Our organism is a structured and interactive collection of variously patterned energy flows, such as the individual cells and their interconnections, the hormonal and organ systems, and the different aspects of the mind including awareness, cognition/thoughts, emotions, and somatic sensations.
These energy flows are in a constant process of self-regulation for survival and thriving, which unfolds through self-monitoring and appraising how fluid and adaptive the different energy flows and their intricate interactions are at any one moment. Once a determination is made that these energies flow sub-optimally, the organism proceeds to modify them by creating, tapping into, and using resources in such a way as to achieve maximal integration towards health and wellbeing. Mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy are two ways of working with regulation and enhancing its successful unfolding. In psychotherapy, the therapist is a central resource the patient can lean on to learn to access her own internal resources. In mindfulness meditation, the meditator is alone without the benefit of another person’s support during formal practice, often left to discover his internal world as a collection of neighborhoods he would rather not have to visit alone. This can lead to an overwhelming struggle to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, for which simply following prescribed meditation instructions and techniques is no match. Conditioned and engrained energy flow patterns established during a lifetime of unconscious creation of suffering can interfere with the application of practice techniques and bring the meditator’s practice to a halt.
The question is: Why can mindfulness meditation become so unmanageable?
During the last one to two decades, interest in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) revealed that around 10% of the population experiences PTSD and 70% of adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. In trying to elucidate the effects of trauma on the human brain and our psyche, it became clear that more people than previously believed are suffering from some degree of trauma. Patients with complex trauma (protracted childhood trauma through abuse that deeply affects the adult’s life) are often misdiagnosed with a bipolar affective or borderline personality disorder, and therefore doomed to receive inadequate treatment that does not address the core problem.
The word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek ‘wound’, and in this context refers to the psychological wound incurred through certain circumstances. Trauma is not just an event, although some events are potentially more traumatizing than others, but refers to the way an individual processed certain stressful life events in the past.
The extent to which an individual will become traumatized depends on two sets of interacting factors:
1. The objective characteristics of the event, and
2. The subjective characteristics that define the individual’s mental energy and efficiency.
Combined, these two factors give rise to a spectrum of trauma severities, whereby certain susceptible and fragile individuals will experience trauma under less severe circumstances, and strongly resilient individuals may not be traumatized having lived through more severe circumstances.
What does it mean to be traumatized? To try to put it simply, imagine the starlings’ murmuration – swarms of hundreds of birds dancing in perfect unison through the sky without a leader who coordinates the dance. In the same way, our organism, our brain, and our mind consist of an amalgamation of thousands of varying neurofiring and energy flow clusters that are patterned to interact collaboratively so as to provide us with a certain sense of cohesion, allowing us to live a more or less satisfying life.
Through their functional interconnectedness, these energy flow patterns are constantly self-regulating, and there is no lead energy flow, despite the fact that we like to think we are in control of our lives. Neuroception is the term coined by Steven Porges for the way neurocircuits self-regulate by distinguishing whether a situation is safe, threatening, or dangerous. This ongoing process of appraisal is how our autonomic nervous system evaluates information from our senses about our environment and the state of our body. The collection of thousands of parts our organism is made of interact efficiently to solve conflicts that may arise and adapt to changes.
When the organism goes through experiences it interprets as traumatic, certain energy flow patterns cease to be well connected with the rest of the organism or even overwhelm the overall energy flow.
This puts us into a state of fear or anger, which combined with various degrees of mobilization or immobilization leads to various psychologically unsolvable situations. A historically recent scientific discovery has revolutionized our understanding of nervous system energy processing. Steven Porges’ polyvagal autonomic nervous system theory has immeasurably deepened our understanding of how human beings process their energy flow through the spectrum of safe, unsafe, and catastrophic experiences.
An example is the child of an abusive parent; the child needs her parent and the attachment system gets the child to seek proximity to the parent, while the parent’s abuse causes terrible fear and anger. As a consequence, the child experiences an unsolvable psychological situation of attachment with fear or anger and no way out. To survive, the organism uses its specialized and sophisticated, polyvagal defense strategies to isolate some of those overheated neurofiring patterns from the rest of the overall energy flow and put in place substitute mechanisms to hold the whole system together. This process of isolation can be mild in the form of compartmentalization or more severe in the form of dissociation.
Let’s take a fun detour: The nervous system, both somatic and autonomic, embryologically stems from the outer membrane enveloping the fertilized egg, which eventually becomes the skin. At some point in the evolution of the embryo, a part of that membrane begins to differentiate into nerve cells, which then migrate into the center of the fertilized egg, becoming the nervous system.
