Looking is what we do naturally when we focus our attention on anything present in our consciousness. You can notice that right now, for example, your attention is focused mostly on this text, more or less ignoring everything else.
Move the focus of your attention away from this text for a moment and place it on the feel of your breath as it moves in and out of your body through your nose.
Focus on the sensation it causes as it passes across the flesh of your nostrils on the way out. You may find it easier to do this with your eyes closed. Take a minute now to try this for yourself, and then return here and continue reading.You can see from what you just did that it is relatively easy to direct your attention and focus it on any sensation you choose.
Now, in the same way that you directed your attention to your breath, move the focus of attention inward, looking for the faint sensation of what it feels like to be you. What you would call “me.”
What you are looking for here is the simple me-ness of you. Not the thoughts that pass through you, or the emotions that play within you, or the sensations that rise and fall within you, or any ideas about your nature that you have heard or read about. You are merely that which is always here. Everything else—thought, emotion, sensation—comes and goes in you.
This simple act of inward looking at your me-ness, the sensation that you would call me, automatically dissolves the background of anxiety, distrust, and dissatisfaction that is the experience of life for most of us.
Just one look is really enough, if it's done right. But since this is an uncommon movement of attention, and we are not used to it, it's hard to tell if you have done it right or not. We advise you to continue trying to get a taste, a feel of your me-ness whenever you feel the desire to do so. Do it until you're satisfied. This will not harm you and it can actually provide some relief. It's a safe place to put your attention. In time, you will simply lose interest in doing the act of looking at yourself, since in fact you are here all the time.
After that first look, you may experience relief, lightness, and a sense that all is going really well for a few days, weeks, or even months. After that, there may be a period of confusion and psychological difficulty, in which old patterns of thought and behavior may reappear. You don't have to do anything to kill those diseased psychological mechanisms off because the only way that they live is through the energy you give them by attending to them.The best way to get though this difficult time is to start a daily practice of the Self-Directed Attention Exercise. Our purpose with this exercise is to cultivate a very useful skill that will help you develop self-reliance during the difficult period that follows the collapse of the context of fear that shaped every aspect and psychological mechanism of your mind.
The most effective way to develop self-reliance is the training of your ability to direct and focus your attention at will. This exercise will strengthen your ability to focus attention on a single object, ignoring everything else, as a means to develop a natural skillfulness in the intelligent use of this power.
This is not any form of mindfulness practice. The goal of the self-directed attention exercise is completely different.
In the beginning, this exercise is hard to do for everybody, but only because we are not used to it. Most of the time, we don't even know that we can control our attention. But we promise: you can do it.
Do this exercise for about 10 minutes at a time. Set an alarm clock so you will know when the time is over.
Sit down, close your eyes, and just focus on the sensation of the air as it goes out of your nose. Spend 10 minutes just trying to feel that sensation. You may notice that the sensation is cooler as it passes through the nostrils coming into the body and warmer on its way out of the body. It is that feeling, that sensation in your nostrils that you will pay attention to and focus on. You may want to do just that the first time.
It is very important to not make any attempt or effort to control or monitor the way the breathing is happening. If you experience hyperventilation when doing the Self-Directed Attention Exercise, it is possible that you are trying to manage your breathing. You may be unconsciously trying to accelerate it, slow it down, make it kind of rhythmic, or trying to make it remain in compliance with your counting speed. This may lead to hyperventilation and even raise your blood pressure. You may experience heart palpitations.
To overcome this problem, try to relax your focus on the sensation in your nose. You can be completely focused on the sensation but relaxed at the same time. Try not to control your breathing. Just count the out-breaths as they come, without making them regular or irregular or changing them in any way. Most often, when we start paying attention to our breathing, it gets more prominent and regular and even deeper. The trick is to try to catch your natural breath, as it would happen without you watching it.
Paying attention to the air flow as it goes through your nostrils is the best way to do this. Using this technique instead of paying attention to the movement of your chest or abdomen in your breathing, for example, naturally makes your breathing less deep and more shallow.
And if it seems to you that you can't feel the sensation of the breath, persist. Focus your attention on the tip of your nostrils. In time you will start being able to feel it.
Next time, try counting the out-breaths. Try to create a tight focus on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the nose. With every outbreath, count mentally: 1, 2, 3... The first outbreath is 1, the second outbreath is 2, and so forth. Until you get to 10. When you get to 10, start over from 1.
