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5. Move on. Come back to the present moment, back to your breath, after every instance of labeling. If it’s a strong experience, it might pop up repeatedly—then just label it again.
Keep going. You’re not going to be actively “labeling” the stuff that you notice on your whiteboard, nor returning to your breath once you do. Your job right now is not to be making distinctions between which content is useful or relevant, and what’s mind wandering. You’re not even going to try to stop your mind from wandering. The river will keep flowing—there isn’t anything you can or need to do about that. This is the key to open monitoring: you allow your mind to do what it will do. Your job is simply to observe that flow, at a distance, without engagement or participation.
5. Now, letting your sense of this person recede, bring to mind the image of someone with whom you have no real connection and for whom your feelings are neutral. It could be someone you see now and again but don’t have strong feelings for, one way or another. Perhaps it’s a neighbor you pass while walking your dog, a parking lot attendant you see daily, or a grocery store clerk. Mentally offer them the phrases.
Working memory is the essential partner to attention: it’s what allows you to actually do something with the information your flashlight focuses on. But if attention keeps piping in salient and distracting content, that will become a big problem for goal maintenance, let alone goal accomplishment. Why? Because you only have so much space to work with. Just like a real-life whiteboard, your working memory has limits
(2) Drop the story—your assessment of this situation is merely one story. Not the only one.
The flashlight encodes information and maintains it in working memory, “retracing” it on the whiteboard to keep it there for longer.
— Key vulnerability: Bait and Switch
When your attention is automatically “captured” or yanked by something salient, this more exciting (to your attention) content overwrites what was being maintained. Voluntary attention then starts retracing this new content. The prior information is lost forever, gone without a trace.
Get set . . . Find your flashlight and direct it toward prominent breath-related sensations for several breaths. This is always where we’ll start with any practice. And at any point in this exercise if you feel yourself getting drawn away (for example, getting caught in a ruminative loop), you can always anchor back on the breath. Flashlight on the breath is your home base—return to it whenever necessary, and reset.
4. Make this a quick process. Notice if you begin going down a rabbit hole of elaborating on the distraction, or asking why you are thinking about this particular topic, or defaulting to unsupportive habits like chastising yourself for getting distracted in the first place. It is not your job right now to answer these questions or reprimand yourself. Now is actually the time to notice what is on your whiteboard but not to engage with it. Just label the contents as best you can from these three categories: thought, emotion, sensation. And then . . .
3. Give it a label. Identify what type of distraction has appeared on your whiteboard. Is it a thought, an emotion, or a sensation? A thought could be a worry, a reminder, a memory, an idea, an item on your to-do list. An emotion could be a feeling of frustration, an urge to stop doing the practice and do something else, a twinge of happiness, a swell of stress. A sensation is something in your physical body: An itch. A sore muscle. Noticing that your back hurts from sitting there, or noticing something you heard, smelled, touched, or saw (such as a door slamming, food cooking, cat jumping).
Go! Now broaden your awareness so that you are not selecting any target object. Instead, use the metaphor of your mind being like a river. You’re standing on the riverbank, watching the water flow by. Imagine your thoughts, memories, sensations, emotions—whatever arises—as if they are flowing past you. Notice what appears there, but don’t engage with it. Don’t fish it up, chase it, or elaborate on it. Just let it flow by.
Get ready . . . This time, stand up! You can always sit if you prefer, in the same way as with the previous practices. But I usually recommend doing this practice in what is commonly known as Mountain Pose. Stand comfortably, your feet shoulder-distance apart. Let your arms relax at your sides, palms out. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
Certain things may become “sticky” on our whiteboards because of generalization. We can make generalizations about the behavior and intentions of others (“She never supports me”) or regarding ourselves (“I will never amount to anything”). An incident where you made a mistake becomes “I always get this stuff wrong—I’m such an idiot!” It’s not the incident itself that takes center stage on your whiteboard: it’s the generalization you derived from it. The oversimplified packaging allows it to remain in working memory with minimal effort: it’s short, it’s clear, and it probably isn’t accurate.
6. Repeat. Each time you notice yourself mind-wandering, tag the content of your mind-wandering (as thought, emotion, or sensation) and then come back to your breath.
8. Throughout this practice, notice when your mind wanders away from the chosen focus, and gently guide your attention back.
6. As a sense of this person recedes from your focus, next bring to mind an image of someone with whom things are challenging at this time in your life. This is often called a “difficult person” . Remember, you are not endorsing their view and are not necessarily even forgiving their actions in the past. You are simply offering kindness to them as a practice aimed at strengthening your ability to take another’s perspective, realizing that—like you—they too wish for happiness, health, safety, and ease. With this in mind, mentally offer them the phrases.
