This article was originally published on December 23, 2018 and updated on November 24, 2019.
Titration is a term that comes from chemistry and medicine that means to adjust the concentration or amount of a substance or medicine until the right balance is found. In emotional work, this term has been borrowed to refer to monitoring and adjusting the amount of stimulation we introduce to our system in order to maintain our internal landscape in a state that is ordered enough for us to be able to learn from any changes we are experiencing. It’s a bit like observing how much water comes through a tap or a faucet, and using the handles on the tap to adjust the flow up or down where needed. To titrate our experience is to intentionally keep ourselves in a state of emotional safeness through opening or closing our exposure to stimulation. Dan Siegel calls this place of balanced challenge and learning the Window of Tolerance, a term that is now widely understood in meditation and psychology theory to help us stay in a place of choice and safeness.
When we are open, we are willing and able to have full emotional, visceral, and social experiences. We are able to take in prompts from the outside world and to watch to see what happens in our inner world in response. We are open to new experiences because we feel safe and we understand, somewhere in our being, that we need to be open to allow ourselves to grow into a more authentic, resilient life. We are willing to introduce new information from teachers, nature, fellow travelers, and our own intuition to our internal story. Being open doesn’t necessarily mean we are able to attach cognitive meaning to our experience, especially if it is a somatic one, but we have the wisdom to know when a shift has occurred for us, when a door has opened, or when a blockage has been removed in our system somewhere.
When we are open, we feel a release and we might cry or laugh or feel very, very alive. We might have one of those “aha!” moments. Opening is an important part of our process of developing as a spiritual, aware, self-compassionate being.
We can’t be open all the time – partly because as adults we have important work to do in the world that requires us to bring boundary-setting, perseverance, focussed effort, and repetitive tending to the activities in our life. We need to be able to get in a car and navigate traffic or respond to 20 emails in an efficient manner.
Closing is the counterpoint to opening. Closing allows us to balance taking in new material with time to process that new material. Closing gives space to integrate, compost, assimilate and move material around in our internal landscape. When we close we cease taking in new emotional material because we need to have balance in our system to function.
After a period of opening (eg at a retreat, or when reading a touching book or watching a touching movie) our system will tell us when it is time to close. We don’t need to intellectually make that decision: we feel it in our body. We might get some physical signs that it’s time to close, like feeling tired, irritated, bored or just “full.” Initially we might resist closing because being open can feel so good, especially if we are at a retreat or workshop and we feel we need to make the most of our precious time in that environment and remain open the whole time. However, this is not self-compassionate or mindful – this is resistance to allowing our system to naturally move where it needs to go, and it won’t serve us in the end. Trying to remain open when we need to close is part of the “subtle aggression of self-improvement” that Bob Sharples refers to. We might try to cram more emotional material into our system the way we cram intellectual material into our mind when preparing for an exam, but our emotional learning is not the same as our intellectual learning. Emotional learning goes at the pace of our body, which is slower moving and more grounded than our mind.
Closing and Overwhelm
Closing can also happen when we have moved from feeling safe, rested or challenged to feeling overwhelmed because a present moment experience feels similar to a past traumatic experience our system remembers. When we are moving out of our window of tolerance because the stimulation we are experiencing is more than we can process in the time that it is happening, then our system automatically begins to close. This might lead us to shutting down, numbing out, dissociating or freezing. If we can, it’s great if we can choose closing before our body chooses it for us, but we don’t always notice the body signals that are telling us we need to close and we don’t always have choice over what’s happening in our internal or external environment so that we can choose to close when we start to feel overwhelmed. When we are experiencing closing in response to trauma, we need extra care to help us move back to feeling safe or rested. Ways to help us move out of this kind of closing response include taking slow deep breaths, moving our body, connecting with someone who cares for us, and taking time in nature. You can read about thawing a freeze response here and Somatic Self-Compassion First Aid here. Closing in response to trauma deserves the support of a therapist, teacher or shaman who can help us process old material and help our body distinguish between old, unsafe experiences and new, non-threatening experiences.
After some practice we can learn to more efficiently notice signs of needing to close and respond appropriately. Initial experiences of closing might confuse us (eg why am I suddenly feeling bored or irritated with my meditation teacher?), but after we’ve experienced and named it as closing (much like the way we can notice, name, acknowledge and validate backdraft) we come to see it as part of our inner knowing, our inner navigation tool, our inner teacher. If we’re in the company of others who are practicing similarly to us, we might even speak it out loud: “I’m closing/closed right now.” Like speaking shame, speaking closing helps us connect in common humanity and helps us to normalize and validate our experience. Closing can lead to feeling shame, especially when we feel we should be performing in some way and our closing means we can no longer respond experientially (eg if we’re a teacher of this material in front of a group) so speaking closing can help if we do experience shame around this process.
If you’d like to explore self-compassion material in a carefully scaffolded way that allows for gradually exploring your window of tolerance, you might like to check out the next Somatic Self-Compassion Online course. If you’re a contemplative teacher and would like to learn how to work within your own window of tolerance while helping your community members work within theirs, you might like to join us at Embodied Trauma-Informed Contemplative Teaching Online. We’d love to see you there!
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