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Out of Proportion: How Over- and Under-Reactions are Equally Skewed

By Fiona Robertson.  

The phenomenon of triggering is widely recognised now that trigger warnings have become commonplace. We often know when we have been triggered because we experience some kind of unpleasant emotional and/or physical response to an event, situation or circumstance. We might not immediately understand exactly why we have been triggered – disentangling many years of trauma and layers of self-identity is an ongoing process – but inquiry enables us to at least be aware when we are triggered and gives us tools to look at what is going on.

We may be conscious that our triggered reaction is out of proportion – at least in some respects, if not all – to the actual situation. Intellectually, we can clearly see that the levels of distress, fear, anger, grief or shame we are experiencing are not fully accounted for by what is happening here and now. Around 90% of an iceberg is under the water, and so it often is with triggers. While the conscious 10% may be a proportionate response to circumstances, the far larger part is often hidden from view until we look. The intellectual knowing that our response is out of proportion may assuage the feelings a little, but often it makes no difference. The horse has already bolted – our systems have reacted spontaneously and viscerally – and we can’t think or reason our way to the response we think we should be having.

Generally speaking, it is easy to tell we are triggered when our response is an over-reaction. Over-reactions, by definition, are vivid, visible and easily felt. We cry, tremble, shout. Our hearts pound, we sweat, we feel strong bodily sensations and emotions. We think non-stop about the situation, going over and over it in our heads. Over-reactions can be intense and all-consuming. We might think about little else for a few days. And yet, when we take time to inquire and discover what has given rise to the over-reaction – be it a sense of threat, a feeling or belief of some kind of deficiency or lack in ourselves, a past trauma – the over-reaction quiets. The recognition and acknowledgement of the previously unconscious material that gave rise to the trigger allows us to put the present circumstance or event back into proportion. Our present-day triggers or over-reactions inevitably stem from unmet feelings from the past or the abandoned, suppressed or fragmented parts of ourselves which we have tried to avoid or deny. Once brought back into the fold, so to speak, and given space and time in which to be seen and felt, they are no longer triggered in the same ways.

However, our out of proportion response may equally be an under-reaction. Something happens to us which would upset or anger most people, and we shrug it off or say it doesn’t really bother us. Or we jump to spiritual teachings to put a positive spin on what has happened. Under-reactions tend to go unnoticed, of course. We may have a subtle sense of flatness, emptiness, deadness or inertness, but it may not be disturbing or concerning. In fact, we may even take pride in our lack of emotionality. Particularly within some spiritual circles, people aspire to respond to all life’s travails with calmness and serenity, as if non-reactivity were the apogee of spiritual attainment. I have heard many people – myself included – berate themselves for being emotionally reactive to situations, as if that were a bad thing which the people we deem to be more spiritually evolved than us would not do. Yet if we lose sight of the fact that under-reaction is just as skewed as over-reaction, we will fail to recognise that bypassing, denial, avoidance, over-intellectualisation or an unwillingness to feel might all masquerade as equanimity, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

The hoisting of rationality and non-reactivity above all other qualities has profound and detrimental consequences, in my experience. It leads to judgement and manipulation – both inter- and intra-personally – and cuts us off from the truth and aliveness of our deeper selves. It supports existing power structures by framing the proportionate responses of oppressed or disempowered peoples – outrage, anger, grief to name a few – as unreasonable and over-reactive. It paints our natural, human emotions and responses to the large and small tragedies, shocks and joys of our lives as something to be ashamed of or to shrink from. A lack of reaction to our lives and the world around us is no more or less out of proportion than an over-reaction, but it is much more readily sanctioned by the powers-that-be, both temporal and spiritual.

Inquiry, therefore, is not about investigating our triggers in order to dampen or quiet our responses, either now or in the future. It is about giving full rein to our humanity and admitting to the whole extent of all our emotions and reactions, including the ones we have previously attempted to avoid or deny. As we do so, our responses begin to become proportionate to events and to the circumstances we find ourselves in. For some of us, this may manifest as a greater sense of calmness. For others, it may manifest as more emotionality. There is a time for calmness and a time for perturbation; a time for peace and times for rage, anger, and indignation; a time for happiness and a time for grief or misery. When we are willing to be with our experience just as it is in each moment, the idea that there is a state at which we need to arrive no longer makes sense.

To read more about Fiona Robertson, click here.

Death of the Psyche – Navigating the Process of Personal Evolution

By Lisa Meuser.  

 

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • A lingering “sense of death,” feeling that you are dying in some way (even though it doesn’t rationally make sense).
  • A heavy sense of doom or un-groundedness.
  • Persistent dreams of dying or death.

