Have you ever felt like you are just going through the motions of your day, not fully engaged with your life? Or perhaps it is easy to stay in your comfortable, familiar routine and not change things up because stepping out of your comfort zone is, well — uncomfortable. If so, you are not alone. This is a common experience as we get caught up in our daily routines and day-to-day lives. We can often feel like we are operating on “automatic pilot.”
Sometimes we can learn very helpful life lessons from unexpected places. I had an interesting conversation with one of my nieces about her acting class, and began thinking about how the skills she is working on there might apply to all of our lives, especially to address this issue of “going through the motions of our lives.” She was sharing with me how she is learning to (1) identify and develop her character’s motivation before she begins any scene; and (2) use techniques to make each scene completely fresh, as if it was unfolding in the moment and not coming from a well-rehearsed script.
Perhaps there is some wisdom in this for all of us to consider.
Finding our motivation and purpose
First, in terms of identifying our motivation before we begin any “scene,” it can be helpful to think about what our deepest values are at the start of each day, and how we can use those values to motivate us toward actions as we go through our day. Teachings from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy encourage us to identify what we most value in different areas of our lives and use this as motivation to pursue what is most important, even if that means tolerating some discomfort along the way. As an example, one of the things I value is being able to share ideas and help others discover greater well-being. This motivates me to keep writing blogs and put my writing “out there” in cyberspace, despite some discomfort and worries about what others will think.
Take some time to consider what you most value in different areas of your life (relationships, work, leisure time, etc.). How might these values motivate you to take small actions, to bring you closer to living the life that you want today? How might focusing on these values help you do something new and step out of your comfort zone in some way?
If you recognize that developing friendships is something that is important to you — despite your shyness — what actions might you take this week, or today, to work toward that goal? Perhaps you might initiate several conversations with co-workers that you would not otherwise talk to, or sign up for a social event in your town, even though you don’t know anyone. If being healthy so you can run around with your young children is important to you, how might this value motivate you and affect the choices you make as you go through the day today? The actions need not be monumental. Perhaps you might go for a 15-minute walk today, or forego a sugary snack.
As you think about qualities that you value in yourself and your life, notice how holding those in the forefront of your mind today may bring greater meaning and purpose to your day. Ask yourself:
Why is this value important to me?
How does it reflect who I most want to be as a person?
How can I show up today acting from this value?
What is one small action I can take today that aligns with this value?
And importantly, am I willing to experience and tolerate some “discomfort” (e.g., anxiety about going up and introducing myself to someone; tolerating a craving for that sugary snack; pushing myself to go for that walk even when a part of me would rather be surfing on my computer) in order to go after what is most important?
As I write about in my newest book, Dancing on the Tightrope: Transcending the Habits of Your Mind and Awakening to Your Fullest Life, these values can become like “beacons” that we can keep in view, helping to direct our actions, motivating us to stay on course as we go through our day, and redirecting us when we start to go astray.
Stepping out of “autopilot” and creating more meaningful moments
In regard to the second lesson in my nieces’ acting class, making each scene seem fresh and not rehearsed, this raises another important question. Instead of just going through the motions of our day, how can we step out of this automatic pilot mode that we often operate from to discover some of the every day wonders and joys we might otherwise miss? It amazes me how sometimes I can look at something I’ve seen a hundred times and barely notice it, and at other times I can look at it as if for the first time. A common example for many people of this “automatic pilot” mode is driving or walking the same route repeatedly, and barely noticing what they are passing. But this automatic pilot mode often shows up in the many routines of our days.
Practicing mindfulness meditation can be a helpful way to recognize when we are getting lost in our thoughts and to learn to disengage from autopilot. Each time we catch our minds wandering away, it is an opportunity to come back to this present moment. While formal meditation practice is greatly beneficial, we can also practice informally by paying attention to the moments of our lives in a more awake and mindful way. This involves bringing greater mindful awareness into our day by purposefully paying attention and noticing what is happening in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way.
As an experiment, pick a few minutes in a typical day and try to experience it as if it is totally fresh and new. When we do something for the first time, we are usually quite present and engaged. If you are interacting with a family member, or co-worker, take the time to be fully present and really listen to what the other person is saying, rather than being caught up in your own agenda or script. If you are walking from the parking lot to your office, take time to move out of the thoughts in your head to observe your surroundings and see how many things you are aware of that you may not have noticed before. If you are eating a meal, notice the textures and flavors as if they were ones you had never experienced before. Of course it is likely that you may slip back “into your head” as you try this, but each time you catch yourself, gently and compassionately bring the focus of your attention back to your present moment experience. Start with just a few minutes at a time that you can designate as your mindful moments. Notice how paying attention in this way changes how you experience those moments.
Notice what happens today when you:
1. Identify what your motivation is at the start of the day (what values are most important) and hold this in the forefront of your mind like a beacon of light, guiding you as you move through your day.
2. Practice bringing full presence and a sense of newness to the unfolding moments in your day, like an actor performing a play for the first time.
Taking these small steps can help wake us up to our lives. Coming to the “stage” of each day being guided by what is most important to us, and approaching our daily routines as if for the first time, can help to transform ordinary, “going-through-the-motions” days into days filled with greater purpose and meaning.
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