“When thorns rub against thorns, they crush one another and feel it less. When thorns rub against flowers, they tear them to pieces…” — Paraphrased quote attributed to the Sufi poet, Saadi Shirazi
When We Get Triggered
In June, while exercising in my neighborhood, I passed an older gentleman. He looked quite fit in his racing bike attire and was taking a break. Leaning on his recumbent bicycle in the shade of a tree, he took a sip from his water bottle and kept staring at me as I approached. I nodded to him and he smiled back.
I was wearing one of my COVID-19 masks and had taken a wide berth around him to give us both space. He was not wearing a mask, as was the case with most of the people I’d passed on bicycles or on foot that day. I was routinely in a very small minority of mask-wearers. Admittedly, this was troublesome to me.
As I passed him, and to my surprise, he began to mock me…for wearing a mask. Coming so unexpectedly, his words stung. And my heart quickened.
Catching Ourselves In The Act Of Having A Reaction
That was a first. His remark surprised me and I had an immediate physiological response. My heart rate went up, my breathing got more shallow and there was a knot in my stomach. I had not experienced mask mocking until that day. I’m 60, my husband’s 70, and we have no interest in getting COVID-19 or spreading it, so we take the data seriously and take the necessary precautions.
With this in mind, I’d chosen to wear a mask everywhere I went, whenever I left our home. In this time of feeling like there is so much we can’t do, that is one of a few things I can do. Wearing a mask, washing my hands a lot and physical distancing are things I choose to do; no one has to mandate these for me to take action. Thankfully, so far, no one in our home has gotten sick.
Of course, I’d like for everyone to take these precautions. While I understand many of the reasons people give for not doing it, I don’t happen to agree with them. And I am clear that mask wearing (or not) is its own triggering event. It is a constant reminder that we are living through troubling and confusing times. We are all sorting through a range of feelings, some of which are being triggered just beneath our conscious awareness. It is a feature of these times. And it is a recipe for disaster, if we are not aware that it’s happening, skilled in trauma-informed work or prepared for shadow eruptions.
I’m Not Innocent
I’ll admit it, I have expressed dismay and dissatisfaction with “those people” quietly to myself and out loud in my inner circles. Yes, I was in judgment of “that man” for not wearing a mask. Sometimes the judgments are conscious, sometimes not. Beware the latter.
Clearly, we had different opinions, values and views on the subject. And those showed up in our choices (mask or no mask), our outward behaviors (mock or be curious; attack or react) and stance toward one another (related or unrelated). Whether these situations become more toxic and dangerous is up to us.
When we try to force our values on one another or, even worse, stomp on our own, without any examination or willingness to explore, things can get ugly, fast. Relationships with ourselves and others deteriorate quickly in the absence of internal examination, consideration or fierce conversation. This is also a recipe for true disconnection, separation and loneliness.
Guilty as charged. In truth, I was just as judgmental as that man was that day…just not out loud or in an out loud mocking tone toward a neighbor or stranger. I’d like to think that doing it privately makes me better. It doesn’t. And, maybe, “those people” I felt anger toward, for not doing it my way, felt that anger and judgment anyway, energetically? I don’t get to claim the high ground here.
What Happens When We Are Triggered?
Bottom line, in the moment he began to mock me, verbally and with his facial expressions, my body did what it is designed to do, instinctually. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body’s unconscious actions. The sympathetic nervous system signals the fight-flight-freeze response, that visceral or gut response driven by our body’s natural reaction to danger. Perhaps because of my own history with complex PTSD and my work to heal and develop healthier responses, I was more aware that I was triggered and had a choice. Even so, I was still caught in the grips of a reaction.
This stress response is vital. It helps us to react quickly to perceived threats, like a car honking, a snake hissing or someone yelling “stop!” In an instant, it gets our immediate attention and causes a surge in both hormonal and physiological changes that can help us to get to safety quickly. Precisely because it is so immediate, it can also lead to unintended and devastating consequences where the reaction does not fit the stimulus or situation. That day, my response signaled, “Danger. Danger. However elderly and slender this man is, he’s dangerous. Beware!”
