Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 3: Allowance and Patience
Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 3: Allowance and Patience
“Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.” ~Audre Lorde
This is the 3rd and final installment of “Reflections on Meditation and Trauma” exploring insights on how the meditation practice can support and mirror the nonlinear journey of healing after sexual violence. Our founder, Molly Boeder Harris, spent a week over the summer on a meditation retreat and this is where the perspectives shared here grew from. If you’d like to read Part 1 and Part 2 follow these links: “Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 1 – Trust Your Practice” and “Reflections on Meditation and Trauma – Wonder and Choice“. In this last installment, she suggest that by allowing the deepest residue of trauma to emerge – however painful – we support our own innate healing process, as well as remembering that healing is a practice like any other and the more we invest of ourselves into that practice, the more it can fuel our journey of resilience. Finally, just as the practice of meditation invites us to begin again and again, there is no set timeline for healing and that we as survivors, no matter where we are on our path, can always begin again.
Allow the River of Sensation to Clear the Debris
Breaking down and coming back together is a practice – even at its messiest. With time, we can become “better” at it or perhaps at least more comfortable with it. Over the last decade I have experimented with different techniques for grounding and soothing myself in times of distress. I have also made space, however scary it can seem, through tears, screaming and gasping through the visceral experience of feeling trauma’s impact, to let myself fully express the intensity when it surfaces like an eruption. I actually think that this process of surging, undoing, expressing and collapsing offers an important, ongoing cycling process within the larger trajectory of our healing. When I was raped, the rhythm of my physiological functioning when from 1 – 100 in an instant. All my survival systems fired, everything in its right place, but I didn’t ever reach the necessary safety or find the kind of steady and safe crisis support to come down from the experience. I had to escape and then keep escaping while the doctors fumbled through 2 sets of pelvic exams, over a dozen interviews with law enforcement and continual arguments with sexually harassing men on the street, at the cafe, or in the cab. I couldn’t let my guard down, danger seemed to be coming from every direction. I didn’t get to scream bedsides the one where I desperately called out for help, only to hear my voice reverberate back – a voice that sometimes still echoes in my head. I never felt safe enough to cry tears that allow the body to collapse, totally relieved of all it was holding onto and now ready for deep sleep. I felt so charged and there was so much expectation (internal and external) for me to keep doing – doctor’s visits, detective interviews, psychological assessment of the impact of the trauma, identify the suspect, and so much more, when all I wanted to do was hibernate until this waking nightmare was over.
My trauma was big and it was frightening – it had destabilized me physically, mentally and spiritually. Immediately, I was swept up into a variety of medical and legal systems suggesting that in all of this doing, there would ultimately be some meaningful resolution of what had happened. The truth is that none of those processes, procedures or actions towards “justice” contributed to my healing – quite the opposite. And how could they? They weren’t about me, they were about moving through institutional systems completely outside of my individual experience. I felt degraded, re-traumatized and totally disembodied every single time I had to describe the details of my rape. I stopped counting how many verbal reports I had to make around the twelfth. I couldn’t safely allow the intensity of the experience to emerge and I felt strange about my inability to cry. When I left the city where I was living at the time of being raped, I welcomed the forced giving-up on the criminal justice system and their process, and I embraced the relief of finally being able to attend to me. This was a luxury most are not yet afforded, as day-to-day survival continues to be the primary concern for so many survivors and the processing of trauma comes second, if ever. As well, some may desperately want to seek support and options through the criminal justice system and their right to do so is denied. For me personally though, I felt that at last I could re-center my healing and the mending of my whole being through art, acupuncture, massage, yoga, psychotherapy, music, relationships, poetry, nature, lakes, music, animals and love. No more telling stone-faced strangers the impossible to quantify details of the most intimately devastating event of my life. It was time to finally examine the injuries – physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual fissures mostly invisible to the eye – so that I could learn what healing methods to apply. One month after the rape, I would finally embark on the daunting and necessary work of turning the focus back onto myself and my quest for personalized healing. I could finally grieve and rage with every cell in my body. I could finally let this growing surge of intensity inside be known.
