Where Do You Place Your Attention?

The last few weeks have brought with them some events that seemingly arose out of left field. I felt side swiped, blindsided, caught unawares.

In hindsight, none of the events should have shocked me as they did. But they did, and that is a fact, and thanks to the extensive reading I’ve been doing about somatic awareness, I saw them as an opportunity to learn. And with that simple decision, I unlocked and nuanced a level of agency that had previously been unattainable.

We think it takes big leaps, big awareness, big moments to create deep and lasting change. I hope that my story will help you to see that there is so much value in the tiny movements. Sometimes the movements are so small we barely notice them ourselves. But the space they create is exactly what is needed to distance from our visceral reactive patterns and gain objectivity.

The events themselves are not important. What is important is that, as per Leon Vanderpol in A Shift in Being, “As an extension of egoic consciousness (our sense of separate self), the intellect’s reasoning capacity analyses, compares and sees the relationships between things, but it is not that which relates to things.” 

In other words, the mind will only tell you that X LOOKS like Y, but it won’t question the validity of that connection, or what it means. So when we buy in 100% to what our mind is telling us, we miss out on a whole wealth of information about what else could be true about a given situation. 

When these events occurred, each one entering with a certain level of passive aggressiveness, and in one case, an actual physical blocking of my passage, my mind told my body that the exact same thing had happened to me 15 years ago when I did experience a series of aggressive psychological assaults. If you’ve read Pete Walker’s Waking the Tiger, as I recently did, you’ll understand that trauma is not about what happened to you, but rather how you stored the memory of what happened in your body, and how that memory, or unreleased energy, got stuck in your body. 

My reaction to these recent events was so visceral. My vision narrowed, my heart started racing, my palms got sweaty, my legs were shaky, I felt sick to my stomach. My mind began churning angrily. I felt that I was on trial, and that despite the extent to which I’d followed the rules (as I understood them) I was going to be found guilty as charged, with no opportunity to be fairly heard. 

That reaction stayed with me. After each event, it eclipsed my vision for days. In the shower, a place where my mind runs into creation and normally engages in a constructive manner, I plotted revenge, I pleaded my case, I begged, I angered, as I recreated the initial shocks repeatedly without any true outlet to discard the energy that was trapped and building up in my being. In an attempt to be free of the thoughts, I instead fed and nurtured them, mindlessly, automatically. By participating in them without being able to objectively question their validity, I added to that particularly useless energetic pattern that was keeping me stuck in place, unable to move out of my trauma activation.

I’d wake up at 2am with the same dialogues clocking some serious speed, unable to get any perspective or fall back asleep. In the night I experienced terror and was deeply concerned that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids. When I got up in the morning, the terror was gone but I was exhausted and unable to focus well enough to feel any sense of accomplishment. I did the things I needed to do to resolve anything outstanding related to these situations, but I felt drained, depressed, listless, and could not connect with my aliveness.

Finally, I began to experience THE thing that will knock me out of any ruminative pattern quickly – self-loathing. I was so sick of myself, so sick of what I was feeling, so sick of feeling victimized, and so sick of the fact that I could not think my way out of a situation that I knew could not be anywhere near as serious as I was experiencing it.

Eugene Gendlin, American philosopher and author, pioneered a method called Focusing, which is a way of nuancing what he called the felt sense. He describes the felt sense the following way:

“A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time—encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail. Think of it as a taste, if you like, or a great musical chord that makes you feel a powerful impact, a big round unclear feeling.

A felt sense doesn’t come to you in the form of thoughts or words or other separate units, but as a single (though often puzzling and very complex) bodily feeling. (1981, 32-33)”

The majority of people, in Western societies at least, are walking disembodied heads. Most of us are unaware of sensation from the neck down unless it shows up in the form of acute pain. We respond to acute pain by suppressing it. Eventually, with enough suppression, the pain moves into an acute state, manifesting as chronic or deep disease. In the meantime, we give SO MUCH attention to our thoughts, our feelings, our racing mind, and we deeply judge our inability to regulate pesky expressions that make us feel unpleasant feelings. This society values intellect and not much else, and the result of this focus on only one aspect of our complex being means very few of us are really and truly well in our bodies and our minds.

