On this blog I often speak of being able to sit with your feelings. For some this is too difficult to do because you still have many difficult, uncomfortable, anxious feelings that fight for your attention. That is okay. You can learn the skill of focusing your mind through mindfulness exercises using “neutral” or “safe” activities until you feel strong enough to focus intentionally and without judgement on your inner world.
When you have experienced trauma, your mind can wander from one topic or event to another in a way that can leave you feeling lost, distracted, re-traumatized and frustrated. To heal you need to take control of your ability to stay focused with your mind so that the feelings I describe here don’t overwhelm you and control your mood and your day.
I would strongly recommend a daily, focused mindful practice like the one I will introduce to you here. Once you are good at practicing mindful focus on your external world, you will have the skills and confidence to start to focus on and heal your internal world. This practice will help you train yourself to focus on a single object. It will strengthen you ability to avoid the feelings of being lost, distracted and frustrated when your mind wanders.
Thoughtful Thursday exercises may seem simple, but they are powerful. With regular practice they will help you reduce stress, improve your ability to think positively, improve your memory and focus, help you reduce strong/sudden emotional reactions and improve your relationships with others. Trust the process. Practice daily.
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment, without judgement, in an attentive, compassionate way. When you are being mindful, you are an observer. You are noticing and taking information and sensations in. You pay attention and increase your awareness without allowing yourself to be compelled to respond to the information in one way or another.
Before I describe the exercise, I want to encourage you to remember a few things about this process.
- Stay in the present moment. During the exercise, commit to staying in the present. When thoughts about the future or the past push their way into your awareness, simply refocus your attention on the present moment.
- Pay attention. During the exercise you want to become aware of details you may not have noticed before. Be as aware of each detail. Watch and learn. Observe.
- Suspend judgment. During the exercise you may find yourself thinking about how something should be. Remember that in this moment, you are just focusing on what is. Just take information in without responding to any pressure to change it.
- Be compassionate. Remember that things are as they are because of a story that makes sense. Hold your observations with this in mind so that you can observe without being critical. Also, remember to show compassion toward yourself as you learn a new skill. It’s a new skill that no one is able to master during the first, second or even their ten-thousandth try. Mindful focus is a process that shifts each time you engage it. Allow the process to be whatever it is. Do your best to not criticize yourself or quit the exercise if your mind wanders. Just notice where you mind goes and return your focus to the object you selected for the exercise.
- Be non-reactive. Remember that nothing you observe today needs to be changed immediately. Allow things to be as they are. Allow your observations to settle in you. You never know what your decision will be if you first trust yourself and a let any decision take the back seat to compassionate, attentive, non-judgemental focus. Release yourself from making any decisions based on this exercise. It’s practice. That’s all.
Now, for your exercise. Pick a quiet part of the day when you are awake and not overly tired.
Select an object to use for the focus of this activity. Choose something that can rest on a table, is safe to touch and is emotionally neutral. It can be anything: a pencil, a plant, a piece of jewelry, a cup or something like that.
Pick a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be interrupted for a few minutes. Put the object on a table in front of you. Turn off any distracting noises. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Do this exercise once or twice a day for two weeks – choosing a different object each time.
To begin, take a few slow, deep breaths. Then, without touching the object, allow your gaze to rest on the object. Really observe it. Take your time exploring what it looks like. Try to imagine the different qualities that the object possesses.
- What does the surface of the object look like?
- Is it shiny or dull?
- Does it look smooth or rough?
- Does it look soft or hard?
- Does it have multiple colors or just one color?
- What else is unique about the way the object looks?
Take your time observing the object. Now hold the object in your hand or reach out and touch it. Begin noticing the different way it feels.
- Is it smooth or is it rough?
- Does it have ridges or is it flat?
- Is it soft or is it hard?
- Does the object have areas that feel different from each other?
- What does the temperature of the object feel like?
- If you can hold it in your hand, notice how much it weighs.
- What else do you notice about the way it feels?
Look at every part of it. Examine it from every angle. Continue to focus your mind on this object. Bring your mind back to the observation of the object when distracting thoughts cross your mind.
After 5 minutes, congratulate yourself on being able to focus your mind on a single object. Practice this exercise daily to improve your ability to focus mindfully. If you would like to, journal about your experience or drop me an e-mail about it at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2016 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.
Exercise adapted from: Copyright © 2007 by Matthew McKay, Jeffrey C Wood and Jeffrey Brantley. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook.