Mindfully Tending to Trauma

Last week Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center hosted a retreat on tending to trauma. Eighteen people, including corporate leaders, therapists, chaplains, and clergy gathered together in order (a) to learn new ways of relating to their own personal trauma histories, (b) to improve their capacity to recognize and care for others experiencing trauma, and (c) to deepen their awareness of collective trauma.

Hosting a retreat on trauma seemed to me the most fitting thing three years into a pandemic (a global trauma whose impact ripples far and wide). It also seemed a little risky. Would people be willing to turn their gaze toward unspeakable pain (theirs and others)? Who would resist the strong cultural pull (present in our religious, educational, and political systems) to simply get back to some pre-pandemic normal rather than take the time (and spend money) to learn how to hold themselves and others with greater compassion? As one dear friend said to me upon hearing about this retreat, “Who wants to dig up that stuff?!” If I had been quick enough in the moment, I might have said, “I don’t think any digging is necessary. It’s already spilling out all over.”

Carla Dahl, therapist, consultant, and retired professor, facilitated our trauma retreat. She began by discussing a variety of reasons for talking about trauma now: “trauma is pervasive; failure to talk about trauma increases our misunderstanding of it; the pandemic has revealed and caused trauma; and, talking about trauma holds potential for developing greater resilience in our lives.” She helpfully defined traumatic events as “those that threaten our lives, the lives of others, and our sense of coherence.” Bessel van der Kolk, renowned trauma researcher, psychologist, and author, says that trauma is the result of “an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms [our] existing coping mechanisms.” (See his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.) 

Dahl unpacked different categories of trauma such as developmental trauma, (occurring in childhood from abuse or neglect), complex trauma (repeated trauma), and intergenerational trauma (passed down through generations). She outlined the physiological, emotional, relational and spiritual components of trauma and, of course, presented treatment modalities and practices for enhancing healing. Poetry, music, art, nature walks (Forest Bathing to specific), and mindfulness meditation were woven into this retreat to support our connection to wholeness and wellbeing.

I had the rare privilege of both participating in the retreat and facilitating a session on mindfulness meditation. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, mindfulness is a practice of paying attention to our experience (internally and externally) in the present moment. When we are mindful, we notice our thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judging or trying to change ourselves. We don’t analyze. Instead, we observe what is happening in us and around us with openness, curiosity, and gentleness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based-stress-reduction, describes it as a way of befriending ourselves, and by extension, others. When are mindful, we receive and welcome our experience regardless of what it is. Mindfulness trains us to be hospitable toward ourselves.

Mindfulness meditation practitioners and best-selling authors, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach equate mindfulness with lovingkindness, presence, and compassion. When we are compassionate and mindful toward ourselves, we allow our experience to be what it is. We don’t resist it, even when it is unpleasant, uncomfortable, or disquieting. Resistance, as understandable as it may be, increases our anguish. When we resist physical pain by clenching our teeth and tightening our muscles, our pain intensifies. When we resist our anger, bitterness, despondency, or grief, we often suppress them or misplace them onto others, doing harm to ourselves and others.

Mindfulness, in contrast, teaches us to recognize and allow our feelings so that we may truthfully lessen the possibility of being consumed by that which we fear. Mindful self-compassion notices our self-judgements and relinquishes them, including deep-seated self-defeating beliefs like “I should know better, I am unworthy, or I will never know love.” As we notice, without judgement, our painful core beliefs as well as our disappointments, losses, and trauma, we abide in and with our own vulnerability. We touch our humanity. And tenderness arises in our hearts toward ourselves. We accept ourselves and, perhaps more genuinely than ever, rest in love.

However, practicing mindfulness in relation to our trauma may not be possible or wise. We need a base of safety to do so. Tara Brach writes, “if we don’t have sufficient inner resources, some access to a feeling of connectedness or safety, it’s not always possible to bring up a sense of mindfulness. Or it’s not even necessarily helpful in trying to process trauma. You can even get retraumatized by trying to be present with what’s there if there’s not enough already existent sense of safety.” What we need, she goes on to say, is a “pathway to safety and connection.” This is called “resourcing . . . pathways to feeling safe enough.” Resourcing (over time) is what might enable us to bring mindful awareness to bodily sensations when our trauma is activated.

This “resourcing” can be practiced as part of retreating wherever we are, at home, at work, or while walking through the woods and prairies of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center. One pathway to safety is to simply slow down our breath, intentionally breathing in and out for 1-5 minutes (or longer). Another option is “grounding,” in which we sit with our feet on the ground, relax our muscles (insofar as that is possible), and feel the chair, the floor, the earth, indeed gravity itself holding us up. We might place a hand on our heart, abdomen, or arm as a gentle, reassuring touch. Another option is to repeat a meaningful phrase to ourselves, like the words of the 13th Century Mystic Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Brach shares a story of one her clients who had PTSD. This person learned, in the midst of overwhelming anxiety, to visualize herself surrounded by allies, what I think of the “communion of saints” who know us well and are present with us in the deepest and darkest of valleys.

Trauma impacts all of us in one way or another. When it does, may we hold ourselves and each other with kindness and understanding. May we find resources to ground us, geographies of grace to nourish us, and retreats to help us thrive in the here-and-now. And may the brave journey of healing move each of us into greater wholeness, hope, and flourishing.

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