Should it happen that during the counting of the breath you find that your attention has been distracted and you are paying attention to something other than the sensation of your breath—a physical sensation, a train of thought, a sound, an itch, or something crossing your field of vision—simply move your attention back to the breath and start counting again from 1. And if you get to 10, start over again from 1.
For instance, you may find yourself thinking that this exercise is stupid and you'll never gonna get it. Or that it is too easy, and what's the point anyway? When you notice that you are thinking and not doing the exercise, stop. This is completely normal. Don't criticize yourself, don't tell yourself you can't do it, etc. Stop right there and immediately direct your attention to your breath and start counting again from 1. No judgment.
Don't be discouraged. Don't push yourself too hard. Be patient with yourself. And start over from 1 every time. Keep trying, do not give up. Even if you stop at 2 or 3 and start over every time, the work is being done. Remember, the goal of this exercise is not to get to a point where you can count to high numbers or even count up to 10. The point is to notice when you have moved away from the focus point (the breath) and then deliberately choose to move it back to the sensation of the breath in your nostrils. It is this conscious, deliberate movement that counts. You must do this exercise as you would lift weights or do push-ups to develop and strengthen your muscles. And as it becomes easier, you will be able to count to 10, and maybe you will want to do it more often.
And if you find yourself counting up to very high numbers without being distracted, pay closer attention. It is very easy to get on automatic pilot and keep count even though your attention is divided. Pay attention. Do not be discouraged. Persist.
Do this exercise for only 10 mintues at a time, once or twice a day. For instance, you can do it when you wake up and before you go to sleep. Set up a timer so you know when the time is over.
Try not to obsess over this exercise. It is not about trying to pay attention to your breath all the time, or any other such nonsense. The only purpose of this exercise is to develop your capacity to move attention where you want it to go.
The results will start to appear in time. It won't take long before you start to see the real benefit of this exercise in your life. After some time of practice, if you pay attention, you will notice that now there is a slight space between you and your thoughts and feeling states. Just enough space for you to see them for what they are. They are all thoughts. They are not you. You can see them and decline to give attention to them. In time, that space will grow.
To benefit fully from this exercise, you must first look at yourself. Follow the instruction at the top of this page.
As you can see, the instructions are very simple. If you can forget everything you know for a while and focus on simply following the instructions, you will be fine. But even the simplest instructions can be misunderstood because of previous ideas and concepts that we all carry around. You can find help and support from John Sherman himself by joining him online every Wednesday, by having a private session with John, and by posting your questions in the Just One Look Forum. If you are not sure you were able to follow the instructions, please don't hesitate to ask for help.
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After practicing Self-Directed Attention for a while, start using your attention to help the restructuring of your mind.
During the recovery period, disturbing thoughts may appear in the mind, old patterns of reaction to certain situations.
Many thoughts will come to you, trying to distract you from this work. Thoughts of doubt, defeatism, hopelessness, fear, anger, etc. Any thought that does not offer a practical solution to a practical problem right now is irrelevant in the moment. It is safe to ignore it by moving your attention away from it.
Move your attention away from the thought and place it on the feeling of your breath as you learned with the practice of Self-Directed Attention. Do this as many times as you need to and for as long as you can hold your attention there. At this stage you don't need to count the breaths anymore. Just move attention away from the thought and onto the sensation of breathing.
A disturbing thought may be connected to a body sensation. This movement of attention can also help with disturbing body sensations. Move attention to the sensation and experience it directly, without naming it or trying to get rid of it. Just feel it completely for as long as you can.
You can alternate between moving attention to the sensation of breathing and moving attention to the disturbing sensation in your body. Experiment.
Please let us know how this unfolds for you. It is often the case that a person will start the practice, not notice immediate results, and "forget" all about it. We assure you, the process will go on subconsciously, even if you think it is not working. And if you are not aware of what is happening to you, it is very likely that you will face mental, and sometimes physical, difficulties all alone. It is very important to keep in touch, to connect with others who are going through the same process. Our community is spread around the world. Connecting with others who can understand what you are going through brings encouragement and confirmation.
Since there are many people who write asking for help, it is best to post your reports and questions in our discussion forum. We read every posting and reply when needed. And there are many people writing there who have gone through the same process and they will be able to help you. Also, your reports and questions will help other people too.