What Happened to You?

I have been listening to the CD-audio version of What Happened to You?  – Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.  In the audio, the creators Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, share their experiences and insights – Bruce from a neuroscience and clinical perspective and Oprah from the stories she has gleaned from thousands of interviews of traumatised people.  The audio represents the crystallisation of ideas resulting from an ongoing conversation between the two creators over more than thirty years.   It highlights the complexity of trauma and the multi-faceted nature of effective healing from trauma.

In listening to the audio, you automatically explore, “what happened to you?” in your own early childhood.  The prevalence of trauma and its impacts suggests that most of us in some way experienced one of more adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  Every day you hear of traumatic events globally as well as locally  – such as the Sea World helicopter collision on the Gold Coast.  Survivors and witnesses, as well as grieving relatives and friends, would have been traumatised by the accident.  Some of the survivors have to experience the trauma of multiple surgeries as well.

We are frequently exposed to the traumatic experiences of others, including prominent people who describe their upbringing and provide insights into trauma and its impacts by way of their memoirs.   For example, Bertie Blackman, singer and artist, writes in her memoir, Bohemian Negligence, that she was sexually abused at a young age by a “friend of the family”.  Tove Ditlevsen, famous Danish poet and author, explained in her memoir, Childhood, Youth and Dependency, that she had a violent mother who beat her indiscriminately and was unpredictable, inflexible and critical.   Tove’s dream of becoming a poet was a source of belittlement by others, and disbelief and denigration from her parents and beloved brother.  She was also ostracized at school because she was seen to be “different”.

What happened to you or did not happen for you?

Bruce and Oprah explain that the more we understand the nature of trauma and its many forms and manifestations, we are better able to be compassionate towards others and ourselves when we observe aberrant behaviour on their part or our own.  This can lead to forgiveness of others and ourselves, as well as healing from the impacts of trauma which are pervasive and influence our relationships and communication.    

Oprah and Bruce explain that trauma shapes “our brains, our biases, our systems” – it influences our worldview and the way we perceive ourselves.  A teenager, for example, who experiences roughness and brutality by a policeman when innocent or engaged in some trivial misdemeanour, will view police as “fearful”, not trustworthy and cruel. This traumatic experience builds an implicit bias on the teenager’s part in respect of all police.  Our experience (or lack of direct experience) of people of a different race or nationality to our own can shape our biases.  These biases can be confirmed by observing non-conformist behaviour or seeing images of adverse events involving people of that race or nationality.

Our own trauma is unique in that traumatic experiences and their impact vary from individual to individual in terms of their nature, intensity, diversity and duration.  We each bring to the table of life imprinting from our early life experiences that shape who we are and how we respond under stress.  People with unresolved trauma have “sensitised stress responses” which can be manifested in overreaction, aggression, physical withdrawal, anxiety or dissociation.

Bruce and Oprah make the point that our modern day living conflicts with what is necessary to achieve healing from trauma.  They highlight the emphasis today on superficial relations and communications (e.g. selfies, likes, texts) at the expense of reciprocal relationships involving conversation, sharing, storytelling and empathy.  They discuss the “sensory cacophony of the modern world” – creating discordant sounds, confronting images and information overload.  Oprah and Bruce maintain too, like Johann Hari, that the disconnection and isolation of modern living contribute substantially to the growth of depression, anxiety and suicide.

In contrast, Bruce recounts his experience of Māori culture through an intensive immersion over two days – experiencing firsthand their holistic healing approach and the centrality of relationships characterised by “rich relational density [versus superficiality] and developmental density [involving ages ranging from babies to the aged]”.  Given the nature of trauma, Bruce argues for the development of “stable, supportive, patient and consistent” relationships to offset the impact of developmental relationships that were unpredictable, inconsistent, hurtful, demeaning or neglectful

Reflection

If we reflect on our actions and reactions to daily events and interactions with other people, we can begin to see patterns in our behaviour, e.g., avoidance of conflict, the need to please, or implicit bias in relation to particular groups of people.  Gaining an understanding of trauma, its impacts and conditioned behavioural responses, will enable us to establish causal links between what has happened to us (or “not happened for us”) and how we behave in specific situations, e.g., when criticised, threatened or praised.  Memoirs can be instructive in this regard.

If we consciously grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can gain the self-awareness necessary to understand ourselves and to develop loving kindness towards ourselves and others.  If we also consciously try to build and sustain supportive, enduring relationships we can move along the path to self-regulation and healing from trauma.  These healing relationships can extend beyond our immediate family to colleagues, friends, our extended family and interest groups (such as hobby, book, faith or aged-based groups).

