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

December 30, 2015

Mark Forman, PhD

Part III completes this blog series on trauma and meditation. Part I is here. Part II is here.

Lessons 7-9 here continue to focus on subtle issues confronting trauma survivors who take up a long-term meditation practice. A reminder: It is unlikely that all nine of these lessons will feel relevant and applicable to you. So take what works and leave the rest!

Lesson #7: Extreme states of traumatic dissociation are fairly easy to distinguish from deep states of meditative experience. However, milder dissociative states can be difficult to tease entirely apart from many early and intermediate states of meditative experience. With time, attention, and practice these will become separable.

Dissociation is a state of emotional suspension – feeling numb, removed, and disembodied. When dissociation occurs during traumatic events it has a protective function. A rape victim might experience “leaving her body” during an assault. A solider sees time slow down and the scene around him become unreal as a battle is engaged. Experiencing separation from the reality of a trauma while it is happening blunts some of its impact. However, dissociative states can be retriggered in the person (see Part I) long after the initial trauma.

This happens at different levels of intensity. At the moderate-to-extreme level, dissociation can be felt as the experience that the world is unreal. Psychiatrists and psychologists call this state derealization. Dissociation can also be experienced in the temporary feeling that our personalities are unreal, that we don’t have real selves. This is called depersonalization. It is possible to experience derealization and depersonalization at the same time.

At an even more extreme level, dissociation can be experienced as losing self-consciousness, also known as dissociative amnesia. Once triggered, a person can act but does not recall events or actions. This is more rare than depersonalization and derealization.

For example, this occurred to a client of mine who suffered extreme trauma as a child when she was recently deposed for a legal case. When the opposing lawyer had cause to ask her about her childhood, my client dissociated. She answered the lawyer’s questions clearly and accurately for over a half-hour (the court transcript showed this), but recalled nothing of that section of the trial. She left her self-awareness, triggered by the traumatic subject matter. Experiencing this type of dissociative amnesia is very much like having been black-out drunk.

With this as background, we might ask: How does traumatic dissociation relate to the insights that many meditative traditions encourage and that sound superficially similar? The meditative and spiritual traditions also describe seeing the world as an illusion and the self as an illusion. They often recommend learning to let go of self-consciousness (sometimes call forgetfulness of self). What exactly is the relationship between these different classes of experience?

The good news is that these extreme traumatic dissociations and deep meditative experiences are highly distinct. Extreme dissociative states are almost always accompanied by painful anxiety. There is no sense of understanding or insight. Derealization and depersonalization are frightening, uncomfortable, and alienating. Trauma survivors dislike these states and don’t want them to return. And when trauma survivors experience dissociative amnesia – such as what happened to my client in the courtroom – they are typically disturbed by the gap in their memory and want to know what happened to them.

In contrast, deep meditative insights are calming and cognitively interesting. When we spend time in meditation, and see that the world is not what it appears, we will feel peaceful and free. When we see that our personalities aren’t real in in the way we think, we are usually moved and fascinated by the understanding. And in very deep states of meditation, when we “lose our self-awareness,” we don’t truly lose consciousness. We have a continuity of consciousness and a sense of coming home rather than being alienated or lost. We have the feeling of paradoxically being more rather than less when we let go of self in the meditative definition.

The much trickier distinction – and the place where we can become confused – is between milder traumatic dissociative states and a large family of preliminary meditative awarenesses.

Mild dissociation involves a more slight numbing – a graying or flattening of emotional experience where there once was depth and color. Mild dissociation as a state can persist for long periods. And it does indeed also have a calming effect, especially when we compare it to having to feel the raw, traumatized feelings underneath.

Many grades of meditative experience share a family resemblance with these milder dissociated states. When we are meditating regularly, we may feel less emotional and let go of things more easily. We might be distracted by powerful meditative experiences and philosophies and feel pulled far away from everyday life concerns (i.e., the things that occupy other people’s minds). We may lose interest in socializing, media, news, or in the lives of friends or lovers. Meditation practice in the beginning and intermediate phases can often lead us to “zone out” out of life more than to “dial in” (paraphrasing my fellow Integral Psychotherapist Keith Witt).

