The Body-Mind Has a Long Memory…and Resiliency
Doug Oakley’s article in the Daily Review tells the story of Lily Dorman-Colby, a 22-year-old Yale student, who, with the help of others’ support, is preparing to graduate with a 3.56 grade-point average. Despite having a mother on drugs and with bi-polar disorder, and despite being separated from her brothers to live in foster homes, Lily realizes at age 11 that education is the only way out for her.
What planted that thought? What did Lily have that so many of us don’t? Where in her template were the guts and tenacity, the mental health and strength, not only to survive, but to thrive?
After all, we have had stress, but so has everyone. We have experienced unfortunate events in our past, but so does everyone. *Whether (these) experiences will become life-altering or not depends on the meaning we give them….
The stigma attached to the word “trauma” can mean that the events causing the initial trauma remain buried while we continue trying our best to figure out why we hurt so badly. Then, something happens that starts to reveal our suppressed misery. For me, that “something” was the death of our first-born child, Kristina.
Dr. Scaer defines trauma as:
A continuum of variably negative life events occurring over the lifespan, including events that may be accepted as “normal” in the context of our daily experience because they are endorsed and perpetuated by our own cultural institutions…[and], more importantly, that the traumatic nature of those experiences is also determined by the meaning the victim attributes to them. That meaning is based on the cumulative burden of a myriad of prior negative life events, especially those experienced in the vulnerable period of early childhood. (2)
What some of us may be able to endure will make others crumble. Doctors’ visits, operations, broken bones, and even the usual illnesses people experience can have a traumatic effect on many. If we then add neglect, molestation, physical abuse, or a mean-spirited, threatening home environment, we have plenty of opportunity for trauma, often hidden in the secret parts of our beings.
And, yet, hope says that many people who live their lives in “silent desperation” can find a place for themselves and validation for their suffering as they work to heal themselves.
Dr. Scaer’s discoveries about trauma have included a groundbreaking understanding of many patients’ dis-eased conditions. With an independent rehabilitation center under his authority, and 30 years of experience, he has had the opportunity to identify countless medical conditions and illnesses that have resulted from a variety of causes. (3)
Dr. Scaer points out that “the effect of the experience of trauma over the lifespan lays the seeds for most chronic, poorly understood disease processes that defy explanation by our current concepts of health and disease.” He believes (and I by extension) that these types of physical ailments result from the human tendency to compartmentalize our bodies and ignore the body-mind-spirit connection, which is the foundation of human well-being. (6)
In my personal story, I can point to a string of visits to the doctor’s office, with complaints about aches, pains, weird infections, and frightening, breathless moments of anxiety and panic attacks that perpetuated my pattern of sleepless nights and provided plenty of material for psycho-somatic hypochondria.
Scaer’s book points out that healing requires a holistic approach. As a Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner and integral coach, I find that we must include our bodies in our discovery of our whole self. Personal experience has shown me that, without an ability to ride the wave of sensations, we are limited in our ability to heal.
After 20+ years of recovery with the help of several healing disciplines, I dare to claim that I have arrived at a greater understanding of what it means to have a sound mind and body – to be aware of and connected to the spirit.
Moreover, I would claim with absolute conviction that sanity implies healthy balance and connection of all what it means to be human – body, mind, and soul. Dr. Siegel, in his CD collection, The Neurobiology of WE, identifies the mind as being a network of neural pathways not only located in the brain, but throughout the body. He refers to scientific evidence of neurons found in tissue surrounding the heart and in our intestinal tracks. You have heard, I am sure, of expressions such as “hearts filled with compassion,” “gut feelings,” and “a broken heart.”
The body is a vital part of a human’s network and contains areas of wisdom we need to reach to heal. When we learn how to communicate with these often forgotten and secretly tucked-away parts of ourselves, we are tending toward recovery and health…toward connection with ourselves and the world.
According to Dr. Siegel’s book, Mindsight, a sign that we are happy and have a sense of well-being is when we can see “our ‘selves’ as part of an interconnected whole—connecting with others and with ourselves in authentic ways that break down the isolative boundaries of our separate self.” (259) There is hope for us all that we can develop the capacity to use the magic Dr. Siegel calls “Mindsight.” The healing can begin, and as we try not to repeat the damage done to us, we can simultaneously become more conscious of how our own pain alters our behaviors and more willing to change those behaviors to benefit ourselves and the others in our lives.
A great source of healing results from our ability to make sense of our lives. Dr. Scaer, in his book, Trauma Spectrum, says that “having found the meaning for who I was, and why I was that way, I could live with the image of myself—an image that in previous years had not actually been different but rather altogether absent!” (xvi)
That “meaning is based on the cumulative burden of a myriad of prior negative life events.” (2) Dr. Scaer is not alone in his findings. My experience and that of my clients validate my perceptions that we seem to have an easier time facing our past if we can find, in the process, the meaning of who we are. Scaer continues, “Healing, in fact, may represent the return of consciousness and of the wisdom of the self.” (xvi)
The word “healing” is charged with countless meaning and hopeful images. What it means can be different for each individual. The online dictionary, www.dictionary.com, includes this definition, “to make healthy, whole, or sound; restore to health; free from ailment.”
