If we are all being honest each of us can think of a time when we were engaged in an activity and for whatever reason our mind and body went into auto pilot. For example, you’re driving to you favorite restaurant (you know the one you’ve been thinking about all day). You get in the car, turn on the ignition and the next thing you realize is you’re on the highway doing 65 miles per hour. You think to yourself “wait a minute! How did I get here? Did I drive through any red lights? Why don’t I remember getting to this point?” It’s very possible that your initial hunger took the wheel (figuratively speaking). However, it’s more likely that what you were experiencing in this moment is the effect of not being mindful of what is happening in the present moment. And once our mind and body notice that autopilot has been engaged for a period of time there is a brief pause which bring us back to the present.
This instance is just one of many daily occurrences where our attention is pulled in a different direction. Sure, driving and not being fully aware (even though slightly dangerous) typically doesn’t cause most people to be anxious. But what if you are stuck ruminating on thoughts about a not-so-pleasant event from last week, or whether or not the future will work in your favor or negative thoughts about any number of situations? What do we do when we’re being bossed around by our thoughts and emotions without even noticing? What if we are able to develop the skills necessary to notice when we are not paying attention and bring ourselves back to the present moment? The good news is that it’s possible to “train your brain” to do just that and in doing so, take back the control of your current mindstate in any situation. However, just like most things in life, the more effort you put towards this ideal the better equipped you will be to use this tool when needed.
So where do you start? I read a great blog post a few days ago that detailed the idea of pausing (here). Essentially, when we take the time to pause we are making space to observe the constant flow of life and it’s challenges as they currently are before we decide how to respond. As the post states “there is power in pause.” This monetary delay can be helpful because we are better able to separate emotions, thoughts and judgement from our current circumstances and act in a way that is measured as opposed to impulsive (which tends to happen when operating on autopilot). Also, it’s worth noting that pausing as described in the referenced post does not mean stopping indefinitely to consider all possible outcomes in pursuit of your initial quest. Ideally, this pause in action will be a momentary break in action with every intention to move forward as life continues to roll on.
Although there are many ways to begin to pause, in the heat of the moment I have found focusing on the breath and your senses is a subtle and reliable way to notice what is happening in the present moment. Let’s say I go online to purchase a sweatshirt that I’ve been waiting to be restocked for months and is finally available (true story). Although I am excited to potentially make this long awaited purchase it would be understandable to be a bit anxious about the possibility of it selling out before I click buy. I could focus on this story of defeat playing out in my head, curse the people who beat me to the purchase, consider alternative options and swear to always be the first person in line from this day forward. Or, I could take a breath, recognize my thoughts and emotions as the byproducts of a story that hasn’t fully played out in real life and do my best to successfully place my order and deal with the unavailability if/when it arises. Which option sounds more useful and is focus more on the present than the past or future?
Remembering to pause can be the difference between a life lived as a prisoner to internal and external factors or living freely in control of how we respond in a mindful way to the unavoidable occurrences that inevitably come our way.