The Theosophical Society in America

Viewpoint: Getting Off Autopilot

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Hebert, Barbara"Viewpoint Getting Off Autopilot" Quest 106:4, pg 10-11

Barbara Hebert
National President

Barbara HebertGender continues to be discussed from a variety of perspectives: identity, roles, socialization, sexual orientation, stereotypes, feminism, patriarchy, dysphoria, harassment, assault, and so on. As we know from spiritual studies, the soul, or the higher aspect of ourselves, is not gendered, so conversations about gender inevitably revolve around the physical level. Regardless, the dialogue regarding gender issues allows us, and hopefully requires us, to deeply consider our perspectives as well as our societal conditioning.

We are all conditioned. It is a fact of human existence. Conditioning begins before we are born, it seems. We identify with ourselves (or the way we think we are supposed to be), with our ideas about values, morals, beliefs. J. Krishnamurti spoke about conditioning for many years.  During an interview he said:We are conditioned—physically, nervously, mentally—by the climate we live in and the food we eat, by the culture in which we live, by the whole of our social, religious and economic environment, by our experience, by education and by family pressures and influences. All these are the factors which condition us. Our conscious and unconscious responses to all the challenges of our environment—intellectual, emotional, outward and inward—all these are the action of conditioning. Language is conditioning; all thought is the action, the response of conditioning. (J. Krishnamurti, “The Urgency of Change,”, accessed June 27, 2018:

 Krishnamurti goes on to say that it is the personality, the impermanent “me,” that is conditioned. How often do we observe ourselves in order to attempt to identify some of our conditioning?

Spiritual traditions throughout time have encouraged self-observation. When we pay attention to what we are thinking, feeling, doing, and even imagining, we become the observer. We place ourselves outside of the “me” that is thinking, feeling, doing, and imagining. We can see ourselves more clearly and hopefully gain some sense of self-awareness. As we expand this self-awareness, we begin to gain control of ourselves. We can decide what to think, feel, do, and imagine. We realize we have choices, and in this realization we may feel a sense of power and direction in life.

In one respect, the observer is simply that—an observer. But beyond that, the observer is the authentic self—the real “I” that is looking out of these physical eyes and can watch what is happening. It is the higher aspect of ourselves; some may call it the Higher Self, while others may call it the soul or spirit, while still others may call it something different. In any case, there is no judgment in its observation. It is objective and detached.

An example of self-observation involves a young man who became very angry about a situation at work. He walked outside of the office building and began to vent his anger. While this was happening, he heard a small voice in his head that said, “You are so angry. You haven’t been this angry since you were a kid.” At that point, even though he still felt angry, he realized that there was a part of him that was simply observing the anger. The observer was not feeling it or being caught up in it, but was simply watching it. There was no judgment in the statement the young man heard in his head. The awareness that came about through this observation deescalated his anger almost immediately. It gave him the power to choose his response to the situation and to realize that he was more than the feeling he was experiencing. It was a significant experience in this young man’s life.

Self-observation is helpful in many other ways as well. Often we live in a state of autopilot. Airline pilots can put a plane on autopilot so that it is flying itself, and there are now self-driving cars that can maneuver on their own. Likewise, many individuals live their lives on autopilot. There is no one in control; there is no thought involved; everything simply follows the established pattern. If I am on autopilot, I get up in the morning and do the things I typically do without giving thought to much of anything throughout the day. I simply live my life automatically.

But if I’m observing myself, then I am no longer on autopilot. I am piloting the vehicle (otherwise known as my brain or my body) and making conscious choices and decisions. Self-observation moves us away from autopilot. It can help us determine when our beliefs and our behavior are not in alignment. For instance, if I believe in the mission of the Theosophical Society in America (open-minded inquiry, respect for the unity of all life, and spiritual self-transformation) but I refuse to expand my understanding of a specific idea or tradition, then my beliefs and my behavior are not in alignment. On autopilot, I may decide that expanding my insight into Buddhist meditation by taking a special class is not useful because I don’t have time. I feel like I “should” be taking the class, but quickly say no to it. When I move away from this nonthinking stance, I may decide that meditation is extremely useful and worth finding time for in a busy schedule.

Furthermore, self-observation can help when the words we say or the facial expressions we show are out of alignment with the way we truly feel. An example of this situation is a time when I might be smiling and acting as if there is no problem, but I’m really feeling very sad. My autopilot has me smiling, while my authentic self would observe that this is not the reality of my feeling.

For these, along with many other reasons, self-observation is an important component of growth and development, both personally and spiritually. Observing the self may also help us to look at the larger choices and decisions we are making in life. We may find that some of these are not really in our best interest. An illustration involves a young woman who is in a relationship. Her partner is extremely critical, and the young woman often feels belittled. This young woman can continue in the relationship on autopilot, simply accepting the behavior of her partner without any thought. Or, if she observes herself and her feelings, she may realize that the relationship is not helpful to her. At that point, she may decide to talk with her partner and attempt to change things in the relationship, or even leave. In any event, once she has become aware of the situation, she can make choices for herself. Clearly self-observation is a valuable tool for freeing ourselves of our conditioning.

With gender too, it is evident that we must observe ourselves, become aware of our conditioning, and move our beliefs and behavior into alignment. What thoughts, feelings, and behavior do we display concerning gender that are a part of our conditioning? Are we on autopilot when it comes to these issues? Are we observing ourselves, our responses, and our reactions to the various components of gender? This is the real work that must be accomplished. We need to exercise self-observation and self-awareness in relation to gender issues so that we are making conscious choices and decisions about our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

From Theosophical teachings, we know that the highest aspect of ourselves, regardless of what we call it, is not gendered. There is no duality, no division, in those realms of consciousness. It is here, in the physical realm, that we need to explore the complexities of gender with self-awareness and with as much detachment from our conditioning as possible. Aligning our beliefs and our behavior through continuous and objective self-observation—becoming the observer—plays a significant role in our spiritual growth.