Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing

Category: Social Sciences
Author: David A. Treleaven, Willoughby Britton
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by jplewicke   2019-11-17

Just a thought that you can take with a grain of salt -- the kind of fear/paranoia/hypervigilance/preparation for violence that you've been talking about can be a sign of having experienced trauma in the past, from stuff like a rough childhood, getting in a car accident, etc. People are most familiar with the effects of trauma from bad cases of PTSD from people who've undergone extremely difficult circumstances, but trauma is actually a spectrum of responses and can occur even without extreme danger. Meditation can be very helpful for working through trauma, but if you consistently focus on trauma/fear-linked sensations then it can actually increase your level of emotional reaction rather than decreasing it. So I'd say try not to get sucked too much into investigating or engaging with this fear -- just try to return to focusing on the breath. If you think that you might have a trauma history, I'd recommend the following:

  • Find at least one therapist who specializes in working with trauma. EMDR and Somatic experiencing are both great for directly neutralizing the stored trauma charge in memories and body sensations respectively. DBT is great for seeing how your thoughts and actions are colored by trauma reactions and re-learning skillful and resilient responses to situations.
  • Make sure you're educated about trauma and how it works by reading Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and In an Unspoken Voice.
  • Don't go digging for more memories or more trauma-linked body sensations than naturally present themselves. There'll still be plenty of stuff to handle even with that.
  • If you're having a lot of off-cushion emotional volatility, reduce practice time and only increase it slowly.
  • Try shifting your practice to metta.
  • Make an effort to get out and see friends and build a pleasant non-dharma-focused life.
  • Exercise.
  • Hold off on retreats and anything too intense if you can.
  • Change your practice orientation from trying to hit certain stages to trying to increase your window of tolerance where you're not
  • Read or re-read Culadasa's purification advice in Stage 4, where he recommends trying to back off from intense-emotion linked sensations onto neutral or pleasant sensations. See if you can keep on trying to do that in your practice by redirecting attention to neutral or pleasant or safe sensations elsewhere, or to a larger scope of attention. If you get sucked in, no problem -- just reward yourself for noticing that you got sucked in and try again to back off to neutral/pleasant sensations in a different area of the body.
by jplewicke   2019-11-17

If you've got a trauma history that's coming up in your meditation practice, I'd recommend trying to do the following:

  • Read the Guide to Health, Balance, and Difficult Territory.
  • Find at least one therapist who specializes in working with trauma. EMDR and Somatic experiencing are both great for directly neutralizing the stored trauma charge in memories and body sensations respectively. DBT is great for seeing how your thoughts and actions are colored by trauma reactions and re-learning skillful and resilient responses to situations.
  • Make sure you're educated about trauma and how it works by reading Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and In an Unspoken Voice.
  • Don't go digging for more memories or more trauma-linked body sensations than naturally present themselves. There'll still be plenty of stuff to handle even with that.
  • If you're having a lot of off-cushion emotional volatility, reduce practice time and only increase it slowly.
  • Try shifting your practice to metta.
  • Make an effort to get out and see friends and build a pleasant non-dharma-focused life.
  • Exercise.
  • Hold off on retreats and anything too intense if you can.
  • Change your practice orientation from trying to hit certain concentration/insight/perceptual path attainments to trying to increase your window of tolerance where you're not
  • Read or re-read Culadasa's purification advice in Stage 4 of TMI, where he recommends trying to back off from intense-emotion linked sensations onto neutral or pleasant sensations. See if you can keep on trying to do that in your practice by redirecting attention to neutral or pleasant or safe sensations elsewhere, or to a larger scope of attention. If you get sucked in, no problem -- just reward yourself for noticing that you got sucked in and try again to back off to neutral/pleasant sensations in a different area of the body.
by jplewicke   2019-11-17

> Oh wow I'm so sorry to hear this. Do you mind going a bit further into your experience? What practice(s) did you do specifically, how long were your sessions typically and for how long did you continue your practice?

It was a mix of self-invented practices that were a good bit further "out there" than the candle flame kasina -- I was doing 70-100 minutes every morning of staring at a ceiling fan, sometimes with a strobe light on, and on weekdays around an hour of walking meditation where I was very rapidly blinking my eyes. This was for most of June-August 2017 in my practice log.

