Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Meeting Reactivity wth Compassion

"Reactive responses are triggers and are like invisible land mines tied to deeper hurts, fears and pain. Meeting reactivity with compassion can help tame the reactive mind, body and heart." C. Ricardo

Are you aware of your triggers? How do you react when something painful or hurtful happens? Do you blame yourself or others? How does this affect you (body, mind and heart)?

     We all have triggers. There are certain situations, feelings or interactions that when touched set off a reactive/defensive response within us. This defensive response is often instinctual and automatic. It's a natural response to pain and meant to protect us from danger. However, it can backfire when we react in hurtful and wounding ways towards ourselves or others. So there is the pain that lies beneath the trigger and there is the defensive response that is meant to protect us but instead creates more distance, hurt and can potentially turn into  suffering.
The first arrow is the pain in life, the second is suffering...

     This reminds me of a story I heard about how Buddha approached teaching a student about suffering. Buddha asked the student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” and the student replied “It is.” Then the Buddha asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?”  again the student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”  

     The first arrow is the pain we encounter in life, the second arrow is the layer of thoughts, stories and meaning we attribute to the pain. This added layer is suffering. There are many instances where this happens in everyday life. You might be in a hurry to get to the office and stuck in traffic. As you sit there inching along, frustration begins to build. You begin feeling angry and impatient. Once your emotions are triggered your body responds by tensing up. Your heart begins to race and your muscles contract. By the time you get to the office, it feels like steam is coming out of your ears and when a co-worker greets you with a welcoming smile you lash out at them. Or maybe you made a mistake and dropped coffee on your brand new shirt and  your inner judge goes on the war path criticizing an shaming you for not paying attention. The point is that the problem isn't the trigger, it's the way we react to it. 

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." Victor Frankl
     Much of the time pain turns to suffering because we are in some way resisting our experience. We may be  caught up in the world of thoughts, emotions, past regrets or guilt or perhaps we're trying to control the situation or outcome. When we engage with what is happening in our lives in this way, we lose our ability to respond and instead are reacting, trying to fix or in some way control the outcome. We're usually doing this in an effort to dampen or avoid pain, but it doesn't work. In fact, it has the opposite effect of transforming pain to suffering. Meeting pain with resistance causes us to disconnect from our bodies, minds and hearts. It is this disconnection that creates suffering as we tend to go inwards and in doing so feel alone and adrift in a whirlwind of thoughts that may be filled with judgment and fear. To help ourselves, we need to shift back into connection, into the present moment. When we are triggered and pause before reacting, we're able to be present and that moment is an opportunity to shift from reacting to responding. If we really want to stay connected with our values, with the people that matter most in our lives (starting with yourself!) we must be willing to shift the reactive response to one of understanding, love and compassion. This shift is a moment of profound awareness as we notice how the reactive defense is affecting our body, mind, heart. This moment of awareness is a moment of mindfulness.

When challenging/painful situations arise meet the pain with compassion and mindfulness...

"Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." Carl G. Jung

     The first step towards helping ourselves is to become aware of when we are getting caught up in a story or when our emotions are so overwhelming that we and the emotion become fused. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed pause and reflect on the following questions:

  • What is happening in your body right now? (Tension, heart rate is fast, breathing is shallow)
  • How are your thoughts affecting you emotionally? (feeling hurt, sad, angry)
  • What are you believing? (my partner doesn't love me)
  • Before you react, can you pause and call on the breath to help you ground yourself?  
  • As you breathe in really tune into the breath. Think of the breath as an act of self care that helps tame reactive emotions.  
  • Notice how you' re caught up in reactivity; reacting to what is happening. 
We need to pause, breathe and bring a feeling of love and kindness towards ourselves. It's important to express understanding and acknowledge the difficulty we are experiencing in going through this challenging time, event, situation or feeling. This pausing and connecting helps us come back to the moment...it is only a first step but an important one.

Awareness, compassion and learning to stay in the face of pain are essential to healing and connection... 
Awareness is what can help us find our way back to connect with body, breath and life...An acronym that can help is R.A.I.N. it stands for:

Recognize - what is happening. That you've gotten hooked and drifted into thoughts or stories.

Allow - open to your experience. Bring acceptance to meet the pain. If sadness is present then name it and notice where you feel it in your body and pause..can you soften around the sadness...let go of resisting it or judging yourself for it (i.e. I'm weak or silly for feeling this).

Intimacy/Investigate - Get Intimate with what is happening - how are you reacting to your experience. Are you pushing it away? What is in need of attention or kindness?

Non-attachment - know that what you are experiencing (fear, sadness, anger) is an experience you are having and not who you are. For example some people will say I'm just a sad or angry person. You aren't sad every minute of the day and you can't be angry all the time. Being able to see what is happening without getting hooked to it helps you to be more open to the experience.

These are some tips on ways to begin to explore this healing practice.

May you be well
May you be free from suffering
May you be peaceful
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