Our Automatic Pilot: friend or foe?
Summary: How often are you thinking about something other than what you are actually doing? About our tendency to slip into the “Automatic Pilot” state, the first steps to get out of it and the reason why. Part 2 in a series about mindfulness.

Automatic Pilot: Friend or Foe?

Author: Eveline Stolk
Reading time:
 6 minutes

This blog is a follow up on my earlier post “Wherever you go, there you are”.

To start with the “bad” news: I fell asleep during my first meditation in the kick off meeting of the mindfulness training. “Well done”, another participant responded to my confession in the plenary discussion afterwards. I could hear some sort of admiration in his voice. It seemed he did not really understand the purpose of this exercise. As you might recall from my first blog, mindfulness is about being aware and awake (both figuratively and literally) in the present moment. Not about being subconscious while taking a power nap. What can I say? It was after lunch and I was lying on my back with my eyes closed. Big surprise I drifted away.

Before my little siesta, our teacher discussed the theme of this first meeting: the “Automatic Pilot”, a mode we all slip into quite often. “The key characteristic (of autopilot) is that awareness of the present moment is clouded,” I read. Clouded; I like that description. I try to imagine having a foggy mind, being not fully conscious. And I realize how many times I just do the things I do, without being actually “tuned in”.

The key characteristic (of autopilot) is that awareness of the present moment is clouded

– Rebecca Crane

Let’s take a quick look at the theory. For familiar tasks, we do not need our complete attention. Take riding a bike, for example. When you were learning this skill as a kid, first with training wheels and later with your dad running alongside you, all your attention and focus was required in order not to fall off. Nowadays, you probably don’t even recall most of the things you did during a bike ride. Turning left or right, stopping at a traffic light. You were on the phone with a friend, making up a grocery list, evaluating the meeting with your boss. Biking is now a habit, you can rely on your autopilot.

Thereby, part of our attention is freed up to focus on other, more complex activities. Our brain enables us to be more efficient, because we can do two things at once. That is a very useful quality of the human species; without it, we wouldn’t get much done. However, our autopilot often also drives our thoughts and emotions. Most of the time we do not recognize it: the mind wanders on its own.

Remember the last time you worried about something. A certain amount of worrying can help us, in finding solutions for our problems. But when we slip into our autopilot, our mind keeps running in circles on our well-worn tracks. The same (negative) thinking patterns emerge, as a habit, driving our emotional responses. You think about your “issue” a lot, having the same thoughts over and over again. This probably doesn’t make you feel better, does it? So your emotional state deteriorates and you start to feel stressed. This might even affect your actual behavior and you can imagine that being counterproductive. I cannot remember the last good decision I made, after an hour of worrying. However, we are usually not aware of all these processes. When we are on autopilot emotionally, we get disconnected from ourselves.

Our Automatic Pilot: friend or foe?

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I dive into some studies and find something that really fascinates me. Two psychologists from Harvard did research on mind wandering and its effect on happiness. Their starting point: “Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, (…) “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?”. Their method: a sample of 2250 people and an Iphone app that contacts participants at random moments, asking about their current activities, emotional state and possible mind wandering (e.g. “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”).

The analysis reveals that respondents spent 47% of their waking hours thinking about something not going on at that moment. Nearly half of the time! But what strikes me most is this: the respondents felt less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not. Even when thinking about pleasant activities. This is remarkable, to say the least. According to this study, also daydreaming about a holiday comes at an emotional cost. The article concludes, as the title states: a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. I could not wish for a better motivation to do this training. Being present matters!

We practice in class with a small exercise: focusing our attention on all of our senses, when eating a single raisin. We explore the tiny dried grape as if we never saw or tasted one before. There is a lot to see, I realize, when I feel the thing getting sticky on the palm of my hand. We take about 5 minutes for the whole ritual: holding, observing, smelling, touching, chewing, tasting and finally swallowing the raisin. I never take so much time for such a small bite, but being fully conscious, eating is a different experience. And the taste is much more intense.

Our Automatic Pilot: friend or foe?

Part of our homework is to take the first bite of every meal at home in the same way. Unfortunately I forget it every single time. I realize I eat on my automatic pilot quite often, usually not paying much attention to my food. Either my mind is wandering, or I am engaged in other activities. One of the things I learn this week: we are on autopilot a lot, but when it comes to my mindfulness practice one realizes how hard it can be to build a new routine… To be continued.

If you want to challenge yourself in getting out of your automatic pilot, try to perform a familiar task without your mind wandering. For example: brush your teeth with full attention, stay with it. Make it a daily habit. Another option is the first bite of your meal. Try the exercise I described above and share your experiences in the comment section. Next time, I will tell you about my first meditation experiences at home.