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Self-Directed Attention Exercise

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After looking at yourself for the first time, 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 through 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 that may be present in your mind, as a means to develop a natural skillfulness in the intelligent use of this power.

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.

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 in-breaths or 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 watch 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.

You may want to do just that the first time. And if it seems to you that you can't feel the sensation of the breath, continue trying. Focus your attention on the tip of your nose. 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. 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.

This is completely normal. Don't be discouraged. Don't push yourself too hard. Be patient with yourself. 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 minutes 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. Your only purpose with 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 instructions here.

How to Use Self-Directed Attention in Your Daily Life.