I’ve felt physically unwell over the last few days. For me, this is a sign that something needs my attention, that some as-yet unconscious material is ready to surface. The feelings – unpleasant bodily sensations, nausea, a slight headache, a sense of shakiness all over – haven’t been accompanied by any particular thoughts or memories. There’s been nothing specific on my mind.
Yesterday, I met with another facilitator and sat for a while, eyes closed, saying nothing. After a few minutes, a statement came: “This is what happened to me.” It felt like a declaration, a testimony. There were no details – I didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly what the word this referred to. I only knew that it was important to stay with the statement and let it resonate.
Tears came, as they often do when I inquire. Then another statement: “Just be with me and listen.” The feeling was adamant – all it wanted was for us to be with it and listen. (There often comes a time in inquiry when questions are no longer the point, when there is a deep desire to be left to be as we are. This was clearly one of those times.)
More words came in. “I have responses.” Again, this was a statement of fact, a testifying to the truth. The only possible reaction from my facilitator/companion was, “Yes, you have responses.” We stayed for a while, acknowledging the having of responses. It began to become clear that all the sensations of unwellness were responses, an accumulation of bodily responses.
“Things happened, and I responded.” The stark simplicity of these words touched me deeply. A wave of upset came as I saw images of myself sitting in various therapy rooms over the years. All of that talking now seemed such a waste, when all that had really been required was the deep acknowledgement of this truth. Yes, things had happened, and I’d had responses. The adamant feeling became even more adamant. “Just be with me and listen. Enough with the questions already. I’ve had enough of being prodded, poked and questioned.” We continued to listen, sitting silently for a while longer. Some relief came in, along with the tears.
Today, more has come to light about the event-and-response chain. Things happened, my body and I responded, and then I denied, disowned, or covered up my responses. Bewildered and overwhelmed by both the happenings and the responses, I spent years trying hard to understand, in the belief that understanding would relieve the responses and somehow negate the happenings (hence all those years in therapy rooms).
Let’s break this down. There was an initial happening or event. For example, I remember being smacked on my bare bottom for wetting the bed at the age of four, still lying in the damp sheets, barely awake. This happening had its initial impact, of course – the sting of the smack, the energetic force of my parents’ anger and disapproval. (The word impact implies the coming in of external force. As children, we are impacted by and highly sensitive to external forces, both malign and benign.) Then came my response – immediate, visceral, spontaneous and not mediated by the thinking mind – which included shock, shame and humiliation. And then came the third layer, which was my attempt to understand, manage, control or fix both the response and the happening itself. We do our best to hide, minimise and mediate both the impact and our response, however impossible that may be. In this case, I tried my best to please my parents, to be a good girl, to not incur their anger again, to deny that the whole episode had had an impact, and to hide my shock and shame. Like nearly all children, I believed I was the cause of my parents’ anger towards me and I could not conceive of the smack being anything other than my fault, despite a vague feeling of the injustice of it.
My sense is that many kinds of mental distress or illness arise out of this tangle of happenings, responses and attempts to manage the happenings and responses. When the happenings are catastrophic, traumatic, injurious or unjust, our responses are proportional. (Newton’s Third Law of Motion comes to mind – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.) We find ourselves awash with intense and overwhelming sensation and feeling, incapable of effectively (in the longer term) managing, controlling or fixing what we are experiencing, and then we believe (or are told) that that incapacity is evidence of our deficiency, defectiveness or inherent wrongness. When we undergo such happenings regularly or even infrequently, and our responses are punished, unheard, ignored or unattended to, the spiral continues on, each happening and response adding to the existing tangle.
This cycle of event – response – management (the part of us that we often refer to as the self or ego tries valiantly to manage or control events and responses, a job which is bound to leave it overwhelmed and floundering in self-doubt) leads to a whole host of behaviours. People pleasing, addiction and compulsion, every shade of trying and controlling, so many of our supposed failures or foibles come back to this truth: something happened, and we responded, and then we tried to deal with both. At four years old – or at any point in childhood and into adulthood, depending on our circumstances – we didn’t have the support, tools or understanding to do so without inadvertently causing further unintentional harm to ourselves and sometimes others.
Things happened, and we had responses. What we need as children – at any age – is to be allowed to have our inner responses to happenings. In the space of inquiry, we get to have our responses – from any time in our lives, both long-past and present – without the burden of having to manage them. We can finally let the responses respond exactly as they are doing, without having to hide, deny, explain, justify, question or minimise them. It is such a relief to say, “Just be with me and listen. Things happened, and I had responses.”