Getting off of auto-pilot
I walked into the ladies’ room at work the other day and two distinct thoughts instantly popped into my head: 1) the cleaning crew had just been in and 2) my brother died from cancer.
And I thought about it some more. It’s not the first time that those two thoughts colliding in my brain when I entered the ladies’ room – it’s happened several times in the past few weeks. But why? Such an odd combination of thoughts, one just a passing recognition and the other accompanied by an emotional wallop as my brother died less than two years ago. Once I figured it out, I realized just how “trained” I was, like Pavlov’s dogs. And I wonder where else in my life am I similarly conditioned?
We are reactive beings. Often without realizing it, we are conditioned to have certain mental and emotional responses. What kind of patterns are being created in our behavior and in our thought processes, and how do we get a handle on those? How do we raise our awareness and not simply move through life on auto-pilot, reacting under a set of assumptions, without much critical thought? How do I take steps on my path that are purposeful and thoughtful?
In cognitive psychology, this is referred to as a schema. A schema is a framework through which we organize and interpret information – and then respond accordingly. And our internal, emotional schemas are developed over time – patterns we experience throughout our childhood, observing our parents, interacting with our peers: if you’re raised in a household where a parent left the family, or where you moved around a great deal, you can have an “abandonment schema” which means you will have a set of reactions to people and situations where you protect yourself from the risk of future abandonment. If you’re raised in a household of trust and abundant love, your schemas may have you desiring and creating open and transparent relationships. And how others respond to you depends on their own schemas. So a lot of the time when someone says, “It’s not about you,” that’s often correct. We have a whole inner network of past experiences and patterns that informs the our reactions to the situation in front of us. So much of our reactions and behaviors are that “auto pilot” mode, so deeply engrained in us that it’s our “natural” reaction. But it doesn’t have to be.
In Buddhism, you spend hours meditating and exploring your schemas. (For me, that means going for a run). The goal is to get you off auto-pilot, to identify your patterns and change the ones that don’t work for you, that cause wanting and pain. I would like to say my new found awareness of my bizarre dual thoughts in the ladies’ room was a Buddhist enlightening, but honestly, it was just a flash of self-awareness during a long run while I wondered why my brain was just little bit bizarre.
So, where did my schema come from, where I couldn’t enter the ladies room at work without thinking of my brother? Actually, it’s not complicated once I gave it some thought. Here’s how my brain works: When I am at the office, I have a million different priorities competing for my attention. At my desk, I am either on the phone, responding to email or writing something. If I get up from my desk, it’s usually to get a cup of coffee, and as I walk to the kitchen, I consider who else is in the office, who I need to talk to and is that person available for a quick chat… but, when I’m leaving the office, driving home or running errands, my mind runs free and turns its focus on my other priorities, like what’s for dinner, when is my daughter’s hair appointment and how much laundry is piling up. When I’m in the ladies’ room, (I know, I know but stay with me), the same thing happens. I am not thinking about work or my coworkers. Due to the high ratio of men to women in the office, it’s usually empty and quiet. So, as I take time to run my fingers through my hair or reapply lipstick, my mind relaxes and goes to a very different place.
But why my brother? And why just recently?
Two years ago, I was working in a different office. My brother, Tony, was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was already stage four by the time he was diagnosed and we only had six more months with him. Those months, and for several months afterwards, were an emotionally intense time for me. A time when at random, a punch of grief would strike me so suddenly and so brutally that my only escape was the ladies’ room: here I could be by myself, push through the pain and wash up before returning to my desk.
I left that office several months ago. And the ladies’ room at my new location was just that… a ladies’ room. But a few weeks ago, I started experiencing these flashes of memory about my brother whenever I went into the ladies room. I finally realized why: the cleaning crew changed cleaning products, and suddenly that stringent, ammonia smell was back. As I stood in front of the sink last week, holding on to the edge and wondering why I suddenly felt overwhelmed with sadness, I inhaled deeply… and thought, oh… that is familiar.
I hold close the memories of my brother. But last week, I was checking out the ladies room in other parts of our
buildings to see if I could avoid the smell. This is where I need to turn off the auto-pilot and take control of my path. A particular ammonia smell and a poorly lit ladies room is not one of the memories I want associated with Tony. So I’m going to try retraining my Pavlovian reaction. Now that I am conscious of the pattern, I need to figure out how to redirect my thoughts…
I don’t have an answer as to how… I will experiment and see what works to reset my path. But it would be nice to just think about which lipstick color I want or if it’s time to get those gray hairs colored. Again.