Every experience we have leaves a trace upon us. In a very real way, the body keeps score. This score is like a tally of various experiences, both positive and negative. Most of us know someone who shows the signs (the score) of the negative effects of stress. Abraham Lincoln remarked, “Every person over forty is responsible for their face”. Each experience shapes the physiology of our body – negative experiences take a toll as the score ads up as well as the positive experiences. It is up to us to be aware of this and to use our experiences for learning the lessons necessary for our growth.
The traces left by experience are electro-chemical patterns imprinted in the brain/body. Negative experiences such as trauma do not necessarily have to be the source of all the imprints. There are of course significant traumatic experiences that create deep wounds but there are also seemingly harmless events that create equally strong impressions that can have a domino effect throughout our lives. We may blame our current feelings and reactions on people or circumstances in the present as the source. But the truth is we may just be juxtaposing feelings from former events on to our current experience.
Do you have particular negative behavior patterns in relationships with loved ones, friends or anyone else that keep recurring? Do you ever find yourself saying, “Why does this always happen to me? What am I not getting here?” Do you feel uncomfortable around certain types of people or places? Do you have fears or phobias? Do you startle easily? Do you have insomnia? Do you have to stay ‘busy’ all the time? Are you lacking or struggling in any area of your life? Do you have chronic physical issues that clearly are exacerbated by stress? Addictions? Do you have to search for your true feelings, do you feel out-of-touch at times? This can all be the result (and the accumulation) of responses to past experience that is being triggered, repeated and ‘blamed’ on, and attached to, current circumstances, people or events. This is not to blame the past but rather to identify the current issues and see the connection with the past. This enables us to break the cycle – it makes it conscious.
Ram Dass said, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend some time with your family!” Not only do we get pulled into virtually all the conditioned patterns developed over our lives when we are with the people who were around us during our crucial developmental years, but the people who we knew at the various stages project all their notions and opinions about us, on us as well! This can be very unsettling – our voices may change, we may regress and feel like children, we may feel old behaviors and self-conscious beliefs about ourselves emerging. These family get-togethers can be a great opportunity to observe the ‘acting out’ of patterns!
Do Not Blame Past Lives!
According to enlightenment teachers, our experience now is the carryover from past lives – our lessons continue on until we have resolved them all, realizing life’s ultimate purpose and finally experience liberation of consciousness. The effect from the past is the cause of the present and if not resolved will keep creating the same effect-cause-effect-cause cycle over and over. When we learn the lessons and make the appropriate adjustments, we consciously eliminate the negative effects and introduce new positive causes. It is in the ‘here and now’ that we have the ability to respond (response-ability) to repetitive patterns (karma). Looking for past life sources can be nothing more than a distraction from dealing with the ‘here and now’.
The Body Remembers
When we recall a past negative event in our life, if it is unresolved, we will experience a similar body chemistry to the original event as we remember the incident no matter how long in the past it occurred. If we feel sadness, hopelessness, regret, guilt, anger, shame, remorse or any uncomfortable emotion then it is likely the memory and emotion associated with it has not been resolved. When we recall a positive experience, the same applies: the positive chemistry can be intentionally brought about. There is a growing awareness in the therapeutic community that along with other appropriate interventions, body centered approaches to healing trauma and stress responses are essential. The body keeps score and takes on stress and emotional patterns (chemistry) that reflect the stress in the form of poor breathing patterns, muscle tension/stress patterns, gastro-intestinal reactions, auto-immune illness, aches and pains and many others. These body patterns can be released by using breath combined with body awareness practices.
There are however, individual differences and needs for different psychological makeups that should be taken into account before one engages in a meditative practice. A recent study reported that 7.9% of people who try meditation or some form of contemplative practice have a negative experience. There is even a growing movement called ‘The Dark Night Project’* that looks at the negative experiences that occur with this percentage of people who try contemplative or meditative practices. It is notable too, however, that a 2010 paper published in American Psychologist points to dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient.
To be clear though, not all negative experiences as a result of meditative and contemplative practices are part of the same category. Some are actually desirable and intended as one moves through different levels of the mind – they can serve as a way to identify, desensitize, integrate, neutralize and thereby resolve internal conflict – in effect peeling away the layers that obscure the purity of the soul. But some of the negative experiences are perhaps caused by premature opening and a misunderstanding of the proper procedure for persons who have deeper unresolved conflicts and/or a history of traumatic experience.
Why are there negative experiences if meditation is supposed to turn on the ‘relaxation response’, make us calm and more focused? Why do some people just give up on meditation? The reason is if there is unresolved issues or trauma, it is not necessarily a conscious memory. In some cases it is just below conscious awareness, lurking in the background as a vague (or not so vague) anxiety or uncomfortable feeling. As an example if one was raised in an environment where there was discord and unpredictable behaviors from family, acquaintances or friends, then this can trigger parts of the brain to either learn to disassociate from the stressful environment and feelings or to be hypervigilant to avoid potential threats in the future. Disassociation has a wide range of severity but essentially it is a defense mechanism – a detachment from the environment and/or from one’s own feelings and thoughts – this is the ‘freeze’ response. Hypervigilance manifests as always being on guard as a defense to the unpredictable – always ready for ‘fight or flight’. In the EEG (the electrical activity of the brain: brainwaves) you can see the difference: dissociative patterns will show an excess of theta waves and sometimes alpha waves as these people’s brains have learned to go ‘offline’ on occasion to avoid negative feelings. The difficult thing about this is these people may not even know that they do this since they sort of disappear by tuning out. The other pattern will show an excess of high beta wave activity which is an indication of extreme over-activity as the brain maintains the state of hypervigilance. Dissociation usually tend towards depression while the hypervigilant towards anxiety, over-arousal and other agitated conditions.
