Fight or flight or…Focus

by Sarosh Motivala, PhD

You’ve heard of fight or flight of course. The two most thought about responses to a stressor or threat. Lesser known is the freezing response. You can see this one in animals. Freezing is a fairly automated response to an immanent predatory threat. Fighting, flighting, freezing all have their uses, but none of them are well suited to chronic stress. All of them are good for short bursts. The talent and skill needed for sprinting are different than those needed for a marathon. And make no mistake people, we are all in a stress marathon.

So is there another way to handle stress? Especially chronic stress? Yes. To practice the focusing response.

Now there is a surface meaning for the word focus and it sort of gets at what I am talking about, but then there is a deeper, more mysterious meaning for the word that lies at the center of what I am talking about.

Focus: “a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding”.

A quick search in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and we find that focus as a noun has a few different meanings, including - 1) the center of attention; 2) directed attention; 3) “a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding”. This is focus as a thing; but now, I’m thinking of focus as a response - an action, so let’s examine it’s definition as a verb. To focus means 1) to concentrate attention or effort; 2) to bring cause to be concentrated. On the surface, pretty straight forward. But now I’m going to make things weird. Before we leave Merriam-Webster, our stately dictionary adds a scientific definition - the point where geometric lines either converge or diverge and intersect, giving rise to an image (in a mirror or lens). Does this seem confusing? Let’s say it’s an apt way of describing the action of “bringing the lines of thought together” and also the location of “where things come together”. I like that. The Oxford Dictionary spells it out a little differently. “to adapt…so that things can be seen clearly”.

Going to the hearth

Going to the hearth

The Oxford Dictionary goes on to say that the beginnings of the word focus are in the 17th century when it was used in mathematics and science, but its origin predates this, back to the Roman Empire, when the Latin word “focus” meant domestic hearth. Now, this is to me the deeper mysterious meaning of the word focus - domestic (or home) hearth, meaning the center of the home that provides warmth, light and sustenance. As Jim Morrison sang beautifully, “Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen, warm my mind near your gentle stove”. To me, focusing has a centering, rejuvenating feel to it. Jim was singing about going to the hearth after what was probably a long and crazy night out. So to me, to focus is to go to the hearth; to go to the center. But where is that exactly?

Centering is a nice way to think about focusing. In Peru, the ancient capital of the Incan empire was Cuzco. What a mysterious name! What could it mean? Turns out it means navel of the world. In old Incan culture, the navel was the center of a person’s being, the place where a person is connected with the universe through a spiritual umbilical cord. So the center of the soul of the Incan empire had to be named Cuzco. Their capital was the center of the world (to them) and was where they connected with the universe. Getting focus means “Go to your Cuzco”. In humans, wanna know where our center of gravity is? Can you guess? Yup - the navel. Your center of gravity is where your hearth is; it’s your soul kitchen as Jim Morrison would say. And lastly, in Hindu tradition, our bodies have energy centers called chakras. My grandfather used to tell me that the third chakra was the one that had fire and the warm burn of a home hearth as its symbol. Can you guess where that chakra is located in the body? It is located just above the....drum roll please...navel! So the statement “get centered” literally means “go to the navel”. Is it any coincidence then that belly breathing, so vitally important in yoga and meditation, is a way to get centered and to get focused?

Now let’s operationalize these varied definitions into something practical. I’m thinking that the focusing response first involves centering, or going to the navel, or going to the hearth. Whatever phrase you like better.

You go there not with your feet, but with your attention. So you take your attention to your belly.4-5 breaths should do it, but if you want to warm your mind by the gentle stove like Jim did, stay with it as long as you like.

Ok, after centering, the next step of focusing is observing/noticing. There are two basic things to observe. The outside or the inside. It’s hard to notice both at the same time. The outside could be visuals like people, birds, trees, or scents, odors, or sounds, or touches - the sun on your skin, the feel of air rushing into your nose, the feel of an ice cube on your finger tips. Then there’s the insides. Maybe it’s a radiating warm feeling in your belly, a tightness in your shoulders. Insides also include your mindspace. Maybe you notice a certain rush of thoughts, with a certain kind of intensity or flow to them.

Lastly, you practice welcoming/accepting. This is a verbal statement you make. I’ve heard people advocate for a welcoming statement like “I welcome this feeling of tightness” or “I welcome this feeling of fear”. This is not really my speed. I don’t have anything against this style, I just don’t talk to myself that way. I like a different welcoming form of self-talk - something like “this is good - this is ok. It’s fine to feel fear or tight. let’s go - you got this”.

That last bit of “you got this” is like adding a little bit of seasoning to the acceptance pot - the specific seasoning being something called self-efficacy, a statement that you can handle this.

So to review, start with centering and going to the navel via your breath, then you do a bit of observing of your body state and your surroundings and then you close it out with a welcoming statement. That’s my way of focusing and developing that fourth fear response.