Home » Blog » Trauma

Tag: Trauma

Facing What’s Inside

By Kristy Johnsson.  

If we want any aspect of our world to change – whether it be family systems or political systems – we have to meet the parts of us that uphold the status quo.

You know, the wildest thing is that after all the trees I’ve planted,
all the kids I’ve taught,
all the volunteers I’ve organized,
all the people I’ve counselled,
all the money I’ve donated,
all the votes cast,
all the ranting and raving,
all the writing,
all the researching,

all of it trying to make this world a little less self-destructive, the most potent action I’ve found isn’t an action at all.

It’s been looking at the darkest corners of my being and letting my heart bathe it all in profound acceptance. It has been a being-with, rather than an act of attempted control or influence.

It sounds so cheesy, but I swear it’s true. We just can’t be that helpful to anyone or anything if we’re committed to delusion. And in the midst of our trauma and fear and pain, if we lose touch with our feet on the ground, most of us are.

When I was 17 years old, my mom and I were engaged in a vicious fight. After I retreated to my room, she came upstairs and told me, “You think you have it so bad? When I was your age, my mother jumped out of a window and killed herself!”

That was the first time I learned of my grandmother’s suicide. An act she committed in front of most of her 11 children.

I stood there in shock, not just for obvious reasons, but because a clear image emerged that gripped me: I saw myself standing before a huge, drooling, fanged beast, and behind me stood a line of all my female ancestors that had met it before me. The message of the image was clear: “Now it’s your turn.”

I had never heard of intergenerational trauma, that our ancestors’ traumas leave marks on our DNA, but that’s clearly the insight I was having looking back. No one in my family knew that I had been struggling with deep depression and chronic suicidal thoughts for several years, but in that moment I knew that my grandmother’s pain and mine were inextricably connected. And now it was my turn to face the darkness within myself and her.

Facing both my unconscious pain and the pain of my culture has radically changed my view of myself and the world, as well as the way I hold myself and walk through this world. It has been and continues to be an incredible process in its depth and its insights.

Our pain, our patterns, and our beliefs touch everything in our lives. And when billions of people play out these patterns, we have the world we see now. No amount of political upheaval, education, tree planting, or activism will change the world so deeply and so permanently as when we face what lies within us and meet it all.

To read more about Kristy Johnsson, click here.

The Dance of Life

By Lisa Meuser.  

I went to a 5 Rhythms[1] (5R) retreat over the weekend.  If you’re unfamiliar with 5R, it is an organization devoted to freedom, utilizing dance. As with all sacred work, the 5R container is carefully crafted to invite, invoke, ignite and inspire… mind, body and spirit.

5R uses music to tap into resonances that live through all human beings, but often get blocked, denied, ignored, numbed, or stuck. Different words can be used to explain the resonances but in the 5R world they are named as “Flow, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness.”

Just as all emotions are crucial to know the expression of wholeness, all rhythms are important in the human journey of embodiment. They all have their time and place, depending on the contextual moment of an individual. There is no “wrong” rhythm or “bad” rhythm. Phew!

If you’ve read my posts before, you might be seeing how this practice aligns so much with what is already woven throughout my life.

  • Deeply inherent in this practice (and my life) is the movement away from the dominant narrative that is rule-bound, controlling and linear, to the transformative narrative which values inclusion of expression, both/and perspectives, and connection.[2]
  • There is a focus on embodiment – of allowing what is, to be felt, expressed, and honored. Another way of saying this – it is deeply enlivening.
  • There is an honoring of the human experience in all its flavors: hard, soft, spacious, rigid, flowing, contracted and divine – and so much more.
  • 5R is a kinesthetic practice – I love involving my body in conscious engagement!
  • Sacred space is important in this practice. We are waking up in the collective, uniquely. Safety, trust and love are inherent.
  • The practice is rooted in simplifying, connecting with the ordinary and practical (which, in my experience is often profound), and being in direct experience. Too often we are distracted by the conceptual mind, and what is literally right . here . and . now is disguised.
  • Empowering the participants is a primary focus. Participants follow what feels right for them and are not forced or required to participate in any particular kind of way. No agenda. No fixing. In that space of no agenda, worlds open up, and what hadn’t been seen, comes into view… what hadn’t taken form, finds wholeness in being.


Gifts of the Rhythms

My life is set up to support me in connecting with my un/subconscious – habits, conditioning, patterning, strategies, and so on, that may exist outside of my attention. This practice is similar, in that by exploring the different rhythms I was invited to connect below the surface level into those subtle layers of uncharted territories.