Bruce and Oprah reinforce the importance of the mind/body connection and highlight the value of movement such as dance, Tai Chi, movement meditation, exercise and reconnection with nature for healing from trauma.  They also advocate bodily-oriented approaches such as massage, somatic meditation, and resting in your body/breath. There are many resources available to help us heal from trauma and develop resilience to face life’s challenges.  Sounds True, for example, offers a Healing Trauma Program involving some of the world’s top trauma recovery experts.  They also provide a Trauma and the Embodied Brain course led by Bonnie Badenoch, author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Ben Kerckx 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.

Life Shaping Events and People: Finding Our Way Home

In an earlier post, I explored the concept of authenticity and ways to develop it – after listening to a presentation by Jeff Brown at the Surrender Summit.  This exposure to Jeff and his thinking stimulated my reading of his early book, Soulshaping, A Journey of Self-Creation – a revealing memoir that tracks his outer and inner journey.  As a result of the heartfelt responses to this book, Jeff came to understand that he was not alone in experiencing life’s challenges and exploring the inner journey to seek out peace, happiness and fulfillment.   He comments that he came to realise that “so many of us have walked the same trauma trails and endured hardships”. 

Jeff contends that his disenchantment with his early adult life was a result of following the “false-path”, instead of the “true-path” – alignment with his unique, profound life purpose.  He points out that the world we live in values external achievements not inner progress and constantly distracts us from our life purpose with false rewards and endless enticements designed to capture our attention and cultivate our obsessions.

His personal story captured in Soulshaping describes how he started on his journey to authenticity by listening to his “inner voice” (which he calls “Little Missy”) and exploring his true-path with its multiple challenges and turning points.  He argues that the inner voice is “the little voice that knows”, is persistent and unrelenting and contains what he describes as “the karmic blueprint for our destiny”.  The challenge is to allow this inner voice to reach our consciousness and influence our words and actions and, ultimately, shape our life choices.

However, the journey to authenticity – alignment with our life purpose – requires what Jeff describes as “gut wrenching, self-admission” because it is only when we expose what is really inside of us that we are able to “liberate our own voice”.  Admitting “who we are”, and not persisting with our social disguises (the face we present to the world), is essential for our liberation to a life of joy, profound realisation of our connectedness and experience of the well of ease with its inherent peace and tranquility – a stark contrast to the hurly-burly world we normally inhabit with its unceasing expectations.

Writing our way to our inner home

Jeff suggests that one way to access our true-path and the attendant inner sense of contentment and aliveness, is to begin writing to remove our “emotional debris” and uncover our inner voice.  To this end, I have enrolled in his online writing course, Writing Your Way Home, and I have set out on my own writing journey while concurrently exploring Jeff’s journey through reading Soulshaping and his latter book, Grounded Spirituality.  My core writing project will be a reflective memoir focused on acknowledging the people who have shaped, or are shaping, my life.

In a moment of synchronicity, I recently listened to an interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, as he was discussing the fact that his life at the time involved parallel endeavours – his writings on emotional and social intelligence and his exploration of meditation through research and long-standing meditation practice.  He disclosed that he was pursuing these endeavours on two fronts simultaneously by writing another book about emotional intelligence and writing what he called a “spiritual memoir”.  He indicated that this latter inner journey was about the people who influenced him over his life and enabled him to be the person he is (and the person he is becoming).  Daniel indicated that he was thoroughly enjoying his memoir endeavour and that he was initially writing it for himself, not necessarily for publication.

Jeff indicated that we each have events and interactions with people in our life that shape us and our way of life.  Sometimes these events are traumatic and/or the people we encounter seek to turn us from our path through belittlement, envy or active discouragement.  Others seek to support us to be the best we can be and assist us to explore, and stay on, our true path.  As we are often reminded, “it is not what we experience in life (including traumas) that matters, but how we respond to life shaping events and people”.  In reading about Jeff’s “journey into self-creation”, I came to see some parallels in my life with events and people that were life shaping for him.