Freedom from ailment includes freedom from dis-ease of the mind. It is difficult to feel happy, joyous, and free when we feel physically sick. Being isolated, depressed, and confused about the causes of one’s misery, in turn, can manifest sensations of pain and discomfort in the body that will lead us to visit our doctor.
For many of us, medical science will find inadequate “measurable” evidence for our physical ailments, and we will be sent on our way with yet another diagnosis of “psycho-somatic” (imagined) symptoms. In other words, we are told that our ailment is all in our heads. Dr. Scaer tells several stories about patients who had years of experience going from doctor to doctor and being accused of hypochondria before they came to him.
Another definition of that word, “heal,” is “to bring to an end or conclusion, as conflicts between people or groups, usually with the strong implication of restoring former amity, settle; reconcile.” Here again, we must realize that part of the healing process includes “restoring former amities”, meaning healthy relationships with people and healthy, whole interconnection between the mind and body…down to the smallest cell and out to the larger connections with life.
We need to find our energy and vibration to become attuned with the rest of the world. As in the orchestra…with the right ear, we can hear the slightest mis-attunement. The road to equanimity includes discovering our ability to “hear “our mis-attunements and adjust our minds and bodies to create a resonance to help us see the nuances of our lives and the lives of the others with whom we interact and to discover the resilience to respond.
Dr. Siegel says that we need to develop a body so we can “float” with life in a similar manner to the way jellyfish respond to the water: gently, awake, attuned, adjustable, with strong electrifying boundaries to support our journey.
A third definition of “heal” could, in a sense, cover it all: “to free from evil; cleanse; purify: to heal the soul.” In modern society, we must be persistent in pursuing our individual healing and sure of our own definition.
Science has yet to locate the soul, and, yet, we can all point to personal experiences that might hint at where it is. Humans seem to have in common that, the more we heal (our soul), the stronger the connection we can claim to have with other humans. The more time we spend in solitude and meditation, the more we tend to credit our soul for our choices in life, the more our choices seem to be in alignment with what is good for us and our world.
In my experience, “healing my soul” is needed to discover my ability to stay present for my family, friends, and community. After 16 years of desperate attempts to become whole through countless avenues of healing, I was finally introduced to Somatic Experiencing (SE). Throughout SE training, a trauma healing model created by Dr. Peter Levine, I was consistently reminded of what he calls the “freedom of attention.”
In my journey, I have extended that phrase of Dr. Levine’s to the freedom to attend to what is presenting itself in the moment without being intruded upon by the past. As I heal, I see signs of this kind of freedom of attention, and these signs fuel my hope that Dr. Lipton’s version of conscious parenting can work. Dr. Lipton tells us that one is not guilty of being a bad parent unless one is consciously creating harm. He says that we are personally responsible for everything in our lives “once we have become aware that we are personally responsible for everything in our lives.” (178)
Lipton emphasizes the importance of “conscious parenting” to help prepare the child for maximum living. In addition, he challenges us parents to “let go of unfounded fears and take care not to implant unnecessary fears and limiting beliefs in your children’s subconscious minds.” He emphasizes that we should not accept the “fatalistic message of genetic determinism.” This idea resonates with Dr. Shore’s “malleable unfinished genetic template.” Lipton says that “conscious parents and seers like Rumi knew that for human babies and adults the best growth promoter is Love.” (181)
The ability to feel compassion and love for others, I would argue, goes hand in hand with the ability to feel love for one’s self.
After I un-plugged the life support for our first baby, Kristina, when she was just two months old, I was faced with the dilemma created by love. From personal experience, I can claim: Love hurts and has the power to destroy what is left of us after that love that has so consumed us is gone. This kind of loss makes it difficult to initiate loving relationships with any other living being. I submit to you, though, that as one heals, the emphasis should be on love of self. For many of us, this component of the healing process takes a back seat or is missing altogether.
Having had the opportunity to feel absolutely overwhelming sensations and emotions for another human being, and then having to terminate the source, left me with many unanswered questions and opened up a whole “can of worms,” as it were.
After Kristina died, my body had a life of its own. It itched, shook, got hot, then cold. What really pushed me over the edge were the unbearable aches in my gut and the pressure in my chest. I would explode, for no reason; the pressure would go down…and then…I would start shaking again, and the pressure would build. The shaking was irritating and took a lot of my attention. I liken it to standing on an earthquake. How do you have a relationship with anyone if all you can focus on is how not to fall over?
