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Tara Topper

Breathing Space between
Reaction and Response
by Tara Topper

“Some of life’s best lessons are learned at the worst time.” –Ani DiFranco

Whenever I have heard of life lessons, they have been associated with pain: growing pains, painful transitions, “I learned my lesson” after a painful mistake. What we already know about life helps us function; it’s what we don’t know that sometimes smacks us over the head unexpectedly and makes us look for ways we could do something better. These lessons are what keep us growing and life interesting. However, life lessons also come during times of following one’s intuition, challenging one’s self in an area that is fulfilling, and by following what feels good. Usually, when I can receive life’s lessons pleasurably, it’s because I am aware that I don’t know something and can have an attitude of gentleness toward myself. It makes not knowing a pleasant opportunity to grow, rather than an opportunity for my inner critic to take hold and shame me.

Judging Isn’t As Helpful As Curiosity

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” –John Lennon

One lesson I’ve learned over the years is that "Judging isn’t as helpful as curiosity." I learned that from author KD Farris, Ph.D.. For more information on her MESHE, HESHE, MISON, and ORBIT work, check out her column at SoulfulLiving.com, Being Present. Judgment is not to be mistaken for discernment—which is a crucial tool for evaluating behavior, goals, and values—but to decide that I am a bad or worthless person (judgment) because of my behavior, values, goals, and personality, only perpetuates a sense of shame, which de-resources me and limits my opportunities for choice and for change. The bad or worthless decision usually doesn’t present itself in such literal terms of thinking “I’m a bad person;” it shows up in how I treat myself, how I show up in relationship, what I think I am capable of and capable of having for myself.

For many years I have been fascinated by a depth psychological view, which for me, is about constantly coming back to myself, owning my emotions, perceptions and needs, so I extend the not judging myself guideline to others, because ultimately my reactions and responses are about me. When learning this lesson, I always got stuck on the thoughts, “If I don’t judge the abhorible, will I become it? Aren’t there things that should be judged as wrong like murder or child abuse? Am I saying I approve of it if I don’t judge it?” Separating behavior from worthiness of love helps make the distinction for me. Being able to hold myself and others accountable for behavior without judging any of us as unworthy of love is extremely helpful in any relationship. If someone wronged me and I hold them accountable for their behavior, I may not want that person in my life any more if they are unable to take responsibility for changing the offensive behavior, but I am accepting them for who they are and wishing them well in the world and doing the same for myself. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, sometimes relationships function best (have the most non-reactive space) in an inactive state.


"The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of." –Pascal

I know I’m judging myself, or in reaction, when I have a lot of anxiety, when my thoughts are critical (“I can’t believe I just said that. I am so…”), when I’m bumping into things, when I feel bad about myself, or isolated. Sometimes these feelings are just a signal that I need to take some time for myself or that I need space from interacting with someone or something because no new ideas are coming from the interaction and I’m stuck in a repetitive cycle of unconscious beliefs. Being able to recognize these feelings in the moment actually helps me step back from trying to solve a problem with the mindset I’m in, trusting that some judgment of mine has been triggered. When I am triggered (when my reaction is much larger than the situation provides for), it’s virtually impossible to reason myself out of being triggered. In fact, our brains are not wired that way (there are more nerve fibers running from the emotional center of the brain to the rational center of the brain than vice versa—giving the protective, reactive emotions the power to override the mind’s awareness in a state of panic). What does work, is to recognize that I’m feeling anxiety or frustration, usually by recognizing what my body does when I feel these emotions. For example, wearing my shoulders as earrings and the things listed at the beginning of the paragraph. Once I notice these signals, I can slow down and breathe, do whatever works to tend to my emotions, and calm down from being triggered. As the emotional center comes out of hijack-mode, the rational and emotional centers can work in unison, allowing insight to come.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa University, calls this technique “touch-and-go.” Touch-and-go is a technique of the basic foundation of Mindfulness of Life. It is tuning into life without rejecting or avoiding it, and without clinging to it. You make contact with whatever presents and let it go. Now, with anxiety, you may have to practice touching and going 100 times in an hour, but the point is to be aware of what comes up and be present in each moment. Again, the best way for me to tell if I’m touching and going is to check if I’m breathing, if I’m not bumping into things or reactive or critical, if my shoulders aren’t hiked up to my ears. When I notice these happening, I touch by acknowledging I’m doing it without shaming myself, and then let it go as best I can by being descriptive of what’s happening right now, without deciding what that awareness means about me in a reactive manner. Trungpa explains the touch as making contact with the object of focus (not avoiding it) and the go as “without further analysis and without further reinforcement” (not clinging to it).

Relationship Happens In the Space Between

I also learned from Farris that relationship happens in the space between me and another.  My relationship to myself happens in the space between reaction and response. When I’m in reaction I’m judging myself as either better or worse than someone else based on my beliefs and perceptions. The space within me collapses and I become one-dimensional, no room for breath or alternative viewpoints. My thoughts become black and white, either/or. When I’m in response, I remain descriptive of what I am experiencing and stay curious about what new lessons I can learn about Life and myself. There’s space in myself to breathe and think and feel. There’s an option for both/and to be true and I can value and appreciate someone else’s experience without abandoning my own.

I’ve found in my experience that one of the shadow elements of being on a spiritual path can be to judge myself for not being enlightened yet; for not living up to some spiritual ideal that can often be unattainable, or at the very least, not appropriate for me. Spiritual ideals, while they can be useful guidelines, can also be yet another place where perfectionism rears its critical head. But, if I breathe space into my reaction to the perfectionist and trust that my personality is essentially good, what I discover is that the perfectionist has been serving an essential function. I believe we are all intelligent beings—we do things for reasons we may not always understand, and there are functions to our behaviors. Even the things we think are most stupid or destructive have been serving a purpose, albeit an unexamined one.

