Healing Trauma – Dealing with the Visceral Imprint

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of trauma and the need to adopt treatment practices that recognise and respect this complexity.  Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, expresses serious concern with the overreliance on medication to treat trauma, especially for returning veterans suffering from PTSD.  He contends that “drugs cannot cure trauma” but only serve to “dampen down” manifestations of a “disturbed physiology” such as violence, overwhelm and uncontrolled anger.  He argues that the side effects of reliance on drug therapy include addiction, lessening the capacity for self-regulation and blocking the senses that otherwise would be the source of pleasure and motivation, emotion and pain. In his view, the treatment aim is not to “blunt emotional sensitivity” but to achieve integration of the traumatic experience into a person’s “arc of life”.

Bessel argues that a traumatised person’s basic challenge in recovery is to re-establish ownership of themselves – the whole person, mind, body and soul.  He contends that this plays out as a fourfold challenge – (1) developing ways to become focused and calm, (2) sustaining calmness when confronted with stimuli such as noise, images and smells that otherwise would trigger a traumatised response,  (3) becoming fully engaged with life and relationships and (4) being open to one’s real self without hiding behind “secrets” that are designed as self-protection (e.g. against shame and self-loathing).  Bessel suggests that the effectiveness of each of the four approaches can vary with the individual and the stage of the healing process.  He illustrates through case studies that the healing journey can be a life-long process with occasional or frequent relapses.

Bessel maintains that, in the long run, confronting the traumatic event(s) in all their horror  is necessary for healing.  However, he cautions about rushing this process without first building a person’s capacity to cope with the fullness of the “visceral imprint” and its related sensitivities (e.g. to specific sounds, smells, thoughts).  Confronting the harsh reality of the precipitating event(s) too soon, when the person is ill-equipped, can lead to an individual being re-traumatised.

Bessel contends that the focus of recovery has to switch from the “rational brain” to the “emotional brain” which manifests trauma in the form of physical sensations impacting the heart, breathing, voice, gut and movement of the body (e.g. resulting in bodily movements “that signify collapse, rigidity, rage or defensiveness”.)  The overall aim is to restore the “the balance between the rational brain and the emotional brain”, because in a traumatised person the rational brain is often overwhelmed by the emotional brain that can “see” danger where it does not exist and inappropriately activates a fight, flight or freeze response

Healing modalities for trauma that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection

Throughout his book, Bessel discusses a range of trauma healing modalities that he has researched and practiced with his clients. His approach is quite eclectic, drawing on both Western and Eastern healing traditions.  He demonstrates through case histories that one modality more than another, or a particular mix of modalities, may prove effective in individual cases.   He appears to adopt a trail-and-error approach to achieve the best fit for a traumatised individual, informed in part by their life skills and the precipitating trauma event.  Some of the healing modalities he adopts are identified below:

  • Controlled breathing – here he encourages slow, deep breathing that that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and its capacity to reduce arousal and induce calm.  Breathing also serves to enhance oxygen flow to energise the body.
  • Movement modalities – these can include Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts and the rhythmic movement associated with African drumming.  Bessel notes that each of these modalities simultaneously involve not only movement but also breathing and meditation.
  • Mindfulness practices – Bessel points out that traumatised people often avoid their challenging feelings and related bodily sensations.  Mindfulness which generates self-awareness enables the traumatised person to notice their feelings and sensations and the precipitating triggers.  This can lead to emotional regulation, rather than emotional overwhelm which can occur when people try to ignore or hide their real feelings and sensations.  Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” approach is an example of a related mindfulness practice that can contribute to healing trauma.
  • Singing – can engage the whole person (body, mind, soul and emotions).  Effective singing requires appropriate posture and breath control, opening up the airways and, at the same time, releasing emotions.  In group sessions with singing teacher, Chris James, I have often observed the spontaneous flow of emotions as people, both men and women, become more engaged and absorbed in the process, learn to let themselves go and find their “natural voice”.  Chris maintains that singing enhances “vibrational awareness”, engenders “self-discovery” and builds “conscious presence”.
  • Chanting and mantra meditationschanting can reduce depression, increase positivity and heighten relaxation.  It has been proven to be effective in helping veterans suffering from PTSD.  Tina Turner found Buddhist chanting to be very effective in overcoming her trauma and re-building her singing career.  Likewise, mantra meditations (that typically incorporate chants) can lead to calm, peace and energy and enable reintegration of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Reflection

