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I headed straight into L.A. rush hour in a Lyft Line with a meditation teacher to pick up strangers. Would it give me a newfound appreciation for life on the road? Or would it be Hell in a Prius?

August 03, 2016

It’s Tuesday evening at rush hour, except it’s not: the roads are inexplicably clear. We’ve been driving for 45 minutes, and no one has requested to ride with us. So it’s just the Lyft driver, Adriano, the meditation teacher, Natalie, and me. This is terrible.

The caricature of Los Angeles includes traffic and meditation, but not together. But what if they were to go hand-in-hand, just for a moment? Sure, anyone can achieve some level of Zen in a mood-lit studio or private space. But stuck in America’s Worst Traffic? That’s when you need it. Driving in L.A. is blood sport: it’s dodging texting drivers, road rage, the sudden execution of a four-point turn in a busy intersection (wha?), parking lot curses that qualify as hate crimes in some cultures. That requires a professional level of calm. 

Enter Natalie Bell. I was curious: could meditating ease the pain of traffic? If no actual meditation occurs, is the mere presence of such a person enough to soothe the harried? I called Unplug, an L.A. meditation studio that’s expanding to New York. I pitched my idea: a rush hour rideshare carpool with a teacher, picking up strangers. Owner Suze Yalouf Schwartz suggested Bell. “Nothing phases her.”

So here we are.

For the uninitiated, ride share companies offer a carpool option, e.g. Uber Pool or Lyft Line. For riders going in the same direction it reduces fares and, presumably, traffic and pollution. In the best of times, it’s kismet: I’ve heard stories of business networking, guys picking up dates, and once, two escorts cruising Bel Air and picking up a guy they turned into a client. Other times, the mapping algorithms that define proximity in ways are, in reality, very inconvenient. 

I’ve never met her, so thank God Natalie is cool. A self-anointed guru would’ve been tough. Ditto hipster monk in a manbun. She’s attractive, wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. She just taught meditation at a television network. Her voice is the right timbre of calm. Natalie, refreshingly, is not a pusher.

“You don’t have to become a ‘meditator,’” she says. Her husband doesn’t even meditate, though she thinks it would benefit him. “You just have to start paying attention on purpose. Focus your attention and regulate how you’re feeling in your body. Become the observer.”

This is comforting. I’m an insomniac and occasionally listen to meditations on my iPhone. Usually they put me to sleep so I don’t really “do” the meditation. In yoga, I can handle about three ohms and guidance into corpse pose. So this is a teachable moment. It’s nice to know I haven’t already screwed it up.

“Some difficult thoughts and emotions might be going on, and you start watching them. You might even name them: ‘I’m getting restless, fidgety. I’m starting to feel pressure in my head. I’m getting a little irritable and upset,’” Natalie explains. “So you start noticing from a third-person perspective: ‘I’m starting to freak out.’”

Even Natalie’s not immune to traffic angst. She experienced it hours earlier driving from the west side to Universal City. To anyone familiar with SNL’s “The Californians,” that means she went from the 10 to the 405 to the 101 and back. “I was kind of pushing it on time. One of my best friends calls and she’s starting to get emotional. And it’s 2:25 p.m. I have to be there at 3 p.m.”

She describes the universal experience on the 405 Freeway, the most clogged in the U.S. “Anything could happen. It all looks good, but then something happens on the freeway. And the more freeway you have, the more potential for something to go wrong.”

This is where I fall in love with Natalie: “I felt stress, so I went: ‘OK, just observe it.’ What I’ll do is broaden my perspective. I’ll say: there’s much more to my life right now than this one emotion,” she says. “So of course I look at the clock again. And I thought: Did I just leave too late? Could I get screwed this one time? But then my tension got distracted by my friend’s conversation. So we can use distractive attention, to come away from stress.”

The drive from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles is 17 miles. If you leave at 4 p.m. on a weekday, you budget two hours. Once it took me three hours and 15 minutes. The return? Twenty-three minutes. Yet we are zipping along.  

I wonder if this was the worst idea I’ve ever had. I’m anxious, a little carsick. Poor Natalie. She has already driven two hours today. What if no one requests a Lyft Line and I dragged her into this for nothing?  What about my assignment? Is it salvageable?

We re-route to catch Hollywood-bound traffic, hoping to pick up a rider.

