Overcoming Autopilot: The Challenge of Focusing Attention

woman looking into the sunsetYesterday, I was listening to an audiobook by Pema Chodron, Getting Unstuck, in which she talks about how important it is to “just stay” with the present experience. She also points out how difficult and unnatural that is for human beings. It a skill we have to develop, just like playing tennis or learning how to bake. So many things prevent us from staying with the present moment.

Today, I finished watching an amazing sunrise over Crater Lake in Oregon. It was breathtaking. As I was watching pinks turn to oranges and yellows, I noted that it is not too difficult to focus my attention when it is on something beautiful. It’s a different story when the present moment contains pain or even something neutral. In fact, sometimes even during pleasant moments, we are trying to figure out how we can hang on to it for longer, or analyzing why we don’t have this feeling more often.

So what are the things that get in our way of staying with the present? First of all, our brains often act like little kids, hopping from one thing to another, just because that’s what they do. The brain doesn’t like to be still; its constant hum of activity is never far from the surface. Much of the time, we are caught up in the current of the content of our thoughts.

How many times have you been driving to a familiar location and suddenly blinked, realizing that you had no idea where you were? At those moments, you realize you’ve been driving at 65 miles per hour for 30 minutes completely on autopilot—totally NOT present. You hope that your body knew what it was doing and that you aren’t lost. Fortunately, our bodies usually do somehow know what to do, or we’d all be in big trouble.

As an experiment, try sitting comfortably and following your breath for about ten minutes. You can close your eyes, if that makes it easier.

Notice how your breath feels in your body—your chest rising and falling, air coming in and out of your nostrils. Any way you choose to experience it is fine. How does it feel at the “top” of the breath? At the bottom? Can you notice the moment just before you inhale or exhale? Try to keep your attention focused only on the breath. If your mind wanders, just take note of it without judging yourself, and refocus on the breath.

Take a moment to do this now.

What did you notice? Did your mind wander? How many times did you have to bring it back? Was it difficult to stay focused on the breath the entire time? Was it easy for you? For most people, this exercise will make it fairly clear how active our minds are. Like I said, it isn’t a bad thing. It just is.

Opportunities like you’ve just given yourself give us the chance to observe things that are really going on with us instead of being caught up mindlessly in our thoughts. Why is this a good thing? The most important reason is that being mindful allows us to truly be present in and enjoy the beautiful moments in life. It also helps us develop confidence in our ability to handle the not-so-pleasant ones. Through being present, we are able to turn off the autopilot, get out of our heads, and participate in what is going on around us. Granted, we may still spend lots of our time lost in thought, but practicing mindfulness can give us the choice to be aware when we are lost and to come back if we choose to.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Leanne Reed, LPC, CADC-I, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Danny J

    Danny J

    September 26th, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    I hate that feeling of going on autopilot, because when I do come back to life and bregain my focus then I have to wonder what all I have missed out on while I have been tuned out. This is particularly scary to me when I am driving although I know that this article is talking about stuff a little deepr than that. But I thought that this is still a kind of an appropriate metaphor, because there is so much that you can miss in just a moment and those few seconds could change your life in a profound way forever.

  • grant

    grant

    September 26th, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    This is all about the choices that we make in life.

    Are we going to choose to go through our lives with blinders on, or are we going to instead choose to truly engage in the present and enjoy the life going on around us?

    I have done both, completely zoned out and tried living life to the fullest. Living it to the fullest and of the moment? So much better than the alternative. I missed out on so many wonderful things that I didn’t even know I was missing when I chose to stay within myself and my own little world. I am ashamed to say that there are times that I will never get back and friendships lost as a result. All I can do now is to move forward.

  • Flora

    Flora

    September 27th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    It’s kind of like society drives this inability to focus. We are so overwhelmed and overstimulated. . . sometimes it really all feels too much!

  • Bennet

    Bennet

    September 29th, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    I have a question that I hope someone would address:
    do you think that this could be some of what goes on with people who have ADD for example? Are there any instances of mindfulness treatments being employed successfully with those patients instead of always relying solely on medications, or maybe in conjunction with meds that might could lead to more positive results for them?

  • Bree Kalb

    Bree Kalb

    May 31st, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    Bennet, This is a great question. I’m seeing this blog post for the first time so you may have already received an answer elsewhere. In my reading, I have seen summaries of studies that noted decreased ADHD symptoms. With a quick search, I found this: chadd.org/Membership/Attention-Magazine/View-Articles/PP-Mindfulness-and-Adult-ADHD.aspx I know there are more and you may be able to find them.

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