What Else Do You Notice in this Experience? An Exercise in Mindfulness
As humans, we have the capacity to shift our attention from one thing to another. Sometimes it's helpful to have a very narrow focus of attention and at other times a more broad focus of attention is appropriate. For example, when we're writing a document on the computer, it's probably best not to be listening to a podcast, eating french fries, and talking to a friend on the phone. We only have so much attention to go around, we should use it wisely.
Think of a time when you felt highly focused. Perhaps you were taking an exam, reading, writing, or maybe even playing a video game. You felt efficient and in a "groove." Maybe you had a tunnel-vision-like effect on your focus, where whatever it was that you were doing was at front and center stage in your mind. At times you may have been aware of other things in your environment, such as noises in the background or sensations in your body, but for the most part, you were focused and on task. You found this state helpful. You got work done and accomplished the task at hand. If you're often feeling anxious, guilty, or depressed it can be extremely difficult to experience these highly focused helpful states. The truth is, uncomfortable states such as worry, dread, anxiety, guilt, and sadness carry with them a degree of focus, albeit generally an unhelpful narrow focus. We can't seem to think of anything else and we're constantly reminded of how crappy we feel or how worried we are. This is an example of when a narrow focus is unhelpful.
The first step is to be mindful of when we're in one of these unhelpful states. If you struggle doing so, try setting a reminder on your phone to go off each day that asks you some of the following:
What are some things you can see? Call them out "Tree, bird, shoes, bench."
What are some things you can hear? "Traffic, people talking, dog barking."
What are some things you can feel? Think in the tactile sense. "My hair touching my forehead. My hand on my chin. My shirt on my back."
Can you smell anything? Is one nostril more clear than the other? What do you notice about the temperature of the air as you breathe in and out?
Do you taste anything? Is your mouth dry or moist?
What thoughts are you aware of? Where does a thought start and where does it end?
Are any emotions coming up?
Can you identify any feelings or sensations in your body? If so, where do you feel them? If you could give them a size, shape, color, texture, and weight - how would you describe them?
The above list of questions are just some of the countless ones you could ask yourself. The point is to begin to broaden your awareness. A typical exercise in improv comedy is called Yes, and... What this means is that whatever one person says, you agree with and then add to it. For example, Person 1: "It's freezing outside." Person 2: Yes, and thank goodness we don't have to worry about our icecream melting." The way this applies to our waking life is such that when our focus narrows and becomes unhelpful, we are able to expand our experience and move away from a narrow and unhelpful focus. At times our minds may either over-attend to a thought, such as "I'm a piece of crap", or overvalue a sensation, such as our rapid heartbeat when we're just trying to enjoy a light conversation with friends. When our focus is narrow and placed on scary things like these, those scary things become our core focus, it is all we can see, which exacerbates the vicious worry cycle and only continues to narrow our focus even more.
A goal is to begin to ask ourselves "And what else am I noticing in this experience?" To put it into context, let's say I'm thinking about no one wanting to hang out with me. From here, my mind's natural inclination will be to say something like, "Yea, what's wrong with you? People must not like your personality or something. You better change, and quick!" My attention narrows in an unhelpful way. What I will choose to do instead is ask myself "What else am I noticing?" Answers may be: "More thoughts of how crappy a person I am; a pit in my stomach; another thought of how much this sucks." So I continue..."Yes, and???" "And I notice my mouth is a little dry and I'm kind of thirsty. I also hear my refrigerator motor running. I'm not wearing socks and my toes are kind of cold." The point is to expand our awareness and allow that which troubles us to coexist with other experiences. Our mind will often place subtle rules on itself, such as "I need to get rid of this anxiety before I can do x, y, or z." This simply isn't true. We can begin to learn it isn't true by expanding our awareness of our experience. It's never that we are ONLY anxious, or ONLY thinking a thought. The dense dynamic of life is moving about constantly and it is our responsibility not to miss it.
Take a moment to ask yourself, right now, "And what else do I notice about this experience?" As you practice this, you will begin to see that there is so much more happening moment-by-moment than you think. Anxiety, guilt, or any other uncomfortable emotion is ONLY A PIECE of the experience; it doesn't need to dominate us.