Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 2: Curiosity and Choice
Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 2 – Curiosity and Choice
“Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” ~Pema Chodron
In this 3 part series, Reflections on Meditation and Trauma, we explore how the practice of meditation can support and mirror the nonlinear journey of healing after sexual violence. If you’d like to read Part 1 which discusses the importance of identifying what healing practices serve you and the benefits of meditation as a self-care tool, please follow this link. In this 2nd installment, I focus on giving oneself greater freedom in healing by maintaining a sense of curiosity about the experience and a willingness to be surprised. In addition, I focus on how the practice allows us to train in the process of continually releasing thoughts that arise while we sit by drawing on our breath, sensation and orienting ourselves within our shape, which simultaneously strengthens the power of our ability to make other critical choices along our journey and enhances our ability to be present.
Approach Your Experience with Curiosity
I believed that this 7-day meditation would undoubtedly take me into some of the darkest places of my trauma history. Oddly enough, I actually wanted that – seeing it as some sort of spiritual purification or emotional purge. I both feared what might come up in that context, and also felt eager to release it. The last 24 hours before my departure to the retreat the self-questioning of what a bad idea it was that I had chosen to bring this level of intensity upon myself stirred up intense anxiety and fear. I left tearful messages on people’s voicemails, with an odd, and somewhat melodramatic tone of goodbye. As otherworldly as meditating can sometimes feel, you would have thought I was going to the moon the way I began to anticipate this “journey.” I was scared by the unpredictability of this week because I like routines – that I design, and especially because I was quite less than what you might describe as a “seasoned practitioner”. I figured though, if I wasn’t ready I wouldn’t have been admitted in the first place, right? I had shared my trauma history in my application and supporting documents, including past diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and they still welcomed me to the Center. I had clearly stated the length and consistency of my meditation practice and yet they believed I was prepared for this total immersion. Wait, maybe there was something wrong with them? What had I gotten myself into?
Here is what shocked me: it didn’t actually get that intense, at least not related to my rape, at least not while sitting on the cushion. I found that my body and mind melted into the space, into the silence, into the texture of cool mountain winds blowing through our practice tent and touching my skin, into the relief of not having anything to do and the permission to let everything go. I was more ready to let go than I could have anticipated. It was like my whole being knew exactly how to unwind and I just had to get out of the way. It was amazing to feel that kind of softening, quieting and nurturing on every level and I so cherished the meditation practice in that picturesque setting. It was also a relief to witness that I could still connect with my capacity to relax on a total body level despite many messages and experiences that had caused me to erect countless defenses for much of my life. It made me recognize that meditation can be accessible to anyone and should be available to all. Most survivors I know, don’t have an abundance of softening, quieting and nurturing in their day to day life – quite the opposite – but how affirming to one’s capacity to heal to begin to experience contentment and peace inside your own shape? During times of stress, the meditation practice can create a pivotal opening that ushers in the ability to manage a feeling, a situation or even a person. Through a seated practice in our own homes we might begin to introduce that dialing down the noise of our lives on our own, little by little, 20 or 5 or even 2 minutes as a time. When I pay close attention, there is almost always a shift of my energy, however brief the practice and however slight the change. Yet, because of myths about what is required to meditate (the often assumed ability to totally clear your mind of thoughts) or our own negative and destabilizing experiences with really noticing what is happening for us inside – physically, mentally or energetically, meditation may feel intimidating to survivors.
As survivors there is a laundry list of things we are told to avoid or to stop doing – temporarily or forever – to be safe, to be healthy, to not intensify the trauma, to avoid future harm and the list goes on and on. We come to believe that so many rich, and even simple, life experiences are now off-limits. We might tell ourselves counter-productive messages about what we can and cannot do as survivors, what we will or won’t enjoy, what adventures and doors have now closed because of our changed identity – but they are not always true! Remember, you are not some delicate flower – you are one of those impossible-to-believe flowers who breaks through the cracks in the pavement. You can find your way back to the sun and all that it is that warms and sustains you. Family, friends and even colleagues might worry about the potential for our triggers as we engage with the world after sexual violence, whether it is a television shows, travel, dating or moving to a new city, or someone saying the word rape aloud. They forget that our triggers are so nuanced and specific to our story than they could never accommodate erasing all of them – and they don’t need to because we are strong. They miss the fact that we might be triggered daily by the everyday things of life that seemingly have nothing to do with sexual violence (birthday cakes, holidays, clock towers, perfume, bicycles, winter, you name it) but for us, these seemingly innocuous things, sound the sensory alarms of stored traumatic memory. The people around us simply cannot control for every trigger, and while embarking on new activities or relationships can feel precarious, we may also be surprised by what feels safe, accessible and empowering. We can learn to be creative and innovative in how we approach activities, conversations, relationships and more, so that we can access them in ways that allow us to remain grounded, resourced and in control.
