“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”
~ Viktor Frankl
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions; we also numb the positive emotions.”
~ Brené Brown
Someone recently shared a blog with me called Finding Valhalla. It is written by a veteran named Mike Binns. In a post he wrote called “Fear”, he talked about PTSD and the effects that combat has on neurology and correspondingly on the lives of many veterans.
He spoke graphically about being seized by fear the first time he was confronted with combat. He then described creating a “tactical pause”. Basically, it seems, the moment adrenaline is being released, with a conscious breath that brings you into direct contact with the moment, you create the ability to modulate the power, instinct and aggression of the limbic system and the higher functioning of the cortex.
As Brené Brown points out, however, we cannot numb out to some emotions without impacting access to all of them. Binns points out poignantly that the price paid for this ability is the numbing of empathy and a disconnection with your own humanity.
But this “tactical pause” is a tool and its power can also be harnessed for healing, not just healing PTSD but for waking up from a life of automated, habituated responses to unconscious, habituated rules and assumptions upon which we script our lives.
Opportunities to create tactical pauses are available and necessary in everyday life. In fact, it is in the mundane where are most able to practice and hone these skills.
This morning I decided to sit outside and breathe and read and brainstorm. I went out onto my deck loaded down with the materials I would need, my coffee, paper, pen and reading material. As I started to close the door behind me it occurred to me that when my dog Emma realized I was outside she would scratch on the door and want to be out there with me, so I called her. I called her repeatedly. Either she did not hear me or she was simply modeling the ignoring behavior she’s learned watching our teenagers, but she never came.
I closed the door and thought, “As soon as I get settled in she’s going to scratch on that door.”
And of course that’s exactly what happened. As soon as I settled in just enough to completely forget about the whole “Emma situation” she scratched.
Exasperatedly, I got up with a heavy, accusing sigh and said out loud, “This is exactly what I said was going to happen!”
Meditation and mindfulness practices develop the observing brain and my observing brain heard my words and saw the way they were linked to the emotional state of my body. I was frustrated, exasperated, “put upon”. I WAS these things. I wasn’t just experiencing them; my body and mind were in sync and I was psychologically and physically embodying these qualities.
But I saw it.
I decided to change my intonation and just said it as a fact.
“This is exactly what I said would happen,” a plain, simple, neutral fact.
My entire body relaxed. As the muscles in my face relaxed they reflexively moved into a faint smile.
In that tactical pause I had a choice.
The skills of pausing, seeing and choosing can be developed through meditation and mindfulness, but it requires commitment to the practice. It requires the ability to put aside the ego that wants to be perfect and without flaw. It requires compassion, patience and curiosity. And again, commitment to go back and practice over and over throughout the day, day after day, until it us just the way you live your life.
It is in this way that we change.
It is in this way that we heal.