May 8, 2003

This Is Your Wake-Up Call

by Gregg Krech

During the mid-1980's I spent a season traveling with the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I was responsible for recording, editing and producing tapes of his lectures. He's a wonderful teacher -- gentle, compassionate and kind. During his retreats he would ask someone to take responsibility for ringing the "bell of mindfulness." On several occasions I had this honor. It was a simple responsibility that required only the ringing of a small bell from time to time throughout the day. When we heard the sound of the bell, we were asked to bring our attention back to our breath, a common instruction for meditation. You might be walking, reading, eating a salad, or even listening to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh himself. Then the bell would ring and you would take a breath and just notice the "in" breath and then the "out" breath.

For most of us there isn't a mindfulness bell dinging throughout the day, so Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that we find "cues" in our daily life that we could think of as a bell. One of those cues was a telephone. And even 15 years later, I often find myself pausing when the phone first rings and taking a breath before answering it. (If you call the ToDo Institute and I answer on the first ring I probably didn't do this.)

This was one of my first lessons in shifting attention but it was also a lesson in using sound in the world, an external cue, to "wake me up."

A few years later I was giving a student of mine an assignment to keep a journal similar to that kept by patients of the psychiatrist Shoma Morita (Reynolds, 1984). The person keeping the journal was to make entries at random times throughout the day. An entry consisted of writing down the exact time, what one was doing at that moment, and what one was feeling at that moment. This can be a useful method of learning to distinguish between feelings and behavior. But one of the limitations of the exercise was that the journal writer would first consciously select the moment for making an entry, therefore interrupting the natural mental process. It's comparable to taking photos of people where everyone is always posing and smiling. It doesn't give you a very realistic view of what people are really doing. But if you could take photos of people when they were simply going about their business, then you would get a more accurate representation of their normal activity.

So I began lending people my watch and setting the timer for 55 minutes. After 55 minutes, the timer would beep and one could try to capture (photograph) one's internal experience at that very moment. What was I thinking just now? What was I feeling just now? You could also "photograph" your external experience. What was I doing at that very moment? In more recent years the ToDo Institute obtained a "bird clock" -- each hour, on the hour, a different bird would chirp. During training programs I would often have people use the chirping bird as their external cue. Each time you hear a bird chirp, that's your cue to take a picture of yourself. A common mistake people make is to describe their internal experience in great detail, but to describe their behavior in general terms. For example, a person would hear the watch beep and state that at that moment they were reading or, perhaps, cooking dinner. After reviewing the journal entry I would ask them to provide greater detail the next time.

Sitting on the sofa with my lower back pressed against a pillow, my right leg crossed over my left thigh, holding the book in my lap between my thumb and forefinger of my right hand and the palm of my left hand resting on page 112.

To describe your body/behavior in such detail you must pay attention to the details of what you are actually doing when you hear the beep or chirp.

As time went on I found additional uses for this external "wake up call." I would set my timer to go off regularly and then use it to note what I was paying attention to at that moment. This gave me a record of how often my attention was self-focused and how often it was focused on the world around me. Since my goal, in general, is to try to pay more attention to the world around me rather than my internal ruminations and emotional ups and downs, this exercise gave me some feedback on how I was doing. I also learned some things about my attention. For example, I found that my attention was more likely to be self-focused when I was in familiar environments and more likely to be focused on the world around me when I was in unfamiliar environments (for example, traveling). Regardless of where my attention was at the time of the "beep" I would use that beep-moment to look around me, to notice what I hadn't noticed, and to wake up to the richness and aliveness of my surroundings.

Psychologist Ernest Mastria, one of the few therapists who work directly with clients on their attentions skills has developed a method of shifting attention he calls The Four Points. He views attention as habitual and believes that many mental health problems are a result of a "bad habit" of attention. So his Four Points technique is intended to replace the bad habit with a good one. His main purpose, consistent with Morita's, is to help people shift their attention towards their environment. The four steps to this technique are:

1. Deliberately orient yourself to time and place. Where are you? Look around. What day is it and what time is it?

2. Use one or more of your five senses. Notice the painting on the wall. Listen to the sound of the keys on your keyboard as you type. Feel the texture of the embroidered pillow on the sofa next to you.

