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The Danger of Distraction: Turning Toward Pain to Eliminate Suffering

Last updated: 04-06-2020

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The Danger of Distraction: Turning Toward Pain to Eliminate Suffering

came to turn towards her own pain.  
Manson contends, "Like physical pain, our psychological pain is an indication of something out of equilibrium, some limitation that has been exceeded." If we then focus into that pain, becoming aware it's there, we are then able to come back to balance.  
Burch has created a 5-Step process to turn towards our pain so that we can live FULLY. "... the only authentic and sustainable way to be fully alive is to be open to all life's moments, not just the ones I prefer," she explains.  This life is short; I want to live as fully and as authentically as possible.  My years of ignoring, blocking, and last year this time, drowning in pain, has brought about a sense of discord between my body and mind.  These past three weeks of consciously turning toward pain (emotional and physical), I am noticing a sense of ease and balance blossoming within. 
Step One: Awareness
Meditation is just taking time to focus inward. For me, I focus on the feel of my breath coming in through my nostrils, down my windpipe, and into my diaphragm like a cool, silky ribbon.  Then, at the turning point of exhaling, I follow it's warmth in reverse; inevitably, my body releases a bit more into the bed, mat, chair as I do this. Getting distracted is natural. Burch explains, "You'll probably find yourself caught up in distractions hundreds of times a day, but choosing awareness even once is a victory, no matter how fleeting that moment may be." So, I've learned not to criticize myself for having a monkey-brain, but to notice and celebrate when I realize I'm off my focus point and come back to it. 
Step Two: Turn Toward the Pain
This is the time when I pick out one thing to focus on. Maybe the aching, burning pain deep in my left thigh or the tight, weighted feeling in my chest that shows up when I'm anxious. As I continue breathing, I focus on the feeling, imagining the breath to reach right there.  I may even put my hand on the main area. And then, I work to notice the sensation, being as descriptive as possible: burning, aching, sharp, sadness, loneliness, etc.  My meditation teacher, Dave Potter, says to say "I notice that there's something in me that has the feeling......" This wording allows me not to identify myself as this difficult feeling but to acknowledge that it is there.  I notice the area, size, shape, and texture of the sensation.  Sometimes it is thin and blanket-like, resting almost overtop of me. Other times, it seems to be rounded and blobby, thick as a donut. It can be sharp and hard or dull and wooden or elastic and ropey. I notice my feelings about this sensation. At this point, I work to soften my approach to it; allowing it to be.  Treating it and myself as I would a child who was hurt, being gentle and loving.
Step Three: Seeking the Pleasant
Breathing into the difficult sensations, accepting them as they are, I begin to notice minute changes in the feelings. Then, I begin to scan my body.  Starting at my toes and slowly scanning to the top of my head, I search for a pleasant sensation. At first, I really didn't get this. I have pain all the time in nearly every part of my body. However, with practice, I've gotten better at noticing the little pleasant tingle in my earlobe, or the buttery softness of the blanket that's covering me. This is not a distraction of positivity as Burch explains, "This attitude of sensitivity, openness, and honesty to the whole of your experience, including your pain, now allows you to gently turn to the pleasant aspects of the moment that have been there all along, just outside your field of awareness. You can feel stable and whole, rather than grasping for pleasure to avoid your pain."
Step Four: Broadening Focus to Develop Equanimity
At this point, after about twenty or more minutes in the above three stages, I spread my focus to encompass my whole body (noticing the pleasant and difficult sensation is still there).  Widening out, much like you do when you zoom out in Google Maps.  Focusing then on the room I'm in, still noticing my body's sensations, then widening out to the neighborhood, town, and world.  This seemed like a hoaky part of the turn towards meditation; however, I'm beginning to understand and assimilate that this is the time I realize I'm not alone in this.  I am reminded that pain is a part of the human experience. This leads to acceptance and non-judgment of my situation (equanimity).
Step Five: Learning to Respond Rather Than Reacting
I can choose my response to whatever difficult feelings I'm experiencing.  I can choose to accept and soften into it, being loving and gentle with myself. "Rather than feeling your pain is right on top of you and you're trapped in a battle that leaves no space to choose your response, you can find ways to respond creatively to any circumstances with a soft and pliant heart," teaches Brach.
This is not magic.  It takes practice, over and over.  I'll notice, hey my throat feels tight and achy.  When that happens, taking time to Turn Towards right then, makes this a choice that gets easier and easier. And as I am finding, more effective each time. 
Vidyamala Burch explains how she's learned to manage her own pain through meditation and breathwork. (21 minutes) 
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