Triggers and what’s triggered in me, and how I relate to it all

There are several ways of looking at the interactions between our life situations and what’s triggered in us.


The most common one is to see a situation as triggering something in me.

My neighbor is using his noisy lawn mover, and it’s triggering an issue in me around noise.

If we look more closely here, we’ll see that the situation in itself is not triggering anything. It’s my thoughts about it that triggers the issue in me.

My perception of the situation triggers someting in me, and that perception is part of what’s unhealed and unresolved in me.

This is a very useful way to look at it, especially if we look at it more closely. It means that I can use ordinary life situations, and how I respond to them, to identify and explore something unhealed and unresolved in myself.


My perception creates my world, in a couple of different ways.

The stories I have about a situation, shapes how I perceive it and respond to it. These stories are the difference between stress and peace.

My stories also influence and, to a large extent, determine the choices I make and how I live my life. It shapes my life and the situations I find myself in.

Said another way, my mental field – with its labels, mental images, and interpretations – shape how I perceive and respond to a situation. And my mental field determine, to a large extent, how I live my life and the situations I find myself in.


To me, this human self and the wider world happens within my sense fields. More specifically, anything triggering (in the wider world) and triggered (in this human self) happens within my sense fields. It’s all happening within and as what I am.

I get to see that the whole trigger-triggered dynamic is happening within my sense fields, and within and as what I am. And my mental field and it’s labels and interpretations is what creates the whole dynamic.

To the extent we take this in, from direct noticing, it transforms how we relate to triggers and what’s triggered. We cannot any longer wholeheartedly blame anything outside ourselves.

We know it’s all an inside job, and that the solution – apart from sometimes taking care of things in our life situation, is to take care of it in ourselves. Perhaps through working with projections, inquiring into stressful stories, dialog with parts of ourselves, and so on.


Beyond all of these interactions, some seem to assume that our life situations mirror us closely. Whatever is unresolved in ourselves is reflected in our life situation, and whatever clarity and kindness is here is also reflected.

To me, this seems a bit naive and it’s something I can’t really check or verify. At most, I could possibly say that it looks like it, without knowing for certain. (And I personally can’t even say that.) If I take it literally, I would either have to take someone’s word for it (which I won’t), or I’ll have to leave it in the “don’t know but that person says so” category.

There is a more pragmatic way of taking this:

Take it as an what if thought experiment.

What if my current life situation is reflecting something in me, what would it be? What issue in me could create this situation? What happens when I identify and explore that issue?

There is nothing to lose here, apart from perhaps some time and a stressful belief or emotional issue.

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No buttons pushed in a monastic setting?

In an online Vortex Healing class yesterday, the teacher mentioned that monastic living does not trigger us as much as secular life. Someone else called it a pristine setting.

I have heard this from others and always wonder: where did you experience this type of monastic living? (Probably nowhere!)

In my experience, monastic living trigger us as much as any a regular secular life. We live with the same people 24/7 and can’t so easily escape. People are as annoying in a monastic setting as any other. We bring with us our own issues. And spiritual practice in general tends to bring up whatever is unprocessed in us.

Even solitary life brings up a lot of issues as I notice when I am on my own at the cabin. I cannot escape myself so easily.

Whether we live in a monastic, secular, or solitary setting, we bring with us our own issues and these bubble up no matter what.

So the notion of monastic living somehow being pristine or peaceful or free of triggers is misguided and, most likely, perpetuated by people who have never experienced it. If monastic living was like their fantasy, it would be far more popular!

The difference between a monastic and secular setting is that the monastic setting is (ideally) designed to encourage spiritual practice. The difference is not in what or how much is triggered in us and comes to the surface.

Cultural differences in taking about issues

After having lived for a while in Oregon and California, I notice cultural differences in how I and others sometimes talk about emotional issues.

For instance, if I share about something triggered in me, I often also share the triggering situation. My intention is to share, clarify it for myself, and sow a seed for continuing to explore and work on it. It’s a confession and it helps my process. (And it can also be a way of connecting with the other, letting that person know what’s going on in me.) Mostly, it’s understood and received that way, and perhaps especially by people from the US west coast since we share this language and orientation.

And sometimes, it’s misunderstood. Sometimes, the other person focuses on the triggering situation and issue and goes off debating it.

Yesterday is an example. I shared how I noticed something in me getting triggered when a Facebook friend posted a snarky (conspiracy-laden, anti-climate change) comments on one of my posts. Instead of listening and acknowledging it, as I hoped for or expected, she went into debating the content of the comment.

I felt hurt because I felt she didn’t see me, and also because the conversation went off in another direction than I wanted, and in a direction irrelevant to why I mentioned it in the first place.

So what to do? It’s good to anticipate that these misunderstandings can happen. And if I suspect there is a chance it may happen, preface my sharing and clarify my intention in sharing. For instance, I may say: I notice I got triggered earlier today. Can I share with you? The situation is not important in itself, but I would like to share so I can see it more clearly and work on it later.

