Most of us make our way in our day-to-day lives going through the motions, reacting to the same or a variation of the same set of stimuli in the same way. Most of our activities and actions are automatic and habitual. This is not a bad thing; we wouldn’t be able to accomplish much if every moment took conscious choice – let’s see: left leg out, heel down, toe down … right, left, etc. Wonderful things, our unconscious minds. We intentionally and unintentionally feed things into them repeatedly (sometimes only once), and they take over for us; things that once took effort and concentration become second nature, and we are free to turn our conscious attention to something else. We make it through a stressful, even traumatic, situation and our unconscious “remembers” how we got through it, even when our conscious minds don’t. Our subsequent ways of coping with that sort of situation become automatic, even when they may no longer work or may even harm us. (That’s a topic I’ll further explore in a future post).
Given the inherent limitations of our conscious minds we need to make things automatic (i.e. we need to “delegate” them to the unconscious). We want to do things without thinking about what we are doing so that we can think about and do something else, so that we can move skills into mastery. So operating “mindlessly” is useful and often serves us. When we fully understand this, we can direct it better and intentionally create habits to our benefit. When we take responsibility for our experience and develop the self-awareness required to see when our automatic ways are not serving us, we can exercise free will and take steps to change those ways.
Paradoxically our automatic (unconscious) ways of being both free and imprison us. When something is unconscious, we can easily lose sight of its automaticity, whether it still works, and whether we would still choose it. This is where practicing mindfulness comes into play. Cultivating mindfulness as a practice has been an essential part of a number of contemplative spiritual and religious traditions. These practices, or secular versions of them, are being embraced today as methods of dealing with stress and of developing greater focus and concentration (again, material for another post). We don’t have to be an expert in one of these practices for them to benefit us. Just slowing down our “automatics” so that we can observe them is the first step to perhaps deciding to choose something different.
When we decide to become mindful, to slow down enough to truly observe – invoking what Eckhart Tolle calls “the watcher”—we can distinguish. Distinguishing (i.e. making a distinction) is the first step to true autonomy. In a previous post I discussed the power of distinguishing between demands and requests. Many of us practice distinguishing real physiological hunger from something that is only masquerading as such. One I am starting to be able to see is the difference between being excited to contribute to a conversation and feeling that I must interject my thoughts. The first comes from passion for life, the latter from a sense of scarcity—a sense that there isn’t enough air time to go around. Another example that I am working on discerning is the distinction between an impulse and an intuition. Using distinctions as a tool for self-awareness, for bringing the unconscious back into the realm of the conscious is a potent first step on the path to intentional self-determination.
Once we have made a distinction, we can practice noticing it. Each distinction is like a prism through which we can fully identify the automatic and then choose whether to continue with it or to choose something different. For example, when I distinguish that a given intense feeling of urgency is an impulse born of an emotional trigger, I may choose not to act upon it. On the other hand, when I distinguish that it is an intuition, I can choose to take action in short order. How did I make this distinction to begin with? First, it is important to note that this can and will likely be different for every individual. For me, I saw that certain emergent thoughts and behaviors led to stress and/or regret, while others were empowering and opened doors. I began to look for and note the differences between them – their context as well as their physical and emotional qualities. I experience my impulses as loud, jerky, and needy, like an imperative to assuage an addiction. On the other hand, I experience my intuitions as authoritative, quiet, consistent and grounded directives that are free of stress. If I wait a little while before acting on an intuition, its intensity or presence does not diminish. The opposite is true of an impulse. While there is a certain discipline involved in taking yourself off autopilot in service of greater freedom, it is well worth it. Effectively using autopilot means developing the skill to know when it is appropriate and when it is not. I encourage you to have a look and take the helm of your own life: distinguish, notice, and choose.