The Turn

by Steven Kessler

In the world of transformational inner work, there’s a phenomenon that is often called ‘the turn.’ It is the time when the main goal of a person’s life shifts from the usual one of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain to the deeper one of seeking truth. It’s usually a gradual shift, not a sudden one, and very few people ever do it. The idea of doing this never even occurs to most people.

After all, who doesn’t want to avoid pain? This is one of the first and most profound things we learn in life. First, we learn to avoid physical pain, and then we learn to avoid emotional pain, as well. And alongside learning to avoid pain, we learn that we like and want pleasure.

This tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain seems to be fundamental to human nature. Our bodies do this from birth and our minds soon follow. It is a survival instinct.

So why would a person want to change this practice? In inner work, the answer is that people make this change when they see that there is something more important and more valuable than avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. When I was a student in the Diamond Heart meditation school, that more valuable thing was referred to as the Truth, meaning the direct perception of the objective truth of one’s self and one’s experience. The turn, in that context, referred to the inner shift from pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain to seeking the Truth. Such a deeper experience of your self might include experiencing your self as presence, as love, or even as value.

When does a person experience the turn? Not at the beginning of inner work, unfortunately. We all begin therapy or meditation or any self-improvement path to feel better, that is, to feel less pain, rather than to discover the truth of our self. In my 40 years as a psychotherapist, I have seen that most people enter therapy to decrease their pain and then leave therapy as soon as their pain has dropped to a level they can tolerate. That is the only motivation most people can imagine for pursuing inner work. And perhaps this is stage-appropriate. After all, we each have to develop a strong, healthy, cohesive sense of self before we are ready to go beyond it.

And then, even after we discover that a deeper experience of our self is possible, we usually want it because we believe that it will feel better that whatever we’re feeling now. Some people have had a personal experience of something more. Others have only read about it in a book. But, however they’ve encountered it, its appeal is usually still about pleasure and pain, in that they believe that experiencing it will bring them inner bliss or power or some protection from harm. It seems that it is not until a person has had some direct experience of their own deeper nature – even a fleeting one – that abiding in that state begins to be more important than avoiding pain or seeking pleasure. And perhaps this is also stage-appropriate.

Here, I want to add a word of caution. When we become aware that there is this possibility of choosing a deeper path but that most people have not chosen it and don’t even know about it, it’s easy for us to slip into judgment about the situation. If we personally haven’t yet made the turn, we may feel we are inferior to those who have. If we have made the turn, it’s easy to think that this makes us superior.

To get out of this judgment, let’s go back to the idea that everyone has been born into this life to learn by first experiencing problems and then solving them, but that we cannot see what lessons someone is here to learn, so we don’t know what problems they need to encounter. This brings us to the question, “How can we know what’s right or wrong for someone?” Maybe others are right where they need to be, even if their path seems strange to you. Maybe their path in this life does not include wanting something deeper, so they aren’t looking for it. Or maybe they don’t yet feel safe enough where they are to turn to something deeper. Maybe their path is right for them, yours is right for you, and we can be on different paths and also each be in the place that is right for us.

  • Brilliant. I love the last part. It opens the way to so much compassion for ourself and others. Thank you for all this wisdom.

  • This is an interesting work that resonates with me on many levels. Seeing the patterns in not only myself, but also in others.

  • As I was reading, I was hoping to hear your personal experience story of when you made the turn, what was your first experience of the deeper nature within. When you first tasted it, who was your teacher, what was the life pain that you felt “better” moving away from, etc. But in general, your elegant analysis is profound and will enrich me for the rest of my life in the simple essay above, as you have explained behavior on 2 levels so simply. Thank you.

    • I agree that Steven’s analysis is elegant and, for me, it demonstrates that he has turned without needing to tell me with whom, or how he did that. My turning happened when I read a particular book; namely, Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” in which he declaimed that “Life is a series of problems to be solved”. And that is confirmed each time I read something along similar lines.
      I’ve gained insight from those authors.

  • Hi Steven,

    Your article underlines for me:
    1. How unique our life path is for each of us.
    2. Our awareness of depths in our experience of living does not insulate us from life’s challenges, nor does it give us a guarantee of what happens in our lives.
    3. The mystery of life is to be lived, not necessarily understood, though it may help us to make sense of our lives from a perspective that seeks to learn and be whoever we need to be —-and realize it is the same for others, they’re being whoever they need to be.

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