What is Somatic Experiencing?, Cont’d

In the last post, I gave a very brief, general overview of Somatic Experiencing, and in this post, I wanted to give you a bit more detail about what it looks like.

Somatic Experiencing is a term used to describe a kind of therapy devised by Peter Levine for assisting the stuck energy of incomplete defensive responses to be released from the body in order to restore healthy nervous system functioning. The healthier the nervous system, the more likely it is to “self-regulate”, that is, to effectively manage the ups and downs in energy and stress levels without having to actively help it.

What does that mean in plain english? Well, this is a gross simplification, but your internal system for responding to threats is kind of “stupid”. It doesn’t know toast burning from a house on fire, and it doesn’t have to. It just has to put out the chemicals to mobilize the body for survival activity, whether that’s seeking social connection, fighting, fleeing or freezing up (playing dead). A complex set of internal chemical and electrical interactions sorts through whether it’s toast or house that is on fire, and regulates the response up or down to match the perceived threat.

Trouble is, if there are enough incomplete defensive responses – aka energy stuck in the system – it gums up the works, and the complex set of processes can get stuck on (anxiety, panic), off (severe depression, stuckness), or both (one extreme to the other, and back). Or the system can be oversensitized so the physical reaction is the same size (as big as possible!) no matter the size of the threat. And the more this happens, the more ingrained these patterns of response become, with the mind inventing whatever it needs (ah, the wonder of self-confirmatory bias!) to in order to explain the intensity of the physical feeling/reaction:

  • seeking out situations that are similar in order to relive the pattern
  • blaming, for example: “I must be ______ (lazy, stupid, defective, unworthy)”, or “The world must be ______ (evil, broken, dangerous, hopelessly lost)
  • reacting to others’ reactions to the overreaction (e.g. defensiveness, self-isolating)
  • becoming desensitized to others’ responses when they don’t conform to the overreactions

Enter Somatic Experiencing. Somatic = of or relating to the body. So we’re talking about experiencing the body. The experiencing is guided by a person trained to recognize the patterns of response of the nervous system, who has also done a fair amount of their own work, which is part of being an effective practitioner. The guide helps focus attention in the present, and sometimes directs attention or movement in some particular way that helps the observed internal energy to move or complete. The work could include art, symbolic movement, visualizations, or vocalizations.

The work could also be much more subtle, for example in the case where someone initially cannot tolerate paying attention or perceive any body sensations, which is common in cases of severe trauma. The work is gentle and seeks always to stay within the current capacity of the individual. There is no need to relive the event, as in the traditional psychotherapy approaches, which might overwhelm a person’s system.

The process of being with the internal sensations related to emotions and thoughts could be likened to surfing, where the intensity may initially increase, and then decrease or dissipate. Normal parts of the process of surfing these sensations might include but are not limited to: trembling, involuntary twitching or jerking, sweating, chills, tiredness, tingling, heaviness, vibration, feeling of “buzzing”, laughing, and feelings of friendliness and gratitude. What happens as a result of the release of energy can seem almost magical: the brightened outlook on life, ability to assert with and connect to others, and sudden freedom to be productive, as well as improved physical health and symptoms.

Mindfulness practice that increases the ability to maintain the position of “witnessing” can facilitate Somatic Experiencing work. Sometimes it is implied by well meaning teachers that mindfulness practice by itself can facilitate such a process of energy discharge, and to some extent this is true, but I’ve found from personal experience that SE has created much bigger and quicker shifts than trying to do it alone in meditation. What I understand now is that it is because, alone, I did not initially have the ability to titrate, or stop the overwhelm to the system by introducing small bits of experience at a time until my nervous system developed more resilience. This inability to titrate is a classic symptom of trauma!

I have heard that Peter Levine suggests that we aren’t meant to do this kind of work alone. I tend to agree now, and with good reason. We are wired for connection. It’s what we’re here for. We don’t learn in isolation – not in an experiential way. We can read books and meditate all we want, but in relationship is where the rubber hits the road. Somatic Experiencing is about helping the nervous system learn to self regulate, and it makes perfect sense that we do this in relationship.

