Crisis as Meditation

Crisis as Meditation

*This is based on my notes from a recent training I offered to staff who work with teens in a crisis home. It involved a meditation, experiential body-awareness exercise, and group discussion about the relationship between crisis and deep embodiment. If you are interested in having a similar workshop or training at your agency, write to me

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

― Archilochos

How we react to crisis is how we react to life. The way we train for crisis is to practice in our life. This means that what is needed is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year practice routine. The bad news is you don’t get paid for this. The good news is that this is one of the keys to a rewarding and fulfilling life.

We live in a disembodied society. There is very little about the reward mechanisms of our culture that promote self-awareness, especially the awareness of our bodies. Our jobs, education system and daily lives are increasingly becoming more cerebral, and the barrage of instant and constant gratification on our phones creates an opportunity to be distracted each and every moment of the day.

And we have enshrined this in our modern mythology. Our sci-fi movies depict a future where our consciousness is no longer confined to these pain-and-disease-ridden bodies. There are people in Silicon Valley trying to figure this out right now. This modern myth encapsulates our culture’s highest values: We view our bodies as a mistake to be overcome.

But what I am offering today is a possibility that our bodies, rather than being a mistake, are actually the greatest gift we have. They are the vehicle of our consciousness. Our consciousness is not just housed in our brain but, at the very least, is infused throughout the body. This is the barometer that receives information from our environment. The more we bring our attention to this great tool, the more we can act with the best possible information. This is especially true for crisis.

Most trainings I have been to on crisis intervention involve teaching specific strategies. For one, they teach us to locate our triggers. I have learned, for instance, that I become angry when people challenge my competence. And of course, when I feel that my physical safety is at risk, as is often the case in this work, my body goes into its fight or flight response. We may also learn in these trainings to notice the cues that tell us we are triggered. Maybe we notice that our shoulders tense or our heartbeat quickens. We learn specific strategies to grant us some space in the moment, so we can move beyond blindly reacting to our triggers. We may learn to take a few deep breaths, for instance. This is all good, and I highly recommend we follow the advice of these trainings. Other trainings teach a to-do list of specific daily strategies that foster a heightened awareness- meditation, dance, yoga, time in nature, therapy… this is also good. I really like the idea of having a flexible menu of options, strategies we can enact both in the moment and throughout the week.

But for this training I am not interested in adding another technique to your list. I want to invite us into an experience of being embodied, and I want us to consider that the way we embody our life is directly related to how we will embody crisis.

The way we embody our life is how we will embody crisis

Our ability to self-regulate our emotions, our ability to remain calm, and our ability to measure our bodies’ response to our environment are all intimately connected to how aware we are of our mind-body system. We are not going to notice when our shoulders are tight or our heartbeat is fast if we aren’t paying attention. And the information this system communicates can be so much more subtle than just tight shoulders. There are so many ways we theorize about the cues we take in from our environment. This includes body language, the musculature on other people’s faces, and the eyes. They have done studies that show we convey and read so much more information from the eyes than our analytical mind understands. Poker players, for instance, train to be able to read that information. Outside of our western, materialist paradigm, there are theories about an energy we just feel from others. I am not pushing one particular framework, nor do I claim that I really understand how this all works, but I do know from experience that when I am connected to my body and trust the intuition that arises from being deeply aware in the moment, it seems I know exactly what I need to do. And this is especially true in crisis.

I have had the experience on more than one occasion, as someone larger than me is inches from my face and threatening to bash my face into the wall, the moment when our eyes lock, and somehow, and I don’t know how, but I just know they aren’t going to do it. It kind of feels like magic. And this is not a small thing. In these moments I have to ensure that everyone stays safe. If I can’t talk the person down, more invasive measures might need to be utilized. I might have to call the police, for instance, and though this may be necessary at times, it can also be traumatizing. I want every opportunity to avoid that as possible.

Of course, mistakes are still made, but when we are aware and in tune, we will notice those mistakes much quicker and on a more subtle level. This allows us to adapt more effectively. Rather than magic it’s more like balancing. We make all of these micromovements, test the waters, try new techniques, and some of them are wrong. Maybe we see someone escalated, so we walk up and try redirection to get them to focus on something else. “Fuck you!” they scream. It’s not what was needed, and it sends us off balance in our relationship with them. But if we are aware, we will notice it before it’s too late. If we are deeply aware, then these micromovements don’t even look like mistakes. It just looks like balancing. Maybe we walk up to the person, but we can just feel from them that they aren’t going to be receptive to what we have to say, so we back off and give them space before they even get the chance to scream at us.

Remember, I’m not claiming that this is a magic cure all. Conscious relating, to ourselves and to others, is a lifelong, multifaceted practice, but it is a worthwhile endeavor to engage with. Other people and other trainings will talk more about those signals that can tell you when you are triggered and will offer tools to self-regulate in the moment. Other trainings will offer a list of activities that can help you foster a deeper self-awareness. I recommend listening to these trainings and finding what works for you. However, the level of self-awareness you have in your day-to-day life is directly related to how aware you are here in this room, right now, and how present you will be with crisis when it arises. Your ability to utilize your methods is intertwined with the type of relationship you have with your own mind-body system. So, find what daily and weekly practices work for you- meditation, yoga, dance, therapy… but also remember that this is more than just an activity that we do.

This is a type of relationship that we can foster with ourselves, and it is one that can permeate our entire day. The more this way of being becomes our baseline, the more likely it will be there for us when we really need it. And I want to offer that, in truth, we need this all of the time.

We are actually hungry for it- that feeling of home.

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