Life shaping events and people

Jeff describes a number of key events and people who influenced the direction of his life and his pursuit of a writing path as a manifestation of his profound life purpose.  As I read about his life, I experienced flashbacks to my own life as well as an intense motivation to begin writing my reflective memoir.  I am strongly convinced that the simultaneous pursuit of his writing course and his life story will provide the fuel to energise my memoir writing and help to sustain me in this endeavour.  Already, I have found the following parallels in life shaping events and people:

Adverse childhood experiences

In common with Jeff (and many other people), I had a number of adverse childhood experiences.  Jeff describes having a father who wished Jeff had not been born (he wanted a girl, not a boy) and who was violent and abusive towards him, always seeking to diminish him and his achievements.  He also had a mother who lived a life of “poverty trauma” and resorted to a world of fantasy as a way to cope with life’s harshness.  She “closed her heart” to protect herself.  Jeff experienced a life that was tumultuous and destructive as a result of the overflow of his parents’ challenging emotions and the constant state of conflict between them.

I had a similar upbringing with an alcoholic father who was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his imprisonment for three years in the Changi Prisoner of War Camp.  He sought to drown his pain through alcohol and, while not physically abusive towards me, he would physically attack my mother and, on at least one occasion, put her in hospital with broken ribs.  I can relate strongly to what Jeff describes as the verbal assaults of his mother which drove his father “deeper into darkness”.  I can hear my mother berating my father about his drinking and wasting our family income, and the resultant shouting and escalating conflict.  None of us, including my father who had no psychological or government support (apart from a miserly pension), had any idea of the impact of PTSD on a person’s life and family. 

In contrast to Jeff’s mother, my mother lived in the real world but experienced a life punctuated by illness and grief (her four month old son died of a brain tumour when I was 4 years old).  She found her life purpose in raising her other five children, including me, and continually sacrificed herself for our physical, emotional and intellectual welfare (professional support for our emotional welfare was unachievable).  She worked endlessly at the local Woolworths to sustain us and provide for our private school education.  She had high hopes for each of us and encouraged us in whatever we wanted to pursue in our sport, study or work.  Unlike Jeff’s mother, she opened her heart to anyone in need and, in turn, accepted food packages from Vinnies to enable us to live from week to week. 

Career misfit

Jeff describes his very successful entry into a high powered career as a defence lawyer.  It was only as his Bar Admission Exams approached that he began to have doubts about whether this was a false path or a true path for him even though it involved the defence of innocent people who had been subjected to a miscarriage of justice.  His inner voice (Little Missy) created some cognitive dissonance for him by suggesting that he was only pursuing the external accoutrements of being a lawyer – fame, visibility, high income and social standing.  Ironically, it was when he was trying on a new suit for Court appearances (a clothing accoutrement) that he heard that persistent inner voice yet again, “Who are you, really?”

He arrived at a crossroads when he was due to sign a lease for a legal office to share with potential law partners.  At the time, he was pulled by the Warrior in him and his survival instinct to sign up to an externally rewarding life as a defence lawyer in partnership with supportive colleagues.  He described this period of sleeplessness, agitation and hellish indecision as being caught “between direction and exploration”, where he was unable to surrender to the joy of the unknown nor to experience the relief and certainty that came from “knowing where I am headed”.   It was when he was in Santorini in Greece that he began to write a journal which led ultimately to his “calling” and true path of being a writer.  He refused to sign the lease because his life as a defence lawyer seemed to him to be “living in disguise”, not living his real, unique self.

Immediately after I finished high school, I entered a novitiate in Sydney (about 1,000 kilometres from my home in Brisbane) and became an inductee into the life of Catholic priesthood as a contemplative monk.  After completing my first year and confirmation in the religious Order, I moved to Whitefriars Seminary in Melbourne (a further 800 kilometres from home) to complete my studies and training before ordination.  However, after four years there, I decided that this was not the career for me and returned home with $100 and the suit on my back.  I had previously committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as part of my confirmation.  The decision to leave required formal approval from Rome to release me from my vows.

While I was studying in Melbourne, I consistently scored 90% in the annual oral exams for my various studies in philosophy and theology.  It was suggested that I was earmarked to complete a doctorate in theology in Rome because of my academic ability and “model” behaviour as a monk dedicated to daily silence, meditation and study.  However, I suffered from severe migraines and constant anxiety about my home situation where the conflict and domestic violence was relentless.  I came to think that I had undertaken the vocation as a priest as an escape from my distressful home situation and to win the approval of my mother who was very religious.  In some sense I was living my mother’s desire for my career – which filled a deep-seated need on her part.   Like Jeff, I was torn between “direction and exploration”. 

I had all the accoutrements of success – a sense of doing something worthwhile, high standing in the community and amongst my tutors and colleagues, a very balanced lifestyle and enjoyment of the journey.  However, my inner voice caused me to be dissatisfied and I left the Order as I approached ordination as a priest.   I had experienced an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the community generally and to my parents in particular.  As it turned out, sometime after I returned home, I took my mother away from my father for her own safety (but this is another story).  Both my parents blossomed when they were separated and I went on to pursue marriage and a career in the public service.