Flow

Take Flow, for example, the first of the 5 rhythms. Flow energy is that kind of adaptable fluidity that can be considered a feminine energy. Think of how a woman’s hips can move with a certain kind of expression that may not be as innate in a man. In the dance it is distinguished as flowing, continuous movements.  In my life, I’ve often had too much of an ability to flow – or adapt. As a survivor, it became a strategy to adapt to those around me – to become who they wanted me to be, or to try to be a certain kind of someone – so as to avoid rejection or abandonment. As a young person, I learned to adapt to stay safe, but then later in life that adapting no longer kept me safe. Too much fluidity made me ripe for abusive dynamics when I was an adult. To help shift that conditioning, I’ve needed to learn about and to employ staccato energy in my life.


Staccato

Staccato energy is another of the rhythms. It is more of a masculine energy by nature, and can be distinguished by more rigid movements in the dance. Staccato energy teaches us how to have healthy boundaries, to stay true to our own wisdom even when it feels risky, and to stay in the simple clarity of Love. This is a resonance that I lived most of my life without. It has been extremely empowering to discover this energy – and to know that I can be fully open in my heart, connected with Love, while having boundaries.

There was one paired exercise where we were invited to be in staccato energy while staying in our open hearts. I so appreciated being able to engage in this in such a kinesthetic, full-bodied way.  Too often, the mind is trying to manage us into a homogenous experience. “I need to say YES to everything to be a loving individual!” As such we get caught in a trap. The mind says that if we have boundaries, or say no, it must mean we’re not being loving. Although that may be the belief, it is simply not true. With practice, we can discover that we can say no, set a clear boundary, AND be open hearted. Embodying paradoxes is powerful!


Chaos

Another powerful experience was being in the rhythm of Chaos. As the name might give away, chaos can be rather whirlwindish. For survivors, we often detest this energy because it was the energy of our childhood. And yet, because we dislike it so much, we wind up creating or being involved with dramatic (and traumatic) lives and people because of our inability to have boundaries. In the chaotic rhythm we learn that we can have both flow AND boundaries. We learn that it is safe to be in chaos, out of strategy, and in the disruption of old patterning. We learn that in life there is a creative flow that awaits our participation – if we can open to it, it is ours!!!

Many times the chaos rhythm took me towards immense states of freedom – old ideas of myself falling away effortlessly as more of me was available to the expansive energy of the creative field.


Lyrical and Stillness

Dancing through chaos, I fell into the rhythm of Lyrical, where a sense of space opens up for integration, and a sense of lightness emerges. And then finally, into the rhythm of Stillness, where completion reveals itself in slow, if not motionless, expression.

Many times, on the other side of Chaos, I found myself in an awe-inspired ecstasy with God – in a union with the utter vastness of grand design. Tears falling down my face, in the holiest of the holy – in the Magnificence itself.

Another paradox revealed itself to me through the weekend. While Stillness does have its own rhythm in the practice of 5R, stillness also can be maintained throughout all of the other rhythms. I remember one time, in the energy of Staccato, where I was connecting to anger and rage, there was a sense of stillness running through me at the very same time. Said another way, it became clear to me that Love/God co-exists with everything. EV.ER.Y.TH.ING. The embodiment of paradoxes is profoundly transformative.


Embrace your Dance, Embrace your Life

Over the course of the weekend we were summoned to engage with the energetic resonances that live deep within our being. This is no small task, but it is a task that we choose to fall into, with guidance, support and love[3].

Although it may seem like it, this isn’t an advertisement for 5R. This blog post is about the celebration of life as a human being – and the dances we engage in. I invite you to engage in your humanity in whatever way allows you to dance, metaphorically or literally, with your humanity.

I invite you to know the expressions, or rhythms, of your human self, and to experiment in and with them, with conscious curiosity. Many of you do this with me in 1:1 sessions, in trainings, in gatherings, and/or in deepening courses. I look forward to our continued dance, in deep courage, compassion, and love.

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

[1] https://www.5rhythms.com

[2] I wrote about the dominant/transformative narratives here.

[3] Thanks to Visudha de Los Santos (and David Watters for bringing 5R to Bloomington).

I Want It Now! Inquiring With Cravings

By Sumitra Burton.  

When I have an intense craving for something sweet, there’s often an urgency to have it NOW! Don’t try to reason with me, don’t tell me No, don’t stand in my way! My gut is contracted, my whole body is tight and I can’t wait!

I WANT IT ….. And I WANT IT NOW!

It feels like if I don’t get that cookie right now, … what? What will happen if I don’t get it now? I might explode? I’ll have a nervous breakdown? Maybe I’ll simply die. In the moment there’s no reasoning, no reasonableness, no room for questions. Or so it seems.

And the old familiar response of going ahead and eating the cookie has created a habit that feels stuck in stone.

Where did this craving first arise in my life? When I look back to my earliest days, I realize that I was fed on a timetable as an infant – every 4 hours – not picked up if I cried before that time. My parents didn’t play with me or hold me much; Mom was always busy taking care of the house and we kids played with each other.

