When we feel like something’s not working for us, we want change. Whether you take this on alone or in the context of therapy, the process of change can feel daunting! Creating a space to look inside ourselves and our lives paves the way for reflection on our patterns. For example, you might tend to agree to doing things you really don’t want to do, or overcommit and regret (see Tobey’s latest blog post). Perhaps there are situations in which you consistently react in a way that makes things worse. You might go over what you have done after the fact thinking “I wish I hadn’t done that”. You want to change your reaction but it all seems to happen so fast—you feel like you are not in charge.
In ‘Getting Unstuck‘, Pema Chödrön describes Shenpa, which is a Tibetan concept that refers to “getting hooked”—being caught up in something and scratching the itch. In the moment, we rarely notice that this is happening. Often if we’re not noticing, we react and feel powerless to change. When our mind wanders from the present, we allow important choices to be determined by external forces and receive consequences passively. While mind-wandering can be beneficial in some contexts, it can also interfere with our ability to process information from the environment (Schooler et al., 2011). Wandering away from the moment without noticing can lead down a slippery slope. The risk is that life becomes a series of events we feel helpless over, leading to sadness, anger, anxiety or other uncomfortable sensations that communicate to us that something is not working.
So what’s the first step to taking charge? How do we become more of the driver and less of the passenger in our lives? This endeavour is especially difficult because sticky situations often seem to happen so fast. Taking back your power to participate actively in your life isn’t always easy but starts with simply noticing. Simply noticing is a key element of mindfulness-based meditations (Hölzel et al., 2011). Meditation and other practices based in awareness and noticing (vs. doing) have been associated with improvements in anxiety, depression, perceived stress, emotional well-being and overall mental health (Carmody & Baer, 2008). Simply noticing allows us to live our experiences as they are, rather than through the filters of our biases (Price et al., 2002). The idea is to step back and create space before we choose a response to a situation rather than reacting as we otherwise would (Baer & Krietemeyer 2006).
So how does one simply notice?
1- Choose your target.
Pick one behaviour that you engage in that doesn’t seem work for you in the long term. Do you often say “yes” when you mean “no”? Do you often feel compelled to assert yourself but stay quiet instead? Do you beat yourself up for making mistakes at work (or elsewhere)? Perhaps you react angrily when frustrated and say things you later regret? Choose one thing to simply notice.
2- Use your emotions as a guide.
When we do something that doesn’t work for us in the long term, it’s often in response to feeling an uncomfortable emotion in the moment. It may be avoiding something that we know is right for us because we’re afraid (e.g., job interview), it may be having one drink too many when we’re feeling sad or anxious. Tune in to those emotions. Ask yourself—is there a pattern here? Is there an emotion that I consistently react to in this way? In what situations do I tend to do this?
3- Slow the tape down.
Imagine the situation as a scene in a movie. Then imagine playing the scene in slow motion. Although it feels quick in life, slow it down so you can take the time to look at each part of it. Even though time seems to be moving so much faster in these instances, you can slow down your experience and perception of the situation by paying attention.
4- Simply notice.
Now take special notice of all the elements in the situation—and do this with purpose. Notice your Shenpa (that hook you might feel the urge to bite). Notice your urge to do something. Be present and observe the situation as though you were an outside observer. Simply take note of what is happening, resisting any urge to do. You may choose to do afterwards, but in the first few moments, catch yourself not noticing, and instead, notice.
You might ask, “I noticed. Now what?”
Noticing is only a first step. However, it’s a powerful one: simply noticing is associated with changes in attentional functions and cognitive flexibility, which are linked to mental balance and well-being (Moore & Malinowski, 2009). It is a step to ensuring your freedom and becoming aware enough to refrain from biting that hook. Over time, the practice of noticing will empower you to choose your life path through individual choices—ones that may have not been apparent before you slowed the tape down.
Carmody, J., & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31(1), 23–33.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(6), 537-559.
Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 176-186.
Price, D. D., Barrell, J. J., & Rainville, P. (2002). Integrating experiential–phenomenological methods and neuroscience to study neural mechanisms of pain and consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 11(4), 593-608.
Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 3–27). San Diego, CA: Elsevier
Schooler, J. W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, K., Handy, T. C., Reichle, E. D., & Sayette, M. A. (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(7), 319-326.