Remember that a membrane’s function is to regulate the traffic of substances across it between the outside world and the inside of the cell. It can thus be seen as a relationship organ, regulating the way the outside world and the inside milieu of the cell relate to each other. As it differentiates into the nervous system and migrates inward presumably becoming the ‘mem-brain’, it does not lose its relational function. The nerve cell is the only cell in the body that does not produce anything. Instead, it is an electrical and biochemical information conduit that passes information from one end of the nerve cell to the other, then through synapses to other nerve cells. Like the membrane’s, its function is relatedness. This makes the brain the relationship organ par excellence.
Healthy brain and mind functioning thus depend on the establishment of as much connectivity between all its elements and parts as possible. Since the brain’s potential neurofiring patterns exceed the number of known particles in our universe, the potential to grow as human beings is limitless during our lifetime. Chronic interruptions of that connectivity through childhood trauma, for example, are what causes psychological and somatic symptoms, as well as trauma, with all the suffering we can create for ourselves. Logically then, the essence of psychological therapeutic interventions is about reestablishing connectivity by stopping the process of connectivity interruption.
Just because a cluster of neurofiring patterns has been sequestered away does not mean it ceases to be active.
On the contrary, like unprepared musicians in one part of an orchestra, these dissociated parts continue to actively disrupt the whole system; because they are not integrated into the whole, they produce various psychological and physical symptoms that can be conceptualized as frictions within the system, which are caused by the organism’s inability to coordinate its overall energy flow in a smooth fashion. In surveying the whole patient population I have treated over the past 40 years, I can say that most people experience at least some degree of such disintegration throughout their lifetime, and we can find a wide spectrum of severity of such dissociation.
In light of these relatively new discoveries, approaches to psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation have been developed that are sensitive to what we now know about trauma and our polyvagal processing, and are therefore referred to as trauma-sensitive approaches.
An important aspect of such approaches is called ‘resourcing’, which refers to how healing trauma requires that surging traumatic memories must be met within the safety of a strong and loving sense of self.
Without that, just applying meditation techniques will not provide the necessary safety for trauma memories to be relived and rewired in an integrating fashion. This is the reason why so many people fail at attempts to apply mindfulness in their lives. In order to heal traumas, we have to be able to draw on internalized loving, strong, courageous, benevolent, and wise energy flows, and to do that we need to be able to create, tap into and use resources that are available to us from deep within ourselves. In psychotherapy, we have a therapist who can provide these resources until we have been able to internalize them, but in formal mindfulness meditation practice, we are alone having to face ourselves, whoever we may be.
Resourcing has thus been recognized as crucial to psychological healing in general, not only for traumatized individuals.
However, this has not always been so, despite the fact that over two thousand years ago, so history scholars tell us, Buddha was exquisitely skilled at teaching everyone who wanted to meditate the exact meditation technique that was uniquely suitable for them.
When I was first introduced to Zen by Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, who had already modified the original Zen instructions in a way that made them more accessible to Westerners, the original Zen instruction to meditation was short and not sweet, but brutal: ‘Just sit!’. No wonder Zen with its ‘just sit!’ invitation became somewhat of an exclusive club only a few people could stomach. For those with any degree of trauma, ‘just sitting’ most often would lead to retraumatizing experiences that would stall their progress in meditation and cause them to become psychologically more troubled than before.
With today’s knowledge about the brain and the mind, and in particular, about our polyvagal wiring, it is clear that for a successful journey in meditation we need to know how to properly resource as a way of gaining the necessary strength needed to then roam our pained internal neighborhoods alone. I am therefore suggesting the term ‘Resource-Based Mindfulness Meditation‘ for an approach to mindfulness that embeds the necessary techniques of attention, awareness, and kindness within a solid cocoon of both internal and external resources we can draw upon any time to make sure our inner journey towards healing remains safe and productive.
The importance of accessing, creating, and knowing how to use resources when working with the mind is not just limited to trauma, but quite generally a central concern for anyone wanting to successfully work with the complexity of the human mind.
Plenty of scientific evidence for the importance of resourcing is now available, and we can now practice very specific exercises and mindfulness techniques that have been shown to have scientifically established targeted effects we can count on.
As far as mindfulness meditation is concerned, this requires a resource-informed modification in our approach to meditation that honors much more extensively each meditator’s unique mind configuration and conditioned hindrances for maximal results. ‘Resource-Based Mindfulness‘ introduces a new, modified approach to teaching and learning mindfulness requiring exposure to resources as an integral part of learning.
Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.