And my childhood happened just after the big Depression – resources were scarce, there was just a certain amount of food and it needed to be shared with the whole family, nothing extra. Food was precious.

My grandmother baked oatmeal cookies for treats when I was young, and so did my mom at times and even my dad, later on when food was less scarce (he always added peanut butter to the recipe). Comfort food. Food for special times or simply for comfort. Food with sugar that would soothe the craving for sweetness.

It’s easy to see that the patterns were laid early on for me to crave sweets when I needed comforting. Food became my great friend, my comforter. When life was uncomfortable, there was always food to turn to. And there was plenty of discomfort as a young adult, as I became divorced and a single mother.

The body remembers. It stores trauma and unquestioned beliefs in the unconscious. Inquiry brings these unresolved experiences out of the unconscious to be acknowledged, accepted and even cherished. Great power is available in these stored, unconscious energies, power that can be used for transformation once they are revealed.

I WANT IT NOW!

What if I could actually wait?

I CAN WAIT FOR FOOD (trying out the “Reverse Inquiry”).

What comes up when I hear those words, when I take them deep inside and really hear them? I CAN WAIT FOR FOOD…. Oh, maybe that’s true, come to think of it. The body relaxes and I wait, wait to see if I’m really hungry and want a cookie. For the first time in like forever.

To read more about Sumitra Burton, click here.

What Elephant? Naming Systemic Oppression

By Lisa Meuser.  
Artist Alexis Morgan.

Oh, the elephant in the room! You know the one, the topic that people don’t talk about. In my most recent blog post about embodiment and waking up, there was an elephant in the room that I didn’t mention. I know in my heart that if we’re going to talk about embodiment and waking up, we have to talk about oppression. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s an elephant we have to purposefully wake up to.

Why oppression? Why me? I’m not oppressing anyone! I’m not being oppressed[1]!

Why does it even matter? I wrote about waking up to my own internalized racism and how it counter-intuitively brought me closer to Love. Here’s a summary: waking up to and connecting with oppression in the world allowed me to connect with, and to, the oppression in myself. Waking up and connecting further to the oppression within myself then allowed me to wake up even more to the oppression in the world. My heart broke open, wider, and deeper. My fragility shifted and, quite surprisingly, my sense of being safe in the world increased. It was all rather unexpected. Then I started seeing this happen with my clients.

We do not exist in isolation; rather, we exist in relationship. A deeper sense of embodiment and safety with life develops, as a healthier and more honest relationship with the world within and outside of oneself is cultivated.

My relationship with Love, compassion, and safety has never been the same and only continues to grow and expand, as I keep being honest with the ways I oppress others as well as myself. I continue to learn, and hope what I share will be helpful for you on your journey. May we learn together.

 

Oppression traumatizes

Oppression is in the air we breathe, proliferating unrecognized by most in our family structures, our religious and spiritual modalities, and our political, health care, judicial, and educational institutions. Oppression is traumatizing to the oppressed as well as the oppressor. As a client shared with me about his lineage of slave owners, “You can’t oppress people and not have your soul ripped out of you.”

Here is the biggest elephant in the room: oppression has bled into the very structure of our beings. We have systematically been taught beliefs, ideas, and ways to cope (by an oppressive culture) that lead us to oppress ourselves (and each other).

Oppression has been internalized into the composition of our minds, psyches, and somatic systems.

Is it any wonder that we often feel like our own worst enemy?

Is it any wonder that we wind up hating ourselves and others, as we unknowingly oppress and traumatize through our words, thoughts, and deeds?

Is it any wonder why embodiment and healing are so darn hard or why those in the social justice arena get burned out so fast or become bogged down in darkness? When we can’t see oppression in the existence of our lives or within our psychological makeup, we are unable to function as sustainable change agents – even when we have the best intentions.

 

Opening our eyes to what we value

None of us have escaped from the tendrils from oppression[2], and we suffer immensely (and inflict suffering on others) when we do not look at what these tendrils are connected to. It might help to see these webs by exploring the values of our dominant modern-day culture alongside transformative[3] or alternative values.

When we study the tenets of prevalent modern-day culture, we find the following dominant attributes:

  • Power-over dynamics.
  • Authoritarianism.
  • Competitiveness.
  • Focus on the individual.
  • Overemphasis on the mental/linearity.
  • Secrecy.
  • Struggle for/consolidation of power via hierarchy.
  • Scarcity.
  • Either/or thinking.
  • Us/them thinking.
  • Blame
  • Focus on achievement and outcome.
  • Exclusion of the past
  • Exclusion of people of certain demographics.

When we study the tenets of what we might call transformative or “life-valuing” culture, we find attributes such as:

  • Power-with dynamics.
  • Accountability/responsibility.
  • Shared power.
  • Inclusion of heart and spirit.
  • Focus on the collective/on “we.”
  • Collaboration and cooperation.
  • Transparency.
  • Recognition of past.
  • Abundance.
  • Both-and thinking.
  • “Us” thinking.
  • Transformation and integration.
  • Focus on the process/the journey.
  • Inclusion of all people.
  • Focus on connection and relationship.

