Ever intend to have just a few bites of ice cream, then been startled to hear your spoon scraping the bottom of the pint?
Ever check your smartphone multiple times, despite knowing it's out of battery?
Ever finished work, gotten in your car and arrived home thinking, "how did I get here without paying attention to the drive?"
Well, you're not alone.
Accumulating research suggests that much of our waking life happens while we are on autopilot. Most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors occur automatically and unconsciously.
The human mind is hardwired to transform our mundane daily activities into unconscious and automatic habits. Running on autopilot gets us through life without spending precious calories on every little decision and action, which frees us up to do more important things.
It's really quite amazing; autopilot allows us to perform complex and dangerous tasks, like driving, while we drift into the world of imagination!
The only problem with this autopilot tendency is that we often form bad habits that hinder our personal development. Many of us unwittingly spark a cigarette whenever we have a cocktail, despite wanting to quit. And sometimes we unconsciously destroy pints of vanilla (and our diets) while we watch reruns of Law & Order. Running on autopilot can be a great thing, but it often means doing things we don't really want to do.
Obviously we want all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of this phenomenon, but what are we to do? How can we turn off autopilot and consciously choose healthier behaviors? How do we solidify better habits and become our best selves?
Mindfulness Meditation To The Rescue
Many of us view mindfulness meditation as a bunch of hippie dippie new age poppycock, just something people do to appear holier than thou or fit into the bohemian sub-culture.
The science begs to differ.
There has been an avalanche of recent studies that affirm the benefits of this ancient practice, and it has become difficult for a science-minded person to deny its value in enhancing well-being.
Mindfulness meditation has been associated with decreased anxiety, greater cognitive control, and improved health. It helps with performance on standardized tests and improves energy levels. It works wonders in many different areas of life, but most interesting for our purposes - mindfulness has been shown to take us off of autopilot.
Research suggests that it weakens unconscious habits and enables more deliberate and self-directed behavior. As renowned psychologists Kirk Brown & Richard Ryan wrote, mindful attention "can interfere with the development and unfoldment of automatic, habitual responses... to choose the form, direction and other specifics of action."
In essence, it gives us freedom from our unconscious habits, so we can choose with our full attention. Mindfulness can be a key to consciously choosing new behaviors, which in turn become our new habits that lead to our best selves.
How Does It Work?
Mindfulness boils down to a non-judgmental and intentional awareness of the present moment. It is a pure form of attention training, and when we train our attention in this way, it gets stronger. With mindfulness, we begin to take notice of our automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they occur, empowering us to adjust accordingly. We take note when we're plowing through pints of Ben and Jerry's, which allows us to consciously do otherwise.
Mindfulness puts us in the driver seat and empowers us to behave the way we really want to. With repeated practice of new behaviors, they become habitual. Our new, better behaviors actually become our new autopilot protocols. Eventually we don't even have to think about doing what's best for us, our unconscious minds take care of getting us where we want to go.
If we stop to consciously eat healthier or pay more attention during conversations, we instill and automatize new behaviors - eventually we lose the weight and become the good listeners we always wanted to be.
Mindfully selecting our habits in this way is a bit like consciously reprogramming our unconscious, which is just plain cool if you think about it.
The Reality Of Mindfulness Practice
This endeavor shouldn't sound easy or like any kind of panacea. Whenever we see mindfulness represented on the cover of Time magazine, it's a woman who looks like she's just had a week at the spa and achieved enlightenment. The truth is, mindfulness training is hard work. It can be boring and frustrating. It can be difficult to find the time -- but it's worth it. If we put in the time, we gain substantial rewards. We put a stop to counterproductive autopilot behaviors, instill new habits, take control of our identities, and become our best selves.
So give it a try. Start with the following guided meditation. Make a realistic meditation schedule for at least two weeks and give it a real go. Eventually you'll arrive at your destination and wonder how you got there.
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About the creator of the guided meditation: Cory Muscara is the founder and head teacher at the Long Island Center for Mindfulness, where he utilizes his extensive professional training in Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, and Integrative Health Coaching to facilitate a client's creation of, and movement toward, their optimal vision of health and well-being. For more information on Cory, visit his website: http://www.corymuscara.com/