Category Archives: trauma

When things trigger painful memories

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.

Transitions, Loss and Discovery

We are in the few weeks between the ‘end of summer’ marked in the US by Labor Day and nature’s end of summer on the upcoming Autumnal Equinox. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s worthwhile to notice any feelings that arise out of this sense of an ending with the days growing shorter and the air cooling. Whenever we are in transition, it is particularly kind to give ourselves a little extra time and space to process our experience.

In Thursday’s class we had a discussion based on questions and comments within the sangha circle. At the end of class, I commended the circle for collectively creating a dharma discussion that was skillful in the ways I discussed previously in What Makes an Effective Sangha Discussion?

Though there’s no way to recapture all of what was shared, here are some of the areas we explored.

Noticing our Emotions
One student asked the difference between ‘noticing’ our emotions and ‘feeling’ our emotions. Although this could just be a matter of semantics and personal choice, for me the word ‘noticing’ — which is what I encourage my students to do — creates more spaciousness around the emotion to allow it to exist without our having to act upon it. We have the capacity to develop a spacious field of loving awareness where all manner of experiences arise and fall away. If we do get caught up the urgency of an emotion’s call to action, then some portion of our awareness is noticing this as well.

Our practice of noticing is not to develop a distant detached observer avoiding the experience of life. This is more likely to be a judgmental aspect of our personality rather than an access to Wise View (aka Right View, from of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.) We didn’t come into this life to sit on the sidelines and watch! In our practice we are developing the ability to be in the stream of life fully present and awake. There are many posts on this blog that address what being in the moment entails, and I encourage you to read in the archive of posts to find ones that have meaning for you and help to answer or at least explore what’s up for you at this time.

As an example of noticing an emotion, we explored anger a bit. We can ‘feel’ anger but then what? What is the next step? What are we to do with this feeling? With noticing, we look closer, activate curiosity, discover related physical sensation and associative images and memories. Noticing is an opportunity to use a strong emotion to learn something about ourselves, something that might have been hidden or ignored. It also allows us to see that emotions, thoughts and physical sensations are in a constant state of flux. This in turn helps us to see that they are not who we are. We can’t pin our identity on waves of activity that arise and fall away and are experienced by everyone, depending on the causes and conditions they experience.

This is an open-ended discussion and in no way discourages us from feeling our emotions!

Coping With Loss
One student shared the relatively recent loss of a loved one. We are a group of women of a certain age, and there is not one among us who has not lost someone we love. But even though loss is universal, all our experiences of loss are not the same, and that’s important for us all to remember.
In our mindfulness practice, we focus not on the experiences themselves, telling the story of the event again and again, but on how we in the present moment are reacting, responding or relating to them. Are we being present with the pain we notice, or are we compounding this pain with more suffering by grasping, clinging, pushing away or denying the experience? Can we create a spacious field of loving awareness in which to experience whatever arises? Can we hold it all in an open loving embrace, making room for the ebb and flow of our experience?

I shared an analogy that students have told me has been most helpful with loss or a traumatic event:

Imagine a mountain lake, beautiful and pristine. Then imagine out of the blue a large rock, maybe even a boulder, maybe even a meteor falling into the middle of the lake. This is the traumatic event — the death of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, the loss of a career, health or an ability, for example.

When the boulder falls, the point of entering the lake is chaos. The water is churned up, huge splashes, bubbles, waves — all is thrown out of balance. Everything is upside down and out of control. If we are practiced at being aware and noticing, what we notice is this sense of being overwhelmed by huge emotions. We may be too overwhelmed to notice. We may rage against the very practices that have supported us because they are insufficient to protect us from this sense of being overwhelmed. I remember in the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’ when Ram Dass suffered a stroke and was being wheeled into the hospital, he wondered what was the point of all his meditative practice if at this moment it wasn’t there to make everything okay. (I’m paraphrasing.) He who had a strong spiritual practice all his life lost it in that moment of great loss and anguish. In that moment of incredible pain and turmoil, there feels as if there is nothing to hold onto. So we let go. We experience the pain of it. We do the best we can. Maybe we get lost, but just as we come back to the present moment and our breath in meditation after our mind has wandered, we come back to that which supports us. For meditators, it is our practice, our access to a sense of spacious oneness.

To continue our analogy: In the following days, weeks, months and years after the event, what we notice is periods where life goes on relatively normally, and then periods where we feel thrust ‘back’ into the churning emotions. For many of us, especially after a good deal of time has passed, we may see this as ‘losing ground,’ as if we are supposed to be making some kind of linear progress away from being affected by this event.