> Why do you think this happened?

As you might guess from the above descriptions, this wasn't a very calm or settling practice. I hadn't spent much effort on cultivating either bodily relaxation or metta, and was really focused on breaking apart the localized sense of self in the center of the head and how it related to thoughts and seeing. So I had a bunch of disorienting experiences from seeing through that locus of self, with some occasional depersonalization and derealization.

> By sensations do you mean physical?

Physical sensations, thought patterns of resentment and shame, memories, urges to act physically on shame or anger.

> Why do you think that happens afterwards?

It seems like when a certain type of sensation is focused on and insight occurs into its impermanence, that the mind then starts noticing or bringing up related but different sensations. I think that part of this is because insight events are quite surprising relative to our expectations -- the world is very different from our default expectations. And I think that at a neurological level our brains are wired to react to surprise by seeing if they can reduce it, and part of that is to see whether a given surprise will generalize in similar but distinct circumstances.

> Have you experienced significant purification during your visual practices?

I experienced a great deal of progress in insight due to them, but I wouldn't classify it as successful purification because I was getting more emotionally disregulated, not less.

> Have you noticed any permanent beneficial effects or see yourself experiencing them in the future with this sort of practice? > One last question, do you think the effort and time you spent with this practice was worth it?

Even if I knew it'd be as rough of a ride, if the choice was between that rough ride and not following the path at all I'd still choose to do it over again in a heartbeat. I've let down an immense load already from experiencing insight and my interactions with other have become much more skillful. But if I knew then what I know now from reading Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and In An Unspoken Voice, I would have taken things somewhat slower and worked with either TMI or TWIM in conjunction with seeing a trauma-informed therapist who did somatic experiencing or EMDR.

On the other hand, some level of Dark Night-type stuff and emotional disregulation was pretty much guaranteed to happen if I started practicing. I just didn't need to dive in quite so fast deeply, and I would have benefitted from having an emotional regulation map instead of just the concentration and insight maps.

I would really like to check out the candle flame kasina in more detail some time later on after the trauma stuff has been mostly integrated -- it seems like a really fun and interesting practice.

> Also, what do you recommend I do to determine if my self pacing is good?

I'd say that the answer here is that it depends in part on whether you think you might have a trauma history, even if it might not rise to the level of a full PTSD or CPTSD diagnosis. If you think that you do, I'd recommend trying to find a therapist who does somatic experiencing, EMDR, or DBT and tell them about your background, that you have an intensive meditation practice, and any issues that you're experiencing in your life. They might not have much meditation advice, but they'll have the clinical experience to let you know if you might need to change how you're practicing.

If you're not sure if you have a trauma history, then I'd think about just reading a bit more about trauma, possibly including the books I mentioned before. Then you'll know if you're starting to get more disregulated by alternating between feeling shut-down/withdrawn/ashamed and volatile/angry/afraid. Another sign for me was it felt like practices stopped working faster and faster.

You may be right on the teacher front if you want to do a specific practice type -- it's hard to find a good teacher who teaches in a pragmatic dharma-compatible format, let alone one who does so for specific practice types. But it is helpful to have at least one person who you can talk to in person about all the weird or challenging or blissful experiences you're having.

> I feel a bit worried now about practicing trataka tbh.

If you like the practice and you're feeling fine, please don't let me scare you off of it. I was doing something a great deal less orthodox and I had a monomaniacal focus on awakening for that period of time, and I needed at least some insight to realize that I needed to relax more. Just keep your eyes open about how you're doing and be willing to back off instead of double down.

by DestinedToBeDeleted   2019-11-17

The Body Keeps The Score is a fantastic book. Also, check out Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness.

by jplewicke   2019-08-24

I'm going to give my classic trauma recommendations:

