back pain | 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.