Safety and awareness
Let us say there is a small wound on the skin above your right knee. You need some know-how to take care of the wound; however, if you are not aware of the wound in the first place, your knowledge of how to fix the problem properly—cleaning the wound, putting a bandage on it—would be irrelevant. So awareness is the first step.
Awareness is also part of every other step: You need to direct your attention to the wound both while applying your knowledge (e.g., bandaging the wound) and later while you monitor the healing process. Why is monitoring necessary? Because your wound might take too long to heal, other wounds may appear, your overall health could decline, etc; so, depending on how the wound is healing, you might need to take other kinds of actions that managing a single wound by itself may not require
In general, to be healthy, secure, and safe, we need to be mindful of changes to our body; these can be temporary (e.g., physical or mental illness lasting a few months) or permanent (e.g., aging, permanent disability). We might need protection from what did not pose a serious danger when we were healthy or younger, such as certain diseases, falls, and so forth.
It is not just our body we need to pay attention to but also our environment. We should try to be aware of immediate changes to our environment (such as when a stranger suddenly approaches us) and long-term one (like increasing rates of crime in our once-safe neighborhood).
Autopilot: Good or bad?
Being mindful and consciously directing your attention to yourself and your environment (on a regular basis) is important. This takes significant effort, in part because we sleepwalk through life and live on autopilot most of the time.
It is true that automatic behaviors have their benefits. They allow us to stay focused on important goals. If you are walking to work while talking to your boss on the phone about some work project, you probably want to direct most of your attention to the goals of the conversation—say, explaining your ideas about how to complete the work project—not how you are feeling this moment or the buildings in your surroundings.
Yet we often ignore ourselves and surroundings as though we were having a very important conversation with our boss, a conversation that could determine whether we get fired and lose our livelihood.
We do this all the time. You could be walking to your friend’s home and miss more than half of what is going around you or inside you.
What is the opposite of autopilot? It is mindfulness.
To be mindful means to pay “attention to what is salient in the present moment,” and to “reorient our attention and awareness to current experience in a wholehearted, receptive manner” (pp. 25-26).¹
Unless we mindfully direct our attention to ourselves and the environment, the only things that interrupt the automatic pilot mode are major unexpected changes. Suppose you are driving mindlessly—or are thinking about what you will tell your friend when you arrive at his place—when your brake pedal suddenly sinks to the floor; this unusual and worrisome occurrence will likely pull you out of the autopilot mode and direct your attention to the act of driving, the function of the brake, dangers of a malfunctioning brake, your safety, and immediate need for repairs.
Concluding thoughts on mindfulness and safety
I do not recommend we wait for the equivalent of a malfunctioning brake to exit the autopilot mode. Not only such things happen randomly, but they also direct our attention mainly to a potential threat. Mindfulness is much more than paying attention to a threat; it involves intentionally stopping and looking around, looking at ourselves, and doing so calmly and without judging the experience.
Specifically, mindfulness requires “observing (noticing internal and external stimuli), describing (labeling one’s experiences), acting with awareness (attending fully to one’s activity, without ‘autopilot’), nonjudging (refraining from evaluating one’s experiences), and non-reacting (experiencing one’s thoughts and feelings without needing to immediately respond)” (pp. 1438-1439).² We need to become mindful regularly, regardless of whether something unusual is going on (like a skin lesion or car trouble). Therefore, to be safe, first be mindful.
1. Germer, C. (2004). What is mindfulness? The Insight Journal, 22, 24–29.
2. Stevenson, J. C., Emerson, L. M., & Millings, A. (2017). The relationship between adult attachment orientation and mindfulness: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1438-1455.