Twenty-five years ago, in my early days as a social worker, it became undeniable that the dominant values in our culture were not for the good of all people. Having recognized this, I wanted to explore other ways of being in the world. I soon found that this was easier said than done.

As I started to experiment with these paradigm shifts, although my heart and intent were often in the right place, I often found myself utilizing the tenets of oppressive culture in my attempts to change it. I also noticed that I was not the only one who wanted to do good but kept getting bound up in oppressive ways. [4]

I hadn’t realized that oppression was not just around me¾oppression was in me.

 

The macro and the micro reflect each other

Changing our narratives is a process, and it requires conscious exploration to discover that oppression lives deep within our very psyches and somatic systems.

When we study the psyche within many of us, we will find a profusion of tenets that tend to exist within our oppressive culture:

  • Competitiveness.
  • Self-loathing and lack of abundance.
  • Reliance on over-thinking.
  • Disconnection from and fear of others.
  • Striving to feel safe through a sense of power and control.
  • Bypassing the past or acknowledging cultural impact.
  • Hiding behavior (the inability to be honest with one’s self).
  • Restrictive thought patterns.
  • Right-wrong/good-bad (either-or) thinking[5].
  • Pathology of our humanity.

These tenets also promote a sense of fear in the body or disconnect from the body altogether. Even though there are usually life-affirming traits as well, these are often overshadowed by the dominant values of our culture.

The narratives most of us carry are rooted in the very same things that our cultures prize, encourage, and teach. Could it be that culture is teaching us to suffer? Could it be that culture doesn’t want us to be free?

When we study the psyche of a “healthy” or life-valuing person, we will find the tenets of transformational culture:

  • A sense of abundance that allows for open and curious connections.
  • A sense of well-being.
  • Honesty (including “the dark side”).
  • Inclusion of heart and body.
  • Accountability and responsibility.
  • Allowance and acceptance of the vast terrain of being human.
  • Acknowledgment of the past and the culture we are a part of.

There is often an accepting relationship with the body, where a willingness to experience its vast landscape replaces past habits of trying to control or limit. Sure, there will likely still be some oppressive tenets found within “healthy people,” but even those will be met with more inclusion and less self-judgment.

Could it be that, by learning new ways of being, we create new narratives within ourselves? Based on my experience, yes. Is it any surprise that these values are a natural part of the embodiment process? I find it an exciting “coincidence”!

In my study of waking up, and in working with hundreds of people who have been on the waking up and healing journey, I have seen radical narrative and experiential transformations. In each case, there had been a fierce sense of oppression within their psyche, a base they worked from and were fiercely bound to until they consciously started to learn another way. Over time, the dominant values slowly changed into transformative, life-affirming values. Along the way, their suffering started to turn into a healthy relationship with life, allowing them to be more effective change agents in the world.

When we fail to connect with our internalized oppressive existence, we continue to harm others as well as ourselves. Being change agents for the well-being of all embraces inclusion, “we-ness,” connectivity, intimacy, love, openness, abundance, and possibility. In the denial of nothing, we stop oppressing ourselves and those around us.

 

So, Now What?

In my blog post about embodiment, I left out the elephant in the room. I didn’t specifically write about how important it is for us to inquire into our relationship with the oppression found in racism, sexism, nationalism, capitalism, classism, gender/sexual orientation, fatism, ableism, and others. When we don’t address these topics, we deny, ignore, and exclude reality. We cannot live as embodied people when we are ignoring the reality of humanity. When we live apart from the hearts of those who are oppressed, we have to live in separation. In this state of separation, we suffer and experience oppression within, and in the process often cause harm to others.

I readily admit, for most of my life, I have tried to stay removed from the hearts of those who experience the horror of systemic pain. I thought I had to figure out my suffering and pain first, as I felt too fragile to “get real” with the pain of systemic oppression. But then a strange thing happened:

One day, with the support of my somatic therapist, I was feeling despair and defeat with regards to the imprisonment of immigrant children coming in from Mexico. I wanted to turn away from it, as it reminded me of my own despair and defeat with regards to past experiences of being trapped and violated. The pain in my body was too much. I just wanted to be mad about it¾and I was. I was enraged at our government and felt that heat move through my body.

“It was all too much,” I said out loud, grabbing my heart as if to protect it.

As I named this experience, something that was already shifting started to shift some more. With the compassionate presence of my therapist, I started to fall into a pain that was deep in my heart. This pain took me in, all the way in. It felt excruciating, like it would never end, as I kept turning towards those children separated from their families as well as my own lived pains.

