A recent conversation led me to think back to when I was first beginning to meditate, some 15 years ago. I realized how much it would have supported and validated my own experiences and learning process if I had read or heard something about meditation that was specifically oriented towards survivors of trauma.
Our experience of meditating is most likely different than people who have not experienced significant trauma(s). Most importantly, religious traditions and mindfulness training programs are rarely survivor-centred or trauma-informed. This is a disservice to the survivor who is turning to meditation to reduce stress or anxiety, or to deepen their spiritual path.
I decided to write this list of tips in hopes that it can support those turning to meditation, especially given that due to pandemic-induced stress, many are turning to the practice in an effort to find some peace. Below is a little more information about trauma, before I get to the tips.
A flooded dam
Most often, traumatic memories are stored implicitly. ‘Implicit’ here means that we do not recall these experiences, like ordinary or explicit memories. They surface in bodily sensations that are linked to the limbic system’s regulation of emotions, unlike ordinary memories that surface as complete cognitive thoughts.
When we sit and quiet the distractions of daily living that can also serve as coping mechanisms, and sometimes as survival tactics, our implicit memories can come rushing to the surface like a flooded dam that has just been released. A lot of the time, we have spent a great deal of energy unconsciously building that dam. Meditation can take it down without a moment’s notice.
The flooding usually occurs through deep emotions, flashes of sensations and/or visual fragments coming into conscious awareness. For someone just starting out in meditation—whether you have explicit memories of trauma or a combination of explicit and implicit memories, or whether you live with a general anxiety disorder—these experiences can be scary and/or disorienting. Yet, there also may be some part of you that is drawn to meditation and wants to practice.
The below list of tips can help support folks who want to meditate but are somewhat afraid to do so, because you know that you are not like everyone else in the meditation room. In any given room (digital or real), there are a lot of us sitting with buried and silenced trauma. We’ve just been taught by a very complex system of cultural silencing not to talk about (and in many cases, not to acknowledge, even to ourselves) our trauma.
This cultural silencing of trauma is all the more reason why learning to let the body release its long-held patterns of emotional wounding through meditation can be helpful—so long as we do it in a manner that feels safe and good to us, which may or may not look like what a meditation teacher is telling you to do.
An emotional wound
It’s important to specify that my use of the word ‘trauma’ here is quite open. As Dr. Gabor Mate teaches, I use it to refer to an emotional wound that in some way interferes with our sense of self. For me, it is childhood trauma. For others, it may be an experience in their adult lives. Either way, we live with a deep emotional wounding that, just like a physical wound, needs attending to.
I have found that when paired with other practices like Yoga, any creative art-making practice, and/or therapy, meditation can be a very soothing way of attending to that wound. It can also lead to a deepening of one’s spiritual practice, which alone can be very healing.
Finally, a little bit about me, so that you know who’s giving you these tips! I’m an Associate Professor in the Teaching Stream at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. I teach mostly cultural studies courses in the Book and Media Program.
I’m also a community arts-worker; I lead community meditation and poetic inquiry groups (digital now, like everything else!) and offer one-on-one sessions for self-inquiry practices. I’ve trained in Expressive Arts Therapy, have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and publish on the topics of trauma theory and arts-based pedagogy.
Perhaps most importantly, though, I am a survivor of childhood abuse, and I spent a very long time restoring the parts of my wounded self in order to learn to neither fear nor feel shame about my trauma. Now, I realize the great strength and creativity my experiences have given me.
As I began to heal, my life became more and more about supporting others to feel, recognize and be proud of these reservoirs of creativity within themselves—that, and walking my dog in the woods every chance I get.
15 tips for meditation when living with trauma
These guidelines are primarily for folks who are looking to meditate, first and foremost, to heal some part of themselves, be it trauma, anxiety, stress reduction, etc. They may not overlap with a traditional Buddhist approach, and that is OK. The goal is different. This is a trauma-informed practice that seeks healing and empowerment, not arhathood.
- You will know what is right and what is not right for you. What is not right for you might contradict what the teacher or spiritual tradition is telling you to do. You have a right to say “no” to the teacher and/or tradition and to follow what your intuition tells you is best for you.
- It might take some time to learn what is right for you, so go gently, and my advice is to back off earlier rather than jumping straight into the deep end. Though some of us love and need to jump in fully, and then swim back to a middle way. Again, follow what is right for you.
- You might need to sit for a significantly shorter amount of time, in the beginning, than is recommended. For instance, you may need eight minutes rather than 45. You have not ‘failed’ because you sat for less time. You sat for the amount of time that is right for you, and this will most likely change as your relationship with your trauma changes.
- There is an embodied ‘edge’ within yourself that can tell you when it is time to stop the session. You can and will learn to feel and listen to this edge, as if it is a tangible voice speaking to you. Trust it when you meet it.
- There are a lot of different types of meditation! Try different types and allow yourself to say ‘No, that is not for me,’ or ‘Yes! I like this.’ Also, allow what you like to change as your practice and your relationship with yourself deepen.
- What you do with your eyes and hands might be really important to create safety for you in your body. Try meditating with your eyes open, and try it with them closed. Try it with your palms facing up, and your palms facing down. Try each position out each time you sit to meditate, and choose whichever one feels good on that day.
- Only work with a meditation teacher you trust and feel comfortable with. Don’t force yourself to go back to a group, only to prove something to yourself or to feel like you are doing it the ‘right’ way. This is a very vulnerable and important relationship, and it’s important to trust yourself.
- It is OK to quit and start again. It is OK to quit and start again 1,000 times.
- If you are meditating at home, you might prefer to have music on or music off. You might prefer to do a guided meditation for support, or you might prefer to meditate on your own. Try both.
- A gentle Yoga class can offer a nice way to come into spending time with your body, if meditation feels like too much, too soon. Again, trust yourself and do what feels right for you and your body.
- It is possible that your body may shake as you begin to relax and get out of your thinking mind. This is OK, and you can choose to stop at any time. Lean into watching your breath, if and when this happens. As a teacher told me, it is old and blocked energy releasing itself from where it has been stored, for possibly a very long time. It is actually a very good sign! In the beginning, though, it could be disorienting, so go gently and trust yourself to know your limits.
- You might have an overwhelming emotion that releases in a sudden sob or even in laughter. This is also OK and very normal. There may be no thoughts attached to the emotion, or there may be. Again, it is energy releasing, and you know when you have had enough on any given day. As you deepen your practice, you may start to feel the emotion surface first in your body as a sensation, like heat or tingling or a cramp. It’s great to breathe right into that spot, inhaling and exhaling in your own rhythm.
- Journaling after you meditate can be really, really helpful. You do not have to journal with ‘ordinary’ language. I teach a form of poetic inquiry that involves using poetry as a means of expressing and exploring experiences. You can write however you’d like to write—fragments, poems, long prose, a combination of images and words. Especially when processing trauma, poetry can be a much more empowering form of expression. A lot of times, our experiences/memories/emotions don’t fit into ordinary language, and the mind may even resist using ordinary language to express what you are feeling. Trust in your own creative process when you journal.
- There are a lot of ways to achieve stress reduction and a meditative frame of mind, without practicing sitting meditation. If sitting meditation just doesn’t feel right for you at this point in your life, trust your gut and try something else that you can bring a single focus to without having to sit still. For instance, walking my dog in the woods some days is my meditation practice, and it is deeply nourishing.
- Even if it is just out of curiosity, it is always a great idea to search for a psychotherapist who is also a practicing Buddhist or is trained in mindfulness (there are a lot) to support you on your journey.
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