Mindfulness as a Way of Letting Go

Allyson Pimentel. mindfulness teacher with the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast titled, Mindfulness as Letting Go and Letting Be.  She describes the meditation as a Compassionate Body Scan and notes that it’s an adaption from a book by Susan Pollak, Thomas Pedulla and Ronald D. Siegel, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy.  While the Compassionate Body Scan is one of the many meditations offered for therapists working with clients, it has wider application for every-day use by non-therapists.  To this end, the authors offer a series of audio meditation podcasts for personal use in downloadable format, along with handouts that list the steps in each mindfulness practice..

The Letting Go meditation offered by Allyson at the end of the 2022 is very timely as it coincides with a time when we have a natural tendency to review our year and begin to make resolutions about changes we want to make in our life.  This could mean breaking free of the ties that bind us, e.g., shame, expectations, perfectionism, or fear of failure.   It might entail overcoming self-protection or false beliefs that are preventing us from undertaking needed personal change.  Alternatively, it could involve letting go of difficult emotions, such as anger, hatred and resentment. 

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment as it is – not as we wish it to be. In this sense, it requires us to let go of “fantasy” and get in touch with our reality as it is, not distorted by wishful thinking.  Her guided meditation involves adopting an attitude of compassion towards ourselves as we scan our bodies and get in touch with the here-and-now bodily sensations we are experiencing.  Unlike some other forms of body scan, the focus of the compassionate body scan is not on release of tension but softening the sensation – staying with the discomfort and noticing how it changes over time as you soften its intensity.  Allyson points out that the process “can begin to soften the hardened, contracted aspects of our life, our bodies, our minds”.  

Guided meditation

At the outset. Allyson explains that letting go within the meditation is not an active process such as throwing out unwanted materials but a passive process of “letting be” – noticing and accepting what is.  The goal is to develop “clear insight” into our current reality as reflected in our bodily sensations.  Freedom lies in relating to ‘what is” with kindness and self-compassion, however painful.  She quotes an insightful poem by a friend that acknowledges “the pain of letting go what defines yourself”. 

During the guided meditation, Allyson helps us to focus on various body parts, starting with our forehead and extending to our feet, all the time bringing compassion to ourselves.  This is a particular form of meditation that is better with a guide as it helps us to focus on our bodily sensations and supports us to soften our sensations rather than adopt the habituated behaviour of attempting to remove or release them.   The meditation component of the podcast is about 20 minutes.

Reflection

During the guided meditation, I became conscious of my efforts at letting go when playing social tennis.  After having played team tennis competitions for two decades, I had developed an ingrained “need to win”.  I have had to progressively curb my need to win each point, each game, my own service game and eventually each set.   Underpinning this letting go is the need to let go of the image of myself as a very fit 40 year old playing A-Grade tennis.  The reality is that I am 76 years of age and losing strength in my arms, wrists and legs – my current reality, not my “fantasy’.  The last milestone in letting go of my “need-to-win” mindset, is being able to genuinely “savour the wins of others” – the winning shots of my opponents.

At the outset of the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to take in our environment.  Fortuitously, I had decided to undertake the guided meditation while seated on our back deck – not in my office as I usually do.   The environment I was able to take in was very calming and pleasant – the warm sun of a Summer’s afternoon, glimpses of Moreton Bay and the islands, a very blue cloudless sky, a gentle cooling breeze and the sounds of Rainbow Lorikeets returning to their nightly resting place.

Gabor Maté, leading trauma expert, reminds us in his latest book, The Myth of Normal, that healing “starts with waking up…to what our bodies are expressing and our minds are suppressing”.  Edith Eger, holocaust survivor and world-renowned psychologist, suggests that what we need to do is to “remove the concentration camp of our mind”  – thus choosing freedom over victimhood.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and guided meditations, we grow in self-awareness – awareness of our bodies, our mindset, the thoughts and emotions that are holding us back from genuine healing and growth.  We need to give ourselves compassion and kindness as we are letting go.  Allyson maintains that this process enables us to live our life with greater wisdom and skills and greater compassion towards others.

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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.

Perspectives on Recovering from Trauma

Trauma is a complex area and the process of recovery is rarely linear.  It often involves progress/regress over an extended period, sometimes a lifetime.  Various experts have studied trauma and its impacts from multiple perspectives, drawing on research, clinical practice and reflection on their personal experience.  They have adopted different approaches to facilitating recovery from trauma, recognising that the experience of a traumatic event and its subsequent impacts vary from individual to individual.  Health Means bring many of these conceptual and practical perspectives together in their Biology of Trauma 2.0 Summit.

