Gerald Grow's Website
A gentle, positive exercise for clearing some space in the
Freely adapted from Ernest Wood's book, Yoga (Pelican, 1959)
by Gerald Grow
One of the most important things in learning -- and in life
-- is the ability to pay attention when attention is required.
This is a simple exercise I teach that helps students clear a
space in their busy minds to let something new come in. I learned
it because I needed it myself.
Think of the mind as an old roll-top desk with a row of little cubbyholes in it. You can stick something in a cubby, and, when you need it, you can pull it out, spread it on the desktop, and look at it.
Sometimes, though, the desktop becomes cluttered, and all the cubbyholes get filled. Then, before you can bring in something new, or even pay attention to something old, you have to clear some space on your desktop.
This is a gentle, positive exercise for clearing some space in the mind.
If you are leading a group in this exercise, first tell them this will take however long you have alloted (start with 10 minutes). Also assure them that what they write now is private: They will not be required to share it with anyone.
Sit with pencil and paper. Allow your eyes to rest gently on the blank paper. Pay attention to what you are experiencing. When something comes to mind (a thought, an emotion, a memory, a sensation), follow this direction very carefully:
Write down just enough that,
if you wanted to,
you could remember what you just experienced.
Then let that experience go, and return to letting your eyes
rest gently on the paper. This is important: Do not think about
what you wrote. Do not analyze it. Do not resist it or fight it
or try to change it. Do not connect it with anything. Simply accept
it, note it, and let it go. Then return to an open receptiveness
to your present awareness.
To keep yourself from being drawn into the words on the paper, and the thoughts behind them, rotate the page about 15 degrees after writing each thing, so that, as you write more, the words appear on the page as a roughly circular series of jottings.
If a thought recurs, just put a check by it. If it keeps recurring, sit with it a while to make certain you have noted enough about this experience so that you could fully remember it if you wanted to. Then let it go and return to an open-ended focus on your present awareness.
Continue doing this for 10 minutes.
When you have the time, continue the exercise as long as thoughts keep coming. Then continue an open focus for about 5 minutes after the last thoughts came to you.
When leading this with a group, ask them what their experience
was, searching to see if they feel afterwards that they have more
I recommend that students use this mind-clearing exercise before any activity that requires full attention--such as an exam, an interview, or a date.
This is a very simple, pencil-and-paper example of the kind of exercise taught in the Vipassana school of Buddhism. For a detailed account, see Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart (Bantam: 1993).