The Practice of Sitting With Discomfort
Coming off two weeks of intensive, trauma-informed yoga training my major take away is this: I need to sit with my discomfort.
Our society today is so plagued with trauma... and discomfort. The anger, the frustration, the pain all lead to combative responses because those emotions trigger the fight or flight response.
Consider this scenario: I am browsing through my FaceBook feed. I see something that is so misaligned with my beliefs that it makes me angry. My heart-rate increases. My breath becomes shallow. I can feel my cheeks flush. I may even begin to tremble a bit. My mammalian mid-brain thinks I am facing a threat and my fight or flight response kicks in. Without pausing to reflect I respond to the post in anger. Almost immediately I receive a response from someone who disagrees with me. Someone who is likely also reacting from a state of fight or flight. Our dis-regulated nervous systems collide, escalating tensions. Our physiological response is that of two people locked in a physical battle with one another. Stress hormones flood our systems, our muscles are tense, our brains' ability to access logic and reason - executive function - diminishes as we each struggle to convince each other that "I am right." Sound familiar?
But the other person isn't listening. To listen, I have to be regulated and calm. To truly hear another person I must be able to bypass my own fight or flight response and use my executive function. This requires practice. Why? Because I have strengthened my fight or flight response by using those neurological pathways over and over and over again until it has become habitual. It's easier for me to revert to this heightened state and respond to a threat rather than to pause and investigate to discern whether or not it is, in fact, a threat.
Another response would be to freeze, and not respond at all. To be angry or frightened, but to shut down and go on auto-pilot because my system is simply too overwhelmed to deal with it.
In order to retrain my response, I have to practice sitting with the discomfort. How do I do that? I literally sit with the discomfort.
I may sit in meditation simply paying attention to my breath, noticing that my foot is falling asleep, and literally sitting with that discomfort. Training my mind to tolerate it. Strengthening the neurological pathways that allow me to do this. My children may come in and interrupt me. I may feel annoyed. Instead of snapping at them, I literally sit with the discomfort of my annoyance, allowing myself to be curious about it. Why do I feel annoyed? What does "annoyed" feel like in my body? Can I allow the feeling to pass? Literally retraining my response to it.
Practicing yoga, I may find myself experiencing discomfort in a particular pose. I'll tell you up front: chair pose is not my favorite! Instead of avoiding it, I practice it. I practice sitting with that discomfort. I breathe through it. I ask myself, "Is this discomfort, or pain?" In other words, is this a real threat or merely a perceived one? I am literally retraining my brain to pause and reflect before I react.
These are practices that, over time, change my habitual responses. Instead of automatically reverting to a fight or flight response, I begin to react from a more regulated nervous system. I learn to pause and reflect, and react with reason and logic. I may still disagree, but I am able to listen. In turn, the person I disagree with may not feel as attacked, and we can have a dialogue that may prove productive on both sides.
This doesn't mean that I won't feel anger! This doesn't mean that I don't respond at all. It does mean that, when I choose to respond, I have the ability to do so in a way that hopefully makes others feel less threatened and more open to civil discourse.
If we continually react to the world as though everything is a threat, the world will become threatening. It is only through a practice of pausing to reflect before we respond, changing our habits, and reacting from a place of curiosity, reason, and logic that we can begin to create true and lasting change.