  • Find at least one therapist who specializes in working with trauma. EMDR and Somatic experiencing are both great for directly neutralizing the stored trauma charge in memories and body sensations respectively. DBT is great for seeing how your thoughts and actions are colored by trauma reactions and re-learning skillful and resilient responses to situations.
  • Make sure you're educated about trauma and how it works by reading Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and In an Unspoken Voice.
  • Don't go digging for more memories or more trauma-linked body sensations than naturally present themselves. There'll still be plenty of stuff to handle even with that.
  • If you're having a lot of off-cushion emotional volatility, reduce practice time and only increase it slowly.
  • Try shifting your practice to metta.
  • Make an effort to get out and see friends and build a pleasant non-dharma-focused life.
  • Exercise.
  • Hold off on retreats and anything too intense if you can.
  • Change your practice orientation from trying to hit certain concentration/insight/perceptual path attainments to trying to increase your window of tolerance where you're not
  • Read or re-read Culadasa's purification advice in Stage 4 of TMI, where he recommends trying to back off from intense-emotion linked sensations onto neutral or pleasant sensations. See if you can keep on trying to do that in your practice by redirecting attention to neutral or pleasant or safe sensations elsewhere, or to a larger scope of attention. If you get sucked in, no problem -- just reward yourself for noticing that you got sucked in and try again to back off to neutral/pleasant sensations in a different area of the body.
by relbatnrut   2019-08-24

Frankly, I'd want to have an in depth conversation with your doctors before accepting that what they say is true. I have trouble believing they actually know much about meditation. While certain types of meditation can be destabilizing (though ultimately rewarding), simple mindfulness of the breath, a lovingkindness (metta) practice is far less likely to do so.

It's not surprising that being mindful brings up those feelings. The next step is to simply observe the feelings in your body without reacting to them. The feelings themselves can't hurt you, even though it feels like they can. Speaking from experience, eventually you will come to see them as simply empty vibrations with no significance beyond what they are in the body.

This book is very helpful for learning how to work with trauma in a gentle way that won't retraumatize: https://www.amazon.com/Trauma-Sensitive-Mindfulness-Practices-Transformative-Healing/dp/0393709787

While I'm here, maybe you will find something of your experience in this: https://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB+The+Progress+of+Insight. I know it helped me frame my bad trip as not simply an aberration, but as something that thousands of people have gone through before as the Dukkha Ñanas when meditating (albeit much more forcefully since I was tripping).

by citiesoftheplain75   2019-08-24

I also have a blocked pingala channel, with a major line of tension all down the right side of the body, branches and blobs of tension into side channels, and kundalini is active in this area, which has led to some interesting times. My meditation practice is primarily focused on dissolving the blockages in that area. (EDIT: Here I recommended Your Breathing Body by Reggie Ray, who has recently been credibly accused of severely psychologically abusing his students. I have removed the link.) You might want to check out Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and possibly try a therapeutic modality that involves body awareness, like EMDR, Hakomi, or somatic experiencing. I have to run but will post more later.

by jplewicke   2019-07-21

I think you might get a lot out of reading In an Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine. It's like Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness how past trauma and stress can cause both emotional/physical pain in the present while also making us more prone to shutting down or lashing out in response to others.

by jplewicke   2019-07-21

If you haven't seen it before, the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is a good introduction to how the first definition of "dissociation" can show up in practice and be exacerbated.

When I notice the "can't move voluntarily" aspect of it coming up, I try to encourage an intention to notice my feet and the back of my legs and to notice how maybe they'd like to stand up. Over time that's led to more automatically standing up and moving when it comes up, which seems to help prevent the dissociation from getting worse. I'll also try to hold an intention to try to move in the way that feels most impossible at the time -- so if it feels like I need to curl up my upper body into a ball, I'll intentionally stand up and stretch/reach out. I know a lot of meditation teachings recommend leaning into the sensations that you can't move and thoroughly experience it so that you can develop insight, but I personally feel like that's not the right direction to be going if you've experienced trauma and are dissociating.

It can also help a lot to try to keep an intention to place more focus on neutral/pleasant sensations rather than unpleasant/trauma-linked sensations, and to try to keep a mix of internal and external sensations.

by theseshoesarewalkin   2019-07-21

Are you aware of any trauma in your life? It’s possible meditation is bringing up some repressed emotions. Meditation can be practiced safely if that’s the case, but it’s good to be aware of the potential pitfalls. Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is a good book for this.

by Sigeraed   2019-07-21

Meditation is a tool, it is also many types of meditations under one term. I have trauma from childhood and meditation actually used to create issues for me. Now it is effective but you gotta know what you are getting into. Mantra meditation like Transcendental can be helpful to get somewhere but it may not solve underlying causes of anxiety. On the other hand insight meditation like Vipassana/Shamata can bring up distress if you have trauma in your past. Cultivating equanimity will eventually free you from anxiety but it requires patience.

