You Can’t Change What You Don’t Notice

By Duff McDuffee on November 9th, 2010 1

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)
  • visual
  • auditory
  • 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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35 responses to “You Can’t Change What You Don’t Notice”

  1. Angela says:

    Hi Duff,
    I've been interested in learning more about Buddhism for a while now but I'm not quite sure where to start. Could you suggest some resources that you have found helpful?

    • Hi Angela, thanks for the comment.

      That's a good question. Buddhism is a big religion with lots of aspects so I think it's best to jump in wherever catches your interest. I recommend a combination of getting some basic meditation instruction and beginning to practice while also studying and thinking about some of the philosophy. What has interested me may or may not be interesting or valuable to you, but here are some of my suggestions:

      Shinzen Young is an interesting teacher especially for the more practical aspects of meditation. He hosts "home retreats" by teleconference that are very inexpensive:

      Thich Nhat Hanh has many accessible little books on Buddhism. Years ago I enjoyed The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching:

      I like Pema Chodron quite a bit too. She has a number of good books like The Wisdom of No Escape and various others. I've found her perspective helpful for dealing with difficult times in life.

      Jack Kornfield's book A Path With Heart is quite good and wise.

      For learning mindfulness in everyday life and approaches to stress-reduction, Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn is good.

      I've gone on several 10-day intensive meditation courses with S.N. Goenka's "assistant teachers." These courses are donation-based and hosted all over the world. The courses are VERY intense but can be helpful for the right person:

      Let me know if you want any other suggestions.

    • Oh! And I almost forgot–a friend of mine produces an excellent free Buddhist podcast called Buddhist Geeks:

      Their archives contain many great interviews with Buddhist teachers. Not all are accessible to beginners, but many are.

    • @madyogi says:

      If you have some time to invest, I'd suggest Surya Das's Awakening the Buddha Within –… – That was my introduction to formal buddhism. Pema Chodron is great as well. Anything by Alan Watts also.

  2. Henway says:

    I tried some of these NLP-like techniques awhile ago. They do help produce short-term change, but not sure if they have any long term effect. One has to be aware to even apply these techniques at specific moments too.
    My recent post Camera Tips

    • Or perhaps you are not yet a master of your own mind. NLP techniques skillfully applied by someone who really understands the mind often have lasting effects. Unfortunately there is so much emphasis on quick change in NLP that people think learning how to do NLP is also quick, but in fact can take many years of diligent practice and study.

  3. @madyogi says:

    It's definitely true that you can't begin to break out of your prison until you realize you're actually in one. I don't know much about NLP, but from where I sit, what you pay attention to is one of the very few things in life you can actually control. That makes attention one of the most powerful transformational tools in the metaphysical toolbox.

    Question, Duff – Is it a goal of NLP to learn to change or manipulate your emotional state? Whether it is or it isn't, do you think there is any value in such an endeavor? It seems to me that we spend so much of our time mechanically repressing our emotions, trying to cover them up in the presence of others, or making them out to be something they aren't in an effort to "feel better." For me, mindfulness is about allowing my emotional state to be just what it is in any given moment, thereby feeling it more completely than ever.

    The techniques you outlined above are extremely valuable in that they can help you see how you mechanically react in relation to the world, and they open up the possibility of reacting differently down the road. This is the real value of looking under the hood – to create a gap between your actual experience and the experience prescribed to you by your social/biological conditioning.

    • Is it a goal of NLP to learn to change or manipulate your emotional state?

      NLP isn't a person and therefore doesn't have goals. Some NLP practitioners have the goal of changing/manipulating their own emotional state. I think there is some value in changing one's emotional state, but how you go about doing that makes all the difference. If you treat your heart and emotions as a machine, you'll end up with some very nasty side-effects. If however you treat your heart and emotions like an ocean and seek to understand the weather patterns and sail effectively, you can go to all sorts of interesting and useful places.

      I think mindfulness-based approaches overemphasize the value of just noticing one's emotions and correspondingly under-emphasize times when it's appropriate to change how one is thinking in order to change one's state. Mindfulness is the start and sometimes is enough. Sometimes you turn on the lights and the snake you thought you saw is actually a rope. But other times it really is a snake and you'd better know what to do about it besides just notice it as it is! Or to use the previous metaphor, it isn't enough to just be carried away by the ocean currents.

      • NLP isn't a person and therefore doesn't have goals.

