Morning download, 3.1.19

Sometimes I have second thoughts. My wild mind gets half-baked ideas that are so exciting, and the next day they don’t look that good. I took down my most recent post that was like that. It’s just not ready for public consumption.

So. New day, new topic. Please note I am not saying what follows to brag. I hope saying it gives those who need it encouragement.

For someone who was traumatized by a sudden, tragic, violent loss in childhood, who as a result had PTSD for decades before it was even a diagnosable malady — life can be good again.

I wake up happy to greet a new day, on most days. I feel balanced, grounded, centered, open, resilient, buoyant, strong, like a fountain constantly replenishing and renewing. I have more than enough.

Perhaps these good days are even sweeter because of the past. Trauma survivors, please savor and enjoy every good day, every good hour even, that comes your way.

It’s not as if the trauma in this bodymindfield is gone, over, done. Even when you’ve done a lot of work to remember, sort, get perspective, feel, self-soothe, reconcile, and heal that wounded self, a scar still resides in your nervous system. But it can disappear for long stretches of time.

You can work with your autonomic nervous system to rebalance it so that you read and respond to actual threats and to safety appropriately, but in reading what psychotherapists with 40 years of experience have to say, trauma is scar tissue in the psyche. Scar tissue will never be as healthy and resilient as unscarred skin. It’s more fragile. It’s not organized the same way at the cellular level. You can work with it to make it more pliable and reduce the scarring, but it will never be as if the trauma never happened, the skin unscarred.

Also, obviously, trauma resides in your memories, which are connected to your ANS. How often do you need to revisit those memories? Not that often for me, any more. I want to mention that some of the memories from the time of the trauma remained veiled from my conscious mind for a long time, and sometimes a memory shapes our behavior, unbidden.

Trauma is definitely something you want behind you on your timeline, not in the way of denial but in the healthy manner of moving on with your life, because healthy life beckons after trauma, if you let it. It may start with one peaceful hour.

Investigate peace, and savor it.

Facing forward, sometimes trauma from the past sneaks ahead and gets right in your face. Boo! Your ANS, which is instinctual and not really all that smart, interprets something as a threat that simply isn’t. Something happens in the present that unconsciously reminds the part of your brain that’s trying to keep you safe of a time when you were unsafe in the past, and you react sharply, as if past were present, get flooded with stress hormones, experience the fight-or-flight dance going on.

Hopefully, the thinking part of your brain will kick in to help you evaluate the situation! Are you actually in imminent danger? If the answer is no, then you get to wait it out while your system rebalances itself, recovering from the dump of stress hormones. Acupuncture and supplements for adrenal depletion can be very helpful.

Beautiful self-care is required when a memory hijacks the ANS and there is no actual threat. Be ever so kind to yourself. Rest as much as you can. Make beautiful cups of tea. Slow down. Light a candle and watch it burn. Take a long fragrant soak in the tub, preferably with Epsom salt. Just breathe. Listen to lovely music. Move your body with care. Do restorative yoga. Walk in nature. Spend time with a loving friend.

Afterwards, trauma resides in memories and the ANS. Build yourself a vast toolkit of self-care resources for the activated times.

Trauma can also play a huge role in your beliefs. We are run by our beliefs, and some of them are outside our awareness. Feeling cursed? Been there. Having bad luck with relationships? Been there. So many questions. Why me? Am I being punished? What did I do to deserve this? How can anyone love me? How could God let this happen? Does God love me?

What are some things you have believed about yourself, your life, your character, your worthiness, after a trauma?

At this point, all I can say about belief is to frame it in the healthiest way you can. If that means you acknowledge that you encountered misfortune — something that has happened to a lot of people throughout human history — and understand it’s just the way life as a human can sometimes be, and don’t take it personally, that seems like a great start. You didn’t cause this, you didn’t deserve it, you are not being punished, you are not cursed. You ran into some bad luck, that’s all.

This is how you build resilience and move on. If you need a little healthy delusion, I say go for it. If rocks or essential oils or photos of Ramana Maharshi soften the harshness, use them. I do.

Beliefs are about what’s important. Identity is who you are. By working with your beliefs, you start to change your identity.

NLP Neuro-Logical Levels of Change.

We live our lives inside a huge mystery. Theoretical physicists say that two thirds of all existence consists of dark energy, and no one knows what it is. I just love this, my favorite new factoid! We.Don’t.Know.What’s.Going.On.

So feel free to make something up that works for you, that gives you strength and courage and takes the weight of oppression or unworthiness off you, so you can rise up to meet the rest of your life. Why not?

