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For the Week of March 17 - 23: Trauma and the Body, Part One

Billie Bond, Smashed Ceramic Head

Billie Bond, Breathe

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and heals those who are crushed in spirit. 
- Psalm 34:18

Three weeks ago, we began the season of Lent taking two weeks to focus our attention on our ancestry, lineage, memories, images and imagination. One reason we did that was to prepare us for the next three weeks wherein we will focus on trauma. It seems wise that during Lent, we use the light of the Work to shine our attention on a difficult yet profound subject: our traumatic experiences and how trauma shapes and impacts our embodiment, particularly in unconscious ways.  You are invited to again read the email from November 4, 2021 wherein we explored the subject of memories, the body and trauma in the context of Self-remembering.

As we enter into the heart of Lent, we wish to also gently enter into the heart of trauma. This is the way of the Cross, but also the way of the Resurrection. We proceed under the anthem: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Amen.

On Trauma and The Question "What Is It?"

In the language of the Work, perhaps trauma is anything that damages, maims, crushes or wounds essence. Perhaps trauma is at the heart of what the Work calls the terror of the situation: when and where violence, grounded in negative emotions, is done unto others, or done unto us. Perhaps trauma is also where some of our personality gets bent or constricted, or where, in Thomas Keating's terms, a program for happiness gets energized to never let someone hurt us again, or feel vulnerable, or fail, and so on.

In non-trauma informed conversations, one might hear someone minimizing traumatic experiences with a phrase like, "Just get over it." Or, "Just do the Work." This is unfortunate. New brain science helps us see that while traumatic events are painful, the inner damage traumatic events leave behind often creates unseen forces and unconscious patterns that shape a lifetime of unconscious or triggered reactions, habits, addictions, and dynamics that add further pain upon the long-buried initial injury/injuries. 

In the language of neurobiology, Bessel Van Der Kolk, one of the leading experts on the human experience of trauma and healing from trauma, helps us find the contours of ways to define trauma. He writes: "We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think. We have discovered that helping victims of trauma find words to describe what has happened to them is profoundly meaningful, but usually it is not enough. The act of telling the story doesn't necessarily alter the automatic physical and hormonal responses of bodies that remain hypervigilant, prepared to be assaulted or violated at any time. For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present" (The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in The Healing of Trauma, p. 21, emphasis added).

You may be tempted to immediately dismiss this subject if you think I don't have any trauma in my life. That may be true, though unlikely. But if it is true, then think of others who weren't so fortunate. Could you be more trauma-informed or empathetic? Is there something for you to discover about the nature of being human? Can you externally consider others even if you think your life is trauma free? 

As we begin this section of our curriculum, please remember that The Journey School does not aim to be an expert in trauma or provide healing therapy. Nor do our Journey Groups or Work Partner relationships. If healing occurs, praise be to God. The Journey School exists to support our spiritual journeys with ideas, teachings, practices, and community for the purpose of our ongoing spiritual growth, maturing and transformation in Christ. 

That said, this month, our approach to the subject of trauma and our traumatic experiences is by way of calling to mind and applying specific Work ideas. Meaning that our aim is not to focus on the content of any person's particular past or present trauma, experience of trauma or life story about their trauma. Rather, we wish to encourage each of us, on our own, to think, feel and sense all our traumatic experiences in the light of these ideas and what they might mean for our life and spiritual practice, and indeed, how the Work ideas might come into a relationship with and integrate these most tender places of our traumatic memories or events embodied in our body-mind. 

On the Language of Centers and the Question "Where Is My Trauma?"

One hundred years ago G.I. Gurdjieff did something novel. He introduced a system of psychology that could be taught using non-religious language. The system included detailed descriptions of the functioning of a human being. These descriptions have come down to us through his students and are today known as the centers. Maurice Nicoll, following P.D. Ouspensky, used diagrams novel for the early 20th century, what we call the "pie charts." Here's the classic rendering of the "intellectual center":

Granted, the pie charts are useful pedagogically, but these charts do not reflect actual human physiology or organization. Human beings can't be broken down into pie charts or compartments. Nothing in the human being is a compartment. Everything about embodied human life and physiology is an inter-related neurobiological, chemical, and hormonal process(es). 

Nevertheless, the pie charts are a simple and effective way of describing human experience by way of self-observation. If you observe yourself closely and carefully, you can begin to see the experience of what is called "the emotional part of the intellectual center," among many other experiences. 

Keep in mind though, that it's not really a "part" or compartment, it's an observed state or experience occurring in the totality of your body-mind. In fact, everything one can self-observe is occurring in the body-mind and known or experienced by way of the body-mind. The pie charts simply provide a kind of simple shorthand for describing ordinary and frequent human experiences, thoughts, feelings, and sensations. So, if the pie charts help you name what and where you are feeling or experiencing something, wonderful! 

When it comes to trauma, though, Bessel Van Der Kolk assures us that it's much more complex than centers or compartments. He writes: "Trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain's alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives. They also help us understand why traumatized people so often keep repeating the same problems and have such trouble learning from experience. We now know that their behaviors are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character – they are caused by actual changes in the brain" (Ibid, pp. 2-3).