The answer for me seems to be this: I can heal my soul through prayer, meditation, and positive adjustment of my behaviors and application of amendments to the flawed brush strokes of my template.
The healing process involves no less than a total reshaping of who we have become. When our past is holding us hostage with intrusive thought patterns or straitjackets sculpting our bodies, we cannot “see” the present moments. We cannot “see” the person we have become. I lived in a bodysuit full of tension and pain that constantly created discomfort and fear. I spent my energy attempting to hold on to myself so that I would not explode. I had no energy left for the freedom of attention to “see” my children.
Now, as I interact with my adult daughters, I “see” them for real and ache with pain over the loss of all the years I lived blindfolded in the “prison of the intellect,” controlled by leftovers of my own unresolved trauma. And still, in that state of mind, I have the ability to call out of myself some compassion for how my mother may also feel…the loss of her childhood…the loss of her time with her children. A closer look at my mother’s life experience and chemistry explains my own incompetence in coping with life and forming lasting friendships.
And a closer look at my own history of chemical in-balance and trauma helps me have compassion for my adult children’s challenges. It can also tempt me to believe that trauma can be inherited. If we re-cap Lipton’s theory about how we “[transit] the placenta and [prime] the prenate’s physiology, preparing it to more effectively deal with future exigencies,” we can add to the ingredients of the DNA with which our child is born our own view of life. If so, how do we stop the cycle? The answer? We muster the willingness to heal…and change our perspectives.
As we become more able to stay present to ourselves and others, we are healing our body and mind and have more opportunities to access our own inborn wisdom. In Dr. Siegel’s stories about “the healing power of presence,” in his book, Mindsight, he goes into detail describing how our minds can feel each other. For the magic connection to occur between two human beings, we have to “feel felt.” (138)
Those of us who did not have the opportunity to “feel felt” in our first years of life and who were subsequently molded on an un-centered and cracked foundation can have a chance to become whole – fueled by our willingness to do so. Through connection with a healer, who her or himself has been willing to go inward and face personal demons, we have the opportunity to experience in the present what was denied us in the past – “in the moment, face-to-face” connection. This connection will “initiate the long-term synaptic changes” that will allow us to function even when we are alone. (139)
As adults, we can begin anew and parent ourselves in ways that should have happened during our first years of life, according to Dr. Scaer’s theory of, “face-to-face and eye-to-eye connection of the mother and infant.” So, Dr. Young is right; there is repair. We can tend toward mental and emotional health.
In his CD collection, The Neurobiology of “WE,” Dr. Siegel talks about having asked 74,000 professionals who practice the discipline of psychology how many of them had taken a class in what a healthy mind is. Three to five percent had had one class in the study of a healthy mind. What this means is that, in their day-to-day practice, many professionals focus on the un-healthy parts of our mind. What we give our attention to expands. Hence, diagnoses such as bi-polar disorder and addiction are proliferating.
This brings me to a question I have been mulling over as I have been writing this blog series: What would our society look like if 74,000 psychology professionals would focus on helping us find the healthy part of our minds? Would diagnoses of “healthy mind” proliferate instead?
This is why, as a SE practitioner, I focus on the healthy parts of my clients and support the creation of a “container” within which they can hold their experience as they connect, release, mold, and balance their “plastic and malleable unfinished genetic templates.” Dr. Scaer says that “to play the role of a healer, one must believe that the brain indeed is plastic and adaptable and that experiences create long-lasting changes in brain structure and function.” (168)
Jack Kornfield suggests in his book, A Path with Heart, that when we finally settle into our chosen practice of meditation, we become our own monastery in which we can with “regal strength and dignity” feel relaxed and open with a sense of “gracious receptivity to life.” In this space we can learn to stretch our ability to stay present and anchor the sensations within.
According to Kornfield, with a present body and an open heart, the mind is attentive. “We can sense the universal human capacity to open, to awaken.” (36) In other words, as we expand the healthy part of our mind, the gate that will lead us out of the prison of the intellect is available to us all. As we emerge from that prison, we can find heaven on earth.
References for This Four-Part Blog Series
Erksine, R. G. “Attunement and involvement: therapeutic responses to relational needs”. International Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 3, No. 3. (1998). Available online at: https://counselling-vancouver.com/attunement/
Kornfield, Jack. A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam Books. 1993. Print.
Lipton, Bruce H. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles. Santa Rosa: Mountain of Love, 2005. Print.
Oakley, Doug. An article published in the Daily Review, February 22, 2010. Hayward, CA. First page. (Note: Daily Review is no longer published, as of November 1, 2011.)
Scaer, Robert. Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005. Print.
Siegel, Daniel. Mindsight. New York: Bantam Books, 2010. Print.
Siegel, Daniel. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press, 1999. Print.
Siegel, Daniel. The Neurobiology of “WE”. Sounds True, 2008. Audio Series.