The floodlight gains access to the whiteboard to accomplish an urgent goal. Under acute threat or stress, your alerting system temporarily blocks access to working memory to ensure that your brain’s action systems prioritize basic survival behaviors (fight, flight, freeze) over any other goals or plans.
— Key vulnerability: Road Block
The alerting system can be set off by feelings of threat, even when there is no real danger. This temporarily cuts off access to working memory and impairs any functions that rely on it (like long-term memory, social connection, and emotion regulation).
The juggler keeps your current goals active on the whiteboard, and updates these goals as circumstances change.
— Key vulnerability: Ball Drop
Overload, blanking, and distraction in working memory all derail the central executive’s juggler, leading to lost goals and misguided behaviors. The juggler drops the ball.
2. Notice where it goes. This is a new step! In the first exercise, I asked you to notice if attention wandered away, and if so to immediately move your flashlight back to your breath. This time, I want you to pause for a moment and observe where the flashlight is now directed.
7. Now move on to everyone in your home, community, state or province, and country, and continue to expand outward until you include all beings everywhere. Spend a few moments visualizing each place (your home, your community), and then offer the phrases to everyone there.
your memory for experiences, involves selective encoding of only those aspects of experience that were most attended to and held in working memory. Translation: you’ll only remember what you focused on and “wrote” on your whiteboard—not everything that occurred. And further, your episodic memory doesn’t merely involve the external aspects of events (who, what, where, and so forth) but is deeply wrapped up in your autobiographical take on what you experienced. So—was the experience happy? Sad? Interesting? Tense? Your emotional experience will influence what you focus on.
3. Silently repeat the following phrases to offer yourself well-wishes (three min). Remember: the point is to offer yourself well-wishes, not make requests or demands for them. Saying these phrases supports that:
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I be safe
May I live with ease
The phrases and their order are not important. Some people may say, May I be free from suffering instead of May I be safe. Others may wish to say, May I find peace instead of May I live with ease. The important thing is that you choose phrases that resonate with you and that convey a feeling of goodwill to the recipient.
4. Next, while allowing this sense of yourself to recede from your focus, call to mind someone who has been very good to you in this life, very kind and supportive, someone you might describe as a benefactor. Silently repeat the phrases below, offering them to this person:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you live with ease
During a difficult interaction, take a moment to pause. It can be the length of one breath. Or, before a difficult interaction, take a moment and picture this person. Then, remind yourself: “This person has experienced pain, just like me. This person has experienced loss, just like me. Joy, just like me. Was born from a mother, just like me; will die someday, just like me.” If these phrases don’t resonate with you, feel free to substitute with other phrases that emphasize the common humanity we share with others.
9. When you’re ready, spend a few moments anchoring on your breath to end the practice.
your general world knowledge, for facts, ideas, concepts—is similarly selective. What you remember is based on what else you’ve previously learned.
To get a sense of what this means for your cognition, imagine a studio apartment. There is only one room. Every time you want to use the room, you have to completely change out the furniture. Want to sleep? Set up a bed and nightstand. Want to host a party? Take down the bedroom and set up couches and coffee tables. Need to cook? Drag that all away and set up a stove, counter, and cooking supplies. Sound exhausting? It is! And it’s the same for your cognition, when you switch from task to task.
Troubleshooting. If you have difficulty letting things pass you by, come back to your breath. Imagine your breath sensations as a boulder in the middle of all that flowing water. Rest your attention on that stable, steady object; when you feel ready, broaden your attention again and go back to monitoring.
Do these three critical things:
when you studied with flashcards, that was rehearsal
relating new experiences or facts to knowledge or memories you already have
This is what happens as you’re performing the above two functions, and it ultimately leads to the memory being stored. As the brain replays information, it’s laying down new neural pathways and then going over them, strengthening those new connections
Your attention determines:
No matter how much I tell you about how attention works and why, and no matter how motivated you are, the way your brain pays attention cannot be fundamentally altered by sheer force of will
Any tasks you do over a period of time:
(1) Stop the inner war against the actual circumstances—just accept them. It is what it is. Let me be clear: this does not mean that you are “all good” with the situation. It has nothing to do with your judgement about the actual event. It just means that you are accepting the actuality of what has occurred.
1. Repeat the previous steps. We begin the same way we did with the basic Find Your Flashlight (find where your thoughts focus on), by sitting in a chair, comfortable but upright, resting your hands in your lap, and closing or lowering your eyes (to limit visual distraction). Again, select prominent breath-related sensations. Remember the metaphor of your attention as a flashlight, the beam pointing toward your selected breath-related body sensation. When your flashlight drifts to something else . . .
(3) Roll with it—keep going, keep moving, get curious about what the next moment will bring.
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