So, perhaps the most satisfying answer to the question: Where is my trauma? is the answer It's in every center, and especially manifests in what the Work terms the instinctive-moving center, which if we update that terminology in light of modern science (and adapted from the Mayo Clinic's website), would most likely be named as the nervous system, which includes:

  • The central nervous system (CNS): Your brain and spinal cord make up your CNS. Your brain uses your nerves to send messages to the rest of your body. Each nerve has a protective outer layer called myelin. Myelin insulates the nerve and helps the messages get through.
  • The peripheral nervous system: Your peripheral nervous system consists of many nerves that branch out from your CNS all over your body. This system relays information from your brain and spinal cord to your organs, arms, legs, fingers and toes. Your peripheral nervous system contains:
  • The somatic nervous system, which guides your voluntary movements.
  • The autonomic nervous system, which controls the activities you do without thinking about them.

So, as we self-observe our trauma, try to observe where the thought, feeling or sensation "lives" or arises. See what you can discover about where trauma resides in and through your systems and its processes. 

On the Idea of Multiplicity and the Question "Why Is My Life This Way?"

The Work ascribes the human condition as having two primary and interconnected "flaws" or conditions. The first is that human beings are asleep, like machines. Sleep is a multi-headed hydra, birthing other Work ideas such as identification, personality formation, negative emotions, falseness, buffers, and so on. The second is that human beings are a multiplicity, like a shattered mirror. Multiplicity is rooted in a Work idea referred to as "the doctrine of I's." As in, there is not just one I in us, but many little i's in us.  

Maurice Nicoll describes the situation this way: "The lack of unity in a man is the source of all his difficulties and troubles. … [and he] … does not work harmoniously as a whole. Man, in regard to his inner state, is a multiplicity, and from one angle in this teaching, this inner multiplicity is spoken of in terms of I's or egos in a man. Man has no one permanent I but a host of different I's in him that at each moment take charge of him and speak out of him as if in his voice: and from this point of view, man is compared with a house in disorder in which there is no master but a crowd of servants who speak in the name of the absent master. … [I]t is the greatest mistake that can be made either to suppose that oneself or others have one permanent unchanging I – or ego – in them. A multitude of different people live in each of you … which it is necessary to observe, and try to get to know, otherwise no self-knowledge is possible – that is, if one really seeks self-knowledge and not invention and imagination about oneself" (Commentaries, "On Additional Means of Self-Observation," June 6, 1941, Vol. 1, pp. 19, 20).

Applied to our exploration of trauma, multiplicity helps explain how parts of our self that have been traumatized may come and go and appear and disappear depending on the situation, memory, or provocation. It may be very difficult to simply self-observe or non-identify with a traumatized part of our self. We may need to involve body practices such as the ones Christine O'Brien will be teaching us in the next three weeks: somatic calming practices that activate the vagus nerve and calm the nervous system. 

One of the takeaways from Nicoll's teaching on multiplicity is the reminder to be empathetic toward ourselves and others. If we can really understand that everyone is a multiplicity, and that trauma may play a part in the formation of our multiplicity, it must surely evoke compassion and tenderness toward others, who may not know why they think, feel or behave the way they do – until the grace of seeing brings a degree of freeing. 

Next week's email will explore this further, highlighting several core Work tools that can support our inner healing and help us navigate our embodied trauma.


  • Self-observe your centers. What can you verify about your experience of the centers and the processes occurring within you?  
  • We do not encourage sharing stories or memories of our trauma in our Journey Groups or Work Partner conversations. If you do feel led to share, aim to do so without detail or names, just your awareness of trauma and your Work. 
  • Attend the Thursday night class where we welcome again Christine O’Brien* who will bless us with her understanding of the psycho-physical-spiritual relationship of the body-mind, the human condition and the spiritual journey. She will be offering practices for integration of our being-bodies. 

Further Resources

  • Bonnie Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships
  • Christine Caldwell, Bodyfulness: Somatic Practices for Presence, Empowerment, and Waking Up in This Life

March Practice: Eating Simply and Slowly

The invitation this month is to eat simply and slowly. Many of us eat mindlessly – often not out of hunger, but out of self-calming. This week, place all food on a plate, even a snack. Sit down, gaze upon and give thanks for your food, eat slowly – even a snack. Notice how the being-body feels when food is taken in more consciously.

The Journey School Thursday Class Tonight: 7:00 pm Central Time via Zoom only.

*We once again welcome Dr. Christine O'Brien who is the Clinical Director of the Whole Health Program of the Cheyenne VA Medical Center. In addition to training in osteopathic medicine, medical acupuncture, yoga, biofeedback, and mindfulness-based stress reduction, in 1992, Christine began studying the teachings of Thomas Keating and now serves as the coordinator of Contemplative Outreach in Fort Collins, CO. She has worked extensively with veterans in the healing of trauma. Life as the mother of seven children with a huge extended family also motivates her to understand and practice methods for human fullness and whole-person care. Please attend and be blessed by Christine's warm and compassionate presence.

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