Your Triggers Are Your Spiritual Practice

August 4, 2016
“The Pure Potentiality for All Possible (Wo)Manifestations”
November 17, 2016
“The most beautiful music is the music of what happens.” Fionn MacCumhaill
Have you ever heard spiritual teachers say, “Take what is in front of you as the path” or, “Whatever shows up in your life is exactly what you need”?

I’ve always found this advice rather vague, especially during difficult times. As a trauma survivor who gets triggered, I need more specific guidance.

When things happen that trigger my deepest wounds, what am I supposed to do with that? I used to focus on finding relief as soon as possible: “I cannot bear this–I want to feel better!”

When things are intolerable, that is still my go-to response.
In fact, learning how to consistently change our triggered states and “feel better” is the foundation of trauma healing work.

But more often these days I realize that my triggers are here to help me wake up. I am less concerned with “feeling better” or “getting what I want.”

Instead, I want to deepen my trust in Life and practice co-shaping each moment. It’s a bigger container from which to work, and a permission-granting approach to life.

This is well and good, but still not specific enough! Not when I am dealing with an in-your-face, painful trigger.

I had time to reflect on what is specific enough while on retreat. As any good retreat will do, it presented me with situations that triggered me profoundly. <Sigh>

One of them was an invasion of bugs in my room at night. To me they looked a lot like the cockroaches I had lived with decades before.

Cockroaches are not the worst thing. But I have a history with persistent, invasive bug infestations.

These experiences were amplified by landlords and neighbors whose negligence caused the infestations, and who refused to take responsibility for them.

I was left to suffer and struggle on my own for weeks or months.

In one case, I lived with 30-90 fiery-itchy new bites each day and little sleep each night, for six weeks.

In the other case, I endured 7 months of bites, sleeplessness, expensive and exhausting treatment protocols, and the loss of beloved and useful possessions.

In both cases, I had to research, gather samples and repeatedly consult with my county’s vector scientists to identify the source of the problem.

Finally I was able to compel my landlords to act like grown-ups and protect me, their tenant. All this while I was itchy, paranoid and sleep-deprived.

So, cockroaches in my retreat room? Compared to bedbugs or rat mites, not a big deal! Smaller scale and less worrisome in every way.

Yet I slept badly that night. In the morning, I felt undone, defenseless.
Bugs were invading my space again–the kind of bugs I could take home with me!

While my heart pounded, I worried and strategized: would the caretaker believe me? Would she act like a responsible grown-up and protect me from bringing them home? An all-too-raw, familiar dilemma.

Indeed, she did not believe me at first, and refused to let me use the washer/dryer or give me garbage bags to protect my stuff. She compared the one (squashed) sample I was able to show her with internet photos and confidently told me “that is not a cockroach.”

I was not convinced.

But it was my birthday, during a much-anticipated silent retreat. I decided to let it go and accept her verdict for now.

I devoted the day to doing what I love: spiritual practice, cooking, hiking, journaling, hanging out with trees, critters and the music of what happens. I gently made room for my highly triggered state.

My body felt over-the-top scared, isolated and trapped. I walked the trails on the land, sobbing my heart out. The bottom fell out, and I was taken back again, but deeper this time–

-Back to the time my caregivers would not pick me up at night for three months straight, dismissing my cries of distress until my ear infection was diagnosed (that ear has been fragile ever since).

Back to when I was a toddler being physically and sexually misused, and never rescued.

Back to those early lessons of how futile it was to ask for help from all-powerful, oblivious adults.

I listened to my younger self and held her as she/I wept. I witnessed the despair my body carries.

There on those sunny, dusty pathways, I made a resolution. I refused, absolutely refused to make myself worried, scared or miserable about the current situation or my response to it. No more blame or shame. It stops here.

Instead, I moved swiftly to soothe the dread and contraction in my body. “Things are scary, and I don’t know what’s next, but you are going to be okay, and you are doing fine.”

