Triggered, again: how to move from reactivity to peace

Of all the things that could have triggered me this time, it was a comment about salt that got me. Specifically, a note about how perhaps I should stop putting so much of it in my cooking. Whilst he was already moving on with the conversation, I could feel the familiar fire of having been triggered bubbling away. I was outraged and a stream of attack thoughts started.

How dare he suggest that I put too much salt in my cooking. How ungrateful and disrespectful of him to say this now after all the time and effort and love I've put into cooking for him. What an idiot.

For most of us, it's not a question of if we'll be triggered again, but when. Life has a habit of continually bumping up against our tender spots, calling for us to acknowledge and honour the bruised bits of ourselves that, until now, we've repeatedly pushed away. And, just like my experience with the salt, the smallest things can set us off.

As uncomfortable as these experiences are, they're actually the greatest of friends if we can learn to look on them as an opportunity to move into greater awareness and from there, greater freedom. As long as we turn away from these moments life is a never ending game of avoidance and placing blame firmly outside of ourselves. Whilst this feels protective in the short term, in the long term it's the thief of joy and the cause of so much suffering in our lives and relationships.

Over the past months, my attention has been drawn more and more deeply to these moments of triggering. The light is shining more brightly on these areas now, showing me both what has already been transformed and the places where a little more love and attention is needed.

As the awakening process deepens, we become increasingly sensitive to any situation that unsettles the stillness within and we notice that instead of wanting to push away or ignore these situations, there's an increased desire to explore. Freedom and peace have become the priority.

In this particular instance, I observed the unfolding like this:

The trigger

Something is said about the amount of salt I put in my cooking and there's an immediate feeling of outrage inside me. It feels hot and fiery. I feel as though I'm being attacked. I feel myself shutting down and becoming less available to the moment. Attack thoughts run through my head.

The external reaction

I go immediately to defend myself with, "I don't think I put too much salt in things. But maybe I do. Perhaps I should go to the doctor and find out if I'm eating too much salt." I say it calmly and with a smile on my face but it has all the undertones of passive aggressive behaviour. 

Recognising the trigger isn't about the current situation

Awareness drops in and a realisation that my upset has nothing to do with salt or the person talking about the salt. The salt is just the finger that prodded the sore spot. In recognising that what's happening in this moment isn't about the conversation between us but about a story that's playing out in my head, I decide to put it to one side, for now. 

A return to Presence

In my mind, I put the story about the salt down and return to the here and now of the conversation that's actually taking place. I want to keep looking over my shoulder to the salt, but the understanding that it's not helpful or relevant in this moment is enough to keep me in the conversation. I allow myself to soften and put all my attention on this person in front of me. 

Investigating the hurt 

Later, back at home, I sit down to shine a light on what had happened. Here are the thoughts I found lurking:

You're not good enough.
You're not as good as me.
You'll never get it right.
Nothing you do is ever enough.
Nothing you do is ever right.

In my investigations, I also find the places where it looks like these stories took root. As is the case for most of us, I find they originate in the life of little Leah. We might find the root in a single event somewhere in our past or perhaps an exposure to something over time that has conditioned our thinking in a particular direction.

Giving space to emotion

Sometimes, bringing the light to our triggers can bring up some deep emotion. If it does, know that it's completely ok. Allow what is coming to come. It just wants to breathe in the light of day, having been shut away out of sight for such a time.

The feelings will not hurt or overwhelm you. It's safe to allow it. Remember that you are a space that has the capacity to welcome and contain everything, just as the sky has the capacity to welcome any amount of and all kinds of weather without itself being changed or harmed.

Understanding thoughts and knowing the true Self

As long as we believe the thoughts we have are who we are - that is so say we're identified with our personal thinking - we're likely to go in circles with the conditioned thoughts we find lurking when exploring our triggers. 

For example, if I believe that "you're not good enough" is a true statement about who I am, it will look to me as though there's something to fix, change, or improve. When I understand that thoughts are 'just' thoughts and are actually arising within the space of who I am, I can hold them lovingly, honour any pain and at the same time be in a complete knowing that they don't say anything about who I really am.

The deeper truth of who you are is beyond all thoughts and all thinking. The deeper truth of who you are is always unharmed. The deeper truth of who you are is complete innocence. The deeper truth of who you are is whole and perfect, an idea that the separate self hates.

Is there any necessary action to take?

Just because a trigger has its root in past hurt, doesn't mean that action in the present isn't necessary or valuable. Depending on the situation, we may find that some action is needed in response to what's happening. 

If we haven't recognised that we've been triggered though and are in a state of unconscious reactivity, any action we take usually leads to further pain and suffering. In the example about the salt, I could easily have spewed all my initial thoughts out to this person, making sure he knew what an idiot he was.

Thinking back on my life and relationships, I can see how so many painful (and sometimes long-lasting) arguments started because one (or both) of us were triggered and were unable to bring any awareness to the situation. 

Working with your own triggers

Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and pop up when we least expect them - hello, salt! There's nothing shameful or wrong about being triggered (and it's important to always bring lots of compassion), yet if we're aware and willing, we can use them as a doorway to greater peace, greater freedom and more fulfilling relationships.

It all starts with a little space of awareness. Next time you notice something inside you becoming unsettled - whether it's in response to something someone posts on social media, something a member of your family says or does, something your partner did (or doesn't do), see if you can move from complete identification with that situation, to opening up a little space and becoming the observer of what's happening.

If you can find even the tiniest space, there's an opportunity for you to begin to transform not only that particular situation, but your entire experience of life.

Love and courage,