PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — May 2015


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.
| Shakespeare, Julius Caesar


Someone said that the secret to a happy marriage is knowing what to ignore. Couples who go to war over a cap left off the toothpaste or a toilet seat left up often are dealing with unresolved underlying issues that are far more charged and daunting, issues that the incidental dispute only triggered. If one or the other of the two is willing to step back, refrain from blame and recriminations, and turn attention to how he or she is being triggered to react, a Copernican shift occurs, and progress that was impossible before becomes not only possible but likely. This involves a kind of surfacing out of the dream of the world, a dream in which the other person’s culpability appears self-evident, to a more wakeful awareness of one’s participation in a previously hidden reality that was operating all along in the shadows. Note I said “If one or the other of the two is willing.” Intriguingly, in any conflict between two parties, even just one of the two being willing to stop exporting the cause and start working from the inside out can be sufficient to interrupt the vicious cycle and place both parties on track to understanding and resolution, provided even a modicum of willingness on the part of the other. As clinical psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader says: “Even if it’s 99% them…it’s still 1% me. So I’m going to use my 1%.”

The immersion in the world-story that works against and hinders this sort of waking up to one’s role in the dramatic conflict follows in part from the fact that we are creatures who live in a medium not only of facts and objects but also of stories and meanings that inform and permeate reality. The “subjective” and the “objective,” traditionally regarded as discrete aspects, in truth commingle in a way that produces a kind of ontological gravity and momentum that can be difficult to overcome or redirect. The overcoming and redirecting of momentums that leave a person snared in contradiction, chronic struggle, and suffering is one of the central aims of philosophical counseling, because in light of the hybrid nature of reality, a shift in ourselves effects a shift in our reality. At the end of the day, we can change only our own stories and meanings, the conclusions and assumptions that we bring to the table of worldly experience. Indeed, attempts to change other people directly as a rule results in a backlash, resistance, and unwanted outcomes.

Let’s go back to our example. John has left the cap off the toothpaste again, and Jill is offended, because she has asked him countless times to put the cap back on, and he has refused to oblige, and now she is living in the story is that he has no respect for her, or is conveniently “forgetful” as a passive-aggressive tactic, or that she simply doesn’t matter to him—an old story for her where “the man” is concerned. She asks for so little, and now this again! Clearly, the issue is highly charged for her. John’s response is to defend himself, accuse Jill of making a big deal out of nothing, feel rejected and angry and less inclined to “capitulate” to her “demands” than ever. Now, in this situation, both have been triggered by unfinished business that has created what will appear to be, in terms of the toothpaste cap skirmish, a certain oversensitivity, a certain tenderness, because there is a wound in each that has not been healed. From within a different story, one kinder and more aware, and so more liberated, they naturally would become allies, each for the other, in the work of healing these inner wounds. Their stories, however, keep them stuck in a reality where they can be triggered, where “the truth” as each sees it can lead only to more wounding. At some point, perhaps stirred by a recollection of how much she loves John, Jill may surface. She may realize that there’s something crazy about going to war over a toothpaste cap. She may intuitively anticipate the reality in which this petty annoyance “shrinks” so that it is just that and nothing more, not a symptom of something more serious, not personal. What she had experienced as a violation becomes an inconvenience. Further self work may transform it into a laughable quirk. She may realize that she was overreacting, and begin looking at what it is about herself, her conclusions, beliefs, and assumptions that made her “triggerable.” And along this path of expanded self-awareness and transformation, John, no longer triggered by Jill’s triggered reaction, is invited to transcend his own story, whereupon he may find it takes nothing to replace the cap on the tube as a tiny gesture of consideration for the woman he loves. Waking up to this now obvious truth, he also may wonder what was going on in him that gave the matter so much importance. Whether or not he responds in this way, however, Jill’s self-work will have removed her trigger, resolving the seeming issue by resolving the underlying one in a creative moment of transcendence, freed awareness, and choice.

Triggers may not be easy to recognize. Any reality, which is to say any lived story, tends to be self-justifying and self-proving, and immersion can make even unreasonable conclusions convincing. Sometimes we may feel too hurt or too exhausted to do self-work, and that’s just the way it is until we gather our forces again. Yet the willingness to question the obvious. to consider that our truth might not be the only truth operating in a given situation, and to accept responsibility for our reactions when we are triggered can be saving, because it points us in the right direction, which is always within. Taking the enemy out of the story, we find that we cannot be triggered, and so have no further need of weapons.

May 26, 2015   Comments Off on Triggers