HI again everyone
I am reading an article caled ‘Meditation, trauma and contemplative dissociation’ by Daivd Treleaven (Somatics, 2010). He did his PhD on this theme and begins this article with part of a famous poem by Mary Oliver ‘Wild Geese’
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on
For a hundred miles through
the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Treleavon says this poem ‘exposes a wound Western culture is just beginning to explore’, that while the invitation to ‘let the soft animal of your body love what it loves may appear simple at first, the act is sophisticated and complex’. Not for a cat perhaps but for us!
I first thought of how a participant in my current mindfulness study Sean, who, when asked how he felt when he was enaging in a mindfulness meditation said that he felt good because he
I feel good knowing I’m doing something that’s good for me; I feel good knowing I have a routine that ensures consistency and it feels good to know I have made it a priority in my life.
Its a bit like Sophia in my last post saying she was ‘doing what I should’. I need to go back to my data but I think there are other similar references.
There are also so many comments about the amazing benefits and I will get to those, somehow what is taking my interest at present in the notion of dissociation. I am finding it very helpful to put this out there on the blog as people are commenting here, or via email or in person or in our mindfulness research group at the university and its all very helpful as I try to connect what people are saying with the literature.
This is reflected in a conversation I had earlier today with a young woman in the early stages of pregnancy, who has already pretty much decided she will be having, and will need an epidural when she is in labour. She is intelligent, educated, but didn’t want to be one of those women who scream in labour. Yet as a friend was saying just last night the sounds women make in labour can be an integral part of the process of birthing, bringing energy and focus, there’s something primordial about it for me.
I gently talked to her about how wonderful it is to have these things available through modern medicine but that all being well the body knows what to do if only we can let go into that.
I do find like Treleaven that here is something in the mindfulness research and practice that suggests people see mindfulness as being perhaps more aligned with the brain than the body, where some forms of meditation can lead to some people feeling disconnected from their thoughts, emotions, perceptions and physical sensations. He calls this phenomenon ‘contemplative dissociation’.
He writes about how bringing our awareness to our inner life can mean we re-awaken old wounds, of course this can be such a wonderful healing process but for some people in some situations it may overwhelm the nervous system in the process. If we know what we are doing, have a therapeutic practitioner or guide we can calll on this may not present a problem.
If people don’t know what they are doing and as you know I am mainly concerned about vulnerable people including children who have already experienced trauma, they could be as he says ‘unknowingly hurting themselves during practice’. I like they way he puts this, there is such compassion and care in his words.
The literature about the benefits of mindfulness for those who have experienced trauma might be leading some people to think there are no risks. Remember when the popular idea around trauma was to debrief and relive it through words and how that was supposed to heal, until the research came out a few years later that told us this was not in fact the case. A bit like the idea of using a touniquet on a snake bite or putting a baby to sleep on his or her tummy, recommendations are often superseded in the light of experience and evidence over time.
I agree with Treleaven that these questions are arising as the field matures and can handle some strong debate, some rigour. He finds there is a ‘noticeable lack of exploration of the relationship between trauma, dissocation and contemplative practice’. He comes out of his own experience in this regard, there was a point in his life when he thought his Buddhist mindfulness retreats might be making him worse rather than better.
Through his own exploration he has realised that was missing for him was the containment that is needed when we are releasing past trauma, we generally need a non judgmental and very aware loved one, or therapist/counsellor or spiritual teacher who provides a safe container for this release in just the same way as we do for a child, following the work of Winnicott and Bion. A child who has experienced trauma and I have seen this so often, lacks this container, has such a ‘thin skin’, is so sensitive, psychic even, feels into the feelings of all around him or her, lacks groundedness, and can float away easily. I have been that child, adolescent, young adult to a degree and its completely different for me now, its quite extraordinary how different it is for me now and it seems it has to do with embodiment and working with the senses, coming into the body, providing a container for myself really.
This greatly interests me, its only a part of the overall picture and it doesnt contradict all the positive findings around mindfulness. I feel it just provides more nuance especially in relation to those of us who are sensitive or were very sensitive children. It brings up very important questions around training, experience, capacity to handle situations that may arise if we find that a mindfulness activity catalyses traumatic energy. It could be difficult to tune into one child for example while working with a whole class and I am reminded of workshops I have attended over the years where there were always two faciliators in case someone needed one to one support when something came up.
This work represents a wonderful enlightening alignment for me around previous research and teaching interests- autism, trauma, spirituality, multi dimensional (cognitive, emotional, embodied, social and spiritual) wellbeing, mindfulness. It helps explain why meditation retreats are suitable for some and not for others and may need to eventually be transcended if we to address some of our deeper human, social and relational needs. It provides much needed insight and information about how we can make our teaching and research more ethical, more safe.
As Trevleavan says ‘.. the continued integration of the wild instinctual body represents a profound step’ …
‘Mary Oliver is right: “The animal body must simply love what it loves. Humans simply need a safe container to do so’. The full poem is below…
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
from New & Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace).