“It’s too much.” Melony was moving back and forth in her chair, her nervous system rattled while furiously talking.
I could feel the upset in the room. It did feel too much, not for me, but I could feel and see how it was too much for her.
Like Melony, many of us get caught in a loop of emotional distress, trying to deal with upset, or we shut down, sometimes becoming numb to what’s happening, grateful to get away from feelings in the body.
We don’t feel safe with the feelings and body sensations.
We don’t feel we can open up to the feelings and body sensations so we try to shut them down.
Unfortunately, it also means we don’t get the benefit those feelings/sensations are trying to communicate with us. We miss the vital intelligence embedded within.
Instead we get overwhelmed, we shut down what’s happening inside and outside, we get angry, we blame, criticize, judge ourselves and others.
When old habitual patterns drive us we don’t learn how to plumb those feelings/sensations for the wisdom they hold.
The importance of protest
In my recent book, I talk about the importance of “protest” which I broadly call anything that boils down to “It shouldn’t be like this!”.
To be overly simplistic, when there’s trauma as a backdrop we either feel too much or we shut down and don’t feel (or try not to feel) anything. When we’re overwhelmed with feeling we tend not to be able to think, organize our inner world, or discriminate clearly.
When we’re shut down we tend to do whatever we can to get away from any disruption or distress.
This is intricately connected to our ability to meditate or use mediation skills. Meditation is designed to re-orient us to our true nature, the abiding, radiant, luminous quality present in everyone, all the time. We might not have easy access to that true nature, especially if we have a trauma history, yet it’s there nonetheless. One of my favorite chants by Mickey Singer describes how our true nature waits a thousand years, a thousand lifetimes for us to remember. That’s how abidingly patient our true nature is.
For many, that idea feels rather vast, overwhelming. As someone recently told me, “Why bother exploring this? I’m only going to be disappointed.” Rather than feel hopeless we can be inclined to avoid the subject entirely.
Updating the perhaps outdated idea of meditation
Meditation has this lofty image, of sitting still for hours, quietly, on a cushion, never flinching even if the mosquito tickles your arm or the fly buzzes noisily.
Then there’s the fear of encountering the painful parts of life and not being able to deal with them.
Or opening up our longing only to have our hopes for goodness and kindness completely dashed.
It’s true that “formal” meditation, at least the popular renditions of meditation, are designed to uncover the painful places. [Even as that idea of meditation exists there’s a growing chorus of people and research that invites a different route.]
Within the long traditions of formal meditation is the idea of “informal” meditation.
Basically, that’s all that time in between formal sitting times. It’s when we’re in line at the store, or when someone cuts you off while driving, or you inadvertently say something stupid.
In other words, informal meditation is designed to give us practical ways to live a good life.
I’m vitally interested in people living a better life; one more fulfilling and certainly more nourishing.
Okay, let’s circle back to Melony so I can tie all this together!
One of the essential skills of healing any kind of trauma is learning to titrate what’s too big so that it’s “digestible.” I call this dipping in and dipping out.
You know when you try out whether the water is the right temperature? You touch a toe to the water to test it out. You can then safely and quickly pull it out if it’s too hot or too cold, right?
Many who are emotionally dysregulated didn’t learn how to touch a feeling and then pull out. In fact, I’ve had many clients over the years who thought that if the feelings were there they were “supposed” to feel it all, all at once.
Whew. That’s hard.
There’s a lot to say about emotional regulation. As I write this I realize I’ll need to include more of this in the upcoming meditation course I’ll be teaching.
Because meditation skills provide the fundamental skills to support emotional regulation.
- Mindfulness helps us name what’s going on without getting lost in the story.
- Concentration skills keep us focused on where we want to go instead of caught up in the many, many different associations in each little moment.
- Self-compassion gives us skills to be kind to ourselves when we’re overwhelmed, learning to back off from whatever is happening.
- And being able to open to the space around all the overwhelm or shut down allows our body, and especially our hearts, to ease.
So, what happened to Melony?
After we worked with dipping in and dipping out in our session, Melony wrote that she’d been practicing it all week. It’s kept her from sliding down the painful rabbit hole, giving her ground to be with life in a better way.