Terror, Trauma, and Transcendence: an East/West approach

I recently took a weekend intensive with Steven Goodman at CIIS called Tibetan Compassion Practices: Working with Terror, Trauma, and Transcendence.

Through Tibetan Buddhist compassion practices we found ways of accepting and integrating difficult memories and emotions into our lives. We looked at practices such as calming relaxation, mindful awareness, and Tantric visualization that helped to create a context for identifying and integrating painful, emotionally conflicted aspects of our psyches.

We explored a western somatic-psychotherapy model called Somatic Experiencing (SE) to help us find ways to access emotional holding and free up the energy that is bound up in it. Below is a brief summary of trauma and SE, after I read Peter Levine’s Book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.

What is trauma?
Trauma is considered within the context of each individual’s perception. What may be traumatic to one individual may not be traumatic to another: it is the subjective perception of “threat” that determines the intensity of each person’s reaction.

Traumatic events are classified as degrees on a continuum: “big-T” trauma and “little-t” trauma were defined. Big-T trauma is associated with specific, identifiable events and usually involves a distinct memory that the individual can recall. Violence, abuse and war are examples of big-T trauma. Little-t traumas are more cumulative and associated with continual or recurring situations. Examples include: dog bites, criticism or verbal abuse, repeated failures at school or work, or intermittent childhood neglect or isolation, being bullied or teased, etc.

Trauma is created when a devastating moment is frozen in the body. A surge of adrenalin and chemicals is released when we are faced with such a threat. If not discharged or let out, this experience can stay within us and lead to destructive beliefs and actions. Our rational mind interferes with our natural ability to heal by somehow blocking or changing normal reactions to the event. Trauma symptoms are caused by this blocking or immobilizing of reactions that would help discharge the energy from the body.

By building tools of awareness, we can go into the trauma slowly and gradually to allow our bodies to discharge and release the frozen emotions held in the body. This often leads to a more free sense of being in the world, letting go of destructive behavioural patterns and beliefs. 

From a strong inner resource (something internal that makes us self soothe and feel at ease.. an image of a caregiver or experience where we felt unconditional support), we learn how to feel what is happening in the body. This involves bringing awareness to the body and noticing neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant sensations. Many individuals who have experienced trauma are cut off from their bodily sensations. Somatic Experiencing involves gradually activating, in tiny increments, the level of sensation. This is called “titration.” Once the sensations are felt, the individual can learn to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (by returning to the inner resource) and return to a calmer state. Larger and larger elements of the once-overwhelming traumatic experience are recalled and integrated into the process.

Eastern practices such as meditation and visualization can restore us to a sense of well being. Through breathwork, visualization and compassion practices we developed the tools to connect us to what is known in SE as an inner resource. Using this inner resource as an anchor from which to go into the traumatic memory, we can approach the trauma respectfully and gradually. This is key to avoid re-traumatizing.

We must establish this inner resource to feel safe and not get overwhelmed or disoriented by the traumatic memory. It is our safe place to come back to. The wisdom traditions of yoga and Buddhism give us valuable tools as therapists to offer to clients who suffer from trauma. However, these practices in themselves seem to not be enough in busy, western, industrialized society. With the help of consistent therapy as well as wisdom practices, we can help our clients develop ways to heal trauma.

In this workshop we discussed how being truly compassionate towards others depends on how bravely and deeply we have gone into our own traumas. Spiritual work can be used to free consciousness and help us stay unidentified with thought. Techniques in somatic psychotherapy are then applied to work with the psychological material that arises. Our bodies and psyches then integrate whatever we experience more effectively and fully.


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