Meditation and Trauma

I was checking out the groups on the Insight timer app on my phone after meditating yesterday, and there was a thread in one of them where a bunch of well-meaning people were offering a lot of advice to someone suffering with a huge grief reaction triggered by meditation. She described having opened up a well of grief that she could now not close off and could not meditate, and was hoping to try walking meditation.

People offered all kinds of things, from very spiritual sounding worthless advice to just “be with the pain”, to formal instructions on how to do traditional walking meditation.

I cringe when I see things like this happen. Apparently this person listened to a guided meditation designed to purposely connect her with her grief, or produce forgiveness, or something (she knew that was what it was about), and she was quite surprised to wind up flooded by emotion, and by her description, now quite paralyzed by it. It sounds like she’s trying to just go it alone and cope, and it sounds like it’s not going away.

This sort of opening to grief happened to me at one point in my meditation practice, and the MBSR teacher evidently had no training in trauma, and told me she didn’t know what I should do, but that it wouldn’t hurt me. I stopped meditating for a long time after that. I just didn’t have the skills or the capacity to deal with it. Neither did the teacher. Not long after, I sought counseling.

Meditation is not a cure-all. It’s not for everyone, and if you have an experience like this woman is having, I don’t recommend just trying to white-knuckle your way through it. Meditation is not a cure all for trauma, and if you know you have a trauma history, just know that triggering grief or other powerful emotion is a possibility when you venture inward. Meditation is portrayed by some to be sufficient for alleviating trauma. It is not. It is not a substitute for therapy. It can be a very helpful adjunct, but in my experience, meditation alone doesn’t produce the kind of depth and completeness of healing.

I also believe now, and have had Peter Levine say before, that we’re probably not meant to do trauma work alone. We are social creatures by nature, and not designed for isolation – not in living, and not in the healing process. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent sitting with or trying to “be with” some particular piece of content, and yes, perhaps some tiny movement happens when I do that. But by and large, the biggest and most powerful shifts have come doing essentially the same thing, witnessed with a guide (Somatic Experiencing practitioner or student) who provides just the right amount of support – no more, no less – for the content to be processed (shifted and integrated).

Meditation can bring us into contact with long-buried pain, grief, and trauma. Innocently making contact with the inner landscape, without a skillful guide, we can find ourselves overwhelmed and confused. We don’t just “get over” the things that happened to us in childhood, contrary to popular belief, or our wildest fairy dust dreams. Our bodies remember the things that happened to us, and we don’t currently have the kind of societal recognition or social support to make the skills and methods for processing what our bodies remember common knowledge.

Our educations consist primarily of learning to suppress felt senses, and to rely on our minds as our sole source of intelligence.  There is a way to come into contact with our body’s memories of the past, skillfully and gently, that promotes balance in body and mind. Somatic Experiencing helped me discover I had a body and that listening to it was the key to healing, and now I help others learn how to be more fully embodied and skillfully relate to their emotions and sensations. Call me or visit the Somatic Experiencing webpage for more info.


About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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