How easy is it for a mechanic to fix a car without popping the hood? Virtually impossible. You can’t expect to change something you have no awareness of whatsoever. Most people have no awareness of their own inner, subjective experience, so they correspondingly can’t figure out how to make the changes they want to their thoughts and emotions (which then influence their behaviors). This is why the foundation of all inner change is mindfulness, also called paying attention.
Many times we are trying to fix our lives without popping the hood. Talking about why something might be going wrong and the guessing at solutions is purely hypothetical until we take a look inside. The first step is to simply become aware of what’s actually happening. The good news is that this isn’t really very hard, although it can take some courage and a willingness to learn.
Experience comes to us by means of our senses which are typically thought of as seeing, hearing, feeling/touching, smelling, and tasting. (There are actually several more senses now considered to be primary by Cognitive Science like balance and proprioception, but this list is a good enough summary for our purposes.) Our inner experience also consists of our senses, but has some additional components: bodily sensations; emotions, states, and moods; mental pictures and movies; internal dialogue, music, voices, and sounds; concentration, clarity, equanimity, and other aspects of mind itself; and “space.” Some people can also remember particular smells and tastes, but for most people the inner senses of smell and taste play a very small role compared to seeing, hearing, and feeling. Also, many people don’t notice the background of awareness or “space” at all unless they’ve practiced meditation for many years or have some natural inclination, so this is generally not a part of NLP-based brief therapy techniques, but does play a significant role in various mindfulness and Buddhist meditation techniques.
What is Inner Experience Made Of?
We can summarize our inner experience as roughly made up of the following components:
- kinesthetic (also known as somatic or physical)
- emotional (some lump this into kinesthetic)
- qualities of mind itself
- space (in which inner sense objects appear and disappear, aka “awareness”)
We can also talk about categories, but these function as clusters of the above and/or “abstract” versions. We won’t discuss those for the moment since they are more “meta” than direct sensory experience.
In NLP jargon (NLP standing for Neuro-Linguistic Programming), each specific sense is called a “modality.” So we perceive through the modalities of sight, hearing, touch, etc. and also have internal and external modalities. For example, right now you can see the screen you are reading this article on, but you can also close your eyes and recreate that picture in your mind’s eye. Smaller aspects of modalities are called “submodalities.” Submodalities are things like brightness, size, and location for the visual modality, or pressure, temperature, and vibration for the kinesthetic modality. We should be clear here to mention that these are ways to describe how things appear to you in your subjective experience, not objective measurements.
Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities describe how we experience the content of our subjective experience, and their submodalities can be said to constitute the basic structure of subjective experience. We can however describe the content our experience separately from the structure. For instance, you can right now imagine a picture of a big ferocious dog barking behind a gate. Now without changing the content of the picture, shrink the whole picture smaller and smaller until it’s the size of a postage stamp. By changing the structure of subjective experience in this way, we can change how we feel and behave in response, and this is usually far easier than changing the content directly. But before we can do any of that, we have to be aware of our experience in the first place.
Here’s a mindfulness exercise for you to try right now:
Without changing anything, just notice the current state of your physical body, especially the following…
- energy levels: are you energized, tired, neutral?
- muscular tension and relaxation: are you tense overall or relaxed? Which muscles specifically are tense and which are relaxed?
- alignment: is your spine upright and long, hunched over, twisted to the right or left, bending to either side?
- breath: is your breathing deep or shallow? Is it slow or fast? How many seconds is an inhale vs. an exhale? Are there pauses between inhale and exhale, or between exhale and inhale? Is the breath smooth or jerky? Is it the same every breath or does it change? Are there any sighs, sudden inbreaths or other variations to the breath? Is the breath in the upper chest, abdomen, lower belly, all three?
- pressure: notice the pressure of your body against the surface you are sitting, standing, or lying upon. Notice specifically where your body contacts the surface and where is does not. Also notice any other inner or outer pressure you feel in your body currently.
- size: for any particular somatic sensation, notice how big or small it is.
- temperature: notice any sensations of hot or cold on or in your body.
- vibration: notice if there is any vibrating sensations on or in your body. How fast are they vibrating?
- movement: notice if there are any sensations that are moving—the rise and fall of the breath in the chest or abdomen, movements of subtle vibration, flows of sensation from one place to another, etc.
- location: scan your body head to toe and note where you feel what. How does your face feel? Your chest? Your toes?
- anything else?
With any of these aspects of our somatic experience, we can also ask “to what extent?” or “how much?” We can even use a 1-10 scale if we want more precision (e.g. I’m a 3 of 10 in terms of energy levels).
Now recall a pleasant, positive experience. It doesn’t matter whether you remember a memory from long ago, or something that happened today or last week. It also doesn’t matter whether it was a time you felt proud, or delighted, happy for no reason, satisfied or excited. Any positive, pleasant experience will do. As you remember that experience, make sure to step into it fully, as if it’s happening again. In your mind’s eye, look through your own eyes (as opposed to seeing yourself over there form the 3rd person perspective), and make the image rich, vivid, detailed, etc. If you can’t get a clear mental picture, that’s ok, just get a sense of the experience.
Now, as you recall this positive pleasant experience, notice the current state of your physical body again using the same checklist. What’s different? What’s the same as before? What in your direct somatic experience constitutes the good feelings? For instance, perhaps you get tingling vibrations up your spine, or a warmth in your chest, or you let the breath go with an “ahhh.” Notice exactly what makes up this pleasant experience.
This is just checking in kinesthetically. We can also check in visually, auditorily, emotionally, notice the qualities of mind, or notice space/awareness itself. We can check in in-the-moment as we did in the first exercise, or check in to see what constitutes our experience as we remember something that happened before or think about something that we think may happen in the future. We can also discover the answer to “how do you do that?”–whether it’s something we like or don’t like–by noticing our inner experiences.
We can also consciously change these elements of our inner experience in many different ways. For instance, try consciously adjusting your body now—sit or stand upright with a tall spine as if your spine is being lifted effortlessly by a golden thread from the ceiling or sky, relax all unnecessary muscular tension in your body, allow your breath to deepen and relax, and make any other adjustments or movements you desire in order to feel more wonderful now. What did you change to adjust your state? Did it work or no?
Change vs. Acceptance
Sometimes if we just notice our experience with a curious, friendly awareness, problems will change automatically. Other times we can use our imagination to see, hear, and feel new possibilities, giving us more creative ways of moving through the world. We can also discover how other people do things successfully that we’d like to be able to do, learning how they see, hear, and feel in their inner world and try on their strategies to see if they fit for us or need some modifications. And finally, we can use the collective resources of others who have gone before us and utilize their discoveries in making the kinds of changes we want in our own lives.
Regardless of the methods employed, the foundation of change is mindfulness.
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