Have you ever had the experience wherein you were driving home from a busy day of work/ school/ or other draining activity and you realize that you arrived at home, but don’t remember getting there? It’s as if the body went into auto pilot mode. This most frequently happens for me when I’m conducting my morning routine. Did I actually brush my teeth? I can’t remember. What did I wear yesterday? No idea.
I realize that this is likely a coping mechanism to allow the mind to rest, but I also have experienced this “auto pilot” to be detrimental to my everyday life. A problem arises when I start going on autopilot and actually miss living.
Last summer was an eye-opening experience for me of realizing that I was dealing with an incredible amount of stress and was anxious and generally unhealthy as a result. After some time reflecting on that experience, I realize that there were several things in my life which did not resonate with who I am, what makes me come alive, and how I live my ethics/ core values. During the summer, I knew I needed to take some serious reflection time. I need to examine all the “yes'” that I had committed to without much thought. I had just finished a biology degree and was headed into seminary, so I figured it was as good a time as any to examine myself.
So I enrolled in a mindfulness group. At first, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and wondered what I had just gotten myself into. It turned out to be an incredibly enlightening experience. I realized that a great deal of my time was spent worrying about unrealistic worries; I learned to name these thoughts as “frequent flyer” thoughts. Part of the harm of these frequent flyer thoughts is that they took away from me actually living in the moment and enjoying it for everything that it was. By “living in the moment,” I mean actually tasting the food that I ate, feeling the joy of a hug, committing myself to a conversation without a totally unrelated running narrative going through my head, listening to the crickets singing, stopping to bathe in a sunset, giving attention to so many beautiful and good things that I have in my life.
When I first started trying to be mindful last summer, I literally challenged myself to pay attention to how it feels for a toothbrush to go over my teeth, how a hot shower feels, what summer squash & onions smell like cooking, to say a prayer and really mean it, and how a field of lightning bugs takes me back to childhood. Just like training muscles to lift weights, it took practice and continual attention. But it paid off for me.
For starters, I realized that I did not enjoy Captain Crunch at all.
And I really, really don’t fancy sugar in my coffee. No, thanks.
This is important.
Secondly, I began realizing that my energy shifted from being anxious to grateful. And I was able to gain much more perspective on things. I analyzed where I spent my time and was my time given to life-giving or energy-draining opportunities.
I think it also helped that I surrounded myself with folks who supported me in this mission and who also did this work themselves.
I still experience the “frequent flyer” thoughts and autopilot moments, but when I do, I am able to name them as such and give them way less time and weight. I feel more and I don’t let autopilot guide my relationships. This may seem small, but for me, it has been life-changing.
Have you experienced “auto pilot” mode? If so, what have you found helpful?