The heart I came out of was wider and deeper than I had ever known. I felt a Love that included both myself and those children in a way that had never felt safe to feel. It was then that my sense of fragility started to fade, and I was able to be more real with life.

My depth of empathy and compassion with others experiencing horrid pain and suffering was different from that moment going forward. My ability to look directly at the oppressive matrix of our culture became clearer, and as a result my training to pathologize human pain and suffering further diminished.

 

Curiosity Changes Everything

I understand that not everyone is going to have the privilege of having the resources, resourcing, time, and most importantly, support of others. However, I hope those who are reading this post can at least ask themselves some big questions, which may create some space for deeper connections with the world we live in.

The relationship we have with reality reveals the quality of our relationship with God[6], with life, with creation, and with existence itself. Are we open to God? Are we open to life? Are we open to seeing the flavors of reality? Are we open to learning? Are we open to including more?

We often filter out oppression because we feel conflicted and uncomfortable, and many of us were never taught how to be with discomfort. When we don’t know how to be with discomfort, we suffer more because we have to increasingly limit our experiences to keep out what we don’t like. Ultimately, we wind up controlled by our fears, but will often try to control and oppress others as an attempt to escape that sense of debilitation. The cycle ensues.

Everything is connected¾when one of us is oppressed, we are all impacted. When one of us authentically frees ourselves from the web of oppression, a light shines for others to follow. As Rumi once said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Can we find the willingness to move towards that light?

 

A New Way Forward

Some reading this blog post are in full acceptance that oppression is systemically woven into our culture. Thank you for all that you are doing to address the toxicity in our world. I hope that this has been helpful as a reminder that, to be change agents in the world, we must look inward at our oppressive makeup. As we work to change the system, we have to address our internal levels of psychic and somatic oppression; otherwise, we will stay in the same oppressive loop. We cannot employ the toxicity of the dominant paradigm to get to well-being; rather, we must embody life-affirming values to make effective, sustainable change.

Many who want or have access to opportunity and privilege are disconnected from the reality of oppression. Some of these individuals are also interested in healing and well-being. If this describes you, I hope you will be willing to become more aware of the systemic and systematic practices that our culture is rooted in, as there is no other way to break the oppressive loop.

Oppressive values govern not only the oppressed but those who enjoy our culture’s privileges, as well. Our circumstances do not mean that our internal landscape is free from oppression. As we become willing to take a look at the external landscape that we are enmeshed in, we will become more aware of what is keeping us from rooting in well-being and fully participating in life.


Let’s Journey Together

Oppressing others is traumatic to the oppressor’s psyche. Oppression always breeds more oppression within both oneself and others. Unless consciously integrated, this trauma, oppression, and violence are passed on to future generations. We live in a culture that is paying the price for this repressed and unacknowledged trauma. Black or Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), the poor, and other marginalized peoples continue to suffer the greatest and most overtly.

We cannot be embodied human beings while immersed in oppression, either from within our psyches or in how we interact with the world. If we are not aware of our oppression, the oppressive system of our culture, and the oppressive system within our psyche, we and our world are doomed to suffer. As we connect with oppression both inside and outside ourselves, transformation becomes inevitable.

Being able to name and then consciously explore the matrix of systemic oppression as it lives within my psyche and the fabric of our culture has been a necessary and fundamental part of my embodiment journey. It is impossible to convey the level of safety and well-being I have now compared to when I was bound by the values of our dominant culture.

It all started by asking curious questions of myself and being willing to look honestly at and feel deeply into who I was, who I wanted to be, and how much harm I was creating in my life. Change comes through honesty and vulnerability. It’s not always easy, but in my experience, it’s always worth it. A lot of us are waking up together¾there is much more support available than ever before! I look forward to continuing to learn with you.

 

Practical Explorative Options

  1. Unsure as to your level of internalized oppression? Take some of the Harvard Implicit bias tests free here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
    When we don’t know our biases, we live in a choiceless world, bound by the bidding and the wiles of oppression.
  2. Questions you can ask yourself:
    • What resonance does the voice in your head speak with?
    • Does your internal voice tend to be kind and loving? If not, whose voice is that? Is that how a caregiver used to speak to you? A teacher?
    • What does that harsh narrative need or want? Does it want support? Safety? Love? Be curious!
    • When you listen to perspectives from marginalized peoples, such as BIPOC, women, and people with disabilities, what does that bring up in you?
    • Pay attention when you’re reading or listening. Which perspective are you hearing: the dominant narrative or the transformative narrative?
    • Do you feel defensive when you think about your privilege?
    • How do you employ dominant values while you are trying to do good in the world?
    • Do you become overtly or subtly violent as a change agent?
    • How are you unintentionally or intentionally oppressing others?
    • How are you oppressing yourself?
    • How can you support yourself, or be supported, as you journey into this vulnerable terrain?

