On a recent retreat a well-intentioned participant informed me that my drive system was overactive. She was referring to the three-circle model of Prof. Paul Gilbert which is part of our Level 2 Compassion training. This model postulates three psychological systems: a threat system, which triggers the fight, flight, freeze response when we feel threatened; a drive system, that drives us to achieve; and a soothing and contentment system. The model teaches us that if the threat or drive system are over-active, all we need to do is to stimulate our soothing system to bring the three systems back into balance.
This comment from the participant stayed with me and mulled in the back of my mind. For sure the three systems were out of balance and the soothing system required some stimulation. However, the problem wasn’t with the drive system. It was the threat system that was in overdrive.
One of my favorite Coldplay songs is called ‘The Hardest Part’. The lyric goes ‘The hardest part was letting go, not taking part.’ I recognise this within my own mind when the threat system is triggered. Thoughts arise about the threat and particularly about how to solve the threat and I find them impossible to ‘let go’. Instead I rush to ‘take part’ in the process of thinking the threat through. For the thousandth time I will engage in trying to understand, to rationalise, to solve the threat. This is despite Einstein’s definition of insanity: ‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Instead, the ‘taking part’ is irresistible. It stokes up the threat system even further.
So what to do.
Exercise helps the stress hormones activated by the threat system disperse and also releases endorphins. The movement of the body somehow allows the allows difficult experiences to move through me. To be fully experienced. If I can simply be with them, the experiences arise by themselves, reveal what I need to know about them and then move on. Rob Nairn describes this as self-arising, self-displaying and self-liberating. This is only possible, when we let go of taking part.
Mindfulness, compassion and insight practice helps me to clarify the habitual patterns that are playing out and the underlying expectations and assumptions based on my past experience of life. In my practice this morning I did the hifawif practice: how I feel about what I am feeling. I uncovered a scared child within. Then when I asked myself ‘how do I feel about this feeling?’ what arose in my experience was deep compassion for this part of myself. This came with a sense of ‘letting go’ and was very healing.
Listening to my favorite music or favorite books, walking in nature, practicing gratitude and appreciation and spending down time with my husband and my dogs helps to stimulate my soothing system. So I have been actively engaging in these activities over the past few weeks.
Another song this morning was ‘Some of Us’ by Starsailor, with the lyric ‘Some of us laugh, some of us cry, some of us smoke, some of us lie, and its all just the way that we cope with our lives’. I always find this lyric and the sweetly sad melody that goes with it deeply soothing. An honest recognition of the human condition. Messy, but the best we can do.
These activities supply me with the resources to continue to face the perceived threat, with openness and curiosity, to see what can be learned. For I know that it carries with it a gift of transformative insight. The bigger the threat, the bigger the insight! I know this from my past experience. This one is a big one.
The journey is uncomfortable, but my past experience tells me I will return home again and all will be well.
So, if you are feeling threatened or stressed, remember that the ‘hardest part is letting go not taking part’. Remember the three systems. Taking part in the activity of the threat system will only exacerbate it. Let go and focus on stimulating the soothing system. This will build the resources to turn to face the threat, to be with it, with compassion, and then the magic happens…..all by itself!