Bessel encourages the use of multiple healing modalities when working with traumatised individuals.  He suggests too that the modalities described above can help anyone deal with life’s challenges, restore balance and build energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and related mindfulness practices, we can gain self-awareness, develop self-management and heal from trauma and the scars of adverse experiences, whether in childhood or adulthood.

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Image by Đạt Lê 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.

Bodily Awareness: Movement and Stillness

The UCLA meditation podcast at the end of April 2021 was conducted by Tom Heah who has particular expertise in movement meditation and offers a range of Mindfulness in Action courses.    Tom’s guided meditation on Awareness in Movement and Stillness offers a way to pay attention to bodily sensations with openness and curiosity while moving and keeping still.  He makes the point that our body is always in the present moment through our senses while our mind is often consumed with thinking about the past or the future, e.g., planning, analysing, categorising, criticising, or summarising.  Tom describes the mind as a “thinking machine” while he sees our body as a pathway to the present moment and mindfulness.  His podcast meditation has three core parts – seeing, moving, being still.

Paying attention to what we see

As Tom’s meditation was conducted online via Zoom, he encouraged participants from around the world to turn their videos on and look to see who else is present in the collaborative meditation.  He maintained that through our sight we can reinforce our sense of connection to others wherever they may be in the world.  He suggested that “separation” is really a “conception of the mind” – ignoring the reality of our connectedness to every living thing.  He encouraged participants to spend a short time as they were looking at others to check into their own bodily sensations.  Tom reinforced the fact that our bodies enable us to experience our connection to the earth as well as to others.

Paying attention to our bodies while we move

Tom encouraged participants to stand or sit to undertake a number of conscious movements involving the arms, neck, and shoulders.  He offered stretching exercises for the arms, neck and shoulder rolls as forms of movement.  His main focus was on the bodily sensations experienced while undertaking the movements – encouraging the identification of points of ease or tension.

On completing the movements, Tom suggested that participants choose an anchor to be able to refocus the mind if wandering occurs – e.g., room scanning, focus on sounds within and/or without the room, focusing on the breath or remaining with bodily sensations.  He indicated that like a lot of other people his mind has been racing with the advent of the pandemic, as everything in life is impacted – work location, availability of work, physical and mental health, relationships, shopping patterns, income flow and capacity for free movement within a State or outside a country.

Tom suggested that focus on our body and body sensations is a way to still the mind and recapture peace, ease, and tranquility.  Movement meditations such as Tai Chi provide an excellent means to build bodily focus and concentration as well as to realise physical and mental health benefits. 

Paying attention to our bodies while being still

Tom suggested that the stillness meditation can involve sitting, standing, or lying down – whatever is comfortable and facilitates your ability to get in touch with your bodily sensations.  One of the easiest ways to pay attention to bodily sensations is to focus on our feet – observing sensations of touch, tingling, heaviness, connectedness to the floor or ground or other sensation.  I find that joining my fingers together from each hand also provides me with easy access to bodily awareness – to a sense of energy flow, warmth, connection, tingling and stillness.

Mantra meditations involving generation of bodily energy through voice and vibration, can still the mind and body. Lulu & Mischka, exemplars of the art of mantra meditations, maintain that in times such as the pandemic, mantra meditations can enable us to achieve both stillness and joy despite the pervasive challenges in our lives.  Their stillness in motion mantra meditation epitomises becoming grounded and connected through observing whales and singing while sailing close to these majestic marine mammals.

