Do not deny what comes up with your reaction. Reactions aren’t all bad--as some distorted spiritual teachings claim them to be. There are times when they show us where we can no longer accept certain behavior or treatment from another.
Nowadays, many of us are turning towards spirituality and ancient wisdom teachings to enhance our lives and look deeper within. We may have realized that conventional ways are not working so well anymore. Please be aware that it is actually important to learn to engage safely in spiritual practice...who knew?! This way of living should be approached in a balanced way where we can discern what is right for us and what does not serve us.
For the most part, the teachings and teachers are not questioned. Instead they are revered and followed very devoutly. Although it may be seen as “unspiritual” to some, these teachings have to be reviewed or questioned just like anything else. Don’t get me wrong...there are many gifts wrapped in these ancient teachings. There are also many ways that, if practiced to an extreme, these teachings can put you into danger; especially if you are in a vulnerable state or have endured trauma in your life.
What is lacking in many spiritual communities is a healthy balance between respecting our humanness and connecting with our spirit. We need not abandon one for the other. Some people who seek out spirituality are lacking in psychological and emotional awareness, causing them to use the teachings to bypass their humanness in the name of “ego transcendence.” I hate to tell you...but we are stuck with our egos...they are not going anywhere anytime soon!
The ego-mind likes to think and act on our behalf, therefore; it has its own agenda and wants to protect us from our past experiences even though they are not happening in the present. This is understandable and we have to remember that our egos try their best (although limited in their approaches) when they perceive danger in our current environment. Your ego is not “bad” and should not be gotten rid of. Our egos, in fact, allow us to think critically, solve problems, understand interactions, make decisions, discern right from wrong, analyze data and sort through information. If you deny your ego entirely, the workings of your mind can become partially disabled and you may be unable to perform these tasks in any balanced way because you won’t trust your own thoughts and actions. This can be very dangerous!
Even some spiritual teachers, who boast of this transcendence, have the biggest and most destructive egos of all, and ironically, this is all playing out unconsciously...without them even noticing. Or sometimes they are very well aware and simply on a power high. If a teacher is denying the existence of their ego (or thoughts/behaviors/patterns) in an effort to keep their spiritual image, they are also denying their “dark-side”. These parts that are being rejected subconsciously come up and control their life through unconscious behaviors and repeating patterns; even harming others around them who trust them and are wanting to be of service and give of their hearts. Certain spiritual teachers, caught up in their own egos and unconsciously denying their “darkness”, steer us away from expressing a reaction in any way and so we may not recognize the important messages for us that often come along with them.
Let’s talk about “reactions” and the shame that often comes up when daring to allow yourself to actually have them. Overly spiritual people might say that the reaction is just “resistance” to “what is” and that you should “accept things the way they are”. In the case that you are unable to accept “what is”, for any variety of reasons (or are unable to take the spiritual route and you do have a reaction) you may feel shame because you have not practiced the teachings in the best way possible. Or maybe you think that you are not worthy of this spiritual practice because you aren’t doing it right and are getting away from your intention.
Sometimes, it is just not complete to say that you are just in resistance or that you should accept things as they are. There is more for us to see here. In cases of abuse or manipulation, why should we just accept what is? Maybe we should not. Maybe we should speak out for what is right or say those facts that someone who is abusive wouldn’t want to get out. Actually, I think that is exactly what we should do. Because whatever abuse or dysfunction is going on is enabled by us being quiet or just accepting it. The cycle will continue if we spiritualize our reaction to these types of dynamics. This is a case where you can use your ego-mind to discern what is right for you to do...but not if someone has convinced you to believe the ego is all bad and should be thrown to the wolves!
Let’s say you are overwhelmed by your life circumstances and you feel like you are reaching a breaking point. You may have a reaction. In this case, feeling the emotions strongly enough to get into the reaction may actually be healthy for you in order to make a change.
We are taught that reactions come up from unresolved circumstances, in the form of triggers, from our past. When something irritates or angers us, we should:
I agree with this teaching in principle and it has been beneficial to me--increasing my capacity in many areas. However, if you are in an abusive situation, or are constantly pushed too far over your edge of comfort, this teaching can be practiced in a distorted way.
In a spiritual community, we learn that once we have dropped the energy behind the reaction (calmed down) and have the ability to respond...then we can approach the person who triggered us. That is a good plan...except that, at this point, we may have prematurely forgotten about the impact of the abusive person or forgiven them for their actions, even if it was not a forgivable thing that they did. Yes, I said it...some things are unforgivable!
