being unemployed a choice? Unfortunately, it's not that easy.
Most of my working life has been in publishing, even before I became a software engineer. And that was largely by design. The Dissemination of Information! You see, I need to be involved with that, with something that does something worthwhile. I could never work for an arms manufacturer, heck even the financial world is not for me. I've always sought to do meaningful work that would contribute something to society, bettering the lives of other people.
Discovering that I was an Aspie changed everything
Discovering, a couple of years ago, that I was an Aspie changed everything. My education about autism, catching up on who I had always been, seeing not just my past differently but taking in the whole world from a new, much clearer viewpoint — that put everything into perspective. The “meaningful work” and “contribute to society” now had a new direction and a new impetus. I am now committed to finding work that has a direct, positive impact on the autistic community. I'm also now part of the estimated 80% of autistic people who are unemployed.
Fool. You could be making six figures as a software engineer but choose not to? That's certainly one way to look at it, but you'd be missing the bigger picture. Two things: mental exhaustion and a feeling of fulfillment from having contributed to society, having made a difference. I think we can all agree that it's best to avoid the former and strive for the latter. And software engineering left me mentally exhausted almost every day. Not the “engineering” itself — the design of algorithms and similar, really geeky stuff — it was all the stuff surrounding the interesting bits: the purportedly extreme importance of using this framework or that; intense power struggles over choices that, given the nature of technology, will be obsolete by the time lunch is over. I can't do that any more. I was “successful” in the sense of writing solid, robust code, but it was draining me. The “meaningful work” that was supposed to underlie it all had lost its potency.
Yes, I'll have to deal with office politics and other such meta-work at any job, but that's where the second of the aforementioned two things comes into play: a feeling of fulfillment. I know this will come only from an even deeper involvement in the autistic community. And that's where I've been looking for work. Unfortunately, doing work that actually helps people doesn't pay as much as work that boosts the profits of a corporation. As well, there's not a great deal of work in the autistic community — unless you're a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker or (perhaps the subject of a future article) a certified applied behavior analyst. Self-advocating Aspies need not apply, they don't have the right experience. (Now let that irony sink in).
Staying the Course
Focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum
But I will not be deterred. I've been out of work for almost a year now, but I am resolute. That kind of focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum. So, however, are anxiety, social issues, and less than ideal executive functioning. Oh, believe me, I am no stranger to anxiety. I get anxious if I think too much about how my meager retirement savings are dwindling. I get anxious about how long I've been out of work. I lose sleep sometimes, because of anxiety. But I won't let it stop me. The odd thing is that I'm actually fairly busy, although not with anything that generates an income … yet. I've met so many wonderful people during this past year; some have become good friends, many are really good connections. But that hasn't turned into a job … yet. I speak at conferences, write articles, am invited to sit in on panels, and am very involved in the autistic community here in Atlanta. But that hasn't turned into a job … yet. Sometimes I don't know if I'm approaching people frequently enough or from the right angle because of social anxiety. Sometimes, dealing with executive functioning, I can get stuck in a loop as I try to figure out where I should best spend my energy in a way that will lead to some sort of income.
But I will not be deterred. There are times when I have to remind myself that I will not be deterred, and so far my head is still above water. I do recognize the possibility that perhaps I might need a “day job” that would pay enough to allow me to continue to write articles and speak at conferences, but that's not the ideal. Compromise can wait (but not too long, please). I have lived my whole life on principle, with integrity, so it's unlikely I'll change now. There is so much need for work to be done in the autistic community, so many people that need help, so many aspects of society that need to change to recognize us and accept us. But the money isn't there. I've spoken to a number of people working diligently to educate companies about the benefits of hiring people on the spectrum, but they're running on shoestring budgets. There are too many similar stories.
But I will not be deterred.
But I will not be deterred. Something is out there, waiting for me. Yes, you can call me a fool if you want to. I prefer to think that I am finally aware of my true calling. But I guess change takes time. Nonetheless, one of my future articles will be about my new job. When it comes. Stay tuned.
