Focused Absence – a simple practice to reduce stress and regain control

A scene in a rather common movie shows something highly unusual. In a glass front condo next to the sea, a heated debate takes place among a group of cops. Calmly, the camera cuts to the hero’s face. And while the voices in the room get muted, he looks briefly out of the window. For three seconds, through his eyes, we watch the silence of the sea. Then he returns to the chatter in the room.


Surprisingly, this scene is not a narrative device. The hero’s gaze is not connected to the story; his absence does not give us anything that would be built on later. His mind just rests on the ocean and so does ours along with him. What we witness here is rare for such a film: It is a deliberate gap in the story. And almost without noticing, we feel a faint detachment and relief for the rest of the film.


Now, how is this related to our work-life balance? Like the hero in the movie, we are always living in stories, in smaller or bigger ones: Having to finish a paper in time, sitting through a tiring meeting, being stuck in a traffic jam. In cases like these we are caught in a journey. Like rolling on rails we know our destination and we get stressed or bored while on our way along with the feeling of being trapped.


To just drop the task might not be possible. And there might be no time to meditate or to exercise mindfulness for some relief. Of course, distraction is always an option: to doodle, to turn on the radio. But distraction, as comforting as it might feel, just disperses our energies and, in the long run, undermines our ability to focus.


However, to slip through the lines of a burdensome story and to create a moment of composure, Berlin Alley recommends a simple technique. Let’s call it “focused absence”.


And here is how it works: While being stuck in your story, pay attention to a random detail, like the hero in the movie. For a start, focus on a sensation. How does your little finger on your keyboard feel? What’s the voice like that you hear? How does your chest feel, now that you are stressed? Alternatively, you could make a random observation in your surroundings and stick to it for a little while: What about the shape of your coffee cup? Or the head of the person next to you? What are they like? Are they alike?


So, for a moment, delve into one of these details. Feel, perceive and think – focus, but do not judge. Then, after a couple of seconds, return. – Simple, right? Yes, but not too simple: Less than a reflection and more than just day-dreaming, focused absence grants you three things: First, a brief and relieving absence from your story; second, a tender moment with a tiny thing you would have missed; and third and most importantly: A glimpse of a freedom you were about to lose.


Of course, these little moments do not break the spell of your grander schemes. This you would have to change somewhere else; you will still have to finish that paper or get through that traffic jam. However, by pausing the noise and annoyances of your duties, by resting your focus on an unlikely bit, along with an experience of ease, a sense of freedom emerges. Practiced regularly, focused absence contributes to our ability to see things in a new light, a light whose difference is by itself a betterment.


For more information on Focused Absence, just talk to us or join one of our workshops where we offer many other techniques to improve productivity and well-being. – The movie is “Miami Vice” by Michael Mann, if you want to see for yourself.