What we are today comes from
our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of
tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.” ~ BUDDHA
While the Buddha may have said that
over 2,500 years ago, today’s neuroscience is helping us to understand
the mind’s complex hard-wired mechanisms with stunning speed.
A 2007 study, conducted by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto showed that most of us are not consciously focused and are on “auto-pilot” 46.9% of the time. Our minds are wandering, not attentive to the tasks at hand or on immediate outside experience, instead we’re looking into our own thoughts.
So where are we when we are there – and not here?
Let’s start with a little primer on the so-called mind. According to Psychology Today, the unconscious is “where
most of the work of the mind gets done. It’s the repository of
automatic skills (riding a bike), the source of dreams, intuition and
the engine of much of our information processing.” It is where we store the beliefs and thoughts that are often too uncomfortable to handle emotionally.
Some of us tend to think of the unconscious as a “black hole of unacceptable impulses,” dark,
imposing and out of control. Think of the unconscious as the warehouse
of your “habits of mind,” which contain past memories and associated
experiences that continue to fire neurons that keep it active and in the
“present,” but out of your conscious awareness.
When we act on “auto-pilot” our
behavior tends to become repetitive. On one hand, auto-pilot functioning
is the brilliance of the brain at work. We don’t have to learn certain
things over and over again. I can type this post without having to
focus (much) on the mechanics of typing, rather I can concentrate on the
content of the material at hand.
The down side of this smartbrain functionality
is that our thought patterns become hard-wired through repetition.
Repetitive thinking and behavior reinforces existing neural networks –
so what we continuously do, say, think, etc. tends to strengthen
(literally thicken) our brain’s hard- wiring.
When we are operating with conscious awareness,
we are always breaking new ground neurally because we are generally
learning (even the slightest nuance) something new. We literally form
new cells (neurons) every time we shift our thinking in new directions.
I still look to Freud who defined the conscious mind as including everything that is inside of our awareness. When we activate our
conscious awareness we take ourselves off of aut0-pilot and engage the
rational functions of the pre-frontal cortex of our brain.
How We Process Experience
Reporting on the ground breaking Farb ’07 study, author David Rock described two distinct systems humans use to interact with the world.
The first system, called the “default network,” is the home of auto-pilot. It happens when you are mostly idle
(relatively speaking) and you think about yourself. This example
illustrates it well – you’re sitting on a beach on your vacation, it’s a
lovely day and there’s a nice breeze cooling you off from the sun.
Nice picture, right? But for many of us, we’re not sitting there in the
present moment, relishing the experience, taking it in – we’re
off thinking about what time we should be back and how much more or
less vacation time we have left.
David Rocks states it well, “When
you experience the world using this default (narrative) network, you
take in information from the outside world and process it through a
filter of what everything means, and add your interpretation. Sitting on
the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool
breeze, it is a sign that summer will be over soon.”
The other way of interacting with your world is through direct experience. Studies show more regions of the brain are activated when we are in this mode. You are literally more aware, taking in a far greater range of information through your senses in real time. You are as they say – out of your head and into your experience.
When we’re on auto-pilot we can often
go through an entire experience without any real recollection of how we
felt or the details of what happens. We are as the term goes, “phoning
it in.” It’s only when something out of the norm occurs that we break
through auto-pilot and that often is happening externally and not of our
People make phone calls, conduct meetings, send emails and give reports and they are just not there – where are they? Does it matter?
It matters if you want to be less reactive to external events and circumstances.
It matters if you want to develop more emotional balance in response to outside situations.
It matters if you want to be more attentive, achieve greater concentration and more focus.
It matters if you want to take in more information and experience what happens around you more fully
It matters if you want to show others that you are listening, caring, interested, concerned and empathic.
Being Mindfully Aware is Different from Being Aware
Much is being written about
mindfulness these days. Several significant studies have demonstrated
the positive impact of mindfulness “practice” on mental, emotional and
physical well-being. Research is on-going and is trending towards
revealing even greater benefits from becoming more mindful.
