Mindfulness and Trauma

Mindfulness and trauma:              Jeff Emerson

Mindfulness meditation also called vipassana was first introduced by the Buddha 2500 years ago in the Satipatthana Sutta and Mahasatipattana sutta from the Pali cannon.

Mindfulness is a way of self-transportation through self-observation. It is done by paying attention to what is in a non-judgmental and non-attachment way. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “ paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”

The four main areas of observation are

1.       Kaya: The body: mindfulness of breathing, of different movements of the body, observing the repulsive nature of the body (phlegm, pus, blood etc) the five elements of the body, mindfulness of the space the body takes up

2.       Vedana: Sensations/feelings. Mindfulness of how feelings are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Watching the rising and passing of feelings, observing the intensity of feelings

3.       Citta: Mind/consciences being aware of mental states and presence and absence of the unwholesome states and the three poisons Lust, Hate, and delusion. Mindful of thoughts and the workings of the mind.

4.       Dharma- elements of Buddhist teachings such as the 4 Nobel truths, the seven factors of awaking, the interdependent nature of all things, and patterns of being over time. 

For trauma the first three are most important and is used most in the secular approach that is prevalent today. However, the buddha started with Dharma and added vipassana when the student was ready. Without this missing piece mindfulness is just another cure-all, which may be good for some things, but trauma may not be one of them. 

In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zin developed a program called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Developed at the University of Massachusetts. It uses combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and simple yoga postures. Since then mindfulness has taken off and is used in psychotherapy, prisons, schools, and is and has become a huge enterprise. It has been proven to work in a lot of different approaches to better mental and physical health. Mindfulness since then has become its own industry.

The issue with mindfulness meditation and trauma is that we are asking people to be present with what is happening right now in their minds and body but when there has been trauma what is happening right now may be a loop to what happened in the past causing more suffering. The trouble lies often when there is not integration of the trauma in the consciences. There is a dormant energy that lies at the root of trauma, if that energy is not released in one form or another or is not intergraded fully then that energy remains as ghost in the body mind connection. When asked to sit with ourselves and this unresolved energy that is stored in our body comes back out it bypasses the neocortex or rational brain and turns on the amygdala which sends out signals to the rest of the body that there is danger present when in fact that danger was perhaps years ago and the meditator might not know or can recall what danger is setting off this alarm but because we want to survive we have to pay attention to that danger, in the present or past tense. Imagine the confusion in the mind body connection while you are sitting in meditation, which is supposed to be relaxing, calming, and peaceful but all you feel is agitation, and heightened sense of panic. This leaves people thinking that they are different perhaps a little shameful for not being able to sit like others do, and trauma loves shame, trauma and PTSD breeds in the shame environment. Often the sensation of danger is coming through the body via the Vargas nerve which is said to be the longest nerve in the body and connects the body, the gut, organs, and mind together. The Vagus nerve works without intervention sending messages to the nervous system to regulate and communicate needs of the body to the mind. When trauma remains unintegrated stress, hormones continue and sends survival-based energy to the body and the body gets tense and gets ready to fight or flee or shuts down as it tries to find balance.

Cheetah House is a non-profit organization in Providence, Rhode Island started by Willoughby Britton is an organization for people who have had issues with mindfulness meditation. There is an online community.

Ways to work with those with trauma and Mindfulness:

1.       Meet the moment and feelings as they arise. Mindfulness meditation ask us to look for and observe feelings and emotions as they come up and not try to block. This allows for elimination of denial and allows one to watch the feelings come and go. However, if you have trauma feelings that you have suppressed for a long time and blocked them with addictive behavior, they can be intense and could feel as if your being consumed and retraumatized. However, if done with discernment feelings that are there weather, we realize them or acknowledge them can be worked out. 

2.       We can help others learn how to self-regulate. We teach how to stay in the present moment and watch, observe, and be aware of attention, emotion and the body. While doing we observe what is there in the present. So that we are better able to concentrate and hold their attention on these things to better see what is happening in these areas, and allows you to be empowered, to fix yourself.

3.       Stay within the Window of Tolerance: In his book Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness David Treleaven writes about the importance of finding the middle way of emotions and Heperarousal and Hypoarousal Hyperarousal would be things like increased sensations, which cause anxiety, emotional reactivity, when your get into a place where your emotions are out of control , intrusive imagery, when your have flashbacks of trauma, Disorganized cognitive process. Feeling out of control. Hypoarousal is when you go into deep depression, relative absence of sensation, numbing of emotion, Disabled cognitive processing, Dissociation. The middle way would be finding a way of sensing that you are becoming Hyper or Hypo and doing something to bring yourself back to the middle ground. To do this may mean during meditation opening the eyes to gaze at what is in the room or perhaps standing, feeling your hands or butt on the chair or cushion, something to bring you back to the present. By doing this and practicing finding the middle way you have the power to work with your emotions while in meditation. It may mean talking to someone and allowing them to bring you back, this is one reason to meditate with others in small informal groups. It is also important to make eye contact with others when you feel yourself slipping out of the middle way. While teaching or attending meditation groups if we see someone who muscle tone is slack or tense, who sweat excessively, or are going pale, and disengaged we can take them aside and talk to them what is going on.

4.       Teach how to shift attention in meditation, If you’re seeing yourself going in a dark place or getting hyper or Hypo aroused shifting attention on purpose is a wonderful way of staying in a safe place. We can shift attention to our body, the sounds in the room, the breath what ever we can to go into another direction if need be.