I was in the zone.
The mouthwatering aroma of fresh-brewed coffee rose from the porcelain mug beside my keyboard. Soft lamplight shrouded my desk. Wind chimes rustled in the darkness beyond the window. I was nestled in my faux-leather executive chair, happily pecking out chapter summaries for a book proposal.
Then my cell phone burbled. I ended the sentence I was crafting, and saw a text message from my girlfriend. A warm smile creased my face. I always glow when I receive texts from her.
“Why did you want to change your status on Facebook from Single to In a Relationship with me?”
That’s how it began, innocently enough and unexpectedly.
The corners of my smile drooped under the weight of her inquiry. I wondered where this was leading. She was proofreading a chapter I had written on love that was part of the book proposal I was preparing. I felt something inside me recoil and clench.
The story line on my end was already whirring and taking shape. It just needed the pop of the starting gun to send it reeling.
“Seemed like the thing to do,” was my suave response. We knew we were in love and had been dating long enough to consider ourselves a couple. I felt it safe to inform cyber-world we were an item. I mean, a relationship isn’t official nowadays until it’s posted on Facebook, right?
With unheeded reluctance, I asked, “Why?”
Seconds later another burble, “I was just hoping it was because you felt that what we have is special.”
That was it, the trigger that formed a full-throttle narrative in my head.
We spent the next half-hour texting back and forth. Something I had written in the article she was proofing sparked an abandonment trigger within her. Her questioning how I felt about us as a couple flared two triggers inside of me, those being my dread of unnecessary drama and my feeling insulted by what I perceive as unwarranted accusations.
Regretfully, we both succumbed to the nettlesome emotional knots we harbor inside of ourselves; it’s easy to do.
We’re human, and having triggers is part of the human condition. We’re not alone in this—everyone has them.
If we anger easily when someone shrugs us off instead of acknowledging something we’ve said, perhaps we can trace its origin back to a teacher who slighted us. Or if we automatically rebel when someone asks us in an imperative tone of voice to do something, we might actually be reacting to having been raised by a domineering parent.
Whatever the situational prompt, the usual sequence is that everything’s going along in its ho-hum way, then something or someone causes a click inside of us that culminates in a surge of fear, anger or frustration. We, in turn, overreact to the incidental provocation in a manner most often perplexing, problematic and embarrassing; we’re triggered.
So, what exactly is an emotional trigger?
According to Michael Singer in his book, The Untethered Soul, we have within us energy patterns from past, unresolved incidences; as energy from life events enters into us, it must be allowed to exit. If we cling to the event and our emotional reaction to it, the energy will become blocked inside of us, at which point it will circle around itself. Singer writes, “Sensory inputs from today’s events dig through all the stuff you have stored through the years, and they restore the exact past patterns associated with the incoming events.”
In other words, everything is energy. When we experience something it’s because the energy from what we’re experiencing makes an impression within us, altering our individual energy field.
We then either allow it to pass through us—regardless of whether we label the experience good or bad—or we cling to it, creating a knot of sorts within us. This knot contains all the sensory data from the initial experience. When a reminiscent experience stimulates it, it triggers a release of the stored sensory data we then associate with the new experience.
If the original experience was bad, our tendency in re-experiencing it will be to defend ourselves against whatever or whomever we perceive as a threat.
Lisa Stanley, the director of Shambhala Meditation Center in Portland, Oregon, says being triggered is “When the experience we’re having in the present moment comes overlaid with thoughts that churn into a storyline that, in a sense, solidifies things.”
According to Director Stanley, the Shambhalian Buddhist view of emotions is they are energy and can become neuroses or wisdom. That sounds both disheartening and inspiring—disheartening if we’re unaware of it, inspiring if we are.
How do we turn experiences into wisdom rather than allowing them to congeal into neuroses?
Director Stanley suggests maintaining a regular meditation practice. She says doing so will enable us to be in the present moment more so, which will slow us down so we can see our habitual ways of thinking and reacting. According to her, “Meditation creates spaciousness within which to observe the experience of being triggered.”
Another strategy for effectively managing triggers is to change our belief system about our experiences.
Dr. Jeremy Capello, a psychologist practicing in Austin, Texas, says “We can’t change the past, but we can change how we hold it; we can change how we think about it.” According to him, “If we look at it from a more objective perspective, the chances are we won’t have an emotional flare up.”
This advice elicits a sigh of relief from me.
I like the thought of no more flare ups, no more emotionally charged narratives spiraling into the Twilight Zone. But how do we get to where we’re able to hold it differently? Dr. Capello suggests talking about it with someone we trust. He says doing so releases its energy—its pressure—and we’ll get an objective take on it from the other person.
Both Lisa Stanley and Dr. Capello emphasize that eradicating triggers should not be one’s goal.
Viewing them in terms of goodness and badness entails judgment, and trying to completely do away with them misdirects where our attention should be focused. Rather than seeing triggers as things to cure, we’d do better to be mindfully present when they begin to ignite; without judgment, they lose their potency.
In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel states, “We have the need to justify everything, to explain and understand everything, in order to feel safe.” When we make assumptions, we’re creating a fear-based narrative. Our assumptions then become our individual truths, parts of the lens through which we see the world. A consequence of this is “We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing.”
Or as I would put it, we waste 30 minutes hurling text messages lit with our fear-based fictions.
Wouldn’t that time be better spent writing chapter summaries for the book proposal we’re stoked about, or sending messages that warm hearts and nurture relationships?
Gerald Jampolsky exquisitely points out in his book, Love is Letting Go of Fear, “Fear always distorts our perception and confuses us as to what is going on.” Isn’t it ironic that when something severely unpleasant happens to us, our way of attempting to defend ourselves against its future recurrence is to harbor the negative experience inside of ourselves and project it onto our present reality?
We actually harm ourselves in a futile attempt to keep from being harmed. We harm ourselves by carrying the toxic emotional knot inside of us. We harm ourselves further by allowing it to cause us to react fearfully.
To my girlfriend’s credit, her portion of our half-hour texting episode was mostly spent seeking clarity and understanding. She recognized her trigger early on and faced her fear. I took a little longer to identify both of mine. We eventually stopped sending each other messages and instead talked about it over the phone, which proved a lot more productive.
As for the chapter summaries I was writing, I finished those.
Tonight, my stalwart coffee mug stands empty at my keyboard. The wind chimes outside of my window are hanging silently in the still air. Before I brush my teeth and head to bed, I think I’ll perch atop my meditation cushion and create a little more mental spaciousness within which to channel emotional energy into wisdom rather than letting it to fester into neuroses. I’ll then send my girlfriend a mushy text message in hope of creasing her face with a warm smile.
One thing’s for sure: I’m a work in progress. We all are.
What a relief to know there’s lots of opportunity for positive change if we’re willing to take the necessary steps.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Catherine Monkman