Do you ever go to do something and then when you get there you can’t remember what it was that you wanted to do? Or log onto your computer to send an email and then when you start to read your emails you find yourself responding to others and then after 30 minutes to turn off the computer without actually having sent the original email? Or drive to the store to buy some food and end up taking the road towards work instead? Do you ever drive somewhere and then realise that you just don’t remember the journey?
This happens to most people and it happens to me a lot when I am overwhelmed or trying to do too much. It doesn’t mean that I have dementia or a poor memory, it simply means that I have been on autopilot – which means that mind has been hijacked by my current concerns. Habits that we do (like driving to work, or checking emails etc.) can be subtle and yet incredibly powerful. Without noticing, they can suddenly take you in a direction completely different from what you intended. It’s like the mind is in one place and the body is in another. Sometimes you can be so caught up in busyness that you just fail to see what is going around you at all.
Autopilot may not be convenient but it is no accident. Humans developed this trait in order to develop working memory so that, unlike other mammals, we were able to pay intermittent attention to a number of things, rather than just focus on one thing! However, this working memory is only able to hold a few things in mind and once you reach the threshold, things tend to be forgotten. It is as though one thought drives out another.
If there is too much racing around in your head your working memory begins to overflow. You start to feel increasingly indecisive and less aware of what is going on around you. You can become forgetful and exhausted, a bit like a computer that slows down the more applications you are running. Eventually the computer might freeze or crash and it can be the same with your mind.
We extend our working memory by creating habits. If we do something a few times the mind links together the actions – all of the muscle movements, nerve impulses, feelings etc. It is pretty amazing and by linking this all together using a habit, it uses only a little brainpower and very little awareness leaving you more working memory to do other things.
I am currently teaching my son to drive and I can see that he has a lot of tasks and information to take in and it’s hard for him to remember to do everything in the right order and at the right time etc. However, once we’ve been driving for a while we don’t even think about it and can have conversations, look out of the window, think about what we will cook for dinner in the evening and we take it for granted just how much we are able to do without even thinking.
At the weekend we were having people over to stay so I was frantically rushing around trying to get everything ready. I went upstairs to strip the bed so I could wash the sheets etc. and yet because I was juggling too many thoughts in my head about what needed to be done, I was on autopilot. As I got up the stairs I noticed that there were a couple of glasses left on the side so I picked them up to take them downstairs and wash them. Then I wondered if my children had left anything else around that needed to go in the dishwasher so I checked their bedrooms and then realised that the bins needed emptying so I grabbed them as well. When I got downstairs I realised that I hadn’t stripped the beds but I decided to take the bins back up with me and so rather than going directly to the spare room to get the bedclothes I returned the bins on autopilot and then came downstairs again. When I realised that I had forgotten again I stopped and made a conscious realisation that I was on autopilot and need to take back some control!
When you are fully aware of autopilot, you can start to do this. Some habits can be really useful (like leaving the house and checking everything is locked and you have your keys before going out) but because habits can trigger thoughts, which trigger more thoughts and more habitual thoughts, these fragments of negative thoughts and feelings can form themselves into patterns which can amplify your emotions. Before you know it, they may have become too strong to contain and then something could happen – a thoughtless comment from someone – and before you know it you can feel unhappy, irritable, disconnected and so on. The more you try and reason your way out of this, the more thought will just add to the melee – like opening more computer applications and making it even harder to think straight.
Instead, we need to find a way of stepping aside from this cycle. You need to notice your autopilot and start consciously choosing what you want to focus on. You need to relearn to focus your awareness on one thing at a time. Try this meditation to practice focusing your attention on one thing in the moment.
1. Take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand, or between your fingers and thumb. Focus on it, look at it as if you have never seen anything like it before. Can you feel the weight of it in your hand? Is it casting a shadow on your palm? How heavy does it feel?
2. Take the time to really see it. Imagine you have never seen one before. Look at it with great care and full attention. Let your eyes explore every part of it. Examine the highlights where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and the ridges.
3. Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring the texture. How does it feel between the forefinger and thumb?
4. Now, holding it beneath your nose, see what you notice with each in breath. Does it have a smell? Let it fill your nostrils and if there is no smell, or very little, notice that as well.
5. Slowly take the raisin close to your mouth and notice how your hand and arm know exactly where to put it. Then gently place it into your mouth, noticing what your tongue does to receive it. Without chewing, simply explore the sensations of having it on your tongue. Gradually begin to explore the raisin with your tongue, maybe roll it around your mouth.
6. When you’re ready, consciously take a bite into the raisin. Notice the effects of it in your mouth. Notice the taste it releases. Feel the texture as your teeth bite into it. Continue slowly chewing it but do not swallow it just yet. Notice what is happening inside the mouth.
7. See if you can detect the first intention to swallow as it arises in your mind, experiencing it with full awareness before you actually swallow. Notice what the tongue does to prepare for swallowing. See if you can follow the sensations of swallowing the raisin. See if you can consciously sense as it moves down into your stomach. If you didn’t swallow it in one go, notice the second or third swallow until it has all gone. Notice what the tongue does after you have swallowed.
8. Finally, spend a few moments registering the aftermath of this eating. Is there an after taste? What does the absence of raisin feel like? Is there an automatic tendency to look for another?
So how much conscious awareness do you really experience day to day? How many activities are you fully present for, like brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea or putting the washing on? As we get older, life can feel as though it is speeding up and there is less time for us to do everything. So what if we are wasting 50% of our lives by not being present and aware, how crazy is that? How much are we missing out on?
Why not try picking one activity to do mindfully every day this week. Notice the things you do habitually (e.g. if you sit on the same chair on the bus or in the canteen at work) and try to do them differently. Think back to the raisin meditation as you do the activity – experience the sensations, movements, smells, urges and impulses. Just notice what comes up. Try and experience it fully. Notice the difference that makes. By doing something mindfully in this way, we are re-learning how to focus on one thing at a time.
And as you get distracted and thoughts come up and take you away from the present, be kind to yourself. Just notice your thought stream in action. You may start to notice that many of them are utterly random, some are connected. You can choose to accept or reject the thoughts that the mind offers up. We so often forget this and think that thoughts are our reality rather than mental events that happen. A really nice way of dealing with them is to acknowledge them and let them go by naming them. You might say oh here is thinking, or worrying or planning or anxiety. This act of noticing is amazing – it shows you have started to become aware again.