Healing the Wounds of Trauma

Corey De Vos of Integral Life and Ryan Oelke discussed the need to address the effects of trauma at sometime in our life.  Their discussion, Inhabit Your Wound, was wide-ranging and covered the impacts of trauma, barriers to addressing the wounds and processes for uncovering the wisdom that lies beneath the pain of trauma.  They suggest that each of us has our own “unique constellation of trauma” but if the wounds are addressed with a gentle curiosity, social support, professional help and self-compassion, they can release new insights and energy to enable us to more fully realise our purpose in life.

Trauma tends to impact many facets of our life, often below the level of consciousness.  It might be reflected in irrational fears, reluctance to appear in public, constant anxiety and depression, inability to develop and/or maintain intimate relationships, eating disorders or addiction, indecisiveness, inability to hold down a job or an overall sense of lack of meaning and purpose.  Many things can trigger a trauma response, including objects, people, news, conversations and observing a violent incident – because trauma impacts at a “cellular level”. Trauma can leave us directionless, powerless, confused and disoriented.

Barriers to healing the wounds of trauma

Corey and Ryan maintain that the shadow of trauma follows us throughout life, but we typically have defence mechanisms to prevent us from dealing with the pain and healing the wounds.  The memory of a trauma is often submerged below our level of consciousness because we sense that recollection is potentially too painful.  We may even have experienced dissociation to keep the memory away from our inner awareness.  We may have developed an internal narrative that is based on denial – “it really didn’t happen” – and this acts as a barrier to exploration and healing from trauma.

Ryan and Corey also observe that sometimes we could be part of a collective trauma experienced as a result of systemic discrimination or jointly experienced life events.  These life events could take the form of war, mass incarceration, natural disasters or a terrorist incident.  They can lead to “culturally inherited dramas” imprinted on our psyche.  Experience with religion during childhood or later in life can leave its own “baggage” and can be “harder to unpack” and deal with because it can become caught up with other traumatic experiences.  Corey and Ryan suggest that sometimes people want to hold onto their trauma because it makes them feel special and may even elicit a desired, sympathetic response from others (neediness in this area my be symptomatic of the trauma itself).

Processes to heal the wounds of trauma

We may have developed the ability to operate productively and confidently with our work environment but become aware of some disfunction in other arenas of our life.  Alternatively, we may have noticed a habituated and unhelpful response to a specific kind of incident such as personal criticism, open conflict or someone challenging our ideas or perspective.  These experiences can be the catalyst to deal with the “residual effect” of trauma and provide the necessary motivation to change our behaviour.

Corey and Ryan suggest, in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn, that a potential starting point is to “reinhabit our body” – to start noticing our bodily sensations and reactions.  This can lead to curiosity about what has triggered these responses and what prior experiences underly the nature and intensity of our response.  Ryan suggests that we need to work with any resistance we may experience in our body, but we should proceed slowly with a tender and caring curiosity.  A key here is our readiness to open the wounds and our resilience in dealing with the result – timing and support are of the essence.  Somatic meditation has proven to be an effective way to deal with the wounds of trauma and it is often undertaken with professionally trained facilitators.

There are a wide range of therapists to assist anyone who wants to deal with trauma and its effects.  Some employ cognitive approaches (such as Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) requiring voicing our thoughts, feelings and assumptions, others use less cognitive approaches such as art or music as tools for therapy.  A more recent development is the use of equine (horse) therapy which may be more appropriate for someone who loves animals and particularly horses.  Organisations such as Beyond Blue provide links to resource centres and professional therapists and others such as the Black Dog Institute offer support groups.  Keith Witt offers two books, Shadow Light and Shadow Light Workbook, that provide insights into our trauma-induced, unconscious responses and offer practices to illuminate the nature and potentiality of our “shadow self”.

The experience of Clare Bowditch in healing the wounds of trauma

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter and actor – captured her healing journey in her “no holds barred”, personal memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl.  Clare indicated that she wrote the story of her early life to encourage others to speak to someone and seek assistance if they are suffering from the effects of trauma, especially if they are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.  She describes in detail her own battle with anxiety and depression brought on by adverse childhood experiences and the trauma of seeing her sister die at the age of seven, after two years of hospitalisation with a rare, incurable illness that progressively eroded her muscles and caused paralysis. 

Clare, like Corey and Ryan, stressed the critical importance of relationships (family and friends) for her successful healing journey.  She encourages people to set out on the painful journey because it is “well worth it”, even if it turns out to be tougher than you first thought.  Clare experienced a nervous breakdown – she had fled to London, unprepared economically and emotionally, after she experienced shame and depression following a relationship breakup.  She experienced severe symptoms of her trauma wounds such as an inability to listen to music, write songs, watch TV, listen to the radio, eat well, sleep adequately or go outside.  She was consumed by all kinds of irrational fears and images of death (grieving her sister’s death).   Her response was to return home to her family and spend up to six months healing herself including meditating and learning about the impact of stress and unhealthy foods on the body’s nervous system.