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What is Somatic Experiencing?

As many of you know, I teach meditation, and engage in non dual pointing (guiding a process of self-inquiry) to facilitate spiritual awakening and direct realization of true self. I am also a trained psychotherapist, and I seek to bridge the gap between spiritual realization and the process of becoming more aligned with that discovered authenticity, sometimes described as “emptying out”, “cleanup”, or “shedding” of layers of conditioning. This cleanup activity can happen before, during, and/or after awakening, and can take various forms. There’s often a misconception that awakening to true nature wipes out all of the old patterns of belief and response, but I’ve found that it’s just not true. The good news is that there are many tools to assist the clearing out process.

I’ll be sharing more about other cleanup tools in future posts, but for today, I want to tell you about Somatic Experiencing (SE). I am so impressed by this tool, with nearly 45 years of research behind it, that I feel compelled to share it with you. As a therapist, I am continually engaged in training and in personal development that makes me healthier and more resilient as a practitioner, and also gives me insight into my clients’ needs and experiences. SE is by far the most powerful tool I have found to date for working with trauma/conditioning. It is not only powerful, but an incredibly nonviolent and respectful way of relating to others.

I learned about Somatic Experiencing in June 2013 through an introductory seminar, then subsequently engaged in personal SE sessions, and am now training for certification as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP). I have been profoundly affected by this work, both personally and professionally. It has changed the way I think about the mind-body connection and about trauma, and increased my understanding and compassion for myself and others in a way I never imagined possible.

In short, Somatic Experiencing frames “trauma” according to individual experience, rather than subjective definitions of severity of events. And trauma symptoms are more accurately described by Peter Levine, the discoverer/inventor of SE as a healing technique, as an incomplete defensive response. As human animals, we share much in common with other mammals in regard to our responses to environmental threats, and Levine asked the brilliant question, why, when faced with continual repeated environmental threats, do animals in the wild not seem to get PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)?

The short answer is that mammals, including humans, have built-in mechanisms to prepare and respond to potential threats, and to discharge the unused energy afterward, but we human animals disrupt this natural process in various ways for many different reasons. SE facilitates this discharge process, so the residual energy exits the body and no longer disrupts the nervous system’s ability to self regulate.

I knew early on in my training as a therapist that talk-therapy had limitations for healing trauma, and I worked often to rally myself against the apparent hopelessness of being able to help such clients. I sensed in my work with clients there was some kind of link in mindfulness, CBT, and DBT therapies to trauma healing, but by themselves they seemed incomplete. Somatic Experiencing continues to prove to be the missing piece of the puzzle for myself and my clients.

Imagine that some very old and very powerful part of your brain that isn’t logical was responsible for your survival, and it learned at an early age that certain environmental cues signaled danger. Further imagine it was programmed to override any other information that the logical, thinking part of the brain might offer to counter it, by sending messages in the form of powerful physical sensations, such as pounding heart, tight chest, feeling of urgency to act, or feeling of shutdown and helplessness. Imagine that the thinking, judging brain must go along, and try to explain the world in a way that justifies the intense physical sensation of danger, despite any doubts or evidence to the contrary. This is what it’s like to live with incomplete defensive responses, aka: trauma. 

The good news is that there is a gentle, natural, guided process called Somatic Experiencing, for releasing the energy of these incomplete responses. Mindfulness, or the ability to witness experience without judging, is incredibly helpful in this process. It is a thing of beauty, both to experience, and to watch someone experience the releasing process. The effects are truly astounding as well, and I’ll be talking in future posts about my personal experiences with this therapy, and some of my clients’ experiences. I’ll also be sharing what you might notice in your experience that could indicate Somatic Experiencing could be helpful for you, as well as frequently asked questions, and simple SE techniques you can use right away to increase your resilience and well-being.

