This is Part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1 here.
I have experienced dissociation many times in my life. I remember one of many extended arguments with a previous partner (it was common to have 6-hour arguments which we tended to call “debates” because we didn’t yell at each other), toward the end of which I finally slumped, exhausted, onto the kitchen linoleum floor in the corner between the stove and the sink. I had brought all my best explanations about my emotional landscape to the battleground; all my clever responses to my partner’s intellectualized statements of “truth.” I had cried in expressing all that tormented me; I had naively followed every line of questioning that manipulated me toward a place where I couldn’t possibly be “right; “and I had tried to bring my feeble powers of reasoning to support my feelings. And, I lost. After 6 hours, bringing my A-game to the field, I was defeated. In trauma language (see Peter A. Levine’s book, In An Unspoken Voice for an exploration of this) we might say I had withstood the attack for 6 hours in an aroused state of fight or flight, and eventually found myself trapped in a corner on the floor with no power left to defend myself. I felt myself sinking into the foundations of the house – I felt myself leave my body. It was a welcome release from feeling and fighting, and I didn’t care what happened to my body from there. I had no will to live.
This is dissociation.
In a state of dissociation, events slow down, our perception narrows, we can tend to relax and we feel disembodied. We escape because we have no other recourse to protect ourselves. It can feel profoundly relaxing, but it’s the relaxation of a deer being felled by a lion and her body moving into immobilization as she meets her end. It’s an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism that spares us from intolerable pain. Our body protects us from the trauma of dying, and, in extreme cases, our amygdala will shut down our very organs of survival (ie being scared to death).
Dissociation and Equanimity
Unlike equanimity, during dissociation we have no sense of impermanence. We feel fully, completely, forever more broken. We have no sense that this is a state that will change. The only thing that might change is that someone might save us.
And, we completely abandon ourselves. We leave our body to the ravages of the world and we escape. We cannot care for our own nourishment or our own survival. Our body is simply a place of suffering that we can no longer endure. We might see it as if from the outside, perhaps even curiously, but we are no longer in it.
We are in the world but not of the world. It is as if we are inert.
So, does dissociation feel different to equanimity? Hell yes.
After experiencing equanimity, we feel alive, whole, empowered, safe, confident. We have a sense of knowing our own rightness and our own goodness. We feel anchored and connected to others and ourselves. We have a sense of our body, and we feel the joy of that bond. The world feels vibrantly real.
After dissociation, we feel lifeless. We are neither living nor dead. The world feels unreal. We are unsure of our place in it. We don’t feel as if we belong. And yet we have given ourselves over. We are in the world but not of the world. It is as if we are inert.
Equanimity leaves us with a sense of agency (knowing that we have power and are in control of our volitional systems), a sense of creativity, a deep sense of connection with others. Dissociation leaves us floating in a powerless, disconnected place, at the mercy of others. We might hope that they will take care of us, but we’re also ready for them to do the opposite.
How might we work out which one we are in? If the explanation above is not enough, consider this: If I ask myself, in a state of equanimity, if I feel a sense of agency, I’ll probably answer yes. If I’m in a state of dissociation, that question won’t mean a thing to us – it would be like asking a 2-year-old if they have control over their actions. If I ask my equanimous self if I feel connected to others, my answer will most likely be, “Deeply.” If I ask my dissociated self that question, my answer will be something like, “Maybe they’ll take care of me” or “Maybe someone will rescue me,” or, once again, it will be as if I’ve asked a 2-year old about quantum physics. If I ask my equanimous self what I need, probably not much would come to mind – I have what I need. If I ask my dissociated self the same question, I may either feel numb to that question, or I might feel a deep welling up of a sense of unmet needs that threatens to overwhelm me.
The beauty in the human system, is that, even if our experience is dissociation, we can emerge toward a place of wholeness.
In meditation, we can experience equanimity and we can experience dissociation. We can feel firmly rooted in the power and wonder of the here and now; and we can disconnect when connecting (with emotions, memories, body sensations, etc) is too painful. We can broaden and widen our perception; and we can narrow and limit our awareness. We can tap into a sense of belonging; and we can float off into untouchable space. Maybe neither of these things will happen during your meditation, but either of them could.
The beauty in the human system, is that, even if our experience is dissociation, we can emerge toward a place of wholeness. The assistance of a skillful therapist using the right model for us is most likely key to this emergence. Add in the support of a community, a Mindful Self-Compassion program, and books by skillful healers, and we’re well on our way. I know because I’ve been there and I know others who have also been there. And often, once we’ve explored that terrain until it is no longer frightening and unfamiliar, we become healers ourselves. Like the shaman who knows the terrain and travels it along with those seeking healing, we have hope and faith in an emerging Phoenix at the end of the epic adventure.
I have faith in our collective healing, starting with me and with you.