When the likes of Forbes publishes an article entitled, “How To Practice Mindfulness At Work”, and the Harvard Business Review publishes “Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity”, you know that the concept of mindfulness has reached the corporate mainstream. Companies like Google, Apple, Target, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, Deutsche Bank and others have all embraced the benefits of mindfulness.
Whether your company has a mindfulness program or not, you can still engage in mindfulness on your own, at home and at work. How, you may ask, is this significant for those of us on the spectrum? Mindfulness, or “being present”, is available to anyone and everyone. And everyone, with practice, can see the same benefits: a calmer approach to life, seeing the world around you more clearly, and having more self-control. The difference for autistics is how and where those benefits touch our day-to-day lives.
What is mindfulness?
What is “being present”?
But what is mindfulness? What is “being present”? Just imagine the driver of a car who is thinking about:
1) the project that's got to be done before the end of the week,
2) the upcoming parent-teacher conference,
3) what's going on in their favorite soap, and
4) did they leave the iron on?
Now think about a different driver who has put all that sort of thought baggage in the trunk of their car and is very much focused on the road, the other drivers, and how they are driving. Which driver would you rather have next to you on the road? The one who's paying attention, of course! The driver who is paying attention is said to be “present”, fully conscious the present moment, of what they are currently doing. They are not distracted from what's going on: they see clearly what is happening now and can better anticipate what will happen.
Being present is very much what it says: showing up for whatever you happen to be doing at the present moment, as opposed to being distracted by all the “stuff” going on in your life that doesn't really have any bearing on the now. If you're walking down the street with your head somewhere else, you may discover how much the lamppost hurts when you bump into it. When, instead, you are mindful of what's going on — if you are present — you are able to see not only what's coming, but you can also see yourself more clearly.
One of the natural aspects of life that presents a challenge to many of us autistics is change. Before we learned that I was an Aspie, I came home from work one day to see my wife and kids milling busily about the kitchen, all sorts of things out of the cupboards and on all the surfaces. My wife smiled and said, “I decided to rearrange the kitchen!”. Feeling as if the foundation of my entire life had been revealed as having been built on sand, I went beyond meltdown and completely shut down, quietly walking to the bedroom to try to deal with the anxiety. That may seem rather extreme to those of you new to the world of autism, but I assure you that it is not that uncommon. But the flip side of such a reaction to unanticipated change is that (as we now know), were my wife to have said, that morning, “Oh, by the way, I'll be rearranging the kitchen today”, everything would have been fine (we've tried it). I'd still have had to get used to the plates being here rather than there, as it were, but that's it.
If you spend your working day present, alert, aware of what's going on around you as well as to your own reactions, you'll have a much better chance of anticipating change.
This is one of the ways that mindfulness can be extraordinarily helpful to those of us on the spectrum. If you spend your working day present, alert, aware of what's going on around you as well as to your own reactions, you'll have a much better chance of anticipating change. You'll notice that Meg seems worried about the numbers, so you might have to revisit the marketing plan for that project. You'll notice that Alex looks tired and has been coughing, so you might have to pick up an extra shift. You'll notice that Keandra really likes the infographics you put together, so you might get to do more of that sort of thing. When you're paying attention, you have a much better chance of anticipating change, and thus not getting blindsided by it (like I was in the kitchen).
Another highly beneficial aspect of mindfulness for us autistics is being able to pay closer attention to ourselves! Many of us can get bogged down by inflexible thinking. This is also true of our ADHD companions and colleagues. We love our routines and patterns, and this can sometimes constrain us. This is where mindfulness about yourself can help, being present in your own thinking. You've got a problem to solve, and the usual approach isn't working. Getting trapped by rigid thinking can have us beating our heads against the wall, continually trying the approach that “should work”. Being present in that moment would allow you to see that you're getting nowhere fast, allowing you the presence of mind (pun intended) to realize that a different approach is warranted. The person who sits next to you always takes longer than they should for lunch, and this gets your goat because you respect the rules and are always on time. Yes, you could waste a lot of mental energy, getting yourself all worked up about a colleague's tardiness. Simply being mindful of your reaction, though, and how important a colleague's tardiness really is in the scheme of things (i.e. not that important) can clear unnecessary emotional baggage, freeing yourself up for a much more pleasant and productive day.