By all means, take credit for and celebrate the good stuff — for taking right action, or coming to understand what that means or if that was even possible then. For persisting in the face of hardship. For recovering some of your mental health. For those who understand and accept you, or are willing to make that attempt. For self-care and self-compassion. For bonding with all of humanity through your compassion for all suffering. For finding your path.

After trauma, you get to work with your autonomic nervous system, your memories, and your beliefs. Exploring and reframing your beliefs are where you can make the most difference. Have courage. You’re worth it.

Free habit tracker for 2019

If you’re anything like me, you like to start off a new year by focusing on what you want to change in your life. January seems like a great month for doing that, after the excesses of the holidays. It’s time to get grounded again, look within, think about what you want for yourself in the coming year, and begin to manifest it.

You probably have some bigger goals (travel, education, remodeling) and smaller ones (eat healthier, drink more water, exercise, study, read, meditate, etc.).

For tracking my daily activities, I really like this free downloadable monthly habit tracker from Clementine Creative, which I’ve used for several years. You can print it in different sizes (A4, A5, US Letter, etc.). Then circle the month, add the days of the week (S M T W TH F S) across the top, and list the habits you want to track down the side. Print 12 copies, put them in a binder or on a clipboard, and use the fun office supplies of your choice to track the habits you want to cultivate.

This page has it all.

free printable habit tracker from Clementine Creative
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example of filled out Habit Tracker from Clementine Creative
Personalized.

Now you can get an editable version where you fill in the days of the week and the habits you want to track before printing, instead of printing first and writing them in by hand. That version is $3.50 USD.

Also, here’s something I’ve learned from experience. If you are the kind of person (as I am) who does not enjoy strict routines, who starts chafing at the bit after a while and wants to rebel against sameness or rigidity, but you still like to see results from your efforts, you get to decide what’s a win for you. If you make your bed 3 days out of 7, you get to decide if that’s a win. What was that month like? How often did you do it before tracking? Maybe next month, 4 days out of 7.

Your habit tracker should serve you and not make you its slave — unless, say, taking life-saving meds is something you track. It’s about clarity, motivation, and information. Have compassion and allow yourself to be imperfect.

I’ve also found that once a habit becomes ingrained, you can stop tracking it — only add it back to your list if you notice you’ve slacked way off, and you still want to do it.

With enough persistence and learning, anything can become habitual. The four stages of behavior change are:

  • unconscious incompetence — you are unaware that you don’t know how to do something
  • conscious incompetence — you are aware that you don’t know how to do something, and you want to do it
  • conscious competence — you consciously work at doing it, learning, failing, figuring it out
  • unconscious incompetence — you do it automatically and don’t have to think about it any more

Best wishes for 2019!

What is biodynamics?

Biodynamics is a western approach to wellness. Osteopath William Sutherland (1873-1954) began exploring the dynamics of the skull and its membranes and fluids, establishing the field of cranial osteopathy, from which craniosacral therapy and biodynamics evolved.

After years of sitting quietly with patients, listening to their body-mind systems, Sutherland and other cranial osteopaths became aware that something other than tissue manipulation was helping their patients heal from all kinds of conditions. They learned over time that the more they just listened and the less they tried to do, the more their patients’ inherent healing processes took over, returning their systems to healthier functioning. Over time they learned how to support and augment the healing process with their presence, attention, discernment, and intent.

This way of healing came to be called craniosacral biodynamics, biodynamic craniosacral therapy, or just biodynamics. As a separate modality from cranial osteopathy, it’s been in existence for nearly 40 years. Although biodynamics shares some elements with biomechanical craniosacral therapy, it focuses more on perceptual awareness of the fields in and around us.

Biodynamics, although Western in origin, resonates with Buddhist and Taoist beliefs about emptiness, form, transformation, compassion, and oneness, as well as shamanism.

Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher: quotes from Joko Beck

I posted this originally on June 16, 2011. Needing to remind myself of her wisdom, I thought you might want to (re)read her words and appreciate her wisdom too.

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Charlotte Joko Beck died yesterday, very peacefully, at the age of 94. She was a Zen teacher who made a major impact on American Buddhism.

Here’s a quote from article that puts her work into perspective (no longer available):

The Ordinary Mind School was among the first Zen communities to consciously engage the emotional life and the shadows of the human mind as Zen practice. The late Charlotte Joko Beck and her dharma heirs adapted elements of the vipassana tradition — a relentless inquiry into the contours of the human mind — as unambiguous Zen discipline.

