Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 1: Trust Your Own Practice
Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 1: Trust Your Own Practice
“You know you’re on the right path when your path dissolves in front of you and you start trusting yourself completely.” ~Jeff Foster
In the summer of 2014, I won a contest for a free meditation retreat that, in my mind, promised to afford an emotional clearing of the slate from the past few years of my life and mark the beginning of a new way of engaging with the world as a survivor of sexual violence. My initial mixture of disbelief and elation about winning was interrupted when the organization sent the schedule detailing the daily flow of our time spent “on the mountain”. Essentially, we were going to meditate from 7am in the morning until 8pm in the evening with breaks for meals and an afternoon respite for time to explore the land. We would also employ “functional silence” to support the practice of turning within. For years now, my default intervention to manage intense sensation associated with my rape had been through physical (often strenuous) movement – this was a practice that worked well for me. Yet, I had enthusiastically and somewhat naively volunteered myself for an intensive that would demand sitting still and simply noticing my internal environment, however uncomfortable, without the option to use physical exertion to release it. Sitting still with all of this?
Meditation and trauma are a delicate coupling since a trauma survivor can find themselves overwhelmed, isolated and even immobilized by the physical, emotional and spiritual volume of their pain. At times, it is anything but quiet inside and the external silence can feel like a cruel magnifying lens on internal noise and suffering. Even the expectation to close the eyes and trust the safety of your surrounding environment can be unbearable for someone who’s nervous system is wired for unconscious, ongoing, threat detection after sexual abuse. While being a survivor is not prohibitive of practicing meditation (in fact, quite the opposite, research demonstrates and survivors themselves attest to its benefits) there are techniques to enhance a survivor’s capacity to feel safely embodied in that practice. Immersing oneself in an extended period of meditation, though, does require careful consideration and may be enhanced when the practitioner comes to it with a strong internal foundation in place, as well as a variety of tools for anchoring and re-orienting themselves when and if the trauma story surfaces – and a seasoned teacher or support person. I was 11 years deep into a very intentional, consistent healing practice since having been raped – so I felt that I had moved through the most gut-wrenching aspects of recovery and that I had built up my capacity to self-regulate when I entered the program.
Despite my structured and proven-to-be-effective methods of self-care and self-soothing through movement and activity or perhaps in spite of them, something drew me to seek out this immersion into stillness. I sensed that this metaphoric and literal “sitting” would allow me to fully land – in the exact space of where I was, in the fullness of my own vessel, and to begin to work on a whole new level with the intricacies of my mind. Since movement isn’t always an option and meditation requires only that you show up exactly as you are, it is an accessible healing practice that is available to anyone, from experts to novices, at any time. There is value in technique, particularly after trauma, and yet being with ourselves in a place of quiet is also a naturally arising state of our experience that has simply been conditioned out of most of our lives. I hoped to increase my wellness options by introducing regular meditation and stillness as a means to ground, comfort and enhance my connection with myself.
It was July before I knew it and I departed for my retreat. During those 7 days I experienced a lot of everything – surprise, fear, relief, compassion, love, longing, sadness, anger, triggers and immense frustration. I felt the restoration of a mind held in deep concentration for extended periods of time that would send me floating back to the campground at the end of the day. I survived an afternoon surge of excruciating loss that began to show itself as my nervous system became increasingly sensitive, receptive and open. I experienced the primal fear of being alone, in the woods, at night – a place that I had avoided being in solitude since my attack, with the nightly sounds of a lumbering animal circling and bumping its warm, round body into the edges of my tent. I recognized after a few nights spent clutching my flashlight and bear spray, that the long days of meditation I had originally thought would be the ultimate challenge, were in some ways, a respite from sleepless, vigilant nights.
Many of the highs and the lows of the experience were far too specific to my personality and my story to be productive for sharing. However, I made a few discoveries that demystified my presumptions about meditation as a survivor, and bolstered my trust in the organic process of healing that may be of benefit for others. While they arose both during and after the retreat, they are not actually specific to the practice of meditation itself, yet they were revealed through the practice. Given that my formal engagement with meditation draws only upon the last few years, I recommend you seek out a seasoned instructor/practitioner to explore using this powerful practice to support your healing. In this 3 part blog, I share some of the insights about healing that the immersion – and the specific context I found myself within – stirred inside of me. We’ll begin in Part 1 with the importance of developing, establishing and trusting your own self-care practice.