If we spiritualize everything and live in some ethereal realm floating above ourselves, completely detached from our humanness, then we may allow people to treat us in many ways that are not healthy, not conducive to our growth, or even keep us in cycles of trauma. We could be spiritually bypassing our reaction and denying our own feelings about it in an effort to “let go of”, “relax with”, or even “surrender to” it. What we are actually doing, in many cases, is suppressing the reaction. Beware, what you may be “surrendering” to is abuse!
Let’s talk about the messages that accompany reactions.
Maybe you are in a circumstance where you are under a lot of pressure at work and your partner isn’t very supportive (seems to be a common example these days). So, something sets you off and you “flip out” and start screaming at them about how you can’t do this anymore and then realize that you have to make a big change--that is probably accurate. And yet, if you are trying to follow extreme spiritual teachings on reactions then you may think you should just drop it or let it go and wait until you drop the energetic charge and can respond. Here, you stay with the partner; you stay at the job.
This is an alternative: when you lose your temper, allow your reaction to reveal to you that you have to make a big change. Look at it. Investigate: what is it trying to tell you? Question it...let it be there. Be with it. Don’t be afraid...this takes courage.
You know, if you “breathe” enough with it (especially many different times with the same trigger) and it passes, you may just conclude that you are in a reaction based on your “past programming” and you were wrong to think those things. Or maybe you can respond instead when you drop the energetic charge. By that time, you have probably talked yourself out of what you know you need to do...once again. This breathing and acceptance may happen again and again with you believing it is your own internal work to do; giving the other person a pass.
Of course, others shouldn’t be continuously subjected to your reactions. There are ways to express them--or you can learn to listen to yourself before they become so forceful. You should note: if they come up often, you need to take action or you may stay complacent under terrible conditions.
So, what if this big blast of energy in the form of a reaction is informing you that you are to make a change? Oftentimes, it is. Don’t throw out the information it gave you just because it came up the way it did. Don’t walk out of alignment with yourself, your body, and what you know you must do. Yes, by all means you can wait to calm down before you respond, but don’t miss the point! Use your reaction to empower yourself to see the truth of the matter. Reach a place where you are not overtaken by emotions, can act calmly, and discern what is appropriate for you.
Allow taking care of yourself and feeling safe to be your biggest priority. Realize that the reaction arrived for a reason. You may constantly be putting yourself over your edge where you will face anxiety, depression, rage, and shutdown.
In my experience, this is the core of many episodes of anxiety: knowing you should do something and not following your knowledge and intuition to change something in your life. Instead, you may find yourself discarding this information, not listening to yourself, feeling too much fear to do something different, maybe denying what you feel in your body. And so you avoid making a decision, maybe unknowingly justify another’s actions. Sit in what does not serve you. You are crawling in your skin. And you feel awful.
Maybe you KNOW you should get away from your partner who you constantly argue with or leave the abusive job that requires way too much of your energy... and that’s what causes you to be very reactive. Instead of believing you are the problem, realize that you need to create a solution-- and follow through with it. Even if it feels unnatural and impossible because it is not your usual pattern--get some support and go with it!
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. As in, don’t ignore the action that came to you--just because it came in the form of a re-ACTION.
You need not over-spiritualize your humanness. The gift of this life is to experience the richness of your human side, both dark and light, as you connect to your spirit--grounded on this earth.
For as long as I can remember, people have labeled me the “smart” kid. Being smart was my identity that earned me a curious combination of respect and bullying from my peers in elementary school. My teachers would marvel, calling me a “walking Encyclopedia,” yet never quite knowing how to handle my social ineptitude, which I now know was a behavioral and emotional response to complex trauma. In high school I was voted the “class brain,” and there are several painful stories of people—both would-be romantic partners and friends—finding me too smart for them. Even the spiritual name that my teacher gave me, Pragya, means intelligent, wise one, specifically attributed to the goddess Saraswati’s holistic knowledge. I can acknowledge that my unique breed of intelligence allows me to do many big things in the world as it relates to my business, writing, advocating, training and mentoring others…all that jazz.
So why do I still feel so fucking dumb when it comes to navigating my own life and recovery? I’ve clocked more hours in trauma-focused therapy than I’ve spent working on my advanced degrees. You are never going to meet anyone more willing to work on her own shit, and I’ve done that from a variety of perspectives since I first got sober in 2002. Spiritual direction, intense yoga practice, reiki, Rolfing and the whole menu of bodywork, intuitive exploration… you name it, I’ve done it. I even gave some of the old fashioned religion that was the source of so much of my own trauma a try here and there, on the off chance that they were “right” all along. These last two months of 2019 revealed to me another profound layer of the deep damage that these experiences created, impairing my ability to function as I’d like to in the world. I’m still wading through what has been revealed with my village of helpers and may share more publicly at a later time. I will say this in the spirit of candidness that has come to define my approach to mental health advocacy: I still have a hard time shaking the core belief that I am stupid as it relates to trusting myself and my own judgment. Being hopeful as it relates to anything connected to personal happiness sets off an allergic reaction of sorts in me, sending me back to the I am stupid and I am cursed beliefs that were put there by a variety of abuses, especially the ones that deeply connected to spiritual or identity issues. I often ask myself, “How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?”
And in that second question rests a big part of the answer—I am not stupid, yet I can be foolish. Somewhere during this month from hell that was December 2019, it dawned on me that foolish is my one word intention for 2020. I’ve engaged in this ancient practice of embracing a word at the dawn of each year for almost a decade now, and foolish certainly is the most curious choice of a word to emerge. Yet it has, so I’m going with it.
There are many meanings of the word foolish dating back to Middle English, with many pejoratives like weak-minded, silly, or lacking judgment offered up as definitions. Yet one definition which is largely associated with the Holy fool archetype is “an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm.” That’s certainly me. Have you ever seen me dance? Or geek out about something that incites my interests and passions? Or bubble with an Anne Frank-like optimism that even with all of the shit happening in the world, people are still really good at heart?
One of my most precious spiritual influences, the Dutch theologian Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) cast a very beautiful light on what it means to be foolish in his complied reader Spiritual Formation (2015). Foolish means “slow to believe.” He goes on:
Foolish is a hard word. It can also crack open a cover of fear and self-consciousness and lead to a whole new knowledge of being human. It is a wake-up call, a ripping off of blindfolds, a tearing down of useless, protective devices. You foolish people, don’t you see? Don’t you hear? Don’t you know?
Wow. I’ve been in this process of my healing for quite a while now. And framing it this way allows me to offer a new compassion to myself. My hesitancy to believe beautiful things about the reality of my true self, my nature, and the non-abusive reality of the Divine is a legitimate response to the impact of trauma. It’s been slow going for sure yet when I look at the progression of my life since I first started questioning things at the age of 19, I can see that I’ve learned quite a bit. My belief about myself and my spirit have shifted immensely. Of course I can get tripped up when I fall into some of the same patterns or get tangled up in the same knots, especially as it relates to love and personal relationships. I’ve had quite a bit of shame to wade through being a public figure in the trauma recovery movement and ending up in a second marriage that was abusive on every level. Cops were called, the whole nine yards—in time, I may choose to reveal more publicly yet this is a big step for me saying this much out loud.
“How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?,” I cried out many nights as I scrambled for a way to get out and end up with my sanity intact.
Today, just over two years later, the important point to emphasize is that I got out, and more than that, I’ve forgiven myself for being human and maybe even a bit foolish. It’s taken me a long time to learn certain things, and that education continues. May I be kind to myself about this reality in 2020 and in whatever years I may get to live beyond that.
May I also recognize that being foolish isn’t all bad—teasing out the doubts and being eager to learn new ways of being in the world fuels my sense of curiosity that always keeps this life interesting. And the enthusiasm that comes with being foolish—every time I feel my own smile on my face I can tap into some sense of gratitude for not losing that child-like sense of wonder, even though I’ve felt battered around by the world quite a bit. One of my favorite artists, Krishna Das, wove these beautiful verses called My Foolish Heart into one of his chants:
My foolish heart
Why do you weep?
You throw yourself away again
Now you cry yourself to sleep
My foolish heart
When will you learn?
You are the eyes of the world
And there’s nowhere else to turn
It’s little wonder I embraced these verses as an anthem of sorts in the wake of getting out of my marriage. As I’ve listened to them over and over again in the past weeks, I’m hearing an invitation to trust myself more, to trust in the process of it all with greater abandon. There may still be some big healing projects that need to take place for this trust to fully crystallize, and I’m game. Like any holy fool, I cannot resist the opportunity to indulge the enthusiasm.
Photograph of Dr. Jamie by Mary Riley
Institute for creative mindfulness
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