Meditation is much harder when we have yet to feel the wounds and release the trauma held in our nervous system. In the past few years, through a deep commitment to working with my trauma, my mind has quieted much more than it used to. Meditation has changed because my whole life has naturally become more of a meditation, not just the time I am sitting on my couch in the morning.
The healing work I have done has regulated my sympathetic nervous system (mobilization and arousal) and deactivated the fight-flight response that was always over-engaged. As a child who endured tremendous adversity, I adapted by being hyper-vigilant, mobilized, ready for action, ready for a fight. I had to protect myself, and my nervous system / brain wiring changed such that I was less susceptible to danger.
This adaptation, along with the inability to feel the uncomfortable wounds below my conscious mind, kept me busy, unsettled, unable to rest in connection, rest in the moment.
Twenty years ago when I began doing personal growth, including talk therapy, slowly, my sympathetic nervous system began to regulate and the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm, came online. But personal growth / talk therapy could only do so much. As much as a gift as it was, it did not reach deep into the abuse/neglect-related trauma. It supported general awareness and cathartic release, which was a useful first step; but there is a level beneath that many, if not most, personal growth facilitators, cognitive-behavioral therapists and New Age thought leaders know little about. And that is the level of sensation—sensation felt when we resolve trauma in the nervous system.
In his book, In An Unspoken Voice, leading researcher and educator on trauma, Peter Levine, writes, “The disparate roles of sensation, feeling and cognition in therapy have followed a convoluted and confounding path. At times emotions have been neglected, while cognition was esteemed. At other times cognition has been dismissed, while emotions were practically worshiped. And most of the time, with very few exceptions, the therapeutic role of sensations has remained unknown. The balanced attention to sensation, feeling, cognition and élan vital (life-energy) remains the emergent therapeutic future for transforming the whole person.”
I have attended numerous personal growth courses where I was pushed to have a cathartic release. One in particular comes to mind. We were all led into a dimmed room, asked to put on blindfolds, told to get on our knees, and then given rubber bats and telephone books (yes, it was that long ago). “Hit the floor! Tear that book up!” shouted an assistant in my ear, pressing me, and others, to get the anger and sadness out of us. And it worked… sort of. People wailed and screamed; but how much of this pounding-out process really served?
The most powerful work I have done has been with shamans through plant medicine, somatic therapists and cranio-osteopaths, all trauma-informed, working with stuck life-energy on the level of sensation, as well as emotion and cognition. For these healers the emphasis is not solely on the story of our lives or in attaining outbursts of emotion (fear, anger, sadness, joy and disgust); rather, equally, if not more so, healing for them begins with what Levine calls “bottom-up” sensorimotor trauma resolution experienced as the release of trapped energy, often through the limbs and crown, through shaking, and, in the case of plant medicine, through throwing up.
Emotion, while helpful, is not primary. Crying because suddenly you feel overcome with grief is beautiful and should be encouraged. It’s just that the deeper healing work giving rise to this emotion, and others, occurs on a more visceral, sensate level. When working on that level, emotion arises organically from trauma resolution—from the bottom up.
An example of this just happened recently with a client who suddenly felt the urge to punch. Along the path of healing this is quite normal—an unexpected desire to express anger or rage, perhaps to complete an old, unresolved survival response involving asserting boundaries or protecting oneself. I told her to punch as she wished to; so she did, very rapidly and with force. I then asked her to slow her punch down while feeling any subtle sensation in her arm. She did, and then repeated this again, but even slower. Suddenly, a well of sadness filled the top of her chest, which led to some healthy and much needed grieving.
Again, this would not have happened if she had worked primarily on the gross level of musculature and without the deeper sensate experience. By putting less emphasis on force—traditionally the focus of cathartic-based personal growth courses—and more on refined attunement, patience and subtly, she was able to move from the bottom up into an organic expression of emotion.
The top-down, overt or abrupt, cathartic approach can impede trauma resolution. Without feeling sensation and by being flooded with emotion, the integration of experience is less likely to happen. In fact, it can simply lead to an adrenaline rush and even re-traumatization.
Which brings me back to meditation.
It’s not uncommon for dedicated meditators on the spiritual journey to be unaware of how much they bypass the trauma in their nervous system. They believe they can just meditate their way to peace not knowing that developmental trauma must be healed within the context of relationship because it occurred in relationship in the first place. Your mother abandoned you; your father neglected you; the neighbor abused you; your teacher and friends bullied you. You can’t address these developmental traumas alone no matter how deep your individual practice is.
We need another person to hold the therapeutic container of the relational field required for one to enter uncomfortable feelings; a tender person to gently guide us into what rightly feels like unsafe waters. For, when younger, we learned that our bodies were dangerous. Feelings, including the terror and rage that comes with certain developmental themes, were utterly unbearable.
Until one enters this delicate, relational-therapeutic field and senses the trauma captured in the body, meditators will get less from their meditation practice and even use it as a place to hide out.
Meditation, as already mentioned, has changed for me because my over-engaged sympathetic nervous system does not drive my mind as much. The regulation achieved through trauma resolution has been key to calming my mind. Now when I meditate I can feel my sympathetic nervous system prodding my mind to plan my day and worry about my family, but it has less grip on me. In the past I would have worked hard to quiet my mind. But now the mind quiets itself because I am more regulated. It does so naturally and more easily because my parasympathetic nervous system is actively engaged.
If we have not learned to regulate through bottom-up trauma resolution our attention is more likely to bounce back up into the storms of thought; we won’t be able to stay present in a regulated “bottom”. Meditation is then experienced as a process of working on self-control rather than easing into self-regulation. Even focusing on our breath in meditation can be difficult because our long-dysregulated nervous system and its concomitant anxiety bounces us back into our head leaving us unable to rest in the moment.
Those who struggle in intimate relationships despite having a committed meditation practice may discover it’s because they cannot rest in their nervous system. They may experience their meditation practice as deep and profound and transcendent; but meanwhile they continue to bypass the tender and often complex traumas blocking the felt-sense of their innate, trusting goodness, which impedes their ability to be intimate with others, to rest in connection.
As Peter Levine elucidates, sensation is the new ground in the field of healing. We, in the mainstream, are only just learning about what trauma is and its impact on our lives. For those wanting to heal and deepen their meditation practice, I encourage you to seek out practitioners who are trauma informed and work somatically. And, equally so, find the courage needed to feel what’s uncomfortable, for in doing so, you will discover a well-spring of unexpected life energy, and the life waiting for you.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart