Shifting Out of Autopilot: The Health Benefits of Being Present

Center for Mindfulness and CompassionPhotos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

David Foster Wallace stood in front of Kenyon College’s graduating class in 2005 and gave a commencement speech. He chose to impart his wisdom to the graduates using a tale of two fish.

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ Eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ Wallace said, according to a transcript of the speech.

“The point of the story is merely that the most obvious and important realities are often the ones hardest to see and talk about,” he continued.

These realities he talks about are the ones of routine. Commuting, traffic, grocery shopping, and all of the other tedious activities that are part of everyday life and that hold our free time hostage.

But the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion (CMC) at Cambridge Health Alliance offers a way out. Not a way out of traffic or grocery shopping, but a way out of the frustrations and exhaustion that comes with routine—cyclical thinking, cyclical behavior, and a seemingly cyclical life. And it’s not necessarily about breaking the pattern, but rather how we think about it: accepting what comes without judgement.

The Power of Mindfulness

Since the start of this millennium, mindfulness research has increased 20-fold. Some studies show that children have more brain flexibility after practicing mindfulness. Two weeks of mindfulness training changes brain waves of depression. Even youth with HIV showed a reduced viral load after mindfulness-based stress reduction.

People have been practicing mindfulness for thousands of years, and its roots stretch into Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions. Most modern Western teachers and students have adopted Buddhist and Hindu practices.

CMC aims to enhance health by integrating mindfulness and compassion into healthcare. It’s insurance reimbursable, and the program hopes to foster an inclusive, caring, and multicultural community that allows individuals to thrive.

Using empirically-supported theory and practice, CMC trains individuals and healthcare providers how to treat anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and more. Richa Gawande, research and programs manager at CMC, says secular mindfulness blossomed in the West with several different goals—a way to feel more joy, savor the present moment, and spend less time mulling over the future or past.

Hilary Smith gave the program’s eight-week course a try when she was frustrated at her new job.

“I was doing office work and sorting through papers and kind of having this loop in my head of being annoyed that there are no windows in my office and ‘How am I going to survive this job where the environment isn’t ideal?’” Smith says. “And then I remembered some stuff from class.”

Rather than focusing on the fluorescent lights and her new job, she focused on the sensations of her body. “The paper that I was holding felt really nice in my hand. And instead of focusing on bad thoughts, I tried to focus on the feeling of enjoying the paper and enjoying not being in pain—kind of reframing a situation,” she says. “And that’s a very small example, but your mind can go on those loops. And the class really helped me understand I have more control over my thoughts.”

Center for Mindfulness and Compassion

Part of the process is called decentering. You observe your thoughts and feelings as temporary events rather than as facts or truths about you. CMC often reminds students that the practice is simple, but not easy.

“In the eight-week course we might offer 20 or 25 formal and informal practices that people can draw on in their daily life,” Gawande says. “They might take a mindful moment while they are eating and tune into the sense of taste and the sense of smell. They might use mindful listening while they are at a work meeting instead of zoning out and ignoring anger. They might notice, ‘Oh, I’m feeling anger. Where do I feel that in my body?’”

These practices can include a moment of silence, a kindness practice, or a focused breath. Some researchers say the average person has 50,000 thoughts a day. Mindfulness offers a mechanism to quiet that inner traffic.

“We think we constantly have this invitation to do what we need to do. But it is actually very hard to pause and feel like there is a choice moment or to feel like you are connected to what’s happening,” Gawande says. “We are on autopilot.”

Center for Mindfulness and CompassionWhen a person spends time in silence they start to see how many thoughts, sounds, and body sensations envelop them, she says. Our minds can process 126 pieces of information every second.

“And actually how little choice it feels like there is in the experience,” she adds. “I think what mindfulness offers is a lot more moments in the day that offer choice because you are aware of all of the different layers of experience.”

Smith has found that the practice doesn’t serve as an immediate fix, but rather takes constant practice. An average “present moment” lasts about three to four seconds, so a wandering mind is not just normal, but inevitable. The goal is to constantly reroute yourself from thinking on autopilot.

Another patient, Steven Braun, tried medication and therapy for his depression. He went through a different eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program in 2016, but didn’t feel that he got much out of the class.

His depression continued, so his therapist suggested he revisit mindfulness. He gave mindfulness another shot and enrolled at CMC.

“The last time around the person who was leading the classes didn’t have a great grasp on the material,” Braun says. “With this program, the facilitators are clearly deeply invested. They made it clear they have spent a lot of time on their own grappling with the practices.”

Braun spent an entire day in silence during the program. The facilitators warned that focused attention for such an extended period would be extremely difficult, but it was Braun’s favorite day of the program.

“Failure is a very relative term when it comes to mindfulness practice,” he says. “Some days in some situations it will be a lot easier to follow through a practice and concentrate on the practice at hand, and some days it’s a lot more difficult—a natural implication of building those practices of daily life and working within circumstances of daily routine.”

This story originally appeared in the The Wellness Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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