Anxiety can be a crippler, whether it’s slight or intense. If you’ve developed a habit of responding to circumstances by going into anxiety, this exercise can be a very effective intervention to give you freedom. It’s something to do in the midst of an anxiety attack but I recommend you get familiar with it before you need to put it to the test. To practice it, take about 5 minutes to either sit or stand still, and shift your attention from “eyeglass mode” (normal day to day attention) to “magnifying glass mode” (slowing down to focus in order to get a closer look).
In these next 5 minutes, let your attention turn inward to what you feel in your body. Starting now, notice your breath and let your next inhalation be relaxed and easy and make it be at least slightly slower and slightly deeper. Let its exhale be relaxed, not forced, and when it has finished, let your attention be like a spotlight scanning for sensations that are present right now anywhere in your body.
Put your attention on whatever sensation in your body is easiest to notice right now and settle there for a moment. As you notice the sensation, let go of any thoughts about it, as well as any judgments, associations, memories, or any thoughts about anything at all. Just simply notice the presence of this one sensation, letting yourself experience it fully as the sensation that it is for a few seconds, again with no judgments or thought. After a few seconds of simply being with the sensation, move your attention to whatever is the next sensation in your body that is now easiest to notice in this moment. Do with this sensation what you did with the last one – simply notice it, with no judgment, association, memory, or thought about anything at all. After staying with the experience of this sensation for a few seconds, simply letting yourself have the experience of the sensation, again move to the next sensation that is present. Continue doing this, going gently from one sensation to the next, for 5 minutes or until you feel complete.
Putting It Into Practical Use:
You don’t have to wait for an episode of anxiety to practice the exercise. If you make a practice of doing it routinely, maybe once a day for at least a week as if it’s part of a workout routine, you’ll likely find yourself getting better at noticing the onset of an episode of anxiety, and, in putting this skill to the test, you’ll have better and better results.
The more you practice and apply it, the more likely you’ll also be able to respond in the same effective way to having a busy mind and having other undesired emotions. Life gets a lot easier to handle when you achieve that level of mindfulness.
If you simply do the above exercise, it will pull you out of anxiety, put you in a more centered and clear relation to your experience and the world around you, and give you a more useable perspective. If you feel confident in your ability to produce those results and ground yourself as needed, read on.
When you find something else going on in your mind or emotions that is troublesome, overwhelming, causes you suffering, or keeps you from responding appropriately to the situation at hand, you can do the same exercise of allowing yourself to shift your focus from the broad and non-specific “eyeglass” focus to the less noisy, more specific “magnifying glass” focus. If you haven’t already read my last post, which also points to how this exercise can help with pain, now would be a good time to do that.
Upon noticing something in your experience you wish wasn’t there, allow yourself to be with that thought, emotion, sensation or pain without judgment, association, or connotation. Don’t engage at all with it; simply be the observer of it. To the extent that you are good at being the observer, you are able to shift your experience of it. By shifting from being the one having the thought, emotion, or pain, to the one observing it, you shift from the level of content to the level of structure. And suffering occurs on the level of content, not on the level of structure.
Simply apply the above exercise to whatever inside you is troublesome, being sure not to engage with any content in your mind. That may sound ridiculous if what is troublesome is a thought or voice or fear or something you experience as demanding you pay attention at it. I’m just saying don’t engage with it. Shift your attention away from its content, away from what it’s saying to you, or away from your labeling of it, and just be the observer of it simply existing – like watching a cloud roll by in a blue sky, and simply acknowledging “cloud” instead of judging it as a good cloud or making associations as to what it looks like or spinning off into thinking about things it reminds you of.
Keeping your focus onto just your in-the-moment experience of the object of your attention, notice that this troublesome thing has an energetic quality to it. Notice this energy can be felt somewhere in your body. It doesn’t matter where, but focus your attention onto wherever you feel it and, again, allow yourself to be with it in total absence of judgment, association, connotation, or any engagement of any kind.
This idea of “no engagement of any kind” is pretty pivotal. If you can allow your mind to spew forth its thoughts such that you’re just observing the process or the flow – like appreciating the waterfall rather than the water within the waterfall, or like being patient without getting triggered as a child throws a temper tantrum – you’re going to get much more perspective, be much freer in the moment, and more effective in life.
This exercise, or intervention with yourself, is a way to be “bigger than” your experience. In my way of thinking, experience is composed of two parts – what I call “story” and “state”. Story is anything cognitive – labels, explanations, associations, connotations, judgments, dramas, stories. And state is simply energy felt in the body in the moment. If you’re thinking about the sensation of heartburn you felt a moment ago but are no longer feeling it, you’re in “story” because of three reasons: you’re having a thought, you’re labeling the experience “heartburn”, and the sensation occurred in the past. But if, in thinking about that “heartburn”, your memory of it stimulates some sensation, then the feeling you’re having in this moment is state – as long as you stay with it as the sensation that it is rather than focusing on some label that could be put on it.
What’s so great about this distinction? I’ve found that if we can shift our attention from story to state, we reduce suffering greatly – greatly! Suffering is a measurement of how lost we are in some story about suffering, regardless of the source of the story. Sometimes the source is a force pushing against a sensitive part of us. Sometimes the source isn’t even present.
By training yourself to responsively shift your attention from the story to the state, you free yourself from being lost in the experience to being the one witnessing the experience. From there, not only do you have the self-improvement of release from pain, but you also have the opportunity for the self-discovery of seeing what it is you’re bringing to the situation that makes the story that much more dramatic. The more you can wake up to that stuff, with curiosity and compassion, the more being alive is a rich, rewarding unfoldment.
Copyright © 2014 Jim Lehrman