We can guarantee that pretty much anyone who drives has had the experience of arriving somewhere
and, having driven on autopilot, can't really recollect the journey.
Or take supermarket shopping, where you fill your cart with your usual fare and don't pay much attention to what you're doing.
What about when you're out with friends and end up spending a goodly amount of time on your phone, checking emails, Twitter, Facebook, etc.?
The list of the way we can walk through life mindlessly is endless.
We can be just as mindless at work: talking on the phone and reading emails at the same time is common these days. At some point, you will lose track of what the other person is saying and/or not fully take in what you are reading.
First off, it's really hard to be mindful all of the time given the incredibly busy lives we lead as well as our jam packed jobs. Technology allows/encourages us to cram in more and multi-tasking is considered a great skill to have.
Second, given the pace of how we live, we do need time to drift away. Being conscious all the time is really hard work.
In 2000 I went on a trip to the Hunstein Range in Papua New Guinea. Two planes, a day overland in a van and three days by dugout canoe to get where I was going. Once there, I was alert 100% of the time except when I was sleeping (and I kind of figured I was probably alert then as well). I had to be aware of every footfall; how I bathed, dressed, ate; getting into and out of the canoe, walking over log bridges and so on. It was dangerous and one wrong step could have led to injury or worse.
I loved the trip but part of me was so relieved when it was over because of the intense energy and focus it took to be present and mindful every waking hour.
It's highly unlikely I'll ever be mindful every waking hour; it's highly unlikely most people will be mindful every waking hour. However, all of us could benefit from being a lot more mindful than we are.
In its simplest form mindfulness is about paying attention to what's happening around you and also to what's happening inside you - your thoughts and feelings. That's in its simplest form, and it is far more complex than that. There are loads of reasons why we can slip into mindlessness without even realising it and why that's not always such a bad thing.
Mindlessness and Patterns
Humans are pattern making 'machines' if you will. We do a lot of things by rote for very good reasons. Our bodies are made up of interlinking 'systems' and those systems operate through patterns that we never ever think about... until we are ill. When we are ill it's because one of those systems is out of whack. Our lives are governed by patterns so that we don't have to re-learn things every time we want to do them. Some patterns we learn consciously (brush your teeth twice a day) and some we learn unconsciously (things that start out as a convenience soon become the norm once we repeat them a few times).
That's the upside of patterns: they make our lives so much easier.
The possible downside of patterns is mindlessness: we do things so much by rote that we are barely aware we are doing them anymore.
Here's a simple exercise you can do right now: review your day so far and see if you can identify anything you did that was totally by rote, so much so that you got through it barely noting you had done it. For instance, I took the same route into work today and I can't recall the second half of the journey - I was on automatic pilot, with my attention on my destination rather than what I was actually doing.
I'm not saying that that's wrong; the question in terms of mindfulness is how much are we missing through being mindless in the way we do things?
Now do another simple exercise which is to identify anything you've done so far today when you've been particularly aware of what was going on around you and within you. For instance, I was making a cup of tea in our tiny work kitchen and there were three of us crammed in and we were all working around each other in a kind of orchestrated dance: I was aware of our chat, the kettle boiling, our laughter, the feel of the specifically chosen blue mug, the clink of the spoon and how much I was looking forward to the hot drink.
To begin to raise your level of mindfulness, see if you can take a 'breather' every couple of hours or so to assess when you have been mindful and when you have been mindless, or to put it in a gentler way, when you have been on autopilot and not been all that aware of the world around and within you.
The advantages of mindfulness are enormous on every level - mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually; the story continues in my next blog.