Who is Driving Your Bus?
Here in Scotland it has been a strange but beautiful springtime and now, summer. Not only are the trees in full bloom and flowers everywhere, but the sun has shone for so many successive days that we fear we might just get used to it, then it’ll vanish and we’ll be shocked by the return of our more common unpredictable and changeable weather. But let’s make the most of the situation. It is so warm that it lends itself to us sitting in the sun, or as I prefer, under the shade of a tree, quietening the mind and reflecting on who we are, why we think and act as we do, and what we might do about this, so that we may enjoy the fruits of this life in all seasons.
According to the futurists we’re coming into an age of driverless cars, buses, taxis. So the question often quoted in meetings about who will lead a project, “Who’s driving the bus?” may become obsolete but it remains a good metaphor for how our mind influences our lives.
Think of how you drive a car. It’s completely habitual, requiring little or no conscious deliberation. We brake, accelerate, check mirrors without even being aware we’re doing it. Yet we drive safely.
Compare this with how we drove during our first driving lessons. We were ultra-cautious and absolutely focussed on what was going on moment by moment. This was of course because we were terrified of scratching another car parked at the near side of the road, or colliding with another car coming in the opposite direction.
But another reason we were so focussed was because driving is a complex skill. Two hands are needed to control the steering wheel, yet the left hand has to change gear and pull the handbrake on, while one of the hands occasionally has to switch indicators and wipers on and off.
And that’s just the hands. We also have footwork. Two feet but three pedals. How inconvenient. So we have to regularly switch the right foot from the accelerator to the brake while the left foot does the more occasional task of working the clutch. All while our two hands are doing entirely different tasks.
When you’re not used to doing these things it’s incredibly difficult. But once your mind gets the hang of it you can drive on motorways for hours barely aware that you’re driving when they’re driving.
So back to the question “Who’s driving the bus?” Who is actually functioning, making decisions, and creating emotions, feelings and moods in your everyday life? It’s your mind and it’s doing it for the most part automatically, without your conscious input, often in complete contrast to how you would like to think, feel, or behave.
Put simply, our brains have evolved to learn skills and responses, and once sufficiently able, it switches off the mindful part of the mind and goes on autopilot. The example of driving a car shows how useful and effective that can be. The problem is that the mind doesn’t just learn good habits that way.
Just as we become car drivers on autopilot, so too can anger become an automatic reaction to specific triggers. Or bigotry, prejudice, hate, resentment. Similarly the major mental health epidemics of our times, depression, anxiety and stress all developed from the same mind that learns from experiences and turns certain responses into automatic reactions.
There is a good side to this of course. Our senses of compassion, kindness, altruism, resilience, love, and empathy can also become so frequent a part of our response system that they arise automatically.
The important thing in all this is to realise that we’re not actually in control. There is a huge difference between what we think of when we think of “me” and this mind that keeps automatically doing things on our behalf.
From our every single experience, in conjunction with the unique combination of genes we inherited, we become programmed to automatically respond or react in a given way in a particular circumstance. It’s quite shocking to realise this. It’s not quite no will power but it’s pretty close.
However it’s not irreversible. In neuroscience the term neuroplasticity has become a big thing, and mindfulness is seen in that field as a major tool for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that our minds can in fact be reshaped, deprogrammed, freed up.
When we start to try to be mindful we begin to see our automatic responses to everyday things. What someone is wearing. The tone of voice a person uses. Their accent. A political leader on TV. The weather. The thought of a glass of wine when we are tired after coming home from work.
Training in mindfulness – observing what is actually happening in the present moment – gives us the chance to notice our own automatic reactions as they arise. Once noticed we can consider whether what is in our mind is going to do good or harm. This in turn gives us the possibility of considering alternative thoughts or feelings to the automatic one.
I’ve done mindfulness sessions in prisons. It’s salutary. A prisoner is in jail because of something they did in a single moment. Leave aside the circumstances that led up to the crime, or what they might have done afterwards. Just consider the moment itself. Imagine an altercation. In a moment of anger a knife is pulled and plunged into someone. In a single moment.
In that moment it was possible, with training, to see the rage and the hatred, and instead of pulling the knife, to observe the emotions, the situation, and let things settle down sufficiently for a non-violent finale.
In a mindful moment this needn’t have been what transpired. In that mindful moment of not pulling a knife, two families’ lives would have gone down different less tragic paths.
I have emails from people saying how a single moment of mindfulness changed a suicide into a life, a divorce into a continued relationship, stress into peace.
In every moment you have an option. To go unthinkingly with whatever pops up in your mind. Or to notice, pause, see what’s arisen in your mind. Gently and kindly see if what’s there is good, nurturing, constructive, or if it could lead to outcomes you don’t want. In the pause see if something more constructive can come into your mind, and if so choose it.
The world changes in that moment. Subtly, maybe in tiny ways. Instead of continuing to watch the TV when a friend comes in with a baby, you smile at the child, hold it, and say “hello beautiful”. This changes the baby. And it changes you.
Every single moment an opportunity. Try not to miss being alive to them. ▢
"In every moment you have an option. To go unthinkingly with whatever pops up in your mind. Or to notice, pause, see what’s arisen in your mind. Gently and kindly see if what’s there is good, nurturing, constructive, or if it could lead to outcomes you don’t want. In the pause see if something more constructive can come into your mind, and if so choose it."
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Martin Stepek is a member of the JONAA team in Scotland. A Scot with Polish heritage, a Mindfulness teacher, poet, published author, columnist on Mindfulness in the Sunday Herald and Chief Executive of the Scottish Family Business Association.