Continuous meditation practice, by design, strategically deprives practitioners of external distractions, including verbal and nonverbal communication with others, forcing the practitioner to focus on ongoing internal sensations, feelings, moods, and thoughts. When it works, we cultivate tools to self-regulate or self-soothe our ongoing states of stress.
But extended contemplative practice can also activate buried trauma, the surfacing of which produces significant emotional distress as your ego struggles to focus and remain calm. Days of silence, without the regulation of emotions provided by eye contact and disclosure, can be a disastrous choice for participants with a variety of challenges—for example, those with significant personality disorders. Extended silence is also not a wise choice for those who have recently experienced a breakup or the loss of a significant attachment figure. Grieving, like anxiety, requires connection with others to disclose one’s struggles, which starts the healing process. In fact, the isolation of silence and averted gazes only exacerbates the feelings of loss and vulnerability.
The N.A.T.U.R.E. Center doesn’t hold a ‘one meditation fits all’ philosophy. This is why noble silence is not mandatory at our retreat center. We employ a myriad of different meditation styles and practices that also include movement and direction of energy such as Qigong, kirtan and sound healing – each practitioner receives their own personalized retreat program.
With the right guidance, a retreat can provide a stable and safe space in which you can begin to relax – often for the first time. There is a predictable schedule, no intrusions from the outside world, and a communal agreement to follow basic ethical rules. Once practitioner noted that a retreat was “the first time in my life I felt without fear”.
In addition to the safety of the retreat environment, the practice of mediation offers a variety of effective tools for healing trauma. This safe space can apply to any practitioner coping with difficult emotions. The following are five mindfulness tools that can help practitioners navigate traumatic experiences.
1. AWARENESS OF BODY AND BREATH
The body and breath are anchors for awareness that can be returned to again and again. Mindfulness of the breath is especially useful for trauma survivors, who tend to hold their breath as a way of not connecting with the present moment. Holding the breath is an unconscious response to anxiety, and may also be part of the process of dissociating from the experience. If, however, the trauma was related to the act of breathing (such as choking or oral sexual abuse), then the breath is obviously not the best meditation anchor. In these cases, during “sitting” periods, listening meditation, body sweeping, mantras or touch points (for example, notice the sitting bones touching the cushion, the hands touching the legs or each other, and the feet touching the mat – your attention is rotated among these points) are best.
Body awareness needs to begin gradually. One way to start is by observing the body during times when it feels comfortable. One woman found that the only safe place in her body was her hands, and she would mindfully watch every sensation in each hand for hours at a time. Feeling comfort is a simple thing that trauma survivors often overlook – or sometimes aren’t even aware can exist.
2. REVERSE WARRIOR TEACHINGS
People with trauma histories often have a tendency to push themselves to extremes; they are more than willing to stay up all night, fast for days, or sit for many hours without moving. Unfortunately, practices that override the body’s natural signals of discomfort can end up creating further trauma. One therapist explains, “The way people with trauma survived was that they taught themselves to preserves and to be driven. It’s what they learned worked. They didn’t learn about kindness to themselves or their internal signals. There wasn’t the sense that internal signals could be a support or were worth trusting. It takes survivors a long time to come to listen to internal, intuitive messages and believe them”.
Trauma survivors need to practice what one teacher calls the “reverse-warrior” practice:
- Focus on balance rather than progress and effort
- Build in breaks and remember that it’s not a weakness to be gradual
- Practice for shorter periods of time
- Get plenty of sleep and eat regularly
Working with trauma is like having two jobs: You’re doing the practice of meditation and the practice of healing at the same time. In this regard, the meditative focus needs to be on simple, small steps. One therapist notes: “Trauma survivors always feel they are not working hard enough and that’s why they are stuck. But this isn’t true. It’s okay to relax and stop constantly trying to change”.
3. EXPERIENCING STRONG EMOTIONS
The core practice in healing trauma is learning how to feel strong emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. During meditation practice, survivors often respond to overwhelming emotions by dissociating, a relic of the psychological defense they used to remove their awareness from the trauma while it was occurring. One meditator described dissociation this way: “My mind enters a state outside my body, captive in some dimension where it is at least safe and alive, yet also powerless and terrified. To settle on the breath is impossible. To get up or move in any way is impossible. After some time, my mind returns enough so that I am able to pull my blanket around me, draw my knees up, and just sit”.
Meditators can learn to feel strong emotions and bodily sensations with dissociating from them. When a difficult emotion, memory or sensation arises, you can learn to touch up against the pain in small increments – starting with a place in the body that feels comfortable or neutral. Slowly attention is moved to the difficult emotion, felt for a moment, then altered back and forth until mastery over the feeling is created.
The mind can also be trained to listen to the body with tenderness and intimacy. Throughout the day you can check in with your body is it comfortable and what it’s limitations are.
4. AWARENESS OF MIND
One of the characteristics of severe trauma is that past emotions and experiences invade the present and become overwhelming. A Vietnam veteran recalls, “When the memories hit, they literally knocked me off my cushion. Through meditation, I eventually found balance with them”. The practice of mindfulness develops the ability to observe these memories in a way that facilitates equanimity and balance by learning that all thoughts come and go.
5. LEARNING TO LOVE AGAIN
Loving-kindness and compassion practices offer essential ways to mend the heart after trauma. Trauma survivors are often plagued by a sense that they are unworthy or inherently flawed. They may have trouble doing the “normal” meditation practices or fear that they are not mindful, diligent, or concentrated enough, which can lead to self-hatred and shame.
Trauma victims have had their trust and sense of connection shattered, and often have a hard time feeling kindness toward themselves and others. Loving-kindness practice can slowly rebuild these connections.
One trauma survivor uses a form of tonglen (the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving): “In tonglen I was taught to breathe in the heavy, dark air and breathe out the light, clear air. When I meditate, as the memories come I breathe in the silence and terror of the mute six-year-old. I breathe in her inability to speak and her terror. On the out-breaths I send the aspiration that one day she will be able to tell her story in her words, and I send her a feeling of my holding her – safely, protectively. She is so little that it takes feelings, not words, to reach most of her, and this takes time”.
Through steady patience, facing trauma can become part of the awakening process itself, and difficult emotions can become workable. Healing trauma is a day-by-day journey requiring courage, persistence and faith. Various meditation practices offer positive ways to transform trauma and can be a crucial support in the journey from trauma to wholeness.