Autopilot and the Pause Button

Most days, I surrender control and turn on autopilot at some point.

Perhaps I’m hungry in the supermarket after work, and I happen to be passing a tempting section of the bakery. Or it’s an early weekend morning and the buzzing alarm seems like a bothersome and unnecessary mistake.

My brain often tells me to do something, anything. It says, “take action, NOW!” Stuff yourself silly with mac and cheese, watch the next suggested video on YouTube, yell out your lungs at those stupid drivers / bikers / pedestrians.

I like how Seth Godin defines authenticity. He says:

“It’s not ‘do what you feel like doing,’ because that’s unlikely to be useful….It’s not, ‘say whatever is on your mind,’ either. Instead, I define it as, ‘consistent emotional labor.’ …Keeping promises. Even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t.”

Seth’s “authenticity as an impulse” accurately describes one mode of autopilot. This is the mega-bad one. The Thoreauvian vice, which leads to putrid obesity of the ego. From Walden, chapter 11:

“The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites, nor interrupt the worthiest pursuits. But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you….All sensuality is one…all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity.”

Thoreau’s moral animal within (“which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers”) stands in contrast to the other type of autopilot, the good one. It has to do with following through on commitments, sticking to the calendar, and going through the motions of waking up when the alarm (my past self) tells me to. It’s authentic.

The good autopilot wrestles the bad one into submission when we follow the rules we make for ourselves. I went for five days on a strict diet of Soylent and water, and it was surprisingly easy because I pre-committed fully. Yet I don’t really recall those meals, strange and enjoyable as they were.

The point of autopilot is non-thinking. It reduces cognitive load and decision burden, at the cost of presence of mind. Five years later, we may find ourselves at the top or the bottom of a mountain. And we won’t remember most of the journey.

This is the case, then, for the pause button. For looking out and admiring the panorama before taking that next step forward. For finding joy in meditation and reflection—however we can best immerse ourselves in the present moment, on our personal mountainside.

If we habitually press the pause button before switching to autopilot, we will find ourselves shutting down the bad autopilot and gratefully enjoying the good. We will calmly see the bigger picture, and we will discover authenticity.

It’s not easy. The first step is to recognize a moment in which we find ourselves making a difficult, deliberate choice. We should try to relish this moment, and the focus we can give it.

Let’s ask ourselves: instead of squandering my free Saturday, how can I extend it? How can I invest it in a delightful, sustainable, abundance-increasing, memorable, worthwhile uphill journey?

Do I really want to eat this chocolate candy? Will it refine my taste, create community, consummate some holy bond? Or will it just make me sick and guilty later, paving the road to poor, impulsive future choices while passing another day in blissful ignorance?

Today, I’ve created many challenging situations for myself in deciding to fast, to go without any food. There’s no special reason. I don’t think I’ve ever really done this before. Just felt like trying it out. So here I am.

I find myself hitting the pause button frequently, with glee.


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