Reflection

Our bodies are the immediate and accessible pathway to being in the present moment.  We can readily still our minds and grow in mindfulness through body scans, chanting, mantra meditations and movement meditations such as Tai Chi.  The benefits are enhanced through daily mindfulness practice whatever form it takes according to our preference and however much time we can devote to the practice.  The increasing benefits over time serve to provide positive reinforcement so that what may have once been a chore becomes a pleasant and rewarding experience.

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Image by Ria Sopala 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.

Developing Inner Silence through Sound Meditations and Music

Christine Jackman describes silence as the space in which one was “free to breathe and simply be”.  It is a space without speaking or being spoken to.  In the context of mindfulness, silence does not mean the absence of sound, just the absence of unwanted inner and outer noise – freedom from the noise pollution of our minds and of a busy world.  It is a refuge – a place of retreat from inner chatter and outer noise.  In stillness and silence, we can find inner peace and tranquility.

Sound and mindfulness

Many mindfulness practices involve being still and listening to sounds, either the room tone or external sounds from wind, rain, birds, or other sounds.  The aim of these practices is to maintain focus on sound and keep our minds free from other distractions.   Sound meditations can strengthen our concentration and listening skills and  contribute to our overall well-being.  Sound can also be provided as an anchor for people involved in trauma-sensitive mindfulness

What we are aiming to achieve in sound-based mindfulness practices is an inner silence and harmony – turning off self-stories, negative thoughts, interpretations, or projections.  Basically, it involves tuning out of the inner dialogue by tuning into sound.  We strengthen our awareness muscle when we are able to return to our inner silence and focus whenever distracting thoughts occur.

Music as a pathway to inner silence

Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise, describes her search for “the quiet power of silence” in her busy world.  She found inner silence in a number of places, including while participating in Vespers in a Benedictine Monastery – an evening prayer that is recited or sung. 

Another form of ecclesiastical music, Gregorian Chant, has developed over many years by monastic orders dedicated to prayer and silence as a way to develop inner silence – the focus on singing meaningful phrases to the sound of monotonal music serves to shut out distractions and build inner peace and harmony.

Mantra meditations often employ a musical instrument (e.g., a drum or guitar) together with chanting long-established phrases that evoke positive emotions such as peace, harmony, relationships, or connectedness to nature or a higher being.  Repetition of the lyrics enables a deeper penetration into the meaning of the words that are sung mindfully and facilitates a deepening inner silence and tranquility.

The silence between the notes

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, identified what he called “12 bridges to mindfulness” created by music.  These include deep listening and “sympathetic vibrations”.  Richard argues that music is a key to inner silence, one of the bridges to mindfulness.  He makes the point that silence is embedded in music – music notations for the duration of a note are matched by “an equal notation for the duration of silence” between the notes.  He mentions Miles Davis’ emphasis on the “connection between the role of silence in music and in life”.

Some music composers pay particular attention to silence within their compositions.  Richard refers, for example, to the work of John Cage and his important piece of music, 4’33”, in which the pianist begins by not playing but sitting still for 4 minutes 33 seconds as a way of “drawing  the audience’s attention to the process of listening itself”.  This engenders a particular form of participation whereby the audience through their silence become part of the performance.

Reflection

This blog post was stimulated by a conversation I had with a musician friend of mine who played the guitar professionally, both as an individual and as a member of a band.  We had been discussing music and mindfulness when he mentioned a story about how he had become distracted during a performance.  He was playing guitar with his group on a footpath outside a building when a car pulled up and two men hopped out of the car and headed towards the musicians.  My friend immediately began to think, “Are they going to disturb us?” or “Are they interested in the music?” 

As he thought about the possibilities, he became mentally distracted, lost his place in the music, and played some wrong notes.  Up until the distraction, his band was exhibiting some of the characteristics identified by Richard Wolf as bridges to mindfulness , e.g., concentration, harmony, and sympathetic vibration.  However, as a result of regular music practice, my friend was able to restore his focus and catch up with the music and his other band members very quickly.

