We learn so well, we humans. Our minds are so malleable. At birth, our brains come with the potential to speak any language, to balance us on a tightrope, or to learn to play any instrument, or to invent new technologies. We can learn to write and type and program computers. We can learn to sing, dance, ride a horse, raise a baby, grow plants, do geometry, thread a needle, design buildings or blow them up. It is amazing what we can learn to do. Our brains want to learn. It's what they do. They learn that some things give good feelings and some give bad feelings. We tend to repeat the behaviors that give us good feelings or help us avoid discomfort. Our brain cells connect up in patterns that make those behaviors easier to remember. When those connections are strong and deep, we can do those things with little or no effort of thought at all.
Once we connect the stimulus and our response in a well-established habit, our consciousness of the event is no longer required. As the years pass, our lives take on a routine that makes it possible to do complicated behavioral patterns without much consciousness: Turn off the alarm clock, get out of bed, shower, get the newspaper, make coffee, read the paper, eat breakfast, get dressed, drive the car, and hope to be awake before you get to work.
It is a good thing to be able to perform without awareness. We wouldn't want to have to try to figure out how to tie our shoes every morning. We just do it and there is no apparent stress involved. We are so good at avoiding stress or adapting to it, though that eventually our lives have accommodated large amounts of stress and we haven't even noticed. It's just what we do. We know how to do it and we don't really know how not to do it. Absorbing the news about war, crime and terrorism becomes what we do, and we don't notice the toll it takes on our nervous system. Drinking the coffee. It's just what we do. Driving in rush hour traffic. It's what we do. Dealing with problems at work all day or at home with the kids. We do that. It's what we do. What else are we going to do? We hardly notice the strain it puts on our emotions. Our emotional neural circuits have formed up as nicely as the ones that formed our cognitive habits. Being a little tense or withdrawn or angry or sad, hey, that's just who we are, we tell ourselves. It's our personality. It's how we do our emotions without having to think or make any effort at all.
The way our brain/body performs our emotional behaviors may be refined to perfection. But that doesn't mean those behaviors always work well for us. We have to engage with the world that exists outside of our heads, and there may be friction. Our mental, behavioral and emotional habits create ease when all is routine, but when we have to adjust to novel circumstances, we need to be able to slip out of our habits and respond adaptively.
This is where self-awareness comes in. We have the benefit of forming habits to make life easier, but we must be awake enough to know when to choose something other than our routine responses. Life requires adaptation, and if we merely do what we have always done we will be maladapted.
Pay more attention to your habits and routines. Notice when you are on autopilot.
Practice doing things you do every day with more awareness. Slow down and notice how you brush your teeth or put on your clothes. Pay attention as you put bread in the toaster or wipe the counter. When you walk, notice that you are walking. Feel the experience. Notice the many movements, balance adjustments and sensations that go with taking a step.
Sit very quietly and observe your breath.
Observe your heartbeat.
Observe the level of tension in your muscles.
Feel the vibration of your nervous system. How tightly wound are you these days?
Notice emotions as they come up. How habitual are they? Can you put them aside? If they persist, just sit with them. Watch them and see what happens.