Finding Somatic Experiencing was such an eye-opener for me. I discovered this whole other aspect of being – physical sensation/experience, driven by a complex nervous system – existed, and that there was so much more to me as a human being than just my intellectual and emotional experience. I was vaguely aware that I had always had an avoidance of this aspect of self, the physical aspect, for various reasons that make total sense now. My responses to life, as well others’ responses to me and to life, make sense in a way they never did before. That understanding was out of reach without the information I now possess about the mammalian nervous system and this natural and predictable way we respond to life as animals conditioned for survival, above all.

This greater understanding of what it means to be human paves the way for greater self-compassion, increased compassion for others, and a more complete healing than you can possibly imagine. I look forward to sharing even more about SE with you!

As always, contact me for more info about SE, direct pointing, or meditation/mindfulness. Please share below any experience you have with SE that might help others.

 

 

 

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Flip Your What IF

I so often hear about the suffering created and endured when someone continually asks “what if”…as in:

  • What if it all goes wrong?
  • What if I had done it differently?
  • What if I don’t make the right choice?

We all do this, and I know I used to do it a lot, and it can be nothing short of crippling. The reason it’s so detrimental is that the power of imagination can put us in the physical and emotional state that feels like we’re experiencing the outcome when it hasn’t even happened, or it’s done and over with. 

Given that we have such imaginative power, why not use it for good? The simplest example would be to ask instead:

  • What if if all goes well, or good enough?
  • What if it was ok the way it was (it got me here, didn’t it)?
  • What if any choice is fine, and I learn from it, no matter what?

Notice how it feels to ask these alternative questions. There’s a lightness. You’re not forcing yourself to do anything. You’re simply considering possibility. Inquiring in this way seems to open up a space, even without answers or absolutes or assurances. It doesn’t tell you not to worry, or shower you with platitudes, or invalidate your feelings. It’s a simple offering of another version of reality.

I love this technique, because it is so gentle and nonviolent, and yet so powerful. It can be expanded even further to issues of stress, anxiety and depression, and meditation/increasing awareness through self-inquiry:

  • What if I didn’t run away from this moment – what would that be like?
  • What if I’m ok exactly as I am?
  • What if I actually have everything I need in this moment?
  • What if I lived the experience of this moment (vs what mind says about it)?
  • What if I allowed everything to be as it is in this moment?

This idea of asking “what if?” is something I found in Adyashanti’s book True Meditation as a technique for meditation. I love it and I am grateful for the discovery of these magic words that have made such a change in my life and my meditation, and that of others, as well.

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All Techniques Eventually Fail…

I often talk in the meditation classes I teach on Monday evenings about the importance of discovering your true identity. This is a rather abstract subject for a beginner’s class, but I talk about it anyway because eventually, like all techniques, mindfulness fails to bring the kind of relief it did in the beginning, or it just isn’t enough anymore. And thank goodness, because this forces us to become disgusted and keep searching, and possibly discover freedom!

The remedy to failed techniques is to discover yourself as limitless spirit, which makes it possible to touch back to this truth in any moment. In fact, you never really lose touch with the truth of your identity after you discover it. It changes the lens through which you view life. I’m talking about discovering the truth of your identity in that “aha” way, that resonates in the gut, where you know it in a factual, visceral way – not just reading about it and thinking that it makes sense.

When you know your true identity in this way, then some part of you, underneath it all, even in the middle of chaos, knows that this is all part of the dream, part of a play that your spirit came here to dance in, masquerading as a “you” with problems and worries. (No, you don’t then lose all motivation to participate in life…but that’s a topic for another post.)

People discover their true identity in all kinds of ways…through meditation, reading, teachers’ words, and sometimes spontaneously in the midst of great suffering. What’s evident to me now is that it doesn’t have to be an accident. One can actively engage in the kind of inquiry that leads to the personal discovery of true identity.

