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A Trauma-Sensitive Approach to Meditation: Part II

November 27, 2015

Mark Forman, PhD

A Trauma-Sensitive Approach to Meditation – Part II (of III)

Welcome to the second part of this three-part blog series, A Trauma-Sensitive Approach to Meditation. If you have not had a chance to read through Part I, I would strongly recommend reading that first. Part I lays out important, basic information about trauma and meditation in a way that will make these next lessons more understandable and applicable.

Here in Part II we will build on what we have discussed before and dive into deeper subtleties, particularly issues that confront individuals with longer-term meditation practices. Part III – to be published in the near future – will continue with these subtler issues.

Lesson #4: Meditation can calm us, but it can also remove defenses. This can lead to an intensification of felt trauma during meditation sessions as well as over a long-term course of practice.

The most typical result of any single meditation session (or tai chi practice, or prayer practice, etc.) is that we leave feeling calmer than when they first started. We may also notice a lift in our mood.  With longer term practice, these calming and mood-heightening impacts become more consistent and attainable.

However, there are other times when meditation has the opposite effect. It can leave us feeling unsettled and uneasy as opposed to calm and happy.

Why is this the case?

As our practice deepens, and we learn to watch our thoughts pass and concentrate intently, our everyday psychological defenses relax. We are less distracted by thoughts, plans, and fantasies. Our bodies learn to relax as well. By slowing these mental and physical processes – like allowing muddy water to settle until it becomes clear – we learn to enter into a more direct, unmediated experience of ourselves and the world.

But as long-term meditators know, the relaxation of the mind-body does not only lead to positive thoughts and feelings. Painful feelings or aspects of self will also occasionally emerge. When they do, we might find we have fewer psychological defenses than we did in the past to cushion the impact and suppress the pain.

This has a special implication for trauma survivors. The implication is not, however, that you should worry about beginning a meditation session untriggered and emerging triggered. That is not a common experience, since traumatic reactions most often require an external stimulus to begin. It is more likely that when we begin our sitting already triggered, the traumatic reactions will become intensified as we move into that session. Meditation tends to make everything feel and appear unvarnished.

We might then notice traumatized feelings more intensely during our sitting – although we will not necessarily understand it as “trauma” unless we have worked and been supported to understand our traumatic reactions. The increased intensity might come across in other ways. The feelings of fear become heightened, the numbness more pervasive, the self-judgments louder and more painful, and the resentments more fierce.

This lesson also suggests that we practice being unsurprised when this occurs. It will happen to us. But if we are aware of our trauma and its nature ahead of time – which is the outcome of good, supportive psychotherapy – we can learn to see these felt intensifications as opportunities. We can learn to track our traumas and traumatic patterns more closely. We can get to know our true underlying needs and learn to care for ourselves more compassionately in response. We can also learn to apply lesson #3 as discussed in Part I of this blog-series – learning to be mindful of when and for how long we sit when we are knowingly triggered.

Lesson #5: Traumatic reactions are amongst the fastest moving and most seamless of all psychological “objects”: Hardest to see, hardest to interrupt, and hardest to let go of. Learning to see and let go of traumatic reactions as you would other thoughts and feelings requires an extra level of effort and mindful capacity.

A central goal of most forms of meditation is to learn to see thoughts, feelings, and emotions as “objects” in our awareness. To see something as an “object” is to see that our essential “I” is different from “it”. We learn to see something as a part of who we are, but not as fundamentally who we are. This realization creates a small bit of psychological space for us to be in. This can relieve a great deal of suffering in the moment and allow for more choice over how we are feeling.

Let’s discuss this idea a bit more indepth prior to considering its implications for trauma survivors.

This idea of separating our “I” from “objects” is found in many ancient scriptures on meditation. It is in the very first lines of the famous Yoga Sutras. Another well-known yogic practice is that of neti, neti – which means “not this, not this.” A yoga practitioner repeats neti, neti within the mind as a reminder that our deepest spiritual identity transcends anything we can see, think, feel, taste, or touch. This is sometimes referred to as the process of disidentification – to separate our more fundamental identity from our identification with other things.[i]

If the process of “disidentification” sounds too abstract, know that it is essentially the same experience as what we often call “letting go.” Disidentifying is about learning to release and to surrender control of the things we can’t control, and this includes many of our own thoughts and feelings.

But what is especially important is this:

We do not learn to let go all at once! It happens in steps. First we have to see something – to actually know it is there inside of us. Once we can see it, then how easily we can let go depends on how deep down it goes. The more superficial is always easier to let go of. Deeper material is harder. There needs to be a gradual process. It would be too much for us if it happened all at once.

This brings us back to the issue of trauma. I believe – having worked with both spiritual practictioners and trauma survivors, and spiritual practitioners who are also trauma survivors – that traumatized elements of the psyche are the most challenging of all types of thoughts and feelings to see as objects. And they are difficult to let go of even when we do see them. Their hooks in us run deep. In fact, many meditation practitioners can learn to see and let go of fundamental patterns of self while still remaining unconsciously embedded in their trauma.

How is that possible? Shouldn’t a strong meditator be able to see something as powerful as traumatic reactions operating in the mind and body clearly and easily?

The answer is no. Reflecting back on Part I, let’s recall that traumatic reactions are survival reactions. They are designed by nature to move swiftly, without conscious mental interference. They help us react in situations where we do not have time to think. But after the initial trauma, post-traumatic feelings are triggered seamlessly – in the sense that we often do not realize we are triggered until after it has already happened. We might recognize that a partner has said something that triggers our abandonment trauma long after the comment was made. We might recognize we have been going into our stressful job in a “fight-or-flight” state for weeks before we notice that is happening.