But if this happens to you, how can you tell if it is a form of traumatic dissociation asserting itself or if it is just natural consequence of certain phases of meditative practice? In my experience, there is no simple distinction. The two can be similar in tone and behavioral expression and are likely to intermix. Indeed, the desire to deepen the calming effect of mild dissociation may sometimes drive us to practice in the first place (though we would not likely see it that way). We may practice in part because we really want to get away from it all, including ourselves.

Here are some proactive thoughts about how we can approach this.

The first thought– and hopefully by Part III this is easy to anticipate – is that we need to practice states that counteract dissociative tendencies. These states are most reliably found in activities that keep us engaged and embodied – therapy, exercise, sexuality, relationship, family, work, service, and spending time with others. (Many spiritual traditions often include some of these activities for this very reason).

Meditation – at least in earlier expressions – teaches us how to move our energy “up and out” or “up, out, and back.” This is in service of developing our witnessing capacity, of making subject into object, as we discussed in Lesson #5. Embodied activities push us to do things differently: to bring our energy “down and out” or “down, forwards, and out.” These activities counter a common result of meditative practice; they keeps us off balance (in a good way) and help us stay more integrated as we grow. This may also insulate us in the long run from getting stuck in extreme states of meditative detachment.

Second, as suggested above, we must keep practicing meditation – more probably than we initially hoped we would have to. If we stopped our meditation practice every time we get worried we are dissociating, or if were are not able to tolerate states that have a dissociative flavor, we will never get as as far as we need to. As long as we engaging trauma-related psychotherapy on a periodic basis, in the long run deeper meditative insights offer us the chance to break through multiple forms of dissociation and may lay bare the traumatic emotions that have been buried in us (see Lesson #4).

The deepest meditation teaches us to be less like a “ghost” floating above it all, and more like a “light” shining in all directions simultaneously. But it takes time to get there.

Lesson #8: What are sometimes dismissed as “bliss states” and “spiritual materialism” are developmentally important. These are key for trauma survivors, who are left developmentally uneven by their trauma. These bliss states should be engaged as they arise in order to incrementally mature the body-mind.

Some meditative traditions will caution you to not to get attached, or to even to avoid cultivating, what might be known as “bliss states”: the deeply pleasurable and expansive states that can result from more intensive meditative practice. Similar warnings are made around avoiding “spiritual materialism,” which is getting too attached to “spiritual trappings” – experiences, ideas, teachings, or metaphysical worldviews. In Biblical terms, we might liken this to the idea of not creating false idols.

While there is an important component of wisdom in this, this can become a very problematic teaching for trauma survivors.

The reason is developmental.

When we are traumatized, we often try to compensate through a hyper-maturation process – growing up as quickly as possible. This is more pronounced when a parent or caregiver is the perpetrator of the trauma. We try to step into the role of being our own parent. We try fill the space left by the highly damaged and immature one we had by growing a parent in our heads.

As a consequence, some higher functioning trauma survivors experience themselves as “old souls.” When they are young, they actually feel more comfortable around older people as opposed to people their own age. There is an upside to this. Because part of them was forced to take a fast-track towards maturity, trauma survivors sometimes develop unusual gifts. This can later show in them becoming great healers, artists, therapists, or teachers.

But any kind of hyper-maturation comes with consequences. Only certain parts of the self mature. Other parts are left painfully behind, stuck in negative childlike states without the means to heal or grow. A trauma survivor therefore becomes deeply uneven from a developmental perspective. They may swing wildly between parts of self that present as deeply mature and wise and parts of self that are young, impulsive, and emotionally overwhelmed.

When a trauma survivor approaches meditation this may express itself as wanting to skip the basic teachings and move right towards the advanced teachings. When this is done by a person who is more psychologically normative, they take a small risk. But when trauma survivors do this, they take a much larger risk of bypassing and reinforcing the original trauma.

Most centrally, trauma has a way of cutting us off from – or making us blind to – our deeper needs, setting up patterns of self-denial. But developmental needs are our deeper needs. In order to grow spiritually and otherwise, we need to slow down and take things step-by-step so that our younger parts can begin to catch up (or form a healthier, more conscious relationships) with our more adult-like parts.