Sometimes when someone is doing a lot of internal work, exploring personal trauma, or/and diving into belief systems/identities, some interesting experiences can start to arise around the theme of death and dying. Consider it a “personal evolution.”

 

My first experiences with this were rather unsettling.

Sometimes I’d feel like I was in a daze. Other times it was more like a bad dream. I might feel kind of spacy, and sometimes during such times my thoughts would roar up- as if to find control. My tendency was to, well… freak out. After a while, however, I got better acquainted with the nuances and covert expressions of death that happen in—and are a part of—everyday life. In other words, death is constantly happening throughout the unfolding of life. And sometimes, because of what we are traversing through, we feel the impact of that more strongly.

 

A loss of self.

Parts of us are dying every day on a cellular level, but dying on the level of the psyche is quite different. We don’t mind (or even notice) that our cells are dying and being replaced, or even that our neural pathways are dying and being rebuilt. But even though we identify very strongly with our physical bodies, when it comes to our sense of self… that can feel much more real to us.

During times like these, when the confusing weight of death feels overwhelming, it can be helpful to take a step back and try on a wider lens to see more of what’s going on. But before we are able to take that step back, we need to get grounded.

 

Caring for the nervous system.

When we’re in a state of overwhelm (or fight/flight/freeze), the parts of our brain responsible for self-awareness can become dull. With this response can come an increase of tunnel vision and a decreased ability to be in relationship with our experiences. This is why we need to get grounded first. To be able to have perspective, it helps to have our body mechanics working in our favor. So, first things first.

Taking care of the nervous system may look like:

  • feeling your feet, hands and/or bum, while breathing, on the floor, chair or bed, or even whilst standing.
  • going out for a walk.
  • looking up at the sky/birds/trees.
  • putting some cold water on the back of your neck or onto your forehead.

Choose the techniques that work best for you. For an extensive list of ways to soothe the nervous system and get the right/left hemispheres working together, click here.

 

The wider lens.

Once your nervous system has calmed down and your brain hemispheres are back in sync, you can start to have a greater perspective of what might be going on. Here are some things that this new perspective will ask you to consider:

  • Parts of your biology are dying every day.
  • You, as a human being, are designed to constantly die and be re-created from a cellular level.
  • The design of the human being is to progress and evolve, to better itself, to change, and to grow/mature.
  • Change comes from the old dying, which then allows something new to come into form.
  • Your psyche, too, is designed to die and be re-created, as this is part of our maturation process.
  • Your psyche is influenced by neural pathways which are constantly changing, dying, and being recreated.
  • When belief systems, identities, and trauma are explored, old areas of solidity and certainty are “opened up.” This creates change on a variety of levels. Our behaviors may change. Our emotions may feel different or be different. Our thoughts, and our relationships to certain thoughts/beliefs, may change.
  • With change come newness, unfamiliarity, and the unknown.

So is it any wonder that feelings of doom or death are present?

 

Loose Ends.

Sometimes when we are traversing through such territory, we may even find ourselves having experiences that energetically mimic or feel akin to an event in our past when we actually thought we were going to die, and all the fear from that event was stuffed away rather than released. Pain body comes to surface—to tie up loose ends, so to speak—on its own timeline, regardless of when it would or would not be convenient for us. This can be unnerving as, rationally speaking, there seems to be nothing bad happening… yet the body’s and/or mind’s response indicates otherwise.

 

What does it all mean?

Humans have the capacity to mature not only biologically, but also emotionally and psychologically. As with biology, this can include growing pains since change can sometimes bring dis-ease, discomfort, and disorientation. Have you ever met a young person who is going through a growth spurt and their own body has become unfamiliar to them? These same words—dis-ease, discomfort, and disorientation—can be applied to the experiential process of emotional and psychological maturation and integration.

 

Identity crisis.

When parts of our psyche change, a portion of our identity is dying off. This may bring a variety of different responses, some of relief, some of threat. Identities that we’ve carried around for years within us—as us—can feel like they are who we are, so we fearfully wonder, “Who will I be without them?” The mind may then imagine all kinds of dangerous scenarios as possible futures. But beneath all those thoughts and mental constructions is a simple (but not necessarily comforting) answer:

Who will we be without our identities?
Without our familiar sense of self?
What will this next evolution bring us?

We have no way of knowing.

 

Unfamiliar territory.

The mind doesn’t always like this response. Particularly in our left-brain-dominated culture, we like certainty. We like binary and linear answers. Yet life is neither binary nor linear, and not knowing can often stir up the left brain even more- ruffling the feathers of those parts of us which incessantly try so hard to figure out and procure certainty. In direct disparity to the Zen “don’t know” culture, Western culture is fixated on a “must know” mentality.