Clare was able to reframe her nervous breakdown as a “nervous breakthrough” because “it was at this time that I got a really deep sense of what made sense to me, which was music” (p. 326).  She had finally found herself.  She rediscovered her need to be creative, to avoid things that did not make sense to her and to sing and write songs that really spoke her truth – her real, raw feelings.  She stated that the journey required the discipline to control her negative self-talk, the insight to realise that despite her life circumstances she had a choice in how she responded and the courage and resilience to persist despite setbacks.

Consistent with Corey and Ryan, Clare maintains that it is important to celebrate the small steps forward because they collectively make up the journey:

… a career is a thing that’s made up of one tiny step, one small act of courage after the other.  It’s only really when you look back later that it all makes sense. (p.313)

Reflection

Trauma affects many people in multiple, idiosyncratic ways.  The problem is that it works away as our shadow self and unconsciously impacts our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviour and responses to triggers.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and self-observation, we are better able to gain insight into how we have been impacted, to develop the courage to address our trauma-induced wounds and move forward (however slowly) to realise our life purpose. 

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Cultivating Healthy Confidence

Rick Hanson, in his podcast interview – Confidence or Narcissism? – reinforced the concept of a narcissism spectrum.  He indicated, from his clinical experience, that the extreme end of the spectrum – narcissistic personality disorder – is rare (less than 1% of the population).  However, narcissistic tendencies exist in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.  Rick provides examples, for instance, of what a 70% level of narcissistic tendencies in a person would look like behaviourally, compared to a level of 20%.  He suggests that at the 70% level, a defining characteristic is self-absorption to the point of harming others; while at the 20-30% level, a sense of entitlement is involved that results in others feeling subtly devalued.

Rick reinforced the view that there are ways to cultivate a healthy confidence to address our narcissistic tendencies.  In the previous post, I highlighted Ash Barty as an excellent role model to aspire to in developing the necessary traits.

Why do we need to develop a healthy confidence?

According to Rick, a healthy confidence involves acknowledging that you are “basically a good person with desirable traits”.  Fundamentally, the development of a healthy confidence requires “having and taking in positive experiences” (in contrast to experiencing childhood trauma in its many forms and playing out the trauma in narcissistic tendencies).   Rick suggests that deprivation in terms of normal “narcissistic supplies” in childhood, can lead to deficiencies in behaviour as an adult (including attempts to fill the void from childhood).  Normal “narcissistic supplies” take the form of physical and emotional availability by carers, accurate reading of signals and needs of a child and a genuine desire to respond in such a way as to cater for, not dismiss, the fundamental needs of the child – the needs for “comfort, soothing and affection” and to have a “sense that they are special”.

How do we cultivate healthy confidence?

Rick reinforced the importance of valuing and fully (mentally and bodily) feeling positive experiences whenever they occur throughout the day.  These can take the form of positive “narcissistic supplies” such as:

  • experiencing active listening (that affirms your worth as a person)
  • receiving an expression of gratitude for what you have done to help someone
  • being acknowledged for one of your own special traits such as wisdom, calmness, flexibility
  • experiencing sensitive understanding and appreciation of what you are feeling in a difficult personal situation (such as a relative who has a mental health issue).

Rick suggests that we should really savour these experiences, dwell on them and “replay the movie of a [positive] conversation” – and do so multiple times a day (as he did to redress his own narcissistic tendencies). 

Rick’s interviewer, Forrest Hanson – creator of the Eusophi (Good Knowledge) website – suggests that another way to develop healthy confidence is to work backwards from self-observation – observation of our own narcissistic tendencies at play, e.g. the need to gain others’ attention all the time.  He maintains that being aware of these tendencies and their negative impacts (e.g. people choosing to avoid us) can serve as a motivator for us to change.  Forrest’s mental frame on healthy confidence versus narcissistic tendencies is his suggestion that the former involves valuing oneself “from the inside out”, while the latter involves valuing oneself “from the outside in” – needing external validation to affirm your own worth.

Reflection

Most of us have experienced some form of deprivation of healthy “narcissistic supplies” in our childhood.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the self-awareness and honesty to recognise and acknowledge how these deficits play out in our adult lives. By constantly savouring positive experiences, we can redress the balance and build towards a healthy confidence that can be a more effective guide of how to behave in our daily lives, in a work context and within our intimate/family relationships.