This brings us back to bliss states. Bliss states are a just normal part of meditative development. They happen naturally as we practice. We also become spiritually materialistic in a natural way. It just happens. We will get attached to ideas, traditions, powerful experiences, and so forth that are new and exciting and offer novel ways of seeing the world. There is no way around it developmentally speaking.

Of course, these bliss states and deep metaphysical ideas are not going to heal all our wounds, nor offer us permanent, stable spiritual answers. But this does not make them unimportant or meaningless. There is a lot to learn between the start of the journey and the end of the journey. Imagine what you would miss if you traveled the world and just shut your eyes through the whole middle of the trip? Let things proceed as they will and stay honest. You will know when it is time to let go. There is no need to rush the process.

All authentic things and experiences are something to be grateful for, to cherish, and they put back small missing pieces when you encounter them. Don’t deny the actual good things that have come to you and you will regain much of the wholeness that your traumatic experience took from you.

Lesson #9: Deep meditative experiences can be triggering when they dissipate or seem out of reach. If you have abandonment trauma, these states too can seem to “abandon” you.

In theory, anything a traumatized person experiences can become a trigger for them. Not everything will, of course, but if something has enough of an emotional or symbolic charge, it is possible to relate to it through the lens of our trauma. Sex, money, food, health, relationships, children, work, and spirituality are all potential candidates. It just depends on us as individuals.

Here I would like to discuss one such traumatic reaction that can confront meditators.

If we practice long enough with the right guidance and support, we will experience deep, peaceful, and powerful states of spiritual illumination – even if they are very brief. They only need to peak for seconds to make an impact. However, we will also inevitably have periods when we lose contact with these experiences and the insights we derive from them, without an obvious way to get them back. This is very often called a “dark night of the soul” – a term taken from the writings of the great Christian mystic St. John of the Cross.

Dark nights can be difficult even for otherwise very stable, emotionally balanced individuals who experience them. Having felt that they were coming close to home in Spirit, they then feel wayward, confused, and lost. In truth, dark nights happen in deepening cycles of expansion and contraction as we practice. There is more than one dark night to be confronted.

But for a traumatized person – and particularly one with abandonment trauma – dark nights can trigger these typical spiritual reactions as well as ones that are more primal. Spiritual states are emotionally charged, they mean a great deal to us when they occur. From the perspective of the abandoned person, these states aren’t just one more experience that come and go. They instead become another demonstration that the world is emotionally unreliable and does not seem to care. A mostly automatic set of thoughts may come, generating from the hurt, childlike parts of the ourselves: “God/Spirit doesn’t love me because he took this state away” or “I am bad because I no longer understand what was just so clear to me.” And so on in ways that are specific to ourselves and our abandonment.

If you have abandonment trauma and know it, you will be able to notice this reaction fairly easily. Your trauma will get activated when you move from expansive phase of your spiritual growth to a contracted or flat one. It will be a reliable experience.

If, on the other hand, you don’t know that you have abandonment trauma and you have been practicing for any length of time, you likely have already spiritualized your traumatic reactions (i.e., turned something more psychological into something that sounds like a spiritual story). You may have assumed that your pain at feeling separated from Spirit is just that, when it actually about feeling separated from Spirit plus the heavy weight of your childhood loss. It is a compounded pain.

What we need at these moments is to turn towards reassuring teachings – to scriptures or words of spiritual advice that uplift and remind us that all will be okay in the end. We should consider staying away from teachings which are meant to push students or call out students’ shortcomings, as we will already being feel self-critical. We should probably also stay away from teaching which are absolute unless we find that comforting. Absolute teachings – such as the idea that the deepest realizations are not states – will seem abstract to the younger parts of us that feel abandoned by the state we have been thrust out of. Those teachings have a deep  purpose, of course, but during dark nights they they can be seen through a trauma-distorted lens. And during these times we need to meet the trauma and engage healing on its own level.

We also need – even more than at other times – to seek out the company and support of others. Particularly our spiritual friends. We need to respond to our interpersonal abandonment by reaching out for healthy interpersonal attachment. We need to give ourselves what we might not have had in the time of the original trauma.

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