Recovering from trauma and its impacts

There can be differential impacts for people witnessing the same traumatising event, such as a mass shooting, sudden death of a close relative or a car accident.  The depth of trauma response, according to Bruce Perry, is influenced by the timing, pattern and intensity of the initiating event as well as the degree of mitigating factors, especially “relational health” – the quality of connectedness and of supportive relationships.  In his view, “connectedness can counterbalance adversity”.  Improving relational health with a therapist as well as supportive others is a key element in recovering from trauma.  Dr. Elena Villanueva provides a pathway to relational health by offering a group-based recovery process, incorporating facilitation by health experts and a personal care plan.  Her holistic process is offered in the form of a Mind/Body/Energy Program.  Bruce Perry is a co-author with Oprah Winfrey of the book, What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing

Bessel van der Kolk places considerable emphasis on the “visceral impact” of trauma – the generation of deep inner feelings.  He argues that recovery processes should focus on the “emotional brain”, rather than the “rational brain’.  He maintains that the mind-body influence is bi-directional and that a person can  experience “visceral overload” when exposed to a traumatic event.  He suggests employing healing modalities that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection, such as movement (e.g., Tai Chi), singing or chanting, and a wide range of mindfulness practices.  Bessel is the author of The Body Keeps the Score: brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz draws on neuropsychotherapy when treating traumatised people.  This integrated mind-body approach incorporates psychotherapy practices along with neuroscience findings. She contends that it is possible to develop resilience through trauma recovery.  Her approach is multi-modal, incorporating practices as diverse as exploration of family history, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic therapy and mindfulness.  Relationship building, positive psychology, reflection, reprocessing and resilience development are integral to her approach.  Arielle is the author of The Post-Traumatic Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential.

Gabor Maté agrees with the approach of exploring what happened to a traumatised person, rather than trying to find out “what’s wrong with them”.  He also adopts a non-judgmental approach to addiction, asserting that many people who suffer from addiction have experienced trauma in their life.  In line with this thinking, he adopts and teaches an approach he calls “compassionate inquiry” which among other things helps a person to discover their “negative self-messaging” resulting from the experience of trauma.  He aims to help the traumatised person to confront and name the underlying pain resulting from an identified trauma.  He also employs a holistic approach incorporating “body-work”, mindfulness, connection with nature and self-care approaches such as proper nutrition and stress management.  Gabor is the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, creator of the Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast, discusses the importance of understanding the window of tolerance when working with people who have experienced trauma.  The window of tolerance is the level of arousal that an individual can tolerate in a productive way – they are able to share, process, and receive information when they are within this personally tolerable zone.   Trauma, such as that suffered by some people during the pandemic, reduces the window of tolerance.  David stresses the need to offer people who have been traumatised a choice of meditation anchors to avoid unconsciously triggering a trauma response.  He is also acutely aware of the need to ensure that mindfulness practices are accessible for people with disabilities, especially physical disabilities. David is the author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing.

There is widespread recognition that various forms of mindfulness can assist in trauma recovery.  However, researchers and clinical  practitioners such as Sam Himelstein, who has dedicated many years to working with traumatised teenagers, highlight the need to tread cautiously and sensitively when dealing with people who have experienced trauma.  Sam offers insightful principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness.  He found too that in some situations a conventional approach to mindfulness would not work as it would take a traumatised teenager outside their window of tolerance.  He found, for example, that listening to music together built a connection and a trusting relationship so that the impacted teenager felt free to begin sharing both their trauma experience and what was happening for them.  Sam is the author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

Recovery from trauma frequently involves some form of somatic therapy such as somatic meditation, resting in your body or resting in your breath.  This is often supplemented by other therapies that address the visceral impact of trauma, negative self-thoughts, supportive relationships and the flow of energy in the body.  Overall, the complexity of trauma suggests the need for a holistic approach, as adopted by most of the practitioners discussed in this post.  Health practitioners are becoming increasingly creative as they develop a deepened understanding of trauma and its impacts.

