Insensitive to Self: the lost art of losing focus

Answer me this:

If, at this moment, you wrap your palm around your opposite wrist, is your sense of touch focused on the palm or the wrist? On touching, or on being touched?

In general, it seems that we are insensitive to our own touch. Your thighs graze each other as you walk, your elbows hit your hipbone, but 9 times out of 10 you’re oblivious to these encounters.

We’re wired this way. If you were conscious and attentive to your every move throughout the day, you might just go insane.


And so, in general, we dismiss our own movement.

The exception to the rule? Discomfort.

As soon as a blister forms from the friction, you suddenly become aware of your heel. As soon as you catch a cold, you become aware of your throat and sinuses.

When I was little, the worst feeling in the world to me was nausea. I hated this idea that I could go for days without awareness of my insides, and then suddenly my core could create a violent wave. And what’s worse: I could barely define the feeling. I remember telling my mom that I’d rather die than have to experience it again.

It’s times like these that we tell ourselves we want only one thing: to return to the normal state we took for granted.


The cruelty of winter is that everything gains a surface and a boundary. The cold can hit your face so hard that it hurts. At least the summer melts all things together, binded by heat and humidity. In my mind, winter represents consciousness, and summer is the epitome of surrendering the conscious.

In high school, I was obsessed with the challenge of constant consciousness. I wanted to be aware of my thoughts, feelings, and actions at all times, under all circumstances. I wanted total control.

And that was fine for a time, but there’s just one problem with that ultra-conscious mentality: it’s unnatural. It exercises only one area of your mind, and it restricts your creativity and openness–a point explored in better depth by this article on the danger of losing creativity to busywork.

Sure, there’s a time and a place for everything. But for some of us, finding the balance is less than intuitive. It requires careful reflection and a lifetime of practice.


Losing yourself is a lost art that occurs in one of two ways: 1) naturally or 2) with practice.

You’ve probably heard of a concept called “flow”: an immersion in an activity or process that makes one lose sense of space and time. Many psychologists–like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his TED talk on the subject–have suggested that flow is the key to fulfillment and joy. The same psychologists generally agree that some people are more likely than others to experience flow, due to inherent personality traits and favored activities.

For those who don’t experience flow naturally, they might turn to meditation. Some even try hypnotherapy.

My suspicion is that, in reality, everyone has an equal capacity for flow. We’re all born with the same level measure of attention and unfiltered joy. Let’s not forget that much of our conscious thought patterns are learned at a young age. Some of us just learned it faster than others, which is harder to shake.

It’s a matter of unlearning.


It’s possible to walk back and forth between the presence and absence of self.

Several years ago I went without food for five days in hopes of a healing experience–both physically and spiritually. On the fifth day, I was at GVSU for orientation. I walked and spoke slowly; my legs felt heavy, my stomach tight. It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had of being both inside and outside of myself. The world slowed down around me: colors and crisp lines shined more intensely, sounds echoed, and all surrounding movement vibrated like ripples in the water.

I broke the fast that evening with a slice of watermelon. Instantly, my world returned to what it had been before. It was like returning from a foreign world.

Sometimes I wish I could experience that intensity of being every day, even every hour. But the joy is often in the juxtaposition: in order to find your life, you must lose it, and then you must find it again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.


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