Finding people and groups where I can have real conversations about these very real topics and challenges has been life-altering for me. You are not alone on this journey – there are people and groups to support you. We are growing and learning together. Please email me for more information or ideas.

  1. There are so many ways to learn about oppression. Journaling, combined with aspects of #2 above, can be a powerful practice. With that said, reading and listening to voices other than my own has probably been the most important part of my evolution.I’ve been compiling a list of resources to pass on, including books, Facebook pages, blogs, and podcasts. Feel free to email me for recommendations. Get clear on what you’d like to learn more about before you email me, and I’ll do my best to match you up to something that aligns with your request. Also, if you have a beloved source, please pass it on to me!

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

[1] Some reading this blog post are in full acceptance that oppression is systemically woven into our culture. Are you aware that it is systemically woven into your psyche? This post is for you too!

[2] Oppression is in the very creation of western culture, and if you’re from the United States, it’s in the very fabric in which the United States came to be. There would be no United States of America if it had not been for the slave labor that quite literally manufactured and built up its existence, making the U.S. into a world power. Oppression is not unique to the U.S.¾world history is filled with it. This oppression is a systemic part of the world and has fused itself into our minds, our psyches, and our somatic existences.

[3] Some of this terminology comes from Crossroads, an amazing organization doing much good in the world.

[4] We commonly use violence or oppressive strategies while trying to eradicate violence: countries “bombing for peace,” spiritual teachers misusing their power, parents who spank their children for misbehaving, vegans who dogmatically judge those who eat animals, white feminists donning pussyhats, parents, friends or therapists who want to fix people, and trying to make people be accountable are a few examples that come to mind. I have participated in many of those just listed, creating harm in the process.

[5] Rigid right/wrong/good/bad thinking is the perfect breeding ground for what we can call “should energy.” It is very oppressive in that it is rooted in harsh judgments and often comes with shame. It also causes people to control and oppress others as a way to bypass the self-loathing that is often experienced in this oppressive thought structure.

[6] God- or whatever name we give to that existence that is wiser than our egoic sense of self.

Moving out of the Fog of Disconnect: A Journey Towards Stillness

By Lisa Meuser.  

A question was sent to me:

“I feel I’ve often confused and conflated the two: What is the difference between stillness and frozenness? What is the difference between peace and playing dead?”

I love this question! While there may be a simple response to this question, there’s also a lot going on in this conflation. I’m going to give it a shot, knowing there is so much to say on this deep and rich topic.

 

Humans need support

All of us have likely experienced a frozen[1] state at some point in our early childhoods. Whenever we experience overwhelm as young beings, going into a frozen state would be a valid, normal physiological experience based on brain chemistry and our inability to process at such an early developmental phase.

Many of us have seen what happens when a bird flies into a window: we think the bird is dead, only to find it “coming back to life” after a quick shake, and then fly off.

When animals experience that frozen state they instinctually know how to “shake themselves” out of that frozen or stunned state. Pretty simple.

It’s a little more complicated for young unresourced human beings. We are the only species that requires loving and attentive care well into our teenage years (and beyond – our brains don’t fully develop until we’re 23) if we are to grow up to be healthy human beings. So while we may have the ability to shake off a frozen state, we also need nurturing, support and safe environments.

If, while growing up, we didn’t have adults around to help us process frozen states, or if we had adults who drove us into those frozen states, we likely never learned how to process frozen states in a healthy, functional way, and so we lost that inherent resource. As such, we adapt, but we stay a little frozen as the brain chemicals that were initially released get pushed down into our system, never fully released out of our systems. Meanwhile, not having our emotional needs taken care of starts to create mayhem for our psyches.  After all, humans are coded to want to feel good, comfortable and loved, and it is confusing and often scary for us when we don’t.

 

Adapting to dysfunction, the new norm

When we live in environments where there is unpredictability or chaos (which may show through manifestations of parental conflict or negligence, emotional or physical) we adapt by staying partially frozen, vigilant, and/or on guard, even when things are “fine,” because we intuitively know “it’s just a matter of time” until chaos re-occurs. After a while we get used to being in this state – it becomes our new normal, and we get used to disconnecting, and/or numbing out as a way to cope.

If we are living in challenging, chaotic situations or circumstances with a lot of conflict and/or highs and lows (fight or flight energy), we may even like numbing out and find comfort with it, particularly when compared to the alternative.  It may even start to mimic a sense of stillness, peace, or calmness when compared to the overwhelm of fight or flight.

Said another way, in this state of disconnection we’ve partially shut down, which can feel like relief from the alternative highs and lows of mania or dismay, or the chemical response of fight or flight energy[2]. It makes sense that we might prefer to feel nothing, than discomfort, pain, or terror.

