by David Olmstead

Often in my work, client’s talk about their anxious thoughts and how they can’t seem to get out of their heads. My first answer is to try meditation. However, many clients don’t have success with meditation or find they have trouble making the time to sit in stillness. As I substitute, I recommend this practice from Gestalt psychology:

 

You can do this when you’re walking and it’s also nice to do while sitting still, especially in nature. First, whether walking or stationery, start to look at the environment around you, and try to be present with what you see without conceptualizing or labeling. Think of yourself as a preverbal child who is looking and taking in the world before the images were given names and definitions by the adults in your life.

As you look, try to be nonjudgmental and don’t label the things you see. If you see a tree don’t think of it as a tree. Just look at it and be curious. Inevitably, your mind will try its best to create meaning and concepts about the things it witnesses. As this happens, gently say to yourself “thought” and continue observing what’s in front of you without creating a story or meaning. Also, other thoughts will creep in. Some might be about things on your to-do list, an issue at work, an email you need to send, a memory from the past, etc. Just say, “thought” and return to your present observing self. You might have to say, “thought” 30 times in the span of one minute, This all depends on how active your thinking mind becomes during this exercise. That’s okay, and there’s no rule for how many times you say, “thought.”

When doing this exercise in stillness, and you look closer at the things around you, you might notice details you’d brushed by because of your conceptual mind and tendency to hurry past the intricacies and beauty of the things around you. For example, once when I was doing this exercise, I began to zoom into the bark on the side of a tree and noticed the tiny ecosystems full of life contained in the spaces between the tree bark. I’ve crossed paths with so many trees in my life but never saw one the way I saw this tree.

If you choose to do this exercise while walking, you might become aware of the beauty in your neighborhood or community that you’d overlooked. I used to do this exercise on my way to work when I took the Bart in SF. I realized that during my 4 -block walk to the Bart I was missing so much of the world around me because I was too preoccupied with the worries of my upcoming workday. Ultimately the worry I created was causing unnecessary stress to my nervous system and I was arriving to work in an ungrounded state. Once I started to observe my surroundings and be present with my environment, my nervous system settled and I was able to start the workday in a grounded and settled mindset.

 

 

*when saying “thought”, experiment with what works best for you. You don’t need to say it out loud. I like to silently mouth the word with my lips.