The wisdom of no escape

Photo: Bronze Buddhist Sculpture.

For several days, I felt a physical uneasiness in response to the Newtown tragedy. From my sensorimotor psychotherapy training, I interpreted the activation in my body and my unusual emotional sensitivity as evidence that I was outside the window of tolerance. You know you are in your window of tolerance when you are resilient to life stressors, feeling calm in your body and without your emotions overwhelming you. You can also engage meaningfully with other people and whatever tasks you are attending to. You can stay checked in, rather than having to shut down and emotionally check out just to make it through the day.

Staying in the window of tolerance can be challenging during the holidays. For many, heartache, disappointment, and longing have a way of insinuating their way into the good cheer. (You might want to see this blog post if longing or grief has you down.) And just knowing how much the people in Newtown are hurting, as well as their extended families and friends, can make it hard for many not to succumb to despair. Furthermore, if you have been a victim of violence of any kind, you may have found your traumatic stress defenses activated by all the media coverage.

Below is some wisdom from Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. She addresses the value of staying with difficult feelings and not pushing them away. Doing so can help widen the window of tolerance, and in the long run, increase resiliency and the capacity for staying engaged.

“The central question of a [bodhisattva] warrior’s training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day? For those of us with a hunger to know the truth, painful emotions are like flags going up to say, ‘You’re stuck!’ We regard disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, and fear as moments that show us where we’re holding back, how we’re shutting down. Such uncomfortable feelings are messages that tell us to perk up and lean into a situation when we’d rather cave in and back away.

“When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we’re about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation. It’s also how we keep from smoothing things over by talking ourselves into a sense of relief or inspiration. This is easier said than done.

“Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don’t interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge. Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment—over and over again.”

—Pema Chödrön, Comfortable With Uncertainty

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).