Let Your Practice Be a Guide
It wasn’t long into the retreat where I realized that my “practice” (primarily rooted in yoga asana) was at times colliding with the methods and philosophies that were being instructed and discussed each day. Just like yoga, there are countless approaches and forms of meditation that require sifting through in order to identify what style will best serve you. From the way I rested my hands in my lap, to the softened posture of my spine, the closing of my eyes – I was approaching the practice based on yogic instruction and what had historically worked for me. I felt somewhat awkward and silently questioned myself wondering if perhaps the inner rebel in me still had major blocks with authority which prevented me from following their recommended technique. I told myself to let go of my attachment to the technique and go with the flow – sit up straighter, eyes open, gaze soft, hands on the knees. Here was my first opportunity to practice letting go of my rigidity and to be receptive to another path.
The structure of the meditation allowed me to find a sense of both inner rhythm and relaxation, however the unanticipated group discussions would provoke contraction and tension. When the conversation turned to a somewhat callous interpretation of “karma” (a delicate topic for victims/survivors of violence, disease, loss, etc.) my willingness to open myself fully to a practice that was not my own came to a halt. When one of my fellow retreaters espoused views that those who persistently struggle with depression create their own misery and simply need to “choose something else”, I felt instantly triggered. It ran counter to the notions of self-acceptance, patience and compassion that I had presumed were rooted in the tradition we were studying. It demonstrated the ignorance around how traumatic events and toxic stress impacts the brains preventing us from overriding physiological responses with positive thinking alone. If only it were that easy. While I was internally shaking, my peers and teacher responded to what sounded a lot like victim blaming with visible affirmation.
The tension in my body was nearly impossible to disguise, although there was no way to articulate my feelings with words. I had sought out to better know the inner workings of my mind through meditation, but of course, the real challenge of the practice of presence comes via relationship – with self and others. I wasn’t going to be able to avoid that complicated work here, seemingly protected by functional silence, after all. I raced back to my tent feeling trapped, overwhelmed and very much out of my body. I felt simultaneously light-headed and wired. The implication that healing was a matter of choice rubbed the harsh feeling of “failure” into my still-sensitive brain. Something must be wrong with me that I still struggle with intense sadness and grief after all these years – that I have phases were my depressive thoughts even frighten me. Maybe, I am just “bad” at healing? I mean, how much help does one person really need? I had been afforded so many incredible mind-body-spirit oriented opportunities to work through my rape, and I was still not actually through it. Shame came creeping back into my consciousness.
Yet, on a core level, doubting my capacity to heal didn’t feel like a fit either. Throughout my very imperfect process of healing, I had always followed my intuition as my guide, believing it would steer me in the right direction – even if where it pointed felt daunting. My process, like that of many survivors, was wrought with blissful highs and very lonely lows. However, throughout my life, I had also witnessed the most genuine hearts, the fiercest personalities and the brightest of souls emerge from the darkest of places – rebounding with even more life force. When I stepped outside of myself, I realized that struggling didn’t equate to failure. In fact, the folks I had connected with, however deeply or briefly while riding the roller coaster of healing, looked like real life manifestations of the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes. Healing was a process, a practice, a ritual, a perfectly imperfect expression of the ongoing expansion and contraction of the Universe. This was something I taught others about in my work – could I hold that belief around my own experience?
After pacing in tiny circles around my platform tent, I made a choice to skip the next group sit and instead carve out time for my practice: yoga – asana (poses), pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation. I felt emboldened by my choice on every level. The fact that I was able to choose to not participate felt like a big deal. Moving and breathing beneath the trees pulled me back into sync with the beauty of my surrounding environment. Returning to my body and my breath, in a way that was fluid and intuitive re-set my inner balance. I felt clearer, invigorated and more at ease with what came up in the remaining days. I was able to take what resonated, and without judgment or defensiveness let the rest of it wash right over me. When highly charged topics – including rape culture – surfaced in our discussions, I closed my eyes and returned to my breath. I intentionally relaxed the muscles of my face and jaw (having noticed distinctly on this retreat how much that tension eventually travels straight up to my mind) and remembered that on some level all this irritation might actually be useful. I recognized that we cannot always be aware of the impact of our words and how they might trigger another’s experience. I paid attention to how the conversations sounded my internal alarms and the physiological responses that would follow – pulse, blood pressure, skin temperature, auditory changes, and more. I accepted the possibility that maybe I needed to be challenged in this way – to investigate the content of my own reaction and to get clearer about what it is I truly believe. To know why I hold my beliefs and how they both serve and inhibit me. There was a lot for me to work with still and I could come to the work from a place of being grounded in my own experience.