To know our true identity is actually our heart’s longing. People call the discovery by all kinds of names – knowing God, finding yourself, discovering your “no me-ness”, discovering your nothingness. Really, all the searching we do for the right career, spouse, or organizational system is the seeking energy, desperately trying to know itself, to wake up to itself.

If you feel like you’re always searching for the magic solution, maybe it’s time to consider whether all of the solutions you’ve found so far have ever lasted, or have satisfied that hunger. Maybe it’s time to try a different kind of search. If you want to know how to engage in direct inquiry, contact me. I can facilitate self-inquiry or point you to others who also do such work, which is traditionally done for free.

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What’s the Hurry?

Even when we’ve seen our true identity, it’s still easy to get caught up in old cycles and patterns. Life is exciting, and engaging, and magnetic. It draws us in. And we are creatures of habit, after all – some conditioning dies harder than others.

The thing I notice at lot recently is being in a hurry to get somewhere with _____________. My clients have this issue, and it still happens to me more often than I’d like. I don’t even know where it’s going, but as soon as ego picks up the scent of some possible destination, it’s off and running before I realize it. Doesn’t really matter whether it’s the yard work, or house-work or work-work, or personal to-do list items. Suddenly there’s a feeling of urgency, and I’m rushing around like mad. And then sometimes, there’s irritation or pressure or anxiety, until it is noticed and questioned.

Where is it in a hurry to get to? Who knows? Some magical place called “done” that the old conditioned part thinks will lead to a magic feeling of some kind – relaxation, maybe? But it seems it never comes. There’s always something else to be done that fills the space of what’s finished. Or there’s an unexamined belief, more like a feeling, that it will be disastrous to not act, or not act quickly, or not get it all done. I cringe to think of how many times I have made my imaginary urgent agenda into someone else’s problem, expecting them to feel pressure to participate in my illusion. If we really want to be free, we might ask “who or what is in a hurry to get somewhere?”.

When we recognize that we don’t really (if we’re honest) know where we’re rushing off to that’s so much more important than right now – more important than being present, prioritizing the day, and working at a reasonable pace while we take care of ourselves and others along the way – everything can relax back into place. We can ask “what will the actual consequences be if it isn’t done today?”. We might even love the work we’re doing, and feel really inspired, but if we’re in this hurried state, we’re probably not present anymore. And things tend to go awry fast when we’re not paying attention – you know what I’m talking about.

One place I notice an obvious change for myself from intentional inquiry like this is housework – especially laundry. I used to try to do it all myself and finish every stitch of it before Monday, no matter how miserable or exhausted it made me or anyone else. Somehow, I had it in my head that it would be a disaster if I didn’t start the week with all my clothing choices available, and that I could finally, magically “rest” after it was done. I also had the idea that doing any laundry during the week was somehow impossible and would break me.

After examining those assumptions, none turned out to be true, and now sometimes I don’t get to the washing until someone’s running out of socks or underwear – and it’s ok. It’s just not a “problem” anymore. I am free of the weight of it! Most of it still gets done on the weekend, without any pressure or suffering. Now, I no longer believe I will get to rest after some huge task – it never happened, and never will. Now, it’s simply laundry. Waiting a day to wash anything is not a big deal, and I rarely lose sleep doing laundry, or over not doing it. Now I usually rest all along the way, and try to manage my energy daily so I don’t run a deficit that puts me in crisis. It’s nice to not be so used up all the time.

What if you question the urgency next time you’re in a hurry or feeling like the list MUST get done NOW? What are the actual consequences? Lay them out. If the true consequences are that someone might be unhappy or worry about what someone might think, it’s time to take stock, and return to what really matters. If you put off this questioning, I can almost guarantee it leads to relationship or health problems, or both. I’ve seen it over and over with my clients and in my own life.

Sometimes the illusion has such a hold on us, that we still believe the urgency is true no matter what, and we may need to enlist the help of a trusted friend or advisor. Sometimes we need to address our unresolved stuff (trauma) with professional help, because the hypervigilance (never-ending feeling of urgency) has us convinced that, indeed, having it all done in time has life or death consequences. Living with the tyranny of such urgency is exhausting, but you don’t have to keep suffering! You have the power to make the shift.