My animal instincts created a visceral response to his mocking statements, tone and facial expression. In an instant, I felt surprised, angry, sad and unsafe. Clearly, he was not THAT dangerous, nor was I standing face-to-face with an angry grizzly bear protecting her cubs! Yet, in the blink of an eye, my thoughts and instinct took over and I felt the impulse to fight, flee or freeze take over.
What was needed in that moment was a pause.
What’s Possible When We Know We’ve Been Triggered?
Pausing when we’ve been triggered is often harder to do than it seems, even when we know, intellectually, that we should. It takes awareness, practice and real skill building to be able to calm ourselves down and act on what we know. Without a pause, we miss the opportunity to become more conscious, check in with ourselves and choose our response.
When our thoughts take over, without any modulation or intervention, they drive our feelings. These feelings, usually fueled by old stories that may or may not be valid in this moment, drive our actions. From these thoughts, feelings and actions, the consequences are rarely what we intend. The challenge is to interrupt this pattern of unexamined thinking; to stop fueling those thoughts just enough to step into a new thought or story, something more likely to be true, relevant or inspiring.
Luckily, I happened to be on a call with a couple of friends while completing my walk and they heard the interaction. Because they were there, I had enough presence of mind to stop and pause in the moment. While he was standing there, I was calming myself down. Yes, I was still super agitated and I was paying attention to that too. Everything was happening quickly. In the heat of the moment, I was trying to become as cool and conscious as I could.
From Unconscious Reactions to Related & Respectful Responses
Catching myself feeling about as righteous and indignant as I imagined him to be, I took a few deep breaths and paused to center myself, to slow it all down. I did not like how he was being and I did not like how I was being in response. I did not want to respond to him from a triggered, reactive and unrelated place. So then, what did I want?
I wanted to explore what I needed and wanted and I wanted to respond more intentionally from there. Even more important to me, I did not want to ignore or skip over my own feelings, or the part of me that was just as able to attack a stranger. I wanted to pause long enough to check in with myself, feel what needed to be felt, own my part in this, and acknowledge what was happening within. I realized that I would have work to do later.
What was true for me in that moment was that I did not know this man and his remarks felt hurtful. I could find my own version of him within me…it was just as hurtful. As I acknowledged this, my sadness deepened. I wanted to be better than this; to tap into my best, true and whole self. I knew that my inner wise woman would respond differently.
Consult The Wise Woman Or Man Within
So I consulted my inner wise woman. What she helped me to see was that I wanted respect, for myself and for him. I wanted to show him respect. I wanted to separate the person from the behavior. Other than this little interaction, I had no reason to dislike or disrespect him. In that moment, all we knew about each other was that we had different opinions about mask-wearing. That’s all.
Still charged, that pause helped me to clarify who I wanted to be and what I wanted to say. After a second of reflection, I turned to the man and said what was true for me, “I respect your choice not to wear a mask and I ask that you respect my choice to wear one.” And then I remained silent.
The pause required to find out what was actually true for me was short. We all have the capacity to do this. What would be possible if we all learned how to do this well; how to take a short pause and come back home to that wise and whole-hearted part of us that lives within? Pausing helped me to feel all of my feelings, get vulnerable and respond from my heart.
We Become Our Best, True & Whole Self In All The Little Moments
Because my friends and I had been recording our call, I let him know that we were being recorded. He seemed startled and did not say anything in response. While it was unlikely that much of what either of us said could be heard given our distance and the noises around us, I muted the phone.
We lingered for another moment and our eyes locked. Then I moved on. He provided no indication that he’d had a change of heart or mind and, in truth, I’ll never know. In the end, changing his mind wasn’t my objective. Changing my mind or, better, shifting my perspective, was.
My objective was to climb out from underneath his poke, find my true self in there somewhere, and show up as a better version of myself in that moment. Because I felt more awake than asleep, more in choice than not and aware that I had options, I responded better than I might have. It didn’t feel great, but could’ve felt much worse, and there was fodder for learning. That’s progress.
