Asleep at the Wheel
When asked, "Are you a God?”
Gautama, the person who became the Buddha replied, "No."
"Then what are you?" he was asked again.
Gautama's answer was, "I am awake"
Buddha means: Awake
Consider a time when you were driving your vehicle along a familiar route, and you were so absorbed in your thoughts that you didn't notice passing a certain landmark along the way, or the music from the vehicle's sound system, or the feel of the steering wheel in your hands. And even though your conscious mind was so completely preoccupied that it didn't notice all these things, a part of you was driving the vehicle, and operating it perfectly safely. Since your conscious mind was preoccupied with its thoughts, who was operating the vehicle? It must be a part of you that does not require conscious processing [see Epstein's Two Minds].
Asleep at the Wheel
There is a ballistic quality to driving in that once you have made a conscious decision of where you want to go, driving yourself there, especially if it is a familiar route, requires little conscious guidance. The fact that you are able to have a conversation while driving shows how automatic the task generally is. [Try having a conversation while thinking of the meaning of each word as you say it.]
Driving a motor vehicle is a good metaphor for operating the bio-psycho-social vehicle you inhabit. Most of the time your attention is consumed by whatever is going on at the moment, so you tend to automatically react to the challenges you encounter. When you are not consciously operating the vehicle, you are bound to follow the path of least resistance. It takes will to act non-automatically so you can follow the most advantageous path available to you.
A Surprising Path to Awakening
Mindfulness sounds so much better than mindlessness, but it is not inferior. Each is best matched to a particular challenge. When graceful, effortless, uninhibited performance is required, well practiced skills enable autonomous responding that can free your of burden of consciousness. But it takes practice to achieve the skills to do so. Teenagers are a danger when they try to drive while having a conversation, before they have developed sufficient skill to perform either.
The more practice, the less conscious guidance required. Consider the skill of using a computer keyboard, the more you practice the more effortless and automatic it becomes. Professional athletes and dancers practice so much that their performances do not require consciousness. [As most people have discovered for themselves, consciously thinking about what you are doing generally interferes with graceful performance]. Mindlessness is only a bad thing when good outcome demands thoughtful, deliberate [non-automatic] responding.
According the the Law of Practice, each repetition enhances the habit strength of the behavioral sequence. The Karma of behaving badly is that it becomes easier to behave badly in the future; the Karma of behaving heroically is that heroism becomes progressively more effortless. [For more on this topic, see: Karma.]
Discomforts are the primary motivators of problem-solving and working to change things — the discomfort of hunger motivates food-seeking behavior. You can exercise will to over-ride this kind of motivation — when engaged in an important task, you might tolerate this discomfort so as not to waste time preparing food.
In our day to day experience there seems to be a never-ending series of problems and discomforts competing for our attention. You may find it refreshing to try something completely different:
Thought Experiment: Take a vacation from "Doing Mode"
For the next 10 minutes, resolve to just accept what is, without trying to do anything with it or even make sense of it.
The alternative to doing is simply to notice the experiences of being a living creature and dispassionately accepting what you notice, without evaluation or a motivation to fix it. This mode of being is so different than the ordinary mode of doing, that you have to purposely awaken from your automatic thinking habits and perspectives to make it happen.
I predict that over this 10 minute period you will catch yourself back in doing mode and will have to remind yourself to shift back into being mode more than once.
In mindfulness training we seek to escape the effortful selection or “grasping” of an object as primary focus by gradually replacing it with the effortless sustaining of an awareness without explicit selection. The mission is dispassionately watch the mind: You watch yourself think without becoming identified with what it is you're thinking.
Through this practice you will follow your stream of consiciousnes — the “voice in your mind ” that provides judgements, worries, and self-criticisms. There is another level of consciousness that is aware of of the voice in the mind. When you practice being the detached observer of your thoughts, rather than taking the content of your thoughts seriously, the chatter subsides and what is left is a sense of stillness and peace. This is the path to awakening into mindfulness.