01 Oct Trauma Reaction Response
I am in the midst of a 10-week meditation program called “The Presence Process.” This is my second go round, the first being 4 years ago, and it’s interesting to note how different it is for me this time. The program begins with reading about 140 pages of text meant to help set up for the experience. Once this is complete, the participant reads a new chapter each week, and meditates with “consciously connected breath” for 15 minutes each morning and evening. The “goal” of the process is to move more into present moment awareness which helps us to gain more ability to respond to our present situation rather than react to it. In practice, this sounds fairly simple, but it can be terrifyingly difficult. In fact, it is meant to be a practice that uses that difficulty to shine a light on feelings we are resistant to experiencing. We are instructed to be with that difficulty rather than seeking comfort, because it is by moving through it that we begin to heal in deeper ways.
One of the central ideas of the path of the presence process is that we generally live in the framework of time, but that it is an illusion. This is a concept that is central to many spiritual practices. What differentiates the presence process is that it provides a structured framework of practice that a pathway towards processing some of the thoughts, feelings, and traumas that often keep us stuck in the past or projecting outward into the future, rather than existing in the present moment. The conscious response that we are meant to keep in mind during week one is “This moment matters.” In other words, it is a reminder that it is no less important than the thoughts of the past that shape our sense of who we are, right and wrong, or good and bad, nor our fears and hopes for the future. If the future and the past overwhelm our ability to be present in this moment, we are “lost in time”. It’s easy to dismiss this idea with defensive thoughts about how important our past and our futures are, and it is these thoughts that can create a great deal of suffering. When we can find some space to be present in the moment, we have more ability to respond to what comes rather than react to it automatically. This is not a black or white issue, it’s a continuum that constantly shifts and changes. The more present awareness energy that we can build, the more able we are to be able to respond.
The conscious awareness we are instructed to bring to week 2 is “I recognize my reflections and my projections”. In other words I recognize that much of my thinking is shaped by reflections of the past and my projections of expectation onto this moment and into the future. When we find ourselves having a strong emotion, we can identify it as a reflection of some kind of trauma from the past. Our reaction to that tends to be a projection outward, a reactive emotion, that often impacts those around us. It is our past story crashing into the present and future in a way that has ripple effects. The more we are able to be with that emotion, identify it, feel it, and let it pass through, the more able we are to respond in a less reactive way. It’s important to recognize the difference between feeling it and repressing it. It can be easy to almost instinctively act to repress the emotion, often to such a lightening fast degree, that we aren’t even aware of it. Or, that emotion that we repress (say sadness) might come out sideways as something else, like anger because a part of us might feel like it isn’t safe to feel sad. Why is that? The answer to that question might be different for every person.
The author of “The Presence Process”, Michael Brown, asks us to be with these moments and try to feel it. Often, these reactions are connected to emotions that we have not processed, so they remain stuck in our bodies. For many years, this idea was not taken seriously, but books like Bessel Van der kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score”, Gabor Mate’s “When the Body Says No”, Hilary Jacob Hendel’s “The Change Triangle”,and research projects like “The ACE study” have illuminated just how profoundly we hold these feelings in our body. Brown’s book provides a framework for helping us to identify these stuck emotions and processing them. For a lot of people, the word trauma invokes images of profound events like war wounds, assaults, abuse, or other big “T” traumatic incidences. However, for each person, the experience of every event is personal, and many things that we can describe as traumatic might happen even before we have words to explain them. So rather than exist as memories that we can recall, they are more “felt-sense” events that affect us without our full understanding. The Presence Process provides a structure for learning how to feel them and let them go. It is a means of becoming unstuck from them.
Yesterday I noticed a tweet from the celebrity Chrissy Teigen. It was not the one above, but one about almost having a miscarriage that read, “Just had a really scary morning huge clot, almost save-worthy. The scramble to hear the heartbeat seemed like hours. I never thought I’d relief sigh so much in my liiiiife”. There were a lot of people attacking her in the comments and I was confused. It seems that she had used IVF to assist in the pregnancy, and referred to the embryo as a “clump of cells” which angered many pro-life activists. The next day the controversy exploded because she did end up having a miscarriage and she posted about it. Pro-life activists now attacked her for her “hypocrisy”. Once again, it created a great deal of divisive conversation.
The reason I’m writing about it here is because it is connected to ideas related to trauma, response, and reaction. A miscarriage, or a potential miscarriage, can be very traumatic. At the same time, it is something that our culture typically demands that we keep quiet about. We are told not to tell anyone about a pregnancy until 3 months because the risk of miscarriage is higher in that time frame. We are told this because we don’t want to be “stuck” having to tell people about it. While this might seem like it is about trying to keep people from having to deal with “awkward situations”, it also means that those who do suffer miscarriages are pushed to do so in silence. They are asked to suffer without support, and this leads to feelings of shame.
Like many other people, my wife and I experienced a miscarriage with what would have been our second child. We went in for a 3 month check up and found that there was no heartbeat. It was one of the more traumatic things I had experienced. As it was so late in the process, we had started telling a number of close friends and I am glad we had because otherwise it would have been something we might have felt we had to keep hidden. As it was, the grief caught up with me and I ended up a in the hospital for a week with a MRSA (highly antibiotic resistant) staph infection on my leg. It was a few years before I made the connection between my grief and my immune response. Thankfully, a few months later we got pregnant again and had a very successful pregnancy.
Teigen’s post about her miscarriage has opened up a much broader level of conversation about not only the subject of miscarriages, but also what we are “allowed” to share. As I look at the comments and the discussion I see a lot of trauma reflected in the conversation. The most obvious trauma related is from people who have had miscarriages, thanking Chrissy for her openness and her honesty. For them, her share helps lift away some of the the sense of shame and grief that they have carried silently. They express hope that others don’t suffer as they have. On the other side of the coin are people shaming Teigen, for discussing a “private matter” in public. In this case echoes of trauma ring off of these words. Those who have been taught that it is not ok to share their sorrows or their pain reflect and project this outwards. If we have been shamed for our feelings we tend to shame others, and this can be traumatizing to those who get shamed. While some people who have had a miscarriage are thankful for Teigen’s openness others might feel re-traumatized by having to confront those memories.
According to Michael Brown though, the only way to get over trauma is to go through it – to accept the feelings rather than resist them. That which we resist will persist is an idea repeated in many spiritual traditions. Brown’s theories, in themselves. are not unique. However, his ability to synthesize these thoughts into a program that people can follow is quite useful. Everyone has their own path to understanding, and are only ready to accept an idea when they are ready to accept it. I keep working on my own level of acceptance and like a snail I move down that trail in my own roundabout way.