I went out onto the deck to enjoy the morning. It was a beautiful humid summer dawn – just the way I like it. I looked forward to setting myself up with my computer and my coffee, ready to enjoy the morning.
And then it happened – one of the sweet little frogs I had marveled at the morning before ended up under my bare foot. I felt it and dreaded, within an instant, what it was. I looked down in despair and I had, in fact, trodden on a frog.
For a moment my system tried desperately to find out that I hadn’t just killed a frog. I was in disbelief – this couldn’t possibly have happened. I didn’t want to accept this – I was resisting the present moment experience. As I got down on my knees to survey the little creature, I saw some pretty nasty damage to their little body. It didn’t seem like something a little being would survive.
I went into freeze mode, my system’s survival mode of choice. It might seem strange to move into survival mode in this situation, but that’s what happened. I knew I was in freeze because anything else I’d been planning before that moment went out the window and all of my awareness went to the fact that something awful, even dire, had just happened.
After checking out the frog, who seemed to be in a similar survival mode, but in a much worse physical state, I moved a little way away from the scene of the event and reminded myself to bring my awareness to my body in the present moment to calm my nervous system down. I took some deep breaths and brought my awareness to my breathing. I felt my feet on the deck surface. I rubbed my upper arms. I allowed my system to have its experience and made the intention to be with it.
My mind came online and I experienced anger at myself as the inner critic blamed me for wanting to move the table that put me in the wrong place in relation to the frog. The critic told me that I should have known to be careful, as I’d seen the frogs the previous morning and I should have known they were there. It told me that I didn’t deserve to be able to set myself up in a pleasant environment because I was so reckless and thoughtless. It told me I was a bad person.
Trauma, Control and Perfectionism
My mind also went to events from my childhood where the lives of animals were at stake and I felt powerless to save them. I was raised on a farm, and there were many overwhelming situations involving animal suffering. It was a very confusing time for little me, and even while I had no power to save the animals I loved, there was also a belief that I should have been able to. I could not believe that I allowed these animals to suffer. In an act of repelling the notion of powerlessness, I, instead, took on blame and responsibility – if I had just done something different, those animals could have been saved. There’s a sense of having ultimate control and also a sense of perfectionism in this – a survival strategy that tells me that I am not at the whim of the events around me and that if I just try hard enough I’ll be able to change the events around me. And I carried that into my adulthood.
Inner Wise, Compassionate Me
Then the part of me that knows better came in. She joined with little me and kept her company. Without words, she comforted little me by joining me in those childhood scenes and holding me the way I needed to be held. She told me that I was not responsible. She took away some of the burden.
Then, as I looked down toward the young frog again, I became aware that it was not dead. It was not in a good state, physically, but it was not dead. The wise, compassionate part of me invited me to consider that it might not die – that it might survive. I was flooded with a visceral sense of relief and I started to cry. Backdraft came as I felt a tending to my feelings of aloneness, responsibility, and absolutist thinking. When compassion and an invitation to consider a different future for the frog came into my awareness, I felt relief for a child’s sense of dread and responsibility.
Part of me wanted to keep checking in on the frog partly hoping to discover that it was OK, and partly to punish myself by making myself look at what had happened. The wise, compassionate part of me stepped in and told me that the punishment was going to stop and that she would lead little me away from the scene of the event. There was nothing more to do.
Ironically, as I moved away, I heard a gun shot in the distance. Likely, someone was trying to kill an animal. The irony was that, as I was wracked with difficult emotions for inadvertently injuring a creature, someone else not far from me was actively trying to take another ones life. This gave my system perspective – widened out my awareness into more spaciousness. Everything is relative.
Reflection, Connection and Social Justice
As I often do, I started to plan how to write about this adventure, to help me process it and to hopefully offer a learning piece for others. My inner critic told me that this was a vain act of wanting to be seen and admired, and that I should be more advanced in my practice of non-self. Another part of me validated the need to connect through writing, reminded me that we are all social creatures and that it’s very natural to want to connect with others and to share learnings from a difficult experience, especially as the steps in this process had come to me so clearly. A social justice part of me wanted others to get a better understanding of the way our childhood affects our adulthood, to know that there is nothing wrong with our survival responses or emotions, and to know that there is a way to take care of ourselves in similarly triggering situations. Like many of us, I seek to make meaning from my suffering through sharing my learnings as an offeing to help address trauma and shame in our community.
A sense of the hopelessness of trying to be happy came to me then. A sense that I will never get to that place where all is well, where the promise of enlightenment and lasting relief is realized. Somewhere in our culture, I was lead to believe that there was such a place, and the disappointment of it’s non-existence was almost more than my system could bear. Hope is a great motivator, and without hope, it can be hard to keep trying. I started to move to a place of depression, where I became numb to my familiar joys (like my morning coffee and sitting in the morning air). I came to the present moment in its dull, heavy reality.
