"An inner voice always used to be an outer voice. We absorb the tone of others. A harassed or angry parent. The menacing threats of an elder sibling keen to put us down. The words of a schoolyard bully or teacher who seemed impossible to please. We internalize the unhelpful voices, because at certain key moments in the past, they sounded compelling. The authority figures repeated their messages over and over until they got lodge in our own way of thinking."
Any perception you can observe directly in real time can be used to train a variety of attention-related skills.
I like to make a game out of turning ordinary activities into opportunities for practice.
There are a number of exercises I use when watching a film — whether it’s one I enjoy, dislike, or have seen before.
"Although emotional sensations can arise anywhere in the body, they are much more likely to arise in the belly, chest, throat, or face. These are the emotional hotspots in the body, the regions where emotional sensations can get huge. That means that other areas are much less likely to host gigantic emotional sensations, which turns out to be a useful and convenient thing."
~ Michael Taft
What happens when, just for a moment, we stay with our pain, our fear, our doubt, our discomfort, our grief, our broken heart, even our numbness, without trying to change it, or fix it, or numb ourselves to it, or get rid of it in any way? What happens when, even when we feel like leaving, abandoning the moment for the promise of a future salvation, we stay, sitting with the raw, unfiltered, boundlessly alive life-energy that is simply trying to express right now?
~ Jeff Foster
"What I find very strange is this. That I think what's magnificent about Bach is that when you listen to this music, and it moves you so much, I mean, it's just a bunch of sound waves crashing into your ear, and you have to contain — you see this emotion bubbling up, you start seeing, like, tearing up, and saying, well, what's going on? These are just sounds crashing into my — what's going on in here?"
~ Bernard Chazelle
"I do think that all of us think in poems. I think of a poem as being deeper than headline news. You know how they talk about breaking news all the time, that — if too much breaking news, trying to absorb all the breaking news, you start feeling really broken. And you need something that takes you to a place that’s a little more timeless, that kind of gives you a place to stand to look out at all these things. Otherwise, you just feel assaulted by all of the tragedy in the world."
I have to admit I’m really attracted to his model of teaching because it really articulates a very specific way of mental noting and labeling.
Go inside yourself as deep as you can. Feel inward, deeper and deeper. Is there an end to how deeply you can feel? If not, keep feeling inwardly until you are certain inward never ends.
All there is inside is a deeper and deeper openness.
Now, feel outwardly as far as you can. Listen to the most distant sounds you can hear, and then listen further, into the openness beyond the furthest sound. Notice the most distant light, and then gaze beyond it, into the endless openness...
Now, simultaneously, feel the openness that goes on and on, both inwardly and outwardly. Really do this, and you will discover that feeling never ends in any direction. The most basic sense of being, of existence, is the openness of feeling in all directions. Being is feeling wide open.
As soon as your feeling stops short of on-and-on, feel whatever you are feeling (a tree or a thought), and feel beyond it. You don't have to stop feeling anything (you can still feel the tree or the thought), but also feel the openness that goes beyond anything. Feel further than you've ever felt before, zillions of miles inwardly, and zillions of miles outwardly, on and on, wide open.
This is who you are, this wide openness, feeling with no boundaries.
Be openness, feeling on and on, while having sex or during a conversation, and your lover and friends will begin to feel an unbound openness, too.
Do you have a better way to live your life? The choice is yours.
All making is an act of attention and attention is an act of recognition and recognition is the something happening that is thought itself.
~ Ann Hamilton
Excerpt from "The Brain's Ability to Look Within: A Secret to Well-Being," by Emma M. Seppala, Feeling It: Psychology Today Blog, December 10, 2012:
Most of us prioritize externally oriented attention. When we think of attention, we often think of focusing on something outside of ourselves. We "pay attention" to work, the TV, our partner, traffic, or anything that engages our senses. However, a whole other world exists that most of us are far less aware of: an internal world, with its varied landscape of emotions, feelings, and sensations. Yet it is often the internal world that determines whether we are having a good day or not, whether we are happy or unhappy. That’s why we can feel angry despite beautiful surroundings or feel perfectly happy despite being stuck in traffics. For this reason perhaps, this newly discovered pathway of attention may hold the key to greater well-being.
