At the end of the day we’re all reactive personalities.
We just don’t know it until we meet the right catalyst.
– MICHELLE PAINCHAUD
Jo was serving a long sentence at San Quentin correctional facility in California. His inability to control his anger had landed him in jail, and though he believed his rage helped him survive the jungle of prison life, he also knew it was the source of his troubles.
Eventually, after many years of good behavior, he was admitted into a prison gardening program, which he’d always wanted to do as a way to escape the boredom of cell life and get precious moments of fresh air outside. It was also a chance to put his hands into real soil and create a tiny piece of beauty inside the barren landscape.
One day while out in the exercise yard, working on one of the vegetable beds, he put his thermal coffee mug down on a ledge near where he was weeding. Then he got caught up in conversation with other guys in the yard, forgot about his hot coffee, and went back to digging. While gardening, he caught sight of someone stealing his cup.
Stealing from fellow inmates violates an unwritten code of conduct, and Jo was furious. However, his mindfulness practice allowed him to witness his body’s familiar response to rage: his racing heart, shallow breathing, and clenched teeth. His fingers tightened around the shovel.
As he neared the opportunistic thief, he felt the impulse to lift his shovel and strike the guy in revenge. However, just before he acted out, his awareness surfaced, and he paused, took a breath, and put space between his feeling of anger and his actions.
Jo realized he was caught up in rage. In that split second of mindfulness, he understood that if he followed through, there would be huge consequences, not just for the man who would be injured but also for himself. He would be kicked out of his beloved garden program and thrown into solitary confinement. His parole board hearing would probably be pushed back years.
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He put the shovel down, and that wise restraint possibly saved him years of extra time inside, and it may have saved his life.
Triggers Are Unavoidable
We all get triggered. Like many things in life, it’s unavoidable. What makes the difference is how we respond to it, or what we do with it. I remember a radio report of a Texas accountant who shot his computer with his handgun because he was so frustrated with his work.
Easy access to guns has sadly led to many worse things than computers being destroyed, but that powerful impulse can arise in anyone. The most common situation is road rage: someone’s reckless driving triggers a moment of terror, and that terror instantly turns into rage or righteous indignation and the desire to retaliate, perhaps by engaging in the same dangerous behavior!
We are bombarded with potential triggers all the time. It can be as simple as someone not holding a door for us or the perceived negative tone of an email. It can happen when a loved one speaks insensitively or curtly. A few careless words can easily spark a flash of anger and a desire to verbally retaliate.
This is why we need the vigilance that mindfulness practice provides, to skillfully manage our reactions in the way Jo did. In a situation of real physical danger, we are grateful for the amygdala and its fight-or-flight mechanism, but in most situations, this is an overreaction, and it would be inappropriate and counterproductive to act on it.
Part of the problem is that when we are triggered, the prefrontal cortex, the center of decision-making, becomes occluded. When rage spikes, the brain prioritizes blood flow away from thinking centers and toward our muscles in preparation to fight or flee. The commonsense adage of not acting in the heat of anger is a good one because we literally can’t think clearly.
Finding Space Between Trigger and Reaction
The key, then, is learning to find some space between the trigger and our subsequent reaction. The motivational speaker Stephen Covey has pointed to this key principle: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our ability to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and happiness.”
How many times in our lives have we wished we had acted with that sage wisdom? How much pain and heartache would we have saved if we had been able to find that space between the stimulus and our reactive response?
The good news is that this space is within reach, as Jo experienced. Mindfulness can help us find and grow that gap, that moment of pause.
The key is developing self-awareness, particularly of the body, so that we learn to recognize and track the various signals that indicate we are getting triggered. For example, during an argument, we may feel the heat or tension rising in our body. We may sense the tightness in our belly or throat.
We can track our rising frustration or irritation and feel our heart tightening. We might notice a torrent of angry thoughts and recognize that we are becoming defensive, that we feel cornered. All of these responses, if left unchecked, can easily build like a volcano and trigger a full-scale eruption. Tracking such signals in the body, heart, and mind can give us that split-second moment when we can intercept our response before we act on it.
Some simple physical practices can also help during such moments. One is to take five deep, slow breaths, which is a simple and immediate way to calm down the reactive nervous system. We can also ground our emotions by focusing on our body, such as by sensing our feet touching the ground or our legs resting on the chair. We might also get up if we are sitting, walk around, and use movement to settle the heightened energy that may be flowing.
This kind of tracking and centering can prevent us from becoming lost in a flurry of anger or fear. This awareness helps create some inner space and gives our prefrontal cortex time to reengage. Once we have enough clarity to interpret the flood of signals coming from the amygdala, from our triggered nervous system, we can plan a more reasoned response, one that avoids unnecessary pain and heartache.
Seeing Our Options
In that space, we have options: Maybe this is not the best time or place for this conversation. Maybe it simply needs to be revisited, once everyone is in a calmer place. Maybe we realize we don’t have all the right information, are misinterpreting the other person, or are caught up in our own assumptions or projections. Whatever the situation, mindfulness helps us avoid acting out our fight-or-flight response.