I had re-established a connection to my whole self again through my yoga practice and was better equipped then to draw a healthy boundary. This boundary allowed me to no longer feel like I had to take on concepts or belief systems that felt harmful. I could listen, be attentive and still remain unattached like the words were clouds on a windy day, leaving as quickly as they came. I could watch their shape, observe my responses to them and then let all of that go. I gave myself permission to draw upon a movement-oriented practice to support myself. I didn’t have anything to prove by being still. I could be creative with how I approached this retreat – it was my experience. I continued to dedicate time each day to listening to the feedback of my body, which allowed me to feel more present with the group. I felt anchored from the inside and less at the emotional whim of the triggering content in our discussions. I became increasingly grateful for the luxury of quiet time to sit.
Interestingly, having created some distance for myself, I noticed that the systems and beliefs being presented really did work for many of the participants and I began to feel glad for them. I took comfort knowing they had found a useful technique for self-care and self-connection. How wonderful to know so many people had found a method that resonated uniquely for them – their needs were being met through this practice. When I was clear with myself and my practice, I was able to give others the space and respect to follow their practice. After a period of highs and lows, defensiveness and extreme vulnerability, I had cultivated a flexible firmness inside and I finally felt at ease. I savored the hours of meditation and embraced the practice of functional silence. Importantly, I dropped the expectation for what the remainder of the retreat would look like and took it one hour at a time. I trusted myself again, which allowed me to trust the present moment.
Invest in Your Practice
Your self-care or healing practice may come in the form of making art or hiking through mountains. It may be singing or connecting with your religious or spiritual community. Perhaps it comes in the form of tending to your family with immense love – but you’ll know it is your practice in the way that you are drawn to it and the way it fuels you on every level. The way you choose to soothe, ground and connect with yourself may not necessarily make sense or appear “healing” to those on the outside – but remember, this practice is for you. What one person finds healing, another experiences as extremely triggering. Trust the information of how it makes you feel and nourish your practice. Make time for it, whether daily or weekly, or as often as is realistic. Certainly continue to learn about and explore other methods for healing – you never know what will resonate – but release any internal or external pressure that you need to do more, do it differently, or try something new. You can dip your toes into the waters of a healing modality and if the temperature isn’t quite right, you get to choose something else. It is just as powerful to identify what doesn’t facilitate your healing and say “No” to it, as it is to know what does support you and say “Yes” to it – so there is nothing to lose by exploring new approaches or gently nudging at the edges of your comfort zone. Give yourself permission and time to digest the healing practice without judgment or expectations. Let it sink in. Your responses or reactions will reveal all you need to know to move on and explore something else, or to go deeper in the direction of that practice.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I believe that meditation provides yet another embodied practice that allows people to transcend the deepest wounds of trauma. For me, it is a practice that is deeply served by my regular yoga asana practice. Identifying what facilitates your healing deserves your time, attention and energy – an exploration you may continually come back to as you change and grow. The gift of the healing arts, across disciplines, is that they create vital and safe opportunities for people to develop an intimate relationship with the energy of their bodies, to notice what their body or spirit needs, to make contact with where and how they hold sensation and to simply be curious about their own dynamic experience. While I continue to nourish the practices that have served me all these years, I also seek out other entry points to healing. I am grateful for meditation as yet another tool. By establishing your own regular self-care and healing practice you give yourself the gift of a designated space within your day, week, or month, to recognize what is stirring inside you, what you can consciously release and what no longer serves you – physically, emotionally or spiritually.
Your healing practice allows you to refine the art of listening inside. As challenging as it might be, learning to trust your own path and intuition is central to your resilience. This requires letting go of expectations or comparison to anyone else, most particularly yourself – accept yourself as you are right now and begin the practice from that place of presence and non-judgement. You can start anew each day with each practice. You can be assured that the path of healing will change, turn and evolve, because just like you, it is in a state of constant creation. While no perfect map exists to show you the way, if you lean into your healing practice, a guide will grow inside you. You will one day observe that instead of looking outside of you to find a map to navigate the path ahead, you’ll start turning within to seek out your own inner compass. The inner guide, the inner voice will point a way forward that only you could so perfectly translate and so effortlessly follow.
Read “Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 2: Curiosity and Choice” which continues the conversation exploring how meditation can support the journey to heal after sexual violence. The final installment of this 3-part series, “Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 3: Allowance, Patience and New Beginnings” is available here.
Reflections on Meditation and Trauma Part 1: Trust Your Own Practice 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.