Tune Off to Tune In

I have a strange relationship with the radio. At home, I seldom listen to the radio. I turn it on briefly to listen to the news or a specific program, then turn it back off. I don’t use the radio for background noise; I find it rather irritating.

In the car, things are different. The radio is on nearly all the time, incessantly bleating out news, traffic reports, music, and current affairs. Sometimes I’m actively listening to the radio, and other times It’s doing little more than masking the noise of tires on asphalt.

One day, I turned the car radio off. After decades of driving with the radio on, the silence was initially unnerving. Could I stand it for a fifty-minute drive? Would habit overcome self-control and compel me to snap the radio back on? It seemed strange that, while I could barely tolerate the radio on at home, I could barely tolerate the radio off in the car.

I experienced something extraordinary during the drive. Without music or radio chatter to absorb my attention, my awareness of my surroundings expanded. Driving along country roads, I noticed?and felt a connection with?signs of spring. Greening trees with a white blanket of trilliums below, vees of Canada Geese pointing north across the sky, and neat brown rows of freshly-sown fields, all contributed to my awareness of the season. With the radio on I see those things. But with the radio off, I notice them.

Soon I forgot about the silence. What attention I didn’t need for driving became absorbed in my surroundings. My head pivoted from side to side to take in as much as I could. I was driving a familiar route yet I was seeing things with fresh eyes and keen interest.

I saw livestock?cows, sheep, goats, and llamas?cooling themselves in shady spots and, I imagine, enjoying the outdoors after a winter spent confined to barns. I saw a hunter’s blind (how long has that been there?) on the border between a field and forest. A few kilometres later, I saw a deer bounding across a field, its tail wagging like a dog’s. I rolled down my window and heard birds chattering and lawn mowers humming. The air was scented with cut grass, soil, and freshness. (Yeah, and manure, but It’s not an unpleasant smell when at a comfortable distance.)

When I drive with the radio on, I reflected, I feel like my car is a self-contained bubble, moving?untouched?through the landscape. My focus is inside: the radio, my thoughts, my car. My attention is only outside as much as is needed to navigate my private bubble along the road.

Quieting the radio quieted my thoughts and brought me into the landscape. Instead of my usual thought-stream of planning the next hours and days, I was fully in the moment, physically and mentally. It was like meditative driving: still driving, but with a calm mind and a clear awareness.

What began as an experiment in self-control and habit-breaking, blossomed into an exercise in mindfulness. Turning the radio off tunes me in to the world. My world extends beyond the hood of my car: It’s full-colour, real, and I’m in it, not just passing through it.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario