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Mindfulness: stop living life on auto pilot

Clinical Psychologist Dr Ian Smith shares his tips of how to be in control of your life by taking note of everything you do.

So often we are not present in what we are doing. We have no idea what we may or may not have just done, whether it was driving across town or making dinner.

We tend to remember crises or extra-special events, but much of ordinary life – the daily activities of showering, grocery shopping, getting dressed, and so on – seems to slip by us.

We might call this living life on automatic pilot.

In this mode, you are accomplishing life’s tasks, but it is as if no one is at the controls. You are not appreciating or even experiencing much at all; you literally are missing your life. 

St John of God Health Care mindfulness

From the past and the future and into the present

We spend a great deal of time lost in thoughts about the past or the future. 

Most of our thoughts are about things we regret from the past or things we are worried about in the future.

We obsess, worry grieve, imagine the worst happening in the future, and replay situations from the past that caused us pain.

Theoretically, it might be wise to replay only pleasant thoughts, but we mostly replay negative thoughts, as if we have broken records in our heads.

Most of our thoughts hardly seem to vary. We have been thinking the same (often painful) thoughts day after day. So our minds are often not aware in the present but living in a different time period either the past or the future.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about you and your ability to be aware of what is going on both inside you and around you.

It is the continuous awareness of your body, emotions, and thoughts. It can be thought of as a state of consciousness, one characterised by attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity. It is a quality of attention that can be brought to any experience.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer who brought mindfulness to western mental health care as a possible psychological intervention, articulated mindfulness as below:

“From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.”

What would I be doing if I were mindful?

  • Observe / notice: The here and now, the present moment. Pay attention with all your senses. Whatever you find in the here and now, you can be mindful to it.
  • Describing: Putting words on your experience. Whatever you find in the present moment, put words to it - to yourself. Just the facts – not evaluations or opinions.
  • One-mindfully: Enter into every experience with the preparedness to just be there. Noticing when you are drifting onto other thoughts or ideas, and gently bringing yourself back to what you are doing again and again.
  • Non-judgmentally: Be aware of your judgments, observe and describe them. Notice yourself being judgmental. Welcoming versus judging.

Living mindfully

Learning to live mindfully does not mean living in a perfect world, but rather, living a full and contented life in a world in which both joys and challenges are a given.

Therefore, mindfulness can be transformed into an art – the art of conscious living – observing your physical, emotional, and mental experiences with deliberate, open, and curious attention.

To incorporate mindfulness into your life does not require that you change your life in any drastic way – you will attend to your normal array of activities – but you can learn to perform all of those activities with a different state of awareness, one that is open, curious and non- reactive.

About Dr Ian Smith

Principal Clinical Psychologist

Dr Ian Smith is the Director of Allied Health at St John of God Burwood Hospital responsible for all the allied health staff and the therapy intervention programs in the hospital and the out-patient counselling and therapy centre.