This exercise originated in the early Christian monastic tradition. It has no theological content and can be attempted by anyone interested in a truly breathtaking experience of direct perception.
The actual directions are quite simple. Find a small object you can hold easily in your hand. I recommend a twig, a small stone, a leaf, or some other object from nature that you can hold for a while without it wilting. Be sure it’s something you find emotionally neutral; avoid anything to which you have a strong reaction, pro or con. Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed for at least half an hour. Sit down, relax, and look at your object. Don’t stare, just look. Try not to become overly carried away by your thoughts. Don’t fight your thoughts, but instead, when you can, come back to the present and pay attention to the object. Keep looking at it until your perception shifts. (When it happens, you’ll know it.) That’s it.
Here’s what’s going on. Normally, when you and I look at something, we don’t see it as it is; we see our biases and conclusions about it. Let’s say you’ve chosen to do this exercise with a small stone. When you first look at the stone, you actually engage in an internal dialog in which you think about everything this rock reminds you of. As you’ll discover later, while you believe you are looking at the stone itself, you are actually rehearsing your thoughts about the stone. Looking about the stone forms a kind of background music that you mostly ignore while you have one thought after another. Note that you can’t turn off your thoughts through force of will. You just have to wait until your thoughts stop on their own. That’s what can make this a frustrating exercise for some people: you simply have to hang in there until the result you want happens by itself.
It’s a little like falling asleep. We can’t make ourselves fall asleep; we can only set up the right conditions and wait for sleep to happen. Some nights, when we feel well and are not distracted or upset, we’ll fall sleep quickly. Other nights we just have to wait.
Mostly this exercise is a test of your patience and frustration tolerance. Can you wait until your thoughts calm down on their own? Can you stay with it without becoming angry? Will you give up before anything happens? There’s nothing to do but look at the rock or twig or leaf without staring and hang in there. Pay attention to the object and try not to let yourself become too preoccupied by your thoughts. You may find you can’t do this all in one sitting and will have to practice over several sessions.
What can you expect when your perception shifts? You’ll experience the object you’re holding completely differently. It will fill your awareness, and you’ll find a pure joy in just looking at it. You’ll realize it’s only what it is, but it is the only one just like it in the universe—just as each snowflake is unique. You’ll appreciate it enormously and feel grateful for its existence.
What does all this have to do with treating pain? Sometimes, part of what keeps our pain in place is we never question our assumptions about the pain. We’re so preoccupied by our ideas that we never stop to find out if any of it is true. Many people discover that when they stop struggling and fighting and trying to impose themselves on their pain, it diminishes all by itself. You may learn that your pain is completely different from all your ideas about it, and when you find out what is really going on, your pain shifts and becomes less of a problem.