I heard very good things about this book for instance if you have to deal with issues from your past which is often a cause of anxiety

by jplewicke   2019-07-21

> But how do you avoid burnout and traumatizing yourself?

Just about a year ago now, I gave myself moderate PTSD by overfocusing on difficult emotional content and trying to relentlessly "vipassanize" it away. I probably had some dormant trauma that I would have had to eventually work through anyway, but I definitely exacerbated it in the short run. What I wish I'd known/done instead is something like the following:

  • Read at least Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and possibly In An Unspoken Voice.
  • Had a good therapist in place.
  • Had a good meditation teacher that I was working with.
  • When an internal division comes up, try not to just overrule it but to instead seek a compromise position.
  • Work on actually verbally communicating difficult internal experiences. In meditation it can feel like we've got a total sense of what we're feeling about a certain issue, but there's a positive shift beyond that from actually being able to put that in words and have that exist in a setting of social safety.
  • Try to keep a certain level of neutral or pleasant sensations in consciousness, even when engaging with difficult content. The difficult stuff can actually be a lot easier to handle if it's not the totality of what you're handling. Trying to come back to neutral material is a really crucial part, and I wish I'd taken Culadasa's purification instructions a lot more seriously. I'm not sure on the exact level, but maybe aim for only 10% of attention on the difficult stuff and 90% neutral/pleasant feeling across different sense fields. Just having the intention to only dip in a little bit at a time -- it's fine if you get sucked in more, just try for less next time.
  • Try to build an internal submind consensus that I don't need exclusive focus on the difficult stuff, that it's OK if it takes time, etc.
  • Set boundaries in my relationships with others so that if I'm starting to feel overwhelmed I feel comfortable taking space and time to re-settle myself.
  • Express my contradictory-seeming emotions in my relationships with others, and be honest with them about what I feel like I can/can't do.
  • Have ethical standards for my actions that I have an intention to uphold.
  • Listen to other parts of myself and seek a life that balances practice with my job, relationships, friends, and important activities.
  • Listened to my intuition and refocused my practice on metta. There were a bunch of times where I wrote out in my practice logs "Whoa, my practice is super intense and crazy stuff is happening. I bet I'd feel more grounded if I could build a good metta practice. Oh well, guess I'll just do something else instead."

I'm doing way, way better now due to finally following a lot of those points. On the other hand, there were plenty of times over the last year where I didn't follow that advice and "vipassanized" through stuff or kept exclusive focus on negative stuff or some weird meditation-related mental state came along. And a lot of the time that all worked, insight progressed, and my emotional regulation improved even though it was a side-effect of "improper" technique. So it's not like there are hard and fast rules about the right thing to do.

by jplewicke   2019-01-13

I wrote a comment a couple months back on /r/streamentry that I think could be helpful:

