Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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Image by Anemone123 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.

Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness

In previous posts I have suggested that to sustain the practice of mindfulness you need to start small. Starting small can even involve as little as one mindful breath at a time. Chade-Meng Tan recommends that you start with less than you imagine is possible – so that you experience a sense of success early. I have also discussed the defences that we employ when trying to sustain self-compassion meditation.

Strategies for sustaining mindfulness practice

Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers additional strategies for maintaining your practice of mindfulness:

  • Practice daily – however short the time you have available. This establishes a momentum and develops a habit.
  • Find somewhere conducive to meditation or other mindfulness practice. Noise and activity in the background can be very distracting and makes silence and focus very difficult. Make it easier for yourself by finding a quiet place and time for your practice.
  • Be conscious of your posture – ensure you begin in a relaxed position that you can revisit daily. This enables your mind to capture the positive bodily sensations associated with your practice.
  • Avoid self-judgment – do not criticise yourself if your mind wanders or if you are unable to sustain lengthy mindfulness practice. The process of bringing your attention back to your focus following a distraction actually builds your “awareness muscle“.
  • Engage your body – bringing your attention to your body and the tensions within can help to ground you and clear away your thoughts. If bodily tension is regularly impacting your ability to sustain your practice, a full body scan can be helpful.
  • Use an anchor to enable you to drop into the present moment easily. The anchor can be anything that enables you to capture the positive sensation of your mindfulness practice. I use the process of joining my fingertips from one hand to those on my other hand. This tends to generate energy and a tingling feeling in my hands. It is something I can access anywhere at any time during the day – whether sitting at my desk, standing, travelling in the train or attending a meeting. Tara offers a list of useful anchors that you can explore for your own use.
  • Persistence is critical – do not give up because the positive gains are often just around the corner. Practice becomes easier over time if you persist and the gains grow exponentially.
  • Deepen your ability to be present in the moment. Tara suggests that a key question to ask is, “What is happening inside me now – can I treat this with acceptance?”. As a general principle, supplementing your standard, daily mindfulness practice with other forms of mindfulness throughout the day can add to the benefits you experience and serve to reinforce your daily practice. For example, in an earlier post I discussed some ways to be more mindful at work. Practice at home, supplemented by mindful practices at work, can be mutually reinforcing.
  • Employ the power of positive emotions – you can practice loving-kindness meditation or gratitude meditation to help you deal with difficult emotions experienced during your practice of mindfulness.

As we grow in mindfulness through sustained, daily practice we can enhance our inner awareness and increase the benefits that accrue from being in the present moment in a positive, constructive and peaceful way.

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Image by Binja69 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.

Reprioritising Your Mindfulness Practice

In my previous post, I identified five strategies I could use to establish and maintain a daily practice of Tai Chi. The strategies can be applied to any form of mindfulness practice, whether some form of meditation or a practice such as mindful walking, mindful eating or open awareness. In reflecting on these strategies, I realised that underpinning them was the need to reprioritise my mindfulness practice according to its level of importance to various aspects of my life. Reprioritising means
to arrange things in a new order of importance.

Identifying the importance of your mindfulness practice

A starting point for reprioritising your mindfulness practice is to identify what it brings to your life, how it improves your life in its various aspects and what its importance is to your overall quality of life.

You can ask yourself a series of questions that will serve to highlight the importance of your mindfulness practice:

  • does it give you clarity, confidence and creativity in your daily work?
  • how does it help you to manage your stress at work and home?
  • in what way does it improve your significant relationships, e.g. with your partner, your children or your work colleagues?
  • what does it bring to your favourite sporting activity? (e.g. my practice of Tai Chi develops balance, coordination, timing and control in my tennis game)
  • does it help you to appreciate your life more and build a positive outlook?
  • what does it do for your physical health?
  • how does it improve your mental health and sense of equanimity?

If you can truly and comprehensively identify the ways in which your mindfulness practice contributes to your quality of life, you will build the motivation to reprioritise your mindfulness practice so that it assumes a regularity and consistency that reflects its importance to you.

Reprioritising your mindfulness practice

If you want to reprioritise your mindfulness practice, it means that you have to create space in your life to enable this to happen. This means that you have to give up something else if you have a life characterised by busyness. Again, you can ask yourself a series of questions and be honest with yourself:

  • do you really need to spend the time getting and drinking the extra cup(s) of coffee or tea?
  • do you feast on the news, forever checking what is happening in the world around you and beyond?
  • how often do you access email and divert your attention from your task at hand?
  • are you wasting time by multitasking?
  • how much time do you devote to watching television shows, movies or sports events?
  • how much time do you spend on social media and what does this activity add to your quality of life?

If you review how you spend your time, you can invariably find a way to reprioritise your mindfulness activity so that it assumes a priority that reflects its importance to your quality of life.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the importance of our mindfulness practice for our quality of life, identify how we spend our time and learn to accord our mindfulness practice the priority it deserves. This is, undoubtedly, an ongoing learning process.

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Image source: courtesy of Alexandra_Koch on 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.

Barriers Experienced During Walking Meditation

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness Meditation Training Course, identified a number of barriers that you could experience during a walking meditation.   These relate to your internal thoughts and feelings and your physical balance.

I discuss three of these barriers below and offer some suggested strategies to overcome them:

  1. Loss of balance – you can experience a loss of balance because of the unusual slowness of the practice of walking meditation.  The way around this barrier is to go a little faster until you find a speed that enables you to walk with ease and maintain your balance.  Over time and with further practice, you will be able to walk more slowly without losing your balance.
  2. Invading thoughts – despite your intention to still your mind and the incessant internal chatter, you may find that, since you have stopped rushing to go somewhere,  your mind will become hyper-active.  You could be invaded with all kinds of thoughts, e.g. thoughts related to planning, negative self-evaluation, problem solving, or anticipation of a future event.  The secret here is not to entertain these thoughts but let them float by and bring yourself back to your focus on your bodily sensations.  This serves as good training for any form of meditation.  In terms of negative self-evaluation, it is important to remember that there is no right way as far as walking meditation goes.  You have to find the approach and location to suit yourself.  The main thing to achieve is slowing down with a focus  on bodily sensations.
  3. Strong emotions – sometimes when you slow down your pace of life through a walking meditation, some deep feelings emerge.  They could be feelings of anger, grief, disgust or any other strong feeling.  It is as if the hectic pace of life has enabled you to hide away from these feelings and avoid noticing them and naming your feelings.  The feelings refuse to stay submerged when your focus turns from rushing  to meet external expectations to focusing on you internal state, both physical and emotional.  In this scenario, it is possible to stop walking and begin a standing meditation where you pay attention to the strong feeling, accept its existence, investigate its impact on your body and nurture yourself by drawing on your internal resources – a process we discussed as R.A.I.N meditation.  When you have the strong feelings under control, you can resume your walking meditation.

As you grow in mindfulness through standing and walking meditations, you will develop strategies to overcome the barriers to your focus and, in the process, acquire a core skill that will positively impact other forms of meditation and your daily life.  Focus is the foundation for awareness,  productivity, creativity and social skills.

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

Image source: courtesy of Skitterphoto 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.