When I’m studying French on the Duolingo app, sometimes I find myself thinking about a restaurant where we recently met up with family members. Why? I was early and used the time to finish up my lesson while we waited for them, and now the restaurant and Duolingo are linked in some mental thought thread in my head.
Why am I telling you this? Because we all have lingering thoughts in our minds that come up in certain situations, and it’s skillful to notice what they are and if they are upsetting, which this example was not, to find a way to process them.
You are probably familiar with Marie Kondo and her books and Netflix series about tidying up. She is different from typical organizers because her emphasis is on paying attention to the thoughts that come up when you hold an object — a piece of clothing, for example. She has her readers and viewers ask themselves, ‘Does this spark joy?’
For many the concept of sparking joy is difficult to grasp. A friend of mine said that she couldn’t get it until she discovered ‘a back door’ to understanding it. She was holding an old T-shirt she never wore but couldn’t think of a logical reason to get rid of since it was in good shape and fit. Then she realized that it reminded her of a very negative experience in her distant past. Spark joy? Quite the opposite! But it revealed the strong relationship between seemingly benign objects and complex mental processes.
Neuroscientists say we have a negativity bias, so it’s not surprising that it was easier for her to notice a bad feeling arising than a good one. But either way, once we see that connection, we are more attuned to noticing thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that crop up in reaction to certain stimuli. It’s not a big leap to purposefully pay attention and note if those feelings are positive or negative.
If negative, Marie Kondo says to thank the object and put it in a pile to give away. I like this respectful relationship with objects. Would it be as skillful to take that T-shirt and project all the unhappiness it reminds her of, and banish it from her sight? It’s more skillful to see that while the T-shirt has bad memories for her, it might provide a positive experience for someone else. Giving it away as an act of generosity and good will is a more empowering and pleasurable than banishment.
Noticing the connection between objects and mental formations is powerful. We can better understand how PTSD gets triggered, too. We are prone to thinking of post traumatic stress as something only soldiers in combat suffer. Certainly, their experiences are often overwhelming compared to what most of us go through. While we may experience severe trauma, it is unlikely we will experience it again and again, unless we are being repeatedly victimized and have no means of escape.
But many of us have experienced moments of fear, physical pain or other trauma. Long after these incidents have passed, we may relive the trauma when we are where it happened, in a similar situation or exposed to sensory triggers. But we may not even be fully aware that that is what is happening. We just suddenly feel fearful, sad, depressed, tense. Maybe it’s like the sun has just gone behind a cloud and everything is a little duller.
One personal example: Twenty or so years ago we had a power outage and the garage door had to be opened manually. My husband and daughter were leaving and I was staying home for the day. After they pulled out of the garage, I manually lowered the door from inside. Somehow in the process my finger got caught between two horizontal panels that interlock. The pain was excruciating. I screamed as loud as I could. I had to get immediate help. But would anyone hear me? My husband and daughter were inside a vehicle with the motor running and heading out. Our only near neighbor was gone for the day. In that instant I imagined spending eight hours stuck in pain, standing there helpless.
Fortunately, my daughter has amazing hearing, and they were able to rescue me. My finger wasn’t permanently damaged and we installed interior handles on garage door (and now plan to look into the backup batteries they have for them!) But every time I am around that garage door, that memory, that woozie feeling, that fear, are all present with me.
What about you? Have you ever been in a situation that was physically and/or emotionally painful? If so, have you noticed that whenever you are where it happened, memories arise with associated physical sensations? And if so, are these memories of a different quality than memories of benign events or pleasurable ones? Perhaps your experience doesn’t qualify as trauma to you, but regardless of its severity, the mind works the same way, and even though your experience doesn’t require therapy, it does benefit from noticing.
I have noticed that shining a light on that garage door experience of mine has somewhat neutralized my reactivity to being around the door. Simply noticing and registering how these mental connections happen can be of great benefit.
I am no expert in trauma, but as an insight meditation teacher trained to observe patterns of mental processes, here’s what I’ve noticed:
Trauma is an overwhelming experience that is challenging to release because it is a compressed period of intense senses and emotions. Therefore, we need to give ourselves more quiet time to process it all. We don’t necessarily have to sit still. We can walk, row, hike, do physical chores, etc. — but the mind has to have time to disengage from busy life and distractions.
Meditation enables us to cultivate a compassionate field of awareness where we can safely be present with even the most difficult emotional content. After periods of meditation, we are better able to see thoughts as threads passing through our current experience. We can see these mental formations as passing products of ongoing processes. They are not who we are. They do not define us. And they are not permanent if we are paying attention.
The more aware I am of my emotional reactivity to the garage door, the less it causes an emotional reaction. I am not trying to get rid of my feelings or change anything. Awareness is powerful. Add in some metta (lovingkindness) for ourselves and for the trigger location and for anyone else involved, and there will be even deeper healing.
In the case of severe trauma, there will likely be some self-protective fear that sabotages awareness, and makes us unwilling to go there — in Buddhism this is called the Dragon at the Gate. If you find yourself paralyzed at the gate of deep investigation that will free you to be fully alive in every moment, then consider finding a skilled therapist to act as a guide.
Noticing the pattern of our thoughts is one of the great benefits of meditation, and especially going on a silent meditation retreat. Befriending the dragon at the gate of awareness, we gain insight and the freedom to be fully alive in this moment.