My two beloved indoor-only cats, Heidi and Kaela, are safe at home now. But when I was teaching back east at the Cape Cod Institute the last week in June, perhaps playing rambunctiously safe at home, they pushed out the screen of the dining room window and escaped into the outdoors.
Panic on the part of my cat-sitting neighbors; panic on my part 3,000 miles away and committed to a week of teaching. Rapid scramble to get traps from the Humane Society, post flyers in the neighborhood, neighbors and friends coordinating a schedule of replenishing food/water/bedding/litter boxes near the house to keep the cats near. As I was teaching in my course that week – rapid activation of our collective sympathetic nervous systems to MOVE, take action, do something!
Then the neighbors settled into their vigil, sighting the cats occasionally but the cats always running and hiding from these caring but unfamiliar people. Participants in my course so full of empathy and compassion every morning. And in the afternoons, my own nervous system would go into a parasympathetic dive into powerlessness, teaching in the mornings and enjoying that, walking the beaches in the evening and enjoying that as much as I could, but mostly me hunkering down, withdrawing, shutting down in the afternoons to cope by waiting the long week out.
And as I was teaching in my course that week, very often our patterns of coping with a current crisis are patterns that have been learned and stored in procedural memory from similar events long before, re-surfacing without any conscious awareness that what’s happening now is a repeat of what happened then.
I was experiencing withdrawing into quiet, avoiding stimulation, avoiding anything else new or potentially stressful…just as….I finally figured out….I had coped with similar situations of powerlessness in the face of a crisis I couldn’t solve when I was 8. It doesn’t matter the crisis; the coping in response to the crisis was the same. What I learned to do then, I was doing now.
Except that I have had years of growing up since then and could stay quite activated and energized when the situation – teaching a clinical training as I’ve enjoyed doing for many years – felt safe. And I’ve had years of mindfulness practice that allowed me to observe – without judgment, with a great deal of understanding and acceptance – exactly what was happening while it was happening.
The relief I felt when I finally returned home and found Kaela in the back yard the first night home, finding Heidi hiding under the neighbor’s front porch the second night home. The tremendous relief at not losing two beings precious beyond words. The deep, deep gratitude for the common humanity of neighbors and friends who showed up, were so loyal and conscientious and generous in their responsiveness and care.
And the lessons learned about the depth of our implicit coping patterns. We can learn new more flexible patterns of coping as we mature, and we do. We can rewire old patterns as we learn how to, and we do. And with enough stress we can still tap into old, old patterns of coping, hopefully now with awareness and acceptance of the poignant challenges of the human journey and the infinitely complex patterns of responding to those challenges in the human brain.