Underpinning many of the approaches discussed is mindfulness practice in one form or another.  It is acknowledged that as we grow in mindfulness, we can identify our own traumas and their impacts, strengthen our connectedness and relationships, build resilience and adopt a positive mindset.  Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor and author of The Choice: A True Story of Hope, encourages us to explore our “inner landscape” and move from a victim mindset to true freedom.

Sounds True offers a Healing Trauma Program conducted by 13 of the world’s top trauma recovery experts including Gabor Maté, Jeffrey Rutstein, Peter Levine and Arielle Schwartz. The program offers practices, skills and tools that have proven effectiveness. The time frame for the program allows you to lean new behaviours and put them into practice, as well as offering Q & A sessions to explore what worked for you and any blockages to your progress.

Sounds True also offers a shorter 8 week course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, conducted by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD – therapist, consultant, trainer and author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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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.

Reframing Menopause: Making Sense of the Transition

Maria Shriver, creator of the Radically Reframing Aging Summit, identified aspects of our life that need reframing such as the aging narrative, retirement, life transitions and death and dying.  She also mentioned explicitly the negative narrative around menopause and the need to reframe it as “a different stage of life” leading to blossoming, rather than decline.  This theme of post-menopausal empowerment is taken up in Susan Willson’s book, Making Sense of Menopause: Harnessing the Power and Potency of Your Wisdom Years. In a podcastinterview with Tami Simon, Susan spoke energetically and insightfully about the disempowerment of the current narrative about menopause.

Salient messages in Making Sense of Menopause

In her interview, Susan covered many aspects of menopause including the physical, psychological and cultural dimensions.  Some of the key messages introduced in her interview podcast and detailed in her book are identified below.

  • The negative narrative – the prevailing narrative around menopause focuses on what can be lost, e.g. looks, sexual drive and physical prowess.  This narrative can be disempowering so that some women view menopause as a period of decline rather than the transition to a new phase of life that can be enriching, rewarding and a source of creativity and shared wisdom.   She sees her role as helping women to change the narrative and to see menopause in a new lights that leads to proactive action and empowerment.
  • Physical changes – Susan stresses that the body is forever working in the best interests of the individual, by integrating its functions, accessing its intelligence and continuously adapting to its environment.  She argues that women need to understand what the body is trying to achieve and to work with it rather than against it.  She suggests that women can move beyond the symptomatic level and their conditioning arising through being “marinated” in the pharmaceutical solution to everything.  Susan explains too that part of the hormonal changes occurring in menopause actually “trigger the creative centers of the brain”.
  • The sharing of wisdom – Susan argues that what is needed is a new narrative about menopause that recognises it as a time for “thriving” and for women to access their creativity and wisdom.  She identifies the post-menopausal wise woman as someone who has worked on their “inner landscape” so that she “really knows who she is” and is comfortable enough in herself to own her self-identity without being dependent on the opinions of others.  The wise woman too, in her view, who takes the “long view” – being present in the moment but not captured by it, and being able to see beyond limiting ideologies, narrow worldviews and short-term time horizons.  The long view includes consciousness of community and a desire to make a contribution drawing on a woman’s innate gifts and wisdom accumulated through life experiences. 
  • Role models of the wise woman – Susan suggested that there are increasing examples of the post-menopausal wise women, some of whom will be presenting at the Radically Reframing Aging Summit. She also mentioned Hazel McCallion as a model of a wise women – a woman who became a Mayor in Ontario in her 60’s and retired at 95, after focusing on building community and the welfare of people she served.   Another example that comes to mind is Edith Eger who at 92 wrote The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life– a  reflection on lessons learned in her time in Auschwitz and, subsequently, as a world-renowned and highly accredited trauma counsellor.
  • Need for ritual – Susan maintains that there is a need for ritual “to bring menopause to a conscious place”.  In the podcast and her book, she describes her own ritual for menopause as a point of transition to a new and fulfilling phase in her life.  She makes the point that in Western Society, unlike many other cultures, we do not have established rituals to celebrate rites of passage such as puberty and menopause.  Susan strongly suggests that women can use their creativity to design their own ”cloning ceremony” that celebrates their post-menopausal transition to a “Wise Woman”.   She explains that such a ritual has four key elements – acknowledging what has been left behind, acknowledging the gifts brought forward, a commitment to a new phase of life through engaging creativity and sharing wisdom and a number of witnesses drawn from friends or the broader community (that makes the commitment public).   She suggests that women need to overcome the reticence experienced in the West to talk about life transitions affecting them and engage friends and family in conversation about what is happening for them.
  • Lifestyle choices – Susan suggests that women need to develop a ritual around eating, sleeping and exercising.  This establishes a “body rhythm” and enables the body to provide the necessary amount of energy when required.  She notes that many women live on adrenaline pushing themselves to the limit and causing their body to be in a continuous state of fight or flight – which runs down energy and causes the adrenals to continuously make adjustments to manage blood sugar levels.
  • Intimate relationships – Susan notes that while some women report that their sex drive diminishes with menopause, other women report that their post-menopausal stage represents “the best years ever in terms of sex”.  She contends that a key factor in these differences is a woman’s sense of connection with their partner – a feeling of connection enhanced through communication about present moment feelings and bodily disposition, as well as about shared future goals.