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Image by Евгения Кец from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Challenge of Maintaining Your Meditation Practice

Brian Shiers suggests that one of the problems in attempting to maintain your practice is that creating new habits requires replacing old habits with the new.  He cites Neil Donald Walsh who maintains that, “yearning for a new way will not produce it, only ending the old way can do that”.  Brian draws on the neuroscience finding that our habits develop through neurological patterning, the development of new neural pathways reinforced by personally valued rewards.  The problem is that multiple repetitions are required to replace the old “habit-loop” with a new, sustainable pattern.  Often our rationalisations take over – such as “maybe I will do it later”, “it is not a good time now”, or “I am too restless at the moment” – and interrupt repetition of our practice.

To assist in the process of sustaining your practice, Brain offers a meditation podcast titled, How to Rediscover Your Practice, in which he offers a way to enrich your practice of mindful breathing and establish sense-based cues to regenerate your practice.  Brian’s guided meditation is part of the weekly meditation podcasts offered by MARC, UCLA.

A guided meditation for maintaining your practice

Brian’s meditation process involves several steps as follows:

  • Listen to the end of the gong from a meditation bell made especially for its resonance – this initiates the process of paying attention through activation of your sense of hearing.  A normal bell could be substituted for this initial step.
  • Notice what is going on for you in this moment – What are you thinking? How are you orientating your body? What are you feeling about what is happening for you as you begin your practice?  Brian maintains that self-observation is the essence of mindfulness.
  • Form your practice intention – focus on your intention in undertaking your practice.  This may involve a desire to build your concentration, to realise calm and tranquillity or to master the art of being still and silent.
  • Feel your breath in your body – consciously focus on one of the five places that you can feel your breath in your body – the rising and falling or your stomach or your chest, the movement of air through your nostrils or your open mouth or the sensation of breathing at the back of your throat.
  • Notice the thoughts that pass through your mind – thoughts come and go throughout our day and the time spent in meditation is no exception to this natural process.  Be conscious that your thoughts are drawing your focus away from your breath, but don’t entertain them.  Return to your intended focus and progressively build your attention muscle.
  • Accept what is – accept the fact that you may be tired, restless, easily distracted or frustrated by your attempts to maintain your focus.  Observing and accepting your present state is integral to mindfulness.
  • Extend your focus to seeing – add the sense of seeing by extending your focus to a single, egg-size object while simultaneously maintaining your focus on your breath.
  • Extend your focusing to include sound – while maintaining your focus on your breath and your external visual image, extend your focus to the sound in your room, taking in the room tone.

Reflection

This guided meditation helps to develop mindfulness because it not only builds the power of paying attention but also provides sense-cues that will prompt your meditation practice.  I have found, for example, that by focusing on the view of the waters and islands in the bay from my home deck, I can very quickly drop into a focus on my breathing.  This outer awareness acts as a cue to inner awareness.  The enriched experience of meditation from the focus on several senses also facilitates the maintenance of meditation practice and the capacity to progressively grow in mindfulness.

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Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness and Yoga for Addiction Release

In a discussion of the interaction between mind, body and spirit, Surbhi Khanna & Jeffrey Greeson acknowledge the complementarity of yoga and meditation – both require paying attention to experiences and related emotions as they happen.

They suggest that the “loss-addiction cycle” arises from a number of sources:

Addictions are born as a result of ‘mindless’ states involving escapist attitudes, automatic thinking, emotional reactivity and social isolation.

Breaking the addiction cycle – using yoga and meditation together

The addicted person turns to a form of gratification to fill the void left by sadness and loss.  The void maybe filled by an addiction to smoking, drinking alcohol or using any other substance or activity in a repeated, mindless way.  The problem, of course, is that the addiction, whatever form it takes, fails to overcome the sense of loss, isolation or disconnection.  The addicted person then increases the use of the substance or activity and seeks to intensify the momentary pleasure they experience.  These further cement the “loss-addiction cycle”.

The authors assert that practices such as yoga and meditation improve attention and concentration and enhance the ability to self-observe and regulate emotions.  They maintain that optimal treatment and prevention of addiction and recovery from it, can be achieved by using yoga and meditation in concert.  They point out that further evidence-based research needs to be undertaken taking into account different kinds of addiction and differences in gender, demography and orientation (physical, mental or spiritual).

Khanna and Greeson, however, contend that the growing empirical research and conceptual development of the underpinnings of meditation and yoga, support the view that the combination of these two modalities can break the cycle of stress, negative thoughts and emotions and the resultant addictive behaviour.

Yoga and meditation are complementary and mutually reinforcing.  As you use these modalities together they can help you grow in mindfulness and reduce or avoid the mindless pursuit of addictions.  When used in concert, yoga and meditation can improve self-awareness and self-management.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of SofieZborilova on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.