Becoming Habitually Present

I want to be more present. I really do, but I find myself slipping into states of mindlessness more often than I’m comfortable with. I, of course, have no idea that I am checked out until something occurs to snap me back, and I realize that “Elvis has left the building” (as I have dubbed it).

I have explored the virtues of mindfulness many times in my writing, so you know that it is something I place great importance on, so these occurrences are a regular wake-up call to me of how far I have to go. I do, however, take some comfort in knowing that I am at least mindful enough to notice my lack of mindfulness!

About a month ago, I went to visit my parents. I was there to help out with my mother while she is going through strenuous physical rehab and my father had to be out of town. I was the only person in the house who could drive and I had my father’s car that is temporarily without a radio. I didn’t do a lot of driving, but whenever I did, I found that I was in the car for only a minute or so before my hand was reaching to turn on the radio, almost as though it had a mind of its own. I knew there was no radio, but it didn’t matter. There would be my hand, reaching for the radio like a salmon swimming up stream, operating entirely without any thought or decision making, and it happened repeatedly, sometimes several times in a single, short car trip.

This mini mindless moment was quite interesting to me. I began to see the relationship between habit and mindfulness, and began to pay attention to other habits I had associated with driving and with other activities.

You see, when you perform a habitual action, for that moment, you are not present. These are not decisions you are making; they are behaviors that are performed regularly and occur subconsciously. There is a distinct lack of awareness when we perform habitual behaviors.

Whenever I examine human behaviors, I ask myself, “What is the evolutionary advantage to this behavior?” The advantage to our ability to habituate is that it allows us to become less responsive to irrelevant stimulus. In other words, if we could not habituate to our environment, we would be unable to tune out outside noise while trying to focus on a conversation, or to distinguish the one plant we are looking for in the woods. In other words, it has provided us with a tool to increase our ability to focus and give our attention to a selected task.

I find it so ironic that the tool that evolution has provided us to increase our ability to be completely present with one particular thing has provided us with many opportunities to live our life in a less-mindful state. My day has become filled with tiny activities that I perform without any thought or consideration. Habits are usually keyed to other stimuli, which is why when people quit smoking, they need to change their behaviors around such activities as drinking coffee or talking on the phone.

In my case, sitting in a car seat makes me turn on the radio. I decided to notice other mindless habits that I was performing. My hand would stop half way to the radio, or I’d find myself opening my email every time I turned on my computer. Even worse, I sometimes got to the end of my alley and started to turn right, even when I wanted to go left, because I turn right to go so many of the places I tend to drive.

This made me realize how much I operate on autopilot, and to wonder how much I am missing in these moments of subconscious functioning.

I have made it a point to begin to notice my habits and, in many cases, rid myself of them. Not because they are all inherently bad, but because they are times of thoughtless living. I still like to listen to the radio in the car. I just make it a decision, not a habit.



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