Breaking down isn’t always something that is afforded to survivors of violence. Either we cannot because it is not safe to do so and we have to self-protect against the next act of violence, or we dare not to because there are all these societal scripts and plans in place for us about how “good/real victims” behave after something like rape. The long list of “shoulds” come from those who won’t necessarily be there for the long road ahead or from people who’ve never been assaulted – and yet somehow we are supposed to follow their suggestions for how we “should” handle our trauma. We “should” make a report, we “should” get the evidence collected, we “should” name our perpetrator to the police, we “should” want them arrested, we “should” talk to someone immediately, or the big one, we “should” get over it – eventually. So many expectations placed upon us and never enough space or permission to see what truly arises as our natural inclination. No benefit of the doubt that we’ve navigated difficulty before and some of us have already developed a system of healing that works for us, whether or not it makes sense to those on the outside.
I wonder how much pent up pain, stored sensation and unresolved energetic imbalances occurred within my system due to the fact that after this traumatic event, I was roped into a series of institutions and systems that had their focus fixed on their next conviction and not on me as a devastated shell of a person. I wonder what my healing journey would have looked like if instead of spending a month running around a metropolitan city and being sexualized and shamed by interviews from the people who were supposed to help me, I could have been at home with friends bringing me chicken soup, taking lavender oil-infused baths, receiving bodywork or energetic healing support or just holding my best friend’s hand? If I could have been given the permission all survivors deserve – to cry, to yell and scream, to be enraged, to throw things, to refuse to get out of bed and to totally come undone – what could have shifted years ago?
To me, this seems like an inevitable and natural part of our process, so why do we resist it so much? I think that every time we come back to that place of collapse, we are also learning to re-fine our sense of self. Within the ugly, uncomfortable mess, is the magic of healing – this is where we are undoing our pain and rewiring our brain. Moving away from having to make sense with articulate words and a linear way of thinking about all that has been stifled for years and still haunts us – we can instead purge it from our systems and open ourselves to right now.
I broke down on the last day of my meditation retreat – I was ready to see my partner, my phone card ran out, my ride was delayed by 6 hours and the rain was relentless and inescapable. Everything on me and around me was wet. I wandered the whole day, weeping and raging in the rain about everything that had been stirred inside me during the week and was finally ready to shift. I walked through the open meadows on the land exclaiming and releasing all my pent up energy to the trees and mountains. From the outside, this might have looked quite bizarre and an overblown reaction to rain and travel delay, but for me, it had to happen. Finally, I became so totally exhausted by the emotion, the cold damp weather and the constant movement, I found a bench and took rest. However chaotic my unravelling, I had in fact cleared myself of emotional and energetic debris, and my internal systems returned to their natural fluidity. I could relax with myself. It wasn’t long thereafter my partner showed up with a big hug and a warm car and I felt tremendous relief.
Practice Requires Patience
For me, healing is a practice – and it serves as part of the daily component to my recovery, whether in the form of a repetitive prayer or methodical laps in a pool. I am not always clear about what direction my path and my way of relating to my recovery will take me. It is not always obvious how the journey will serve me on a larger level especially when I am immersed in the details of the event itself. I have learned, after a long time, that I can comfort myself by contemplating how despite this metaphorical darkness, light continues to race across the unfathomable distance of the cosmos to make its way into my life. I cannot fully wrap my mind around time and healing and I don’t actually need to anymore. The practice of healing has taught me more than anything else in life about the practice of patience. If I can integrate a measure of healing that parallels the ever expansive story of the Universe – I can actually relax into this slow, organic process. No force, more ease. Less doing and more receiving. While my default approach to managing stress might be movement, after the retreat I am more inclined now to consider sitting and watching my internal stress move and ultimately shift. Meditation has become a viable and accessible option. I am better at resting and although I know I have a long way to go, I know I need not rush.
Nature supported me during my meditation immersion, and while at times, it was partially what frightened me, overall, it was kept me connected to something much larger than the voices in my head or the sensations in my lower back. On my most challenging days, baby birds flying through the tent or chipmunks posing on a pile of rocks could wake me up completely and pull me right into the perfection of that very moment. My single intention in participating in the practice was to embark on a deeper level of healing. Knowing this, someone asked me just a few days into the retreat, “So, is it working? The meditation…is it healing you?” and I couldn’t respond. I wasn’t sure and didn’t know how to assess for that (or whether I even wanted to) just 72 hours into the program. My rhythm had always leaned more towards slow and steady – but maybe that was wrong? Should I be catapulted into a new stage of healing with the miraculous power of sitting on a cushion quietly? Am I doing this wrong? Did my intentions exceed my capacity?