There I am, thinking a mile a minute, not realizing that I'm making no progress whatsoever.
Decision-making is another area that improves with mindfulness. I know I can get turned around, stuck in a loop as I try to figure out, for example, which next move would be the most productive. There I am, thinking a mile a minute, not realizing that I'm making no progress whatsoever. If I were mindful of my thoughts, however, I would see that I'm running about in circles rather than actually getting anything done. Being present as I'm contemplating the factors involved in an important decision allows me to step back and more objectively assess the situation before me. I can see each factor more clearly and can focus on the problem itself rather than getting waylaid by anxiety.
Being a bit too honest at work is something that's gotten me into trouble more than once (see also: this article about honesty in the workplace). I tend to focus on the problem at hand rather than, say, the egos of the other people involved in the project. I once got under the skin of a superior because, as we were discussing various possible solutions to a problem, I stated that such-and-such an approach simply wouldn't work. It was his suggested solution. He may have been my superior, but his approach to the problem still wasn't going to work. While it's good to be able to see a particular problem space free of insignificant encumbrances, it's still important to remember that people are involved (hint: their feelings aren't insignificant). That's easy to forget (at least for us autistics) when a particular problem is interesting or complex — especially when the problem is interestingly complex! Had I been present, I would have been aware that the problem itself was not the only thing going on at that moment. People were in the room, talking about the problem, all of whom had a vested interest in the problem. While bluntly pointing out the defects of a given proposal was a Good Thing for the project, it was not a Good Thing from the people perspective (nor for my tenure at the job, as it turned out). Being mindful would have allowed me to point out the benefits and deficits of different proposals without so glaringly bruising the ego of a colleague. The project still benefits (my original goal) but without … complications.
Most anything that can be grouped under the “executive functioning” umbrella can be helped with mindfulness.
Most anything that can be grouped under the “executive functioning” umbrella can be helped with mindfulness, with being present. Be it planning, paying attention, flexibility of thinking, problem solving or any other aspect of executive functioning, being present can help. Most of the difficulties we encounter with executive functioning boil down to us having difficulty stepping back from the proverbial, distracting trees to see the whole forest. To continue the metaphor, being present enough to be able to see the forest for the trees is where the pattern recognition skills many of us have can shine: we can notice all of the trees, not just those closest to us, and we notice how the trees are arranged, as well as how they might be rearranged to get a better result.
Distraction is the key.
Earlier I described a driver, distracted from the road by all sorts of thoughts — important in their life, perhaps, but not related to driving at that moment. But how does that driver learn to push all that cognitive noise to the background so as to leave enough room to focus on driving? How can you learn to step back so that you can more clearly see the situation at hand, both what's going on around you at this very moment and what's going on inside you?
Distraction is the key. All sorts of thoughts, worries, and musings can distract us very effectively from the moment in which we actually find ourselves. So we fight fire with fire. Or, rather, distraction with distraction. Putting it very simply, mindfulness can be achieved by distracting ourselves from those thoughts so that they don't take over. Being fully aware of the present moment is the goal. When all the noise of thinking about things in the past, in the future, nowhere really but in our heads — when all that cognitive noise distracts us from the present moment, we have the ability to regain control of our awareness by distracting ourselves with the present moment, thus dissipating all those unnecessary thoughts.
Quieting the mind?
The autistic brain has been found to be more active than the neurotypical brain. The notion, “quieting the mind” — commonly associated with mediation — can seem a near impossibility to an autistic brain, which has to manage a flurry of activity in its resting state (if not a tempest). Fortunately, we have no intention of attempting anything of the sort. In fact, the notion of “quieting the mind” is quite simply preposterous.
Your mind is going to have thoughts. Guaranteed. At times my mind would easily win a “most chaotic and cacophonous” competition with either Grand Central Station or the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I have no doubt you are familiar with the feeling. But we Spectrumites also have a superpower: hyper focus. Our ability to focus with intent is very much to our advantage as we learn the art of mindfulness. For it is with our focus that we distract our minds with the present moment.
I may not know you, but I'll take a wild stab and guess that you have been breathing your entire life. Good. You can use that.