Susan provides further ideas and resources to help women navigate the menopausal life transition through her website, Making Sense of Menopause – where she provides further podcast interviews she has been involved in (or will be in the future) and also her blog posts.   

Reflection

Menopause, like other life transitions, impact women on multiple levels – physical, psychological, cultural and emotional levels.  Susan and Maria both strongly support the idea of changing the narrative about menopause from one of loss and depletion to one of women gaining empowerment.   They stress the gift of menopause lies in greater access to creativity and wisdom for women and the positive energy and sense of achievement that comes from creatively sharing their wisdom with others in the form of teaching, managing, writing, performing, painting, counselling or any other endeavour that utilises their knowledge, skills and life experience.

As women grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, they are better able to make the transition to post-menopausal life.  They develop a deeper sense of who they are, what they are capable of, and how they can contribute to the quality of life for other people. 

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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.

How to Overcome being Imprisoned by Self-Neglect

Edith Eger in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the prison of self-neglect”.   Habituated behaviours that underlie self-neglect can arise through adverse childhood experiences, an abusive relationship or a deficient developmental environment.  Edith suggests that self-neglect often arises because of unmet childhood needs – specifically the need for “attention, affection and approval”.   Our own needs are neglected in order to fill the gap left by unfulfilled childhood needs.  So we pursue the “A’s” (mentioned above) at the expense of our present needs.  An aspect of self-neglect is the avoidance of expressing strong emotions for fear of causing  discomfort to others.

Factors leading to self-neglect

We might have had parents who offered conditional love – on condition that we met their high standards in sport, academic or other achievements.  Their expectations about our performance can create a dependency whereby we are forever seeking approval or acceptance.  We might have suffered neglect as a child through the conscious choice of parents or their own adverse circumstances.  This can lead to our continuously seeking attention.  In one of my workshops, one participant proved to be continually disruptive through constant challenge to anything other participants said.  It turned out she was seeking attention and approval because she was denied this as a very young child – being expected to contribute meaningfully to adult conversation when still very young.

Sometimes self-neglect can arise as a result of the role we played as a child or young adult.  Family circumstances may have led to our being the “responsible one”, “the carer” or “the earner”.  These roles may have been necessary at the time but the unspoken expectation that comes with the role can continue into adulthood.  Edith recounts the story of a client who was imprisoned by the self-expectations that arose as a result of a childhood role as the “reliable one”.  This led to continual self-neglect in pursuit of other people’s needs – often unexpressed but assumed.  The result was personal burnout as well as depriving others of the opportunity to develop independence.  Sometimes creating dependence on ourselves fulfills our desire to be needed.  This was something that Gabor Maté discussed as contributing to his need to be a workaholic medical practitioner.

Gabor maintains that underlying many addictions is an unmet need arising from early childhood.  The addiction, whatever form it takes, is an ineffectual way to address the pain arising from parental neglect, abuse or inattention.  His “compassionate inquiry” approach is designed to unearth the early triggering event(s), the resultant negative self-message and the reward sought through the addictive behaviour.

