On Gathering Oneself

Our one-year-old daughter has just learned to walk in the last week. She couldn’t walk at all about ten days ago, and now she needs to watched like a hawk lest she toddle right out of the house. She’s pretty good at it now, but until say, yesterday, she’d take a step or two and fall right on her ass. Sometimes she’d fall squarely on the soft fleshy cushion a baby’s butt is meant to be; other times she’d fall on a block or something, or tumble and smack her head, and she’d find herself startled and in some mild pain. A second’s pause, then she’d shriek.

So as I watch all of this go down, what do I do?

Though it’s clear she’s not injured, my instinct is to rush over and swoop her up and bring her to my chest. No doubt this as much (if not more) about my own anxiety in the moment than it is about what I’ve decided she needs. In fact I’ve discovered that my swooping and scooping actually increases her anxiety quite a bit. If I swoop and scoop, I’m communicating to her that she needs me even though she hasn’t asked for me; I’m telling her some distressing story about what’s taken place, and her concern is fueled. I’ve found instead that the best thing to do for her is remain calm, demonstrate my presence, and allow her to gather herself. She’s actually quite good at being able to do this. After the shock of the moment fades, she realizes she’s just fine, she’s not telling herself any tragic story about what has befallen her, and she moves on happily to the important business of emptying the contents of the kitchen drawer.

This capacity to gather ourselves in the face of stress – to feel distressed and then find our center, to remain in contact with the truth of the moment, to respond with dignity – is a hugely important component of living well. I believe this capacity is innate. Animals and young children who have been treated well enough are able to respond to adversity with great resilience. It is cues in our early dysfunctional environments or anxious stories we tell ourselves later in life that bring us away from this natural resilience and into far less skillful modes of self-protection.

Tara Brach, a Vipassana Buddhist meditation teacher I admire, has said that in the space between the stimulus and our response lies our power and our freedom. She calls this space the ‘sacred pause.’ Without this intentional pause between what has just been experienced and what we do in reaction, we find ourselves prisoners of habitual and often totally unproductive ways of responding. This reactivity is designed to protect the self from some perceived threat, but more often than not it increases the danger of the environment and brings us further away from what we really want.

The groups I run are fascinating venues to observe the impact of various ways of responding to difficulty. The relationships between group members, like any real relationships, are fertile ground to find actual or perceived threats to one’s sense of self. In group, someone might say something that triggers someone else, or remind someone unconsciously of their punitive mother or neglecting son, or say something that really was jerky, and suddenly any given member might be feeling all kinds of stress. Maybe this person is angry or sad; likely they are wounded and their psychic safety and sense of self is disrupted.

Now, what does this person do in response?

Let’s agree that this happens all the time in life – at work, with our partners, in our families, in traffic. We get triggered. Maybe we get wounded. We get stressed by the endless stimuli that living throws at us. When we are disrupted by this stimulus, what do we do next?

Many Eastern traditions would say that before we do anything we must stop and pause. Eastern spiritual traditions and the Western therapeutic milieu have much common ground, including the shared emphasis on consciousness, on being aware of what is happening as it is happening. Brach’s sacred pause is the essential moment between the prick of life’s arrow and our next action; it is a time to become conscious of what we are experiencing and intentional about how we move forward.

In the early stages of a new therapy group, as in much of life, there is often a good bit of the two basic forms of maladaptive response to the arrow’s prick: aggression and withdrawal. Both responses are employed to create space for oneself, to carve out a little breathing room and establish one’s boundaries. And in one sense, both are effective in a very limited sort of way; they do in fact serve to keep one’s tender underbelly safely removed from the difficult moment’s sharp edge. The problem is the space created through shoving (aggression) and hiding (withdrawal) are deserts; the stuff of life (intimacy, meaning) cannot be found in the space created through acting out or curling up. In group as in life, the impact of habitually acting without pause – of acting before gathering oneself – is clear and poignant: it is a recipe for alienation, emptiness, and suffering.

And yet if when we are wounded we then gather ourselves – if we recognize what we are feeling and why, if we understand the fuller context and deeper truths of any given moment, if we understand what it is we really want and the best way to bring ourselves to it, if we first take some deep breaths – we may respond with powerful skill. We may meet the inevitable pains of living with dignity and resilience as we stay in contact with the stuff that makes life so rich and worthwhile. I see this so often in group as well.

This ability to gather oneself can be learned. I know it because I see it all the time – both in my patients and in myself. Learning to gather oneself requires knowing oneself – knowing what it is that we tend to feel, understanding what those feelings are rooted in, learning to separate the present stimulus from deeper pains we may carry. It requires seeing the truth of what works for us and what doesn’t; how aggression and withdrawal carry great unwanted consequence; and how taking time in the sacred pause allows us access to a one-year-old’s wisdom.