Meditation and Trauma: Untangling the Tangle of Contemplative Dissociation

A paper well-worth reading and pondering: Meditation and Trauma: Untangling the Tangle of Contemplative Dissociation

Trauma has relocated from an event to the nervous system itself, expanding the definition to include any event where our animal body is overwhelmed. This rethinking can be attributed to Somatic Experiencing (SE), a psychotherapeutic approach created by Peter Levine that conceptualizes trauma as occurring when survival responses (fight and flight) cannot be completed…

Judging by the current literature, many Western Buddhist teachers are educated about trauma, will not hesitate to recommend therapy, and offer teachings with great sensitivity to the needs of their students. Nevertheless, the complex relationship between trauma and contemplative practice warrants further attention. In Western Buddhism, trauma is often contextualized within principles central to the movement – mindfulness, loving-kindness, ethical precepts – yet there is a noticeable lack of exploration of the relationship between trauma, dissociation, and contemplative practice.

One of the most important techniques SE offers is titration, a guided somatic movement between contraction and relaxation that prevents clients from becoming overwhelmed. According to SE, areas of trauma within the body are experienced as vortices that continually pull our attention. The nervous system attends to these vortices in an attempt to heal, but can dissociate (freeze) if the energy trapped within the contraction is not successfully discharged. Following a heated confrontation, for example, we may literally need to “shake off” excess energy generated in response to a perceived threat. If this threat does not de-escalate and safety is unavailable, our systems may shut down, or freeze. Observing this phenomenon, SE therapists read activation levels in the nervous system to guide clients back to a place of resourcefulness, preventing re-traumatization. This is the terrain where contemplative dissociation occurs: By mindfully connecting to their bodies, meditators are left to navigate an inner-world they may, for good reason, have left behind. …

Although many regulate activation levels by discharging bounded energy – a process akin to slowly letting air out of a balloon – individuals who cannot are at risk. So how can Western Buddhist teachers most effectively work with contemplative dissociation? Judging by the SE model, interpersonal contact is essential. During SE sessions, therapists actively learn about potential triggers, help regulate dysfunctional nervous systems, and establish rapport and safety with clients. On Western Buddhist retreats, practice is generally done alone, with interviews held only every few days.

…Considering the prevalence of developmental and acute trauma in our society – not to mention the arguably traumatic nature of our increasingly fast-paced culture – understanding trauma seems to be a necessity for Western contemplative teachers…” — David Treleaven (read more PDF file here)

sunA video that was posted on this blog a while back with David is well worth watching too: Meditation and Trauma / PTSD (risks and benefits) — this post includes links to many other posts on the same topic.

Another good accompanying piece is: Meditation: not all bliss and roses

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