Although this internal world of feelings and sensations dominates perception in babies, it becomes increasingly foreign and distant as we learn to prioritize the outside world. Because we don’t pay as much attention to our internal world, it often takes us by surprise. We often only tune into our body when it rings an alarm bell –– that we’re extremely thirsty, hungry, exhausted or in pain. A flush of anger, a choked up feeling of sadness, or the warmth of love in our chest often appear to come out of the blue.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital Neurosciences Research Center, Boston, March 2012
Excerpt from "Looking Back: My First Year as a Meditation Practitioner," by Kenji, Unready and Willing, June 2012:
Ever since I started meditating regularly last year, one question I continued to ask myself was: “Am I happier?”
For the first three months, my answer was “no.” Contrary to my expectations, I often felt more emotional turmoil than I had before. It seemed as though any event, no matter how trivial, would set off a wave of depression, or sometimes an unstable rush of euphoria, the comedown from which was never fun. I’ve always considered myself to be emotionally sensitive, but this was ridiculous.
The reason for this intensification of emotions was not apparent to me until just recently. Much of it had to do with the meditation techniques that I practiced, techniques which were supposed to raise my awareness of every physical and emotional sensation, thus grounding my attention in my body and in the present moment. As a side-effect, it also made emotions feel stronger, and thus much harder to ignore.
Most every day, sometimes for one hour, oftentimes for two, I would sit on a cushion with my eyes closed and attend to any sensation, be it painful or pleasant, that manifested in my body, and would endeavor to remain detached from them. If a certain area in my lower back ached, for example, I focused all my attention on the ache, and tried to experience the pain without labeling it as either “good” or “bad.” In the clearest moments, thoughts and judgments about the pain became hushed and subdued to the point that I could regard the pain as nothing more than what it was: sensation. Although it wasn’t the goal, the pain itself would often subside not long thereafter.
Because I worked to improve my awareness of sensation, it was only natural that the physical sensations that characterize emotions like anxiety, sadness, or melancholy would be felt much more strongly than they had been before. Sometimes some small misfortune would trigger an unpleasant emotion and because I was more sensitive to this emotion, I felt as though meditation, rather than improving my overall sense of well-being, worsened it.
In reality, the emotions didn’t change. What changed was how I experienced them. The more I practiced, and the more I read about the practice, I realized that meditation was not meant to purge our minds of negative emotions or thought patterns, but rather meant to help us experience them without judgment. We were to let go of our resistance to pain at the deepest level and understand that we suffer not because pain is bad, but because our mind labels it as bad.
As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga's greatest neurobiological benefit.
Your brain tends to react to discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response and activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system. The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like "Oh god, I'm going to pull something," or "I can't hold this pushup any longer". And in fact, your anxious thoughts themselves further exacerbate the stress response.
Interestingly, despite all the types of stressful situations a person can be in (standing on your head, running away from a lion, finishing those TPS reports by 5 o'clock) the nervous system has just one stress response. The specific thoughts you have may differ, but the brain regions involved, and the physiological response will be the same. The physiological stress response means an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and elevation of cortisol and other stress hormones.
The fascinating thing about the mind-body interaction is that it works both ways. For example, if you're stressed, your muscles will tense (preparing to run away from a lion), and this will lead to more negative thinking. Relaxing those muscles, particularly the facial muscles, will push the brain in the other direction, away from stress, and toward more relaxed thoughts. Similarly, under stress, your breathing rate increases. Slowing down your breathing pushes the brain away from the stress response, and again toward more relaxed thinking.
So how does this all fit together? As I stated before, the stress response in the nervous system is triggered reflexively by discomfort and disorientation. The twisting of your spine, the lactic acid building up in your straining muscles, the uneasy feeling of being upside down, the inability to breathe, are all different forms of discomfort and disorientation, and tend to lead reflexively to anxious thinking and activation of the stress response in the entire nervous system. However, just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary. It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.
Breaking a bad habit or developing a good one might be hard work, but it's not impossible. In fact, once you know the main structure of habits, you can develop a plan to change them. This flowchart from The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg guides you through the three steps of breaking the habit loop.
This is a universal approach to any habit you want to replace, since habits all share basic characteristics: a cue or trigger and a reward that perpetuates the routine. (see also: breaking habits with an "if-then plan".)
To change the habit, the flowchart helps you think through what you're feeling and thinking during each stage of the habit, then substitute the old reward and old routine with new ones. It's a great visual tool to help you practice until you have your new habit loop (or the right "keystone" habits, as Duhigg has explained) established.
Click the flowchart below to expand or right-click to save.