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William Dubin, Ph.D.
Helping people cope with Addictions and Impulse Control Disorders

Asleep at the Wheel

William Dubin, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 21st 2010


When asked, "Are you a god?" Gautama, the person who became the Buddha replied, "No." "Then what are you?" he was asked again. Gautama's answer was, "I am awake" Buddha means: "Awake."

During the passage to self-determination you will encounter high-risk situations. These crises are at once moments of danger and moments of opportunity. You will either move in the intended direction or be led astray by local conditions. It is at these moments of decision that your will exercises its influence on the objective world. These are the moments that demand attention.

hands on a steering wheelYou are most vulnerable when you are "asleep at the wheel," and an autonomous behavioral sequence is unfolding along the path of least resistance that leads to relapse. The general form of an implementation intention is: When I recognize a warning signal I will perform a coping tactic. Ideally, the eye opening realization that you are in a high-risk situation-and are likely to be asleep at the wheel-will provoke you to awaken the operator, who appreciates your core motivation and hence your path of greatest advantage.

Self-awakening is inherently paradoxical: When you are asleep at the wheel, you would not appreciate that now is the time to awaken, because you would be asleep at the time. Working with this paradox demands further resolution of the concept of "operating the vehicle" and an operational definition of the phrase "asleep at the wheel."

When an individual is following an autonomous path to relapse, the rational processing system is not necessarily asleep; it may, in fact, be engaged in problem solving some local crisis. The person is "asleep at the wheel" in the sense that the vehicle is not following the course that would serve core motivation, but instead is following a course dictated by local conditions. When the person who resolved to prevent relapse follows a predictable path to relapse, a knowledgeable observer would conclude that the operator must be "asleep at the wheel."

Mindfulness & Awakening

Mindfulness, involves paying attention to your experiences in the present moment and accepting whatever that experience is, without evaluation or the motivation to change anything. This is not your usual way of relating to experience, and like any other non-automatic response, it requires training to override the more familiar judgmental orientation.

When dealing with the world in real time, your attention naturally and automatically parses the stimulation it receives, categorizing it so it can be used in the service of problem solving. Perceiving sensation in a way unfiltered by automatic problem solving perspectives allows you to awaken from the recursive traps that emerge from attachment and self-evaluation.

Mindfulness exercises the skill of disengaging from bad trances along with their state-dependent filters and response tendencies, and awakening to the unfiltered experience of the present moment. By intending to experience the present moment with acceptance, you cannot help but become aware of the continual shifting of attention from moment to moment and the tendency for some of these shifts to produce emotional reactions.

Everyday life will give you many opportunities to practice your intended reactions to high-risk situations. The mindfulness approach to pathogenic thinking patterns is to recognize and disengage from self-focused rumination and simply experience in an unfiltered way the present moment, and accept the experience without trying to change it even when it is unpleasant.

Students of mindfulness are taught to allow, as best they can, thoughts, feelings, and sensations to come and go as they experience the present moment. The intention is to notice, without judgment, how the mind tends to become attracted to pleasant experiences and to avoid or want relief from unpleasant experiences. The skill we are seeking is to purposely let go of problem solving and instead to observe the data of experience dispassionately.


Thought Experiment: Making the Meta-Cognitive Shift. Shift from the perspective of the individual experiencing thoughts and emotions to the perspective of the observer of the individual who is experiencing the thoughts and emotions. You may note that, like sounds, experiences such as thoughts and emotions come and go-some are pleasant while others are unpleasant. Observe experiential phenomena such as thoughts and emotional reactions from the perspective that they are merely passing events in the mind that arise, become objects of awareness, and then pass away to be replaced by the next experience. Subjective phenomena are not permanent, and are not necessarily valid representations of objective reality.


William Dubin, Ph.D.William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the Certificate of Proficiency in the Treatment of Alcohol and Other Psychoactive Substance Use Disorders from the American Psychological Association. Readers in the Austin, Texas area dealing with psychological issues (such as depression, anxiety or anger) or "incentive use" issues (otherwise known as addictions) may contact Dr. Dubin for face-to-face consultation and treatment through his practice, Psychological Assessment Referral and Treatment Services, online at Dr. Dubin's PsychARTs office may be reached via telephone at 512-343-8307

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