The positive influence between mindfulness and music is bi-directional – it operates in both directions. As we grow in mindfulness, our capacity to play music, sing and listen deeply, develops; as we play music, practise playing and sing, we can grow in mindfulness because music can provide the bridge to inner silence.  Mindfulness practice and music practice both build our power of concentration, our awareness muscle, our ability to achieve resonance with others, and our overall well-being.  Richard highlights the positive impact of inner silence on our relationships when he writes, The ability to silence the inner voice creates the conditions for truly hearing the voices of others.

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Image by SplitShire 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.

Sound as a Source of Resonance and Well-Being

In a previous post, I discussed Ginny Whitelaw’s new book, Resonate, and focused on how meditation can help us to develop resonance.  Now, I want to look at the role of sound in developing resonance and well-being.  We previously explored the concept of resonance as “vibrating with” and sound is undoubtedly a source of energy vibrations.

Singing as a source of resonance

Chris James, well-known recording artist and international singing teacher, maintains that our bodies are natural resonators.  He teaches people to relax and breathe to free up their voice and let their natural sound and resonance emerge.  In his view, everyone has a beautiful voice – if only we will release our voice by not being uptight about singing.  When you let your voice open up through singing, emotion is released, often emotions that you are not consciously aware of.  

In Chris’ words, through singing and chanting, you are able to find your “true voice” and “speak your truth” – this is achieved through aligning body and mind, voice and heart.  Chris enables people to “speak and sing with presence, power and authority” – to use their body as a natural resonator, unencumbered by negative thoughts and emotions. 

Chris contends that “the way we listen and communicate” can transform our interactions and relationships both at work and at home.  Deep listening itself is a form of resonance as it involves “being on the same wavelength” as the speaker.  As we develop our voice through singing and chanting, we can find our “true expression” – full-body singing and speaking. 

When we sing together with others, we are able to “tune up” our body, heart and mind and achieve a natural resonance.  Even in times of pain and uncertainty brought on by the COVID19 pandemic, singing together can help us to achieve resonance (vibrating with others), lift our spirits and strengthen our resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges – the NYC Virtual Choir and Orchestra demonstrated this in their rendition of How Can I Keep from Singing and the virtual choir/orchestra of 300 people drawn from 13 countries reminds us that You’ll Never Walk Alone

Resonance and well-being through sound

Research has shown the power of sound therapy to heal and generate well-being in the form of relaxation, tranquility, and patience.  Sound meditations, often incorporating various instruments designed to produce “over-tones”, can achieve inner harmony, equanimity, the breaking of habituated patterns of behaviour and a higher level of self-awareness and consciousness.

Richard Wolf likens deep listening to music and playing a musical instrument to mindfulness – they each require concentration, focus and the ability “to quiet the inner voice”, and result in enhanced “multi-dimensional awareness”.   Richard expands on these ideas in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness.   He maintains that focusing on the “sonar qualities” of our own breath can enable us to achieve “attunement” of breath and body – or, in other words, resonance.

Mantra meditations, involving musical instruments and the repetition of deeply meaningful phrases, is another form of sound meditation and a way to achieve resonance and a deeper integration of mind, body, and heart.  Mantra meditations can generate stillness and joy when we are experiencing turbulence in our lives and release energy and calmness to make a real difference in our lives and those of others.

Reflection

Sound in the form of music, singing, sound meditations or mantra meditations is a readily accessible resource and a way to achieve a deepening resonance in our life.  It enables us to attune our body, minds, and hearts and to release productive energy that can help us align our life with our true purpose.   As Ginny Whitelaw maintains in her book, we are surrounded by energy and vibration, especially through sound – we just have to tap into it through meditation, our own voice or by playing a musical instrument.  As we grow in mindfulness through sound and the various means of attunement, we can experience genuine well-being and the calm and ease of wellness.

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Image by Peter H 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.