The easiest way I have found to bring the present moment into focus is by doing something that all of us, autistic or not, have had a lot of practice with. Breathing. I may not know you, but I'll take a wild stab and guess that you have been breathing your entire life. Good. You can use that. Breathing has been at the core of many meditation techniques for ages. You can use breathing — meditating — as a way to become familiar with being present.
Give it a try. This is something you can do almost anywhere, at practically any time. Especially with practice. Okay, let's talk about this for a minute. Practice. As with most things, you get better with practice. Mindfulness is no different. The more you practice mindfulness, being present, the better you will be able to apply it in everyday situations. The important thing is not to get discouraged. And the method I'm going to describe to you makes that really easy: by virtue of trying, you have achieved the first level of success.
I like to sit when I meditate, but it's entirely a personal choice. If you sit, as I do, then try to keep your back straight. It doesn't matter if you sit in a straight-backed chair (without touching the chair back, please), or on the floor, or on cushions. If you prefer to lie down, keep your legs uncrossed (and try not to fall asleep!). Now breathe. Don't force it, just breathe comfortably and naturally. Pay close attention as you breathe. Feel the air rushing through your nostrils or your throat. Does it feel cool? Is the flow of air gentle or forceful? How far through your body can you feel your breath flowing? Pay attention to your lungs and your diaphragm. Watch how they rise and fall with each intake of breath and each exhalation. Feel the muscles moving as your lungs fill with air. What other parts of the body are affected by your breathing?
That seems like a lot to keep track of, doesn't it? And that's the point: by paying close attention to all that's going on physically with your breathing, you don't leave your mind enough room to worry about what Mildred said this afternoon (Check this out: even while simply reading about breathing just now I'll bet you didn't think of Mildred once, did you?). When you focus on something as simple (yet fundamental) as your breath, you regain some control of your mind. And that “some” becomes “more” with practice.
There is no room for judgment.
Don't get me wrong: thoughts are going to crop up. That's what minds do, they think. There's no point in trying to stop yours. Rather than work against your mind's natural tendency, work with it. Thoughts will come. Let them; just don't get caught up in them. At first, you will almost invariably find yourself in the midst of a thought, having forgotten to focus on your breathing. But do you know what just happened? In becoming aware that you were lost in thought, you have once again brought yourself right to the present moment! Your desire to remain mindful, aware of the present moment, has won a small but significant victory over the litany of thought trying to distract you. And you will win that small victory again and again, each time a triumph. So, no possibility of getting discouraged because you succeed every time you practice. You'll notice I didn't say, “each time you try”, because you're not trying mindfulness, you're practicing mindfulness — you're doing the thing!
But that's just the pep talk to get you started. As much as possible, don't think about what you're doing while you do it. When a thought shows itself, just give it a nod and return the focus to your breathing, not letting the thought take over. If the thought does manage to distract you from your breathing, don't kick yourself for having messed up — because you haven't. Remember: by simply noticing that you got lost in thought you've brought yourself back to your intended goal. You are again in the present moment.
Also, it's important to point out that while you observe yourself breathing you are only observing. The last thing you want is to allow judgment in. There is no room for judgment. You are not observing your breathing in order to change it in any way, you are simply watching yourself breathe. Your breath, as it is, is just a way to bring your attention to the present moment. If you were to start assessing how you are breathing then you start thinking about your breathing, which pulls you from the actual into the theoretical. Abut if that happens, don't sweat it: as soon as you realize that you've been caught in a thought, you've become present again and, kindly nodding to the thought that popped in to say hello, you can once again return attention to your breath.
Don't worry about achieving different states of Nirvana. That's not the point. The point is to practice mindfulness.
One of the ways in which I help myself stay focused on my breathing is by calling on my aspieness. I am a very visual thinker; concepts, for example, make sense when (quite literally, in my mind) all the bits fit together cohesively. So, for me, as I breathe in, my focus is bolstered by imagining the breath entering my body — my hollow body — as if the air were a billowing cloud, filling every part of me, from my head to my toes. As I exhale, I imagine any negativity (anxiety, worry, ire, etc.) leaving my body with my breath and dissipating into nothingness. As I exhale, I try to further relax each part of my body, feeling as if I am, in a sense, melting into the floor (while keeping my spine straight, mind).