Overcoming the imprisonment of self-neglect

The fundamental rule to freeing ourselves from the prison of self-neglect, is to begin to put ourselves back into the picture, to have self and our needs as part of the equation when trying to decide how to spend our energy and time.  Edith suggests that there are a number of ways to do this:

  1. Savour the things and people in our life that bring us joy.  We can start small with a few minutes each morning spent appreciating the little things in our life –  noticing a new leaf or flower on an indoor plant, reflecting on a picture or painting that generates positive feelings, or valuing a person who has shown us kindness, thoughtfulness or generosity.  Savouring what is good in our life can extend to appreciating the development of our children, accomplishments and rewards, the wonders of our subconscious mind, the capacity to think and create and our relationships (even our relatives).  We can actively seek to let joy into our lives.
  2. Appreciating nature – nature has a healing power and enables us to cultivate all our senses and develop our sense of wonder and awe.   In nature, we can be lost in the beauty, the sounds, the textures and the smells that surround us.   We can actually find ourselves in this process of being lost in something immense and awe-inspiring that is beyond ourselves.
  3. Edith herself adopted an affirmation that expresses something of her uniqueness and what she has been able to contribute to the world.  We can all find the words to reflect the positive things we have contributed to others and what makes us a truly unique person.  In the process, we can value the people who helped make us who we are – our parents and their positive traits, our mentors and their wisdom, and our teachers who willingly shared their knowledge and insights.
  4. Reflect on an occasion where you were asked for something or to do something.  Ask yourself what were your thoughts and feelings at the time.  What was driving your choices?  How much of looking after yourself was reflected in your response.  How could you have responded in a way that did not involve self-neglect, e.g. expressing your true feelings.  Are there habituated behaviours that you engage in that continually overlook your own needs?
  5. Explore the balance in your life.  Edith suggests that we keep a record (for a short period) of how we spend our day in terms of how we allocate time to work, play and love.  Does work absorb all our time and energy at the expense of our needs for nurturing, relaxation and time to ourselves.  How often do we allow ourselves to become absorbed in a hobby, creation or charitable activities or just enjoy social activities with friends or family.

Reflection

With the busyness of life, it is so easy to lose ourselves through self-neglect. There are often hidden forces underpinning this neglect, so self-exploration is important to unearth what drives our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness through observation and reflection, we can gain the necessary self-awareness and insight to understand ourselves and develop the courage to make changes to the way we live our life. 

Edith maintains that we do not change until we are ready to make the change and often this is driven by a need to change habits that no longer serve us in a positive way.  Any changes we make to our behaviour, no matter how small, need to be reinforced by savouring our achievement.   From Edith’s perspective, change involves the process of “finding the real you”. 

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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.

Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

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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.

Changing Our Inner Landscape to Achieve Freedom

In her book The Choice: A True Story of Hope, Dr. Edith Eger tracks her journey from imprisonment in Auschwitz, to her physical liberation and, finally, her personal freedom from the imprisonment of her “inner landscape”.   She had been transported to Auschwitz by cattle train with her parents and sister and had experienced unbelievable maltreatment through torture and starvation following the murder of her parents in the gas chamber the day after they arrived at the concentration camp.

Edith contends, in concert with her mentor and friend Viktor Frankl,  that “our worst experiences can be our best teachers”.   In her later book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, she has detailed practical steps to overcome the mental imprisonment that can occur through grief, anger, guilt, shame and other difficult emotions and experiences.  Edith does not sugar-coat the reality of daily life.  She maintains that traumatic events, setbacks, disappointments, illness and the resultant suffering are part and parcel of the human condition with its uncertainty, ambiguity and challenges.  In alignment with Gabor Maté, she argues that it is not what happens to us in life that determines our mental health, but how we relate to these experiences and their impacts  – and this is a matter of conscious choice.

Choosing freedom over victimhood

One of the 12 lessons Edith writes about in her book The Gift is freedom from “the prison of victimhood”.   She asserts that playing the victim rewards us by enabling us to blame others for our situation and avoid responsibility for our own response to our adverse experience.  This is in line with Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop (trigger-reward-behaviour) that provides reinforcement for habituated behaviour such as addiction and cravings.  In the victimhood context, the trigger can be any recollection or trauma stimulus event; the reward is avoidance of responsibility (not having to do anything different); and the behaviour can find expression in depression, anxiety addiction, or any number of self-destructive behaviours.   

Edith maintains that a sign of victimhood is continuously asking, “Why me?”.  In contrast, the road to personal freedom requires the question, “What now?” – given what has happened what do I need to do to survive and what do I want to achieve in the future.  This goal-directed response builds hope and energy to move forward.  The alternative is to wallow in the continuous self-story of “poor me!”.   Edith who has extensive experience as a clinical psychologist and trauma counsellor provides many accounts in her book of people, including herself, who have been able to make the choice to exchange victimhood for energetic hope and achievement. 

