“We may never quite be where we actually are, never quite in touch with the fullness of our possibilities.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Many of us experience being fully present in the moment without getting distracted by thought-based interpretations of that moment – it just is. However, it is difficult to live in complete engagement and awareness in every moment. For many, there is a tendency to to be clouded by thoughts, feelings, and preoccupations a great deal of the time. This lack of awareness can be experienced as being on automatic pilot or “going through the motions.”
Mindfulness encourages us to intentionally disengage from automatic pilot and bring our full awareness back to the here and now. By doing this, we open up the full range of possibilities of how we can meet the present moment with absolute intention and awareness.
In the field of psychology there is an increasing amount of discussion of mindfulness and all of its benefits. It is important to pause to recognize that there are benefits of being on automatic pilot as well. When exploring and practicing mindfulness, take a moment to examine some of the advantages of not being present as well as being fully present and engaged.
In “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy,” Crane explains that “the term ‘automatic pilot’ describes a state of mind in which one acts without conscious intention or awareness of present-moment sensory perception.” The defining feature of being in on autopilot is that your awareness of the present moment is clouded. Some may be wondering what could possibly be “good” about having clouded awareness.
The Evolutionary Advantage of Automatic Pilot
When our attention is restricted in some way, we are only capable of attending to a certain amount of incoming stimuli/information at any given moment in time. Contrary to being restrictive, this allows us to engage in activity while being on autopilot, which allows us to go beyond the limits of autopilot. When we are learning a new skill, all of our attention/focus is required. As the new skill becomes an acquired skill, we no longer have to devote our complete attention to the task – it is automatic. In this sense, we are capable of consciously diverting our attention elsewhere while simultaneously completing a task.
Williams (2008) states, “The brain is a learning system. As neurons connect together into assemblies and assemblies into patterns, the brain is changing: new neurons are forming, and new connections between them are being made. Gradually the threshold for the firing of a whole pattern is lowered. We have learned a task.”
When we do not have to direct our complete attention to a familiar task, we are freed up to engage in a whole variety of other, more complex tasks. The ability to walk, drive a car, or type on a keyboard with a portion of our processing on automatic pilot is a vital adaptive skill. The effects of automatic pilot become harmful when we go on autopilot to process our emotional experience.
Automatic Pilot Creates Vulnerability
Along with our ability to learn and acquire new skills, we also have the ability to problem-solve. We are capable of reflecting on experiences from the past and considering how we can learn from those experiences to create better outcomes in the future. In much the same way as our ability to learn and perform tasks can go on autopilot, so with our ability to problem-solve.
Crane says that “often beyond our conscious awareness our thinking mind is engaged in judging, monitoring, and problem-solving aspects of our internal and external experiences.” The same problem-solving skills that give us so much benefit in many areas of our life can cause us pain and suffering when they affect our experience of emotional challenges.
Since so much of our mental rumination happens outside of our conscious awareness, we often do not even notice the devastating effects it can have on our emotional experience. Crane uses the metaphor of being put onto a train at a particular station and being unaware of where the train is going. You are not allowed to look around at the passing landscape while on the train. You reemerge from the train at another, foreign, place and you find the emotional landscape to be suddenly very different. When on autopilot emotionally, we lose sight of our emotional experience and become detached and disconnected from ourselves.
When on autopilot emotionally, it is easy to “slip” into one mood after the other or to spiral into a state of depression and then wonder how exactly you got there. It is in our best interest to be sensitively attuned to our emotional experience. By being mindful of our ongoing emotional state, it is highly unlikely that we will become so lost in our emotions that we no longer know what we are feeling or why.
Emotional Spirals are More Likely When…
- The mind is operating habitually (which involves ruminative and avoidant styles of coping), which decreases the ability to make conscious choices about how to respond to both internal and external experiences.
- The activities of the mind having an effect on one’s emotional experience without your conscious awareness.
- Having a narrowed and constricted experience of the present moment, which decreases the ability to perceive the full range of choices available.
Mindful Awareness & Autopilot
When we are in a state of complete mindful awareness to the present moment, it is the complete opposite of being on autopilot. Examples of being conscious of the present moment versus going through the motions:
- Instead of being distracted by each incoming stimuli, you have a conscious intention to direct your focus to a chosen person/object/thought.
- Instead of your attention being completely taken by thoughts and concepts, you are open to experiencing the direct felt sensory experience of the present moment.
- Instead of analyzing and judging whatever is currently happening, you have an attitude of openness and acceptance to the unfolding moment.
When we are on automatic pilot, we are unaware and out of touch with the present moment; our conscious awareness is clouded. While there are numerous benefits to be able to go on autopilot (e.g., performing tasks and problem-solving), autopilot becomes harmful when it applies to our emotional experience.
Consider the ways in which you can use your innate ability to go on automatic pilot in ways that are beneficial to you and in your best interest. Now reflect on the ways in which the tendency to go on autopilot is harmful to your felt emotional experience. How can you choose to be more present emotionally while simultaneously allowing yourself to use autopilot to help you engage in tasks and problem-solving?
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Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Featured image: 4:23 by jesse.millan / CC BY 2.0