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By: Benjamin Reisterer, MA, LLPC

Earlier I wrote about how a life lived on autopilot can be a frustrating experience. I discussed the importance of getting familiar with the intricacies of all of the controls as we purposefully fill our life’s pilot’s chair. I want to stress that this was not to say that autopilot is always a bad thing, it does have positive functions. There are certain tasks that can be automated in our lives that free up physical, emotional, mental, or relational energy which allows us to engage in more meaningful endeavors. The danger is that it is easy to slip into autopilot for too much of our lives. When things start to go bad is when we begin to realize something has to change and we begin to take more of an active role in piloting our day to day experience. But what about when autopilot seems to be running everything in our lives smoothly and things are going well? I believe that this is when we really need to be much more selective in our purposeful use of autopilot and when we can make the most gains in living a more self aware, authentic, and meaningful life.

Here are some things that I believe are positive side effects to limiting the use of autopilot, especially when times are good.

1) We can often see the turbulence before it hits (because it IS coming).

If we are taking ourselves off autopilot and the subsequent reliance on our preconceived ideas based on past experience, we begin to become more aware of slight irregularities before they become glaring problems. For example, you know that same conversation that you have with a significant other, friend, co-worker, or whomever that you slip into autopilot when it comes up? Yeah, THAT one…try fully engaging yourself as if for the first time next time it starts. Did you pick up on anything different this time around that you hadn’t before? Did the interaction go more smoothly. Did you and/or the other person seem to get more out of it this time? Autopilot has a way of messing with relationships, and if done too much for too long will create interpersonal issues. So do yourself and the other person a favor and fully engage, before you have to.

2) We get to experience a much richer life with more enjoyment.

Next time you have errands or an activity that you usually do on autopilot, bring a toddler along. This can be a frustrating yet valuable experience. Children are experiencing many things for the first time and have yet to develop their autopilot in many regards. They are developing their understanding of the world around them, and their lives are constantly full of a sense of wonder and curiosity. This means they are going to make things go much slower and ask a million questions but if you take yourself off of autopilot with them, you can capture some of that wonder for yourself. This is the “stop and smell the roses” concept. We all have an idea from past experience about what roses smell like, but do you know what this rose smells like? Instead of rushing past, take the time to find out and enrich your life in the process.

3) We begin to actively engage in meaningful activities that propel us to cultivate passion and purpose in our lives.

Passion is one of those things that people idealize, but often misunderstand. This makes following it even harder than it already is (for a great write up on cultivating vs. following your passion, go here). As we fully engage and become more present in our actions and thoughts, we begin to become more aware of what really makes us come alive. We can then purposefully engage in activities that stoke these delicate embers into flames of passion.

4) Slowing down and being purposeful paradoxically helps us reach our goals much faster.

Autopilot is the same thing all the time, so we can’t expect different results. Full purposeful engagement requires us to manually makes adjustments every moment. As we begin this new way of piloting our lives, it can often feel frustratingly slow and awkward. However, as we begin to fully engage we pick up on “life hacks” or more fulfilling and/or efficient ways to do things, we catch problems before they arise, and as we become more confident we take much larger steps towards fulfillment than before. We begin to see the tree as well as the forest and can more easily navigate our way through.

These four points are just a start as there are many benefits to living a more purposeful and aware life. I invite you to post in the comments any other benefits you have experienced or foresee experiencing by living a fully engaged and purposeful life. As a psychotherapist I am passionate about helping people become more engaged in their day to day life, looking for meaning in the world within and around them, and cultivating purpose. These things don’t happen on autopilot, they only happen on purpose. Living a purposeful, authentic, and engaged life is hard and sacred work, but it is so much more rewarding than the alternative.

If you feel that counseling would be a good way to augment or begin a purposeful engagement of your life, we would be honored if you contacted us.

This post can also be found at the Mindful Counseling GR blog. 

Several months back I was playing Tic Tac Toe with my kindergarten daughter. The game is predictable once you learn its secret, but playing anything with my little girl (and also watching her competitiveness come out) is always a blast. I was also curious to see if she’d pick up on the strategy or how she’d react after a lengthy losing streak. After several losses I could see her gears starting to turn, “Daddy, now it’s your turn to be O’s.” She lost. “Daddy, I’ll go first this time,” she said. We tied. A few losses and/or ties later and with a perplexed look she finally asked how I was winning or playing to a tie, but she could never outright win. I looked at her, raised a single eyebrow, and confidently said, “Strategery.” I could tell by the look on her face that she didn’t appreciate the reference. So after lamenting the sad state of our nation’s kindergartener’s grasp of political satire I began to break down the concept of strategy. After some explanation and an example game, she got the idea and understood that you need to play the game with the ending in mind instead of just reacting to where the opponent placed their X or O.

Tic Tac Toe requires a very elementary level of strategic understanding, while other things in life require a much higher level. Unfortunately, we don’t always think about strategy in our daily lives. We are often caught “losing at Tic Tac Toe” when it comes to our emotions and responses. “O” is placed on the grid of our lives and our “X” is immediately placed in response, usually with little awareness or insight as to why we did this or whether or not it is the most effective move in that moment. To complicate things further, we sometimes after the fact begin to justify our automatic responses by explaining away why it was a good response. We then start to fool ourselves into thinking these responses actually are the most effective reactions and a self-defeating cycle is born.

Honest self-awareness is a helpful tool for building an effective life strategy and avoiding self-defeating reactions. It allows us to slow down and understand how we are being affected by what happened on the grid. Additionally, as we become more aware of our own gut reactions, emotions, thoughts, and desires we begin to see more clearly how our actions and reactions impact the environment around us. The entire grid is now in view and we can anticipate the “butterfly effect” of each move and how that impacts our goals.