It works: Adriano’s phone finally rings! We pick up Susanna at a café near Pico and Fairfax. As she gets into the car, the three of us literally cheer. I hop up front; she joins Natalie in the back.

Our enthusiasm is over the top, but Susanna rolls with it. She’s 26. She has just decided to move to L.A. to pursue a career in performance, today. She’s on her way to do improv for the first time with a guy she just met. There’s drama with some other guy. She was at the café for six hours—the friends she’s staying with didn’t give her a key; she doesn’t know where she’s sleeping tonight. She’s on an adrenaline bender. She’s stressed about money so all she’s consumed is coffee and cigarettes. Luckily for her, I have snacks. I pass her an orange. She’s game for meditation.

Natalie tells Susanna to focus on what she’d like to project on stage soon, what qualities she’d like to see in herself. It gets quiet as Natalie’s voice drops. Susanna’s eyes close.

I focus on staying in Adriano’s car because our Lyft ride has technically ended. It’s actually not so easy to request a specific driver, even if your phone is literally on top of his. This logistical dilemma and the blaring Waze directions must be annoying. But after a few minutes of silence in the backseat, Natalie begins to talk again and asks Susanna about distractions.

When Susanna speaks, her voice is slower than before. “I realized, not to let fear take over. And if I can’t control the fear, use it tonight,” she says. “I feel good. I feel at ease… I have whiskers I just found on my chin that I want to pluck.” 

“That’s just part of what’s going on right now,” Natalie tells her. I chime in: “You’re more than just your chin!” This is a callback to Natalie’s earlier tip about our lives being more than one moment. Adriano confirms he sees nothing.

“We wanted to help you with these practices,” Natalie says, a simple benediction. We’ve arrived at the strip mall.

“The thing though, is that this, just connecting with people, helps me… I love riding Lyfts,” Susanna says. Understandable, considering L.A. is isolating and she’s new. 

Adriano gave her a hug. Our makeshift tribe: driver, teacher, reporter. I suddenly feel iffy about releasing her into in the wild of uncertainty. We’ve only known her for 30 minutes.

Now we’ve been in the car for two hours. We stretch and find a bathroom. It feels like a family a road trip.

Back on the road, we immediately pick up RJ in West Hollywood, en route to The Abbey, a club that’s ground zero for gay L.A. He’s on his cell phone as he enters, upset. “I don’t give a fuck! None of their bullshit, none of their drama is my fault but they’re taking it out on me,” he says. “At this point the amount that I care—it only exists in theory.”

Adriano and I lock eyes and giggle: this guy could totally use some meditation. This being L.A., someone could be raging that a latte wasn’t hot enough. RJ continues: “There’s no excuse. If they are going to value their own personal bullshit over coming to my fucking wedding, then fine! Don’t expect to ever hear from me again.”

Oh, I think.

“I am in a Lyft Line and all these people are gawking at me.” 

RJ is getting married in two weeks and some of his extended family members aren’t coming to the wedding—he assumes the cause is homophobia. He and his fiancé have been together for six years, he says. “I just thought I would have been past all that by now.”

Natalie makes small talk, asking questions. Both men had held their bachelor parties in Vegas over the weekend. By the time we unveil our social experiment, we’re pulling up to the club. It’s a party for The Real O’Neals. RJ’s a writer, so it should be good networking.

RJ’s done yoga and qigong, he says. “Now that I think about it, I’m probably overdue for a class or two.”

Natalie asks if the situation would’ve affected him differently if he had been going regularly. “I was blindsided. I literally got the text while I was outside waiting for the car. I didn’t even have time to activate that sort of self-care. I wish I had shut my mouth earlier,” he said, bashful. “I would love to have her around for the rest of this [wedding] process,” he says as he exits and we wish him well.

When RJ first got in, I didn’t want to stoke his irritation. As he talked to Natalie he relaxed into a thoughtful guy fairly quickly. I was curious about what Natalie would say, if her presence alone were relaxing. “I think it is,” Adriano said. As we connected to RJ on a social level, we worked past the tension in the car.

It’s been said that ride share has urbanized L.A., because you can ditch the car. Sure, that’s true. But beyond that, it forces you to interact with strangers, at times rubbing up against them as you share space, music, and smells not entirely your own. That makes a city a city, be it New York or London or Beijing. The myth of L.A. is that you can avoid that, in the bubble of your car.

For a few hours, we punctured the bubble.

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