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Well-being - How to control your autopilot

28 January 2016

How to control your autopilot so that you do ‘… not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.’ James Thurber. The Mindfulness Practice groups learn that eating chocolate could change your life.


  • Chocs

Wednesday’s unexpected closure of school due to the effects of the cold snap on the area’s water supply gave us all a rare breathing space to check in on our thoughts and ask, ‘is this what I intended to be doing today?’  If your household was anything like ours on Wednesday morning you were midway through breakfast, washing, dressing, looking for keys and books and just about to head out the door when the announcement was made.  We were what is commonly termed on autopilot. 

Autopilot is a one of our greatest assets and thanks to evolution gives us the unique ability to have our mind in one place and our body in another.   It is an ongoing debate that we, particularly the female of the species, can multi-task and it is the ability to go on autopilot that enables us to side step the reality that men and women can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time.

Despite this the use of autopilot in many situations is very useful and essential. Take the example of driving a car. It is the working memory part of our brain that allows us to simultaneously monitor our speed, check the rear view mirror, the road ahead, indicate, change gear, accelerate, and continue to hold a conversation with the passenger sitting next to us.  It is also the working memory that allows a basket-ball player to dribble, watch his defender and one or two teammates, all while evaluating whether he can or should shoot the ball.  Our incredible brain manages to daisy chain habits together, one triggering the next to produce a pattern of behaviour.  These habit chains are co-ordinated by the autopilot, enabling us to carry out complex tasks; but what happens when it goes wrong and we get an overload of habits?

Men and Women can in reality only truly concentrate on one thing at a time. 

Our brains can comfortably only hold about 7 pieces of information in the working memory at any one time, less if the pieces of information are unfamiliar. Hence traditionally telephone numbers were made up of 7 digits.  Let’s imagine the working memory in a similar way to opening up several windows on a computer. The more windows open on your computer the slower it runs until it finally crashes.  In the same way the more we cram into our working memory, the slower it becomes. Overloaded with information we begin to feel overwhelmed and not in control, resulting periodically in our brain freezing.  We become frustrated, forgetful, anxious and stressed.

However we don't want to lose the ability to go on autopilot. We have already established how useful it is in many situations, but what if we could have greater control of our autopilot, allowing us to use it as and when we needed to call upon these habits rather than our minds being hijacked by them.

The parents, staff and Y10 students now numbering over 40, who are currently participating in or about to embark on the programme of Mindfulness Practice being offered by BISS Puxi are considering this with the help of chocolate.

When was the last time you really really tasted chocolate?  It's a food we often shovel into our mouths mindlessly when we want a snack or are too busy for lunch, but try this experiment.  Next time you eat one piece of chocolate, stop and get curious. Look at it, smell it, what does it feel like?  Put it in your mouth and slowly, discover its texture and flavour as you carefully chew and swallow it.  What you are doing is using all your senses to become fully aware in the moment.  You are learning how to bring one of the key aspects of Mindfulness practice to an everyday activity, in this case eating. If you can potentially discover that chocolate has over 300 flavours, think what you could do if you brought mindful awareness to a whole meal or other aspects of your life, such as going for a walk , talking or listening to someone, playing basket-ball, doing a maths project or writing a history essay.   

Now we cannot ctrl/Alt/Del our brain but what we can do is learn the power of the breath to stop and remind ourselves to check in and ask from time to time throughout the day, ‘Is this what I intended.

Let’s return to the analogy of the crashed computer.  By occasionally stopping and becoming aware of your mind, body and the surroundings using all your senses it is as if you are closing down all the programs that are running and rebooting the system.  You are no longer using a familiar pattern of thoughts to analyse what has happened or to worry about what is going to happen. You are getting back in touch with your mind and body and living in the here and now.  As a consequence, the aim is for you to begin to feel much more in control.  You are now consciously aware to decide whether you want to use some of those habitual thought patterns or not.

Now we cannot ctrl/Alt/Del our brain but what we can do is learn the power of the breath to stop and remind ourselves to check in and ask from time to time throughout the day, ‘Is this what I intended?’ Did I really intend to go through my emails or was I supposed to be checking my online bank statement?  Did I really intend to get absorbed in that WeChat conversation on my phone when I was supposed to be sitting and eating a meal with the family? Did I really intend to Instagram all my friends with what the dog was doing instead of completing my piece of homework and then having some free time? Interestingly and not intentionally, I have thought of examples all related to the use of electronic devices. Perhaps this suggests that many of us are allowing this habit to become overwhelming, preventing us from being in the moment and fully alive.

Why focus on the breath?  It is very simple, we can’t live without it. It’s involuntarily and therefore out of our control.  You cannot breath in the past or in the future, you can only breath now and as such it acts as an anchor, gently pulling you back to the present. Finally your breathing is a very sensitive monitor of how you are feeling.  Rapid, shallow breathing can be a sign of emotional or physical stress.

In our Mindfulness practice we are learning some very simple body and breath meditations that we can use throughout the day to bring us back to the moment and quite literally gives us some breathing space.

Students who are attending the mindfulness ECA are being shown the .b technique which is simply learning to STOP, BREATH and BE. This helps them to ground themselves and not become overwhelmed or distracted by all that is going on in their lives.

Alternatively there are lots of free apps to give you a gentle nudge during the day.  Two I have been trying out are You and 3 minute breathing exercise.   

What techniques do you use so that you do not,

‘… not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.’ James Thurber.

Why not email us and share. 

Sue Smith, BISS PUXI Well-being Co-ordinator


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