Basking in the triggers
Jack Kornfield, a world-renowned mindfulness teacher, was once asked what he would say to someone who had become so enlightened that he transcended all pain, sorrow, anger, fear — essentially, all emotional triggers.
He responded, “I would say, ‘I feel so sorry for you.’”
I have recently found deep meaning in this quote after being emotionally triggered yet again. Old wounds, conditioned responses.
When I get triggered, I shut down and constrict. I go deeply into myself and essentially freeze emotionally. I go cold logic to escape emotional pain. This is often easily and understandably perceived as arrogance or aloofness, when it’s really just conditioned emotional defense mechanisms.
I get so tired of being triggered. So tired of feeling stuck in the same old patterns. I yearn to be free of them.
To make matters worse, I compound my wounds by shaming myself with thoughts like, “You should be above being triggered by now. Don’t you know you have the power to choose your responses? Isn’t that what you preach to the world?”
I’ve been mentored over the past six months by a mindfulness teacher who’s been practicing for twenty-two years.
I’ve had an idealized misunderstanding of mindfulness. I’ve thought that it could help me completely transcend all emotional triggers. Hence, the shame of I should be better, more mature than this. I should transcend all my baggage.
But my mentor explained how this is not a skillful understanding of mindfulness.
Mindfulness isn’t an aloofness from pain; that would be indifference. Quite to the contrary, it is an intimate connection with all experience in the present moment.
Paradoxically, it actually heightens one’s sensitivity to pain. It’s not running away from pain through defense mechanisms (in my case, the emotional constriction and frozenness). It’s going toward it, embracing it, feeling it, exploring it with curiosity.
It’s also understanding that the triggers will never go away. Nor would we want them to; that would make us inhuman. Mindfulness makes us truly human. It allows us to feel more clearly and exquisitely than we ever have before, but without being overwhelmed or wounded even further by the feelings.
I’ve been processing this, doing my best to explore my triggers and pain mindfully.
And in the middle of the night, I awoke with a startling, piercing, overwhelming realization: Our triggers are precisely our salvation in our relationships.
There’s nothing wrong with our triggers. In fact, they are so, so right and beautiful — they are evidence of how much we care for each other and yearn to connect with each other.
If we were indifferent toward each other, we would never get triggered, nor would we ever make the attempt to connect.
I am flooded with peace seeing the utter beauty and goodness of my emotional triggers.
This is the point of Kornfield’s quote: There’s nothing enlightened about transcending pain and anger. To transcend the pain of the human experience, we would have to become indifferent robots. Pain is evidence of our humanity, and the more intimate we become with it, the more human we become.
As human beings, we are terribly unskillful at identifying and meeting our own and each other’s needs. We trigger each other. It will never stop being messy and painful and frustrating.
And that is the perfection and beauty of reality. There’s nothing to fix. There’s no maturity we need to gain. Right here, right now, the universe and our relationships are perfect and exactly as they should be.
We need not ever feel ashamed for being triggered. Rather, we can accept the vulnerability, beauty, and joy of our longing to connect. Being triggered doesn’t make us immature; it makes us human beings who care.
The freedom we seek isn’t to become free of the emotional triggers themselves. Rather, it is to accept the beauty of their purpose and to be free of our judgments of them and ourselves for having them.
Within our triggers — even as especially as we are continually triggered time and time again — we can find healing and salvation.