We are perhaps most frequently triggered in intimate relationships, where conversations about everyday issues can easily explode into heated arguments over larger matters, leaving both parties hurt, misheard, and upset. I remember one particular day when my partner said she needed to discuss something that was upsetting her about our living situation.
As we sat down on the gray living room couch on a sunny afternoon, I felt some apprehension about what was coming. I was immediately defensive, expecting criticism, and as the sun poured through the living room window, she explained her frustration with all the ways I wasn’t pulling my weight around the house.
As she talked, I became triggered. I felt wrongly accused and unfairly judged. As she recounted my behavior over recent months, I was convinced she was wrong and that her perspective was inaccurate. I felt my heart close, my throat tighten, and my breath get shorter as a whole whirlwind of arguments proving my innocence started to race in my head.
Being Mindful of Being Triggered
However, I was mindful about being triggered; I had recently taught a class on emotional self-regulation. I had the wherewithal to simply listen, to wait to respond until my partner was done talking. I knew I needed to calm myself as I felt the defensiveness rise. So I took some deep breaths, felt my feet on the floor, and noticed the reactions in my body.
After doing this for some time, I was able to listen more attentively to her point of view, and I realized, ironically, that she was right! Her perception was completely valid. I was in fact not seeing or attending to the issues she was raising, and I admitted it. Had I not tracked my reactivity and instead become defensive, the whole thing would have exploded into an unnecessary and painful argument.
Mindful awareness can help us when we need it most, freeing us from so much reactivity and unnecessary pain. But it requires practice to pay attention intimately to our experience in the heat of the moment and stay steady in the fire of that experience.
PRACTICE: Working with Triggers
In this meditation you will recall a time when you were triggered or got reactive to a person or in a particular situation. Then you will reimagine the episode by moving through four steps in what is known as the STOP process, an acronym that stands for “stop, take a breath, observe, and proceed.”
Using the STOP practice during this meditation will allow you to access it more readily in everyday life.
Find a comfortable posture, and first settle your awareness into the sensations of sitting and breathing. Then recall a recent time when you were triggered.
Try to remember all the details of what happened, who said what, how you felt, and what was hard or troubling for you in this situation. Notice what caused your frustration, fear, or other strong reaction. Allow yourself to feel the strength of the emotions as if the event were happening now.
The moment you feel yourself becoming triggered, the first and perhaps most important step is to stop. Take a moment to recognize that you are triggered. This pause helps interrupt the reactive spinning mode and allows you time to assess what is happening.
The second step is to breathe deeply. This is a support for the pause. So take three to five deep breaths with long exhales. Notice how slow breathing immediately calms the nervous system and brings clarity to the mind.
The third step is to observe your inner experience. Bring awareness to all your physical reactions, like shortness of breath, tightness in your heart, and tension in the throat, chest, belly, or face. Bring awareness to your emotions. Name them if possible, and sense where you experience them in your body.
Are you feeling anger, fear, or jealousy? Can you feel how even the strongest emotions inevitably change, ebb, and flow?
In addition, observe your thoughts. Name the types that occur, like blame, judgment, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Notice how observing your thoughts creates space around them, so you are not so lost in them.
As this happens, try to identify what triggered or provoked you. Consider if your reaction related to what was going on in that moment or perhaps related to another incident with this person or situation. Was the strength of your reaction due to circumstances or conditions beyond that moment, perhaps from your past?
Once you feel calmer and more clear, then the last step is to proceed, which means to act or respond in an appropriate way, one that ideally creates a positive solution for both parties. Once you have stopped, taken a few deep breaths, and observed your reaction intimately, you will have hopefully interrupted the triggered reaction. You will then be better prepared to reflect on the next steps and respond effectively in ways that help everyone.
As you meditate on these four steps, imagine how your previous encounter might have unfolded if you had followed them.
What lessons can you learn, and what might be a helpful way to move forward? This might mean communicating clearly or allowing time for the dust to settle before doing anything else. If your reaction was overblown, this might identify a particular personal issue to address, perhaps with help from others.
Whatever the decision, it is important to find a way to move forward that both lessens the pain of the experience and sows seeds that make it less likely to happen in the future.
©2019 by Mark Coleman. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. http://www.newworldlibrary.com
From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness
by Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman, who has studied and taught mindfulness meditation for decades, draws on his knowledge to not only clarify what mindfulness truly means but also reveal the depth and potential of this ancient discipline. Weaving together contemporary applications with practices in use for millennia, his approach empowers us to engage with and transform the inevitable stress and pain of life, so we can discover genuine peace — in the body, heart, mind, and wider world. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, an executive coach, and the founder of the Mindfulness Institute, which brings mindfulness training to organizations worldwide. He's led Insight Meditation retreats since 1997, both at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, where he's based, and throughout the United States, Europe, and India. He also teaches contemplative retreats for environmental leaders. He is currently developing a wilderness counseling program and a yearlong training in wilderness meditation work. He can be reached at http://www.markcoleman.org.