This two-part exercise has at least two levels. On the surface, it is what it seems to be, but it is also an extremely effective therapeutic tool. Starting off the exercise with an “easy” memory will teach you about controlling your attention, but later, when you feel it is okay to try it, using “darker material” will show the exercise’s technique’s true power to repair the dissonance in your daily life which are supported by unresolved past issues.
The Exercise and Technique:
Write a word, phrase, or sentence on a slip of paper that reminds you of a specific negative experience in your life–one that still yields uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and imagery when you remember it. Don’t go all out here. Choose a relatively mildly negative experience.
Turn the paper over, and have it where you can see it for the rest of the day. Every half hour turn it over, read it, and close your eyes. When you close your eyes, you should intend to think about that incident again, but you will also intend to stop thinking about that incident as soon as you know that you are having emotions, thoughts, and imagery about it. When you notice that you are, indeed, attending to that negative incident, then open your eyes immediately, turn the paper back over, intend not to think about that topic any more, and go about your daily life for another half hour.
In other words, this exercise is to develop your ability to move your attention onto, but then off topic, and to stay off topic. As a measure of your progress, each time you do this, try to estimate how many thoughts were produced before you were able to shift to another topic.
If comfortable, and if you are confident you can use this technique, then begin to choose to go a bit deeper into a negative memory to a point of discomfort of your choosing, and then coming off topic by opening your eyes and engaging your mind with another topic. Do this until bored with the negative topic. Try this with progressively more negative memories until you feel you can approach even the most disturbing aspects of your past.
Did I get to the point where I didn’t turn the paper over to start the process?
Did I get better at doing this? What value is there in practicing using my attention muscle? Am I really increasing my ability to change my mind?
How often do I actually use this ability in daily life?
How is this placing of my attention different from when I put my attention on such experiences as a plate of food as it is placed before me in a nice restaurant, a romantic day dream, or listening to a new favorite song?
When I am avoiding a topic do I have to pay attention to something positively distracting, or can I just go about my day without any real sense of having a sense of active avoidance? Has the answer to this question changed over the day?
How has my constant remembering of this experience changed the kind of material my mind comes up with now when I turn over the paper? Has the negativity of it subsided to any degree? Has my mind come up with the same kinds of memories of the incident, or have they differed over the course of the day?
What is the difference between me changing my attention on purpose and me finding myself on another topic without ever having given my permission to my mind to do that? Which type of attention transitioning do I do most of in daily life? Which one feels more like I did it? Do I actually change my mind when it happens automatically? What is the difference between the me that changes my mind on purpose and the me that has a mind that changes?
What would life be like if I never purposefully placed my attention and only went with whatever happened automatically?
When I willfully put my attention on something, why am I so certain that I actually did that on purpose, that is, how do I know that that transition was willful and not just a subtler but nonetheless automatic process?
When a phone rings, my mind goes to that experience effortlessly, yet as an infant this was not always the case. Are all my automatic shifts actually just learned responses? What happens all around me that does NOT grab my attention? How did I set that up?
To what would I find myself attending if all my past were erased? How would that differ from the attending processes of a newborn infant?
When I consider my daily life’s content composed of the attender, the attending process, and that which is attended to, is there something missing or is that ALL of my life?
Scientific research has definitely proven that we all have dreams throughout the night, and yet, most of those experiences are not remembered. Is that which attends to my unremembered dreams the same attender to my daily life? Do I have to be able to remember having had an experience (been consciously there) in order to say it happened to me? If so, then who is having my dreams, and if not, then am I leading a double life?