Automatic Thinking

Learning to drive an automobile can be an overwhelming task. You have to focus on keeping the vehicle between the lines on the highway while watching for other cars, traffic signals and road signs. In addition to all of this, you must constantly glance at the speedometer to make sure that you are driving at a safe speed. You cannot look at the speedometer for too long because you must also concentrate on what may be happening on the highway. When learning to drive, you probably recited the ‘rules of the road’ to yourself over and over while driving (“Hands at two and ten,” “Watch out for animals and children running into the road,” etc.).

But as you gained knowledge and experience of driving, it became more and more of an automatic process. It may have become so automatic that now from time to time you make a routine drive without remembering anything about it. If you have ever let your mind wander and have missed an exit or a turn, then you are fully familiar with the process of automatization.

The process of automatization occurs in many areas of our lives. Just as the process of driving eventually becomes automatic, and can occur without our conscious awareness, so can thought and feeling processes become automatized.

If you have ever had a strong emotional reaction to a situation without knowing why, it is possible that one of your automatized emotional processes was activated (Moulds & Bryant, 2004).

Mindfulness is just the opposite of this automatic pilot experience. It is a way of paying close attention to your immediate experiences without getting lost in thought or shifting into automatic patterns of thinking or behaving. It is a shift from Doing Mode into Being Mode.

Doing Mode

Think about your morning routine. When you were in the shower this morning, were you actually ‘in’ the shower, or was your mind racing down the highway to your day-to-day errands? When you were there in the shower, were you feeling the warmth of the water on your skin, smelling the fragrance of the soap, and hearing the sound of the water, or was your mind elsewhere?

When we are preoccupied with thoughts of the past or the future, or with thoughts of getting things done, we are in Doing Mode. Doing Mode can also be expressed as Thinking Mode, because to get things done, we generally have to think about those things first. We make ‘to do’ lists in our minds and then do them in Doing Mode.

Thinking Mode takes us away from experiencing the world directly with our senses. When we leave Thinking Mode, and focus our awareness directly on the information provided by our senses, we have entered Sensing Mode.

Mindful Awareness teaches us to focus on the world experienced directly by our senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. Experiencing life in sensing mode introduces us to a richer world. It’s impossible to be bored or apathetic if you treat each experience as if it is happening to you for the first time. Approaching each new situation without any assumptions or expectations is referred to as Beginner’s Mind, or sometimes as Child’s Mind.

Being Mode

Williams (2008) presents research that indicates the benefits of mindful states of being. Mindfulness is associated with decreases in levels of rumination (a process of becoming ‘trapped’ in negative thought cycles), avoidance (refusing to accept the reality of a given situation), perfectionism (attempts to control a situation), and maladaptive self-guides (attempting solutions that maintain the problem). Taken together, this reduction in negative thought and behavior patterns form what is known as Being Mode.

By focusing on the present moment, we leave Thinking Mode and enter into Sensing Mode.

In Sensing Mode, we simply allow ourselves to become fully aware of what is going on around us and within us, without attempting to control or manipulate these events and sensations. Being Mode reduces ruminations by allowing us to become aware of our thoughts and feelings as internal processes that we can choose to participate in, or choose to simply observe. In Being Mode we learn that we are not our thoughts.

In Western modes of thought, we are taught that our thoughts and feelings are our identities. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but does that mean that if you stop thinking, you cease to exist?

Being Mode allows us to detach from our cognitive and emotional processes and observe them, or stop them, if we so choose.

Being Mode reduces avoidance by allowing us to be in the present moment. If you are trying to avoid an unpleasant emotional state, you set up a cycle of denial. This denial creates anxiety and stress, which leads to more unpleasant emotional states to be avoided, which starts the avoidance cycle all over again. Being Mode allows us to participate in the unpleasant situation without internalizing it; i.e., without allowing the unpleasantness to become a part of our identity.

Perfectionism can be seen as a control mechanism. It is a displacement technique. If we feel out of control of certain areas of our lives, and we feel powerless to change those areas, we may displace our attention on the areas that we can control. By engaging in compulsive, perfectionist behaviors we assert our control over tangible areas as a substitute for areas over which we may feel we have no control. The idea of “perfection” becomes an obsessive means of anxiety management.

Being Mode allows us to realize that perfection is a subjective ideal. For example, if I asked you to describe your “perfect” day, you are likely to give me a totally different answer to that question than I would give if I were asked the same question.

Since our answers to the question, “What is your idea of the perfect day?” would not be identical, there is no objective definition to the word “perfect.” Being Mode helps one to realize that perfection is a self-defined concept.

In Being Mode we learn that every moment is perfect in and of itself, if we allow it to be.

Finally, Being Mode allows us to disengage from our own cognitive and emotional processes for a time. By doing so, we can become objective observers of our own inner states, without feeling that we must participate in them. Being Mode is a type of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking.” By observing the thoughts and feelings that have led to maladaptive consequences, we gain the ability to change those thought and feeling processes to lead to more productive conclusions.

Moulds, M. L. & Bryant, R. A. (2004). Automatic Versus Effortful Influences in the Processing of Traumatic Material in Acute Stress Disorder. Journal of Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 28, No. 6, December 2004, pp. 805–817.

Williams, G. (2008). Mindfulness, Depression and Modes of Mind. Journal of Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 32, No. 6, December, 2008. Pages 721-733.

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