The narrative is our default attentional mode. There is nothing wrong with living your life as the main character in a story, but there is something liberating about also feeling at home in the direct experience of living regardless of the circumstances.
Here’s an exercise you can experiment with throughout the day in order to travel more freely between both worlds:
Pause to notice some aspect
of your current experience.
It's simple, but not easy. Let’s break it down.
Just take a few seconds in the middle of any activity or thought. This is the trickiest part: remembering to do it.
You could be walking or standing in line or waiting for a red light to change or sitting in a meeting. Anything you do standing, sitting, or lying down will work. Nobody needs to know. In fact, plan on keeping it to yourself until you’ve done it a few hundred (or thousand) times.
Drop whatever story you find yourself in. Not forever. Just for the next few seconds. Even if you have a few minutes to practice, work with units of a few seconds at a time and string them together. Each brief unit of noticing constitutes one repetition.
You can stop or slow down or keep doing what you’re doing. You can even keep thinking what you’re thinking. The difference will be that you’re deciding to devote at least a few seconds to closely observing some part of it directly.
...some aspect of your current experience.
This can be any sensory experience: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling. What makes this part challenging is that we tend to skip right to the evaluation of whatever we notice: do I like it or not like it, is it beautiful or ugly, good or bad. We’re disrupting this default mode by trying to get more acquainted with the process of noticing itself.
It’s as if you were exploring these questions:
- What is it like to see?
What is it like to hear?
What is it like to smell?
What is it like to taste?
What is it like to touch or feel?
But instead of trying to answer these questions using words, try to experience the answer directly through your senses.
You’re literally attempting to sense the answer without any obligation to describe it.
It’s fun. Kids do it all the time. Adults forget.
This exercise might seem too simple to be meaningful. We’re much more familiar with the story-problem mode of attention. See if you can develop the habit of simply remembering to pause to notice aspects of as many ordinary experiences as possible.
Even though each individual repetition only takes a few seconds, the impact accumulates over time to support feeling more at home in your life just as it is right now.
Try to avoid the suppression of thoughts and feelings. Every instance of noticing develops the attentional skills required to transform your relationship to thinking and feeling.
Try to listen to your own verbal thinking as sound or seeing the visual side of your imagination at play.
Try to avoid limiting your exploration to relaxation and pleasant feelings.
Try to stay open to sampling a wide variety of physical and emotional sensations.
Fatigue is like this...
Smiling feels like this...
Feeling rushed (anxious, irritated, bored, disgusted, etc.) is like this...
Laughing is like this...
Crying is like this...
Interest (joy, wonder, gratitude, hope, etc.) is like this…
Embarrassment is like this...
If there's not a precise name to describe a particular sensation, just let it be vague. The labeling step just helps you aim your awareness.
- This moment is like this...
Try to avoid making sense of any experience when you’re paying attention differently in this way. You’ll know when this is happening because a story or question will be forming in your mind. This is totally natural and to be expected. Gently return to getting acquainted with the aspect of experience you are investigating. You can return to the narrative form of attention when you are done exercising. Think of this as reading magazines at the gym. There is no penalty for doing it, but it doesn’t count as working out.