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True to form, when everyone is saying there is only one way to be, I get suspicious. And so, I made a choice, after a number of days feeling like my mind was running away with me and that I’d never get it back, to try something different.

I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the felt sense of these experiences and nuance them to connect with my deeper truth, with my knowing, and to the innate messaging of my body.

For decades I’ve been living with digestive distress. I won’t get into detail in this piece, but shortly after the initial incident I began to experience the feeling that my stomach was physically twisting. I had sharp pains and I’d burp, and this would give me a bit of relief before the pain resumed. It radiated through my chest into my back. I couldn’t relieve the pain that would come in waves, and this made it hard to sleep. My assumption when it comes to digestive issues is usually that I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t have, but this time I’d been on a very supportive carnivore regime that had relieved 99% of my daily symptoms, so I could be easy on myself about what I’d consumed. For the first time, I questioned if that twisting in my stomach had anything to do with the shock I’d experienced, or my trauma. 

It was time to be curious. And open-minded. And compassionate. So, when the awful thoughts arose, and my stomach began to twist, I moved into a space of acceptance of both. I did this by shifting my attention away from my very loud thoughts to my very painful stomach, and I kept my focus on my stomach. Every time it wandered back to my mind, I redirected to my stomach and focused on that curious twisting feeling. 

The result was that my stomach untwisted, and the pain went away. And when I tried to return to my mind because the pain was gone, I found it had calmed down and I could no longer connect with the urgency and the panic.

The racing thoughts would return, and I’d take note, but then I’d look to my body for what was surfacing.

 One time, as I was driving the kids home after a hot day of mini golf, I noticed a stabbing pain in my left butt cheek that wouldn’t go away. So, I directed my attention there. It stopped. 

Another time, while pushing myself up from the ground, my left wrist felt like it was going to collapse, a sensation I hadn’t experienced in quite some time. I focused my attention there.

In the meantime, the colour still hadn’t returned to my world. While my partner was going through something intense himself, I couldn’t find the capacity to connect with his pain, because I was so deeply attuned to my own. But I was so deeply curious about the process that I didn’t judge myself for a temporary lack of empathy. I made sure to clearly communicate my sate, to apologize for the unusual behaviour, and that was all I could do at that moment. That night, I was so tired from all the early morning awakening that I fell into a deep sleep. When I was woken at 4:30am by an overheating child, I felt my mind attempt to resume its unhelpful patterning, but instead of engaging with it I chose to focus on my very sore toe tips, a result of many instances of mild frostbite over the years. I fell back asleep, had a beautiful dream of deep connection with a baby, and woke up with the colour back in my world again.

I’d processed. I had lived out a cycle by engaging with the messaging of my body in a brand-new way. I’d sat with my internal chaos and connected with it from a place of non-judgement, using the sensations stored in and manifesting through my body in a rather organized and limited way. A process that would normally have taken two weeks to resolve (as evidenced by how long it normally takes my digestion to return to optimal after I experience a disruption) took less than a week. 

Now I can look at those situations, in retrospect, with objectivity. While I understand why they activated the responses within me that they did, I can no longer connect with how I experienced them in a meaningful way. My mind is calm, my body is still, and I can relate to the issues as they are, not as I assumed them to be.

The real test will come the next time something similar arises. It will come through an uncharged resolution of two of the outstanding issues, but I’ve release attachment to outcome on those and will allow them to unfold in a way that best serves my needs. 

The key words in this experience are attention – as in paying attention to where I directed my attention – and this idea that the felt sense, experienced as ONE thing, is actually made up of many nuanced aspects that we could benefit from taking the time to notice.  

As I sit here, writing this piece, I notice my toe tips aching, but also how peaceful and calm it is in my stomach. And I feel deeply satisfied because I chose another way to be.

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