We all develop different ways to manage stress. To avoid (or disassociate from) negative feelings some people will engage in almost constant activity, keeping themselves incessantly busy or constantly talking. Some will resort to comfort eating, drugs and/or alcohol as a way to self-medicate. With the aforementioned 7.9% who try meditation, mindfulness or some other form of relaxation training, the repressed memories and/or feelings may begin to emerge. Sometimes the memories are conscious but many will not have the memory of a specific event but rather will have the non-verbal memory in the form of a physical symptom like a headache, disorientation, dizziness, GI upset, insomnia and some will have an emotion of fear, sadness, anxiety, or panic. Some will experience sweating or body shaking, or other uncomfortable feelings associated with the stressful event. These people should not begin with types of meditation or relaxation where one has to keep the body still – this only deepens the uncomfortable feelings and can create (or make one recall) feelings of being ‘trapped’. This is crucial to the deeper healing of the after-effects of the trauma and these uncomfortable responses and reactions are indications that a different approach is indicated. Professional counseling by someone trained in trauma recovery is important. Moving forms of meditation can also be beneficial – getting the stress patterns out of the body and thereby releasing the pent up emotion/memory. Some of these include Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Hatha Yoga. These are movement oriented practices that use breath combined with body awareness to decongest stagnant energy in the body, release frozen emotion, relax muscle patterns, reduce stress, boost the immune system and many other benefits.
The late Subramuniyaswami advised that people prone to anger or violence should not try to do sitting forms of meditation or contemplative practices at first. It is advisable for these people to practice Karma Yoga (learn to perform self-less service for the good of others without attachment to, or expectation of, reward) and/or Bhakti Yoga (devotional forms of practice where one surrenders one’s self to a higher power). These paths help one to remove the egotistic tendencies and to develop empathy, compassion and humility. Fear and instinctual drives fuel the anger and violence. Eventually as one learns to cultivate compassion, empathy and humility the negative patterns will be extinguished and meditation practice can ensue.
Find Your Breath
0ne of the simplest and most efficient methods to neutralize negative programming and reaction patterns is to shift awareness to the breath. With awareness on the breath, breathe from the belly, smooth out the breath, eliminate any pausing. With practice, the chemical patterns will change relative to the breath. Breath and mind are intimately connected. The breathing pattern will reflect the content of thought and emotion: i.e., if there is disturbance in the mind there will be disturbed breathing – breathing patterns will be irregular, some will actually hold the breath and there is also something called hyperventilation syndrome where panic creates excessive breathing resulting in dizziness and confusion. By using conscious breath awareness the mind can be brought into a less scattered condition.
“Once an affliction of the mind has been conquered, it cannot return.”
— Thrangu Rimpoche
I recently met with a former convict who was incarcerated nine times in both state and federal prisons over his lifetime. He attributed his ‘new life,’ and his success to the two-times-a-week hatha yoga classes he attended while in prison. More specifically to his learning to, in his words, “find my breath.” He had a violent childhood, scarred by devastating experiences leaving him with extremely violent reaction patterns – when he was in his ‘child’s mind’ he interpreted events that to him, life taught, ‘violence is the only way to survive.’ Now, in situations that would have triggered significant violent responses in the past, he found that by just shifting awareness to his breath, he changed the reactions, permanently. In his words now, “It was hard a first, but it (breath) saved my life.”
Recall the gap exercise in sutras #14, 15 and 18. If you need to please reread. As this former convict learned and as neuroscience tells us, there is 1/10th of a second delay between an outside event and our internal reaction – the 1/10th of a second is the gap. In the 1/10th of a second our brains scan vast memory reserves for ‘how we should react’ based on past experience. If we have negative programming and negative reaction patterns then we will unconsciously react according to those habitual memory patterns – these patterns automatically tell us how we ‘should’ react. Pausing, recognizing the gap, using breath to be present-awake in the 1/10th of a second, is how we can change the unconscious reaction patterns.
Spend time every day watching for repetitive patterns, for moments when you recognize a familiar annoying feeling – see it as a memory. Observe yourself when you feel frustration, anger, disappointment, or when you feel like a victim, have a disagreement, poor communication or impatience with yourself or others. These are usually indicative of a pattern, of a domino effect of similar situations and incidents like ripple effects from past programming effecting the present.
Be conscious of the ‘score’ your body and mind is keeping. Are you tallying up a positive life -affirming, stress-free, prosperous and spiritually fulfilled scorecard? Or is stress and negativity from old worn out patterns taking a lead? It is truly up to us once we understand our role. Make a commitment to practice over the next day: find your breath and you will find your freedom.
* The ‘Dark Night Project’ name is taken from the title of the classic mystical text, Dark Night of the Soul written by the 16th century Carmelite monk, Saint John of the Cross. Unfortunately, the Dark Night Project dwells almost entirely on the ‘darkness’ and leaves out the very purpose and explanation for the process of moving through the ‘darkness’ – the culmination of which leads to the deepest soul awakening as described by St. John:
This enkindling and yearning of love are not always perceived by the soul. For in the beginning, when the spiritual purgation commences, all this Divine fire is used in drying up and making ready the wood (which is the soul) rather than in giving it heat. But, as time goes on, the fire begins to give heat to the soul, and the soul then very commonly feels this enkindling heat of love. Further, as the understanding is being more and more purged by means of this darkness, it sometimes comes to pass that this mystical and loving theology, as well as enkindling the will, strikes and illumines the other faculty also—that of the understanding—with a certain Divine light and knowledge, so delectably and delicately that it aids the will to conceive a marvelous fervor, and, without any action of its own, there burns in it this Divine fire of love, in living flames, so that it now appears to the soul a living fire by reason of the living understanding which is given to it.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD