Sinking Beneath

Does life feel like a perpetual series of crises? Does drama feel endless? When feeling stressed, is there a rush and overflow of thoughts and a feeling like action is needed now, now? Is there even an awareness of a gap between the stimulus and the reaction? Do we act out with immediacy, without consideration, leaping into familiar modes of saving, intimidating, or escaping?

Within us are vulnerable places, old wounds or buried sensations stored in the body. Even the most well-adjusted and nurtured among us are likely to have something of the kind. Childhood can be wonderful and a terrifying, overwhelming experience. Traumas encountered as we grow and age can similarly become stored away, unprocessed, influencing us from behind the scenes.

We might be more driven by these buried memories more than we realize. However we managed that situation as a child potentially informs the structure of our responses to anything else that feels similarly stressful or overwhelming. If anger was shut down, we may automatically shut down anger even when it is necessary for self-protection. If we had to contort ourselves to please confusing demands from our caregivers, we may grow up constantly attempting to read and adapt to the expectations of those around us, or to the mental images we carry in our minds of what those confusing caregivers would have wanted from us. Adults becoming more independent, complex, and mature at some point must face the contradiction of the childhood image of certain adults as near-godlike in their wisdom, beneficence, terror, or demand for obedience; versus the adulthood realizations of those same adults as simply human, flawed, loving, wounded, or scared.

I do not advocate that we blame our adult problems on childhood lay them at the feet of our caregivers, but I believe strongly in the value of understanding how history has shaped and informed the present. Of particular importance is the way our story of history shapes our experience of the now. We do not have to start with the autobiography when stuck in crises or in compulsory emotional and mental responses that feel uncontrollable. We first start with noticing that this is our experience. Somehow I always seem to have this response in this kind of situation. I get angry when someone does this, and then feel embarrassed later when I realize what the person actually meant. If we are able to notice and have contact with the observing part of self, we can now learn to catch that response in the moment and sinking deeper. I’m getting angry, so I will take a breath and notice what else is happening. What’s going on in my body? What thoughts are coming up? What emotions do I find? What is similar to the past? With the metaphor of sinking, I imagine a storm troubling the surface of a pond, which is my usual awareness, and slowly dropping deeper beneath to still waters, able to gaze up and see the troubled surface.

I do not advocate discounting all of our immediate responses as somehow inferior relics from childhood, either. Anger or fear may well be a legitimate response to something in the situation we cannot quite name, and perhaps that emotion is also made bigger by previous experiences or something we’re not quite recognizing. Sinking into a larger awareness of what is occurring helps us to get more information and make more accurate responses. If I do not feel I can address the situation accurately when I feel angry, I can come up with strategies to manage the anger until I’m ready.

What I think brings balance is inviting the opposite into my experience. When I feel the urge to speed up, I can take a breath and try to slow down internally. When I feel the urge to lash out and protect, I can try to consider what is motivating the actions that feel like an attack. In major crisis situations, instinct is a valuable asset to help us through. If we can practice this slowing down and seeking balance in situations that are less urgent, we can become calmer and more effective in dealing with everyday matters and the big, scary crises if they come, as they come.