As you practice you'll likely find a routine that feels right, that fits. Go with it. Don't worry in the initial stages about any of this, but instead focus on focusing on your breathing. Everything will fall into place, as long as you keep at it. Don't worry about achieving different states of Nirvana. That's not the point. The point is to practice mindfulness. That makes it easy: as long as you practice, as long as you take the time, even five minutes a day (I like to meditate for about twenty minutes each morning), then you are successful at it. Because you're doing it.
The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to intentionally find yourself aware of the present moment, alert and ready. The more you practice focusing on your breathing, the longer you'll be able to meditate without a thought whisking you off to someplace that isn't here and now. The more you practice meditation, the more you'll be aware of what you're thinking while you're thinking it, rather than blindly reacting in the moment and mentally going over everything later.
The beauty is that this can easily be done without drawing attention to yourself.
Oh, I still find myself realizing, after the fact, that things would likely have gone better had I been more present. I'm far from perfect. But it happens less frequently than it used to. I am more aware of myself and what goes on around me. I routinely use breathing to help myself prepare for a meeting, deliver a presentation, or get ready to meet some new people. By turning my attention to my breathing I can make sure I bring myself into the present moment, shedding most of the cognitive noise that could easily distract me from the task at hand. The beauty is that this can easily be done without drawing attention to yourself — at your desk, in an elevator, or even in the middle of a meeting. All you're doing is turning your attention to your breath. You can still look at Chuck as he drones on before it's your turn to speak (but really, also listen to what Chuck's saying, as it might be relevant later), but take a minute to notice how you're breathing, pay attention to it and soon you'll find yourself more present and aware. Now you can really listen to Chuck and be better prepared mentally for when it's your turn to speak.
Whether you practice mindfulness in a meeting with Chuck, or sitting quietly in your bedroom (or both), the point is to practice. By simply paying attention to your breathing you are bringing yourself to the present moment. By practicing this you are getting used to being present, getting used to pushing distracting thoughts aside, thoughts that serve no purpose in the moment. You are getting used to bringing yourself to awareness.
Just keep at it. Distract your mind with your breathing. Nothing more natural. Or more powerful.
For those of you who wish to explore this further, there are abundant resources. Just search in whatever medium you most comfortably learn from — maybe it's YouTube, perhaps online forums or Googling websites — and explore away. For my old-school self, it's books, and I'll recommend two of them.
The first is Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Rodale, 2011). More recently I encountered Mindful Living with Asperger's Syndrome: Everyday Mindfulness Practices to Help You Tune in to the Present Moment, by Chris Mitchell (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013). Both take a similar, stepped approach, and it is clear that Mitchell has been influenced by Williams and Penman (which is interesting, as I discovered these two books entirely independently of one another).
Both books walk you through a progressive set of meditations in a way that's easy to follow. Mitchell talks to the Aspie directly about the benefits of mindfulness for those of us on the spectrum, whereas Williams and Penman speak to a general audience. Either of them is a good resource; just check them out and decide which is a better fit for you.
If you're on a budget, there are also companion recordings to Mindfulness: http://rodaledigitalbooks.com/mindfulness/. While of course the book offers greater richness and depth, but in a pinch, the recordings by themselves can help you on your journey. Just take your time, listen, and keep practicing.
Velázquez, José L. Pérez and Galán, Roberto F. “Information gain in the brain's resting state: A new perspective on autism.” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 24 December 2013. https://doi.org/10.3389/fninf.2013.00037.
Lee Keown, Christopher, et al. “Local Functional Overconnectivity in Posterior Brain Regions Is Associated with Symptom Severity in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Cell Reports, 7 November 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2013.10.003.
Markram, Kamila and Markram, Henry. “The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 21 December 2010. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224.
Okay, so ... the article after my last, Why Neurodiversity Matters at Work, was supposed to be about workplace accommodations for the neurodiverse. That one's coming, still in the works. But there was a moment today, a moment that perfectly illustrates how awareness and understanding are, by themselves, 90% of the battle for accommodations. When there is enlightened awareness in combination with compassion and understanding, the accommodations will come.