Now I was the responsible grown-up. When that young one cried and asked for comfort, I simply gave it.  I wandered the straw-gold trails and sat in the sun-dappled forest, singing to my little one. I immersed us in green beauty until we were saturated.

The day became a sweet journey, a rebirth-day brimming with love. As night fell, I rested in ease and stillness.

(And I caught some bugs in a jar which I gave to the caretaker the next morning. She called an exterminator and allowed me to take the necessary precautions.)

Out of this experience I found language that helps me accept my triggered states as the perfect path, as exactly what I need.
This work in progress is how I am expressing it so far:
  • When I get triggered, it’s time to matter-of-factly accept the triggered state as my work to do, the work at hand, the path in front of me. It is here, and it is mine. I will treat it as a sacred text to study, as my personal spiritual practice.
  • I will not waste this opportunity. I won’t scold myself or tell myself I am overreacting. I will not try to distract myself from the pain.
  • Actually, I probably will do all that. If I do, I will try to be kind to myself. And then, as soon as I can, I will do my work. Start unwinding the knot.
  • I will try to remember that once I stop being incredulous that I am so triggered, and accept this opportunity to heal, all kinds of inner and outer support will show up. (Perhaps the perfect song will play on the radio to give me comfort or help me`express my dilemma.)

The outer support that showed up on my birthday came from the land and the animals. Everyone gave my miserable little one friendly greetings. Mobs of quails appeared everywhere I went, warbling quizzically. Lizards sunned themselves close to me. A chipmunk popped out of a bush to eat her lunch with me. Sunlit trees swayed above; the oldest ones let me lean against them.

  • There are many practices that I can use to work with my triggers:
    • Solo practices, like Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), Internal Family Systems (IFS) work, authentic movement and journaling.
    • Guided/supported practices, like somatic psychotherapy, EMDR, Hakomi, craniosacral bodywork, Somatic Experiencing, and Internal Family Systems (IFS) work with a therapist.
  • I work with triggers to restore my creative power, and to deepen my trust in Life.
  • Here are two ways to describe what trigger work is all about:
    • 1. From a generative somatics perspective, I can view my triggers as moments when life grabs me and yanks me off balance.
    • The idea is to welcome the grab, to welcome my off-balance reactions, and to feel all of it, as vividly as I can, as pure sensation in my body. I can thank my body for her swift, protective reaction.
    • In other words, I do not need to resist my body’s involuntary fight, flight or freeze reactions. I can simply welcome them.
    • The next step–which becomes easier when I can experience thesensations of my reactivity—is to reclaim my body from the grab. I “take my body back.”
    • 2. Another way to describe trigger work is: 
    • “I imagine gathering up my scared or sad or angry little one. I embrace the places in my body (throat/chest/ legs, etc.) that hold my wounds.
    • I welcome the sensations of terror or grief wherever and however they show up.
    • I imagine I have vast, broad arms which scoop up all these wild emotions/sensations and cradle them. As I practice this, I can see my body, heart and mind unfolding and opening up.”
  • With practice, as trigger work becomes an embodied habit, I make some amazing discoveries:
    • I see how precisely the triggering incident mirrors the early life experiences that were my foundation.The present-day details are so perfect that I cannot help but re-experience that old familiar wound. How amazing!
    • I see that triggers are rare opportunities to unearth and reclaim a forgotten younger or previous me, and to finally give them the love and attention that they are hungry for.
    • I *sometimes* feel gratitude towards the incident/person that brought this buried trauma into my awareness so that it can be seen, known and purified. [Thanks, cockroaches!]

I get it now.

Whatever shows up in my life, *especially* things that trigger my early traumas are truly, exactly what I need. Each trigger is a precious opportunity.

When I can turn my body toward the discomfort and stay awake, old wounds begin transforming, slowly but surely, into beauty and potency.

Much gratitude to Phyllis Pay & Denise Benson
You can contact Dr. Vanissar Tarakali or schedule somatic/intuitive coaching appointments through

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