Edith reinforces the view that the pursuit of inner freedom is a lifetime task and she commented that even as she wrote her book, The Gift, she still experienced “flashbacks and nightmares”.  She told Gabor that his Holocaust experience would always be with him because of the embodiment of trauma.  They both agree from their own personal experience, their work as clinical psychologists and trauma counsellors and their underpinning research, that what is required to find freedom is inner work.

Edith also contends that the pursuit of inner freedom is a never-ending process of finding your “true self”.  It is a journey of self-discovery – of unearthing our inner resources, enlisting our creativity and clarifying our purpose in life.  It ultimately involves identifying the ways we can make a contribution to the welfare and wellness of others.  Edith found her path in her writing, her counselling work helping others who have experienced adverse childhood experiences and trauma and public speaking such as her TED talk, The Journey of Grieving, Feeling and Healing.   In her book, she also describes the journey to freedom from victimhood of her eldest daughter who experienced brain injury as a result of a serious fall.  Edith points out that her daughter, at one stage, actually challenged her for treating her daughter as a victim.  As Edith comments, we can assign a victim role to other people as well as ourselves, thus locking in a negative and disabling self-belief.

Reflection

I am confident that we can each identify a period in our lives, even the present day, when we felt like, and talked like, a victim.  Very few people have lived their lives free of adverse childhood experiences or other traumas – whether they involve a  relationship breakup, hurtful divorce, death of a loved one, serious injury and disablement or diagnosed life-threatening chronic illness. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can explore our inner landscape, grow in self-awareness, identify our negative self-talk, and develop the insight and courage to pursue our personal freedom and our life purpose.

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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.

Healing Trauma Through the Body

Mark Walsh, Founder of the Embodiment Conference, facilitated a panel discussion at the Conference with five eminent presenters – Peter Levine, Gabor Maté, Richard Schwartz, Dan Siegel and Alanis Morissette.  The focus of the panel discussion was trauma – its nature, bodily manifestations and healing capacity.  While each of the panel members approached the interviewer’s questions from their own lived experience, perspectives and frameworks, there was remarkable agreement and cross fertilisation in their discussions. 

Initially, the panel led by Mark Walsh explored the nature of trauma.  While the participants used different words and analogies to explain trauma there was agreement that trauma is not the initiating event (such as death of a parent, sexual abuse or abandonment in childhood) that leads to a traumatic response but rather the impact on the mind and body and the residual effects of the traumatic event such as heightened sensitivity to triggers, that can have a lifelong effect on quality of life and overall wellbeing. 

Gabor, who experienced the traumatic events of the Holocaust as a child, mentioned a comment made to him by Edith Eger, who herself survived the Holocaust.  Edith, author of The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, told Gabor that he would never get over the Holocaust experiences but reinforced the view that what changes with “inner work” is how you relate to the trauma – as Gabor said, “you can’t undo what has been done”.  On one occasion, Bessel van der Kolk, who integrates science with trauma healing, told Gabor, “You will have to keep Auschwitz with you wherever you go” – reinforcing the lifelong impacts and ever-present trigger sensitivity of trauma.

The embodiment of trauma

Each of the panel members in their own words reinforced the view that the impact of trauma is not isolated to the mind alone but is also embedded in the body – in the process, highlighting the theme of the conference. Peter Levine emphasised the influence of temperament on the impact of trauma and its embodiment.  He maintained that trauma leads to fragmentation or suppression of our life energy, of “our living, vital body” – resulting in the incapacity to “be with the here-and-now”.  Richard Schwartz argues that trauma “screws up” the body’s “message board” – the sensory information from the intelligent gut and heart is distorted and amplified in the brain stem, resulting in an overriding of rational thought and natural instinct.

Dan Siegel maintained that the embodiment of trauma would be reflected in adverse impacts on the five “molecular mechanisms” of a healthy body and manifest as:

  • Elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone
  • Impairment of the body’s ability to fight infection
  • Adverse impacts on the cardio-vascular system
  • Increase in inflammation
  • Shortening of telomeres, resulting in acceleration of the aging process. 

Gabor in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, has highlighted the role that trauma plays in the development of addiction and diseases of all kinds.  His colleague, Bessel van der Kolk, documents the multi-dimensional impacts of trauma, including its embodiment, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.

