Mindfulness isn’t easy for everyone. This can be especially true for people who have experienced trauma. But one of the most important skills for healing is the skill of awareness. What do I mean by awareness? It is the ability to pay attention. To observe, to feel, to notice. Awareness is the first requirement for learning or change of any kind. You need to know first what is there, to know what is working and what isn’t. The first awareness in healing needs to be some form of self-awareness. You need to have the ability to pay attention and report what is going on inside you and outside you.
Let me say at the outset that once again that this is one of those sentences and encouragements that sounds simple: be self-aware. But it is not. Not for a lot of people and especially not for people who have been deeply hurt by trauma for a long time. In an earlier blog post I discuss the difference between acute trauma and repeated trauma: a single terrifying event will create a fire-alarm system in your body. You become hypersensitive to any trigger for a time. But this is an impossible state for you to live in for a long period of time. If you have ever had a faulty alarm system in your house, or car—one that beeps or flashes past its usefulness, you will have like most people, found a way to dismantle it—take out the batteries, pull the wire, cut the fuse. When it stops beeping or flashing there is tremendous relief. Ahhhhh. Peace. Essentially, with repeated trauma your brain does this to your body. It pulls the fuse on awareness. It says: you don’t have to feel this anymore, I’m cutting the connections to the feelings of this you so have some rest from the alarm, so have the energy to pay attention to getting through your day. Surviving trauma requires numbing. And healing from trauma requires waking the numb parts back up. In order to begin the process to wholeness you have to gently come back into your own awareness, your own feelings, your own body.
It also should be said that this numbing is not a perfect system. For many people there can be severe swings between numb and overwhelmed. It is as if the ‘force shield’ of numbing has a short in the system. At times it is there, protecting you, and at times, when triggered by something, it is removed completely forcing you to experience the full weight of your emotions. Either way, awareness and mindfulness is gone. Either your awareness is shut down or it is totally overwhelmed. Mindfulness and self-awareness practice can help you from living in either of these two extremes.
Lots of people try to explain self-awareness, but I think they leave out a crucial element that makes self-awareness actually useful, and it is this: being non-judgmental. I have found in my work, and in my experience of healing that it is one thing to be self-aware: to be able to feel, experience, see what is there—and it is another thing entirely to be able to just stay with it, observe it, sit with it, explore it. Most often you start with the intention to be mindful and self-aware, and then you get a big wave of experience of what is there: emotions that are difficult, thoughts that race, and you start to judge—these feelings, thoughts, sensations are wrong, bad, immature, yukky. “Wasn’t this supposed to make me feel better?” you ask. Then you turn away from the practice. Self-awareness that heads toward judgment and criticism cuts healing off at its knees.
Lucky for us, there are cultures that have been practicing awareness for centuries and have created simple practices that have served people forever. My favorite way to teach self-awareness is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness according the Jon Kabat Zinn is synchronous with awareness. Mindfulness is the intentional regulation of moment to moment awareness. As Kabat-Zinn notes, Mindfuless is “paying attention in a particular way—on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” It is the practice of just paying attention to this moment, observing, not judging. Mindfulness is the building block of any meditation practice and it begins often with the simple instruction to breathe. Yes, breathe. Just take an easy deep breath in and and easy breath out. Pay attention to the breath coming in and the breath moving out.
What do you notice, even in this small act? What do you observe? I notice that when I try to pay attention to my breathing, it often feels awkward. As if it weren’t something that I do all the time, like I was trying some really complicated dance step. With each breath I can stay present with the breath, or expand my awareness. What do I notice about my body? Where is is tight? Where is it relaxed? What are the sensations? What are my feelings? What are the sounds around me? What are the thoughts traveling through my brain?
Mindfulness is powerful medicine and quite often too much mindfulness is prescribed to start. In the field of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teachers are warned that MBSR can be very difficult for people with histories of trauma. The way I think about it is about dosage—just like any powerful medication, like chemotherapy. Mindfulness is simply a powerful self-awareness practice of bringing someone in contact with him or herself. You come to really sit inside and observe the country that is yourself. Now, if your country has been at peace for most of your life, and the weather is pretty good, then sitting and visiting that country won’t be too stressful, and being aware of all the aspects won’t require too much help. Like spending an afternoon in Amsterdam in spring appreciating the tulips, the art, the canals. But if your country has been at war the last ten years, if you are going back to sit in truth and reconciliation meetings, if you are walking through inner villages that have been decimated—then awareness is going to require shorter trips and more support. You aren’t visiting Amsterdam, you are visiting Laos. So you need to take it very slowly. One breath, three breaths, twenty breaths, one minute, five minutes, twenty minutes. These are the increments to move in.
And if sitting is difficult see what it is like to stand. If standing is difficult see what it is like to walk. Or lie down on the floor or a couch. See what it is like to be in any comfortable position for one minute. Your task is simply to be aware of what you notice. Not change it. Not judge it. Just breathe with it. Be with it. And simply work from there.
For readings on mindfulness: check out this week’s Editor’s Picks:
3 Must Reads for Mindfulness.
And this article from Mindful.org
© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014