My perfectionist kept a sense of hope for me when I could not tolerate the unconscious self-judgments I had. There’s a principle in structural bodywork that assumes that if something in the body is hyper-mobile (too much motion), you can be guaranteed that there is another place in the body that is hypo-mobile (not enough motion). For as extreme as my self-judgment was, there was a balancing force of perfectionism hoping for something better than what I was experiencing. As I began to work on my self-judgments, the perfectionist could no longer maintain her critical role. The perfectionism allowed me to learn a great deal, to improve, to do an excellent job, but because it came out of a well-spring of self-loathing, it came at the price of judging myself and, of course, I was never able to live up to unrealistic goals I had for myself (or if I could, it came at too great a cost to my soul), so nothing was very satisfying. In other words, the perfectionist was enmeshed with the inner critic.

As I learned to tease out the intelligence of the perfectionist from the inner critic, I thanked the perfectionist for allowing me the opportunity for new and improved ways of being and doing. Now, as the inner critic reveals itself, it alerts me that I am in reaction. I can then reorient to responding by breathing, relaxing, and staying descriptive of what I notice in my feelings, sensations, and thoughts. The perfectionist likes to make sure I do my job well; she just needs to be balanced with realistic expectations for the situation and my abilities as well as extend the same realism to others. This also means that I am, by far, not perfect at any of this. I just keep coming back to it and myself with loving kindness. It’s the process that’s important, not the perfect achievement of the goal.

Needs, Roles, and Relationships

What I know is this: everything comes down to needs, roles, and relationships. How we relate depends on and is informed by our roles with each other. The same behavior can be interpreted quite differently depending on the roles we have with each other. I think a lot of confusion happens in relationship when there is unfinished business from the past. What happens is called transference (Ah, that lovely word from psychotherapy that has so much charge for so many). Transference isn’t bad. Empathy is transference; it’s what allows our own experience to inform our perception of others and prompts us to relate with one another. However, when the past leaves a wound that never got the resource to heal properly, it becomes a trauma or a distorted perception and we can transfer those wounds onto new people or situations in an unconscious attempt, I believe, to resolve them. If the wound is unconscious, there is no room for reaction to turn to response and we wind up having the same wounding experience repeatedly.

For instance, if you had been wronged as a child and it never got resolved appropriately, you may have formed a belief about yourself or the world that could distort your perception of yourself or others in all other situations. If you’re in a romantic relationship and you cannot separate out the way your past is influencing your present, you may be relating to your romantic partner (who is ideally in a position of equal power with you) as if he or she is the parent that harmed you (who was in a position of greater power over you).

Relationships, beyond fun or functional, and companionship, serve to reflect parts of yourself back to you, revealing your beliefs, values, needs, and desires. And you can’t know what you need unless you know what you’re feeling. If your awareness is cut off from your feelings because your mind has been hijacked by an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, it’s hard to know what you need or to be in touch with your desires, making relationship very tricky. You actually need to be aware of your feelings for them to inform you. The cognitive brain and the emotions need to work together to maintain a sense of balance and health.

The body is such a great tool that reveals the intersection of mind and emotion. Noticing the breath, the shoulders, the movements toward or away from people, the sensations of change in temperature or heart rate, can flag your attention to your emotional reactions so that you can recognize your needs and respond in a way that addresses those needs.

Wound As Resource

“You don’t have to hold on to the pain to hold on to the memory” Janet Jackson

It’s easy to curse our wounds as the sources of our suffering. Many times, people shut down their memories to avoid feeling pain, which can be a very intelligent decision if there aren’t enough resources to handle the painful situation, but it often comes at the expense of feeling joy. However, as one of my dance teachers says, “A broken heart is an open heart.” Our wounds, if we can contact them with the necessary resources—support, emotional tools, awareness, loving kindness—connect us to our tenderness, our vulnerability, where we find our deepest longings, intuition, and dreams, and that allows us to extend a sense of empathy for others. Going back to painful places, with the support we need, can help to restructure our memories in a more enjoyable way.

Noticing the somatic markers (physical gestures) that go with the feelings that are triggered responses to original wounds, and meeting those wounds with the resources they need, we can turn wounds into resources. By meeting our wounds with the resources we need, without rejecting ourselves or clinging to our judgments of ourselves, we can breathe space between what happened and what we feel and need. Once we know how to recognize the triggers as they come up, our wounds can then flag our attention to our feelings and needs, and that gives us opportunity for choice in the present. While the past has shaped us, and the memories live on inside our cells, we can dismantle the trigger so that our memories do not hold us captive to our past. By remembering our past while taking care of our own needs, we keep the lessons, without holding on to the pain.

Being a Person

Finally, my favorite lesson right now is to stop working on myself and go out!

The work does not define me; it enhances my life. Before I cannot remember fun anymore, it’s time to get out there and live. I love to dance, to see a movie, to get loud and obnoxious watching a football game, grab a bite to eat with a friend or two, to wear cute shoes, or be kinesthetically moved by a dance performance. Egos are inherently good—I don’t want to transcend mine—I want to be in relationship between my Ego and my core Self. Whatever connects you to your passion, your soul—however big or small—don’t forget to do that. Making these things a priority keeps me connected to my passion and soul, to a life very much worth living.

©Copyright 2006 Tara Topper. All Rights Reserved.

Tara Topper
Tara Topper
has been a poet, writer, and dancer all her life.  She has been a bodyworker since 2001 blending massage, deep tissue, core sequencing, craniosacral and visceral techniques with her knowledge of psychology, yoga, kundalini, emotional storage and release, and transpersonal experience.  She earned her BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1999.  She is currently a student at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado where she is earning her MA in Somatic Psychology. www.naropa.edu


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