From Auto-Pilot to Awareness: How Do You Get There?
Take One—Autopilot and Reactive
It’s 7:30A.M. The alarm sounds on your iPhone and you groan as you crack your eyes open, fumbling for the device to turn it off.
For all intents and purposes, this is the last intentional action you’ll take until you lay your head down to sleep some 16 hours later.
Every moment in between will be spent reacting to other people’s plans for your day.
Before getting out of bed (or even acknowledging anyone sharing it), you check your email to see who will be setting your agenda, based on their needs, followed by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and voicemail. By the time you’re ready to start work, your to-do list exceeds the day’s capacity and you’re living in a future set by someone else’s agenda.
Every step along the way, your mind is somewhere else.
Reacting to prompts, things other people tell you are important without ever stopping to ask whether they matter to you. It’s gorgeous out, but you don’t notice. Your kid, partner, lover, or parent smells great, terrible, or fruity, but you don’t pick it up.
You might stop for a drink at your favorite coffee spot (which might just be your own kitchen counter). Waiting for your coffee, you check your phone again. And it’s not just you –– you can see from the “Live” statuses that everyone is buried in their collective apps.
You get to work and spend the next eight hours responding to email in real time, checking to-dos off your list, rifling through Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat again, and again, and again. Checking voicemail and calling people back.
Refresh, refresh, refresh.
Check, check, check.
React, react, react.
Awareness is the seed of more aligned being and doing.
It’s also incredibly well researched. Turns out, beyond its impact on your ability to more readily see, choose, and create the life you want to live, a mindfulness practice can also improve memory, cognitive function, decision making, sleep, mood, and your ability to handle stress.
So how do you train the average Western mind, now boasting a shorter attention span than that of a goldfish, to focus and become more persistently aware?
Here are the basic instructions:
- Find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. Be sure to turn off all devices that might call you into “checking” mode. If you use a timer app on a device (I recommend the InsightTimer), be sure to put the device into “Do Not Disturb” mode.
- Sit with your spine erect but not rigid, and your head sitting gently in a neutral position.
- Your eyes may be closed or slightly open.
- Take a few long, slow breaths to settle in and bring your attention to your breathing.
- Notice the sensation of your breath as it enters your body. Feel it entering your nostrils. Feel your chest and belly gently expand as you inhale and relax down as you exhale.
- After a few breaths, notice where it is easier to hold your attention, the sensation of breath as it enters your nose or the sensation of your body expanding and relaxing as you breathe. Then focus your awareness on whichever sensation is an easier anchor.
- Breathe gently and relax, holding your attention to the sensation of your breath.
- At a certain point, maybe after just a few seconds, your mind will wander to thoughts or emotions.That’s perfectly natural. Notice that, too. Then, with your next exhalation, silently say, “Thinking,” and let that thought ride out with the breath as you refocus your attention on the breath. This may happen hundreds of times, especially in the beginning, and it’s all fine.
- Just keep coming back to your breath, without judgment or expectation.
For many people, it’s much easier to begin this practice with someone else guiding them. In fact, that simple shift can turn it from something you “have” to do into something you “love” to do and look forward to. So I’ve created a 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-minute guided audio mindfulness practice for you to download and listen to right here.
All you need to do is download it to your chosen device and then, first thing in the morning, sit gently and listen. In fairly short order, you’ll notice the effect. It will set up your day in a very different way. Over time, you’ll find the calming and focusing effect will increase. You’ll become more aware of the moment, less reactive, and more capable of pausing, seeing, intending, and choosing the actions that will put you back in charge of your life.
I invite you to join us in daily explorations to see what filling your Good Life Buckets looks like. These explorations are challenges that also provide specific ways to learn more about yourself and become more intentional about the way you live.
For today’s exploration, I invite you to download to your phone or computer the guided mindfulness practices I’ve recorded for you.
Start with the five-minute version, first thing in the morning. All you need to do is follow the instructions. The practice is a great setup for a more aware and intentional day. Over time, you may find yourself wanting to organically move into the longer versions. You can make that shift if and when you’re ready. It’s also important to know that you’re still doing fine if you never shift. If you choose to continue to listen each morning (can’t recommend this enough) and grow into a longer practice, it’ll begin to deliver more sustained benefits that will seep into nearly every area of your life.
Now, for those type-A awareness challengers, here are a few more extras you might want to explore to reclaim awareness, intention, and choice:
- Go “push free” for 24 hours. There’s a good chance you have your computer, phone, watch, and any other wired device set to automatically “push” notifications to you every time someone else wants to take control of your life via email, Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. Here’s your challenge: for a single day, turn off all automatic notifications on all devices. The more the thought of that gives you hives, the more reactive your life has become and the bigger the need to take it back. To become aware and choose.
- Set awareness triggers. Set your watch, fitness tracker, smart watch, or smartphone to trigger a vibration alert mid-morning, just after lunch, mid-afternoon, and late afternoon. For phones, this can often be done by setting an alarm and choosing a vibration pattern instead of a sound. Whenever you feel the vibration alert, take a slow breath in and a slow breath out. You don’t even have to stop what you’re doing, but notice where your awareness is. Is your attention spinning into the future or trapped in the past? If so, take a few seconds to guide it gently back to the moment. Notice what’s going on around you, what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with, and why. Notice whether your attention and your actions are placed on what truly matters most. If so, smile gently and take another slow breath. If not, guide it back to now, then do the same. The more you practice with these mini awareness interventions, the more they become baked into the day and the easier it becomes to reclaim intention and take more deliberate action.
Autopilot or awareness: it's up to you.
The good news is, like so much work you do to live a good life, the effects are cumulative, and it only takes a tiny little bit of focus to get started. So try that 5-minute awareness practice for a week, and see for yourself –– it really can work that fast, and have effects that ripple out to the whole of your life.
(This is an adapted and updated excerpt from How to Live a Good Life, by Jonathan Fields, Hay House, 2016.)