This afternoon I was doing my physiotherapy (recovering from a titanium rod having been put in my left tibia, after a motorcycle accident in which the bike was totaled, making On The Road Again somewhat ... nostalgic) when my wife poked her head in the room and said, "I've got to run to the grocery store, do you want to ride with me?". I gave her the aspiest of all possible responses, saying, "I'm doing my physio" (those of us who have Asperger's Syndrome don't always move seamlessly from task to task). But I've been working on my own self-awareness, and in a moment was able to think beyond the task in which I was currently involved and realize that my wife might be asking this of me, not to find out if I'd been pining away, wanting to visit the grocery store, but simply to express a desire to spend some time with me. Duh. But that's quite often how we Aspies navigate the world of social interaction: more with intellect than intuition. So, again in a very Aspie manner, I ask my wife to clarify, and she says that, yes, she'd like to spend some time with me. So of course I said yes: it's important to grab quality time whenever you can, whether it's with your wife, your kids or a good friend — even a co-worker. So, off to the grocery store we went. It was entirely uneventful and, at the same time, some of the best fun I'd had all day.
This is why I am working to foster greater awareness and greater understanding.
It was as we were riding home that it struck me: this interaction worked because both my wife and I — the two of us Aspies — are aware of each others' and our own aspieness, and both of us understand what it is to have Asperger's Syndrome. My own awareness allowed me to realize that I needed to use my brain to compensate for an untypical Theory of Mind, and my wife's deep understanding allowed her not to react with a bruised ego to my very Aspie response to her asking if I'd like to ride with her. No fuss, no muss: we communicated with each other — free of judgment — and got the thing done.
This is why I am working to change workplace culture. This is why I am working to foster greater awareness and greater understanding of what autism is and how autistic people can add amazing value to your business.
I'd also like to thank my wife for being amazing. ❤
I don't like cars. Nope, never really have. If I never had to get into the driver's seat again I'd be delighted. But, for most of us, it's unavoidable right? I mean, let's face it: either you commute to work, run errands during the day or somehow need your car (or, in our case, minivan). Heck, some of us may even drive for a living. There are exceptions, of course. when I lived in New York City I didn't drive (I didn't even own a car) but since moving south driving has become unavoidable. For the first few years in the South I worked from home (bliss! – but that's another story) so my wife took the car and I had a scooter, now a motorcycle.
Why is that I don't like driving? I think it has something to do with the confinement of a car and the fact that it's harder to see clearly from inside a car than it is from a motorcycle. Now, some of you may be thinking about the fact that a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than a car, and without doubt you are right. But my comfort level is so much higher on a motorbike than it is in a car, so there is some mitigation. Aside from the obvious safety issue, there are some downsides to riding compared to driving: it takes longer to get going, as you have to put on all your gear; it can get chilly during the winter, even here in the South; the gear, if it's of good quality, can get expensive. But to my mind, the pros far outweigh the cons. For one, it's a heck of a lot easier to find parking for a bike than it is for a car! But the riding experience itself (I now commute to an office) is so much more pleasurable. Yes, there is the stereotypical feeling of freedom as you ride, but there is also a marvellous sense of unity with the motorcycle itself: riding requires that you move with your bike as you ride, which gives the sensation of being “one” with your bike. And there's more: I usually don't even get off my bike when filling up at the gas station (laziness or efficiency, take your pick); there is a sense of camaraderie with other riders; my bike gets better gas mileage than most cars; and then there's riding on a virtually empty road, often at night, when you can open her up and lean into the curves … amazing! There's also an undeniable “cool” factor that I forget about most of the time, until I'm on the elevator in full gear and someone else starts a conversation about riding, or until a kid stops and stares while I'm cruising along – the look of awe when I wave is delightful.
But whether you ride or drive, and no matter how much you may enjoy driving, there's always that one aspect of being on the road that gets in the way of enjoyment: other drivers!
