Note: I had planned to post a different Tuesday Tip today. But your feedback in the wake of last Friday’s post set me in a new direction. The question I heard was, how does a courageous soul enter wisely into pain?
Some years ago, I was talking to a graduate school friend who was completing his clinical psychology internship at a VA hospital. He was assigned to a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rotation, working with men and women scarred by the horrors of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were talking about the most cutting edge advances in treating PTSD, which is one of the deepest and most devastating of pains.
He told me, “Kelly, it starts with a raisin.”
He explained the first step in healing is cultivating an ability to be mindful and aware of our personal experience—to create space around our experiencing and to be attentive to every nuance and sensation within it. When you first attempt to do this, you have to start small. And you have to begin with something non-threatening. So, you start with a raisin:
- Begin by holding the raisin in front of you. For at least one minute, engage your visual senses in examining the raisin. Notice the light glinting off the ridges and the shadows in the valleys. Notice the shape and see the texture.
- Now, close your eyes and engage your sense of touch, for at least a minute. Roll the raisin around in your hands. Feel the texture. Notice bumps, dryness, stickiness, roughness, and smoothness. Don’t worry if you get bored or your mind wanders. That’s a normal part of our inattentiveness. When it happens, simply bring your mind back to the feeling of the raisin. Over and over.
- Now, with eyes still closed, raise the raisin to your nose. For at least one minute, smell the raisin. You might be surprised by the strength of the smell, or you might smell nothing. Either way, persist in being attentive. If other smells distract you, consistently return your attention to the raisin.
- Now slowly place the raisin on your tongue. Notice the sensations in your arm and mouth as you do so. Let the raisin sit on your tongue for a moment, and then use your entire mouth to feel and to taste the raisin, without chewing it. Notice the textures and tastes and the fact that your mouth is already watering.
- Slowly, every so slowly, begin to chew the raisin. Take a full minute to chew it. Notice the taste fill your mouth, notice flavors you had never attended to before. Notice the new textures as the inside of the raisin is exposed.
- Now, finally, take a minute to swallow the raisin. Position it slowly on your tongue to swallow. Notice your throat work to take it down. Follow the sensation of it descending as long as you can. And slowly, increasingly, become aware of your entire body.
You just took more than five minutes to eat one raisin!
This kind of focused attention has a way of making small experiences big, and big experiences small. In other words, engaging your senses like this on a normal summer day can become a grand experience, as you are swept away in the range of sensations: breeze on your skin, leaves rustling in the trees, the hum of a mower in the distance, the smell of freshly cut grass and blooming flowers, the taste of pollen in your mouth.
But it can also be a first step toward making the big, scary, painful experiences small— they become something we can attend to within a quiet and safe space. Instead of the feelings overwhelming us, we can learn to go deeply into them.
About the Blog: This exercise is often referred to as an eating meditation. Meditation is a term with many connotations but in psychology simply means: the attempt to fully focus attention on an experience or set of experiences for a period of time. It could be a raisin. Or a feeling. The choice is ours. For more about mindfulness and meditation, you might be interested in Mindfulness for Beginners, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.
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Photo Credit: Photo taken from this website.