Monday, February 6, 2017

How To Stop Living Life on Autopilot


Do you ever feel like you're on autopilot? The other day, I went to brush my teeth at work and realized that I'd brought my toothbrush and a calculator into the bathroom.

A calculator.

Then there was the time I was supposed to meet Udita for dinner after work ... I jumped on the Piccadilly line and went in the wrong direction for about four stops before I noticing I was going the wrong way (the way I'd usually take if I was heading home).

Living and working in London for a decade has made me thrive on autopilot: I fall into routines too easily; walk paths to and from work without thinking, focusing on the next minute, and the one after that, and the one after that.

The mind-readers over at Penguin Random House sent me two books to snap me out of my autopilot mode: Wake Up!: Escaping a Life on Autopilot by Chris Barez-Brown and Ruby Wax's A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.

I spent January dipping in out of these books and my curiosity was piqued! Here's what I thought:

Wake Up! was the book that probably "spoke" to me the most. Structured like a journal (with lines for you to jot down notes and/or to complete particular "experiments", it offers practical suggestions for activities to forcefully break you out of autopilot habits - mundane, everyday actions like making a cup of tea, for example, become an exercise in "staying in the moment" as Barez-Brown instructs you to, "Notice how your arm moves towards the tap."

Each activity is prefaced by an explanation called, "The Insight", which offers the reasoning and logic behind it, followed by short instructions in "The Plan" and finally, a reflective summary in "The Payoff".

Granted, some of the experiments were a little eye-roll inducing (like "Write a song"), but Barez-Brown anticipates this in the preface: "If you skip some, don't feel guilty. If some of them don't work for you, that's only to be expected - there's no way they could all be suited to one individual."

Perhaps the most effective experiment I tried was the suggestion of "no TV for one week". Far too often, our default mode after dinner is channel surfing like zombies on the couch before retiring to bed and waking up to do it all over again the next day. So, for one week, we banned TV (that included short clips on YouTube, but did not include Obama's farewell speech, btw) and ... well, it made me recognize my addiction to television!

So, what did we do instead? Well, John read (he's been on War and Peace for about three years now, no joke) and I did some writing - plus, caught up on chores that are usually saved for the weekends, so it was nice to feel a little more organized. Without the TV on, we talked to each other more about our day, planned holidays, and fell asleep feeling more relaxed than usual.

I didn't get along as well with Ruby Wax's book, Frazzled, but I could see it appealing to others. Divided into chapters ("Mindfulness: Who? What? Why?", "How Our Brains Work and the Science behind Mindfulness", etc.), the book also gives tips on practicing mindfulness, but it didn't seem novel or inspiring to me - more like a fact sheet given out at doctor's offices.

Still, the narrative is quite enjoyable to read: like sitting with a friendly mentor over a cup of tea. Yet, so much of what Wax relates seems so obvious, I had a hard time keeping engaged with the text. Take this passage, for example:

"So with mindfulness, you become aware of awareness. This state is not to be confused with being in the zone, where you're so concentrated on a single activity you have absolutely no awareness of the outside world ... the question is: how do you keep that single-minded focus while staying aware of your inner state? I don't think you can be on both planes simultaneously ... the ideal state would be to be able to be in the zone yet notice, even for a hair's breadth of a second, when it's time to pull out, to give yourself a pause to re-energize your brain."

Yes, we know.

I suppose when I read these types of books on "mindfulness", I'm searching for a new or different perspective to help me shake things up a bit - not repeating what I've already read/heard somewhere else. By the time I reached Wax's suggestions for "normal mindful movement" exercises, I was chomping at the bit for something ... I don't know, more.

Instead, I got: "Head roll. Stand with your feet slightly apart, your spine straight but not rigid ..." Sounds familiar ... what's the next exercise? "Shoulder roll. Bring your attention to both your shoulders."

And I shut the book.

Having said that, I know someone who would suit this book perfectly - and I'm passing it on to her as soon as I finish writing this post.

It just wasn't for me (but it might be for you!).

Have you ever read a book or an article on mindfulness that really had an effect on you? Do you find yourself on autopilot lately? I'd love to know!

Books provided courtesy of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own.

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