I’ve noticed something peculiar: whenever I walk into my favorite coffee shop, I always head to the same seat without thinking about it.
It’s not that there’s anything special about the seat, like a fantastic view or comfortable chair. There’s absolutely no reason for me to feel an attachment to this particular crevice.
You might notice that you do this too in many areas of life. For example, you might always hit the snooze button twice, hop on social media during your downtime, react with frustration to the same people, get tired after lunch, get bothered by the same construction noises and usually feel a certain way by the end of the day.
Many of your thoughts are exactly the same ones you had the previous day, repeated over and over again on replay as the same neural pathways get activated. The reason is that your brain is a highly efficient organ. It already eats up 20% of your metabolic energy and tries to automate as many processes as possible by making them unconscious. By hard-coding such actions, your brain no longer has to consciously process them.
Just think about all of those times you’ve driven to work, taken a shower, or even provided a canned verbal response without giving any real thought to the task at hand. Your mind could be a million miles away in some daydream about a future vacation on Mars, but the task still gets done.
A Harvard study found that the average person spends about 47% of their day on “autopilot,” conducting automated behaviors while thoughts wander from the task at hand. It’s scary to think that only half of a day might be spent paying attention to what you’re doing in the present, and that’s what makes meditation so important. By bringing more of your life into conscious awareness, you allow the opportunity to reprogram unwanted thoughts and behavioral patterns.
Automation isn’t a problem, except when your autopilot is headed in the wrong direction. This may happen in one of two ways:
A) You stop paying attention to a particular action that requires more vigilance. Like a car on cruise control that encounters a deer in the road, the results of human autopilot can also be dangerous. You drop your dinner plate, respond to an email incoherently, or get on the wrong train because your mind is elsewhere, thinking of some future or past event while operating on autopilot. Accidents happen when we’re acting unconsciously.
B) Harmful thought or behavioral patterns get repeated regardless of their self-destructive nature because you’re unaware that they keep replaying. You might get stuck in the same negative thought loops, become aggravated by the same situations, and put yourself in those situations again without realizing it.
The biggest hindrance that most people face is that they stop learning (or never learn) about themselves and then coast through life, creating bad habits that eventually form their unconscious mental program. Thankfully, meditation provides a tool for re-wiring this program, enabling you to help break unwanted patterns and live a more deliberate life.
How to Change Your Mind
The buzzword “mindfulness” that has been sweeping the world in the last decade is really a state of mind that’s generated from meditation practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Ph.D. molecular biologist who invented Meditation-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a medically-applied form of meditation, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
In meditation, you begin to cultivate mindfulness by first honing your attention on a single object, like the breath. It’s important to train your attention muscles in order to achieve a state of mindfulness, otherwise, you’ll find it difficult to keep your mind from wandering off. The virtual simulator in your brain, the one that projects into the future and replays past events, is the biggest enemy to mindfulness, and we can learn to shut it down by training attention on a single object in meditation.
Once your focus has stabilized, you can become mindful by opening yourself up to your full experience, making the mind itself your new object of attention. This is called Open Awareness or Introspective Metacognitive Awareness and involves closely observing the inner workings of your mind.
What does it feel like to be you in this instant? What kinds of thoughts, feelings, and sensations are arising? Simply observe these occurrences without getting swept away by the narrating mind.
Okay, but how does this help you get off of autopilot?
Many of the benefits of meditation come from increased metacognition through mindfulness training. By becoming more aware of how your mind works, you gain more control over your own internal mental machine. And the beauty of this practice is that it is not contained to your meditation cushion. You can learn to become mindful throughout daily life.
Here’s how this might work in practice:
Let’s say that you feel stressed out and you’re not sure why. By exercising mindfulness, carefully watching your mind during the day, you begin to realize that your stress stems from the mind’s tendency to simulate potential future catastrophes. When you are stuck in traffic, for example, your mind immediately begins racing, imagining how you might be late to your next appointment, annoy a key client and eventually lose your job as your life falls apart. Of course, none of this transpires, but that’s how most brains are wired to think.