But remember the lake, the boulder falling, and what is the naturally arising result? There are ripples. Long after the boulder has settled at the bottom of the lake, the water radiates from the point of impact outward in widening circles. So too with a traumatic event. The calm spaces between the ripples grow wider, and the ripples grow smaller, but they still exist, quite naturally.

Just so, it is quite natural for us to wake up one day and feel quite strongly the emotional ramifications of that event, however long ago it was. Yesterday we were fine and today perhaps our heart aches, as if the boulder is sitting on our chest. At these times it is most skillful to acknowledge that this is natural, no matter what anyone says, and to give ourselves whatever kindness we can, not to make the feelings disappear, but just to create enough spaciousness in our awareness to experience them, to allow for them.

This is an important lesson for all of us, whether the loss is our own or someone else’s. We can remember this image when a friend seems to be ‘slipping back’ into grief or depression. These feelings are amplified by misinterpreting them as failings to keep up the time-lined task of healing. At these times a true friend doesn’t say, ‘It’s been x amount of time. Get over it already!’ or words that sound like that to the person addressed, even when put in a nicer way. This brings us back to remembering that even though loss is universal, we each experience it in our own way, and no one else can tell us how we should be feeling.

Mindfulness Practices We Might Already Have
We also discussed if one doesn’t have a daily meditation practice and doesn’t feel there is time in the day to create one, how to take an existing activity and make it a mindfulness practice. Being more mindful — in the moment — as we walk, for example, instead of using it as a time to make a to do list or put buds in our ears to listen to someone elses words. Swimming also is a natural for mindfulness practice, so full of sensations to draw our attention. So that is something to consider if life just feels too full to add a meditation practice. I work with people one on one to help them develop space for daily practice in whatever form it takes. Contact me if that is something you would like to explore. But let me still put in a plug for at least some sitting practice!!

So that’s some of what we explored in our sangha discussion. If you weren’t there, I hope I’ve given you at least of taste of what you missed!

Painters savor the ordinary moments. Do You?

Before Dinner by Pierre Bonnard.
Robert Lehman Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the Automat by Edward Hopper
Permanent Collection,
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa

Most of us prioritize and rate the moments in our lives. We look forward to a party and reflect on a special performance we attended. These peak moments stand out against a backdrop of our regular lives full of moments we don’t consider worth noting: Going to the grocery store, walking the dog, ironing a shirt – you know, the necessary but not very interesting events in our lives that make the peak events possible.

A major event in the future can flavor, or even dominate, our present experience. Usually we have mild anticipation or anxiety that occasionally floats through our present experience. And then there’s the phenomenon of being totally driven by some future event. We’ve all met bridezilla, the woman whose wedding day looms so largely over her life that she is practically consumed by it. To varying degrees we all go a little bridezilla at times about an upcoming event, whether it’s a gathering, a trip, a speech or a surgical procedure.

Events in the past can dominate our lives as well. Some traumatic events drop like rocks into the pools of our lives and make a huge splash that ripples out for a long time into the future. If we are aware of the ripple quality of such events, we can cope with the occasional ripple of emotional turmoil when it passes through our current experience. At these times we can compassionately give ourselves a little down time to be with whatever thoughts or emotions have come up.

But if we don’t understand the ripple nature of traumatic pain, then when it comes along we may think we are back in the splash of the original experience. And in our panic at ‘being back there again when we thought we were past it’ we start flailing about, creating much bigger waves and much more suffering.

Past and future events often do flavor the present moment, but if we live for that future moment we develop a pattern of leaning into the future, so that when that crowning moment comes, we don’t really know how to be present for it. Our mind is habituated to focus on the future, and we miss it – that one perfect moment we had been waiting for!

Some of us dwell in the past, only able to enjoy moments as memories, storing them away like a squirrel with nuts to be savored later. Or we dredge up past pain as if we don’t deserve to have a moment free and clear to savor right now. Thus we miss the only moment we truly have to live with all our senses. This one. The only moment that actually exists!

But even if we are not living in the past or the future, we tend to value some moments more than others. And so I wanted to bring to your attention to the fact that painters rarely are interested in painting the peak moments. Very few paintings are done of weddings or parties in full swing, those moments we tend to value most. Instead they find beauty in the none-peak moments, the preparations for an event, staring out a window, reading a book, sitting — quiet moments where nothing much seems to be happening. Why is that?

Because the real treasure is right here and right now. For you, in this moment, sitting in front of your computer, the screen, the room, the light and shadows, the temperature, the feel of your body on the chair, the sounds, the smells, whatever is happening right now. Let yourself sink completely into this moment. As if it were the subject of an artist’s brush. This moment is most definitely worthy of being painted. And worthy of being lived with full appreciation and awareness.