The Danger of Distraction: Turning Toward Pain to Eliminate Suffering

The Danger of Distraction: Turning Toward Pain to Eliminate Suffering

As we are all hunkered down at home, figuring out what to do with all our extra, unstructured time has been a hot topic. Posts share activities to do alone, with our children, with others outside of our walls via technology tools such as Zoom(live meditation, book club, or family talk sessions), YouTube (online Tai Chi, house concerts, book readings), and Board Game Arena (where you can play board games online with people all over the world).

I have friends posting the latest puzzle they’ve completed, new drinks they concocted with special COVID-19 satirical names, socks they’ve knitted, and latest movie marathon or binge-worthy show they have found.

While all of these things are wonderful, and I am so thankful to have so many options for how to spend my days while at home, I have come also to understand that it can be detrimental as well. I’m sure I’m not alone when I share that I’ve been feeling emotional pain (anxiety and sadness) along with physical pain-Fibromyalgia muscle and joint pain all over my body that flares up in roving areas throughout the day. When I experience pain, my goal is to always get rid of it. I see it as bad and not a feeling I want around. If I can be distracted from it, I chose that.

Distraction from Pain Doesn’t Heal Pain

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’ve been taking an online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) meditation course through (To get a background for what I’m doing, check out this post Mind Over Matter: 21 Days of Meditation.) During week 5, I was introduced to a woman who has had a lifetime of severe pain (physical and mental),Vidyamala Burch, who has created a mindfulness program to live well with pain. She explains in her book Living Well With Pain and Illness, “When you bring awareness and curiosity to the actual experience of pain, often you find that it’s not as bad as you feared.”

The focus of my last two weeks has been to use meditation when I’m not feeling well (physical pain or emotional pain) to then TURN TOWARDS pain. I also just finished reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@#!$ by Mark Mason which hammered in the same premise. “In every case, we can choose to avoid our pain or choose to engage our pain. When we avoid our pain, we suffer. When we engage our pain, we grow,” states Mason in his blog post My Life Philosophy.

“We suffer for the simple reason that suffering
is biologically useful.It is nature’s preferred agent
for inspiring change.” -Mark Manson

During my studies this past week, I was introduced to the idea of the Felt Sense which isa concept that describes internal bodily awareness that arises from increased awareness. Basically, it is a turning towards the sensations in our body (often difficult to describe) to bring them to consciousness. Manson suggests, “We suffer for the simple reason that suffering is biologically useful. It is nature’s preferred agent for inspiring change.”

Much like the Disney movie Wall-e shows, if we were always content with no problems or pain, we’d also become complacent. With pain and need, comes innovation and solution. I’m sure if I had not developed Fibromyalgia, for example, I would not be here writing, researching, digging into knowing more about what makes me tick. I was pretty content to ignore myself. But my ‘self’ wasn’t having any of that. The poem, The Felt Sense Prayer, concretely illustrates how the human mind and body work together not only to protect us but to grow us.

It’s a longer read, but so worth it.

Tara Brach, Psychologist, Author, Teacher,
reads this poem and shares how she
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 over top of me. Other times, it seems to be rounded and blobby, thick as a doughnut. It can be sharp and hard or dull and wooden or elastic and ropy. 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 hokey 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 breath work. (21 minutes)

Helpful Resources:

How do you handle difficult feelings/sensations? What do you think of Vidyamala’s method of turning towards pain to live more fully?