Stepping Out of Automatic Pilot

airplane-taking-offI have come to view the years I spent in active addiction as my having been trapped in state of perpetual unconsciousness.  That is not to say there was no mental or emotional activity.  On the contrary, whether I was getting high or not, my mind raced incessantly and my emotions swung to extremes.  I say that I was unconscious because all of this mental and emotional activity occurred without much if any apparent effort on my part as if it all were happening automatically.  I have since learned that these reactive patterns were conditioned in me from a very young age and were likely reinforced by both genetic and other biological factors.  Initially, alcohol and drugs soothed the perpetual state of anxiety (or, dissatisfaction, discontent, dis-ease, or dukkha, if you will) which pervaded my existence.  However, these powerful chemicals ultimately turned on me as they acted upon vulnerable reward, memory, and motivation circuitry in my brain to ensure that I would fall into the vicious downward spiral of addiction.  Thus the trap of addiction is complex and composed of myriad personal and environmental risk factors which conspire to form the trance of automaticity.  And so, for me the process of recovery has essentially entailed an awakening to the causes and conditions of these automatic reactive patterns.  More importantly, it has also been about learning to step out of and interrupt these patterns through cultivation of mindfulness.

Most people, including those who suffer from serious addiction issues, live a good deal of their lives in automatic pilot mode.  Those trapped in this mode are caught in reactive patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting.  The various circumstances of life seem to automatically call up certain beliefs, emotions, and behaviors which all tend to interact in complex ways and reinforce one another.  Cognitive behavioral theorists have long recognized the problems that automatic thoughts can cause in our lives – particularly those that are rightly characterized as irrational.  Long before Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck formulated their psychological theories, the Greek Stoic, Epictetus, wisely observed that “we are not disturbed by things, but the views which we take of them.”  To illustrate this point, consider the person who is consumed by anger – the man or the woman who might be described as “having a short fuse”.  The anger response depends on automaticity – a calling forth of thought chains, associated emotions, and bodily sensations – that operate below the light of awareness to trap the individual into negative habituated reactive patterns.  At her most boisterous and obnoxious, the angry person is actually in a deep sleep – ignorant of the pattern in which she is trapped and confused by the persistence of her suffering.  These observations are equally true for the addicted person.

In order to avoid falling repeatedly into these sorts of reactive patterns, it is necessary to become attuned to the part of the psyche that will allow calm observation in the midst of the storm of tumultuous thoughts and emotions.  The awakening which marks recovery initially involves becoming aware of the “watcher” which Rodney Smith says

. . . indicates that awareness is now looking at the mind rather than through the mind. The difference is analogous to looking at a pair of red glasses as an object itself as opposed to putting them on and seeing through them, coloring the world red. Up until now, awareness has been seeing through the mind, totally identifying with what was arising in the mind. Awareness is now beginning to separate itself from the mind and make the mind its object, learning how the mind works rather than identifying with its presentation.

This approach, which could be described in some ways as metacognitive, is different than most Western psychological methods which tend to focus on identifying and altering the content of thinking.  On the other hand, in mindfulness practice we are far more interested in developing awareness of the process (rather than content) of thinking.  In fact, from the Buddhist perspective, our central problem is that we think too much and therefore focusing on the content of thought (even if it involves identifying and replacing irrational thoughts) serves little purpose until awareness exposes the automaticity born of unconsciousness.  It is like replacing the tires on a car that has no engine.  In mindfulness practice we learn to let go of the storyline which keeps us trapped in automatic pilot and instead tune into the watcher presence.

This is not to say that psychological methods which focus on altering thought content are ineffective or lack utility.  On the contrary, many reliable studies have demonstrated benefits to such approaches.  However, as a practical matter, deeply entrenched patterns of thinking are not easily unseated.  It is one thing to talk the theory of cognitive restructuring, but it is quite another to expect this sort of reframing in the heat of the moment when powerful cravings and urges take hold and call forth reactive patterns.  Thus, mindfulness practice, which has the effect of changing our relationship to our thoughts, leaves us in a far better position to step out of automatic pilot.  Furthermore, many so-called “cognitive-behavioral” approaches too often fail to take into account the heavy influence exerted by emotional states and bodily sensations in the reactive patterns associated with addiction.  Conversely, mindfulness training often begins with the first foundation which is mindfulness of body; then proceeds to the second foundation, mindfulness of emotions; all before reaching the third foundation, mindfulness of thoughts.  Thus, mindfulness practice is anchored in the body and bodily sensations (often times, the breath) and then in emotions where automatic patterns can be brought into awareness and observed before being fully energized by thoughts.  If we can avoid being carried away by the stream of thoughts, there is a much better chance the negative patterns can be interrupted.  Then, and only then, might meaningful cognitive restructuring begin to occur.