As this keeps happening – and especially in Norway where people have a different way of talking about these things – I want to hone my skills in prefacing and clarifying.

I have written about this topic in earlier articles.

For instance, I sometimes use parts language and talk about subpersonalities, and say I notice a part of me [sees the world this way, feels this way] and assume the other will understand that this is just a part, it’s universal and something we all have in us, and it’s not my conscious view. Most people in my life understand this and we share this language.

And yet, people not familiar with parts language – including psychologists and spiritual teachers – sometimes misunderstand. They assume that what I shared about the part is something I am consciously identified with and how I, as a whole, see the world. And they sometimes appear shocked, start arguing with it, and take the conversation in a very different direction than intended.

I have experienced filling out psychological questionnaires that only ask about the presence of something (an emotion, a set of thoughts) and not the strength, and – being honest – I’ll answer yes to all of it since all of it is in me, even if it’s at a very small level and doesn’t impact my daily life. And it’s taken as if these are in me at a strong level. (I understand that for most people filling out those questionnaires, that’s the case. But I have to be honest and answer truthfully, and I notice these in me even if they are at a tiny level.)

And I have also noticed that some in Norway – including people who I had assumed would know better like psychologists and spiritual teachers – assume that knowing about or understanding an issue at a story level should be enough to resolve it. And they, again, seem shocked (shocked!) that I am aware of issues and dynamics in me that are not (yet) fully resolved.

To me, this is not surprising at all since knowing about something at a story level doesn’t resolve it. We need to go further and deeper for something to resolve more thoroughly.

The answer to all of this is anticipating when this may happen and nip it in the bud by prefacing what I am about to share. And if it’s misunderstood, notice as soon as possible (it sometimes takes a while for me to understand what’s happening), step back from where the other person is taking the conversation, and clarify.

Triggered issues bring us to the past

Emotional issues are like bubbles that preserve the past on the inside.

They were created in a specific situation in the past, often in our childhood, and often as a reaction to an ongoing situation.

When they are not triggered, or not triggered strongly, our center of gravity is outside of the bubble. We function more or less as if it’s not there, although the issue will inevitably color our perceptions and life.

When they are triggered, we may find ourself inside of the bubble. The past comes alive for us, we feel we are back in the same situation, it colors our experience of our current situation and the world, and we may even react as if we are back in the original situation.

To others, it may seem we are overreacting, misperceive the current situation, and behave irrationally. To us, we are back in the past. We behave in a way that makes sense for the younger person we were, and in the original situation. The situation we were in that felt scary and overwhelming, and we created the issue in response to, in our innocence and in order to protect ourself.

As we explore the issue and invite the charge to go out of the issue (in my case, through inquiry, Vortex Healing, etc.), the bubble is less strong, we are more aware of what’s happening, and we are less likely to be absorbed into the bubble.

Here is a common progression of what may happen when a strong and deep-seated issue is triggered, and we continue to work on it.

At first, we may still be fully absorbed into it although we recognize what happened after it subsides. We may then recognize it as it’s triggered and we go inside the bubble. We may be able to openly acknowledge it as it happens. We may then find that we have one foot inside and one outside of the issue. And when it’s more released, the issue may be more gently triggered and we recognize it without needing to go inside the bubble.

For issues that are less strong, we may start somewhere closer to the middle of that progression.

As we continue to work on the issue and our relationship to it, strength and charge of the issue lessen, we relate to it more consciously, and the bubble is recognized more for what it is.

When we get upset, what’s going on isn’t exactly what we tell ourselves is going on

When we get upset or triggered, what’s going on often isn’t exactly what we tell ourselves is going on.

(a) We have wounds (velcro, beliefs, identifications) waiting to be triggered. These are often initially created in childhood, and then recreated until we take a closer look at them. (b) These are triggered by life circumstances. (c) It seems scary and painful to feel the sensations and look at the associated images and words. (d) We go into stories instead, and these stories are usually about the current triggering situation. We distract ourselves from feeling and looking by going into the stories about the current situation.

This means that although there may be things we need to take care of in the current situation, what’s going on in us isn’t what we think or tell ourselves is going on. What’s really going on is that something old (and also new since it’s here now) is triggered in us, we avoid feeling and looking at it, and attention instead go and get absorbed into stories about the current triggering situation.

Of course, as we get to see and become familiar with this, we do recognize it more as it happens. We may use language such as “this triggered an old wound in me, and I feel scared / hurt / upset / angry”.

It’s important to not get too one sided here. The story we have about the current triggering situation often has a grain of truth in it, and there is often something we need to take care of. At the same time, we can notice and be aware of the dynamic described above. We can do both, and that becomes easier with experience and familiarity with the dynamics.