Once I left that person’s company and had time to check in with myself without any expectation or pressure to have achieved my “goal” for the retreat, I came to my own conclusion. My pace of healing will stretch across this lifetime, I can accept this and I can breathe easier when I realize I can take my time. Each practice – each intention towards healing – has a cumulative effect on my journey, however subtle or slight, and that like the days of the year inevitably move forward, so too does the human spirit. Trying to grasp, let alone measure, an understanding of that which is beyond the body and the mind only left me sensing an impossible void. I recognized that there is something bigger happening here, before, during and now beyond, this one retreat, and I am being continually drawn closer to that mystery like a magnet. Explanations for how I landed in this life have become somewhat irrelevant since I don’t feel the need to rely on language and logic that is universally understood, only a knowing I sense within that provides a brilliant and unexplainable touchstone of trust.
Start where you are with your healing and be patient. Like learning to swim, our ability to heal and to practice self-care is a skill we develop over time. We begin in the metaphorical shallow end and we might call upon a teacher for private instruction or use floaties to feel safe. Over time, our confidence in this practice and in ourselves builds, and we can take more risks. We may ditch the floaties or realize that they provide an essential component to our journey. Eventually, we move quite naturally beyond perceived limits or boundaries, because the repetition of our practice has lent itself to being refined. I could finally understand why my teacher said, “We improve, that is the nature of practice. The change is subtle, but it builds with practice each time. Much time, many practices.” and how this wisdom touches into everything in life. There is no need to rush the process, and no need to feel ashamed or like failures if we move off-course. We are redeemed and strengthened every time we return, as many times as we need, while our capacity to heal remains as available to us as ever. If we seek out our healing, we are inherently already in the process of creating it. The most equally scary and powerful act within my journey has been to trust the wisdom of following my own path – even when it only reveals itself to me in the moment I make my next move forward.
Overall, a week long meditation retreat is difficult to summarize since many aspects continue to linger, settle and there is always more to digest. This is what I love about practice in any form – it is not overnight. You can let your experience and the rebound of your experience, simmer, change and take new shape. Healing is a creative process – the somatic language of you that only you can fully translate. I am hopeful that I can experience through consistent meditation the ability to soothe myself by just being quiet and re-directing my focus on my internal environment. I realize that the past no longer creates a thick darkness around my experience of the present, but rather, when it does surface, it offers a purposeful interruption to capture my attention to what I need inside. I can recognize in the simplicity of sitting, that I am still here and that my future holds the imperfect perfection of possibilities that are built one breath and one moment at a time. Meditation offers another tool to support my desire to build a closer connection to the divine and a space where I can cultivate the necessary skills to let go of that which causes unnecessary agitation in my soul. I can refocus myself by releasing effort and in a sense, begin to relax my grip on the reigns of my life.
I have longed to experience the part of myself that exists beyond the accumulated stories of my life, I think many of us do. Meditation allows me to intentionally and repeatedly sever the past from my present – not to deny it, but to be free from underneath it. I can touch into that grief, yet I no longer feel bound to stay. There is actually so much more that is available in the here and now – emotion, sensation and ideas that I can work with, investigate and transform. Through the meditation immersion, I was able to gently wade deeper into that vastness of my own real-time embodiment. For me, this relatively new practice has already provided a new healing tool to reflect and ultimately clarify my mind. Yet, each of us are different in how we approach our healing, our self-connection and our way of processing the cumulative toll of living. There is no single approach that serves all of us, we are so magnificently unique. In fact, part of the beauty of our journey of healing is that it is so innately us, only we can create it.
There are endless new beginnings. I am grateful for the gift of going in deep through meditation to discover that I can actually go further while also celebrating how far I have already come. Within the structure and the method of the practice I was able to savor the abundance that each breath affords me today and to continue coming back to myself. Regardless of how excruciating this healing journey can feel, or how far away from myself I sometimes feel, there is an open invitation to return through my practice and begin again and again – and I believe in my core that you can begin again too.
“Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 3: Allowance and Patience” 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 or learn about her consulting services and public speaking at her personal website.