Importantly, traumatic reactions are hard to see and let go of regardless of when the trauma occurred in our lives. If the trauma happened later in life, the power of the trauma can make us forgot what we were like before it happened. Our sense of self changes, and we start shifting seamlessly and unconsciously into triggered states. They become normal to us and therefore hard to notice.

If the trauma happened to us early in life, the situation is that much trickier. Our sense of self actually develops intertwined and overlapping with the traumatized thoughts and feelings. It is very difficult to identify what is our “true self” or healthy self and what is “false self” or traumatized self. Many components of our personality that we take for granted or see as normal will later be revealed to be direct extensions of our trauma. It takes time and effort to tease this all apart.

So what to do? First, we need special instruction to see these traumatic reactions, to actually “catch them” in our mental and physical awareness as they are arising. This includes meditative practice to strengthen our mindful watching of ourselves as well as therapeutic investigation to learn the physical, emotional, and psychological features of our traumatic reactions. This is much like learning to see a skilled magician’s sleight of hand while he is doing a trick. It is easy enough to catch if an expert magician is teaching you what to look for, but it is difficult to the point of bewilderment without support.

In the end, we need to have a real respect for the gradual unfolding and learning to let go that occurs for most trauma survivors. We shouldn’t try to rush. We may hear of individuals being quickly “cured” of their traumatic reactions. But this is something akin to spontaneous remission for a cancer patient; it doesn’t happen very often. For most of us there needs to be a steady, long-term lessening of traumatic reactions as we learn to see them as objects, practice letting go, and learn self-care.  Our triggered periods will become shorter, our emotional recovery will become quicker, and we will learn to catch the triggered feelings coming on before they take full hold. Our trauma will still exist, but become less and less a major force in our lives.

Lesson #6: Patterns of self-judgment due to trauma can sound like the “voice of God” in your head. Meditation – as a part of a larger spiritual worldview – can be easily be co-opted and used against you by this voice.

One of the most typical results of trauma is the creation of a strict voice of self-condemnation in the mind of the trauma survivor. A trauma survivor feels guilt, self-hatred, and self-judgment. I call this the voice of God. It is not what is meant by the real “God” of course, but one that is made up in our minds. The voice of God is not unlike the notion of an inner critic or a superego, but it is an intensified version of these.

How to identify the voice of God? It has some key characteristics.

First, the voice has a severe, unyielding way of seeing the world. There is a clear line between good and bad and right and wrong. While reality itself is morally complex and grey, and the nature of the world uncertain, the voice of God tells us it is not. The voice is clear in its vision of the world and has decided it is not good.

Second, when triggered, the voice of God within us makes the same judgment of ourselves as it does of the world – we are either good or bad. This internal evaluation of good vs. bad can hijack even those of us who have cultivated a more complex and developed sense of self. In other words, it is possible to develop far past the voice in a certain sense and yet still – under stress or triggering – have the voice of God determine how we feel about who we are.

In other words, on a good day, we see ourselves in more complex shades of grey. On a semi-bad day, we tiptoe around our voice of God so that we don’t upset our delicate inner balance and reap its wrath in self-judgment. On a very bad day, the voice of God overwhelms us and we can’t hear or feel anything else.

Third, the voice of God typically comes across to us as ageless or timeless.  This is very often different from other traumatized parts of ourselves and part of what makes this voice particularly confounding. Typically when you ask a trauma survivor how old a certain emotional reaction or belief is – how old their fear, or anger, or sadness is – they can name the age of the emotion and when it first developed. Trauma survivors have 2-year-old emotional reactions, 7-year-old emotional reactions, 14-year-old ones and so on.

But the voice of God seems old and wise and is large and booming. The voice seems to expand everywhere, making other voices and instincts inside of us seem small, weak, and insignificant. The voice of God has a metaphysical-bullying quality.

Fourth – and this is truly a key point for meditation – this voice seems to be the one that can drive our spiritual longing and practice, particularly earlier on in our path.  Our meditation practice becomes the way in which we are going to become good, to reach the impossible standard the voice of God sets for us. From the point of view of our triggered voice of God, it is only when we become enlightened – and leave behind our “lower” selves and impulses etc. – that we will become good. And as long as we are not enlightened we are bad.

Thus, meditation – how well we are doing it, how often we are doing – can be highjacked by this voice. Our meditation and spiritual practice can become (to at least a certain extent) an exercise in traumatically-derived self-punishment.

The important thing to know is that if we can locate this voice, over time it can be made smaller and less important. We should still keep meditating even if we notice we are doing it to try and become “good!” Meditation itself – if we are paying attention – can teach us the truer and deeper nature of meditation as we go along, which has nothing to do with this voice. And we can indeed learn to see the voice of God as an object and let it go. As we enter deeper states of meditation, we will be exposed much more directly to God as God is – not our traumatized version of what we think He (oe She or It) sounds like.

Further, life will present us with choices and opportunities to challenge the voice of God – to break through his prohibitions and live a life beyond a traumatized, narrow vision of right and wrong and good and bad. This requires a true leap of faith, and it is made possible by knowing this voice in ourselves and learning to question it.

For all of this to happen, we need to take a multi-faceted approach to this voice. Spiritual and psychological practice. There is no wasted work from either angle, and moments when we let go of this voice can become joyful beyond compare.

Lessons #7-9 coming soon in Part III!

Endnote for Part II

[i] Disidentification is only part of the process of spiritual growth. There are other steps and lessons. Later in our we come to identify with the world in a different way. But disidentification is necessary step in that process.

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