Then I heard the windchimes. And I saw the hummingbirds at their feeders. And I heard the free birds in the distance singing to the morning sun. And a sweet softness came to my experience. My body softened. Yes, there is only the present moment, and it can be dull and heavy when compared to a romanticized future, or it can be very simple when compared to itself. The young frog will likely die, but it may not, and I will probably never know. I could give little me a break by resisting the impulse to try to find it to check on its status repeatedly.
There is no magical land of enlightenment, but there is this moment of sweetness. My body is always in the present moment and I can rely on it to bring me here. Being alive is tough, but we are hardwired to try our damndest to do it.
I remembered that movement is a good way to move the cortisol and adrenaline from a survival response through my body, so did some stretching. I know to stretch just enough to feel the level of pain that will mean my body responds with a dose of endorphins – the natural pain-killer.
My beloved came in the room and I recounted my morning adventures with him. He offered love, affection and connection in response to my sharing. We have clear systems of tried and true mutual support when one of us is suffering, so he stroked my skin and my hair, helping my affiliative system to come online and my threat system to calm down.
A part of me wanted to share the details of the event – the way the frog looked – with my beloved. I realized that what my system wanted in considering this offloading was to be relieved of the sensations it was having. If I can give it to someone else, I can make it go away. This is a form of resistance, of not wanting to be with my own experience. However, from previous experience I knew that sharing the details would likely evoke a perceived moment of rejection by my beloved as he processed the picture I was painting for him. My sharing would likely push him away for a period of time as he pictured the scene – exactly the opposite of what I needed in that moment. So, based on my understanding of my motivation for sharing and the likely outcome, I chose to not share.
Fight and Flight
Another way my system wanted to get out of having its experience was to move toward blame or avoidance – fight or flight. Maybe I could blame someone else for this event. What had someone else done to have caused this? The mind can get very creative about this, but I saw this happening and it was a minor adventure into fantasy. In the same way, I considered how I might distract myself away from my feelings through avoidance. Could I immerse myself in a task as a way to avoid my feelings – a common strategy for my system. But this felt like it would be an act of violence against my system that really needed to be kept company rather than abandoned.
As I was moving into a calmer, more connected state, I suddenly remembered where I am in my monthly cycle and that I am at a place where I have extra estrogen in my system and am prone to feeling emotions more intensely. It was comforting to have this piece of information – that’s what’s giving me access to deeper than usual emotions and that’s why it’s taking an extended time to move through my experience. Having that cognitive understanding of my body’s physiology helped to calm my amygdala further, letting it know that I’m not actually in threat but that my chemicals are making things feel larger than they are.
After the encounter with the frog, I returned to the spot I had intended to enjoy my morning in, on the deck, and sat with my coffee and laptop. I found my mind and my eyes regularly returning to the exact piece of real estate where I had trodden on the frog and where I had seen the little damaged body sit and collect itself. I kept seeing, clearly in my minds eye, the image of the little being – continually revisiting the feelings of despair and helplessness at watching and waiting to see what would happen next. Would the little body slump and show signs of having died? Would it crawl into a safe space to recover? What if I had brought more mindfulness to my steps in those early morning hours. Why did these people even have a deck with frogs on it? My system wanted to magick the situation away by ruminating on it. Maybe I could fashion a new story, a new sequence of events, if I revisit the memory and search for a different outcome. This is the empty promise of rumination. I could name it as rumination and bring some compassion to that part of me that desperately wanted the story to be different – loving myself not because it would make anything go away, but because there was nothing else I could do.
I found myself bringing a lot of awareness to where my feet were stepping, even inside where there were no frogs. I realized in one moment in the kitchen that the sensory system in my feet was looking out for the sensation of foot meeting frog, and that I had become hypervigilant to that warning sign, as a way to not repeat the incident.
Suffering is a part of being human
Kristin Neff wisely points out that suffering is part of being human. Not that being human is all suffering, but that it’s generally a part of our experience. In this incident that would have evoked a very different response from someone else – maybe not even noticing they had stepped on a frog – I felt a smorgasbord of flavors of suffering. And, I also dipped into a toolkit of resources to support myself. This is the value of a self-compassion practice.
Over time, the image of the frog and the emotions that went with the encounter faded. I was left in awe and respect of the power of human emotions and of memory to color our present day experience. I contemplated the myriad ways each of us as individuals is triggered, and was left in a deep sense of respect for the personal experience. We are all different, and it’s imperative that we honor and respect each others experiences, regardless of whether or not we understand them or have had them ourselves.