A bruised reed will not be broken, and a smoldering wick will not be snuffed out. In faithfulness God will bring forth healing …
- Isaiah 43:3
This week is the second of three weeks we are focusing on trauma through the lens of key Work ideas. If you haven't done so yet, do give yourself the gift of listening to Christine O'Brien's masterful teaching from last week. This week's email will help us focus on two Work ideas that can be useful in helping us respond to trauma and to work with our trauma. Again, as we enter into the heart of Lent, we wish to also gently enter into the heart of trauma and experience the metanoia that is a particular gift and possibility of Lent. 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.
Before reading any further, take five minutes and, as consciously as possible, watch this beautiful video with Bessel van der Kolk (about five and half minutes in length) sharing his being-insights about healing trauma through conscious body movement.
On Events and States
Like Bessel van der Kolk's high praise for yoga in healing trauma, Christine's teaching invites us to work on practices that activate a better bi-directional flow from the body to the brain and the brain to the body. One way we can do this is by observing and differentiating outer events and interior states. Particularly, to notice how when we get triggered: the fight, flight, freeze responses activate(s) in our body and almost instantly, without conscious thought, an outer event becomes an inner state.
Trauma specialist Peter A. Levine notes that wild animals have a life-saving strategy after a near-death experience or after being chased but not caught or eaten. He notes that universally, animals who escape a chase literally shake off the energy with trembling, with seemingly erratic body spasms. However, he discovered that if you watch the animal's spasms in slow motion it's clear that the animal isn't just having a random spasm, the animal is making running motions, burning off the excess energy from the flight experience. Then the animal will often take deep breaths, slowly breathing until calm. It's as if the animal is recovering in an embodied way, literally running to safety in its body, taking care of itself through its body movement and breath (Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, pp. 25-28).
In this example, the external event called a chase becomes an inner state called: I just escaped, now what?! Animals that don't do this shaking and breathing therapy after escaping often end up not surviving long in the wild thereafter. The prey doesn't kill them, the undigested trauma does. The intelligence to shake and breathe after a traumatic event enables the animal to move through the state of fright and flight and back to the state of calm and balance. Being able to shake and breathe after a traumatic event is very supportive for animals, including humans. Such practices are central to returning to a peaceful inner state of life. It's similar for humans, such as the vagus nerve exercises Christine has taught us, or other various bisymmetrical EMDR or tapping therapies.
Maurice Nicoll's teaching on the distinction between an external event and an internal state is very useful. It's a core aspect to the practice of non-identifying with what we observe occurring or arising in our self-perception. While the thought or emotion or sensation might feel all consuming, it is not you. It is a thought, feeling or sensation occurring in and through you. Nicoll articulates it this way: "One's life consists of two distinct things, which for the purposes of self-observation must be realized. One's life consists not only of events, but of states. States are inner and events are outer. States are states of oneself, that is, inner states, such as bad moods, habits of worrying, habits of fear and superstition, forebodings, depression, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, better states, states of feeling happy, states of enjoyment, and mercy. They are in oneself – that is, all states are states of oneself. Events are external and come into us from outside. Now one's inner state may correspond to an external event or may be caused by it or may have no relation to it. But it is necessary to try to see that states and events are two different things, first of all, before thinking of how they may be connected together" (Commentaries, "On Additional Means of Self-Observation," May 29, 1941, Vol. 1, p. 17). Applying this insight and idea to our trauma requires empathic care and gentleness. It's often so difficult to separate the event from the inner state.
On Transforming Past Impressions Remembered by the Body
In the above suggested video, Bessel van der Kolk says: "When you get traumatized you don't really want to feel what you feel and know what you know." So, we need help, gentle help, in doing the feeling and knowing. Such help can come to us in the form of a second tool the Work provides: the broad subject of impressions.
Impressions can be a kind of experience, event, relationship, knowledge or inspiration. For instance, an impression could be listening to J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," or it could be listening to your parents fight in the kitchen. We are particularly sensitive to impressions in childhood, a particularly vulnerable time that is meant to take in high-quality, life-affirming impressions to feed the development of our personality in positive ways. In childhood we are like warm wax – very impressionable. Sadly, far too many children also take in impressions of low-level consciousness and traumatizing impressions such as neglect, meanness, violence, anger, abuse or yelling, and so on.
So, the Work idea of impressions is a very helpful conversation partner to the overall subject of trauma and its healing and integration. It is also useful to gently point out here that the Work lumps all our childhood and early adulthood formation into the period of life called "acquiring a rich personality," a person who is multifaceted and multidimensional. This rich personality can then feed one's next stage of development, which the Work terms the development of being or the growth of essence.
This is a positive spin on so much of our early personality formation that is often infused with a good bit of suffering and trauma. Positive in the sense that even our traumas, as significant as they are, aren't our essence. Trauma and all its emotional and physical tentacles that stretch out into the weave of our life story are only a part of the formation of our personality and programs for happiness. This is not to be dismissive of the trauma, but to put things into perspective. We are more than any one or repeated experience of trauma. That may be hard to believe or comprehend, but it is beautifully freeing. Now, working in retrospect, trauma can be transformed and used as a kind psychic fuel for our present conscious growth and development. The trauma isn't our essence, it is a part of us, not all of us, and can be used to serve other parts of us that can, like the animals, shake it out and breathe it forward and move into a much-deserved peace.
In this respect, we are not victims. We have a choice, now. We may not have had a choice then. But we do now. Our choice now is to work or not to work on ourselves. To shake and breathe or to tighten and constrict. It's a powerful invitation and all the new neurobiology and psychological science around trauma is a winning scientific salute to the victory of consciously-chosen love, through our calming, embodied practices such as Centering Prayer, Forgiveness Prayer, Lectio Divina, retreats, and conscious movement, to name a few. Maurice Nicoll puts it quite simply: "All Work on oneself consists in choosing the influence to which you want to subject yourself and actually falling under this influence. And here, by long observation, you must know what you want in this respect" (Commentaries, "The Law of Seven: The Sun Octave," February 21, 1942, Vol. 1, p. 128).
Our Work on impressions is a lifelong journey. We can return to an event and its lingering inner state in us after the fact (even years and decades after the fact) and apply the light of consciousness by way of the first conscious shock, retrospectively. We do now what we could not do then. Even though the actual time of the impression or event has passed, when one returns to it later, that moment is the present moment. It means that we are not locked as slaves to our past events or traumas. We can be freed from the past by inner Work now. Christine's teaching, along with many others in the field of trauma, can provide specific tools of embodiments for doing so.
- Watch Bessel van der Kolk’s video again.
- Self-observe a particular reactive state. Study it. Can you connect that inner state with a particular external event? A trauma in your past? Notice the connections, like a bridge, that the external event had or has in your present inner state. Do not judge or criticize. Simply notice and observe the connections, particularly the sensations evoked. Be merciful toward the you that observes and feels the inner state and the younger you that experienced the event.
- 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.
- 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
- Thomas Hübl, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds
March Practice: Eating Simply and Slowly
The invitation this month is to eat simply and slowly. Have you tried the suggestions offered so far? If so, what have you observed?
Attend The Journey School Thursday night class tonight: We will once again welcome Dr. Christine O'Brien and explore the psycho-physical-spiritual relationship of the body-mind and the spiritual journey.
- Click on this link and Zoom should open automatically on your laptop or tablet: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9961019778?pwd=aVFLZVQwNGZSNkQ4TDRTUW9yU1Ywdz09, or
- Open Zoom, click on Join Meeting and enter this meeting ID: 996-101-9778, passcode: CCH