Here are some quotes from her:

With unfailing kindness, your life always presents what you need to learn. Whether you stay home or work in an office or whatever, the next teacher is going to pop right up.

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering;
holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream;
each moment, life as it is, the only teacher;
being just this moment, compassion’s way.

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that.

Wisdom is to see that there is nothing to search for. If you live with a difficult person, that’s nirvana. Perfect. If you’re miserable, that’s it. And I’m not saying to be passive, not to take action; then you would be trying to hold nirvana as a fixed state. It’s never fixed, but always changing. There is no implication of ‘doing nothing.’ But deeds done that are born of this understanding are free of anger and judgment. No expectation, just pure and compassionate action.

Practice is just hearing, just seeing, just feeling. This is what Christians call the face of God: simply taking in this world as it manifests. We feel our body; we hear the cars and birds. That’s all there is.

Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru.

So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy — it often doesn’t — but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find.

Practice can be stated very simply. It is moving from a life of hurting myself and others to a life of not hurting myself and others. That seems so simple — except when we substitute for real practice some idea that we should be different or better than we are, or that our lives should be different from the way they are. When we substitute our ideas about what should be (such notions as “I should not be angry or confused or unwilling”) for our life as it truly is, then we’re off base and our practice is barren.

We have to face the pain we have been running from. In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.

We learn in our guts, not just in our brain, that a life of joy is not in seeking happiness, but in experiencing and simply being the circumstances of our life as they are; not in fulfilling personal wants, but in fulfilling the needs of life.

Meditation is not about some state, it is about the meditator.

Zen practice isn’t about a special place or a special peace, or something other than being with our life just as it is. It’s one of the hardest things for people to get: that my very difficulties in this very moment are the perfection… When we are attached to the way we think we should be or the way we think anyone else should be, we can have very little appreciation of life as it is…whether or not we commit physical suicide, if our attachment to our dream remains unquestioned and untouched, we are killing ourselves, because our true life goes by almost unnoticed.

New Year blessings for you from The Well

May you breathe fully and easily.

May you fully inhabit your body with your awareness.

May you discern the difference between stress and relaxation.

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May you experience more and deeper relaxation.

May you experience just enough stress to keep you aware and safe.

May you delight in exploring how good you can feel.

 

May the relation between your diet and well-being become clear.

May the relation between your conscious and unconscious minds become clear.

May you soften to yourself and others.

 

May you seek help when needed.

May you feel gratitude for all the resources you have.

May you move toward happiness.

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May you notice shine, wherever it appears.

May inspiration find you frequently.

May you have compassion for yourself and others.

 

May you set boundaries and manage conflicts with love.

May you experience breakthroughs in maturity and insight.

May you be present in every possible moment.

What is it going to take?

I wish everyone would really take this in: Yet again, there has been a mass shooting in the United States of America, and this time it was at a grade school, and children and teachers were shot and killed, and apparently a family member of the extremely disturbed young shooter.

I haven’t been able to read, hear, or look at the news since seeing a few posts about it on Facebook yesterday and hearing a little more on the radio as I drove to work. The big picture is enough.

It is tragic when children die. It is gut-twisting horrifying when children die violently.

The children who survived have lost their carefree innocence forever. I pray they can rediscover joy within themselves when it’s time.

I wish everyone would really absorb this and think of what we as a nation need to do to ensure this does not happen again.

That no mass shooting ever takes place again.

That people who are seriously disturbed get referred to the most excellent help possible.

That we become a peaceful nation without the need for so many guns.

That the politicians just shut up and do the right thing because people’s lives real trump your theoretical principles.

I wish that every single politician and lobbyist who wants to jabber on about “protecting our right to bear arms” had to spend 15 minutes alone in a room with the parents of one of those children who died.

Amen.

Meet the Tibetan monk whose brain was studied by scientists

You’ve probably heard that there are some Tibetan monks who have been studied by scientists, who have learned which brain centers are activated during meditation. Well, here’s an article that goes into depth about the types of meditation studied .

It tells the story of one monk (western-born, with 30 years of experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk) who was studied by scientists extensively using fMRI and EEG and testing his ability to read fleeting facial emotions and to stifle his own startle reflex.

Read the whole article (by Daniel Goleman!) for a fascinating story.

I liked that the article described the types of meditation that were studied. It made me want to be more specific in my own meditation. I usually practice what’s called “the open state”.

Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods of any contemplative tradition, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Öser was able to give precise descriptions of each.

