What You Focus On Relaxes | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

What You Focus On Relaxes

A common idea in personal development circles is that “what you focus on expands.”  For instance, if you’re feeling sad, focusing your attention on your sadness will only make you sadder.  Instead, you need to distract yourself from your sadness by visualizing rainbows, playing with your cat, or doing something else to take your mind off what you’re feeling.

In my experience, the opposite is actually true.  I’ve found that, when I turn my attention toward an uncomfortable emotion, or a place in my body that’s tense, I actually find myself relaxing, and starting to put the discomfort into perspective.

Getting To Know My Back Pain

For example, as with many people, my lower back sometimes tightens up.  I used to buy the conventional wisdom that people just get “back pain” from time to time, and nothing much can be done about it short of taking medication.

Today, however, I have a practice for dealing with tension in my lower back that’s worked wonders.  I just focus my attention on the discomfort.  I get familiar with where it is, whether it’s sharp or dull, whether the painful area has a shape, and so on.  You could say I get intimate with it.

Does this practice “attract” more pain?  Not at all.  Instead, I usually find that the sensation I’m feeling begins to shift, and the tight spot begins to loosen.  By probing around in that area with my awareness, I get a sense of how I’m creating the tension, and often that’s enough to have the discomfort fall away.

Feeling Into “Bad Feelings”

I’ve had the same kind of experience when it comes to “negative” or “uncomfortable” emotions.  In our culture, we’re conditioned to think that, when we’re “feeling bad,” we should do something to push the feeling away — taking a warm bath, drinking alcohol, saying affirmations, or something else.

The trouble with running from an emotion we don’t like, in my experience, is that pushing it away actually puts it in control of our lives.  The “bad” emotion, not us, ends up in the driver’s seat.

Why?  Take boredom, for example.  When we’re working on a task and we start feeling the discomfort we call boredom, many of us are in the habit of automatically doing something to “take the edge off” — playing Solitaire on the computer, Twittering, or something else.

But here’s the problem:  if we, like Pavlov’s dogs, automatically surf the web every time we feel bored, that means our boredom gets to control our work schedule.  If we don’t have the ability to keep making progress in our work, even when boredom is coming up, we’re basically slaves to our boredom.

The solution for me has been, instead of turning my attention away from boredom, to turn toward it.  Just as I do with back pain, I get conscious of where the boredom is in my body, what it feels like (perhaps aching, itching, or tightness), and so on.

The more familiar I get with my boredom, the more comfortable I become with it.  It no longer feels so weird and disturbing — instead, it’s just another sensation I feel in my body from time to time.  And the more comfortable I get with being bored, the more I can choose to move forward in my work, even when boredom is arising.

I think it’s amazing how much we can do just by shifting the focus of our attention.

10 thoughts on
What You Focus On Relaxes

  1. Albert | UrbanMonk.Net

    Hey Chris – I think most people get confused by the distinction between “focusing on” as in allowing, and “focusing on” as in wallowing in it. The allowing lets it relax, the wallowing makes it get worse. So this is a fantastic article in clearing up the distinction – will definitely point people to this article next time :D

    How have you been? It’s been a long time, hey?

  2. Davina Haisell

    Hi Chris.

    When I read your first line I couldn’t help but imagine myself focusing on the negative — energetically speaking. And when I did that, I had the sensation of myself contracting as the negativity expanded. When I imagine focusing on the positive I feel myself expanding with it. Cool.

    I love your perspective on this; how, when you turn your attention to an uncomfortable emotion, or spot in your body that’s tense, you feel yourself relaxing. I think this has a lot to do with your perception of the pain, too and *how* you focus on it. A lot of folk will just tense up if they focus on the pain, but you “get intimate” with it instead of pushing it away. And as you noted, pushing something away just puts it in control.

  3. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. love the post and both Albert and Davina’s comments .. it’s getting comfortable with oneself – how we work best .. and that can take some working out, as you mention. If we can create more, consuming less – then at least we’ll be moving forward .. and as with pain, it is working out what’s wrong and relaxing into it .. or forgetting it and move on – I tend to do that .. but the emotional element – the sooner it is dealt with the better!

    Cheers .. have a good weekend .. Hilary

  4. Chris - Post author

    Hi Albert — yes, I think of wallowing as creating an identity based on what we’re feeling — if we’re feeling sad and wallowing in it, for example, that to me means making up a story about how everything is bad and we’re the victim and so on. I think of allowing the sensation as getting a clear understanding of where it is in the body, what it feels like, and so on, on a more raw, less cognitively-oriented level.

  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Davina — I liked what you said about tensing up — I get the sense that the kind of tension you’re talking about is a form of pushing the “pain” or the intense sensation away. The tightness happens when we’re like “no, I’m not going to feel sad — I’m going to scrunch up inside and choke off the sad part.” Then I think we have the opportunity to get intimate with the tension itself, and see if that has the tightness relax.

  6. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — I think “relaxing into the pain” is a great way to express it — when I accept that the pain is there, whether we’re talking about physical pain or “emotional pain,” saying “yeah, that’s what’s there right now” can make it much easier to be with.

  7. Erica

    It is great that you are getting to know your back pain and encouraging others to get to know their discomfort. Most people try to run from it, of course, as you know. Yet sometimes focusing one’s attention on the discomfort of pain is not enough, especially when the pain is chronic. I say this as a mindfulness practitioner (have practiced daily for more than 10 years), a patient (once had severe chronic pain), and as a research psychologist (wrote my dissertation on coping efforts among women with chronic pelvic pain). A fabulous resource for people with chronic pain is Darlene Cohen’s book: Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain. She lived with rheumatoid arthritis for many years and then cancer and her book is filled with incredible wisdom. My own reflections on the subject of pain are here: http://determinedtoheal.org/2010/09/03/reflections-on-pain/

  8. Sara


    This is a bit late, but here’s the comment I couldn’t put up before….It’s funny that I came to this post at this time. I am feeling restless and just a bit bored. When I sat quietly for a minute and felt my boredom, the first thing that popped up was I feel cooped up. I think my boredom and restlessness is a sign that I need to get up and move around a bit. I wouldn’t have known that if I had just continued to fight it.

    This is a good post for making us stop and consider how we handle our emotions or even our physical pain. Thank you for sharing your amazing wisdom…I can’t tell you how many times I land here and end up feeling better…I appreciate it:~)

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — that feels so gratifying to me — that people visiting this site might feel moved to really dive into what their experience is right now, as opposed to using the internet or reading my articles to get away from what’s going on for them — and it sounds like that’s what you felt moved to do when you read this piece. I think that’s a great observation you made — that turning your attention toward the boredom you were feeling actually had you relax and feel better.

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