This state may become our refuge, our safest place, our new norm. It no longer feels like a frozen state because by this point we’ve learned quite well to disconnect from our bodies, and live in our minds. We escape, using our minds, into a world of daydreaming, fantasy, reading, thinking, or some kind of social or entertainment media source. We may also use food, drugs, or other coping activities such as porn as a way to escape. Sometimes we turn to meditation practices that teach us how to go “up and out” of our bodies.

It’s all a perfect escape from the highs and the lows, as well as the frozen underpinnings in our system, and a way we can feel some control in an environment that is very much out of our control. Keep in mind, we’re coded to want to feel good, and we’ll do whatever it takes to experience this.

 

As if out of a deep slumber

What I’m describing is not something rare. In my experience, most human beings are functioning or have functioned in this way in overt or covert ways. Even if we lived in somewhat healthy households, our culture expects and pushes people towards numbing out, and caters to people who are in various states of disconnect. Generally speaking we are a species that is starving for connection, living in a culture that by its very nature functions through disconnection. It’s no wonder that we often feel like hamsters on a hamster wheel.

Many will live their lives continuing to adapt to this numbed out state. But for others, a sense of internal oppression grows in such a way that the numbness itself becomes confronting. This may happen when one is quite young, or much later in life.

Thoughts such as: “Something seems to be missing,” “There’s got to be more than this,” “It feels like I’m suffocating,” and others, may start to weigh in, while at the same time a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life may arise, perhaps accompanied by feelings of emptiness, or hopelessness. We may start to realize that we’re dumbed down, or numbed out, and all of a sudden life may start to feel really shitty. It’s as if that numbed out state stops being “ok” and instead it becomes distressing. Feelings of depression or anxiety may begin, get worse, or become unmanageable. We may try (more) things to increase our highs to overcome this state of dis-ease. “Drugs, sex and rock and roll” may be a few favorites, although all sorts of behaviors to boost pleasure brain chemistry might be experimented with to help us feel better.

 

We’re not designed to be perpetually frozen

Humans are designed to cope with stress, but we are not designed to have a constant input of stress. After a while, our bodies – having been reservoirs for repressed energies and experiences – can’t keep at it.

We want to feel good, comfortable, and loved. We can only endure the lack of these things for so long, and we can only sustain dysfunctional modes of trying to achieve this for so long.  Our systems eventually start to crumble – psychologically, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually.

People are often in this predicament when they reach out to me.  Together, we gently, and slowly connect to what’s going on, and in the process people start to become more familiar and safe with their bodies.

 

Peace and stillness, not what you think it is

As one starts to come into their body, they often experience what I call a “melting” phase. The body starts to “come alive”, as the frozenness starts to melt. It may sound great, and sometimes it is! And sometimes it’s uncomfortable or even a little painful.

Think of a time when your hands or feet were so cold that when you put them in hot water they burned. When the body starts to defrost it can feel a little like that. The heart, for example, may start to burn as it opens, as it melts. My “therapist self” thinks of this as a good sign, but when it was happening to me I had a very different perspective! As with most of the healing process, it is useful to go slowly and gently, with accessibility to loving support.

When the discomfort and pain start to become safely familiar, another challenge can be a sense of boredom. Again, I think of this as good news, as it’s another step on the journey. But when it was happening to me the boredom felt like I was doing it wrong, or it would usher in restlessness or agitation that was really uncomfortable, and felt counterintuitive to what I thought I should be experiencing.

When we’re used to highs and lows, and/or when we’re used to being numb, being with what’s here feels so unfamiliar that the personality or ego mind can get rattled.

The personality or ego mind often does not like unfamiliar, newness, or ‘different’- so this process can be very counterintuitive, and we will talk ourselves out of it any chance we get.

It was important for me to learn how to gently, patiently and compassionately explore the restlessness and boredom, rather than act out because of the restlessness and boredom. Again, this is why it can be useful to have guidance, so that the mind does not sabotage the evolution that is taking place.

As we “hang in there”, we may be faced with a variety of challenges based on the concepts we have about what is supposed to happen when we “wake up” or experience healing. Personally, I was so used to highs and lows that I often had concepts and expectations of “big bang” moments, or “abiding peace”.

I limited myself immensely by holding onto grandiose and false ideas. I even drove away expressions of stillness and peace as I held onto ideas of what I should be experiencing. It was important for me to slowly and gently wade through the various ideas and expectations, supposed to’s, and shoulds as I connected with the thoughts I was having and the sensations I was experiencing.  As those concepts shifted, so did my allowance and experiences of stillness and peace.

 

Getting to know ourselves

There often comes a time in the healing and waking up journey where, as self-awareness grows, we begin to have the ability to consciously interact with our brain chemistry. For me this was a huge movement into self-empowerment, and radically shifted my relationship with life itself. Prior to this I often felt swept away by states of being – particularly fear states. Learning about my brain chemistry was a big part in shifting out of powerlessness and into resourced agency.

