We operate on automatic pilot most of the time and our brains are so powerful that we are able to do most everyday things without actively thinking about what we are doing. How often do you brush your teeth, put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, wash the dishes, take a shower and hundreds of other daily activities and not even notice anything about what you are doing?
When we learn to drive a car we pay attention to the steering, we focus on how much pressure we apply to the accelerator, concentrate on the tricky manoeuvre of depressing the clutch and releasing the accelerator whilst changing gear, and then breaking without catapulting the instructor through the windscreen. In the beginning, we wonder how on earth we are going to master this skill as there are so many different things to focus on simultaneously, however, within a few weeks we have begun to do many of the skills involved automatically. We can even drive from home to work without even recalling how we got there.
When we teach young children to brush their teeth, we show them how to hold the brush, how much toothpaste to apply, how to brush each surface of the teeth, and how to rinse. They do this all with great curiosity and pleasure. When adults brush their teeth they do this on automatic pilot and probably look at it as a chore that has to be done and may even begin multitasking by walking away from the sink to do something else at the same time.
When babies eat their first solid food, they are experiencing the feel of the spoon in their mouth, the texture of the food on their tongue and the new flavour reaching their taste buds. They take their time to eat and are not worried if the food spills out all over their face, hands and clothes. We gradually teach the child to eat neatly so as to remain clean and as they grow up it all becomes automatic and they no longer have to think about the eating process. As adults, we often eat whilst watching the TV and may not even recall eating the meal. We miss so much of our lives because we are not aware of what is happening in the present moment.
So how can we step out of autopilot? There are certain things we need to be able to do automatically, for example, when typing on a keyboard you don’t want to stop to notice what it feels like to touch each key. However, there are certain things that we do every day that we can pay more attention to if we purposely turn our minds to it. The next time you take a shower, notice the water temperature on your skin, smell the soap, tilt your head back and allow the water to fall onto the top of your forehead, maybe turn the temperature down a little to see what that feels like. When you do an activity like this you are stepping out of autopilot and becoming aware of what is happening in the present moment. This can be applied to all sorts of everyday activities, such as eating, getting dressed, walking, cooking and cleaning. Try paying attention to a different activity each day for a week and see what you notice.