“In the Bowery” collage on canvass, 1982
I don’t have info on the artist, last name may be Palma
If anyone knows more I would like to properly credit.
Dealing with Meltdowns
© 2008, Jonathan Zap
Edited by Austin Iredale
I was talking to a friend yesterday who has been exhibiting some self-destructive behavior recently, and experiencing much inner turmoil. I was giving my boilerplate advice about the need for the Warrior approach when he replied,
“Yeah, I agree with the Warrior approach, but when I get going on it, something will happen and then it will collapse. It’s shocking how quickly it can fall apart.”
I felt an immediate surge of gratitude for his honest self-observation, because it was confronting me with a key problem that I, and many others, face as well. When we have a meltdown, it isn’t because we have stopped believing in impeccability, the Warrior’s stance, or other codes of personal behavior. It is because we are impaired in some way—we are struggling with moods; we are dealing with physiological problems involving sleep or blood sugar; we are in a state of anxiety, anger or depression; etc. In any number of ways, we are in a diminished state, and our will to be impeccable is severely depleted. How can the Warrior’s code be of any use to us during meltdown times when we feel like anything but a Warrior?
Meltdowns often seem to have outer causes, but are fundamentally an inner phenomenon. This is sometimes hard to realize because outer causes are often so convincing. Here’s an example of a typical outer cause for me—I wake up early in the morning and am ready for a good writing session. However, when I turn on my computer I am confronted with a wall of technical problems. This morning, for example, I woke up and found that after a demoralizing week of fighting with the host of my website, because my mailing list and some other functions weren’t working, they had disabled my “hold all traffic function” and twenty spam messages had been sent out to the entire list. All the problems they supposedly fixed were broken again plus I had an inbox filling up with totally justifiable complaints from people about the spamming. Instead of getting into the writing session, I found myself feeling anxious, angry and frustrated. There were other trigger events going on in my life as well and I could feel the mass of these things pulling me toward a chaotic, fragmented state.
I’m starting to pull myself out of it right now by contemplating and writing about the general problem. This is helping me for a few reasons that have general implications. One is that I am depersonalizing the problem. Most of us go through these meltdowns where, in addition to whatever outer meltdowns are occurring, we have an inner meltdown and feel capable of reaching for an intoxicant, curling up in the fetal position, becoming paralyzed by anxiety and/or lethargy, or opening a window and shouting at the top of our lungs: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” So my first step in dealing with this particular meltdown was to gain some observational distance. I needed to witness the meltdown rather than merely becoming the meltdown. Becoming the meltdown would mean being in a vortex of what is sometimes called “psychic entropy.” I would have had negative looping thoughts dominating my awareness like: “Computer breakdowns keep wrecking everything I’m doing. I hate this shit. Now everyone will want to unsubscribe to my list. Another writing session blown. If it’s not one goddamn thing, it’s another.”
Step One: Observe that a meltdown is taking place.
So the first step in dealing with a meltdown is to recognize it as such. Pause the meltdown for long enough to notice formally that is happening and turn on your witness to carefully observe the process. This alone will have a huge effect. We know that to observe a thing is to change a thing and the maximal case of this is when the “object” of observation is your own psyche.
Step Two: Mindfully witness the meltdown, carefully observing every part of the process.
After you recognize that you are having a meltdown, bring mindful attention to every part of it. Notice all physiological changes. For example, I noticed that my heart rate was up, I was contracting muscles around my eyes and contracting my brow, and there was tension in my neck and shoulders. As I observed that I was contracting my brow, and some other muscles, I also noticed that they started to relax.
Beyond the physical manifestations, I can observe many other aspects of a meltdown. I can evaluate its time context, its intensity and its ebb and flow. The present meltdown at first seemed to begin with the computer meltdown, but there were also some poor dietary choices last evening and this morning, and I woke up feeling a bit physically off. This meltdown peaked very early, reaching its point of maximum intensity when I realized that I was forty minutes into dealing with more computer problems and email complaints, and that my writing session was derailed and I wouldn’t be able to get into the zone. I felt some pain in my heart and my stomach when I had that realization, a kind of body blow. A few minutes later, however, when I realized that what I was experiencing was something I could write about, the meltdown began to ebb. I can still feel some of the physiological stressors, but I also feel meaningfully engaged and pleased that I was able to pull myself out of it. Essentially, I am observing the lifecycle of the meltdown, which in this case was a parabola—it went sharply up, and then once I began writing it sharply descended.
