Inner Storms

by Thea Iberall

When I was 14 years old, my house was hit by lightning. I was taking care of my younger sister because my parents were out of town. It was raining hard and there was lots of thunder and lightning. Being a mid-Westerner, I was used to it. I was counting the time between the flashes and the bangs. I knew it was close. I told my sister to come down the stairs. After she did, I went back to cooking dinner. I didn’t know when it happened but I felt something. There was no loud bang, but it was like the air sizzled, like every molecule of H2O vibrated and disappeared.

We got out of the house and the firefighters were able to put out the fire. But this isn’t a story about loss or fire, but emotions.

In November, I talked about my commitment to serenity. I made it sound so simple. Just develop a belief in a higher power and one can be in serenity. And then a few days ago, I talked about my anger. So much for serenity. Words are easy to say; the question is how to truly live by them.

In Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman explains how emotions override what we know. If we get angry or afraid, our thinking mind goes out the window. This emotionally-charged state exists for a certain amount of time. During that time, our thinking cannot incorporate information that doesn’t justify or fit with the emotion we are feeling. For years after the fire, I was petrified of lightning. When a thunderstorm started, I went into a hypervigilant, fearful, emergency response state unable to think. Even the counting, even knowing the storm wasn’t actually as close as it sounded didn’t help. Ekman says that while we all wish we could erase our emotional reactions to specific triggers, there is no definitive way to hit the delete key. The trigger is written into a write-only emotional database. But he says there are ways to weaken emotional triggers. Reappraisals, psychotherapy, behavior therapy, and yes, even meditation.

I like to meditate on the seven basic emotions. I write them all down: mad, sad, bad, glad, hurt, afraid, ashamed. And then I figure out which one I am feeling and contemplate it. Or write about it. Or scream about it. It’s true that we can’t intellectually think our way out the emotion, but reappraisals can help. In Energy Meditation, Donna Eden talks about reprogramming the emergency response loop. She says bring to mind the situation and place your fingerpads on your ‘oh my god’ points on your forehead, and place your thumbs on your temples. And breathe deeply keeping the scene in your mind for a few minutes. It brings blood back to the higher parts of your brain. She says as you relax, you are freeing yourself from the memory’s emotional grip.

These days, I still remember the lightning flash and I still have awareness in thunderstorms. But I have weakened their hold on me. Thanks to all the wisdom shared by courageous teachers, and thanks to my willingness to at least strive for serenity.

Poem by Erin Hanson

Every heart’s a hurricane,

Each soul a starlit sea,

Every mind’s a meteor

Unbound by gravity.

And everybody’s wishing

They could learn to tame their tides,

When nothing more than nature

Is what’s echoing inside.

Every life’s a lightning bolt,