Often, we’re only half-listening or half-awake when we do things. That’s the essence of life on autopilot. But there have been some truly remarkable souls among us who lived with greater than typical awareness.
Most of us lead our lives on a sort of autopilot. We let what we perceive to be the requirements of the day dictate our every move. We do what we think we’re supposed to do and ask few questions about it. We go about our daily routines. Of course, we have to be physically awake to do any of this. But in a much more profound sense, while we’re doing it, we’re actually asleep. By that I mean we’re not in conscious contact with the myriad repressed feelings and unattended to desires that lie deeper within us. To be truly awake, we have to be more fully conscious. That’s what all the sages and great mystics have always tried to tell us.
There have been some truly remarkable souls among us who lived their lives with greater than typical awareness. And these spiritual and cultural giants left us with some profound messages about what it takes to live a fully conscious and purpose-driven life. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply aware of how at risk his physical existence was in the days before his assassination. He had a deep intuition about all the possible dangers he faced. And he knew he might well die at any moment. But he was also profoundly aware of a much bigger reality. He knew that both he and the movement he had helped spawn and had fully committed himself to were part of something that simply couldn’t be quashed by snuffing out a single human life. And, he somehow sensed the purpose of his life. As he so eloquently put it, he felt both graced and strengthened because he had “seen the promised land” and sensed what the inevitable result of his and his movement’s role in human history would be. Jesus, we’re told, was also deeply aware of his likely fate. And he reportedly sweat drops of blood in the hours before his death because of that awareness. But despite sensing his own inevitable end, he not only committed himself to his mission and all that it would entail but also urged his followers to “stay awake” themselves, knowing the trials they would eventually face. He saw the bigger picture. And he was fully aware. The mission was bigger than all of them, so he wanted them to be aware as well.
Generally, we come to deeper levels of awareness in two ways: through the experience of great love or intense suffering. But those moments of enhanced consciousness are typically fleeting. It’s really difficult to “stay awake.” To do it we generally have to engage in some kind of contemplative practice. All the world’s great religions and spiritual traditions seem to have known this and offer some mechanisms to accomplish it. But true mindfulness need not be born of any particular type of spiritual exercise. What’s really essential is to dedicate time for awareness itself to take center stage in your life. It’s taking the time to simply be, and in so doing, becoming more aware of being aware. True contemplation is more like having an intimate encounter with oneself. What inevitably flows from that is an increased awareness of how interconnected we are with everyone and everything else that exists. When we’re fully awake, we’re truly aware. We’re truly present. And we’re more fully alive.
Because it’s so easy to revert to a life on autopilot, here are some tips for staying awake and connected:
Make space in your life for some sort of contemplative practice. Set aside a time of day and/or day of the week for quiet reflection. The exact amount of time you spend is not nearly as important as the degree of focus you maintain. Clearing your mind of all the typical things that distract is key. Most contemplative disciplines offer some methods to help you do that.
Alleviating physical stress
Begin your reflective time with some tension-relieving exercises. Remove physical stress through progressive relaxation exercises or imagery.
Focus your attention on awareness itself. As so many sages of the past have advocated, strive to “be aware of being aware.”
In addition to a routine of focused contemplative exercise, do your best to be as “present” and alert and awake in all your activities. Slowing down in general helps with this. Take the time to savour as many of life’s precious moments as possible, even the seemingly mundane ones. Notice the sunrises and sunsets. Ponder for a moment the wind rustling the leaves on a tree. Take the time to really marvel at a painting. Stop racing through the book you’re reading to ponder the deeper meaning in a particular paragraph. And while you’re at it, remember to bring your whole self to any encounter.
All too many times, we’re only half-listening or half-awake when we do things. That’s the essence of life on autopilot. An awakened life is a very different life. We notice things we missed before. We see things in different lights. A more vast, rich, and instructive world is always before us. But we have to fully show up to take it all in.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on December 11, 2017.
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