I have to be honest. I am a little bit freaked out about the advent of the driverless car. Last weekend, I read an article on the projections by most major car makers that driverless (autonomous) cars will be on the market by 2020. Despite the argument that these cars will be safer than cars with drivers, I can’t help but shudder when I think about them. Maybe it is because they feel too futuristic (I mean, even the Jetsons drove their little spaceship), or maybe because I am getting to the age where nostalgia trumps novelty (I hope not!).
But the truth is, despite my transgressions about the introduction of this new disruptive technology, I realize that driverless cars are not really a new phenomenon. After all, each of us goes through chunks of time when we are not fully present in our own lives. Our ability as humans to navigate on autopilot is pervasive. There are times when we arrive home from our commute and don’t remember the route or we wake up in the morning and let the rush of to-dos distract us from our morning routine.
Operating on autopilot
According to researchers, the average person has between 50,000 and 70,000 inner thoughts in one day; over 2,000 in one hour. We get lost in thoughts about how things were, how things should be, and how they might be in the future. These thoughts also repeat themselves in a continuous and never-ending loop of “shoulds” and “coulds” (some researchers say up to 95% of our thoughts repeat day after day). We dwell on the past, we fear for the future, and in the process we are removed from being present. Not only do our thought patterns distort reality, but they create stress and anxiety and act as a barrier between us and the world. It is like our bodies are going through the motions of being present and active in the world, but our minds are off thinking about other things. It is a form of being on autopilot, really. We go through the motions, but we are not completely there.
I first truly recognized the impact my thoughts had on my life during a Vipassana meditation retreat. For 10 days I sat in silence, meditated and continually brought my focus back to the present moment. Although at first the process felt tedious and painful, slowly the grip my incessant thinking had on me began to loosen. I became more fully aware and the vibrancy of the world started to come into full view. I was literally stunned by what became available to me once my mind quieted. By the eighth day of the retreat, I remember sitting outside in the woods wondering how I could now see so much beauty in a place I had thought was dreary and uninteresting when I first arrived.
“We miss so much,” I thought to myself. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much I miss when I am busy, distracted and lost in thought.
Getting back into the driver’s seat
Switching off autopilot happens when we connect to the present moment and separate ourselves from our thoughts—even if for only small glimpses. Here are two simple exercises that can help you slow down to regain your rightful place in the driver’s seat of your life. (Note: although these exercise are simple in design, they are by no means easy. Interrupting our thinking patterns can be a real challenge. It takes both patience and the determination as you bring yourself back to the present moment over and over again...and over again....).
Mindful eating: Choose a meal, or even a snack, to experience with full awareness. Remove all distractions (your phone, newspaper, conversation) and really hone into the experience of eating. Slow down your eating and notice with all of your senses. What does the food feel like? How does it taste? Where on your tongue can you taste it?
One-minute breathing exercise: Set a timer to one minute. Sit up straight, close your eyes and focus on your breath coming into and leaving your body. Count each full breath (in and out counts as one). When your mind wanders, bring your focus back to your breath. Once you reach a count of 10 breaths, start back at one again. When the timer goes, take a moment to notice how you feel.
Driverless cars are designed to navigate roadways using algorithms and data to ensure they get to their destination efficiently and effectively. Human beings, on the other hand, are designed for so much more. Beyond the effectiveness and the efficiency required to make our way through our to-do list each day is the capability to observe, engage, and feel into all of the moments that we are given. That is what makes life so beautiful - our ability to connect fully with life, with ourselves and with others.
The best view is from the driver's seat, after all:).