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Gillian Sanger

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

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A few of our members have brought up trauma-sensitive mindfulness, which I think is a very important and necessary discussion to have, especially when we are offering mindfulness and meditation to others.

Would anyone like to share some of the ways they incorporate sensitivity to trauma into their teachings? Or any ideas and practices they're learning about?

I'm tagging a few of you hear that I remember having mentioned this topic or the book by David A. Treleaven. If you have anything to share, I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions, or insights: @Jo L @David Weiskopf @Rachel @VBZivkovic

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Thanks Gillian!

When I worked with clients and taught meditation, I always explained in detail what meditation was before beginning the process, since many were scared of anything new, particularly anything having to do with relaxation. Also, I always reminded them that they were free to keep their eyes open, which many people did, at least at first. 

I found that asking people to focus on their breath often backfired, since traumatized individuals typically breathe shallowly and can get caught up in doing it "right." So, I usually begin with a body scan. However, I don't do a full body scan, because trauma is stored in the body, so I do a facial scan and have the client focus on relaxing the facial muscles, and maybe the neck and shoulders. This is usually quite effective which makes the client motivated to try more meditation. 

Visualization meditations can be useful to. I have one where I have the client create a safe room that only they have the key to, and where they can return anytime. I have them use all of their senses to create images in the room, what do they see, smell, taste, feel, etc. to imprint the place in their mind. 

I always tell clients before we start that we can stop at any time if they're uncomfortable- they can either say 'stop' or hold up a hand. 

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While I am just getting started with the book itself, in light of the current uprising and my lengthy career as an urban educator, I have learned that first and foremost, acknowledgment is key.  Denying a person's experience only serves to compound said trauma.  I have already spoken to this in a few of my other posts around the subject.  And never more than now, is it a conversation we must be having.

After an emotionally traumatic experience of my own, I found my way to the book Yoga for Emotional Trauma by Mary and Rick NeurrieStearns.  In it were somatic practices and others that spoke to different ways of holding and subsequently releasing trauma in the physical body.  It is ongoing work.  Important to remember that as both a student and a teacher.

In terms of how I hope/plan to incorporate mindfulness into my teaching, I hope to learn from all of you, and from the book itself as to ways to do just that.  Right now, there is trauma everywhere- between the pandemics of Covid and Racism, it seems we will all have plenty of opportunity to practice working with it.

Take good and gentle care of yourselves.

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Thanks for mentioning that book Rachel. I haven't heard of it. I've just picked up my order of "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk and look forward to deepening my understanding about how trauma lives in the body.

And thank you Jo for sharing your practices. I also try to really make it clear that everything is optional - i.e. closing the eyes, repeating certain affirmations, sitting in a particular way. I often start sentences with, "If you'd like, you might..." or "If it feels comfortable for you, you can..." I think this gives listeners the space to feel out what they are ready for and/or safely able to venture into.

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On 6/1/2020 at 12:04 PM, Rachel said:

I have learned that first and foremost, acknowledgment is key.  Denying a person's experience only serves to compound said trauma. 

This is a major point of The Body Keeps the Score. A few days ago I heard The Dhamma teacher Dawn Neal tell the story of her little niece being angry, pounding her fists on Dawn's thighs which were as high as the little girl could reach, and yelling in anger, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you." Dawn looked down and said, "I love you." Her niece stopped yelling and hugged her. The lesson had to do with people needing to be seen and heard, precisely the point of The Body Keeps the Score and, if I understand correctly, Shaun's teachings on "reciprocity." We tend to do all sorts of things to "fix" problems we perceive in others or discipline them, usually to relieve discomfort we ourselves experience, instead of showing up for them. I think we can see this dynamic playing out on a huge scale with reactions to the protests of the Floyd killing.

Regarding Jo's experience with alternatives for aspiring meditators who might have reasons to be uncomfortable placing attention on their breath or their bodies, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness addresses this topic well, including Jo's suggestions as I recall. I have no formal training, but I lead a small meditation group and I like to encourage people to stay with objects that bring them some pleasure or ease. They can even do this pacing, doing walking meditation, if they are too anxious to sit. The Buddha taught that gladness was a condition for practicing. If we are not enjoying practice, the likelihood is we won't keep it up. I really enjoy reading what trained people do.

