April 26, 2017

Navigating Trauma, PTSD & Overwhelming Emotions at a Meditation Retreat.


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“When I imagine life in a chaotic, collapsing world, I sense the challenge such a world will present for men and women who have lived most of their lives in accordance with logical, linear thinking. Unless they have developed emotional literacy and have learned how to manage their emotions, such individuals will be totally unprepared to cope with the emotions that industrial civilization’s demise will evoke.”  ~ Carolyn Baker, Collapsing Consciously


Like far too many of us, I experienced some childhood trauma that never got fully resolved.

I won’t go into details since privacy is involved, but suffice it to say that I emerged from the experience with some PTSD—something that I have only recently begun to take seriously, 40-plus years after the fact.

My family is blue collar working-class, largely English and Scotch-Irish, so we valued hard work, stoicism, and independence. If we couldn’t fix it, we learned to “grin and bear it.”

Emotions were kept carefully under wraps except for periodic episodes of rage in which dishes were thrown and doors slammed. Tears—other than my own—were extremely rare; I spotted them maybe once or twice in my parents over the 18 years I was a resident.

By the time I discovered Buddhism in 2000, in addition to the childhood trauma, I had been through a divorce, several periods of unemployment, a lifetime of financial hardship, and was currently in a situation in which I was being re-traumatized on a regular basis (although I didn’t know this at the time).

When I attended my first 30-day meditation retreat, all of that space allowed excruciatingly painful, raw emotions to float up and ask for integration—only I had no clue how to do so. I did my best to follow the instructions of “touch and go,” but instead of diminishing, the emotions got more and more intense, and often they didn’t subside until after I was distracted by mealtime, chants, or the evening talk.

“Malidoma Somé notes that for his Dagara Tribe in West Africa, emotions are sacred…he suggests that they are conduits from the divine to the human. At the same time, the Dagara believe that emotions must be ritualized—held within the container of the community, blessed, and allowed to flow within ritual space.

What is most essential to grasp is that emotions come to us from the sacred, but our job is to work with them—to utilize them in order to move from fragmentation to wholeness, from paralysis to dynamism, from being overwhelmed by emotion to being empowered by it.” ~ Carolyn Baker, Collapsing Consciously

I took my concerns to my meditation instructor. They listened attentively and instructed me to “just sit with it.” Another time, I was told that the goal of meditation wasn’t to feel better, and to just stay with the feelings. So I gritted my teeth, sat with my emotions, and didn’t talk about them to my meditation instructors any more.

Each subsequent retreat became more and more painful. There was nowhere to go, nobody to turn to for comfort or help. The pain was unrelenting. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I either beat myself up for not being strong enough to sit with it or lashed out at my husband in rage. I felt completely helpless.

Finally, during the last retreat I ever attended, I spent a whole day drinking, then dressed up in dark clothing and waited for the sun to go down with the intention of going out to the road and lying down in the middle of it so that I would be run over by a car.

Unfortunately, upon learning about this, the teacher treated it as a shameful act and banned me from my position as their attendant (an honor bestowed on the closest and most devoted students).

I didn’t attend any more retreats after that.

On the one hand, I agree that it is important to sit with difficult emotions during meditation so that we can make friends with them, and trying to make “feeling better” a goal of meditation is nothing short of disastrous.

On the other hand, I’m afraid the “just sit with it” instruction can be turned, by people like me, into a form of self-aggression, one in which emotions are endured instead of respected as indicators that something is amiss and needs to be dealt with in the “real world,” not just on the cushion.

Working With Emotions and Traumatic Triggers In Retreat Without Harming Ourselves.

Group meditation retreats can offer potent opportunities for healing and transformation. However, trauma triggers aren’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill emotions, and using the space we create to integrate them takes a lot more skill and guidance.

Unfortunately, as of a little over 10 years ago, which was the last time I attended a large group retreat, there were no resources for trauma survivors to help them identify and deal with traumatic triggers; if you were a trauma survivor and you went on retreat, you were on your own.

I hope this has changed, but if you are a survivor, if you have PTSD, please be careful when signing up for retreats. Make sure there is a mental health professional available, and that you have someone to reach out to for support.

If you are on retreat right now and are feeling overwhelmed, here are some suggestions that have been helpful for me while working through my own trauma.

Author’s note: I am not a mental health professional; these are simply some things that were either suggested by my therapist, or things that I’ve researched, tried, and found helpful at home. They haven’t been “field-tested” by me in a retreat situation.

1. Become familiar with the difference between your garden-variety emotional response and a trauma trigger.

Here are some “red flags” to watch for:

>> the emotion comes on quickly
>> the emotion comes on frequently
>> the emotion is intense
>> the emotion lasts a long time
>> it takes a long time to calm down

In my own case, a sense of panic seems to be key. My thoughts start tumbling faster and faster. I feel tightness in my chest, my heart starts beating a little more quickly, and there is a general sense of “winding up” as my body prepares to go into fight-or-flight mode.

