Updated: Oct 3, 2019
To choose to respond with grace and kindness is Freedom.
“The problem, unstated until now, is how to live in a damaged body in a world where pain is meant to be gagged uncured, ungrieved over. The problem is to connect, without hysteria, the pain of anyone’s body with the pain of the world’s body.” Adrienne Rich
Someone asked me once why I do what I do. Why work with traumatized children - whether at- risk and incarcerated youth in New York City, orphans, beggars and earthquake survivors in Nepal, orphans and street children in Uganda or victims of sex trafficking in Kenya? It is not easy work, the witnessing of suffering, as so many of us know. I do it because if I can offer them the skills and tools to find space from their pain and to move it through their bodies they can choose how to respond rather than react. If even one child I work with breaks the cycle of suffering the impact for them alone is profound; for their interaction with the world potentially epic. We know that one child’s pain can twist and grow into one adult’s wreaking of havoc upon many. We have seen this. All of us.
I asked a teenage student of mine once if she was getting anything out of the classes I offered in her high school. She replied, “Yeah, I haven’t hit anyone in awhile.” This is not a small thing especially because many of the youth I work with in New York City unfortunately are caught up in the school to prison pipeline themselves or have family members who are incarcerated. She was able to break a pattern through the use of mindfulness. And like any other practice - whether beneficial or destructive, if practiced often enough becomes a habituated pattern of Being.
I have found that the contemplative practices - mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and certain forms of martial arts offer a path to reintegrating the body and mind by utilizing the mind/body connection. It is when we are disconnected not only from ourselves but from the world around us that we suffer. We see this disconnect in many of the populations that we work with as trauma whether psychological, physical, or both and whether experienced first hand, witnessed upon others or even, perceived. For many this extends into being in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze with the inability to self-regulate or PTSD. How then can one find equilibrium, safety, and a sense of ease if only momentarily to begin to break the inner cycle of suffering?
By utilizing what we have right here and right now which is the body and its most important tether to life - the breath. If one is in a prison cell, a refugee camp, a filled to the brim orphanage or perhaps even, alone in an apartment in NYC one always has the body - the vehicle through which we experience this world, this life. And we must reclaim it especially when it has become for many people, particularly those affected by physical trauma such as torture and sexual violence, a source of pain and worse, an enemy, perhaps the most intimate adversary possible. When we mindfully use our breath, that beautiful tether, and lengthen our exhalations, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system we are giving ourselves the gift of ourselves.
Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk reminds us of this beautifully and succinctly, “Recovery from trauma involves learning how to restore a sense of visceral safety, and reclaiming a loving relationship with one’s self, one’s entire organism.”
Neuroscience shows us what yogis, monks, priests, nuns, and shamans have known for millennia - contemplative practices create inner change, specifically by affecting the brain’s neural integration as well as the body’s response to stress. “The Embodied Mind: A Review on Functional Genomic and Neurological Correlates of Mind Body Therapies” and Harvard University’s “8 Weeks to a Better Brain” are excellent resources.
It is important to remember that these are embodied practices, however. It is useful to draw upon the above research when offering a training or speaking on empathy fatigue and vicarious trauma, for example whether at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Social Work or at The University of Kisubi as part of a Care for Caregivers lecture but not so useful when working with 75 orphaned and abused children who are figuring out how to survive.
Children will not play unless they feel safe. Utilizing elements of mindfulness especially breath work and sensory awareness allows them to begin from a place of calm and groundedness. Trauma informed care means that I also begin from the same place so that I can be very attuned to what is transpiring within the children around me as I lead them through various movement forms or meditations all of which are carefully offered so as to not re-traumatize or trigger. It is extraordinarily beautiful to witness teenage girls feel empowered in their bodies when they do Warrior Poses for example and equally so when a group of tough boys suddenly soften and ease into their bodies during restorative work and relaxation meditation. For many of them it is the first time they can find rest. Unguarded rest for their bodies and minds.
One of my favorite moments was in offering the children and caregivers of a rescue center LovingKindness meditation which they translated into Swahili. LovingKindness is the act of wishing happiness to others beginning with the Self. LovingKindness has also been directly correlated to increasing vagal tone. Again, connecting to the self literally increases our ability to connect to others. “A recent study found that LKM increased practitioners’ vagal tone, an effect that moderated an increase in positive emotions, which in turn moderated even greater gains in vagal tone (Kok et al., 2013).” The Neural Mediators of Kindness-based Meditation: A Theoretical Model.
I believe that every single one of us has the capacity to heal ourselves and to self-regulate. We do this naturally. Sighing deeply is a form of this. Stretching our bodies, singing, playing music, running, playing are all forms of self-regulation and attunement. What I do is simply remind people of who they truly are. Which I believe is good, kind and in my spiritual practice - their inherent Buddhanature - full of wisdom and compassion. These practices bring us back to ourselves by utilizing what is right here, right now.
Being present with ourselves in a nonjudgmental way - noticing sound, touch, taste, smell, and the always constant change within us as well as around us gives us the space to choose how to be in the world. Choice is freedom.