Finally, I personally do not like talks punctuated with "if you'd like" and the like😄. To me it interrupts the flow. Of course, I am the type who doesn't need an invitation to reject what the leader suggests! I personally prefer a preliminary instruction allowing people to follow their own lead if that seems of most benefit. I had a teacher who's many "if you like's" seemed obligatory, not sincere, so that might be clouding my perspective. It's not like there is only one right way. Have a great day.

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@David Weiskopf - Your reflections on 'The Body Keeps the Score' makes me even more eager to read it. My only delay is that I am the kind of person who has 4 books on the go, so I'm starting to think I should get those finished before I pick up a new one.

And thank you for sharing your views on meditations that include the suggestion of 'if you'd like'! It's always good to hear about how other people respond to things that we think are helpful. I think all of this is so dependent on the audience - are they beginners? Are they children or teenagers? Are they experienced adults? Is there known trauma? If it's one on one meditation sessions, I think it's much easier to assess what will be most supportive.

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On 6/1/2020 at 1:04 PM, Rachel said:

While I am just getting started with the book itself, in light of the current uprising and my lengthy career as an urban educator, I have learned that first and foremost, acknowledgment is key.  Denying a person's experience only serves to compound said trauma.  I have already spoken to this in a few of my other posts around the subject.  And never more than now, is it a conversation we must be having.

After an emotionally traumatic experience of my own, I found my way to the book Yoga for Emotional Trauma by Mary and Rick NeurrieStearns.  In it were somatic practices and others that spoke to different ways of holding and subsequently releasing trauma in the physical body.  It is ongoing work.  Important to remember that as both a student and a teacher.

In terms of how I hope/plan to incorporate mindfulness into my teaching, I hope to learn from all of you, and from the book itself as to ways to do just that.  Right now, there is trauma everywhere- between the pandemics of Covid and Racism, it seems we will all have plenty of opportunity to practice working with it.

Take good and gentle care of yourselves.

I agree with you Rachel and also recommend Yoga for Emotional Trauma. And it is critical as a teacher to be continually working through your own trauma and ongoing issues. 

Acknowledgment is key, which can be tricky because denial is such an automatic and powerful defense mechanism. Gently allowing ourselves, and assisting others, in breaking through denial and becoming aware of underlying trauma and accompanying emotions can start the process of healing. Right now, the systemic trauma of racism is being exposed and it is an opportune time for this wound to be addressed. 

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3 hours ago, Gillian Sanger said:

@David Weiskopf - Your reflections on 'The Body Keeps the Score' makes me even more eager to read it. My only delay is that I am the kind of person who has 4 books on the go, so I'm starting to think I should get those finished before I pick up a new one.

And thank you for sharing your views on meditations that include the suggestion of 'if you'd like'! It's always good to hear about how other people respond to things that we think are helpful. I think all of this is so dependent on the audience - are they beginners? Are they children or teenagers? Are they experienced adults? Is there known trauma? If it's one on one meditation sessions, I think it's much easier to assess what will be most supportive.

I had to laugh Gillian because I also tend to have 4 books going at the same time! And while I can see David's point about the flow being interrupted if the teacher says, "if you'd like.." I also see the value of offering such an invitation while leading meditation and feel that it is a gentle way to lead, and also empowering because it gives an individual options. 

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I guess it is no coincidence that we are all circling around the same few books...I also have The Body Keeps the Score on my nightstand and leaf through it now and then to reread something that was of use when I read it the first time.

I definitely see the perspectives of both @David Weiskopf and @Jo L in that considering who we may be guiding is important as well as the honesty and sincerity of our tone and invitation.  Both for me are ongoing parts of my own practices, and even how I think before regularly interacting with others.  Being present with whomever it may be that I am speaking with and being aware of my tone of voice, word choice, etc...really mirrors what I hope to be when in practice with others.

Appreciate the dialogue here.  Be safe and well, all.

Rachel

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18 hours ago, Rachel said:

I definitely see the perspectives of both @David Weiskopf and @Jo L in that considering who we may be guiding is important as well as the honesty and sincerity of our tone and invitation.  Both for me are ongoing parts of my own practices, and even how I think before regularly interacting with others.  Being present with whomever it may be that I am speaking with and being aware of my tone of voice, word choice, etc...really mirrors what I hope to be when in practice with others.

Thank you for mentioning honesty and sincerity. I think taking our time to formulate the right words can help with this - and trying to tap into our intuition to sense what might be the most supportive and nurturing way to phrase something.