One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention—may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, “Purity of heart is to want one thing only.”

In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner’s method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many non-spiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Öser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on, and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.

Öser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the “open state.” The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Öser described it, “is open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present—not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don’t chain into longer thoughts—they just fade away.”

Perhaps as intriguing was Öser’s explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves “bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you’re not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, ‘I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.’”

Focusing on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody. That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers’ kindness offering a model.

The final meditation technique, visualization, entailed constructing in the mind’s eye an image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Öser described the process, “You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture.” As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.

Öser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. The scientists have seen clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion and fearlessness have not seemed that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Öser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.

Click the link above to find out what the scientists learned from this monk’s brain.

Public speaking: how to get over your fears with warmth and ease

I used to have terrible stage fright. Having to give my first speech in the required junior high speech class was something to be endured, and when I finished, I didn’t care how well I did, I was so glad I had gotten through it and would never have to do it again.

If I recall correctly, I read it aloud and (this is embarrassing) stood with my legs crossed, as if I was holding it in. I’m pretty sure my voice shook. Afterwards, I slunk back to my seat. The topic may have been “seashells.”

I did not fail, to my surprise. The teacher gave me a C. The content was good, but my presentation needed work. (I am a writer.)

I watched the kids who presented well. I remember a girl who showed us how to make “hors d’oeuvres” (including how she “about died” when told how to spell it).

Then she passed them around. She’s probably a politician now.

That was a long time ago. Over many years, classes, jobs, and activities, I got more used to speaking to groups and felt more confident that I had something worthwhile to contribute. Sometimes it even happened on the spur of the moment, and afterwards I realized I’d been so absorbed, I’d forgotten to be afraid.

Several years back, I participated in “the Alan Steinborn experience” back when Alan lived in Austin. I cannot remember now what he called these gatherings, but he hosted people in his home where part of the experience was standing in silence in front of people (most of whom were strangers), not doing or saying anything, just standing there with all eyes on you for several minutes. People applauded before and after, and in between, whatever happened happened. Some were visibly petrified and gradually relaxed. Some were comfortable the whole time. Most were in between.

It was wonderful to get up there, breathe, relax, and experience connecting with others. It became a sort of communion where fear fell away. I became curious, looking into the eyes of each member of the audience.

Also in recent years, I’ve taken a two-day class in public speaking through Austin Community College, for work. The class had a lot of lecture and required three brief presentations…and the main thing I recall now is the professor exclaiming (after my first presentation, in front of everyone) about my “charisma”.

I still don’t know exactly what charisma is and whether to be pleased or embarrassed about it. But perhaps my experience with Alan’s gatherings had something to do with that.

After all, if you can be comfortable standing silently in front of an audience, you’ll probably be okay speaking.

Recently I’ve been considering developing my public speaking skills. I could talk about health practices to counteract sedentary jobs, the benefits of massage and bodywork, self-care for massage therapists, trauma and recovery, meditation — you know, the topics that I’ve blogged about that are so close to my heart.

It’s not that I’m bad at public speaking any more. I deliver good material, include some fun stuff, and connect with the audience.

But I could be even more at ease.

A few weekends ago, I attended a workshop called “Authentic Public Speaking” from NLP Resources Austin. The presenter, Keith Fail, is a friend and teacher of mine. I’ve studied and later coached/assisted at NLP training that he co-taught, taken advanced NLP classes that he taught, and heard him speak at the NLP meetup multiple times (indeed, when I served as program chair and a speaker didn’t show up, he was able to wing it with ease, he’s that good). I’ve hung out with him and his wife, Katie Raver, a lot. We’ve traveled in Maui together. They are ohana to me: family of choice.

Keith is a warm, friendly, lovable, perceptive, smart man. He is familiar with Alan’s work and includes it, adding his own substantial and unique stamp to offer a public speaking class like no other.

He’s also an accomplished public speaker. Keith shared a story that illustrated his aplomb with public speaking even while in high school. It involved walking in just as he was being introduced and needing to pull up his zipper, with all eyes on him. Ask him about it! The man just knows how to tell a good story!

This class is not an NLP class. You don’t need any NLP training to attend, although a few of my fellow students and I had training in it. If it’s new to you, you will come away knowing more about NLP as it applies to public speaking. You may then be drawn to take NLP training — who knows?

The 11 students met in a comfortable North Austin home. (One student couldn’t make it; class size is limited to 12, and it usually fills up.) My fellow students came from a variety of backgrounds — software engineer, entrepreneur, new board member, several in real estate, insurance adjuster, academic adviser, musician/hypnotist/coach — all with an interest in improving their public speaking skills.