3. Be active. Do something with your body. Engage in some deliberate behavior. Get a drink of
water. Fold your clothes and put them away.

4. Focus only on what is available to your senses. Make the focus of your mind what is happening right now, in the present moment. Ground yourself in the reality of the perceivable world, here and now.

I've found Mastria's technique very useful, particularly in times of great anxiety and stress. You may wish to try using this method in response to any external cue.

The electronic sounds that filled the world are not always pleasant. When I was in Saigon I was surprised to find that everyone (really, everyone!) has a cell phone. The phones ring with little songs, the first line or two just chiming over and over again until you answer the phone. After a while, this can be somewhat irritating as there seems to be no escape from the chorus of beeping cell songs. But there is nothing inherently irritating about any sound. It is simply that our minds are attracted to, or have an aversion to, a particular sound. When I first began meditating, twenty five years ago, I would get very agitated if someone in the room was frequently sneezing, coughing or clearing their throat. My frustrated mind would say, "How am I supposed to concentrate on my breath when I'm interrupted so often." But my Zen teacher suggested that I simply use the sound of a cough to bring my attention back to my breath. The cough was a wake-up call, not a distraction. I remember this sometimes when I'm on a plane or in a restaurant and I hear the sound of a baby screaming and crying nearby. The mysterious life force that keeps that baby's heart beating and my heart beating is the same. The cry of that child who isn't getting what she wants is the same as my mental cry when life isn't going the way I want it to. Even if I find the crying irritating, to be irritated is to be alive. What a gift it is to be alive, to be capable of being irritated. In my better moments, I am grateful to be irritated. In other moments, I am simply irritated.

Sometimes the sounds of the world around me provide the most exquisite and timely wake-up call possible. On New Year's Eve my wife and I had fallen asleep on the soft, green couch in the living room. I had just returned from Vietnam, which has a 12 hour time difference, and my body clock was in a state of utter confusion. I awoke to a chaotic racket that sounded like it was just outside the living room. I quickly realized that it was a symphony of coyotes performing for Linda and I as we made the journey from one year to the next. I looked up at the clock and it was exactly midnight. Around me were the soft lights of the Christmas tree, the flickering of a fire in the wood stove and the peaceful face of my wife in slumber. I took a deep breath and inhaled that perfect moment. Then I exhaled. Thanks, coyotes, for our wake up call. Happy New Year to you as well.

We think of a wake up call as a rare service -- something we ask for when we're traveling and staying in a hotel. Something we arrange to happen first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, our minds often drift back to sleep, to mindlessness, many times a day. But we can use sounds as wake up calls to help us reconnect to life around us. Think of that beeping watch as a coach prompting and pushing you to exert yourself -- not your body, but your mind. That little beep isn't just a beep, it's a coach firmly challenging you. "Where was your attention just now? Where did that noise come from? Quick! Look over there! What do you see?" This little coach is perfectly quiet for 54 minutes. Then he jumps out and startles you, coaxing you back to the reality of your surroundings. Encouraging you to reconnect with the world around you -- the sometimes serene and sometimes chaotic nature of reality as-it-is. You can silence your coach with the gentle press of a button. But he's already done his job. He woke you up... at least for the moment.

Gregg Krech is a leading expert in Japanese Psychology and director of the ToDo Institute where he conducts certification training, workshops and seminars. He is the author of several books including the award-winning book, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection.

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
Reynolds, David. Playing Ball on Running Water. New York: William Morrow, Inc., 1984
Mastria, Ernest. The Habit of Living. Belmar, NJ: Ocean Publishing, 2000
Krech, Gregg. A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness. Middlebury, VT: ToDo Institute, 2001.
Lew, Jim. Chime for a Change. Stroudburg, PA: Pay Attention Press, 2001.

Posted on May 8, 2003 6:46 PM
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