And this is definitely not something to use against others to deflect from our own behavior and for us to avoid feeling and seeing things in ourselves. Some folks will say “you got triggered, you need to look at that”. There is a grain of truth in it, of course, but it’s also cheap and very often used by the person to avoid taking responsibility for something they themselves did or said.

What comes up colors everything

When something is triggered in us, it can color everything. I know that from my own experience and from working with clients.

An old trauma may surface, old hurt, anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, inflation. Something that wasn’t fully felt when it surfaced initially. Not fully loved. Something that remained unfelt, unloved, and unexamined.

So it comes up now, and it can color everything. And our minds tries to make sense of it by explaining how something in our current situation triggered – or even created – this feeling or experience.

This may also come up in a session, and it may be directed at the facilitator or the situation.

Anger may surface, and be directed at anything and anyone in the present situation including the facilitator. Sadness may come up, and our mind makes up a story about how our life now creates this sadness. Hopelessness may color the experience of the session, and the client may feel hopeless about the process or the prospect of ever healing.

This is called transference in mainstream psychology. As usual, I don’t like that word so much. It’s too limited and sounds unnecessarily clinical.

Then there is counter-transference, where something is triggered in the facilitator (or therapist) and color his or her experience of the session and/or the client.

It’s universally human. And it’s good to be aware of. It may happen, and if we notice what’s happening there is a little more distance to it, and more room to relate to it more consciously.

This is something it’s very helpful to educate clients on, as well as facilitator trainees.

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TRE combined with Natural Rest, triggering & inquiry

I am exploring combining Tension & Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) with Natural Rest, triggering, and inquiry.

One is to combine natural rest with the sessions. Notice and allow. Notice sensations. Images. Words. Sounds. Allow it all. See how it is to allow it. Notice it’s already allowed. (By awareness, mind, life.) Notice how it is to shift from thinking to noticing. Notice even the thoughts that seems the most intimate, the most like “you”. See how it is to allow them too.

Another is to trigger stressful images (memories, situations) within natural rest, and while trembling. This may help release tension around this issue. It can be something stressful. A regret. Trauma. A compulsion. A time you wanted to …. (smoke, drink, use drugs). Or anything else. Bring the image to mind. Notice. Allow. Rest with it.

Yet another is to take time to look at images and words, and feel sensations. (a) Look at the image. Notice the texture. Colors. Shapes. Lines. Notice it as an image. See it up in front of you. (b1) Look at the word. Look at the letters. The spaces in between and around the letters. (b2) Listen to the words. Listen to the sounds. Say them in silence or out loud. Listen to it as sounds. (c) Feel the sensations. See how it is to be curious about it. Give it full permission to be there. Take time to feel it. Notice the space around the sensations. Notice the space within the sensations.

Following the TRE session, we can take what surfaced (if anything) to inquiry. It’s also possible to do it during the TRE session, by occasionally and briefly ask simple questions about what’s here. Is that image me, the one who is worthless? Is that image of my mother my actual mother? Are those words angry? Are they me, the one who is angry? Does that sensation mean that something terrible is going to happen? (Or is happening, or did happen.) This requires some familiarity with one or more forms of inquiry, and also self-facilitation.

I have for a while brought some principles from Breema into TRE. Find a way to do it that’s comfortable. So you could do it forever. (Body Comfortable) Notice the support from the floor. (Mutual support.) Relax. Allow the body to do it on it’s own. (No extra.)

It’s also possible to do it the other way. While resting with what’s here, I can invite in trembling. Or I can even invite in trembling during inquiry. It’s all an exploration to see what happens, and what seems to work for me in the situation I am in.

Dormant vs clear seeing

I decided to shorten this post:

There is a big difference between untriggered identifications and the ones that are seen through.

Identifications may be dormant for a while as part of everyday life, or because of a temporary transcendent state. And they are still there. How do we know? Because they are, or can be, triggered again.

It’s different to see through them. To hold a particular identification in loving presence, see how it’s created by the mind, see the consequences in our life of that identification, and that something else is possible. That’s when the charge around it tends to soften. That’s when it doesn’t have to go away, or be dormant, or be trancendet. It’s OK as it is, because it’s seen more clearly for what it is.

A dormant identification doesn’t require much of us. But seeing through it does. It often requires intention, attention, and some diligence. In addition to good practical guidance from someone who is familiar with the process from own experience.

This is one reason why retriggering a particular identification is so helpful in inquiry. It’s often relatively easy to get to a more peaceful state, but that doesn’t mean that the identification is seen through. It may just have gone temporarily dormant.

So we can retrigger, and see if there is a still a charge there.

But you are unlovable, aren’t you?

Look at the situation we started with. Is there a response in your body? 

Wouldn’t it be good with a drink now? 

Some facilitators jump into retriggering without warning. Others may explain the reason and that they’ll do it at some point during the session. Others may also ask if it’s OK to retrigger. (That may give the client more sense of control, and they know they consented to it.)

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