Meditation is a practice that quietly works out the knots in our souls. It untangles the threads of our experience and allows us to live more fully within the present moment. The work of meditation requires us to come to terms with the ways in which our lives have shaped us, and that means coming fully to terms with the ways in which we have been wounded. In order to process our hurt, we must face it, naked and with an unflinching presence of mind, seeing and feeling it in all of its shades. We cannot and should not expect ourselves to dive into this without support or preparation, and we should not expect ourselves to be able to engage in meditation in the same way as those who have not gone through a traumatic experience.
Meditation is an excellent tool for increasing self and spiritual knowledge, as well as cultivating a toolkit for emotional regulation. For those of us who have experienced trauma in our lives, meditation and mindfulness practices can be powerful healing tools, but can also have significant drawbacks related to the unique psychology of trauma survivors. We must take care that our practice helps us with our unique struggles and that we protect ourselves from the potential of becoming re-traumatized or developing symptoms of dissociation or anxiety.
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In meditation, we generally start by familiarizing ourselves with the practices of breathing and concentration, and then the observation of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The development of these tools allows the practitioner to become familiarized with the kinds of things that they experience as a human in a human body, and thus be better able to deal with things as they come up.
Often, we attempt to avoid things that are painful or unpleasant and pursue things that are pleasant and desirable. This is our body’s way of nourishing itself and keeping us away from things that would be dangerous or harmful for us. In an increasingly complex society, these basic mechanisms can stand in the way of our proper function. We begin to avoid things that would be healthy for us, but that make us feel uncomfortable, or conversely pursue things that feel pleasant but ultimately cause harm. We must learn to use our discernment, to witness our bodily reactions, and choose what best to do in response to these sensations.
For example, when we crave something sweet we may choose to eat a piece of fruit rather than grabbing a candy bar due to concern about our future health. However, we might want to keep in mind that a person’s cravings for food can be suppressed as a coping mechanism in situations where there is food insecurity. In some situations, trying to find the middle path means we actually need to embrace our cravings or desires, because it is these very same mechanisms that help us to remain connected to our physical bodies and the processes that keep these bodies healthy.
When learning to process bodily sensations, we must keep in mind that our programming might have become scrambled by adverse life circumstances. Our bodies are concerned with our immediate survival and do not consider the larger picture of our lives. Our bodies understand our environments through the way that they make us feel, and it is up to us to try to sort through our sensations to try to make sense of our place in the world.
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Sitting down to a meditation, we often think of trying to still the mind. However, what often happens for the vast majority of us, is that we sit down and become inundated with the busyness of our minds, with thoughts about the future, planning, worrying, and going over memories of the past. Meditation does not actively force these thoughts to go away or to become quiet. Rather, the quieting of the mind is a gradual process that happens through a person becoming comfortable with the flow of thoughts, and eventually becoming able to step back and resist adding to the stream of chatter happening in the mind. The consequence of this stepping back is that the mind becomes quieter. The quiet within the mind begins as a whisper and after years of practice, it can become something that can offer the meditator a sense of abiding peace.
What may happen, as a person who has experienced trauma throughout their life, is that when we sit down to meditate, our minds may be drawn into the gravity of experiencing the event that caused the trauma. When we are profoundly hurt, we are not always able to entirely experience the pain that these circumstances evoke within us. It is only the process of time that allows us to slowly expand into our bodies and our memories, to root out and feel the pain, and by feeling our pain fully, to process it and to let it go.
Depending on our individual psychology and physiology, we all have different time scales for processing our trauma. For some people, sitting down to meditate might feel like walking through a minefield. Exposing ourselves to traumatic thoughts and memories can be healing only when we are able to witness our memories and feel our feelings within an environment of safety and relaxation. When we tense up, getting drawn into our memories as though they are happening in the present moment, we become re-traumatized and this can deepen our trauma.
Thus, a key strategy for developing a meditative practice involves giving ourselves permission to take our time. Some people may be able to commit more time and energy to their practice because they may have less challenging material come up for them during their sits. Meditation is difficult for everyone, but for those of us who are actively coping with trauma, our meditation is set on the extreme difficulty setting.
The most important thing to remember is that each person will need to approach meditation in their own way. No matter what anyone else is doing or even what an instructor of meditation is suggesting, you are the ultimate expert on how you are feeling and what you need. No one else can feel what you are feeling inside and so you need to give yourself permission to practice self-care when things start to feel overwhelming.