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If You Want Simplicity, Give Up All Hope

I’ve noticed that there’s this way in which humans always seem to want to simplify life. This is a fine goal, but when it’s driven by ego or conditioning (read: the part of us that just wants everything to be easy and comfortable), just like any other ego-driven effort, it seems to go awry. It’s natural to want a rule, a guide, an easy algorithm for navigating it all. But it’s an immature wish, and leads people to be rigid and judgmental, and makes them chase gurus and dictators in pursuit of simple answers.

Our insistence that things be easy comes from the feeling that life is hard, which is based on another assumption that we have to keep track of lots of things and direct and control them all, or else life will be a disaster, or something. Most people haven’t even ever questioned what the “or something” is, or who/what needs to control everything in order to prevent it. If we check, the something is probably like “it’s dangerous”, or “I won’t get what I want”, and the person can’t be found who thinks those things, other than the nebulous “me”.

It’s pretty easy to fall into this trap of trying to invent a place to rest, as we’re naturally designed for survival, not happiness.

But happiness is possible. Simplicity is possible. It just doesn’t look the way most people assume it does. In fact, from the outside, it might not even be visible. Ego can’t visualize it because it can’t view life from the perspective I’m talking about. Ego will most likely tell you it’s dangerous to disregard its concerns, that the solution MUST be OUT THERE, instead of within.

True simplicity comes from an inner shift. A shift from pursuing comfort and stability by manipulating the external world, to radical acceptance and unconditional friendliness with self and life. When we can rest in the unfolding, even while watching the egoic mind squirm and doubt it’s indispensable-ness, and know that all we need to do is be present so we can respond with love and awareness to whatever appearance life seems to take in the moment, THAT is true simplicity. Without this shift, efforts to achieve true simplicity are futile.

And even after the shift, it may take time to be able to rest in that knowing with any consistency. But that’s why they call it practice. It’s tricky at first. People get stuck, big time, in all kinds of ways.

  • Sometimes they get stuck in spirituality, and preach or condescend to others who aren’t up in the floaty clouds with them. Or they may thing “this is it”, and they have no more work to do. This is another ego trap, the desire to avoid life’s messiness and stay blissed out all the time.
  • Sometimes they get stuck in fixing, in a hurry to get rid of all the conditioning or physical problems. More ego, always in a hurry to get somewhere. Ego can use anything as a foundation for pursuing its goals.
  • Sometimes they get stuck in depression or meaninglessness, and have no care for others or anything. Sometimes there’s a limbo after awakening to our true identity, and mind automatically assumes “this is it” and it will always be this way.

We don’t have to get stuck, though. If we are honest and present, we can keep moving through any storm. If we have truly seen through ego, we can always question the movements of mind and come back to a place of rest in our knowing (that the humanness wants to find a place to rest), no matter how often or far we fall off track. No system or plan can provide the kind of lasting peace I’m talking about. If we fully acknowledge we are dynamic living beings then we know that no plan can ever be flexible enough to cover all the eventualities forever. Seeing through ego starts with realizing that there is no hope for such endeavors.

Lasting peace becomes possible when we “give up all hope” of alternatives to the present moment.

NOTE: It’s normal for our humanness to seek safety, but excessive seeking of safety can also be a sign of unresolved trauma, as could the feeling that everything is dangerous. Sorting through what is spiritual journey and what is trauma/human stuff can be challenging, and therefore some find it helpful to have a skilled guide who understands both nondual spirituality, and how to work with traumatic stress. Contact me if you’d like more info about spiritual coaching or trauma resolution.

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Want to Feel More Alive? Be Quiet!

I am participating in an online conference for trauma treatment professionals and one of the speakers today (Bessel van der Kolk) referenced research that demonstrates that the part of the brain that allows us to take in experience – to experience … Continue reading

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