Read Part 2 here.
A horse was galloping down the road with a man on its back. Someone asked,
"where are you going?". The horse rider answered, "I don't know. Ask the horse!".
I recently came across this short but very impactful parable that has its roots in the Zen philosophy of Buddhism and it struck a chord with me and got me thinking.
Many...in fact, I am going to just go out on a limb and say that most people are living on autopilot, just like the man riding the horse in this parable. For them, life feels like they are riding a horse they cannot or do not control and the horse is the one holding the reins of their life, not them. They are practically riding the wind i.e. living without any direction and have no idea where they're going. If you ask them the purpose of their life, they would be scratching their heads, lost for words.
That's called unconscious living, or living on autopilot.
In case you don’t know why unconscious living is called living on autopilot, let
Autopilot is a flight-control system that allows a pilot to fly an airplane without continuous hands-on control. (Business Insider)
In other words, pilots put the plane on autopilot so they don’t have to control
the plane continuously for hours.
Just like that, human beings also have the ability to live on autopilot i.e. by letting their own unconscious mind and other people control their lives while they act as silent spectators in their own lives.
Gregory P. Brown says that living unconsciously is the default human condition. According to an estimate, we make around 35,000 decisions every day. While that number sounds rather implausible, in fact downright silly, we can safely say that we definitely make a whole lot of decisions on everyday basis. From choosing to snooze the alarm, getting out of bed, going to the toilet, brushing teeth, to choosing what to eat for breakfast and what to wear to work, most of our decisions are taken through our unconscious automatic decision making process, called the Cognitive Unconscious, to avoid overloading the brain.
That's why living unconsciously is easy and efficient, because most of our decisions are made unconsciously, so we have less conscious decisions to make, which means less cognitive overload. Our unconscious decisions and behaviors are also more predictable.
Ask yourself these questions:
1. Are you living life randomly and floating around like driftwood in the
stream of life with no purpose and no direction?
2. Are your decisions abrupt, unthoughtful and uninformed?
3. Are you oblivious to how your actions affect yourself, other people and
If your answer to the above questions is a resounding yes, then you are, indeed,
living unconsciously, on autopilot.
What’s wrong with unconscious living?
Unconscious living is simply existing and going through the motions. It may be easy and efficient, but it is unfulfilling and lacks initiative and growth.
Unconscious living means that you:
Not only most of our decisions are unconscious, we also have unconscious biases and stereotypes. Even our habits, attitudes and behaviors are also largely unconscious. We are just repeating everything that we have been conditioned to do and say, conditioned by our parents, relatives, friends, teachers, classmates, colleagues, newspapers, TV programs, movies, social media, etc. We don’t think about it, we don't question it because that's how things are, that's how things have always been. It’s a part of our culture and society and is deeply ingrained into our minds and personality.
But unconscious living can be dangerous.
Imagine you’re walking down the road and you notice an uncovered manhole (sewage hole) in the middle of the road. What do you do? You choose to walk around it obviously, because you saw it. What would happen if you didn’t see it? You would fall down the hole and get yourself hurt. Your awareness of the hole is the key to your safety in this scenario.
Same goes for life. There are so many uncovered, invisible holes and rocks in the metaphorical road of life that expose us to danger and threaten our very existence. Unconscious living makes it more likely that, sooner or later, we will fall down these holes or stumble upon these rocks and hurt ourselves. Conscious living, on the other hand, would protect us from the holes and rocks of our lives as it is the key to our safety and wellbeing.
Unconscious living can even be fatal (e.g. cigarette smokers are more likely to die of lung cancer than non-smokers, eating excessive junk food can lead to heart disease, etc.).
The most dangerous part of living unconsciously is that even our thoughts can become automatic and unconscious. Thoughts are the precursor to action so your unconscious thoughts can lead to unconscious actions and behaviors and pose danger to your wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of others.
Case in point? Domestic violence! Much of the physical and psychological abuse in abusive marriages and relationships happens because of the perpetuator’s unconscious thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that have been programmed into them by their parents, childhood experiences, friends, media, culture, religion, etc.
I mentioned in my previous article “20 Lessons I’ve Learned” how most of the people live their lives according to the script written by others (parents, relatives, teachers, friends, media, culture, religion, etc.). Do you think they are doing this consciously? Obviously not!
Unconsciously allowing others to control our lives and dictate our choices is the reason why so many women (and men) are forced to get married because of cultural norms and societal pressure, why so many women face physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their husbands or in-laws, why so many women are forced to pop out babies one after another, why so many women are killed in the name of honor, why so many women are rejected for marriage because they are not slim, pretty, tall or fair, why men are expected to be the sole breadwinners and are burdened with the task of providing for the entire family, etc. The tradition of dowry is also a menace to the society (both in Pakistan and India), yet people are blindly following this tradition because that’s what everybody else does and if we don’t do that, our society will not accept us.
In other words, we unconsciously and blindly follow the traditions and norms of our culture and society even if they are making our lives miserable and are detrimental to our wellbeing.
Unconscious living is living like an animal because much of animal behavior is governed by their natural instincts. But we are humans. We have the power to choose. We can choose our thoughts, words, actions and behavior. Conscious living is a choice and we can choose to live consciously, something animals cannot.
While living unconsciously leads to suffering, conscious living leads to freedom,
growth and happiness.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist who founded Analytical Psychology, said:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Let's choose to make the unconscious conscious and prove that we are not animals (no offense to animals, I love them!)
In the next article, I will talk about how you can turn off your autopilot and
start living a more conscious life.