I often refer to my husband as my personal, live-in guru. I jokingly have started calling him Richpoche. All joking aside, he is the grounding energy to my nervous system’s seemingly instantaneous, zero to 100mph fight or flight response to what I perceive to be negative, attack energies, flying at me from the world at large.
One of the many therapists I have seen over the years informed me that people who have experienced trauma, particularly at a young age, have essentially learned to exist in a constant state of nervous system engagement (this translates to my body as a fluttery, agitated feeling that resides in my chest and up through the crown of my head) . In order to survive trauma, their body became accustomed to existing in a heightened response mode in order to protect itself. Even if the danger is no longer there, this is the immediate response. Convincing the nervous system that there is no longer any threat takes a lot of concerted effort because I am attempting to retrain and reset behaviors that have been in place for your own protection for decades.
So, I live in a space of heightened anxiety and hypersensitivity. I am well aware of it and working on creating new behavior patterns, but it is a slow process. For every freak out I experience (and there are many), my reflect response is to go right to the space of red alert. At this point in my process of “waking up” and becoming aware, I would say that I am able to shift and ground the energy of maybe one in 10 of these occurrences.
Another of my therapists explained that when one lives in a state of heightened stress, it takes very little to tip the balance. So, something as relatively mundane knocking over a fire extinguisher and watching as white foam fills the space where it once stood will enliven and release a fairly unpleasant beast inside of me. When this happened during my first marriage (and suffice it to say that I was under a lot of unrecognized stress during that time), I literally screamed, swore, and threw my birding tripod, which required $85 to replace the broken head.
Last week, upon realizing that I might have to throw away a chunk of salmon that I was looking forward to turning into super yummy salmon dip, I experienced yet another meltdown. As usual, I texted my woes to my poor husband even though experience (and his communications) have taught me that in the height of my despair and rage it really is not a good idea to go down this particular path of communication to “deal” with the problem, which, although I have deemed it a crisis, is clearly not one that requires immediate attention from anyone but my Self.
I am writing about this particular event because it was one where I was able to step outside of my Self (despite being swept into the crisis void); to recognize that my response to the situation was ridiculously and unnecessarily disproportionate; and to actually shift my rage into humor, thereby changing the energy from hot rage to something lighter and easier to deal with.
Here is how the situation unfolded:
In this process of texting, I was able to recognize that I was actually the one at fault for not making the dip in the first place (as much as I wanted to place blame on my poor guru husband). So, rather than projecting my disappointment at him, I took responsibility. In addition, rather than having a meltdown and experiencing extreme guilt for wasting very good (and expensive) food, I was able to appreciate that this was not as big a deal as I thought it might be in the grand scheme of things and was even a bit funny. Granted, I did take the easy path of making jokes about my Jewish heritage, but I am not perfect.
It was not until another event threw my off balance that I was able to recognize the significance of this seemingly small behavioral shift.
Monday morning, I awoke to a barrage of emails from ghosts from my Alaska past. Suffice it to say that the content of these emails were vastly more difficult to find humor in than the dip crisis of 2018.
These communications were an outright attack and included serious threats. Though the claims and threats had no basis in reality, they still served to seriously tip my equanimity toward rage in no time at all.
I spent the entire day trying (mostly unsuccessful) to exorcise their poison from my physical and spiritual being. When my husband and I sat down for our nightly meditation sit, I still roiling with unmitigated, and barely controlled, rage.
Often when we begin our sit, I ask my husband question mere seconds into the meditation. Sometimes, he doesn’t respond (and I take the very mature path of poking fun at him). However, when the question is one that gets to the heart of the human experience and Buddhist path, he does.
You can’t win by engaging with them. They win by pushing you off your equinamity. You win by refusing to dance with them. It’s the classic dog-wolf scenario.
Your ego feels there’s two choices. Either attack back like the wolf or tuck your tail like the dog and feel beaten.
But there’s another one? Laughter. Yes. The way of Tai chi, Aikido…
Ok. Pause. So they’re not sitting there, thinking, ha! We got her! Because I didn’t respond?
No. They’re in a nightmare. They’re in a dream. You don’t want to enter into that because it’s a fucked up dream.
You could try thanking them for helping you grow.
Aw, fuck. I forgot about that. Thank you for helping me grow (said in a slow, sarcastic tone).
Not in a snarky tone.
It starts with snark.
That night, I was not in a place of offering my gratitude. I was not even in a space of being willing to offer my gratitude. However, by the morning my perspective had shifted. I found myself actually feeling gratitude. I really was learning from the experience. Would I have preferred a different scenario to be the basis for my education? Definitely, but I must admit that it is the really triggering stuff that provides the grounds for the deepest, most behavior-shifting lessons (if I choose to learn from the experience).
I can still feel the anger bubbling up when I think of their final email to me (they had demanded that I remove photos belonging to them from my house sale listing on Zillow. Why they were looking at my house sale listing is beyond me. I didn’t think I was using their photos, but I removed them in an effort to be the bigger person):
“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
You can see how very challenging it was for me to refrain from responding in kind to such a charged message. I was clearly being baited, but responding would not have changed anything and would have served only to perpetuate their nasty energy.
I feel sadness for these ghosts, grasping so desperately to project their anger onto someone else rather than taking responsibility for their own life choices and choosing to learn from them.
I do not want to participate in their nightmare. As my husband suggested in the dark quiet of the night while we sat side-by-side, “meditating.”
Be here now, in Belgium.