Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of May 31, 2010

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World 6: Autopilot

(Part of the series Worlds of the Spirit)

We accept as a fundamental cultural norm for each of us to live a predominantly pseudo-conscious life: half-aware and dependent on stimuli, be they external sensory perceptions or internal thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations, to activate our inner life, to move us. And then our actions themselves consist of habitual responses, associative thoughts, reactive emotions, and bodily habits. We live enmeshed in our automatic thoughts and routine actions, a style of life that requires little real engagement. We cruise along, not necessarily blissfully, until something unpleasant intrudes, whereupon we engage just long enough to set a course toward ridding ourselves of the unpleasantness. Or if something unusually pleasant comes along, we might notice that and set a course toward it. Once our course is set, we promptly fall back into automatic patterns of action.

We live primarily, both inwardly and outwardly, by the patterns acquired over our lifetime, patterns that enable us to stay relatively unaware and unengaged. Our remarkably intricate brains and their complex networks mask the truth by making us appear, both to ourselves and others, to be fully living our life. However, the reality is that we spend the great bulk of our time in this semi-conscious world of programmed patterns, World 6: Autopilot.

We call the most familiar part of this fully-customized and highly-adaptable autopilot our personality. The patterns programmed into our brain circuits of memory, of likes and dislikes, of knowledge and skills, and of habits of thought, emotion, and action, form the conglomeration known as our personality. This personality of ours is so complex that it appears to be conscious and free. But the truth is that every aspect of our personality is programmed and runs on autopilot in response to stimuli. Though the programs can and do change over time, much of our personality remains fixed from early childhood. Even our perceptions are filtered by our personality. If our personality is concerned about being too fat, we see people only in terms of whether they are fat or not, and how they compare to us on that score.

Our personality substitutes for us, for our individuality. This automatic way of being stands in for us, occupying our center and running our life. This is the world that the Buddha, in his First Noble Truth, describes as being unsatisfying. Some of us enjoy a happy personality and others do not. Either way, it all runs by program automatically.

Now none of this implies that our personality is bad or that we should try to rid ourselves of it, even if we could. Indeed it is most necessary. Our personality is the repository of all our life skills, including those that earn us a living. We need it. Life would be dull without our likes and dislikes, our opinions and tastes, and our idiosyncratic manner of speaking and acting. The spiritual path, however, raises issues about personality, issues concerning the level of awareness and the direction of control.

Does our personality have us, or do we have our personality? Do our thoughts take us? Or are we aware of our thoughts as thoughts? Do our thoughts think us? Or do we think our thoughts? Do our emotions take us, with no choice on our part? Or do we feel our emotions, being aware of them as emotions.

Notice your thoughts. You may catch a glimpse of your thoughts thinking themselves: a whole train of them running on, each thought associatively responding to the one before it. And remarkably, these thought trains do not need any intention on your part. Without your intervention, your thoughts just carry on their own life. Occasionally you may tune in, notice your thoughts, and believe that it is you thinking them and that they embody your own actual opinions. But it all goes by rote, on previously formed patterns.

Now it is possible, for a limited time, to think and direct your thoughts intentionally, for example when considering some problem. Then your thoughts are not automatic and you have temporarily and partially raised yourself out of World 6, out of the Autopilot, and into the next higher world. But notice, this requires actual, in-the-moment contact with the meaning of your thoughts, with recognizing that your thoughts are thoughts, a state that is not as common for us as we might believe.

The Autopilot is good and useful in its place. For example, our body performs innumerable, crucial tasks automatically, from maintaining our cells, to digesting our food, to walking, to reading these words. We could not survive without all this automatic functioning of our body.

The problem comes when what should be our higher functions defer to the Autopilot. Do we taste the food we are eating, or do we just eat with little awareness of the food? Do we believe our stock opinions or do we intentionally ponder what is right and true and efficacious? Do we walk along lost in our automatic trains of thought or are we in contact with our body, mind, heart, and surroundings? Do we allow our automatic emotional reactions to dictate how we relate to the people in our life? Do we do our job by rote and habit, or do we give it enough attention to continually improve?

Functioning on autopilot is smooth but habitual. Robots will one day work at this level. Our being on autopilot operates on the automatic energy, with minimal awareness. Will on autopilot remains fragmented and subject to stimuli. We are not engaged, have little initiative, do not choose, and abdicate to habit.

The type of inner work appropriate to move us out of autopilot and into the next higher level includes the practice of sensing our body, feeling our emotions, and cognizing our mind, all with the sensitive energy. We seek actual contact with the substance of our life, contact with our perceptions, inner and outer. We seek real choice based on that contact.

For this week, notice your own autopilot in action, notice how you live in it. Notice your automatic, associative thought stream, your pre-programmed reactive emotions, your physical habits, your familiar personality. Notice what it means to live in World 6.


     

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