Blog #47 – Being present – part 2
In our last post, we highlighted the issue of conscious awareness in our daily lives, with an emphasis on how for many of us this awareness can slip intermittently, with our daily routines sometimes facilitating a kind of auto-pilot, which in turn is partly responsible for the perception so many of us report of time passing more quickly than it did when we were younger, with years seeming to rush by faster and faster as we get older.
No doubt we can all agree that this is not a positive trend, but for those so afflicted – and in the busy, pressurised hubbub of modern life, whether that relates to work, family, or a combination of both, few of us will be immune to this tendency – it then begs the urgent follow-up query of what we can hope to do about it. Can we find a way to nurture ongoing conscious awareness in a society that is perhaps not set up to facilitate it?
We finished last time by mentioning some of the typical testimony reported by individuals who have undertaken long distance walks/hikes such as the Camino de Santiago. As I stated, some who undertake such treks for weeks (or even months, in some cases) report shifts in their perception of how time passes, with days and weeks seeming to stretch and extend compared to how they flow at home, with this in turn alerting them to the extent of auto-pilot in their normal day-to-day life.
That is all well and good, but what space limitations prevented us from doing in that post was to drill down into what exactly is happening here and the extent of its relevance to the topic at hand.
When these individuals elaborate on their experience, invariably they mention how on such treks they need their wits about them, which partially accounts for what they report. However, they will also usually go on to speak about how the newness of their environment, the relentless novelty that comes with trekking over new terrain every day, means they are constantly exposed to fresh stimuli – nothing is ever familiar, or at least never over-familiar, and this facilitates a more laser-guided awareness and legislates against slipping into auto-pilot mode, as they might do when walking the familiar streets or engaging in the familiar activities of home. They can feel this way from waking in the morning until going to bed at night, day-in and day-out, for however long their trek lasts. This is why these people can report, as mentioned last time, that days feel like weeks and week like months. Imagine being present and aware from first thing in the morning until last thing at night, never slipping into that near-hypnotised state that sometimes creeps over us. Most likely, the vast majority of us would have serious difficulty imagining what that would be like. Indeed, the typical Camino de Santiago pilgrim who is fortunate enough to spend a few weeks or more on the trail will talk in terms of not having realised how much time they spend on auto-pilot in their ‘normal’ life until they experienced the hyper-awareness that can come with such an endeavour.
Of course, part of what is going on here is that what is familiar by its very nature will not tend to stand out and grab our attention quite so much. It is important to acknowledge that this is part of the picture, but it would perhaps be wishful thinking to imagine that this explains it all away and that we are being somehow alarmist when using phrases like ‘auto-pilot’ in relation to how we tend to experience our daily lives.
So, again, to go back to the earlier question – if we recognise the auto-pilot tendency as being linked to the sense of time seeming to pass faster as we get older, what can we do about it? The reports that come back from hikes like the Camino de Santiago point towards one of the possible responses. Conscious awareness is what is required to defeat auto-pilot and the sense of our lives slipping away that can come with it. Obviously, not all of us are going to be in a position to walk across northern Spain (or wherever) for weeks at a time in search of that experience of constantly being present and aware, feeling the days extend in our conscious mind’s eye, to the degree that by the time you lay your head down at night, the morning of the same day can feel so much more distant in your recollection. Indeed, even those who do so often report that once they plug back into their normal life, the auto-pilot tendency can creep back in, despite their best efforts to keep it at bay.
So, what can we do? We ended last time by alluding to mindfulness as perhaps being one of the keys to fostering awareness and minimising auto-pilot. Next time, we will finally dip our toes in those waters.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.