His poke revealed my judgment, my poker, my preferences and how I colluded in the interaction. This led to a journey of introspection, growth and discovery. I believe most of the things that get us going and stir us up are that, an invitation to wake up, deepen, grow and learn.
Embracing Our Whole Selves Is A Spiritual Imperative
As Saadi’s statement implies, we are all roses and thorns. Part of my personal and spiritual growth work is to acknowledge the thorns within (rather than point the finger exclusively at the ones I see in those around me). And as important, my work is to cultivate my inner garden, the roses, the beauty, the capacity for goodness and grace that is also me.
This is the core of all of the religious, philosophical and spiritual traditions, to participate in our own evolution; to remember that we are grace, joy and love. It is a spiritual imperative to develop and refine our personalities and know the Divine within and around us. As Saadi implies, we have the opportunity, in this lifetime, “To become the flowers and spread their perfume.”
Which are you more of, a rose or a thorn? How does being a rose or a thorn serve you and your life’s purpose? Are you developing the rose within and spreading its perfume? And how are you using your thorns? Whether destructive or constructive, are you consciously choosing how to wield their power?
Are You Having The Impact That You Intend?
Are you mindfully tending your garden and spreading your perfume? Or are you more thorn-like and unconscious, violently and destructively thrashing about, bashing thorn on thorn and feeling it less and less? Even worse, are you bashing your thorns on roses and tearing them to pieces?
I’ve done it all. Admitting that is hard…and it is where growth begins. We cannot change what we don’t acknowledge. It doesn’t take much to be triggered, to be torn to pieces, or become the destroyer. I can tear someone to pieces like a skilled warrior. When old survival habits kick in, I go unconscious and become the thorn.
I’ve been asking myself, to what extent am I responding to thorn-like influences all day long? And how often are people experiencing me this way too? I know in my heart that this is not the impact I want to have. If we acknowledge that we each have the capacity to pierce and be pierced, something we do to ourselves as well, what else might be possible? While it’s true that sometimes we need to be pierced, it seems to me that there is much too much of that going on, unnecessarily, these days.
Become Your Best, True & Whole Self
I would assert that the challenge for each of us is fourfold. We must become mindful of the thorns within, cultivate the roses within, take responsibility for the impact of both and spread the perfume. And I would argue that the greatest of these is to cultivate the roses within and spread their perfume. As we develop these capacities, we will be better able to share our gifts; to be generous, mindful, powerful and kind.
I can be a thorn and I can be a rose. We all can. I’ve dedicated my life to knowing myself as both and to learning how to harness the power of each, for good. How about you?
What have you dedicated your life to knowing and becoming? Are you able to follow through consistently and intentionally on the things you know, intellectually? Do you know and own the impact of your default behaviors under stress? What are your growth goals and how might these be framed as gifts to yourself and others?
A Call To Action – Cultivate The Roses Within
How are you cultivating the roses within and honoring the thorns? What kind of support do you need/want to be able to access and liberate that wise woman or man within? What do you imagine becoming your best, true and whole self will make possible, now and when you look back on your life from your deathbed?
As each of us actively embraces the journey of becoming our best, true and whole self, we will be able to answer these questions and have more access to the wise being and loving presence within. She is a powerful guide, a trusted source and a reminder of who we are and who we can be. By cultivating a vital inner life, we will have the capacity to lead ourselves, choose well and have the impact we intend in the smallest and most significant encounters. And it all begins with a pause.
By harnessing this simple act of pausing, we can create the conditions necessary to thrive, the space needed to see one another as human beings and the opportunity to choose how to navigate in the moment. We create the opportunity to strengthen connections, align with our values and honor one another, even when we disagree. This is how we become the kind of leader, neighbor and fellow citizen the world needs and wants to embrace right now, mask or no mask.
May you be the leader and the neighbor we all want to know and embrace. I wish you well on your journey to love, self-mastery and well-being.