Step Three: See the difference between outer and inner meltdowns.
Although there was a meltdown in the outer world (the computer problems), the inner meltdown is obviously a process happening in me. On some occasions there are outer meltdowns where I do not meltdown inwardly. There are also a lot more meltdowns that don’t seem to have been triggered by any specific outer meltdown. Although I can attribute these meltdowns to outer causes if I wish, when I’m honest I’ll notice that many of the outer problems were in effect when I was not in meltdown mode. Meltdown mode can occur because of the cycling of my moods (caused by physiological changes or more mysterious forces), by my indulging negative thoughts, and by changes in my bodily condition that influence mood. While I shouldn’t deny the power of outer trigger events, I must avoid attributing to them absolute power over my inner state, which would only bind me to victim consciousness. I realize that the meltdown is an inner process and I have some amount of free will to shift my inner process. That I am now observing the meltdown is in itself a radical shift in inner processing, as compared to just letting the meltdown run me. There are also other steps I can take to directly intervene with the inner process. Specific techniques for doing these are outlined in A Guide to the Perplexed Interdimensional Traveler (the online mini-version, not the book with the same title I am working on) in a section entitled “Dealing with Afflictive Thoughts and Feelings.” By recognizing the inner meltdown as a separate process from any outer meltdowns that might be going on, I take responsibility for my inner state and am in an empowered state to influence it.
Step Four: Calmly and compassionately observe the outer meltdowns and see how and why they influenced your inner state.
Once I have clearly distinguished the difference between inner and outer meltdowns, I can now observe the outer meltdown without the risk of identification with it. I have long known that inner meltdowns can be caused when I run into mechanical resistance, especially while trying to accomplish something meaningful. I’ve written extensively on mechanical resistance, what it is, how to deal with it, and how to reduce some of it—please see: Mechanical Resistance Matrix. One of our most essential needs is for meaningfulness. If there is not enough meaningfulness in your life, or even in a given day, that is more than enough to cause a meltdown. At this phase of my life, where I have food, shelter, finances that are more stable than they’ve been for many years, and no major known health issues, my leading cause of mechanical resistance is the endless parade of computer problems. Since many of these problems seem beyond my ability to control or predict, they are particularly stressful. We know from the research on stress that factors that you cannot predict or control are the most stressful. Computer problems are additionally stressful because I have only modest computer skills and most of the problems I confront are way beyond my skill set. Also, computer problems tend to sabotage some of my most meaningful activities such as writing, research, communicating with friends, and publically posting my work.
By recognizing the effects of the trigger events on me, I can find more compassion for myself, and avoid some of the fight or flight reactivity. It may be necessary to talk to some of the upset parts of yourself in the soothing, coaxing manner that a good dentist or pediatrician would talk to a child: “OK, now you’ve had these before. You know it’s going to hurt for a little bit, but then it’s going to feel better.” Buddhists have a type of compassion prayer where you pray for your own release from suffering but also extend the prayer to others who are similarly afflicted. Recognize that your outer meltdown has close similarities to what millions or billions of others are experiencing. Most meltdowns have to do with classic issues—interpersonal dramas, money woes, mechanical resistance, health problems—and most people on the planet are currently suffering with at least one of those classic problems. Someone on my list sent me an email that said: “ No worries at all. Something like this happened to me twice in one week recently. Most people understand.” This comment immediately made me feel better, because it relieved that illusion of isolation that meltdowns tend to engender. She reminded me that lots of people go through very similar problems.
Step Five: Don’t let the meltdown control your behavior.
Although I may not be able to keep the meltdown from affecting my feelings and various aspects of my physiological state, I do need to draw the line when it wants to take over my behavior. If I reach for a drink, or self-medicate in a way that is injurious to my health, or act out in any other self-destructive way, then the meltdown has taken over me. When a force inside of you wants to take over your actions and you give into it, there should be no surprise that it gets bigger and stronger. Giving your lunch money to the bully does not make them go away, it keeps them coming back for more. Don’t give your lunch money to a meltdown by self-medicating, giving up or acting out. Do not allow it in anyway to provoke you into self-destructive behaviors.