Through mindfulness, you examine each of these simulations and begin to recognize how ridiculous they are. By simply identifying the root cause of your stress and deconstructing it, poking holes in an automated program that doesn’t serve you, you’ve begun to alter the mental code. You find yourself becoming incrementally less stressed until, eventually, your mind stops being programmed for anxious thinking.
It’s like you’re a child shining a flashlight into a dark closet, realizing that there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’ve pointed your attention, your own internal flashlight, onto the program in your mind and realized how it’s set up to work. Just this act of illumination can liberate you from an unwanted repetitive loop. In other words, mindfulness, or metacognitive awareness, enables you to change behaviors and thought patterns by becoming aware of the underlying mental processes that give rise to them.
Just as shining a flashlight into a dark space can make a kid realize how unfounded fear of danger is, mindfulness can similarly dismantle misconceptions. On a deeper level, meditation can alter your attitude, or worldview, by allowing you to separate from unhelpful notions. Once you recognize that thinking about yourself as a “stressed person” is a limiting belief, not based on reality, you might find yourself becoming a calm and capable person more often. Your own concept of yourself, reinforced over time, is very powerful in shaping your thoughts and behaviors.
Now let’s take a behavioral example:
Say you’re trying to quit a bad habit, like a predisposition for consuming large portions of chocolate cake. Mindfulness is being used in a clinical setting to treat addictions because it can help re-write the program that leads to that behavior. How so? Addictions are perpetuated by a causal chain that becomes linked by the reward system. It goes: stimulus → behavior → reward. In other words, addiction is a direct result of operant conditioning gone awry. Mindfulness meditation can help you separate the stimulus (feelings of craving) from the response (eating the cake). This helps to explain the promising results of studies showing that meditation can enhance impulse inhibition.
“If we pay close attention to how our habits are set up, we can break them.” — Judson Brewer, Ph.D.
Dr. Judson Brewer has demonstrated the efficacy of meditation in getting people to quit smoking, reduce anxiety and treat binge eating disorders. (He has a book called The Craving Mind and various apps.)
Here’s the mindfulness meditation technique that Dr. Brewer uses with his patients: every time an urge comes up, sit with your emotions for 10 minutes. Become the observer and watch your mind very closely. Notice, what that urge feels like in your body. Is it a painful or heavy sensation? If so, where do you feel it most in the body? In your chest, perhaps, or a spot in your head? What you are witnessing is the emotional programming manifesting itself physically in your body. Recognize this without judging it and just watch the sensation closely. You may find that it loses some of its power over you just by letting the emotion be, without identifying with or acting on it. Like an itch that you don’t scratch, the sensations will pass.
Observe any thoughts that come up trying to convince you to move toward the harmful behavior one more time. You may think, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” or “I can always change later.” But this is just your mind becoming desperate. Begin to write down these excuses if it helps, so that you can recognize them better.
Upon noticing that my coffee shop seat hadn’t changed in a while, I made the decision to adopt a new perch during my next visit. This simple act didn’t seem to make a big difference, but what mattered was that I’d gone off autopilot and taken a novel angle on life. New views can lead to new thought patterns and ideas, all beginning with the self-awareness that provides conscious optionality.
The power of mindfulness meditation is that previously automatic programs need not dictate your life once you become aware of them. You can step outside of ingrained neural patterns and “wake up” from automatic responses, beginning to steer your life in a direction that’s more aligned with your preferred future.
Of course, mindfulness meditation on its own will not produce consequential changes without motivation and consistency. There are no quick fixes here; structural neuroplasticity (creating more lasting changes in the brain) takes time. What I’ve laid out is a framework for understanding and undertaking your own mental reprogramming using mindfulness as a tool.
Nir’s Note: This guest post is written by Liam McClintock, a YTT certified meditation instructor who studied psychology at Yale and now runs a professional meditation training company called FitMind.