Don’t Pull the Trigger

Sometimes all it takes is a word or simple event and our thoughts and emotions are off to the races. David Richo on the fear that’s behind our triggers—and the antidote to it.

David Richo
14 September 2020
Glyn Kirk / Action Plus Sports Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Someone says something to us, and we are suddenly struck with a sinking feeling in our stomach. Someone does something, and we become instantly enraged or alarmed. Someone comes at us with a certain attitude, and we go to pieces. We hear mention of a person, place, or thing that is associated with an unresolved issue or a past trauma, and we immediately feel ourselves seize up with sadness, anger, fear, or shame. When any of this happens, we can be sure a trigger has been activated. All of us, no matter what our level of Buddhist practice, react to triggers. It is a given of social life to be triggered, a given of personal life to have a reaction.

A trigger is any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate emotional reaction. Words, behavior, attitudes, events, even the presence of certain people can incite reflex reactions in us over which we have no control. For example, we are startled by a noise. The noise is the stimulus/trigger; the startle is the reaction. Sometimes we can move through our reaction in a moment. Sometimes it becomes an obsession and is hard to shake off. This disempowers us and plunges us into fear and insecurity.

Fear triggers us to cling to what might please us or run from what might harm us. However, the dharma helps us access inner resources that liberate us from those compulsions by offering a new way of responding. We simply notice what we’re facing, notice our triggers and instinctive reactions, and then let go of having to choose between clinging or running. That is, we hold our experience rather than gripping it or being gripped by it.

For instance, even though our relationship is secure, our ongoing fear of abandonment compels us to keep asking our partner for reassurances. In mindfulness, we simply notice our fear and give up checking—unless real evidence of abandonment appears. We do not try to allay our fear by finding an assurance externally. We witness from our prefrontal cortex rather than react from our triggered amygdala. Mindfulness gives us something to do with our agitation. We are no longer at the mercy of triggers because we are witnesses of them. The best next step is to see them with compassion and even amusement.

In this mindful style, we pay attention to the flow of thoughts and feelings in ourselves, but we allow them to pass through us without stopping to examine, judge, or entertain them. When we really are in the moment mindfully, it is impossible to keep holding on. Paradoxically, by not reacting, we grow in awareness of what things and events really are, before we dressed them up with our projections, desires, fears, and add-ons.

We sometimes imagine that if we were enlightened, we wouldn’t feel certain emotions. But that extreme stoicism and indifference would be inhuman. Enlightenment is the expression of our inner wholeness, and that means allowing the full spectrum of human experience, including feelings. As social beings, we are intimately connected to others—we have no separate self, only a linking oneness. We need one another for survival. When we experience a loss, it ends a connection, at least palpably. Our sadness is our way of showing the importance of our connections.

The Japanese Zen master Shaku Soen was openly weeping over the death of someone close to him. A bystander mocked him, saying, “You are supposed to be beyond reacting to the givens of life and death.” Shaku responded, “It is precisely by allowing my natural reaction of grief that I go beyond my grief.” As long as love is possible in the midst of our pain, suffering is a path to depth, compassion, and redemption.

Love is the antidote to fear. Our full breadth of affection manifests when our love comes in closer and goes out farther—when we love ourselves and expand our circle of love to include all beings. How do we bring love in closer to ourselves and let it extend out farther to others? Buddhism offers the practice of loving-kindness, also called metta—the Pali word for benevolence or well-wishing.

A simple entry technique for the practice of loving-kindness is to picture ourselves in the center of concentric circles. The first and innermost circle, beside or around us, includes those we love personally—for example, family, friends, or our partner. Moving out, the next circle is composed of people about whom we feel neutral. The next circle includes people with whom we have difficulty—enemies or opponents. The final, outer circle includes all beings. We beam our love equally to those in each circle, beginning with ourselves: “May I be happy.” Then “May those I love be happy,” and so on. We can use this practice daily. Now we have found the most powerful remedy for fear: the universality of love.

As we engage in loving-kindness practice, we also find a sense of connection to our own buddhanature as a power higher than ego, yet also ordinary. When the Buddha says, “Be a refuge to yourself,” the “yourself.” Buddhanature is you just as you are, at your best or worst. Our our true refuge is not our perfect, fully enlightened nature. It is simply our day-in, day-out being, the one that makes one mistake after another. Thus, our buddhanature is a refuge, a place to deposit our mistakes and our missed chances at love. Having our buddhanature as such a repository makes it no longer shameful to be inadequate, erroneous, or adrift. The word “refuge” means “fly back”—coming home to who we are, the home that turns out to be the capacious palace of enlightenment.

Fear and self-doubt are like the weather, not like house arrest. No matter what the conditions, they do not stop us from going out and doing what we have to do that day. Fear is an atmosphere that does not have to be an interference.

David Richo

David Richo

David Richo is a psychotherapist and the author of How to Be an Adult in Relationships and Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing.