In this week’s Mindfulness Practice we challenged our participants to not only be aware of our autopilot but to consciously break the patterns that exist in our lives with a mindful awareness to what happened to our experience when we did. As we leaned toward each other in pairs to share intentions at the end of the session I made a commitment to breaking one pattern each day and keeping a “diary” of sorts to share here. I remember writing a poem when I was in high school called “The Habit” about the fear of falling prey to driving the same way to work everyday and deadening my senses to the wonders of the world. This seemed like a great opportunity to check in with myself and give teenage-me an update.
I began the week keeping a bullet journal tracker of what I was doing differently each day – going new places, ordering new things, wearing old clothes that I had been passing over, and even getting a new haircut. As fun as all of that was – I thought instead of sharing that I would reflect on what I discovered – which is infinitely more interesting than the old handbag that I started carrying.
So first let me introduce you to my autopilot. She has discovered what “works” for her by defining the boundaries of a comfort zone. She allows me to gloss over some of the details and get on with everything else I am doing. For instance – defying her by swopping my handbag from my large everyday carry-all to a small crossbody bag meant that I was regularly struck by disappointment at not having useful bits and bobs at hand (even in turning back home halfway to my destination because I had forgotten a document that I had conveniently placed in my large bag so that I “wouldn’t forget it”). Her role was keeping me safe and healthy, I know that she doesn’t really intend to dull my experience of living – but I know that if kept unchecked this is exactly what happens.
So what did I notice as I broke these seemingly insignificant patterns? While walking home a different way about halfway through the week I noticed that I was rebelling against my autopilot within quite strict boundaries; I wasn’t actually “unsticking” myself all that much. Sure, I was going through the motions, but maybe it was even my autopilot just making new patterns out of broken ones. Everything I had written down and reflected on were all external – a new cafe, a hot chocolate instead of a latte, different clothes, a new haircut. Yes – in those moments I was conscious of what I was doing; but was I really opening myself to the potential of what this practice could bring?
So putting aside the judgement and my shame over the unadventurous pattern breaking – I considered why instead. What I realised the story that I had been telling myself was that I didn’t “need” to change that much. A little like ignoring your dentist’s flossing advice when you don’t have toothache. My thinking mind was chattering away telling me that I was ok. In fact – that was the spark that set me off on a curious journey inward to see what was really going on. What kind of rut was I in?
Instead of resisting the autopilot I shifted my focus to bringing a beginner’s mind to what I was feeling in the comfort zone. How present was I really? What sensations did I feel giving into habit? What stories had I created about the patterns in my life? Where could I find more space in my life?
The sensations when my autopilot was taking shortcuts were a bit numb, bordering on resigned. There was boredom and there was frustration. There was even some restlessness. When I did feel vividly alive it was when I was connecting with my creative self, or in truly present conversations.
In the end, it wasn’t at all about getting a new haircut, or walking home a different way. In fact – it really clicked for me when I was walking home the same way but with a different mind, a beginner’s mind. I noticed the light, the colours, the themes and the people. I saw the photographs I would take if I had my camera with me (this often signifies a true connection to my awareness for me). I smelt, heard, felt the street. This felt like a pattern truly broken – not a new street at all but the same one with a new attention.