When a person has experienced trauma or is under stress, attention can become hyperfocused. Body sensations, thoughts, intrusive images, and memories may come to dominate awareness.
If you are petting your adorable rescued senior exotic shorthair cat, hyperfocus is anything but problematic. You can feel his teddy bear soft fur on the pads of your fingers, see his amber eyes gazing longingly at yours (or into the kitchen at the bowl of temptations on the counter). Hyperfocused attention is not a de facto problem. In fact, learning to direct attention towards soothing and grounding sensations is the cornerstone of good safe trauma therapy.
However, hyperfocus does become problematic when it is outside of our control. We feel suddenly hot, an intense wave of nausea overcomes us, a disturbing memory from the past penetrates awareness insistently like an ice pick, feelings of guilt toss and turn us like fish in an angry surf, we can’t shake profound feelings of unease, negative thoughts pummel us from the inside out. In these moments we are filled with experience, seemingly from something outside of ourselves, and this experience is often uncomfortable.
David A. Treleaven describes focused attention as akin to a flashlight. When we are full of intrustive sensations, thoughts, and feelings, it is as though the flashlight is shining in one spot alone. A beady burning beam of light grilles us and nails us to the spot.
Now, what if you could take this flashlight and, without denying your experience, just disperse the light slightly, so that it could shine in two places at once? Imagine the way that a little less light could decrease the intensity and discomfort. How do we do this?
This ability to shine light in two places at once is sometimes called dual awareness. Babbette Rothschild terms these two places the experiencing self and the observing self. The experiencing self is the piece of awareness that feels and can at times become overwhelmed by sensation. The observing self is the piece of awareness that witnesses this overwhelm. It sees the experiencing self and it can notice, hopefully without judgement or forcefulness, what is happening. The observing self can stand back and observe, without getting wrung out, without being churned up and getting lost in the sauce.
Cultivating dual awareness can be done through mindfulness. If you are looking for a place to start cultivating mindfulness and dual awareness, John Kabat-Zinn is a good resource. Babette Rothschild provides a wonderful description of dual awareness along with suggestions about how to practice in her fantastic book The Body Remembers.
The basic instruction for cultivating dual awareness is to begin to notice when you are getting churned up, when the beam is directed squarely and intensely on uncomfortable sensations and thoughts. When you notice this, without supressing or repressing, visualize the observing self. Perhaps they are standing on a small outcrop of rocks, looking into the wild sea. Continue to visualize these two selves, without judgement, as they operate simultaneously within you.
As the venerable Pema Chodron writes: “You are the sky, the rest is just weather”. Work in training the observing self to watch the weather, to observe the experiencing self at the centre of the storm. This is the light of dual awareness and it is a critical component of learning to relate to distress and discomfort.