Perhaps the hardest thing to know is to know what ‘I want’. What is being selfish anyway? And when am I sacrificing myself? One way is by listening to the embodied sense of pleasure and excitement. However, it’s also helpful to understand why one feels the way one does, and that could be understood through ‘maps and windows’. I feel like I am now slipping into ‘self-help book’ mode, taking a terribly nuanced and complicated subject and dumbing it down to a few sentences, but the window of tolerance defines the frame of what the nervous system can handle without triggering a trauma response. The space within this window can be split into two kinds:
The rest space is for recovery. The keywords are safety, having (enough right now), and knowing (the path forward). For the vast majority of people, the rest space includes sleeping, eating, watching television, reading fiction, playing board games, snuggling, hugging, gardening, patting kittens, etc.
The arousal space is for adventure. The keywords are bravery, desiring (more right now), and learning (the path forward). Typical activities are learning something new, questioning a previous belief, discussing passionately, falling in love, parachuting, consciously getting lost in the woods, dating a stranger, and so on. It’s exciting but also tiring.
Being alive oscillates between these spaces – sometimes feeling safe with what one has, and other times feeling brave and desiring what one doesn’t have. Our nervous systems are constantly looking for a balance between the two. For example, having a stressful job and resting at home. Or having a tedious job and dreaming about next weekend’s adventure.
Outside the window is the trauma space. It’s where threats trigger the fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses, ranging from mild to severe. It can either be a new traumatic experience or a reminder from the past. Spending short amounts of time here is unavoidable, and most nervous systems can deal with it, like a tension that then releases itself. But being forced to stay for extended periods in cases such as abuse within relationships, bullying at school or workplaces, political violence, war, etc., may leave emotional scars and triggers that cause the trauma space to start invading the rest and arousal spaces, and therefore shrinking the window of tolerance.
The Map is Not the Territory
It’s helpful to think about these spaces in terms of the Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski’s idea of a map and territories. Maps try to describe what is consciously known while the territory is how it actually is. Similarly Alan Watts famously said that ‘all models are wrong (but some are useful)’. These very personal borders and boxes are drawn by previous life experiences and the surrounding culture. For example, an activity in the rest space for one person might be the trauma space for another. Placements also shift and change, sometimes even subconsciously; the territory changing without the map being updated. Nonetheless, most communication around desire, boundaries and consent is based upon the maps, the fleeting nature of which leads to many mistakes and accidents.
In a retreat, the spaces almost always change for everyone many times over several days. Participants might, for example, be scared about an upcoming activity in a morning circle because of its placement on their particular map’s border between trauma and arousal. Later, however, after having completed other exercises, they noticed feeling more comfortable about that activity. Either the territory had changed or their original map was incorrect. At the end of the retreat, when the tribe return home, yet again, everything changes… but at least they go back with a lived, embodied prototype of how life could be.
Oh So Many Maps
There are various maps used for different occasions, some personal and some inherited from others. In the absence of other information, social maps are created based on education, culture, and media. For example, some social maps view sadomasochism as a perverted temptation of the devil or a violent pornographic reenactment of men’s systemic abuse of women. However, most people also have a personal predictive map created as a preparation to navigate unknown territories, much like the brain repeatedly dry runs a speech before the big wedding. This map is built upon self-knowledge and experiences in similar situations. Finally, there is the map based on a current experience. How slippery does that wet stone actually feel underneath my hiking boot when I’m about to cross that icy melt-water stream far away from civilization? I once met an ex-special forces soldier who realised he got turned on by interrogating people. Wisely, he left the military and formed a queer leather family instead. His personal map differentiated significantly from the social map of the military.
As people use different maps, they tend to live their lives differently, based on the size of their window of tolerance and how they navigate different spaces. Some are deeply content with their rest zone and only sometimes make well-organised day trips into the arousal space. They have likely never heard about or even experienced the trauma space. Some might call them boring. Others are adrenaline junkies who have normalised high arousal and feel restless if they are not pushing themselves to the limit. While yet others are recovering from trauma by slowly trying to extend their window of tolerance while, from time to time, being kicked back out into the trauma space. Still, others are hypersensitive and use meditation and esoteric practices to shrink their window of tolerance and feel more with less.
Being trauma-aware is understanding the personal configuration of one’s map at the moment and seeking out places and contexts that fit one’s needs. There is this saying, ‘Outside your comfort zone, magic happens.’ The flip side is that outside your comfort zone, trauma can also happen! Sadomasochism extends and contracts the tolerance window by normalising extreme experiences and, at the same time, becoming more sensitive to them. I believe any ‘good’ esoteric practice contains both the means of expansion and contraction. Both rest and arousal. Perhaps this is what helps people stay brave instead of becoming traumatised – the ability to consciously and consensually navigate between these zones, rather than being pushed around uncontrollably.
Personally, I’m not a big believer in cathartic experiences that change everything at once, but rather prefer slow journeys with lots of sleep, good food, supportive social interactions, time to listen inwards, and guidance. While this may be tricky to provide for oneself in everyday life, they are the foundation of any deeper esoteric work.