A few months ago I was driving home from school. It had been a long day and I was tired, ready to be home and enjoy dinner and the evening with my wife. As I drove the usual route from the train station to our little apartment my mind was wandering. Most of my brain was on autopilot, trying to expend as little energy as possible to drive home. The other part of my brain was jumping from random thoughts about school, chores, work and other concerns.
As I approached a stop sign, I assumed the car in front of me had already driven through the stop. I checked oncoming traffic to the left and let off the brakes. Then I heard the disheartening thud of my car hitting another car. The fog over my mind lifted and my heart started pounding as I looked to my right and realized that I had just rear-ended the car in front of me. We motioned to each other and pulled to the side of the road. I was horrified, scared and worried. My mind was completely in the moment as we both got out and checked our cars for any signs of damage.
Thankfully and luckily, our cars must have just bounced off each other (it must have been slightly nicer cheap plastic) when we bumped into each other. There was no sign of damage. Not a single scratch, dent, chip, or any swapped paint. No damage on either car! We were both relieved, chatted for a bit and then drove our separate ways. However, this was the first time I had actually ever hit another person’s car. I was pretty shaken up from the experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience. Although there wasn’t any damage done to either car, I realized that there could have been some serious damage done had the situation been different. It made me think long and hard about how mindful I am of the world around me. How often do I put my brain on auto-pilot? What effects does this have on my life and events around me?
I decided that I had to be more mindful of my daily life. Living most of my life on autopilot is not a great way to enjoy life and stay safe. Think of the beauty around you, the funny moments in life, the interesting and inspiring things that you see, hear and experience. I was missing a lot of that because I was just getting through the drive home, the college course, the train ride, the family dinner, the work day, the evening at home.
The solution is simple in theory but difficult in practice. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings, of my life, of what goes on around me and inside my head. I think going into autopilot is necessary at times, or our brains would probably get fried and overwhelmed, but we need to learn to snap out of it! Here are some ideas to help you be mindful and in the moment:
- Pay attention to the people, places and things around you.
- Learn to observe new things or old things in a new way.
- Make challenges for yourself, like learning all the types of trees that grow on your street or counting how many yellow cars you see during your commute.
- Invent stories for people who are driving or walking around you.
- Do simple breathing exercises, focusing on your breath and your surroundings, to keep your mind present.
- Quickly write down everything on your mind like tasks, thoughts, problems, appointments, etc. so you can come back to it later. Then simply enjoy the thing you are doing.
As I’ve practiced being more mindful during the times I would have been on autopilot, I have found a simple joy in being in the moment. I feel refreshed, happier and more attentive during things that might seem mundane or boring. It’s helped me in a small way to improve my outlook on life, my relationships and the work that I do. I feel more positive about many of the things I do and I am less inclined to be lost in thought. There are many easy ways to be more mindful at home, work, school or wherever you are. Try turning off the autopilot for just a short while and see all the life you can observe around you.