        Ha! Of course: Guns don't kill people, I do!

        If you treat your heart and emotions as a machine, you'll end up with some very nasty side-effects.

        I'd argue emotions are quite mechanical, as are our reactions to them and our feelings related to them. The challenge in my practice has been learning to be more genuinely emotional — to feel my living experience more completely, and to avoid sterilizing it with intellectual story-telling.

        I think mindfulness-based approaches overemphasize the value of just noticing one's emotions and correspondingly under-emphasize times when it's appropriate to change how one is thinking

        I'd say you're spot on there. A lot of meditation is too passive to be really effective for most folks. It's a slippery slope, though. Trying to change one's own thinking can easily become a pathology itself.

        • Ha! Of course: Guns don't kill people, I do!


          Good point re: emotions being mechanical. What I was cautioning against is making emotions mechanically serve one's ego through some notion that one can attain complete control over one's emotional life.

          I totally agree that attempts to change anything—thinking, emotions, behaviors, natural environment, etc.—can be a pathology. Somewhere in the middle between control and acceptance lies wisdom, but it's hard to describe and teach. I tend to fall back on the Serenity Prayer.

  4. Mick Morris says:

    It really is amazing how much we miss in each and every day… and how much changes when you start to take notice.
    My recent post Is it out there

  5. Thanks for your comment, Frank! I think you may be one of the only readers who actually went through the exercise, so give yourself credit. 🙂

    Noticing is a good word, and I agree that it's key to use whatever words make the most sense to you.

  6. There is a phychotherapeutical technique that is particularly for learning one's inner self. Let me share it with all of you here since it is FREE.The technique is called Emoclear and its website is here:

    I have been using this technique almost daily since some months ago. I can tell you that it works amazingly. It has helped me learn a lot about my inner self, my own ego, my mad inner desire. I have discovered so much ego, wickedness, self-centeredness that I did not think I had so much before. Many of the thoughts and feelings that I have discovered are not new at all. Indeed, most of them had lied dormant in my mind. Some of them are my childhood painful memories. Being able to integrate these feelings and thoughts with myself again has helped me grow mentally. I can tell you that it really takes times, efforts, determination and courage to learn. In particular, courage is probably the most required quality to learn about oneself. It really takes courage and humility to discover and accept that our inner self can be much UGLIER than we think.

    What I can tell is this: in general, how one will grow mentally, and how one will be able to learn his inner self depends, really, on how much humble he is. The more humble and the more selfless he is, the more he is able to accept his current mental state. And the more he is able to accept, the more opportunity the mind is given to grow.

    I believe in the power of the mind to grow. The mind is just like muscle. If we feed him with the right training and the right opportunity to rest and grow. It will grow. What we need to do is really to be nonjudgmental to ourselves, accept who we really are, and from there learn to seek a new way to grow. This probably is the only way to grow. Ignoring our muscle and it will stop growing. Likewise, ignoring and rejecting oneself will only halt the mental growing process.

    • I've found EFT is a big hammer. It works primarily for emotional freakouts, but not so much for anything else. It is among a class of tools that siphon off emotional intensity which can sometimes be helpful. I think other tools are necessary once you've done that though. EFTers often are a bit overly enthusiastic (read: pushy) about proselytizing the EFT gospel too, and often don't have the subtlety of knowing when you need a screwdriver instead of a hammer.

      I'm glad you are finding it of benefit though. I say use whatever tool works for you.

  7. In fact, I did not follow the above technique letter by letter. I augmented it a lot. It is better to say that I am using my own version to monitor the state of my mind regularly. In any case, from my experience the following is true: a necessary (but probably not sufficient) condition for self learning is to be nonjudgemental on one's feeling. We need to stop criticizing ourselves like 'why am I feeling this way' or 'this thought should have been eliminated from my head!'. Once we stop criticizing and start to take observer-like stance to our mind, we are giving the mind an opportunity to speak and to release whatever residing there. And that's how we gain the 'message' from the mind.

    Anyway you are right. Use whatever works. Use whatever that is convenient and productive.

    • You are very much correct! To stop criticizing ourselves and simply to recognize what is actually occurring is a very powerful act.

      Good job modifying the technique to suit your needs too. I wrote what I did simply because I've encountered a number of "fundamentalist" EFTers who are overly rigid and not open to other approaches that may contradict the strict EFT method.

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