it comes down to focus. Photo by Massimo Mancini

The Art of Focusing Away From the Pain

I’ll jump to it: focusing away from the pain you feel actually lessens it. I’m actually referring to physical pain, but perhaps the same could be said for emotional pain.

You can trust me because I’ve done a few test with this. Most recently was during my run this morning. I know, I know, most of my posts have to do with my run — mostly because that’s when I have some dedicated time to think about what I want to tell you.

I’m a believer in meditation, but I don’t meditate. Instead, I try to get into a meditative state as I run. For the last year, I’ve run while pushing a stroller, and sometimes that makes getting meditative a little trickier. I’ve also occasionally run while listening to an audiobook, which has its own benefits, but it’s not exactly meditative. And during the winter when I could only run on a treadmill, I discovered that if I ran slightly slower than my max speed, I had really great ideas — I used these ideas for work. I’d start the run by choosing an ad campaign or concept I’d like to develop, and it was surprising just how much I could come up with during that time.

But I just finished listening to A Curious Mind (highly recommended) and I’m between audiobooks at the moment. So, during the uphill version of my run yesterday and today, I tried my little meditation routine: I lift my head a bit, allow my vision to look out further, taking more in without trying to focus on anything. I thank all the thoughts in my head and let them empty from my mind. And I start letting myself notice the beauty of the sun in the trees; the feeling of the wind on my face — in fact, I sometimes pretend as though I’m a very slow bird, and if I don’t look at my arms I can almost imagine I’m flying. But that’s still too much thought, and my mind wanders and I come back to just being. And that’s when it happens. I notice my breath; I notice the sensation in my arms and legs; and I pay attention to each step as it happens. I let go of all the steps that still need to be made. I let go of where the finish line is and how much longer I need to keep up this pace.

And then something magical happens. For a split second — for a while line of split seconds — the pain diminishes and the anxiety dissipates. Anxiety? Yes. Oddly, I realize there’s an anxiety I feel as I come closer to finishing my run. But as I focus on only the step I’m taking at this very moment, the burning in my lungs lessens, the fatigue in my muscles quiets, and the feeling of there’s-no-way-I-can-keep-this-up-to-the-end goes away.

It’s now replaced with the thought of “wow, this feels so much better, can I really stay present til the end?” And the anxiety returns, and then I focus even harder on my right foot actually making contact with the pavement. There’s no pain in that. In fact, I notice each and every step and let go of the expectation that there will be more after this specific step that’s happening right now.

It works. I finish my run. I even get a personal record (nothing impressive). I think the magic is all about being present and getting zen, and that’s definitely part of it. But then I also remember how while taking a cold shower, I’ll often shift focus away from where the water hits and, instead, focus on the warmth within my hand on the wall or the little guy that lives in my head, just behind my eyes. And it makes it less bad. It could simply be that focusing on something other than the part of you that feels pain — that keeps telling you this sensation you’re feeling is bad — magically lessens the pain that would otherwise consume you.

It makes sense — when the body sends pain signals, your brain gives full and immediate attention to the area that’s screaming to it. And this can save you. Of course, there are other instances where it merely keeps you from reaching new levels of performance or accomplishment. I’m confident you can figure out which is which as you go about your day.

But take this home with you: if it hurts, feel the pain, acknowledge it and thank it for its intention to help you, then focus away from it and get present with everything that doesn’t hurt. Try it for yourself and you’ll see: getting present can be a real gift.