February 17, 2012

Trigger Practice

A good sports coach will encourage you to “train smart”. Trigger practice is a smart way to build mindfulness strength and endurance. It allows you to individually and systematically retrain each of your hot buttons before they get pressed in daily life. Here’s how it works.

In daily life, we frequently encounter situations that trigger thoughts and emotions—sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant; sometimes intense, sometimes subtle. Those thoughts and emotions may, in turn, lead to words and actions—sometimes appropriate (and effective); other times inappropriate (and less effective).

People often report that they don’t get much emotional body sensation or visual thought during periods of formal practice. On the other hand, emotional body sensation and visual thinking are often activated by life situations. But when that happens, we usually have to take care of the objective situation. This requires time and energy. So it may be difficult to systematically cultivate mindfulness and take care of business at the exact same time.

So how can we train ourselves to stay deeply mindful through the whole range of emotions and thoughts that come up in our daily life? One possible answer is Trigger Practice.

During Trigger Practice, you control the (1) type, (2) intensity, and (3) duration of stimulus you’d like to work with. You also control the (4) length of time between exposure to the stimulus. In other words: you have 4 independent variables you can tweak to optimize your training. Moreover, during trigger practice, there’s no actual situation you need to respond to. So you can direct all your energy to working with those triggers in a deeply mindful state. After this training, when things suddenly come up in daily life, you’ll find that you automatically go into a mindful response. This will reduce your suffering in unpleasant situations, increase your fulfillment in pleasant situations, and foster more effective behavior in all situations.

The basic structure of Trigger Practice is simple. You expose yourself to a sight, sound, or physical-type body sensation that would tend to create a mental and/or emotional reaction within you. The stimulus could create a certain type of pleasant reactions (love, joy, interest…) or a certain type of unpleasant reaction (anger, fear, sadness, shame…). You vary the type, intensity, duration, and spacing of the stimulation so that you’re working against an edge but not overloading yourself (as in weight training).

During and between the stimuli, you apply a formal technique. The technique can involve turning toward what’s triggered or it can involve turning away from what’s triggered. There’s something to learn from either strategy. You can turn towards what’s triggered by using one of the techniques from the Focus In family. You can turn away from what’s triggered using Focus Out, Focus on Rest, Focus on Flow, or Nurture Positive.

Most people find listening to sound from the TV/Internet with eyes closed to be the easiest way to do Trigger Practice but there are many other possibilities. You can trigger reactions through sight only (for example, by listening to the TV/Internet with the sound off), or through physical body sensations (for example, the sensations associated with a hot tub, workout, etc.). See what patterns are interesting and productive for you. If you want to really challenge yourself, you can try 2 or even 3 of the physical sense triggers at once (for example, watch and listen to TV).

May you have invigorating and productive work out sessions!


  1. Wow! Briefly and subtly I began to get anxious as evidenced by a squeezing uncomfortable stomach. Began mindfully observing focus in, see in, hear in, feel in. Insight that anything,even the least expected can be trigger, including the teacher and the homework practice. Recognized self-talk, saying "Oh this stuff is really good, you must get it all and practice. It is the end all and be all." Then I started to laugh at being beset with obsessiveness even with the practice. Thanks for the lesson! Much Metta!

  2. Good day! Do you somehow make sure that the content of your portal is exclusive in the blogosphere and no other person is it without making sure you are aware of it?

  3. As part of my therapy for OCD I deliberately bring to mind unpleasant thoughts or emotions and mindfully observe my reaction to them. It is a very helpful practice, as long as you don't overload yourself.


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