But the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know what is coming next. We don’t know what life will be like as we outgrow these old identities. We don’t know who we’ll be if we’re not who we’ve always been. We don’t know how life will manifest when we’re no longer engaging in all the shenanigans that we’ve always been involved in. Who would I be without my controlling, figuring-out self? A part of me relishes this idea… conceptually. Another part loves to think about it. But, another part resists actually leaning into this and opposes the release of these defenses in order to find out.

 

The land of limbo.

It is in these moments, when death is underway but the new re-creation hasn’t yet come in, that we can find ourselves in a state of fear or doom. And it is in these moments that it is important to acknowledge that deaths are happening within our system, and that it is a normal part of the process to feel in limbo. It is normal to feel this way, because we are in transition. We are in the midway land between old and new: before the old is entirely gone, and before the new has become familiar.

Stepping back in this way can sometimes allow the process to happen with more grace and ease. There is less of a need to grasp and resist when we are reminded that underneath the discomfort all is well, and that the doom and deathlike experiences are but temporary steps that come along whilst travelling this path called life.

 

Patience, compassion, and support.

Be patient and compassionate with yourself during these times, or/and connect with others who can fill this role for you and help support you.
Take good care of your nervous system.
Return to the awareness that death/rebirth is a natural part of life.

And for additional support there are free resources available on The Living Inquiries website, or you can email me with any questions- [email protected]

You are not alone on this journey. Ever.

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

Changing the Paradigm Around Awakening – Our Desire Not to Feel

By Scott Kiloby.

I do wonder if the search for awakening or enlightenment is really about something different than what it is often made out to be.

Every time I have watched someone use this kind of work we do to start resting with and making all emotions conscious, letting them be as they are, inevitably the spiritual seeking begins to wind down right alongside that practice.

I think it is much more than a coincidence.

It would seem to be that it might drastically change the entire conversation about enlightenment or awakening if we all began to experience that this is indeed the case, that the mechanism of avoidance and escape of feelings is very much behind the drive to awaken. It seems the conversation around awakening would be much different, more pragmatic, if we began to view the search to awaken as merely an extension of our desire to avoid or escape painful emotions. It would no longer be about being special or being “those who are awakened” or any of that. And really no more about gurus. There would be a very practical view of it, helping everyone to reorient themselves systematically and begin addressing this desire to avoid and escape what is quite natural – emotions.

It seems that identification with thought itself diminishes greatly, once these feelings are owned fully. The Kiloby Center has become a lab for me to test out this theory. And it seems very accurate.

The focus for those who search for awakening often centers on the notion of awareness as something prior to the arising of thought, emotion. The focus is often on thoughts themselves, or identification with them. The idea is, “If I identify less with thought, I will recognize my True Self as this Awareness.” Ok, fair enough. But what will that give you? What will that show you ultimately? Is there something about the human experience itself that is driving this idealized search for something beyond? Virtually every mature awareness teachings says that even awareness (as something prior to thought and emotion) falls away at some point. So recognizing an Awareness prior to phenomena is not even the final frontier. It seems to me that recognizing awareness ultimately must come with a full-on acceptance and allowance of all phenomena to be as they are – all thoughts and emotions. And this results in less identification with thoughts and emotions. Could it be that it is our relationship to thought and emotion that is the key factor here – not some transcendental notion of awareness?

In the last few years, I have been focusing much more with people on the Velcro Effect, which is the experience of thoughts being stuck to emotions and sensations. The Inquiries undo this stuckness, not through avoidance and escape, but through the bare naked present allowing of all emotions, both conscious and unconscious. And at the Center, when clients become adept at this skill, their spiritual seeking fades. They come naturally into alignment with the present moment and the natural acceptance of all that arises. Identification with thought decreases with the undoing of the Velcro. And although many report a shift into present awareness, it ends up being not something prior to thought and emotion. The whole idea of “prior to” starts looking like an escape or avoidance of thought and emotion. As the Velcro Effect is undone, even thought and emotion are totally ok. Everything is allowed. And so the whole paradigm of awakening is blown out of the water. The word “awareness” and all the other words thrown around about awakening begin to seem silly and unuseful. What people actually come to see is that they just didn’t want to feel. And they had spent their whole lives trying not to feel. As feelings are fully felt and the velcro is undone, life looks different.

There is no longer a state in the future that looks so appealing, either as a state of only positive bliss or a state in which emotions are absent. There is nothing to seek. There is nothing to avoid or escape. There is no specialness to this. It’s a matter of simply reorienting themselves to emotions that were stuck to thoughts. Learn to undo the Velcro, and the avoidance and escape stops. Therefore the seeking stops.