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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. 

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.