As Roger—not his real name—sensed his body, he began to notice a deep contraction in his heart that pained him deeply. He had been hearing from his meditation teachers that he had to stay with it and continue sensing his body no matter what, even if he felt emotional pain.
Given how much faith he had in the method, he followed the instructions diligently, even though his emotional response was too overwhelming to put aside. The pain became so intense that it began to feel like sharp shards of glass inside his chest—and he began experiencing deep rage that turned against himself.
“What is wrong with me that I can’t do this?” he thought. Images of self-injury and hitting himself began to flood his mind. He didn’t know what to do with this level of self-hatred. At the same time, he was determined to stay with his body at all costs.
At that point, he had two opposing forces inside him that kept him frozen in great emotional pain and intrusive mental images. Finally, the intensity became so strong that he jumped up and bolted from the meditation hall, running out toward nature, where he found relief at last.
Roger’s heart was pounding, and his level of arousal was too much for his nervous system to tolerate. He wept deeply. As a result of his intense meditation, Roger experienced a resurfacing of old trauma that he did not even know he had. This incident happened to Roger many years ago, on the sixth day of a silent 10-day Vipassana retreat. The episode had a big impact on his well-being, and he didn’t learn how to deal with it until years later, after much therapy.
Roger’s experience at the retreat can happen for anyone who engages in deep meditation and carries a great deal of unprocessed or unconscious trauma. “I didn’t even know back then that I had such a level of trauma. I thought everybody had so much difficulty being with themselves, and I naively also thought that meditation was the grand cure-all,” Roger told me during a session.
Although meditation can be a great support for many of us and can even be helpful in dealing with psychological difficulties, it can also trigger traumatic responses that may need further processing. Without appropriate guidance, meditation can be more of a stressor than a support for some people.
Trauma is the result of our nervous systems being overwhelmed by experiences that we are unable to tolerate and process. This can be the result of a single life-threatening event, or of repeated stressors accumulating over time. Trauma is particularly devastating if we’re young and vulnerable, so early traumatic experiences tend to have deep impacts that, as adults, we may be completely unconscious of. Mindfulness meditation can reopen these old wounds, and without appropriate support, anyone can get lost in these deeply painful experiences.
One common meditation technique that is taught at many mindfulness courses and retreats is the body scan. During this practice, participants bring their attention to their body sensations in a methodical way. This is a great tool to develop sensitivity and self-awareness. However, as we sensitize ourselves to our bodies, we may end up encountering previously unconscious trauma.
TITRATION IS KEY
Titration is a concept borrowed from chemistry that Peter Levine, creator of the Somatic Experiencing method, uses to illustrate how to approach traumatic material. Levine (2010) gives the example that if one were to mix two reactive chemical compounds all at once, the result would be an explosion. However, if one uses a glass valve and mixes them one drop at a time, the result would be safe; each drop creates a small, manageable fizzle.
The same principle applies when working with trauma. If we are able to turn our attention back and forth between sources of support (e.g., pleasant bodily sensations, views, or touch) and the safer edges of a difficult inner experience, we have a much better chance of working effectively with the traumatic material than if we try to simply stay present with the material all at once. This takes a great deal of skill and is very difficult to do without support. If we don’t know how to titrate or skillfully work with the challenging sensations that can arise, we can end up retraumatizing ourselves.
NOT ALL RETREATS ARE CREATED EQUAL
A meditation retreat can be a fantastic way to deepen your meditation practice and develop your capacity to be with experience. Meditation retreats are also great for giving us a continuous experience of presence; during sustained meditation practice, after a couple of days you can experience deep levels of absorption and profound wellness. But not all meditation retreats are the same.
Depending on the tradition and the teachers, retreat leaders may or may not have psychological experience or expertise with trauma. The good news is that, nowadays, many meditation teachers are informed about trauma, and some even get training in working with it. In order to work with your own trauma at a meditation retreat, flexibility is important. Allowing yourself to deviate from the schedule and seek support with teachers or nature can make all the difference.
The retreat mentioned at the beginning of this article was not very flexible. Its guidelines were strict, and it was designed for people to achieve deep levels of concentration—a format that can be fantastic for someone with a relatively intact ego structure, but retraumatizing for someone with deep trauma, as it was for Roger.
IT’S ABOUT STAYING WITH OUR EXPERIENCE
Staying with our experience without trying to change it is at the core of mindfulness meditation practice. This practice has many benefits, such as developing self-acceptance and self-awareness. However, staying with ourselves does not mean we have to bear inner torture. If an experience feels overwhelming, it is probably not helpful to stay with it in a continuous way. At this point, finding an external resource such as nature or someone to support us becomes more important than staying directly with the experience.
If you know you have trauma and are engaged in serious meditation practice, be cautious and seek help to deal with it. Part of doing inner work consists of discovering the right balance between challenging and supporting ourselves; when trauma is present, this point tends to be skewed toward either too much challenge or complete avoidance of the situation that triggers the trauma. Neither approach will help you metabolize and transform traumatic psychological imprints. This is why having someone to help you traverse this difficult territory is key.
In sum, mindfulness meditation is a fantastic tool for supporting our well-being, and if taken seriously, it can truly transform our lives. However, because it is a serious practice, it can reopen old wounds in unsuspecting participants, so please be careful and seek the guidance of a trained therapist if you know you have trauma in your background.
Levine, P. A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2010.