Step Six: If the meltdown did take you over, get back on track as quickly as you can and without regrets.
If you got off on the wrong exit of the turnpike don’t keep going on the wrong road. Turn back at the earliest opportunity, waste as little energy on looking back with regret, and get back on track.
Step Seven: Recognize that working through a meltdown sharpens your sword.
Every time you refuse to give the meltdown your lunch money, refuse to let it take you over, and summon your will to work through it, you sharpen your sword. Even if the meltdown did take you over for a bit, but you awakened to what was going on and wrestled the steering wheel out of its hands, then you’ve strengthened your position as the driver of your life. Try to welcome the meltdown as an opportunity to strengthen yourself. Greet it as a worthy sparring partner. Recognize that there will always be outer meltdowns happening to you and others, and that the present case is an opportunity to strengthen your ability to deal with them.
Step Eight: Look toward the open avenues of possibility and take action.
This morning, for example, I restored the settings that the host had turned off. I couldn’t undo all the damage that had already been done, but I was able to stop further damage. Once that leak was fixed, I realized that I had a subject to write about and began writing. In other words, I got back to the experience of meaningfulness as quickly as possible. This was a particularly fortunate case, and some meltdowns might not allow such a good outcome. With some outer meltdowns you can’t fix the leak, or at least not immediately. Interpersonal meltdowns, for example, may also involve so much emotional agitation that you cannot readily restore enough inner equilibrium to do high level work. My answer to those sorts of states is to do useful mechanical jobs like cleaning my space or doing laundry. I can do such tasks just fine even though I may be feeling inner turmoil. Cleaning my space is especially good because when it is in good order it is morale boosting. Another great thing about doing such practical chores is you get definite results, you can see the progress being made.
Keeping your dignity and maintaining or restoring control of your actions during a meltdown can strengthen your core. Use the heat of the meltdown to temper your resolve.
Some insights seemed left over from this discussion and they became Zap Oracle card # 405:
Probably a movie still, perhaps from Run Silent, Run Deep or else a photo from an actual WWII submarine.
Monitoring the Inner Pressure
It is perfectly normal to feel inner pressure, anxiety, turmoil and chaos. Incarnating in the Babylon Matrix can feel like being a submarine scuttling along the floor of silent seas. There is a need to maintain your structural integrity despite being under tremendous pressure. Often we blame ourselves or something happening in the local time frame or space for the inner pressure. But just incarnating in a gravity bound mortal corporeal body on a planet in a state of frenzied change is enough to feel plenty of inner pressure.
A friend of mine, during a difficult life phase, said repeatedly that he felt “insane.” I pointed out to him that during the whole time when he said he felt insane that his reality testing was perfectly intact and that he was functioning rationally in society. His inner turmoil felt catastrophic to him, but actually it wasn’t, for the most part he was maintaining his structural integrity throughout the difficult period.
During most days I can feel the inner pressures within me ebbing and flowing. There are phases where anxiety and inner turmoil intensify and others where they relax and I may even feel euphoric. When I was younger and less experienced I took increases in inner pressure too seriously. The friend I mentioned above seemed to fall into this, and when the inner turmoil increased he felt that either there was something drastically wrong with him or with his surroundings. When anxiety intensified his mind tend to focus on relocating to another part of the country as the answer. As an outside observer it was obvious that the inner pressure was going to be there wherever he went. As Emerson said, “The problem with traveling is that you take yourself with you.”
One way to improve your structural integrity is to allow the inner pressure without thinking there is something particularly wrong with you or your present circumstances. We can easily construct a story, a he said/ she said, a tale of money woes, etc. to explain the inner pressure. But people in all circumstances incarnating on this pressurized world feel
inner pressure. What also greatly strengthens structural integrity is when you realize that you can take impeccable actions despite the inner pressure. I have a fairly intense fear of heights and that was part of the inspiration for me to get into mountain climbing. I discovered that even though I was feeling intense fear I could still make it to the next handhold or foothold just as well as someone who wasn’t feeling the fear. If the inner pressure feels too great to focus on complex tasks then use the pressurized zone to clean up your space, do dishes, laundry, etc. Exercise can be very helpful to do while under inner pressure and has been proven to help moods and states of mind.
“Grace under pressure.” —Hemingway’s definition of heroism