It has been proven we can hold as many as six thoughts in our conscious simultaneously. We are not typically in this state of clarity (or chaos!) but rather more often holding several random thoughts and emotions in our mind without particular focus or specific detail, yet all within our field of awareness. We can be listening to music, thinking about lunch, walking our dog, wondering where our car keys are, enjoying a coffee yet feeling an undercurrent of anxiety all at the same time. Our field of awareness is like a basket that can hold several thoughts and emotions concurrently as our mind is quite expansive and capable of remarkable multitasking.
We have the ability to proactively open the gates to expand our field of awareness but too often this field narrows with singularity when dealing with challenging emotions. When we feel anger, rage, fear or anxiety, these negative emotions are so charged that they take up all the oxygen. We lose our ability to focus on other events as our senses shut down. Ever eat a sandwich when you are super angry or anxious? You can barely taste it as the emotional charge is so dominant it blocks out other senses.
So how can we discover this larger field of awareness and gain greater focus? Mindfulness can lead us to this which, in turn, can change our relationship on how we manage stress and pain in our lives. Allow me to explore this further:
Mindfulness is living in the present moment, with awareness. It is seeing this moment as it unfolds now, nonjudgmentally, and without wrapping your story and emotions into it. It is a heightened state of consciousness, because you have to observe that you are aware that you are in the present moment. It is Awake Awareness. In other words, you need to recognize that you are not thinking about the future or reliving the past (the past has passed!) but rather awaken to your senses that are unfolding here and now. The paradox is it is not something you do, because Awake Awareness is already within you. Said another way, it’s not like putting on your rose-colored glasses but rather taking off your blinders! Peel off all that whirling noise buzzing around your mind to still it, to calm it, and you will expand your field of awareness. The transformation is you go from doing to being. Now let’s see how this changes our relationship to stress and pain.
Stress is wanting whatever the moment is to be something it is not. If you are stuck in traffic, the stress results from wanting this moment to be different (i.e., no traffic!). We may feel our bodies tighten up, we may go into road rage, clench the steering wheel and/or start driving recklessly. But if you can hold this moment in our field of awareness, and accept this situation, even though it is not desirable, you can reduce your stress immensely. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up and raising the white flag, but rather recognizing the actuality of it without getting wrapped up in your story. You’re still stuck in traffic with acceptance, but this heightened awareness allows for a clearer, more objective understanding of the moment without getting immersed in your story (i.e., I’m going to be late for work and therefore fired; there must be something wrong with me as I’m always late, etc). Acceptance just sees it all as it is, without drowning in the emotions and story we build around it. It is expansive when you are not immersed in it, creating more room in your Mind to allow for a larger landscape. With this new perspective, you broaden your field of awareness and see the stressful situation in a diminished sense.
This mindful expansion can help us deal with pain too. First, we must recognize pain and suffering are not necessarily the same thing. Yes, of course, we have all experienced physical pain and this pain is very real. But often our suffering is something greater than just the physical pain we feel. A lot of the time we are living in the story and emotion bundled up with the pain rather than just the actual experience. We tell ourselves we are falling part, we are old, we are broken, we will never feel good again. Anyone who has suffered with chronic pain may relate to this. But if we allow ourselves to investigate, to delve into our field of awareness, we can create a new relationship to this pain by seeing the thoughts and emotions that are tangled up with it. You will still feel the pain but you are no longer immersed in it, no longer creating an identity with it. The pain itself loosens its hold on you as you can now see it no longer defines you.
Expanding my field of awareness has been transformational for me in how I manage stress and pain in my life. Too often, my initial reaction is to push away the stress and pain but through Awake Awareness, I lean into it to investigate what is going on in my mind. As Robert Frost wrote, the only way out is through. Explore your stress and pain with an openness, a gentle curiosity, to see the larger picture enveloped around it. This newfound field of awareness can help minimize the negative impact stress and pain can have on you by broadening your perspective and reaction to it.