A gentle, positive pencil-and-paper exercise for taking inventory and clearing some space in the mind.

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One of the most important things in life is the ability to pay attention when attention is required. This is a simple exercise to help you clear a space in your busy mind to let something new come in. I learned this exercise 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.

Getting Ready

Allow about 10 minutes for this exercise. You’ll need a quiet place to sit, plus paper and pencil (or something else to write with).

The Exercise

(1) Sit with pencil and paper.

(2) Allow your eyes to rest gently on the blank paper.

(3) Pay attention to what you are experiencing.

(4) When anything comes to mind (a thought, an emotion, a memory, a sensation), follow this direction carefully:

· Write down just enough that,

· if you wanted to,

· you could remember what you just experienced.

(5) 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 or elaborate on 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.

Remember: You are not trying to solve anything. You are just taking inventory.

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 unrelated jottings.

If a thought recurs, note it again or 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.

Why I think this works

One of the functions of the mind is, apparently, to re-mind you of things.

Your mind will hang on to a task, feeling, idea, puzzling incident, anxiety, etc., to remind you to pay attention to it later when you have the attention.

In many cases, all your mind wants is for you to notice what it is remembering for you. Then it can let that thought go.

When you do this exercise, you are inviting your mind to call up all the things it has been trying to help you with, to remind you of.

In the beginning, there may be quite a backlog. Thoughts, feelings, regrets, desires, etc., that you have been ignoring may come rushing out, all raising their hands at once, clamoring to be noticed.

Sometimes your mind can’t get your attention easily, so it becomes more insistent, even disruptive. Try to receive those intrusions as if they are an excited, upset child bursting into a room where adults are working. Be patient, be kind with yourself. Suspend judgment. Wait, watch, accept, listen.

After each insistent thought pushes through, note it down, then just say, “Thank you.”


You might use this mind-clearing exercise as a regular meditation, or before any activity that requires full attention — such as an exam, an interview, or a date.

If your mind brings up things that disturb you, talk this over with a mature friend or therapist. Don’t believe everything you think.

This exercise was freely adapted from Ernest Wood’s book, Yoga (Pelican, 1959). It is a simple, pencil-and-paper example of the kind of exercise taught in the Mindfulness school of meditation. For one of many good accounts, see Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart (Bantam: 1993).

Disclaimer: Everything does not work for everybody. Think that you picked up this exercise at the great flea market of ideas. Wear it if it fits.

Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at www.longleaf.net.

Written by

Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor, cartoonist, and photographer. More at longleaf.net.

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