Our time was spent on a good mixture of Keith sharing information and stories, exercises with partners, feedback and discussion, a worksheet, a little homework, several very useful handouts, and, of course, getting up in front of everyone several times.

Yes, everyone does get up in the front of the room and stand in silence, and Keith will share how to make this easy. One woman (who said her business partners made her attend) balked at doing it, but she decided to do it anyway and was glad she did. By the end of the class, she was giving good presentations with apparent ease.

We did extemporaneous speaking illustrating one of our values. Whoa. That makes it sound very formal. Let me rephrase that: We got up and told a story about something important to us, and after everyone had spoken, we discussed what worked.

On the second day, Keith talked about the different energies that speakers experience and utilize. Keith led us through some experiential work developing and drawing on these energies. This was delightful and new to me in this context, and very useful.

Toward the end of the class, Keith pointed out that rather than being just a class about public speaking, it was actually training in perception and attention.

Keith videotapes your last presentation and afterwards, he emails it to you. Then does a follow-up call with you.

All I know is that by the end of the class, we students all felt much more at ease with each other and in the front of the room, thanks to Keith’s personal warmth and well-developed teaching skills.

It might even have felt like love, acceptance, and compassion for ourselves and for each other.

Just imagine. I will have that to draw on the next time I give a presentation. I can hardly wait!

If you are interested, Keith offers this class several times a year. You can get the details at NLP Resources Austin.

Day 12 of Byron Katie’s inquiry: turning it around to the other

Today I turn my judgment “My father didn’t care about me” around to the other. This is the second turnaround, following the four questions of Byron Katie’s inquiry process called The Work.

This statement, turned around to the other, reads like this:

I didn’t care about my father.

Whew. Boy, that takes me out of “being the victim,” doesn’t it?

I need to think of three ways that I didn’t care about my father.

  1. I’ve already mentioned this, but I did not tell him that I wanted more positive attention from him. I did not give him a chance to step up to the plate, successfully or not. I did not tell him what I needed and wanted, and so he never had a chance to even try to meet my needs for fatherly affection and attention. I missed out, and so did he. That’s a big loss.
  2. When my dad was sitting on the sofa disconnected from everyone around him, I not once asked him what was going on. I didn’t ask him what he was feeling, or what he was thinking. I didn’t ask him if he was depressed or sulking, which is what it looked like to me. I didn’t engage with him at all. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that was the only way he could get some solitude in our crowded household. Now I’m wondering if maybe he was an introvert like me, someone who needed some daily solitude to recharge his batteries. I just remember feeling disappointed when I saw him doing that and avoiding interacting with him. I wonder what his internal experience actually was. Whoa. I just had a thought. Maybe he needed attention and didn’t know how to ask for it. Wow.
  3. Even though I was the child and my dad was the parent, parents don’t always know what their children need. I’ve experienced this as a parent myself. I didn’t understand that since my father’s own father had died when my daddy was just a little boy of 9, he had no fatherly role model for parenting teenagers. He didn’t know what to do. I can view my dad’s human life in a much more compassionate way now than I could as a teenager. In that way, I didn’t care about him back then.
  4. Okay, I’m adding a fourth reason. I didn’t care about my father all the time because I had my own life to live. No one can care about someone all the time. It’s physically impossible. They have to sleep, eat, drive, decide what to wear, work out, take classes, hang out with others, go to the bathroom. Their attention simply cannot be on caring or on another person all the time. In fact, if it was, think of how impaired they would be, doing nothing but caring about someone! This idea that someone should always care about another is actually like a prison. I could not have cared about my father all the time, and he could not have cared about me all the time, and lived any kind of good life.

I so wish he was here right now so we could talk about these matters and heal. I’m just going to assume that my healing is his healing, even though he’s on the other side. How could it not be, when the ties that bind us are what exist now?

Wow, this Byron Katie Work has a way of really workin’! My interpretation of a situation has just been busted wide open, and all kinds of new possibilities — a new openness and mystery — are at play.

It reminds me of how much I don’t know, and of that little part that likes to know, that believes that knowing will somehow make me feel more secure.

And you know, that’s cool, as long as I remember that my knowing is really just a hypothesis, a temporary truth in the void that allows me to get on with my life (like believing the sun will rise tomorrow), that it’s nothing to write in stone.

Next: the last turnaround, to the opposite.

Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.