What You Notice & What You Don’t
I recently began work with a client who reached out because somebody told him that — due to his persistent lack of focus, fatigue, and negative loops — he might have trauma stuck in his body. If you’ve read my stuff before, you no doubt know that I’m not without a few opinions on the matter of “trauma” being “stuck” in any localizable place in the body.
However, my role isn’t to tell him that.
I have to work with what he brings me, so I asked him to tell me more — without worrying whether it made sense or not. I noticed that he crossed his arms, raised his shoulders, and looked to the right the entire time he described his situation. Of course, he and you and I might have very different experiences of that shape, but if I put myself into it, I feel guarded, on edge, and closed off from my surroundings.
After he finished talking, I asked him if he noticed anything physically as he described it.
“Nothing,” he began (remember that “nothing” is always something in the world of information). “I guess I notice that I don’t notice anything about my body. Yeah. That seems weird, but I guess I feel fine.”
Attention is a funny thing.
There are parts of the body that are clear aspects of the self-image, and there are places that somehow don’t seem to fit — often those places with a history of injury or disuse. There are thoughts that seem like thoughts we’d think, and then there are thoughts that alarm or unsettle us, leaving us wondering, “Who’s doing the thinking here, anyway?”
Again, there’s what we notice and what we don’t.
Perhaps you know that there are two primary modes of attention, one specialized for “parts” and the other specialized for “wholes,” each directed by half of the brain. You may also know that what we are able to notice is modulated by our individual history. Based on what we’ve experienced, we inhabit very different phenomenological worlds. Through a process called “sensory gating” the world that we perceive often conforms to our expectations of the world — certain information is actually blocked from our awareness by processes outside of direct conscious control.
This creates a strange loop.
Because our actions are in-formed by our perceptions, we’re capable of enacting a world that con-forms to our expectations. We become more likely to notice confirmatory evidence, setting ourselves up to be mired in a self-validating experience of the world.
It makes me wonder…
There’s an idea that where we direct our attention determines what we become. If we read dense nonfiction or free-wheeling poetry, those texts will change the way we organize our own thoughts, and if we watch cartoons all day, we won’t be quite as likely to engage in rigorous debates.
Seems reasonable, right?
And yet I can’t escape the thought that this implies our attention is ours to give. Who hasn’t had the experience of getting sucked into the doom scrolling of social media or news aggregators for far longer than they’d like? Who hasn’t had the experience of staring off into space, unable to piece together a coherent thought for the life of them?
Often it seems that — rather than paying attention — attention is paid through us.
I find that this is an incredibly fruitful tendency to observe.
What gets noticed?
And what goes unnoticed?
After all there are things we tend to notice and things that we don’t. And through a peculiar feature of information, the things that we tend to notice can help us identify those things that we don’t; each bit of information tells us both something positive (what it is) and something negative (what it isn’t). The contours of each provide a rich source of change and development in our lives. Certain patterns emerge in our attention and help create outlines around those things that habitually escape our attention.
Oftentimes with clients I feel as if we’re walking a convoluted path, circling around and around a particular point — some point at once repulsive and strangely compelling. It’s a point that seems to defy attention yet make itself known through its very absence. As a rule, it’s these places that clients habitually don’t notice that lead to the biggest changes in their lives.
If you think back to the brief example I gave earlier, you can imagine that my client likely has a lot in store for him if he’s able to bring attention to his bodily sensations.
The unknown is a source both of risk and of reward for us.
As we know, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Therefore when we notice what we haven’t noticed, it’s important that we establish a basecamp of sorts. We want to establish a place of security to which we can retreat if we find that we’ve ventured too far into the not-yet-known. This is built into many somatic practices as a “grounding” or a “referent.” I think of it as the security that we find around the glow of the campfire on a dark night. We wouldn’t simply rush off into the woods beyond the firelight without adequately preparing ourselves, would we?
Quite often when working with clients who experience chronic pain, I’ll encourage them to pay particular attention to a place that isn’t painful before attempting to work with a place that is.
They may find a safe haven of sorts in their left earlobe, the one place that doesn’t seem to be in pain, or perhaps they find that the connection of their feet to the ground offers a point of stability. As we begin to navigate the places they’ve historically not noticed, I’ll encourage frequent trips back to the base camp, creating many opportunities to notice “this” and “that,” many opportunities to pendulate between “known” and “unknown” or “safe” and “risky.”
Through this repeated experience of perception of difference, a person is able to learn to reconcile those differences, finding greater and greater proficiency in navigating back and forth between them. Gradually a sense of connection begins to develop, in which the two places may still feel like separate entities but they’re part of the same system.
This, in my view, is of the utmost importance.
We’ll always be left with a gap between what we notice and what we don’t. We never fully drain the unnoticed of its mystery — nor perhaps would we want to. But the practice seems to be finding some way to hold the possibility that the unknown and unnoticed is as much a part of us as is the known and noticed. It seems to me that as we come to better understand what we notice and what we don’t, we learn something about our habitual use of attention — perhaps we are able to make sense out of the why and wherefore of the way we think and feel and act.
Knowledge, of course, by its very definition is always incomplete.
Science doesn’t claim totality — not good science anyhow.
And it seems to be that the more available we are to be surprised by ourselves, the more vital we become. Those surprises always lurk in the not-yet-noticed: in the slips of the tongue or the pauses between words, in the numb areas of the body right at the horizon of attention.
How we approach that horizon sets the very limits of our lives.
Originally published on The Ecosomatics Institute Blog