Hacking the autopilot

Some people say, every seven years your body fully replaces all of its cells so that you become a brand new person. However far from being scientifically accurate, this theory makes lots of sense in my case. It may be hard to believe, but seven years ago I was extremely anxious, depressed, trying to cure my depression with booze (which only made things worse, as you can guess) and didn’t have any control whatsoever over most aspects of my life. My longtime friends ask me sometimes, what have I done to change myself and turn so many things around. Surely this was a slow and long-term process including hundreds of factors, but I know what changes me now the most – and it is learning to be aware.

If you’re just like me, you’ve probably spent most of your life on autopilot, without paying too much attention to what happens around you. Get up, get dressed, get to work, come back, have some rest, meet friends, go to bed, repeat. Too often I found myself too exhausted after a day of hard work to do anything productive and ended up beating another high score in Candy Crush or scrolling mindlessly through 9gag and Facebook feeds. Left alone without my smartphone or laptop I felt very uneasy, as I had nowhere to hide from the voices in my head telling me I have issues. Who wants to have issues and be constantly reminded about them?

A big turning point was when I finally completed my Engineer’s degree – 3 years overdue and only because my boss tricked me into that, but hey, who cares? For the first time in ages I could finally learn whatever the hell I’d like to, just because it is fun and not because I must do it (which made me feel sick). I started swallowing books one after another, expanding my horizon with every small piece, which finally brought me to Korea and to a whole new level of uneasy awkwardness: living alone. Never before had I lived all by myself and I was overwhelmed with the amount of time I had to spend on my own. Even if I worked out every day, stayed late at the office and partied all weekend I still had more than enough time to come up with all the difficult questions I could possibly ask. This was the time I turned to meditation.

For long I believed that meditation is something for monks and guys who’d escape into a fantasy world rather than face the real one. Luckily I found some really good programs online which skipped mumbo-jumbo parts and focused on expanding awareness and the effects it has on your brain. The idea sounded too simple to make any sense – sit down, count your breaths, if you notice your mind wandering (and sure you will), just note your thoughts or feelings and consciously return your focus to breathing. At the same time, it was too simple not to give it a try.

I was surprised by how fast things started to change with this little 10-minutes-a-day practice. I learned to observe how much crazy stuff my mind generates and that instead of acting upon each of the weird thoughts I can just watch them and label as crazy. It felt like I noticed an autopilot installed in my brain with preprogrammed instructions on how to behave in all kinds of situations – but now that I noticed it exists I could take my time and think if following its guidance would do me any good. If it didn’t, I could simply ignore its message and carry on with my own stuff.

With time this awareness started to expand into everyday life. When talking with people, I can watch different feelings arise in response to what they are saying and decide what I’d prefer to do regardless of that. When facing a difficult task, I can feel the fear of failure that used to block me completely, watch the responses it triggers and then start doing the thing anyway. When lost online it takes me less than a minute to wake up and ask: “So you found yourself reading another random bullet point list with some generic content you already know. Are you gonna continue or rather do something fun?”. And what is the most important to me, I learned to empathize with other people on a much deeper level. Partly because understanding my own emotions helps me understand those of the others, partly because I know they don’t mean to hurt me, just simply run their crazy autopilot programs without even knowing.

Sure, I still happen to dwell in negative emotions sometimes, get bored, get lazy or even get unpleasant for others. After all, we’re still animals which took millions of years of trial and error to figure out the best immediate survival strategies. We’ll never get rid of the autopilot completely and that’s a good thing (can you imagine having to take each breath consciously or otherwise you’d suffocate?). The whole point is to hack it into working for you and not against you – and learning how it works now surely will be a good start.

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