> I'm sorry this has been rough for you, and definitely sympathize since I've been trying to work through some trauma-related stuff for the past few months. You may want to read Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness to learn more about how meditation and trauma interact, or this post on somatic experiencing. > > This is an incomplete list of things that I've found helpful at various points. A lot of it is the standard advice for purifications and difficult emotional territory, but I found that for me it actually took quite a long time to accept that the advice was applicable and that I shouldn't just crank up the intensity of vipassanna to try to resolve it all today. So the following list is all stuff to try to intend to do when you can -- it's only natural for things to be raw and demand your attention right now. > > * Backing off from trauma-linked body sensations, thoughts, and images. Not all the way -- but trying to turn down the volume. Culadasa talks about attention alternating between different sensations, and ideally for working through trauma most of the attention is placed on something pleasant or neutral, with attention occasionally flickering to something difficult. This is beyond just seeing that the the traumatic sensations are impermanent -- seeing that they don't have to be the biggest thing going on can be equally freeing. > > * Social engagement. airbenderaang has already touched on metta and compassion practice, and those can be very helpful. One of the things with trauma is that at a neurological level, the freeze/fight/flight response actually disconnects the social engagement system. The reverse is also true -- so if you're in a traumatic state, socially reconnecting can diminish the intensity of the trauma and help integrate the trauma-related subminds. And it's useful to remember that social engagement isn't just happy/easy/compassionate feelings -- sometimes it's just being able to tell someone else why you feel bad, setting a social boundary, etc. > > * Finding neutral body sensations. Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness talks some about this, and it's a focus in somatic experiencing therapy. Focusing on the breath or on certain parts of the body is not necessarily safe or trauma-free -- in fact it's common for those with a history of trauma for the breath and front of the body to be trauma-linked. So you can look around and see if the hands, the legs, the feet, or somewhere else feels safe, neutral, and unrelated to the trauma. > > * Self-validation and positive self talk. To the degree that you can, try to start accepting the different emotions and thoughts that you have. One thing that can help sometimes is to try to experience an emotion in the body and then try to understand how it's compassionate or self-protective from a certain point of view. Over time this can help you build up the opposite of an inner critic. Tara Brach's RAIN method is good for this, and I've also found Harnessing the Energy of the Defilements from MCTB inspiring. Shargrol's Therapeutic Models for Meditators is also great in general. > > * Re-engagement in ordinary life and regular tasks. It can be really grounding to just get back to work and friends that know nothing about your difficulties in meditation or with trauma, and to just re-immerse yourself with that. At the same time, it can also be very freeing to confide in a few people that you really trust. Exercise and task-focused manual labor are also helpful.
> > * Working with a meditation teacher. The feedback you can get from a teacher can help keep your meditation practice focused towards enhancing your emotional regulation, which provides a supportive base for eventually integrating the trauma rather than making it worse. > > * Being extremely gentle with yourself, both in mediation and off-cushion. Start listening when part of you doesn't want to do something, and try to start acting from unanimous consensus rather than making yourself do stuff. If you're in internal conflict about what to do, try to figure out what both sides really want and then come up with a temporarily workable compromise. > > * Humor. Some of the moments that have felt like a lot of progress towards integrating trauma have been when something about the situation was surprisingly much funnier than I expected, whether from dark humor about how it can't get worse or due to moments of insight feeling like I'm getting an undefinable joke. > > * Grief. Assuming that you're not getting sucked in too fast due to it, sometimes letting yourself really grieve and cry can be a relief from the constant pressure. This has gone best for me when it's limited in time and partially mixed in with a sense of hope, compassion, or humor. For instance, I've found reading The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kaye seems to evoke a blended sense of tragedy and hope that despite everything I've got a meaningful role in the world.

by MeatFloggerActual   2019-01-13

Sorry about that:

[https://toptalkedbooks.com/amzn/0393709787)

by MariaEMeye   2019-01-13

I've had an accumulation of doubts, and after having a steady daily meditation routine of 45 minutes, I'm not meditating hardly at all. I know that strong doubt is my problem, not so much doubt in the method of TMI or Culadasa, because I don't actually doubt either at all, but more worried that I'm not ready for all of this, that as a mother of small children I need to have different priorities :( Feeling a bit sad and lost, but I have actually taken some action to address some trauma that I know needs attention via therapy, and before doing TMI it didn't occur to me to address this as my life was functional and happy anyway, but now I know I have to address all of this sooner than later if I want to take my meditation path seriously... I'm planning to read from the dharma treasure recommended reading list and center on shorter meditation sessions, and especially do metta and walking meditation. And see how things go and how I feel I suppose...I feel sad about my practice, but I feel very good and happy about my life in general... Its a bit strange, but before having my children when I started to delve into Buddhism, I was sort of ready to jump head in to everything, but now I have very strong attachments to my children and their welfare, and I worry if I come to pieces as I walk my meditation path,if they will be affected...I did ask Culadasa about this via the patreon questions, but sadly the question didn't get answered as only those questions of who attended got answered (again couldn't attend that day as there was a change of time and I would have had to get a baby sitter). The path is going to have ups and down I suppose... I'm also reading a book called Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness as it addresses one of my doubts and worries.

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