This last exercise helps build our ability to be aware of our internal experience while also attending to whatever tasks we’re engaged in, not getting rigidly fixated on either.

While you’re engaged in some task, say gardening or a household chore, keep paying attention to what you’re doing but also shift some focus to what’s going on inside your body. This is very much like focusing on both your feet. Allow any physical sensation to step forward but without grabbing all of your attention. Where do you feel this sensation? Notice the edges. What is the quality of the sensation? Hot/cold? Tense/calm? Throbbing/ constant? Tight/loose? Rough/smooth? Remember to stay with the activity as you do this.

Now bring your attention more fully again to the task, but also continuing to be aware of the sensation. How is the sensation related to the task? How are your feelings about the task, and your degree of focus on it, related to the sensation?

Your insides are reacting to the task, and your feelings about the task are impacted by that. Maybe you’re feeling deeply satisfied by seeing how well your flowers are growing and you notice that you have a physical internal sensation of pleasure even while you are also feeling some pain in your knees and arms. Or maybe you’re feeling bored with the task and you notice that you’re also feeling a slight sensation of hunger. It’s important that you allow your awareness of these interconnections to emerge from just shifting your attention around from inside to out and that you don’t start problem solving and giving yourself a rule-“I’ve got to find a connection!” This exercise is one of attentional focus, not of diagnosis. It helps us keep our attention limber so that we’re more fully present in the moment, with both our bodies and our minds. Over time, this helps us experience the present moment more fully, staying alert about whatever information may be presenting itself to us that can be useful, like that scent of roasting coffee my sailor friend picked up on.

Getting Present with the Past


One of the most difficult challenges in focusing on the present is that our minds are so often “hooked” by the past-memories, emotions, and thoughts are all embedded in our mental networks and easily triggered. A helpful way of reminding ourselves of these hooks is the acronym I’M BEAT. If you notice you are being pulled from the present moment, see if you didn’t just get hooked by Interpretations, Memories, Bodily sensations, Emotions, Action urges, and Thoughts of other kinds (such as predictions and evaluations). Once you make yourself aware of them, you are back in the present! Said another way, the way to get unhooked is to bring full awareness to the hook itself. Almost always you will find the hook inside the I’M BEAT list (which is not a bad acronym since without awareness, these reactions will beat you down). Here’s a great exercise for learning to counter the pull of the hook.

Deliberately bring a memory to mind and then say to yourself, “Now I’m remembering that….,” continuing the statement by briefly describing the memory in one short sentence. For example, you might say, “Now I’m remembering that my boss told me I would never amount to anything.”

As you do this, be on the lookout for any emotions triggered; any bodily reactions, such as a tightening of your gut; thoughts that may arise; or an urge to do something. Also be alert to other memories that might pop up. When you’re done with the statement of the memory, attend to these emotions, thoughts, and other sensations one by one, saying, for example, “Now I’m having the emotion of sadness.” If you had the thought, “That should never have happened,” you should state it as “I’m having the thought that that should never have happened.” If you lost track of the responses you wanted to describe, o back to the memory and restate it to capture them again if you go can. For other memories that pop up, go through the same exercise.

This simple phrasing “I’m having the thought that . . .” is a powerful means of bringing defusion into mindfulness, creating a little distance from our thoughts and emotions and impulses that allows us to be in the present moment with them. The thought or feeling may be about the past, or the future too, but by these tags you are alerting your mind that this reaction is occurring in the now. Cultivating that awareness develops a powerful habit of mind that can help us stay on course even when the most difficult memories, thoughts, and emotions present themselves.

Open Your Focus


Many attention practices teach you to narrow your attention, instructing you to focus on and repeat specific words (a mantra), or to look only at a small spot on the wall. But as I’ve been saying, it’s just as important to broaden your attention. One practice I rather like is called Open Focus. In this approach you consider entire sets of events at once (you have to soften the focus on any particular event to do this). The set can be composed of people, objects, sequences of thoughts, notes in music-really anything. Once you have a set you are interested in, focus on the physical or temporal space between the events: the physical space between objects, for example, or the empty gaps between thoughts or notes.

To clarify how to do this: look at the room you are in, focusing sequentially on specific objects. Then soften the focus on any particular object, and focus on the relationship (the “space”) between most or all of the objects in the room. With a few minutes’ practice of alternating between these two sets you’ll sense you’re using different attentional strategies. You can feel a softening and expansion of your attention as you adopt an open focus, and then a sharpening and narrowing as you focus on each particular object. A good way to practice this in daily life is during work meetings. In the next meeting you are in, see if you can flip back and forth between focusing on a specific speaker or listener and then on all the attendees at once.