The Buddha looks pretty regulated, doesn’t he? Many of us are drawn into practice by the promise of his qualities – steady, easeful, composed presence, contentment with things just as they are. It’s nice to imagine we could embody this state all the time. The fantasy is that we might be still and equanimous enough to sit in the eye of the storm when it arises, peacefully witness the commotion without getting pulled this way or that. This would be to live out our Buddha nature.
But wouldn’t we be missing something? Doesn’t the unperturbed Buddha also look a bit…dull? Isn’t his serenity a bit…lacklustre? Has he ever surfed a wave? Danced ecstatically? Orgasmed without abandon? Has he fallen in love and had his heart broken? Isn’t this the stuff of life?
Maybe Buddha nature is attainable – maybe more so (but also not guaranteed) for folks who live in monasteries, reduce distractions and renounce worldly pleasures. But for those of us who live in the everyday world, who engage in relationships (of all sorts), who brave parenthood or entrepreneurship or creative endeavours, we are bound to expose ourselves to experiences that will cause excitation and devastation, experiences that will cause dysregulation.
To be regulated is to stay within an optimal state of arousal – not too hyperaroused (excitable or revved up) and not too hypoaroused (numbed out or shut down). But dysregulation is baked into life. From the moment we exit the womb we are highly dysregulated. We come out screaming and crying, seeking to be soothed (co-regulated). As infants our regulation is entirely dependent on others. As we grow up, we have more capacity to regulate ourselves. In the same way that the mind wanders and we bring it back in meditation, our nervous systems get dysregulated and we (try to) bring it back to regulation. Regulation is a practice as much as it is a state.
When we are dysregulated, the opportunities we have to engage in life and with others, to learn, grow and heal from trauma are impeded. Mindfulness can help us track our levels of arousal and remind us to engage in practices that bring us back into regulation. In hyper-arousal our energy spikes, and we may experience a racing heart and/or mind, jumpiness, muscle tension, hypervigilance. When we notice hyperarousal, we might be able to regulate by bringing our energy down through things like deep belly breathing, feeling our feet, orienting to the room, using the imagination to visit a calm or safe place. In hypo-arousal our energy drops, and we may feel numb, fatigued, foggy, depressed, checked out. When we notice hypoarousal, we might be able to regulate by bringing our energy up through introducing rhythm to the body (e.g. tapping, walking, dancing), deep belly breathing, cold plunges, making plans that connect us to the future. We can’t reason our way out of dysregulation. Dysregulation is experienced physiologically, not psychologically. It must, as a result, be processed through the body.
I used “might” as a qualifier because there are times when these tools don’t do the trick. In my experience as a human and a therapist, the issue isn’t that you aren’t breathing deeply enough; the issue is that life is sometimes overwhelming and the reality is that we can feel dysregulated for long stretches of time. At least that’s been my reality, many times over. I can get stuck in depressive episodes, in a state of hypoarousal, for months at a time, year after year. In times like these I do my best to remember and utilize as many regulating practices as I can. I also do my best to hold space for my experience as it is. I try to remind myself that to be human is to be vulnerable, and the fact that I’ve gone into dysregulation is not a problem in itself; it’s a very human experience. Just like in meditation, fighting and judging my experience doesn’t get me anywhere. This capacity to be with myself as I am, with less judgment, is one of the greatest gifts of my meditation practice. Judgment can add a layer of shame and self-blame, deepening the fall into hypoarousal. Instead of judging, the practice is to notice the hypoarousal and do what we can to state-shift, with an approach of loving-kindness. In this way, the attempt to return to regulation is a practice, not a guarantee. Over time, when our environments are safe enough, we might be able to notice and to bring in practices that support regulation.
I also want to name that to have the capacity to be regulated is a privilege in more ways than one. It is first of all a privilege to feel safe enough in our bodies to be regulated. Feeling safe enough might come from being born into a body that is not othered and in some way discriminated against in society. Many people of colour, women and gender diverse people may never have the privilege of feeling fully safe in their bodies. In addition, feeling safe enough might also come from having had very attuned caregivers and not experiencing very much trauma or neglect, especially early in life. This is not everyone’s experience. These foundations of feeling safe enough and having good enough caregivers can give us a baseline of regulation. With a strong, regulated baseline, we have more innate flexibility to come back from dysregulating experiences and in that more opportunities to choose how we respond in life, rather than react to life. So again, people who are more regulated aren’t just better at breathing; they may have been graced with circumstances that gave them a more solid, regulated foundation to work from.
Regulation is all about bringing the system back into balance. Different approaches are likely to help different people at different times; no one approach is better than any other. Like mindfulness, the more we practice regulation, the more our bodies remember how to regulate and the easier it is to return from states of dysregulation. Over time, being regulated increases our capacity to be present to more and more challenging experiences. Through mindfulness, we expand our “window of tolerance” – the range of experiences in which we can be regulated – and can embody more of the Buddha’s composure more of the time.
While the theme of this month is self-regulation, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to go it alone. Being in the presence of regulated people or animals, sitting by water or against a tree are meaningful ways to co-regulate. Wherever we are starting from, good teachers, therapists, loved ones, safe enough environments and communities can, over time, help us regulate. We are, after all, social mammals whose nervous systems naturally entrain with others.
The Buddha’s regulation can serve as an inspiration but if we hold that caricature of regulation as an expectation, we risk denying the fullness of our natural, embodied, human experiences and the beauty of our capacity to nurture and be nurtured in times of distress.
* Caitlin is a perpetual student and a mindful activist, holding a Masters degree in Integral Counselling Psychology, a diploma in depth psychotherapy, a Masters degree in philosophy with a focus on existentialism. She’s also a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher and is currently studying Somatic Attachment Psychotherapy, an approach that integrates body awareness, nervous system regulation and relational patterning. Caitlin’s teaching practice focuses on embodiment, curiosity, the world(s) of woo, ecology and psycho-spiritual connections. In 2019, Caitlin and some fellow explorers co-founded Consciousness Explorers Victoria/Coast-Salish Sea, a CEC-inspired meditation community. You can learn more about Caitlin’s offerings and her work in the world through her personal website.