Reflection

Jeff recalls that as he set out to write a book that “talked about spirituality through the vehicle of my own journey”, he became caught up in self-deprecation.  He was “riddled with shame and doubt”, questioning whether anyone would want to read about his “miserable journey”.  While he recognised that the process of exploring his historical inner landscape through writing was therapeutic for himself, he doubted whether anyone else would benefit from it.  His experience after publishing his book certainly put paid to these doubts about the beneficial effects of his writing for others who read his Soulshaping book.  

Jeff encourages each of us to explore our life story and share it with others.   His writing course provides the psychological support and technical knowhow, including insights into how to get published.  He offers Soulshaping as a flexible template to assist us on our writing journey. His hope is that some of the themes he has written about will resonate with the reader/writer and provide the encouragement to follow our own true path.

Like Jeff, I have had considerable self-doubts about the benefit of writing my own memoir.  However, I am encouraged by his experience and support and the resonance I have already experienced with some of the themes in his recorded journey.  I am continuously flooded with recollections, insights and ideas now that I have chosen my reflective memoir as my core writing project.  I am excited by the prospect of researching aspects of my life and recording my growing self-awareness.  I am also flooded with feelings of gratitude towards the people who have helped shape and enrich my life.  I can already envision my memoir as an e-book, illustrated with historical images from significant events in my life.

As I continue to grow in mindfulness through my regular practice of meditation, Tai Chi and reflection (including writing this blog), I look forward to exploring further my inner landscape, gaining in self-awareness and emotional regulation and experiencing the joy of creative writing grounded in lived experience.

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Image by Robert C 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.

Tuning into our Sense of Well-Being

Diana Winston in a guided meditation podcast from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center focuses on Accessing Our Fundamental Well-Being.  She likens this process to tuning into a wellness radio station that is always there.  In these challenging times, however, we are often tuned into the “station” that evokes anxiety, fear, distress and unease.  Diana points out that much of what is happening in the world around us is outside our control – by focusing on the “station” that generates challenging emotions, we are moving further and further away from our fundamental well-being.  She offers a mindfulness process to enable us to tune into our sense of well-being that is always accessible to us, if only we would open our awareness to what resides within us – a process she calls natural awareness.

Guided meditation on accessing our sense of well-being

Diana guides us through this meditation by offering a series of steps:

  1. Grounding: beginning with a few deep breaths and sensing the in-breath and out-breath, you can move your attention to the rest of your body.  Here the focus is on the sensation of your body touching parts of your chair and the floor. 
  2. Embracing feelings of warmth: instead of paying attention to tension points, in this exercise you focus on the parts of your body where the sensation is one of warmth and feeling good, e.g. the tingling in your hands or fingers or the solidity of your feet on the floor.  The idea here is to soak up the sense of well-being that these bodily sensations generate.
  3. Choosing an anchor: you will find that your attention wanders from time to time, e.g. planning your day instead of being in the moment.  You can choose an anchor such as your breath, the sensation of your fingers touching each other or the surrounding sounds to bring your attention back to the present moment experience of well-being.  If you have experienced trauma or had an adverse childhood experience, then it pays to be very conscious of the anchor you choose – you need to avoid an anchor that will act as a trigger to relive a traumatic event.
  4. Revisiting an experience of well-being: once you have chosen an anchor and absorbed a present moment experience of well-being, you can recall a past experience of well-being.  It could be walking along a bayside esplanade in the early hours of the morning, an enjoyable meal with friends, an experience of being-in-the-zone in a sporting activity or listening to classical music or recorded sounds of nature.  Whatever the well-being experience, try to recall as much of the detail as possible – the bodily sensations and positive emotions you experienced – and become absorbed in your sense of well-being.

Reflection

We can experience many instances of well-being throughout our day or over a week.   However, we are often not consciously aware of the positive feelings, strength and equanimity that these experiences generate.  One strategy to capture the moment and the well-being feeling is to express gratitude for all the elements that make up your experience – e.g. if you are having a bayside walk, you can be grateful for the cool breeze, the reflections in the water, the bird life surrounding you, the enjoyable company and the beauty of the sunrise.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to consciously absorb the profound sense of well-being at the centre of our being and draw strength and resilience from this source.  Diana reminds us to let joy and wellness into our life.

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Image by ykaiavu 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.