Now I don’t know about you, but I really hate getting hit by cars.
Why I hate getting hit by cars is not the subject of this post. However, how hundreds of people in the Boston area are almost hit by cars each day is the lamentable topic for today.
I can’t tell you how many times in the past five years that I have witnessed someone walking head down with headphones or texting almost get slammed into by a car ostensibly going about its business. On several occasions I’ve actually had to yell loudly at the pedestrian to have them move faster (or slower) across the crosswalk or street lest they be hit.
I should qualify a few things before moving on. I am a very frequent smart phone user, and so I can be seen listening to music while walking. I also often feel the urge to text while on route. I have made a few errors myself in becoming quite tuned out as I’m so plugged in and have gotten honked at a few times for not paying attention in a crosswalk.
So what follows is not meant to take on a holier-than-thou preachy tone. It’s meant to bring a greater consciousness to us all about the way we go about our daily activities. This greater consciousness can ultimately bring about a greater appreciation for life and resilience in the face of stress and difficult emotions. And interestingly and importantly, we are literally changing the wiring in our brain every time we pay attention in a different way than we usually pay (or don’t pay) attention.
Ok, on with the show.
When we plug in to some tech device (literally or figuratively) while walking or driving, we necessarily tune out other bits of information around us. This may feel safer or desired if there are a lot of annoying noises (ex., jack hammers) or uncomfortable sights (ex., homeless people begging for change) around us. Most the time, however, we are simply in automatic pilot mode, plugging in to a device without really being acutely aware of what we are doing and how it might affect us as we use it.
So when your head is buried in your smart phone as you walk and text, your brain is trying to very hard to accomplish at least two motor functions and several other social-emotional-attentional functions at the same time. (Just try chewing gum too.) But what happens to your brain’s awareness of the people walking toward you (perhaps on their smart phones too), the hole in the sidewalk, or a door opening outward five feet away? Does your brain compute that your body is approaching a crosswalk and that your fingers might need to pause from texting and nudge your head to look up?
Your brain likely realizes something is different (relative to the normal sidewalk) as you approach the crosswalk. But if you have not intentionally directed your mind to pay attention to the present moments in as clear a way as possible (i.e., mindful awareness), it’s more likely that your brain won’t fully register the importance of safety as you cross the street. And thus the usual safety cues or precautions you typically would take are simply not on your radar.
Your brain has taken a little vacation from those other important bits of information, like cars turning, other people walking toward you, or a child quickly approaching from behind on a scooter. And so, you walk across the street with cars turning toward you, still texting because that’s where your mental energy has been directed.
You are then uncomfortably jarred out of your texting session as a car, now 10 feet from your body, honks loudly. Your brain quickly gets the message that something is amiss. And you might look at the driver, perhaps as if s/he did something wrong. Then, you resume texting immediately once out of harm’s way.
We all go through some version of this scenario in our daily lives. Autopilot mode can show up while walking with technology, driving, talking with a loved one, shopping at the grocery, doing work for an academic course, having sex, trying to sleep, eating, showering, and…well, you get the picture.
Shifting Mental Gears: From Autopilot to Mindful Awareness
So how do we move from autopilot mode to something different? And why is it so important anyway?
Using the example of technology in a different way now, we might consider that autopilot mode can be likened to the endless onslaught of commercials and advertisements we are “forced” to see on TV or online. When you are watching your favorite TV show and commercials appear, you have “no choice” where to direct your attention (unless you purposefully get up, hit mute, or change the channel).
And now consider actively changing the channel to find exactly what you would like to watch. You are involved in scanning the options and are generally aware of what you like and don’t like and how each channel’s contents make you feel at that moment (usually bored or intrigued). And so you more or less consciously choose where to place your mental energy.
How to Do It – Step 1: When you are going about your daily activities, see if you can bring your awareness to the fact that you might be figuratively “just watching the ads” in autopilot mode. Are you fully engaged and aware of what you are doing? Do you notice things around you, or are you tuned out and realize minutes later that your partner, for example, has been talking to you about something important.
How to Do It – Step 2: Acknowledge (with self-kindness) where your mind has been as it was in autopilot mode. You might respond silently in your head with: “Oh, my mind was really caught up in planning dinner” or “Wow, I was really zoning out just then – I think I may have been worried about my dad’s health”).
How to Do It – Step 3: Consciously re-direct your attention to other aspects of your environment that may be important to attend to in those moments. For example, you may refocus your mental energy on the actual sensations of the shower you are taking – the water hitting your skin, the smell of the soap, the slight decline of the bathtub as it points toward the drain.
Why Do It? Every step toward conscious, active participation in your daily life matters. Even washing the dishes with mindful awareness matters. When you notice that your mind has drifted off to some foreign land or to some overly familiar place, and then you intentionally bring it back to the original task at hand, you are strengthening neural connections in your brain for enhanced well-being. Neuroscientific evidence is increasingly demonstrating this fact.
When your attention regulation circuit of the brain is strengthened, this can lead to significant changes in how you handle difficult emotions, stay focused at school or work, and appreciate life. This is not a bad set of outcomes from simply paying attention in a different way than we are used to.
So, back to our example of walking while texting. We may feel a great urgency to just send that one text. And every time we immediately satisfy that urge, we lessen our ability to resist those urges in the future. It’s as if we are strengthening autopilot mode by giving in to the urge in that very moment.
Experimenting with Mindful Awareness
When we bring mindful awareness to this scenario, we may intentionally choose to walk without texting perhaps for one block. Then maybe we intentionally elect to stop for 15 seconds while we fire off the text, and then we resume walking. We subsequently might direct our attention to the breeze we feel, to the sounds of the town, and to the feel of our bodies stepping on the concrete, step by step by step.
This may not seem all that glamorous, but you are consciously using your mind in different and positive ways. And as many scholars have written, when you use your mind to change your brain, you can have profound effects on your entire being for years to come.
Take good care, and all my best mindfully navigating your roads, sidewalks, and other terrains of life,
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