True self-awareness comes from authentically facing your deepest fears, joys, brokenness, and dreams. We all have them (it’s part of what makes us human), but we also have varying degrees of shame and/or inadequacies attached to them that are painful when faced and exposed. The process of becoming more self-aware is hard and sacred work. It breeds hope and possibility and it is worth it as it allows us to live more meaningful and purposeful lives. My colleagues and I have made it our purpose to provide a safe, compassionate, and confidential place for this work to be done. If you find yourself ready to begin this process, we would be honored to hear from you.

As human beings we all have strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, etc. Over our individual lifetimes, we have all developed and honed very specific personalities in reaction to the world around us. Our personalities are multi-faceted programs that run scripts or automated files based on the input we receive, either from the world around us or the thoughts, feelings, and emotions within us. These scripts are designed to protect us and theoretically they cover our weaknesses and bolster our strengths.

So what happens when our activated scripts no longer do what they are designed to do? What happens when our automated files begin to harm our relationships, our careers, or get in the way of us attaining our dreams? Unfortunately, the answer is often that we double down (which is normal because after all, it has worked so well for us in the past) which often times makes things worse. I compare a life based on personality scripts that were developed in reaction to past experiences as being on autopilot. Usually it gets us to where we need to go, but when there is turbulence it’s really not too helpful. Furthermore, when we are approaching our destination and it is almost time to get off the plane and move onto something better, it keeps us in the air, frustrated and circling the runway.

Socrates is attributed with coining the phrase, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s a harsh stance, but I think there is a lot of wisdom here. A life worth living is authentic and is marked by being fully present and aware in the actual moment. An examined life is most assuredly not on autopilot. To beat the plane analogy to death, examining one’s life is essentially getting very familiar with your cockpit and all the instruments that keep your life on track. There are many instruments that need to be examined and fully understood simply for what they are. These instruments include (but are not limited to) our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our fears, our hopes, and so on. These all play an integral role in moving us forward. It is only when we fully engage these instruments, understanding what they are and how they effect us, that we can be fully present and authentic. This presence and authenticity gives us much more control over our lives as we are now making conscious decisions. We can slow down and collect more information, we can speed up, we can change course, we can navigate turbulence, we can land.

As a psychotherapist, I am honored to work every day with individuals as they do sacred work examining their lives and become more comfortable with the controls.

Most things that we use today are disposable. We purchase products specifically designed

to be single use and when “long term” items break (or begin to show wear and tear) we toss

them and buy new ones. So it’s no surprise when we hear people refer to our society as

one with a “throwaway culture”. It makes sense, as technology has progressed convenience

has increased which allows us more time to focus on things we choose, so there is good to

this. However, there is a danger of internalizing this mentality.

Our bodies, our minds, and our souls are foundational to who we are. We can’t replace

them when they age, show wear and tear, or are broken in some fashion. So we work to

hide or minimize our perceived flaws. Entire industries and movements have developed that

try to keep our bodies young, strong, or appearing to be without blemish. There is no

shortage of spiritual gurus peddling the secret to happiness and a cursory glance at the

comments section of just about any online article will reveal people constantly trying to

show (anonymously – so who are they showing?) that their minds are sharper or superior to

the other “trolls” on the thread. We can’t stand to be broken or worn down and we do our

best to conceal our blemishes and our brokenness from the world.

Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese technique for fixing broken pottery. The technique is

instantly recognizable as it uses resin mixed with gold, silver, or platinum powder to restore

the object to wholeness. Kintsugi, which translates to golden joinery, restores the usefulness

and functionality of the object while also celebrating the story behind its brokenness. The

uniqueness of each piece is amplified by the gold resin and the result is a stunningly

beautiful work of art that conveys a powerful metaphor.

Kintsugi

Photo from Wikipedia

For me, counseling very closely resembles Kintsugi. As we spend time sitting with and

examining the broken pieces of our lives we gain understanding, which allows us to produce

the tools and the eye catching resin needed to restore ourselves to wholeness. We move

away from hiding, shame, and guilt and towards authenticity, all while celebrating and

acknowledging the brokenness that makes our stories unique. As we work towards

wholeness in this way, we become more authentic, beautiful, and unique than before.

Thanks to our friends at Cambridge Dictionaries Online for the following definitions:

Meaning noun:

(IMPORTANCE) – Importance or value

(EXPRESSION) – What something represents or expresses

Purpose noun:

(REASON) – An intention or aim; a reason for doing something or for allowing something to happen

(RESULT) – An intended result or use

Assigning or discovering meaning and purpose to our experiences is a uniquely human ability. This ability is often responsible for driving us to our highest highs and through our lowest lows, and can quite literally save our lives.  For a brief yet powerful overview of this, please check out “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. It’s an amazing book by a man whose work has profoundly impacted my life as well as my counseling approach and practice.

I am often struck with how easily we interchange meaning and purpose in our conversations. It’s understandable; as you examine them they have very similar traits. However, I believe that these words play complementary yet specifically different roles in our lives.

Purpose, as I see it, is the broad strokes or the theme we set for our individual stories. Meaning is what we find in the moment to moment, day to day of our activities and experiences as we write these stories. Meaning can be intentionally applied to our activities and it can be assigned to or pulled out of events or circumstances that are beyond our control as we cling to and pursue purpose. Stated more simply, meaning is the momentum that propels us to fulfill our purpose.