We all respond to strong emotions differently as adults but the initial response originates in the amygdala. Some of us freeze, some people go into fight, some go into flee, and some go into feign/fawn. Regardless, that amygdala response causes the prefrontal cortex to be impacted in such a way that it temporarily stops functioning at full capacity. Long story short, this means that when we’re in a fear state, for example, we’re not thinking clearly. This is why, when in fight, flight, freeze or feign, we don’t make “good” decisions. This often leads us to do things we later regret. The sooner we detect that we are in an “amygdala response”, the faster we can “re-set” our brains and resume full functionality.

We each have different strategies that come with different physiological responses, and it is helpful to notice how we individually react. As I was speaking about this with a couple last week we discovered that he went into fight mode. He was able to identify that he feels heat through his body as this is happening. She was able to identify that she goes into freeze, which is accompanied by a sense of “getting small.” It can be a powerful step in being able to identify our signature physiological responses. Now he knows that when he gets hot, to pause. Now she knows when she starts to feel small, to pause. They are learning to communicate with each other when they notice physiological stress or amygdala responses happening. This allows them to avoid harmful behaviors and support each other.

As they identify that need to “pause,” they can turn towards activities that will help their brains to re-set so their prefrontal cortexes can come back on line. We spoke about different things each person could do to help this re-set take place. Sue, for example, finds it useful to connect to slow, gentle breathing, while Mark finds it useful to get a breath of fresh air, or walk around in his yard.

Pausing is a vital step in changing patterning, and it becomes possible to make this choice as we become intimate and familiar with ourselves. This increased awareness provides fertile ground for experiencing deeper expressions of stillness and peace.

 

Including our bodies, slowly and safely, with conscious attention

This understanding our physiology/ brain chemistry is particularly relevant as we start to “melt.”  Prior, we’d been disconnected from our bodies in such a way that we weren’t aware of a lot of the feelings or sensations throughout our body. After the “melting” starts, we start to feel more, sometimes for the first time in our lives. This can be uncomfortable, not because anything bad is happening, but because something new is happening, and we humans don’t always like new.

There’s reasons why many of us disconnected from our bodies, so it can take time for us to learn that it’s safe for us to include them now. Until we experience that safety, we may feel overwhelmed when we feel our bodies. It may remind us, subconsciously, of how we felt when we were very young and didn’t have the emotional support we needed to process big sensations and feelings.

The difference is that now we’re in adult bodies, in our safe homes, with far more resources and agency than we had as children. Part of this resourcing can come through learning about our brain chemistry, and in discovering how we can help ourselves when we are experiencing certain kinds of brain chemistry – mainly overwhelm, fear, or anger.

 

Getting to know stillness and peace through neutrality

An intricate part of my journey has been making friends with neutrality. Because I’ve been drawn to highs and lows, and because I have had so many false ideas about waking up and healing, I had to learn how to make friends with what I call neutrality – the space in between “good” and “bad.”

This has been profound for many of my clients as well. One shared:

“First I thought neutrality was nothing, and the place where I felt the trigger (in my body) was everything. And now I see the neutrality as something full, and “strong.” 

I will be writing more about this topic in the future as it has been revelatory in my journey.

 

We can learn to experience sustainable peace

A lot is covered in this post.  Here is a summary:

  1. Frozenness and playing dead are trauma responses.
  2. Our culture often plays into these trauma responses, in ways that further limit our well-being, by pushing us to feel good by numbing.
  3. Safely exploring trauma responses with support can help us to sustainably include our bodily experiences and expressions, instead of having to constantly disconnect and numb.
  4. Learning about our patterning and developing the awareness to slow down leads us to being able to make empowering choices.
  5. Peace and stillness can be experienced in increasing amounts as intimacy with self is practiced, as we learn that our bodies are safe to be with.
  6. True stillness and peace do not come from exclusion, shutting down, or escaping, but from allowance and inclusion.
  7. As the embodied journey deepens, stillness and peace can be known with increased sustainability.

In my journey, growing intimacy with self has allowed me to know support and love in such a way that stillness and peace are deeply and sustainably known in a way I could have never imagined.

There’s much left to be said as trauma, the psyche, and our culture weave an intricate web. I hope what I’ve shared will be helpful in a practical yet profound way on your journey of waking up and healing trauma. I would be honored to hear about your journey as you explore.

 

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

 

[1] Frozen is one of the 4 stress “F responses”; Fight, Flight, Freeze, and the lesser known Faint/Fawn; that are normal parts of our physiology under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, they often become part of our everyday life due to less than ideal environmental circumstances.

[2] Over time, we may find that we find more familiarity and comfort in extreme highs and extreme lows, and angst comes in when we are experiencing a state of peace or stillness (or their mimicked frozenness). I’ll write more on this shortly.