Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Robert Augustus Masters - Turning Toward Our Pain

From the November newsletter, a great article on how we should turn toward our pain to grow as human beings, rather than follow the culturally embedded proclivity to turn away.

Men, far more so than women I think, are taught to turn away from pain -- deny it, suppress, reject it, swallow it, and any other way to make it go away. We end up unable to be open with our feelings because we do not know what it is we feel (aside from anger, the one "OK" emotion for men).

What Masters is advocating is hard, but it pays dividends in every area of our lives -- work, relationships, family, you name it. If you do not have access to your feelings, you are only a partial person.
Robert Augustus Masters

Turning toward our pain is an act of radical caring — and not just for ourselves, because we are then no longer fueling or supporting the turning-away-from-pain that has addicted so many of us to whatever keeps or seems to keep us removed not only from our pain, but also from the pain of others.

In turning toward our pain, we are also, however indirectly or slightly, turning toward others’ pain (in both personal and collective contexts), one result of which is that our compassion for others not only deepens but also widens, and our interconnectedness and intimacy with all that is becomes much more than just a belief or intellectual construct.

Turning toward our pain is about bringing into our heart all that we have rejected in ourselves, all that we have ostracized, disowned, neglected, bypassed, shunned, excommunicated, or otherwise deemed as unworthy in ourselves. Our heart somehow has room for it all.

Opening ourselves to such qualities does not, however, mean that we then allow them to run the show, to act out, to run wild, anymore than we would allow a child — including our own reclaimed child-side — to drive our car. So we must proceed here with great care, sidestepping the minefields/mindfields of neurotic tolerance and let’s-accept-it-all naiveté, keeping our eyes simultaneously open and discerning.

When something has been caged for a while, kept for prolonged periods from much of what it needs, it usually will not behave particularly well when it is released. Knowing this, we will not expect our pain to domesticatedly or nicely resonate with us when we no longer are protecting ourselves from it. Initially, it’s enough to simply name our pain and stay turned toward it, taking our time making its acquaintance, not expecting it to look or behave like a pet. As it comes more clearly into view, you may see something roughly akin to a dragon, something far from tame or civil or predictable, and perhaps even glimpse the treasure behind it.

In turning toward our pain, we are also turning toward our avoidance of our pain, allowing ourselves to see it for what it is, even as we feel its pull and hear its siren call, its promises of pleasurable release, its advertisements for itself.

Seeing this avoidance with any consistent clarity may be very difficult at first, as our distractions again and again seductively approach us, but it helps to know that they will thus show up — more often than not dressed to kill or thill — and that we are capable of naming the pain from which they are promising to remove us.

If, before reaching for your favorite fix, you simply ask yourself what you are actually feeling besides your urge to thus reach, and you then turn toward that feeling — which is probably painful, and tied in with certain strands of your personal history — and stay with that feeling, breathing it in, letting yourself fully feel it, you increase the odds that you won’t significantly distract yourself from your pain (including by converting it to suffering).

In naming our pain, we may still be turned away from it or be at an angle to it, but when we turn toward our pain, rotating until we are facing it squarely, we are in full frontal contact with it, preparing ourselves to step forward by deepening our stand.

And deepen it we must, or we will be uprooted all too easily. As we strengthen and stabilize our stand, getting more used to facing our pain, we may notice that our longing to be truly free is, however slightly or sporadically, getting stronger than our longing to distract ourselves from our pain.

We are now facing the dragon, perhaps feeling its heat and meaty threat as we open ourselves to its presence, breathing in its energies — but not so much as to overwhelm ourselves — and then breathing out in a manner that settles and further anchors us. We may feel like distracting ourselves, but we have too much at stake, and know we have too much at stake, to postpone, obstruct, or otherwise turn away from our pain. So we stay put, but not rigidly. If we find it too difficult to stand where we are, we step back a bit, and then root ourselves there. Moving back from the fire is fine so long as we keep facing it.

Once you’ve turned toward your pain and have found a place or position where you know you can stand with sufficient solidity, root yourself, feeling your stand streaming down through your belly and legs into your feet, and then through your feet into the earth — and at the same time feel your stand rising up through you even as become more and more firmly planted, rising up and up, up through your torso, lengthening your spine and lifting your sternum, with your head effortlessly balanced atop your neck, your eyes both focused and spacious.

Even if you are shaking inside, sweating at the thought of more fully encountering what is in front of you, keep your full height, filling out your body with presence, so that you begin to embody your true size. No matter how slight this shift is, stay with it, breathing integrity and care into your intention to stand your ground.

Do not move forward yet.

Beware of the ambition that would have you move forward prematurely. Beware of playing the hero, the dragon slayer, the impeccable warrior. Do not take the dragon lightly. It won’t lie down and roll over just because of your dreams of glory and breakthrough. What matters is that you take an open-eyed stand and do your best not to wander away from it. You may sway in the wind, but do not let it turn you away from your pain.

As you ground yourself, keep some awareness of the back of you, doing so in as easy a manner as possible. “See” with the back of your head, your shoulder blades, your sacrum, the back of your heart, sensing what is behind you, while remaining focused on what is before you.

Study the dragon as closely as you can from where you are. It is in sight. See it both in its totality and in particular ways: its position, its shape, its colors, its bulk, its movements, its odor, its teeth. And see how you have tended to treat it.

Don’t try to outstare the dragon, though. If you lock eyes with it for too long, you may lose touch with yourself to the point where you lose your footing. Better to look with clear focus for a little while, then look away for a bit, then look back at it again.

Give yourself enough time to acclimatize; facing your pain — which includes facing your aversion to it — so directly may be a very new experience for you. If your pain seems monstrous, it may be because you have treated it as such, keeping it from loving human contact so long that it has taken up residence in less-than-human forms.

As you stand your ground, cultivate a second-person relationship with your pain; before, you’ve probably had a first-person approach to it, namely identifying with it, as well as a third-person approach, keeping your pain as an unpleasant or undesirable “it” somewhere in the distance, just as you may have considered your body an “it” somewhere below your “headquarters”.

So now bring in a second person approach: Instead of relating from your pain, you relate to it. As such, you listen to it, you observe it without disengaging from it, you let yourself sense more than its surface features, you start to get inside it, you choose to be in relationship to it, no matter how alien it might seem. And thus you make the acquaintance of the dragon.

And you keep whatever distance you need, deepening your stand, relocating it if you have to, without turning away to any significant degree.

If this sounds like something you think you can’t do, think again: To turn toward your pain does not necessarily mean that you remain thus turned all the time! Rather, it means that you turn toward your pain, taking a stand there for long enough to start to get used to facing your pain. Of course you’ll take breaks, sometimes frequent breaks. But so what?

So long as you keep turning toward your pain, and practice staying there, rooted as best you can, it won’t really matter that you weren’t able to always stay with it for very long. Acclimatization takes time. Take time for the necessary adaptation. Treat the process more like a long run over rough terrain than sprint training.

Turning toward our pain is a step toward real freedom. Turn as slowly as you need to, but do turn. You are worth it. So are we.


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