April #MeToo: When Mindfulness is a Trauma Trigger

Saturday. Steve and I are doing yoga at home with our teacher, Nadine. Something’s clicked! Today I’m not trying so hard to not-try-so-hard to nail the poses. Often, I feel like a stitched-together collection of muscles and bones. Instead, I’m in harmony. For months, Nadine’s been showing how subtly tilting the pelvis frees the spine so that body extends naturally, finding repose on the anchor of the legs. Yes! I feel it. I feel powerful.

I’m trying! I’m trying!

What a great class. At the end, Steve and I lie in corpse pose while Nadine leads a short meditation. Corpse pose involves a complete letting go. We allow our resting bodies to fully melt into the floor. Well, ideally we do.

Nadine speaks gently: “This philosophy says that tension in the body comes from resisting our experience.” I’m still relaxed(ish), but immediately, my mind throws out a silent comeback: “You’re goddamn right it does. And for good reason!” I remain lying on my back, and I’m still (sort of) melting, but an old feeling creeps over me: Someone might grab me. I might be attacked. For the rest of the meditation, I tune out what Nadine is saying. I remind myself I’m safe—NOW. I do feel safe here. I trust Nadine. I wouldn’t be living in this house if I didn’t trust Steve.

Bowing to one another, yoga’s over for today. I describe what just happened, and they understand. Those two states of being–flow and fear—have rarely followed one another so quickly. I’m glad it’s happened, I tell them. This is what my life’s made of, and I’ve learned that in order to keep healing, you have to feel ALL the feels.

When I first started practicing mindfulness meditation 10 years ago, none of the teachers I sat with promised quick happiness. But they also didn’t say that for people with a trauma history, meditation can throw you back into feeling that the abuse is happening all over again–even in a safe situation.  Most of the published writing on mindfulness is glowing and positive.

Can’t it ALWAYS be like this?

Through trial and error, I discovered that meditation could directly access my trauma.  It confused me sometimes, because while I sometimes felt a magical, neurological calm, I couldn’t explain the darkness that came up. Mindfulness is about allowing yourself to see what IS, and part of what IS—of who I am—has to do with childhood, adolescent, and young adult trauma. The mind-silence in meditation allows unresolved feelings to emerge. The process wasn’t straightforward. I never freaked out BECAUSE I was meditating, or even during meditation—although this can happen, and people who teach meditation should be prepared to help folks deal with it. Sometimes I experienced a delayed reaction that didn’t feel connected to anything. Opening up to joy means opening to the old fears that block joy—and, as long as inner resources and outward supports allow the work of healing, that’s not a problem.

A few years ago, I stopped meditating. My life had changed, and I wasn’t attending group meditation, anyway. The hiatus gave me the distance to understand why my meditation experience was a mixed bag. I had tried to “use” meditation to fix what I perceived was “wrong” with me. My commitment to the

Wait? What? I didn’t sign up for this!

practice had to do with proving to my teachers that I meant business—that I was no spiritual butterfly, flitting from one feel-good technique to another. I reveled in the complexity mindfulness stirred up in me—and sometimes, I judged other meditators for describing the practice as an untarnished good.

I’m heartened that the phrase “trauma-informed” is appearing more often; it’s applied to teaching mindfulness in schools, and California’s Surgeon General is speaking out on how Adverse Childhood Experiences leads to poor health outcomes later in life. The point isn’t to make everyone so self-conscious about trauma triggers that we walk around with a stack of “instant empathy” cards to whip out. But just as an out-of-alignment spine can throw off the grace of the entire body, so trauma gives us a limp. If you’ve spent a lot of years limping through life, as I have, the good news isn’t just that we aren’t alone—it’s that together, we can contribute to a more healing world.

I am meditating again, by the way. It’s not always easy, but it’s good. I know I’ll be triggered sometimes, and that makes it less scary.

Relevant Links:

Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris’s Statewide Listening Tour

Helping Kids Practice Mindfulness Without Being Triggered

More about Aces (Adverse Childhood Experiences)





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