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Zooming In & Out on Pain

I’m out with my dog on a walk. It’s morning and I’m barefoot. We cross the street to a grassy area rich with shade trees filled with singing birds.

As I step on the grass with my bare foot I feel its coolness, its softness yet firmness. I hear the birds singing to one another. I remember being young and walking with my family near the pond and am suddenly transported there.

Then I notice a sensation in my body. It’s my low back. It feels tense. My mind doesn’t like it. Thoughts arise wondering if it will turn into pain on this walk. What will happen when I’m old? Will I be able to walk still? I feel down. I again feel the coolness of the grass under my feet as I continue my walk.

This experienceof our attention being in a state of rapid movement with brief moments of hyperfocusis likely something that you can relate to.

If our awareness is a light, it’s as if it is a moving strobelight, flickering all over the place. On and off, on and off; once here, then there, now over there.

And we do this all day long. Traveling through time and space in our minds, never staying in one place for very long.

I call this state of awareness Strobelight Mode. And it is the default mode for just about all of us.

The Problem With Strobelight Mode

If Strobelight Mode is something we can all relate to, what’s the problem with it?

The problem is twofold:

1. It is very difficult to learn from our experiences when we don’t spend much time with any one experience.

This is especially true when part of our experience is something that we identify as a problem. When there is a problem, such as pain, our minds are often quick to push away the direct experience of the problem so that we don’t experience it. This is a short--term strategy at best.

2. Living in this mode is generally less enjoyable and more tiresome than the other options.

As our awareness jumps around, it pulls us into the past, into the future. It tends to look for problems, which are not difficult to find. This elicits our emotions and the strategic parts of our minds that try to problem-solve. This gets exhausting over time.

So what are the other options?

If we again think of our awareness as a light, there are two modes—other than Strobelight Mode—that are available to us. I call them Spotlight Mode and Floodlight Mode.

1. Spotlight Mode

Spotlight Mode is the mode of Zooming In on our experience for a sustained amount of time. Like a spotlight, our awareness shines on one thing. It could be a thought, a feeling, or something in our environment.

We naturally enter this mode when we think through something and are able to maintain our focus until the end; or when we have unbroken concentration during movement or athletics; or when meditating and centering our awareness on a chosen object like the breath.

Spotlight Mode allows us to experience more deeply, allowing us to learn a tremendous amount from what we are experiencing, be it a pleasant or unpleasant experience.

This mode of being can be practiced, trained, and strengthened.

We discussed this mode at length in Opening to Pain.

2. Floodlight Mode

Floodlight Mode is the mode in which we Zoom Out on our experience for a sustained amount of time. Like a floodlight, our awareness shines broadly over many things. Our thoughts, feelings, and external environment are all illuminated by its light simultaneously.

We naturally enter this mode during times of reflection or insight, when we are able to see a situation or our lives from a different vantage point.

Floodlight Mode allows us to experience more fully, allowing us to transcend and transform our normal isolated, disconnected experience into one of greater perspective and connectedness.

This mode of being can also be practiced, trained, and strengthened.

Entering Zoom Mode

Walking in Strobelight Mode is a common experience for me. And it looks a lot like my initial description.

But so is walking in Zoom Mode, in which I toggle between Zooming In and Zooming Out; between Spotlight Mode and Floodlight Mode.

What does Zoom Mode look like?

As I step on the grass with my bare foot I feel its coolness, its softness yet firmness. I feel each individual blade of grass as it touches my heel, then my arch, then my forefoot as I roll from heel to toe, heel to toe, with each step. I notice how the coolness changes as I continue to walk and the temperature of my foot acclimates to the temperature of the grass (Spotlight Mode).

I hear the birds singing to one another. I zoom out and hear the cacophony of all of the birds singing at once. It is simultaneously chaotic and orderly. I continue to hear the cacophony as I feel my feet in the grass—step, step, step. I remember being young and walking with my family near the pond—step, step, step—I hear the birds—step, step, coolness—I notice tightness in my low back—step, step, step—I hear the birds—I notice thoughts arising and passing about the future—step, step—worries, concerns, coupled with peace and joy from the birds and my memories—step, step, coolness. It all combines and coalesces into a transcendence in which “I” am no longer walking. Or thinking. Or hearing. It’s just all happening (Floodlight Mode).

The Bottom Line

The difference between Strobelight Mode and Zoom Mode is not necessarily one of content. The things that I was experiencing were essentially the same: the grass, the birds, the tightness in my back, the thoughts, the memories, the emotions.

The difference was in the depth and breadth of my awareness.

When Zooming In, I experienced more deeply the sensations of the grass on my feet.

When Zooming Out, I experienced more broadly and simultaneously the birds, the tightness, the thoughts, the memories, the emotions.

In Strobelight Mode, my mind instinctively and subconsciously pushes away the unpleasant parts of my experience in an attempt to protect me. The result is that I learn less from my experiences and feel as though I’m living inside a pinball machine—ricocheting from one experience to the next.

But in Floodlight Mode, the unpleasant parts of my experience are just that—parts of my experience.

Questions that I sometimes use to enter Floodlight Mode are:

  • What else is there?

  • What else is happening?

Because the reality is that there is a lot happening outside of the unpleasant parts of my experience. I have 5 senses plus the ability to think. Opening to the other aspects of my experience—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, thinking—can shift my perspective to one that is more broad, inclusive, and accurate.

Zooming in Real Life

So what happens if I’m walking, say in Floodlight Mode (Zoomed Out), and the tightness in my back tugs at my attention? I begin to stop hearing the birds, stop feeling my feet, and am overtaken by the tightness.

What to do then?

In this case, it seems appropriate to go ahead and zoom in on it: feel it, experience it, get curious about it:

  • Where exactly do I feel it?

  • What exactly does it feel like?

  • What happens to it as I continue walking?

After a period of time in Spotlight Mode (zoomed in), I start to notice other senses coming in. I begin to feel my feet again, hear the birds again, etc. Then I zoom back out.

Back and forth, back and forth.

There is no cookbook for when to zoom in and when to zoom out. But if you practice both, you will learn more and more when which mode is helpful. And you will naturally begin to do it with less thought and effort. It will become a bit of a dance.

One mode isn’t better than the other. Sometimes zooming in will be helpful, other times zooming out will be helpful.

The interesting thing is that when we zoom in or when we zoom out with enough steadiness of mind, we end up in the exact same place: here & now.

Good luck out there,


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