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Maybe you all with more training and experience can help clear up something for me. When I took the basic MBSR course and attended a week-long retreat for teachers, the operating instruction about being aware of present-moment experience with acceptance and without judgment really bothered me because it seemed not to address so many other aspects of wholesome presence. Speaking of inviting people not to follow the instructions in a guided meditation suggests and acknowledges something very important aside from this operating definition of mindfulness is at play. To me, it is a basic bodily function of seeking. Seeking safety, seeking food, seeking partners, seeking shelter, seeking warmth or relief from it, seeking approval, seeking happiness...I think you get the idea. We are not static and we come to practice because we are seeking something. I am not talking about our elaborate thought-constructs, but what at a fundamental level formed the conditions for attention and thought. From a perspective of homeostasis, seeking reflects something missing at a core physiological level that needs to be sought and found to maintain the organism in balance. It seems to me that these basic and significant aspects of conscious experience were like elephants in the room in my MBSR experience. They loomed everywhere and nudged us this way and that, but were never expressly acknowledged. How can we care for and support them? Shouldn’t we make it expressly known there is a time to stop and come back to our embodied experience freed as much as possible from seeking and lack? And, there is a time to kindly and gently acknowledge and allow seeking and lack, to notice how they affect us and what responses lead to wellness? Or, am I missing something? Thanks.

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Hey David! Thanks for the thorough reflection and inquiry. I'll share my thoughts on this... and let me know if this is what you're getting at or not. (Note that I am taking a mini-vacation for the next week so my responses might be delayed).

Yes, I deeply sense as well that seeking is an innate part of not just human life but animal life, plant life, and perhaps other life forms. We naturally gravitate towards places of safety, towards relationships that nourish us, to water, food, warmth, and so on (all as you mentioned). I have at times felt a bit of a disconnect myself in terms of how mindfulness addresses (or doesn't address) this aspect of life, so I can understand your feeling that this topic was the elephant in the room.

For my own practice and in my teachings, I am quite liberal in allowing for that element of flow (movement) in meditations (as you might sense from my 'If you'd like...' sort of invitations). If I need to move my legs for instance, I notice it... and then adjust mindfully. If I need to go to the bathroom and it's urgent, I notice the urge and go. I've let go of the necessity for 100% stillness (because we are never fully still anyways).

Your question 'How can we care for and support them (these seeking mechanisms)?' leads me straight to one thing that I believe must be paired with our awareness for true wholeness to be felt: that is, compassion. In Tara Brach's 'Radical Acceptance', she talks about two wings of acceptance: mindfulness and compassion. Here are some quotes that really resonated with me:

“The two parts of genuine acceptance—seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion—are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.”

“If we were to bring only the wing of mindfulness to our process of Radical Acceptance, we might be clearly aware of the aching in our heart, the flush of rage in our face; we might clearly see the stories we are telling ourselves—that we are a victim, that we will always be alone and without love. But we might also compound our suffering by feeling angry with ourselves for getting into the situation in the first place. This is where the wing of compassion joins with mindfulness to create a genuinely healing presence. Instead of pushing away or judging our anger or despondency, compassion enables us to be softly and kindly present with our open wounds.

In the same way, mindfulness balances compassion. If our heartfelt caring begins to bleed over into self-pity, giving rise to another story line—we tried so hard but didn’t get what we so dearly wanted—mindfulness enables us to see the trap we’re falling into.”

Excerpts From: Brach, Tara. “Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love that Heals Fear and Shame.” Apple Books. 

So yes, I think balance is required between the freedom and fluidity to allow (with compassion) our seeking mechanisms and coming back to pure awareness of our experience. I think only we ourselves can know what that balance is and what is required when. In terms of leading others through this balance, I think our language needs to shape-shift depending upon the group in question and the theme or focus of the practice. All of this requires discernment and intuition, which strengthen as we go.

I hope I've at least addressed some of what was on your mind! Interested in hearing what you think.

 

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I am in day 3 of a 4-day online retreat, so forgive me if I am a little incoherent. Actually, it was the deepness of the retreat that prompted me to ask the questions in the first place. I will try to be brief and concise.

I really liked how you associated "freedom" to not sit still nor follow the guidance of a meditation leader as being linked to self-compassion. I had only focused on the seeming inconsistency with the core instruction.  As recently as a few months ago my local MBSR group had not incorporated a self-compassion module, but I know there are movements to do so in other secular mindfulness settings.

It probably always will impress me to recite Tara Brach's teachings. They are much more comprehensive than what I was referencing. 

