The summer before I started college I worked at a factory that made parts for air conditioners. I ran a drill press machine.

The job was simple: Take two round steel components, place them inside the machine, close the doors and press a button. The machine did the rest. There was a technician that would come around and make sure the machine was set to drill the right size holes.

This was not a new technology. These machines had been used for decades. They were painted the same color gray as the floors.

The people I worked with were friendly and easy to talk to. They were dependable laborers who reported to work fifty out of fifty-two weeks per year. Many worked weekends and holidays during the busy season.

Many of the employees had been at the facility for as long as the machines. The guy who ran the press beside mine had been at the job for over thirty years. And by “at the job”, I mean he’d been running the same machine for three decades.

We all wore uniforms— steel toe boots, blue pants, a khaki button up shirt, safety glasses and ear plugs.

Coffee and Cigarettes

During a nine hour shift, we got two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour lunch. There was a large, analog clock on each side of the building, and everyone’s eyes would drift toward the minute hand as it ticked closer to breaktime.

The fastest I ever saw any of the workers move was when the break bell rang. There would be a rush on the coffee and vending machines.

Back then, this was the mid-90s, it was legal to smoke indoors. There was an unspoken competition for who could drink the most coffee and smoke the most cigarettes within the fifteen minutes.

After break, everyone would shuffle slowly back to their workstation.

Two days into the job, I was ready to crawl out of my skin. The work was mind-numbing.

Grab the parts, stick them in the machine, close the doors, press the button. Open the doors, take out the parts, set them on the completed-tray, and start over.

It took around three minutes for the machine to do its work, so this was not a fast-paced job. There was nothing difficult about it. That was the problem — the day presented no challenge.

The Creative Insight

My goal was to make enough money working during the summer that I didn’t have to work more than ten or fifteen hours a week during the school year. So I worked as much overtime as they would give me. Most weeks, this meant that I could work twelve hours a day seven days a week.

For eighty-four hours a week I stood in front of the drill press. No music, no books, no TV. At that point I didn’t have any training on how to calm or focus the mind, so I used to daydream, making up stories in my head. Whole novels were written, then forgotten.

About halfway through my first summer I had gotten past my initial restlessness and settled into the job. And that was when the insight came.

At the time, I had no idea where I was going with my education. And I had some anxiety about going back to school without knowing what I was pursuing.

I looked around at my coworkers and felt envious of their position. They didn’t have to worry about the future, I thought. They had it all figured out. They would just come in, day after day, and work their job.

I looked at my machine, and thought… this isn’t so bad. I could make a career of this if I had to.

Immediately following this thought, I had a vision of how my entire function in life would become as mechanical as the machine. I would turn old and gray and hunched over in front of the old gray machine.

The image scared the hell out of me.

From that point on, I made up my mind that I would live an unconventional, creative life. I still had no idea what I would do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to become complacent, dull and mechanical.

I had sensed the iron bars of conformity closing shut, and something within me decided it didn’t want to be caged.

Intentional Practice

After that insight, another followed. I saw that even though I was stuck working the job for the rest of the summer, I was free to be as creatively engaged as I wanted within the realm of my mind. Wanting to tap into and develop my creative potential, I came up with a type of free-association mind game that would serve as a workout routine for my imagination.

This was my first disciplined attempt to go within. I wouldn’t call it meditation, as I was very much still working at the level of the mind. But it was a kind of intentional practice.

I’d choose a word, any word, and focus for a moment on what image that word would conjure up. Then I would allow the image to morph into another image, word, or idea. I would go on and on like this, for hours on end, anything to keep my mind active.

It looked something like this:

Butterfly… the butterfly effect… a butterfly flapping its wings in Ohio creates a volcanic eruption in Indonesia… human sacrifices to the volcano god… Aztecs… Egyptians… pyramids… mummies,,, the mummy in the Scooby-Doo cartoon… etc…

I would become so enraptured, so completely engaged in the practice, that the hours would fly by. The twelve-hour shift would end, and I would be filled with inspiration and buzzing with energy.

I had stumbled upon a way of feeling a sense of raw aliveness while working in an environment that seemed designed to suck the life out of me.

The Downside of The Practice

Would I recommend this type of practice to anyone? Absolutely not. Especially for the extended periods of time I became absorbed in it.

As much as I benefited from “the mind game” it’s downside soon became apparent. My mind wouldn’t stop moving.

I had discovered the “on” switch. But the only “off” switch I could find was at the bottom of a beer bottle. The alcohol would get me to sleep, but I would wake up from turbulent dreams at 3 AM and then the torrent of thoughts and images would come rushing back in.

Luckily, I made it through the summer without experiencing a psychotic break. Then came my first year at Ohio State University — the complete opposite of the sensory deprived day of work on the drill press. I would return to the factory the next summer, but by then I would have learned a more sustainable type of practice, an energy-based form of meditation that would change my life.

What I Learned From the Experience

The first thing I learned from that first summer in the factory, and the summers that would follow, is how easy it would be to slip into a life of complacency. It’s easy to become a robot and follow your programming because robotic actions don’t involve any conscious work.

You’re either working consciously to open and grow, or you’re becoming more closed and cut-off from the flow of higher creative energy. It’s not so much the external environment you’re in, or the work you are engaged in, it’s the level of awareness you are able to sustain as you work within that environment.

A practiced yogi could sustain a high level of mindful awareness while engaged in a repetitive, monotonous task. Someone with an untrained mind could slip into robot-mode even while working as a rafting guide in the Grand Canyon.

Also, what may have started out as a creative endeavor can degrade into a mindless task. The key is to continue to work to stay open inside and connected to the flow of life. This takes conscious work. It’s why a daily practice of higher meditation is essential.

The second thing I learned was the importance of right practice. My “mind game”, even though intentional, had adverse effects because it was not an embodied and grounded practice.

There are many artists, musicians, writers, and other creatives who learn how to open in one area while neglecting the rest of their development. The imbalance this creates can cause mental and emotional disturbances. Many seek escape in drugs or alcohol.

Right practice involves working to open in a conscious and sustainable way that results in holistic growth.

How to Work Consciously

There’s a lot of speculative talk around what will happen when robots become conscious. But I think the more relevant issue is how to prevent conscious beings from becoming robots.

Many people do the same things over and over again without ever stopping to think why. Their habitual thoughts, words, and actions are driven by deep-seated conditionings. Their unconscious actions are the opposite of spiritual work.

When you live in this way you have lost touch with the raw intensity of life. What’s left is an unconscious state of numbness. 

In other words, you’ve become an automaton, a programmed AI.

The world is full of spiritual beings who have forgotten their true identity as Spirit. In order to regain your freedom, you need a daily practice of spiritual work. This involves sitting down, getting quiet inside, and cultivating an awareness of Awareness.

It’s Awareness that differentiates you from a robot. And it’s Awareness that will allow you to override your conditionings and live from a place of freedom. This takes place over time as you become more aware of your Awareness and your actions become infused with that Awareness.

The place to start is to ask yourself the simple question:

Am I aware?

Unless you truly are a robot, the answer will be clear.

The next step is to meditate on that sense of Awareness until you are completely immersed in and identified with It. Because there is nothing prior to Awareness, Awareness is your true identity — your Center.

Live from that Center and you will live free.