I have lived a life that is very different from what most people must experience. I have lived in the Land of Hypervigilance.
Each morning shortly after waking, I do stretches that an osteopath taught me. These movements manage a painful hip that cries out when under stress. Yesterday lying on my back, having finished the first set of stretches, I happened to tilt my head and notice a beautiful sight out the window behind me: the tips of several tall branches golden in sunlight waving in the wind, framed by blue sky. I was mesmerized by this image. How many times had I lain on the floor to do these stretches and never looked up in this way. It was a gesture of freedom, of abandon, of a lack of hypervigilance. It was an act of simply looking without trying to control anything, without trying to protect myself from any circumstance. Relaxed is what most people call it.
But I have lived in the Land of Hypervigilance. Life in this place is very, very different. When I was eighteen and home from college for the Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to go to for a walk and check out the high school football game. I stood outside the fence and reflected back on my senior year; I had been a baton twirler and had often performed at half-time. The field looked small. I only recognized a few people. My life had moved on. I left the stadium to walk in the neighborhood and sat down on a rock at the side of the road, where I happened to tilt my head back and look up. I saw the most amazing sight: golden-leaved branches, each leaf shaking in the wind, causing the light to reflect in an amplified and excited way. The entire sky seemed filled with intense, shimmering gold. I sat entranced.
Suddenly the sound of a car approaching scared me out of my revery. I sat up straight, berating myself. How could I have let myself drift like that? How long had I been daydreaming? Time had lost its tick; I had been living in eternity, but this type of freedom was alien and threatening. What foolishness, I scolded myself! That car could have run over my feet. Had anyone noticed my lapse? Worried, I scanned the streets, driveways, and windows of the nearby homes. I must have looked so silly! Hypervigilant self-consciousness was my address, and I was scrambling back home at fast as I could.
What is the difference between my experience of beauty when I was eighteen and that of yesterday? This recent lapse was a joyful one that filled me with gratitude and wonder and hinted that more beauty awaits when I stray from my visual patterns. I am becoming aware of a new way of being. When I was eighteen, I was on guard 24/7, my body on somatic sentry duty, each cell brandishing a sword ready to strike. I had no idea of the armor I wore. After all, the incision at three weeks old was something my breath and body remembered; I had no conscious memory of the assault.
Now I have these life-saving words to help me understand and manage my experience: post-traumatic stress (PTS). Recognizing a symptom of PTS is the first step in coping. When I become aware of my hypervigilance, I can calm my racing heart and release my held breath and body tension. I can feel compassion for myself and feel grateful for having access to the Land of Reality. Responding to a symptom rather than reacting unconsciously is the difference. I am no longer an unwitting prisoner of the Land of Hypervigilance. When there, I can leave. I no longer have to live there.