breathe-in1In recent years, mindfulness practice has gained a measure of popularity in the West.  Researchers and clinicians have incorporated mindfulness-based approaches into a number of therapeutic interventions including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and mindfulness-based relapse prevention.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading experts on mindfulness interventions, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  While there are several different approaches for cultivating mindful awareness, perhaps the most direct method for connecting with the “watcher” presence is through formal meditation practice, beginning with anapanasati, or mindfulness of breath.  In this practice, the individual simply directs her attention to the process of breathing noting, for example, “breathing in, I know that I am breathing in . . . breathing out, I know that I am breathing out” which can be shortened to just two words – “in” on the inhale, and “out” on the exhale.  Though seemingly mundane to the novice, the point here is the begin to become aware of the “monkey mind” which chatters away, jumping from limb to limb, tree to tree, thought to thought.  As we attempt to bring awareness to the breath, the monkey mind clamors for our attention.  From this quiet perspective where we are anchored to the breath, the watcher emerges apart from the mental clutter.  Again, the idea is not to focus on the content of the various thoughts, only to note the process and the tendency to become swept away into unconsciousness.  We learn to watch what is happening with a detached awareness and we use the breath as a point of return – an anchor to present moment awareness – returning to it again and again, as many times as necessary during our sitting.  One of the goals of practicing mindfulness of breath is to cultivate samatha (calming of the mind) and, with practice in later stages, to attain samadhi (deep states of concentration).  As a practical matter, this sort of mindfulness practice will often have the effect of calming the mind and bringing about a relaxed state.  More importantly, for those who struggle with addiction (and other negative behaviors), the effect is to activate areas of the brain responsible for impulse control.  As a result, we learn to avoid magnifying the intensity of the cravings with thought and instead rest with the passing energy.  The automatic, reactive patterns are thus interrupted and ultimately extinguished over time.

Formal mindfulness practice also involves insight meditation known as vipassana.  As in anapanasati, insight meditation also involves paying attention in a purposeful way, however in vipassana attention is directed to changing objects of perception.  The objects to which attention is directed usually follow along the Four Foundations of Mindfulness which include the body and bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and (the more obscure) mental objects.  So that, for example, one of the most basic practices involves the body scan meditation where the individual directs the spotlight of awareness over the course of the entire body, from the tip of the head to the toes, noticing the presence (or even the absence) of any particular sensations in the different areas of the body.  Similarly, in mindfulness exercises where emotions or thoughts are taken as the object of awareness, the purpose is to observe through the “watcher” presence how these phenomena very naturally rise, crest, and then fall away like the waves of the ocean without our having to do anything.  Problems arise in our lives when we deny or attempt to change this wave-like rhythm of life by clinging to or pushing away the passing elements.  The result is that we become increasingly frustrated and disheartened, our suffering increases, and we fall back into the negative patterns of the past as a means to cope.  Thus, the purpose of anapanasati and insight meditation is to empower us to anchor in awareness when the waves of thoughts and emotions arise so that we may avoid being wiped out by their force again and again.  We gain the ability to do this by turning our attention inward, by cultivating awareness, and by accepting certain truths about the nature of our existence.

Thus, it is from the beauty and simplicity of the breath – that which is always present, in the Now, the anchor amidst the storm – that the process of recovery may begin.  It is there that true wakefulness may be found.  Many who undertake the practice of mindfulness meditation, including myself in years gone by, perceive it to be too difficult or lacking in immediate gratification and therefore quickly abandon them.  Sometimes people say to me, “I can’t do this . . . my mind races too much . . . it won’t be still.”  Of course, noticing the incessant chatter of the monkey mind is the point and represents a point where we have tapped into awareness; but the makeshift, ephemeral ego resists its deflation mightily by constructing storylines of impotency.  Here the non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness practice is indispensable and progress may very well depend on whether we drop the labels and suspend attachment to any particular outcomes.  Incorporating mindfulness meditation into addiction recovery requires dedication, self-discipline, and vigilance.  It is not a quick-fix, nor is its purpose to induce certain mental or emotional states.  It is, however, a method by which profound changes in one’s attitude and outlook upon life may be effected.  In time, with practice, you will realize that you are not reacting in the same destructive ways.  Then you will know that you have awakened from the state of perpetual unconsciousness where you and the watcher have become one.



Those interested in taking up mindfulness practice will find a plethora of information on the internet.  Some of the free audio resources for guided meditations that I have found most useful in my personal practice have included:

Insight Meditation Center – Meditation Instruction (Gil Fronsdal)

Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention

Judith Ragir – 12-Step Lectures

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