Ordinarily, when we are fully engaged in the activity at hand, fully aware in the peaceful eye of the present moment, we are unflappable when things go wrong and we can actually thrive when they do. We accomplish this by training ourselves to develop and practice mindfulness of present-moment thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations and by maintaining an open and curious attitude toward all of our inner experiences—both pleasant and unpleasant. With practice, and by living with intentionality, we develop the ability to bring full awareness to our present experiences and to welcome them all.
However, if we are in a situation that is simply too terrifying to permit us to mindfully enter the eye of the hurricane, distraction and dissociation are alternatives. Distraction can provide a healthy and necessary refuge from an experience that is simply too powerful to withstand in the present moment. Forms of meditation other than mindfulness, including religious prayer and mental imagery, can be used successfully in such circumstances to achieve distraction.
In the most extreme and terrifying situations, however, dissociation often becomes a refuge. For example, when children are sexually abused, especially in ritual abuse, they commonly find themselves somewhere else in their minds—such as up on the ceiling or in the tree outside.
To further define these concepts, distraction is engagement in an alternative activity in order to take the mind off the activity at hand. Dissociation is where thoughts, sensations, or emotions are split off from consciousness. Compartmentalization is a form of dissociation in which consciousness of specific life activities is kept separate from the rest of the person’s life. Hypnosis is another form of dissociation which is used therapeutically in psychotherapy, although hypnotic trance is actually synonymous with all forms of dissociation. All these escape mechanisms are healthy in terrifying or dangerous situations from which there is no possible escape, but normal, everyday stressors are best dealt with by making full contact with the present moment and leaping straight into the hurricane’s eye.