Because of its roots in religious and metaphysical practices, many people associate being mindful with meditation. While mindfulness meditation is
a valuable practice – learning to become more mindfully aware doesn’t
require you to sign up for any spiritual or religious beliefs.
Take this example –
Imagine that I ask you to look at your right foot. In doing this, I am
essentially asking you to become aware of your right foot, which you may
not have been before I brought it to your attention. In this act you
become conscious of your right foot. The question becomes what happens
in your thinking when you look at your foot (or anything). Do you notice
what is wrong with your foot?
When we bring mindful awareness
to anything, we are in fact, aware of how we are experiencing what we
see, hear, feel, etc. We are aware of the judgments – the perceptual
filters – we are bringing to the experience. In doing this, we are more
able to control the reactiveness of our responses. We notice what we notice.
We take in a greater field of information. We are aware that we are
aware. If we feel something (annoyance that our foot’s not that
attractive) we are aware of that feeling without being “caught” in the
Dr. Dan Siegel,
Clinical Professor and Co-Director of the UCLA Center for Mindful
Awareness Research, has been a pioneer in understanding the neurobiology
of mindfulness. He defines mindful awareness as “a kind of focused attention on the
workings of our own mind. It helps us to be aware of our mental
processes without being swept away by them. It enables us to get
ourselves off of auto-pilot and the ingrained behaviors and habituated
responses and takes us beyond the reactive emotions that we have a
tendency to get trapped in.”
It’s estimated that we humans have
about 60,000 thoughts a day. Auto-pilot works perfectly well for many of
the tasks we must carry out every day. But remember that many, if not
most (depending on your level of awareness) are dredged up
(automatically) from your unconscious old software. These thoughts
produce feelings and behavior patterns, some of which are unhelpful and
do not support who we are today – and where we want to be in the future.
Changing Unwanted Auto-Pilot Reactivity
Whether you are aware of it or not,
your brain is performing an amazing set of actions every moment that is
literally reshaping it as you think. Known as “neuroplasticity,”
the brain reorganizes pathways based on new experiences. Every time you
memorize a fact, learn something new – think a new thought – neural
networks are being reconfigured. This incredible process responds to
every image, concept and feeling you have.
Because of this remarkable science we
now know that your ability to be more mindfully aware plays a
significant role in reshaping your neural architecture. Just as the
therapist works with a client to make what is unconscious, conscious,
when you take yourself off of auto-pilot responses, you are rearranging
your mental, emotional and physical systems.
It is possible, through practice,
to turn off your unwanted auto-pilot responses. You’re building new
neural circuitry every time you do. It takes time, especially with
deeply ingrained behaviors and emotional triggers. Keep in mind that
every time you do, you reinforce the new neural pathway. That is why
repetition is so important.
- Notice more. Set an intention, even if it is only in one part of your experience to notice more about how you react.
your judgments. Notice how and what you judge, about yourself and
others. Judgments are big players in the auto-pilot circuitry.
attention to specific events where you seem to go on auto-pilot. Some
people even brag about it, like in meetings. Auto-pilot mode doesn’t
serve anyone – especially not you.
much more aware of how your body feels. The auto-pilot mode is often
associated with certain feeling states – boredom, frustration, anxiety,
and anger. Unless you want to keep triggering these emotional
responses, bring more mindful attention to what you feel and where you
feel it in your body.
more aware of how you are breathing. Breath is an emotional enabler.
There is a wonderful quote that says – “Your breath is a doorway between
your mind and your body.”
the stories you tell about your experience. Some people have a
recurrent narrative they offer about specific experiences. These
storylines are usually told on auto-pilot and are used to maintain an
emotional status quo. Sometimes they are not even factual, but we come
to deceive ourselves into believing they are true. Shake off the
stories; find some new ones, which speak more deeply to your real and
attention to the non-verbal feedback you are always getting from
others. When we’re on auto-pilot we miss valuable information from the
signals people are always sending each other, usually unconsciously.
Victor Frankl’s flawless quote illuminates the benefits of mindful awareness perfectly –
“Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space
is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and
As always, your comments, questions, subscriptions, tweets and shares (whew) are much appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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