Research shows that 96% of us live life on autopilot which means we’re not engaging in what we’re doing. When you’re living on autopilot your brain’s automatic function kicks in for daily habits, thought processes and decisions. Our brain has developed this unconscious decision making system to protect us from being overloaded, but for most of us it’s taken over and is stopping us from fully living and enjoying what we’re doing.
The hectic lives we lead and the dominance of technology means we’re too busy to notice the decisions we’re making. We’re sticking to the same familiar patterns even if they’re not good for us. We don’t engage with the people who matter the most to us, we don’t listen properly, we’re forgetful and we make mistakes. We say yes when we would have said no if we were thinking properly. We eat without thinking, dress without thinking and stick to our daily habits without thinking. It also means we’re not being true to ourselves, we’re drowning out our inner voice, not listening to our bodies cues and we start to doubt ourselves.
What is the opposite of autopilot?
What is mindfulness?
It’s really quite simple. It’s being fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing rather than being on autopilot. That’s it! There’s a lot of information out there about it, and it can seem quite complicated and overwhelming.
In its simplest form it’s bringing awareness to what you’re experiencing through your senses. That could be as simple as making a cup of tea and really focusing on what you’re doing, paying close attention to each step as you do it. Think drinking a cup of tea and tuning into your 5 senses as you do. How it looks, feels, tastes, smells. Ok so your cup of tea won’t really have a sound, but your surroundings as you drink it will!
To take mindfulness a step further it’s observing your state of mind through your thoughts, feelings and emotions, again without judging them, not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. There is no good and bad here. You’re noticing and acknowledging your thoughts and emotions, seeing them for what they are and letting them pass. A bit like looking out at the weather, a bit like clouds passing, a bit like boats bobbing on the water.
Harshly judging our thoughts
Here's an example...
My son is crying and I can’t settle him. It's his nap time and I've got things I need to get on with. I'm tired and I'm not paying full attention, I just want him to have a sleep. I start shushing him, rocking him, patting him, mentally ticking off whether he’s overtired, hungry, in pain, windy. It carries on for a while and I start to feel overwhelmed. I just want the crying to stop. It feels like it’s been going on for ages. I get an urge to run away (cue flight mode as a stress response). I’d never actually do this but it’s like a contradiction is happening within me. My mind wants to stay and calm my son but my body wants to run away.
The non-mindful way is that I start feeling awful at being so overwhelmed and just wanting the crying to stop. Then I start judging myself. I’m not cut out for this. Why am I finding this so hard. No wonder he’s unsettled, he can feel how stressed I am. I'm such a bad mum. I'm supposed to be able to calm him.
This was a real example from over lockdown when I was feeling frazzled. It wasn’t really me at all which caused me to get curious (hello years of coaching and asking people lots of questions!). I tuned in and realised my default setting when it came to parenting was to berate myself and my inner critic was very negative. I’d doubt myself a lot and get into negative thought spirals without really stopping to think. My negative mindset had become my autopilot setting.
I started to use mindfulness to help me be more calm and aware of my thoughts, feelings and self criticism. Welcome to mindful parenting.
The next time my son was unsettled and my feelings started to rise, I tried to become an observer of the situation and acknowledge and accept my feelings. To let them be, without judging them harshly. I also talked to myself kindly and compassionately. My thought process changed to: actually I’m finding this hard because it is hard. It’s been a tricky morning. I’ve been here before and it will pass. Sometimes babies are unsettled and you don’t know why, take a few deep breaths, relax your body and the baby will settle.
There's a saying that goes:
"our feelings are our most genuine path to knowledge"
So use those feelings as a guide. Try not to ignore the little early warning signs and wait until you're in meltdown mode before taking action.
Now around this time I started to experiment with different ways to improve my wellbeing and help me feel less overwhelmed (starting really small with 5-10 minutes to myself to do things like journaling, having a mindful cup of tea, meditation and yoga) but paying mindful attention to my thoughts and feelings made a huge difference and was the one thing I could do even when I had no time.
How can I start being more mindful?
Mindfulness is something we can all do, but it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis.
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodelling the physical structure of your brain.
5 steps to living more consciously
As you go about your daily life, really pay attention to what you’re doing. Notice the sensations you feel and tune into your 5 senses. Set a reminder on your phone if you need to, or anchor to one of your daily activities like tooth brushing or drinking your morning drink
Notice how thoughts come and go in your mind. Your thoughts aren’t real and don’t define you. Acknowledge, accept and let them pass. Is your inner voice critical or nurturing? Be kind and compassionate towards yourself
Notice what your body is telling you, is there any tension, a fast heartbeat, shallow breathing? Tune in
Occupy your mind with something that takes up your attention; a mindfulness meditation, writing, art or other creative outlets, exercise
Notice your distractions. Move your phone away from you if you find yourself reaching for it mindlessly. Dedicate a technology free zone, or some technology free time. Have a digital detox every now and again.
It doesn’t need to be difficult, you can start it as one small daily habit. It starts with recognising where you're living on autopilot and practicing mindfulness. It’s not just about sitting cross legged on the floor.
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