In the rapidly exploding world of contemporary mindfulness, a distinction is frequently made between living mindfully and being on autopilot. For example, you’ll hear mindfulness instructors talk about those times we’re in the shower but not really there, unaware of the rush of warm water upon our skin, thinking instead about something else, say an important meeting we’ll be participating in later that day. Another example often heard in mindfulness classes is the experience of driving a car and suddenly realizing some minutes (or maybe even many minutes) later that we’ve been seemingly lost in some stream of daydreaming, effectively unaware of the other cars, the road, the surroundings, or the fact that we were even driving in the first place! Mindfulness teachers typically describe this state as “being on autopilot,” emphasizing the value of practicing mindfulness as a way of countering this habitual tendency to be move through our lives with minimal or even no awareness.
While on the surface, the difference (between the mindfulness and autopilot modes) seems a reasonable one to make, a closer looks reveals several ways this conventional distinction is somewhat misleading. Let’s take the example of driving down the road only to realize we’ve been largely absent from the whole process and experience of driving our car: is it actually the case that we were not aware of what was happening during such times? Were we truly checked out, absent from the experience altogether or were we simply utilizing a different, less conscious mode of cognitive, perceptual, sensory processing in order to drive effectively? Suffice it to say, we likely wouldn’t have made it safely down the road had we been say blindfolded, or even worse, suffered a stroke or seizure and been rendered unconscious! So what’s going on here?
Well, rather than seeing this mode of “driving on autopilot” in largely negative terms (i.e., as evidence of our lack of mindfulness), from another vantage we can see it as a quite extraordinary human capacity and mode of intelligence. For example, think for a moment about all that was actually happening with little if any conscious awareness, control, or intention—the incredibly subtle changes we were making to the steering wheel in order to keep the car on a relatively straight line; the almost constant adjustments we were having to make with both the brake and accelerator pedals in order to safely alter our speed in consort with the ever-changing flow of the other cars on the road; and, the effortless and near constant scanning of the visual field for potential obstacles, all without having to think consciously about any of it! Contrary to the autopilot critique, it isn’t that we were unaware of what what happening as our car hurtled down the road at 60 mph surrounded by and navigating around and between all the other cars. It’s just that we were utilizing a different, less conscious mode of intelligence and awareness.
This example of driving can be seen as somewhat analogous to the experience of walking. Like driving, we have the capacity to walk without paying careful, moment-to-moment, attention to what we’re doing, without having to consciously think about how we’re putting one foot in front of the other, without needing to attend to each footfall or having to bring conscious attention to the activity of maintaining balance. And because we do not have to think about or engage in the activity of walking with any sort of intentional, focused awareness (i.e., mindfulness), we are able to walk while we say talk to a friend, plan our day, look at the scenery, or compose a letter in our head.
It would seem from these two examples of driving and walking that we are quite capable of exercising multiple modes of awareness (both conscious and less conscious), simultaneously. True, our primary focus at times might not be on consciously attending to or exercising control over the moment-to-moment experience of walking or driving. But even if there is another object being emphasized or attended to (e.g., reflecting on a difficult conversation we just had, thinking about an important presentation we’ll be giving later that day), some part of awareness is still taking in and processing what is occurring “outside” of whatever other content may be temporarily occupying attention. We could say that in such moments, awareness is occurring in or across multiple domains even if certain aspects of the experiential field are more center stage. For these reasons, rather than saying that if we’re in the shower or driving our car and thinking about an upcoming meeting that we are somehow being unmindful or unaware, we can simply say that in those moments, awareness is focused less specifically on the actual perceptual/sensorial experience of being in the shower or driving the car and is instead, attending more centrally to some other aspect or dimension of the moment (e.g., thinking, daydreaming, imagining).
Apropos this, if we look carefully at the actuality of human experience, we can also begin to question the oft heard distinction made in mindfulness teachings between moments of mindfulness and moments of un-mindfulness. It turns out that this is also a misleading distinction for with the exception of moments of deep, dreamless sleep or anesthesia, there really is no such thing as a moment without some degree of mindfulness or awareness. Let’s take another common example from the mindfulness world to illustrate this.
Students of meditation will typically be given some object to focus attention on, say the breath. The instruction will be to maintain focus there, to remain present with say the sensations of the breath. However, as every meditator knows, what invariably happens is that attention tends to not hold still but instead dances around, eventually moving away from the intended object and becoming engaged with some other aspect of experience such as the stream of thinking or imagining. The mindfulness practitioner is then instructed, once they realize that their awareness has been temporarily interrupted, to return to the original object of attention. However, consider the following question: is mindfulness or awareness ever really lost or diminished? Would it even be possible to know that we’d suffered some moment of inattention (lack of mindfulness) if mindfulness or awareness were in fact, absent? How could we possibly know that we’d been unaware without awareness being present in that moment to know the experience characterized as “being unaware”? How could we possibly know that we’d failed to be present for much of a given meditation session, lost in a whirlpool of thinking, worrying, planning or whatever without mindfulness being present at least to some degree to register the supposed lack of mindfulness and the presence of thinking, worrying, etc.? Are we in fact ever truly lost or entirely absent from the moments of our lives? Are we actually ever completely caught up in or distracted by some current of thinking or fantasizing such that there is no awareness that that is even occurring? Or is some awareness always present, a mode of consciousness that is never completely absent from and is thereby able to report on its own purported absence?
Given what I’m suggesting here—that mindfulness or awareness is never actually absent—rather than practicing to find or develop more of something that we already naturally possess in spades, whatever practice we engage in, we can simply allow it to be an appreciation of the fact that mindfulness or awareness can never actually be lost for it constitutes the unavoidable reality underlying all moments of experiencing. For no matter how experience may appear and subsequently be characterized (e.g., clear, confused, dull, bright, aware, unaware) the very fact of its appearance is, we could say the proof of mindfulness and its ever-present nature.