Wouldn't it be lovely if the roads were always clear? I know, certainly, that when I'm riding my motorcycle, clear roads are the ideal! No cars in my way? Shoot: it's like a dream come true! But a dream it must remain (most of the time). I mean there's always that other driver who drives too slowly, doesn't signal, follows too closely, cuts you off, doesn't stop fully at stop signs (okay, that last one is a pet peeve I attribute to my Aspie/OCD). No matter where you go, there's always that one other driver who drives you (pun fully intended) round the bend! It seems you can't run even an errand or get to work without some jerk doing something stupid, or dangerous, or both. And of course it's always the other guy, right? I mean, we all drive perfectly well, don't we? I know I do (ahem).
But seriously, folks: don't other drivers sometimes (okay, frequently) make you mad? It's hard sometimes, isn't it, not to let frustration or anger take over, what with the number of people who must have gotten their driver's license through a correspondence course. Other drivers will either make you turn inward or explode outward; either you withdraw completely, such that driving is all but impossible, or you let the frustration out and flip them off or worse. This is where we lose control, having a meltdown or going into full road rage. And that's not good. Not good at all. But haven't we all been there at one point or another?
Let's look at what happens when we let other drivers get to us. Getting mad or having a meltdown requires a great deal of energy: your adrenalin rises, your blood boils, you want to scream. Heck, a lot of the time we do scream – at the other driver! That much anger or a serious meltdown can leave you drained, can't it? So, yeah: it takes a lot of energy. And it's our energy that's being expended, not the other driver's. Unless we make a point of letting the other driver know how pissed off we are, they probably aren't even aware that we're so upset. What happens to all this energy that we're throwing out there? Does it make the car in front of you go faster? Does is make the other driver signal at the next turn? Does it make the car behind you back off? Let's face it, no, it doesn't. When you stop to think about it, it's as if we think our energy is going to make a change to what's happening outside our car, as if we've got super telekinetic powers or something. But in fact, the only thing all that negative energy is going to affect is us. And it's not going to affect us in any positive way because it is, without question, negative energy that we're throwing – not “out there” but right back at ourselves. So, bottom line: we've exhausted ourselves by using negative energy on ourselves. Good plan, huh?
So what can we do? There may well be any number of techniques, but let me share with you what works for me, in the hope that it will work for you also. First of all, the most important thing is to be aware of yourself; be aware that you can, and probably will, get frustrated while driving. Start by doing no more than noticing that you are getting frustrated. Even if nothing else changes, and you end up angry or having a meltdown, if you noticed that you were going there before it was all over, you've made progress. Baby steps. With practice, you'll be able to notice right as it's starting to happen, and that's where it gets good. At that point, when you see your energy starting to rise, you can exercise some control, some restraint. Before things get bad, you can stop yourself and say “doesn't matter”, and, with that level of awareness you'll find, all of a sudden, that is doesn't matter! Yes, I know: you doubt that you can do this. So did I. But I thought about what happens to that energy. I thought about how it really only affected me and how that's not a Good Thing. I visualised myself trying to be some sort of Jedi master, moving the car in front of me with my telekinetic powers, and it became kind of funny. Once I could see the absurdity of using so much of my energy, and for nothing, it became easier. Now, when I start to see it happening, and I say, “doesn't matter” (saying it out loud helps). That's it, it's over. I realise that I'll maybe arrive three minutes later than I would have otherwise, but at least I'll arrive in a good mood, and that's a darn good trade off, don't you think? Yeah, it's not going to work every time; I lapse, you'll lapse, but you'll get better and better, and so will I.
Most of us drive cars, some of us ride motorcycles, some of us bicycles. Whatever the vehicle, the situation is the same: there are always going to be drivers on the road who do stupid things. And we have a choice: either we can allow the other drivers' antics to get to us or we can step back and realize that it “doesn't matter”. Remember that the only person who controls your reaction to any given situation is you. Ask yourself: do you want to get agitated? Do you want to get frustrated and angry? My guess is that your answer is, No, you don't. So, take action. Start to practice saying “doesn't matter” whenever some goof-ball driver does something stupid. I've found that my ability to enjoy a drive (or a ride) has increased dramatically, and you can do the same. Start small, just by becoming aware of what you're reacting to and build from there. Practice. You'll get better. Eventually you'll get to the point where it “doesn't matter”.