We are all inherently unique in how our experiences impacted us, changed us and continue to influence us – and we can respect and attend to our journeys without comparing them to another’s. How we interpret the experiences that come our way are linked to what we have already seen – but that linking does not need to be fixed. We can learn to discern our automatic patterning and playfully experiment with turning our mind in a new direction or slowing its escalating pace. We may have many hurdles yet to overcome and areas around which we feel weak, but if we pay close, compassionate attention, along the way we will also identify our many gifts, our internal strength and our capacity to give and receive love despite the horrors we have seen. Something inside us carries us forward when we are just about to lose hope. The things that may trigger us, the activities or relationships we embark upon with caution, may provide the necessary mirror – and yes, sometimes cloaked in the weight of a trigger – that sparks the flame of our own healing evolution. While I don’t seek out triggers and I try to be careful about the environments, healing and otherwise, that I explore, I do know how to harness their value when or after they occur. After a decade of running through the battlefield of objects and people that remind me of my rape, I have gained skill, responsiveness and an ability to rebound from some of the worst because of the wellspring of inner confidence that I have built inside. This isn’t because I have a special gift for managing triggers, this is simply because I have had endless opportunities to practice. I realized that even though I sometimes think I know exactly where I am at in my healing, I can still be surprised. Whether it is unanticipated grief or unexpected ease – anchoring myself through intentional breath and noticing bodily sensation, decreases my desire to grip onto what I think I know, and instead allows the possibility for new information to be received. Maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity alleviates our need to know why and opens the invitation for us to sense our limitless potential for healing and for thriving in our lives.
Presence, Discernment and Choice
For so long, when I have experienced grief, loss or pain, that feeling, usually an emotion and sometimes a sensation, has projected me back to my rape. It is as if a very unfortunate internal time-travel system that has laid down tracks in the most delicate parts of my mind. While my yoga instructor likely mentioned this statement in every single class: “you are not the emotion, you are the one who watches”, and directed me towards books and teachers that support that perspective, it wasn’t until I was in the space of a total, multi-hour immersion with my mind that it became clear to me. When grief comes up – maybe it is just grief. Maybe instead of trying to pinpoint why it is there and where it came from, exhausting my mind and potentially implanting stories that aren’t actually connected to the emotion – I could choose to not follow those thoughts.
Instead, I could become really curious about that emotion in and of itself: What does it feel like? What is the sensation it creates and where in my body (physical and subtle) do I sense it? Does it move or is it stagnant? Eventually, when I employed this method, what I found is that the feeling would pass. Grief came to me like a wave multiple times while I was sitting on my cushion, but it never pulled me under the way it would have in the past. Joy came too, so did unconditional love, gratitude and an electrical feeling of my body, my mind and my spirit syncing in perfect harmony. I watched those emotions, I experienced their special qualities and I let them drift away. I experienced myself as a vessel and recognized the amazing and boundless capacity we have inside to both hold and release so much, consciously and unconsciously. Ultimately, I noticed that for me it was the “story” I kept playing on repeat that would cause me mental distress, not the actual emotions or associated feelings. Those were passing quite naturally, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, but there was movement. If I could train my mind to gently explore more fluidity and still its desperate search for constant meaning making, I could potentially reduce the collateral damage of my own suffering.
This awareness is useful for my healing, for my relationships, for my relating to the day to day emotional and physical aches and pains of my life. The ability to identify that which is temporary and to watch it move like credits on the screen, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, has allowed me to temper some of my darkest moods and to believe in the inevitability of movement when everything around and inside me feels stuck. Realizing that I don’t have to hold on and I don’t have to make meaning of every emotion is the ultimate relief, considering the many that I face in any given year, season, month or day. My unconscious can process things without my consciousness needing to know why. I have more room in my head and more space in my body to accommodate the natural, human ebb and flow of existence. I can be free of the self-critical voice that wonders how much longer I’ll feel this way, and celebrate the beauty that I can still feel.
This isn’t necessarily an easy practice, but it gives us permission and freedom at the same time. Permission to not resist what is coming up, and permission to choose whether to keep going with it or re-direct our attention or awareness elsewhere – this is the return of choice and our ability to execute decisions. Our teacher suggested that while there would absolutely be thoughts that we would be afraid of (regardless of whether or not we’ve survived sexual abuse) there would also be thoughts that due to patterns and our own conditioning, we are hungry to indulge. When such moments arise, whether in the form or resistance or wanting to run away on an unconscious thought pattern – and we notice it happening – we get to pause, breathe, orient ourselves in our body and in the space, and practice making a choice. Choosing what comes next is an essential tool for survivors to feel that they have in their healing “tool-kit” and if we can do so without being critical, but merely watching the effects of a thought as it unfolds before us or dissolves back into the recesses of our brain, we increase self-reliance. How much feeling/sensation we can open ourselves up to is a tender balance, and the meditation practice affirms our sense that we can exert control, that we can re-direct and that we can choose another path for the heart and brain to follow if and when something is just too much in the moment. In fact, once we identify that the thought train we are on is moving too fast or has become too intense, we are already shifting back to the moment where we will safely touch down.
You can now read the final essay in this series, “Meditation and Trauma Part 3 – Allowance and Patience” here!
“Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 2: Curiosity and Choice” was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s work with trauma survivors via the holistic practice of yoga by visiting her practitioner page.