I also liked how you basically framed practice as an art form rather than a precise technique. One teacher referred to practice as involving a lot of "trial and error" in the great experiment that is our lives. In my mind, part of being a good teacher is sincerely reassuring folks there is no shame in trying and "failing." Just like following the breath, each moment is a new beginning. I appreciate your commitment as a teacher to flexibility and sensitivity. 

The one thing I did not think was addressed is how these experiments open and contribute to an "onward-leading" wisdom that starts helping to guide our practice, that helps inform the seeking and knows when to pause and sense deeper. Good teachings and readings can contribute to developing wisdom too. I think all this gets short-shrift in the secular mindfulness to which I have been exposed. Instead of boring you with my trying to make a big case for this conclusion, let me use Tara Brach's R.A.I.N. as an example. Skipping over how any instruction like "recognize," "allow," and "investigate as in sense into" could be said to involve some form of seeking, these instructions mostly concern attending to what is present with a receptive interest and kindness. Moreover, the object of attention is not some elemental function dictated to us by the teacher, like "sound" or "the breath," but is something of real importance to us in the moment. Still, these instructions basically are to be with it. (For me, my breath practice as an anchor or means of grounding myself helps with R.A.I.N.)

But, "nurturing" involves seeking and nourishing for an onward-leading result. I love how Tara and other teachers from wisdom traditions say when you see your habits or patterns that result in suffering (and you have not the wisdom to know what to do), just do anything different! I have just waved my arms and sang loudly. Some people like Sean and Rick Hanson expressly suggest binding whatever you do with something joyously rewarding so what "triggers" the suffering starts getting less associated with suffering and more with positive experience. I think the "nurturing" and subsequent pausing to soak the results of R.A.I.N. essentially does that, don't you? Feel free to critique.

 

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Posted (edited)

Hi David, I appreciate your questions and your seeking. And Gillian, your summary of how you teach and of Tara Brach's compassionate teachings offers excellent examples. 

I'd like to share something I learned about self-compassion from a talk given by Kristen Neff recently. I don't know if it's relevant here, but I think it might be helpful. She noted that from her studies she's identified three important elements of self compassion. The first is mindfulness; being aware of your struggle in a balanced and accepting way. The second is a connection to humanity (not being ego-centric or feeling alone.) The third is kindness, the desire to alleviate suffering, the motivation to get help, to grow, heal and change. It struck me, in thinking of my own past struggles and those of some family members, that addiction robs you of all three of these elements. An addict is not likely to have a mindful view of their struggle, and is by nature (while using) ego-centric and narcissistic, and has a very difficult time with motivation and seeking help. Just a reflection.

The other thing I found interesting is her notion of a yin/yang balance necessary for self-compassion. She noted that one needs the yin- a soft accepting of imperfection, an ability to hold one's brokenness and child self, as well as the yang- the fierce "mamma bear" part that has a "tough love" approach, can set boundaries and say no, has motivation and can meet one's needs. 

David, I see your point about the lack of "onward-leading" wisdom in mindfulness programs. For me, studying Buddhism fulfills that lack. I find that I get a lot of depth from studying Buddhism, and reading books by Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhists. I also get that need fulfilled from participating in other activist trainings. For example, learning about teaching mindfulness and conflict resolution to prisoners through the Path to Freedom program, directed by Fleet Maull. The more teachers I learn from the more depth I get in my own foundation of knowledge. I've also studied Sufism and gotten a lot out of that faith. 

As a psychologist, I always recommend that people go to therapy to learn more about themselves. In yoga, one of the niyamas or rules for living is svadhyaya (self-study) which therapy certainly encompasses. I have been in therapy for much of my life, and consider it an ongoing path of enlightenment, not something that you do for a short while. Obviously I'm biased but I believe it helps eliminate delusions, lift veils of denial, and can reveal and shift programming from childhood and society that can subconsciously affect our thoughts and behaviors.  

Edited by Jo L
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That’s great, Jo. Thank you. Kristen Neff really has made a great contributions by gathering together and identifying factors of self-compassion and by demonstrating their importance. It takes some of the guesswork out of our practice and illuminates steps forward. As you point out there can be many sources to help us find our way. I feel like my practice of the Buddhist teachings has opened a very rewarding and somewhat clear path for me, but that doesn’t prevent me from lurching, stumbling, and falling away time and again! Fortunately I think I am well supported by a few teachers and fellow practitioners. Sometimes I think “too few.” I find that I draw energy and inspiration from discovering other people on a similar path. I am grateful for this forum and other online offerings.

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