Use your meditation practice as a means of getting to understand your own limits and then, as you become more comfortable, begin to play with those limits. Find a length of time that allows you to confront your own thoughts, but that also allows you to pull back from those thoughts if things get too intense. Sometimes, when we practice insight meditation, it is good to have another concurrent practice about focus and relaxation. One such method is connecting with the breath and is a vitally important skill to master. Connecting to breath can quell anxieties as well as pulling a person back into connection with their bodies. It begins simply enough by checking in with the breath and just seeing what is happening. Try to remain connected to the sensation of breathing as it moves both in and out. Allow your breath to move freely and without alteration. Let go of control as much as you can and simply try to be present to the feeling of breathing.
When I started out in meditation, I had a desire to be good at it and compared myself to the people around me. I thought that becoming overwhelmed meant that I wasn’t good at meditation. I resisted spending time focusing on my breath and tried to power through more intense forms of insight meditation, using my willpower to force myself to sit for the same amount of time as other people at the meditation retreat. Meditation should never be about force. There is an element of discipline that allows it to become a practice, but the practice itself should not resemble something rigid. It should be something soft and something that encourages even more softness.
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For each person, the first step on the path is accepting the point that we are starting from. For some, it may be easy and straightforward to connect with their bodies. Those people may have different challenges, and our work may not manifest in the same way. For those of us who struggle with trauma, we are starting from a place of having wounded bodies and spirits, and no matter what we want, we must start from the where we are and not where we want to be.
It’s important to keep in mind that the guideposts for dealing with trauma are different than those for simply meditating. A key success for someone with trauma might be simply learning how to pull back from a traumatic memory, even if that means discontinuing the meditation or distracting themselves with something comforting. Having a list of things that you like to do and that help you relax can be a good resource to draw on. Once we have learned how to step back from our trauma, we can begin to process it because we will not be continually drawn into being re-traumatized.
The next step is learning how to feel suppressed core feelings, whether it be sadness, rage, fear, or some combination of these. We are not able to be complete people until we can allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotion. When something horrible happens to you, it makes perfect sense to have a range of reactions to the event, each of which needs to be processed in order to successfully move beyond it. So, how do we go into these emotions safely?
When we know that we can pull back, we create space for ourselves to dip into our emotions in a safe way that does not overwhelm our senses. Often the emotions that come from trauma are overpowering and can cause us to shut down. When this happens, we stop being able to feel what needs to be felt and in extreme cases, a person can even go into shock, which has real physiological consequences. Thus, taking care that we do not become overwhelmed is actually the way that we allow ourselves to move forward in confronting our feelings.
Sometimes, distancing the mind from the transitory sensations of the body and mind can allow a person to witness these as objective phenomena. However, for trauma survivors, distancing ourselves from our thoughts and feelings can sometimes have the effect of causing or deepening dissociative symptoms. We can become detached from our bodies during times of extreme stress, and it can seem very tempting to simply bypass symptoms of trauma to be able to feel better immediately. Often, this can be labelled as spiritual by-passing and can mean that we put off processing our trauma in favour of cultivating spiritual lightness, happiness, and freedom. No matter how we react, however, the trauma itself will continue to shape us until we are able to confront it.
When we learn strategies for witnessing our trauma in a balanced way and allow ourselves to feel our core feelings, we can begin to do the deeper work of developing competency with processing our feelings on a daily basis and to also progress on our meditative path. As those who have experienced trauma, we must keep in mind that even if we feel like we have moved beyond our pain, there may be places we have not examined that may reveal hidden stores of pain that may need to be processed in the future. Each new challenge is like a spiral, moving ahead while also circling backwards. We return time and time again to the place where we began, and when we return, we may notice the ways we, ourselves, have changed.
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Meditation is a practice of acceptance and for some of us, accepting the realities of our lives is more complicated. Accepting and integrating an understanding of the cruelty of experience can be a difficult burden. We must learn to exist in the moment, while also knowing just how painful that moment can become. We must try to let go of control while also knowing how delicate and fragile we are and how easily everything can go awry. We must give ourselves the space to recognize just how difficult this can be, and give ourselves the compassion and care that we deserve as we try to walk along the path that life has presented us with.
Meditation will look different for each and every person. There is no one right way to do it. You can follow all of the forms exactly and still never advance in the practice. Every single form, teaching method, style, and school is only a tool for pointing us in the right direction. In the end, when we close our eyes there won’t be anyone to guide us. It is the trust we cultivate in our own compass that will allow us to get through. When that trust has been tested, we can feel lost in the darkness, and it is act of faith, a leap in the dark, that allows us to begin to repair that relationship and to hope that in the future we will be better equipped to respond, to protect ourselves, and to live lives that are more fully human.
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Image credits: Sadiq Alam, Shane McGraw, Mikhail Kryshen