Healing trauma through the body

Given the life-long impacts of trauma and its pervasive, adverse impacts on body, brain and mind, the question arises , “How do we heal trauma?”  While the panel members responses differed in terms of specific processes, there was considerable agreement that healing required fully facing the trauma, its origins and its emotional/behavioural/physical manifestations. It also involves avoiding addiction – which is an ineffectual approach to pain alleviation.   There was also agreement that the process of healing is aided immeasurably by the assistance of a supportive, compassionate person, whether that be a trained therapist or someone who is trauma-informed and caring.  Gabor mentioned that one of his teachers maintained that people will only be open to the truth “when compassion is present”.

Alanis stated that she had a “juicy tool kit” to help her deal with her inner landscape and associated dialogue.  She talked about having a “safe, non-judgmental listener”; a therapist (who kept her alive); movement such as performing on stage; writing songs (which proved to be cathartic when she expressed her real feelings); exposure to sun and water; and her mindfulness practices.  She suggested that her “trauma recovery journey” requires her to employ the courage she uses in her writings to “break open the armour” that interferes with her relationships.   Alanis identified active pursuit of relationships and management of the attendant vulnerability, instead of avoidance, as her way forward. 

Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) and author of No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness, maintains that our brains involve many “parts” necessary for day-to-day functioning and this is normal.  However, with trauma, these parts become fragmented and frozen in an unhealthy, disconnected state.  The process of healing involves re-integration of the parts by being curious and open to the hurtful parts that have been locked away.  His approach involves engaging an “open-hearted therapist” in the process of revisiting the traumatic event – going into the scene and dealing with the traumatic event, for example, taking the child away from an abuser to a “safe and comfortable place”.  Richard’s transformative psychotherapy approach promotes inner harmony and enhances self-compassion so that the “inner critic” does not take hold and dominate a person’s perspective and outlook on life.

I have previously discussed Gabor’s approach to healing trauma and addiction which he describes as “compassionate inquiry”.   Gabor reinforced the view that compassion (for ourselves, others and the world at large) is the “healing ingredient”.   He argued that we have to adopt  a curiosity about everything and everybody so that we enrich our understanding and build healthy relationships.  He suggested that our compassion should extend even to people we dislike or detest because underlying their words and actions is “some hurt”.  He reminds us that given trauma is about what happens inside us, not the precipitating external events, we are always able to access our hurt and achieve healing – we can change our relationship to the trauma and restore our connectedness.   

Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing and author of Healing Trauma, describes his pioneering program as a move away from “talk” therapies to a focus on restoring the wisdom of the body.  In the panel discussion, he described an example of a somatic intervention in terms of helping someone to recognise the source of their trauma by having them explore their back pain – the level of tension, the location of the pain (left or right) and the movement the spine wanted to do.  In the process the pain dissolved when the person involved recognised the source of the bodily trauma as a time as an Army doctor when he fell off a truck onto his back when everyone else in the truck was killed by the enemy.  Peter explained that the body remembers but we may not be able to recall the event and its adverse impacts.  However, through Peter’s processes of somatic experiencing, including relaxation techniques, a person can eventually remember what happened to them and for them and bring this to conscious awareness.  Peter indicated that this realisation may be accompanied by trembling and other physical manifestations of release that he describes as the “resetting of the central nervous system”.

Dan Siegel sees trauma healing as moving from “impairment to integration”.  He reinforced the view that through the “internal work”, described by other panel members, you actually “shift the process” and that enables bringing together the many differentiated and fragmented elements of mind and body.   So in his view trauma healing is “integrative”.  He suggested that the pandemic is an opportunity and a stimulus to a different way of living socially and culturally so that we focus on our connectedness, not our separateness.

Reflection

Dan referred to Alanis’ latest album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road, as a means of healing in that it enables the listener “to hold in awareness things that almost seem paradoxical” – the words and rhythms moving in different directions.   He sees these songs, along with the processes employed by Peter, Gabor, and Richard as “incredibly healing”.   Alanis also contributes to trauma healing, recovery and wholeness through her podcast where she interviews leading developmental experts to bring increasing insight into the nature of trauma, addiction and healing.

Each of the panel members are proponents of the practice of mindfulness in its many forms.  They recognise that as we grow in mindfulness, we increase our self-awareness, develop emotional regulation and heighten our compassion (for ourselves and others).  Somatic meditation, for example, has been used extensively in trauma healing.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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