If I can catch myself at this stage and step back to a place that feels safe, all is well. Once I’m calm, I can tiptoe toward the trigger and investigate. If, however, I start spinning stories and escalating into full-blown fight-or-flight, I enter another cycle of panic and dissociation and make no progress.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve been traumatized, this emotional trauma questionnaire might help you sort this out.

2. If you find yourself triggered while in a group retreat:

I want to take a moment to express deep appreciation for the work of Tara Brach. Her teachings on “radical acceptance” have been extremely helpful in my own recovery thus far.

You Are Safe

If you catch yourself beginning to “wind up” while sitting, pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that right here, right now, you are safe. You might search for a place in your body that feels safe, or think of people or situations where you feel safe and just hang out there for awhile.

The Six-Second Breath

Normally, at least in my tradition, the instruction is to follow the out-breath and leave a gap for the in-breath. However, in this circumstance, it’s okay to begin to follow both the out and in-breaths, using them as a way to ground you in the present moment. Gradually extend each breath to six seconds—six seconds in, six seconds out—and fill in the “gaps” between out and in-breaths so that the breath is more “circular” in feel. This helps physiologically soothe the sympathetic nervous system.

Hands on Heart and Tummy

Put one hand on your heart and another on your tummy. Both of these parts of the human body contain nerve bundles that are also physiologically soothing to our sympathetic nervous system (the part that “winds us up” to get ready for fight/flight/freeze). You might try switching hands to see if one feels better than another.

Take a Break

If you feel yourself tipping into overwhelm, get up and take a break. This doesn’t mean just get up and walk out every time something gets a little uncomfortable, but if you’re really going into fight/flight/freeze, stop and allow yourself to decompress. If you have a friend who will give you a hug or listen to you, even better.

Unfortunately, in some retreat settings, the teacher or the gatekeeper may give you a hard time for “breaking the container.” But the gatekeeper or teacher does not live in your body; you do. Triggers are serious business, and this is one situation when, for the sake of yourself and others, your needs must come first.

The RAIN Technique

If your emotions are in a workable state, you might try the RAIN technique as described by Tara in many of her videos. The acronym “RAIN” stands for: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nourish.

Recognize: Pause in the moment and notice what you’re feeling. Is it anger? Fear? Frustration? Sadness? Depression?

Allow: Notice any judgments you’re having about your feelings. If you’re angry with your child, you may be telling yourself that you shouldn’t be angry. Just notice the judgment and gently let it go.

Investigate: Stay with the feeling and see if any secondary feelings come up. Under the anger, is there fear? Embarrassment? Shame?

Nourish: Ask your feeling what it needs. Sometimes feelings just need to be noticed. Lately, my feelings have needed to be safe. Then offer your feeling whatever it needs. Sometimes, if you’re really feeling stuck, it might be helpful to imagine asking a loved one, a teacher, a supportive friend, or even an enlightened being to help you.

Here is a very good introductory video to watch if you’re not familiar with Tara’s work:

By all means, sit and work with your thoughts and feelings as much as you can, but do so gently, with intelligence and kindness. You cannot bully yourself into enlightenment; trying to do so results in an escalation of aggressive energy that can either be directed inward, resulting in depression, or outward, resulting in lashing out and hurting others.

How Retreat Developers and Presenters Can Help.

I think most of us can agree that we are living in tough times right now—perhaps tougher than anything we’ve ever been through as a species. I suspect that more and more people will seek solace in meditation retreats as they deal, not only with traumatic histories, but personal issues such as unemployment or divorce, or even global issues such as the extinction of species, hate crimes against vulnerable populations, or imminent war.

Meditation retreats aren’t a panacea for everyone. In cases like mine, it could even be argued that they are potentially harmful or retraumatizing.

I propose that program creators try to make sure that at least one mental health professional trained in trauma work is available at longer retreats. Perhaps meditation instructors should also be trained in the basics of spotting trauma symptoms so that they can refer sufferers to professionals for extra support.

Also, perhaps it would be possible to offer opportunities for participants to participate in facilitated discussion groups, where they can feel safe being vulnerable about what is coming up for them, and where hugging or other nurturing touch is encouraged.

Giving participants permission to take a break from sitting practice, or offer an alternative practice such as chopping vegetables or working in the garden could act as a “release valve” in cases of extreme stress.

In addition, while “turning up the heat” on retreats—“noble silence,” sleep deprivation, and so on—might be beneficial for those who are relatively healthy, for trauma survivors whose stress tolerance is already maxed out, this might actually cause more harm than good.

Finally, maybe we could take a page from the Dagda and figure out ways to actually bless the expression of emotions in the temporary meditation communities created by retreats. This could include the use of “ritual space,” with the understanding that not all healing takes place in linear, logical ways that can be grasped by the intellect.

Do you have additional stories or suggestions? I look forward to your discussion.


Additional resources:

Meditation, Trauma, and Contemplative Dissociation
Mental Health Daily: When Meditation Worsens Depression or Anxiety
Beyond Meds: Meditation and Trauma: Untangling the Tangle of Contemplative Dissociation
Beyond Meds: Meditation and Trauma / PTSD (risks and benefits)
elephant journal: The Dark Side of Meditation.


Author: Catie Moore
Image: Holly Lay/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman

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