The Power to Be: Trauma Sensitive Practice and the Capacity to Be Fully Alive

An Experiment

Notice if you’re feeling curious.  If you are, I invite you to try an experiment with me.  The experiment is to notice your embodied experience of language.  This means noticing your body’s response to words and phrases.  Another way to say this is noticing how words and phrases feel in your body, or, “how they land with you.”   To try this, read the short list below and repeat the words and phrases slowly, either silently in your mind or aloud, with your eyes closed or softly open, whichever feels comfortable.  Leave a small space of silence in between them so you have room to notice your experience.  As you do this, pay close attention to your body and observe any thoughts, feelings, reactions, responses, or sensations that might arise:

Do this now

You’re welcome to try this when you’re ready

Stop

Notice if you’d like to rest

Hurry up

In your own time

Thank you for trying this!  How was that for you?  Did you notice anything about this list intellectually?  Did your body notice anything about these words and phrases?  This was an experiment, so there’s no wrong or right answer.  Perhaps you observed that some phrases read like commands and some like invitations.  Maybe you felt that some words extend a sense of urgency and others a sense of open acceptance.  It’s possible you felt nothing in your body as you repeated the list, or only noticed a small response.  It’s also possible you felt quite a lot of sensation in your torso, around your chest, your ribcage, and your belly, or somewhere else altogether.  

I love that there’s no objectively right answer here, that there’s no “perfect” outside of your own experience.  Whatever your experience in this practice is, it’s the right one.  This is what trauma-sensitive practice means for me.  Observing and noticing, allowing and honoring are key aspects of this way of life, the “trauma aware” way of life. That’s what Mindfulness Based Emotional Resilience* training becomes — not a series of important looking letters after your name or a certification for you to work into your tagline — it becomes the way you move through the world.  

“Mindfulness Based Emotional Resilience 

becomes the way you move 

through the world.”

The phrases “You’re welcome to try this when you’re ready, Notice if you’d like to rest, and In your own time,” are considered trauma-sensitive because they allow for the person receiving the language to make choices, which is one of the hallmarks of trauma-sensitive work.  In this case, the choices include things like whether we will engage in the activity, as well as how we will or won’t engage in the activity.  In all forms of trauma-sensitive practice the locus of power shifts from objective to subjective, external to internal, from the institution to the person, from other people to you.  

Moving Through the World

The way I lived before my trauma training was “fairly accepting,” “sort of kind,” “pretty welcoming,” and “almost-but-not-quite non-judgmental.”   I’d been practicing yoga for about 18 years and really struggled with a lot of perfectionistic tendencies, a ton of unrealistic expectations, buckets of shame, and barrels of shoulds.  These kinds of characteristics manifest in a variety of spaces like the yoga studio, the church sanctuary, the athletic field, and the performance hall, to name a few.  And for me it’s possible they were very much nurtured by western society’s bent toward a white supremacist culture.   This almost invisible power structure doesn’t leave much room for personal nuance, subjective subtlety, or shades of brown.  People of every color are affected by it — including white people — whether we realize it or not.  But the EMBER training cuts through all of that.  Trauma-sensitivity literally carves out the room you need to flourish into who you are capable of being. And not only that, but it teaches you how to do this for others, too. 

“I am enough.  

And so are you.”

Acknowledgement, empathy, and compassion are now cornerstones of the way I move through the world.  Now I know how to make space, take space, and hold space for my own self, for the people I know and love, for those I find extraordinarily challenging, and for the people I’ve never met.  Perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, shame, and shoulds are bits of rubble I step over.  Now I notice, name, and embrace my experience in a way that is tender and welcoming instead of demanding and hostile.  Finally, I can be a yoga pose instead of “do” a yoga pose.   Finally I can set down the value-laden anvil of “being good” and  “doing it right,” and pick up the mantle of I am enough and so are you.

Being and Becoming

Trauma awareness allows us to approach ourselves and others from a place of wholeness.  This means we don’t see ourselves as incomplete, broken, or in need of fixing.  Instead we’re afforded space to view ourselves as fully functioning in relation to our circumstances both internal (our genetic makeup and nervous system function) and external (the amount of challenges we encounter in relation to our power, or access to resources and supports).  We do what works to make it through until we cultivate more skillful practices and/or create, gain, or otherwise access more power. These are the spaces in which we move from resilience to post-traumatic growth.  We can’t practice what we were never taught.  And we can’t learn what we were never given an opportunity to know.   So the philosophy of wholeness meets us where we are, with welcoming and befriending, and it allows each one of us to be who we are while supporting us to grow into who we are becoming.  

Practice:

If you’d like to take a small step toward feeling fully alive (even if only for a moment), or to experience the power of just being, try this experiment with me (with your eyes open or closed): 

If you’d like, place your hand (or hands) on something solid –  your leg, the seat of your chair, the floor, or the ground, and press down with any amount of pressure that feels right.

Notice any sensations that reveal your connection to this solid thing, or to the earth.

Breathe in.  And then, breathe out.  

Now, look around your space, and notice one color that stands out to you.

If you’d like, say the name of that color out loud or silently in your mind.

Last, notice how you feel.

Thank you for trying that with me!  Perhaps you’d like to let that experience settle then investigate how it was for you, or, come back to the practice again after you’ve finished reading.  Remember, you have the power to be a witness to your own being.  You have the power to be a witness to your own becoming.  Both of these actions are happening all the time and at the same time, and any choice you make around realizing your power and becoming fully alive…?  It’s the right one. 

May you know peace, joy, and hope, 

in any amount,

Amy

The Universal Yogi

I was trained in EMBER Yoga (Mindfulness-Based Emotional Resilience) by the amazing co-creators Michele Vinbury and Marybeth Hamilton at the equally amazing Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio. The most life-changing, life-enhancing training I’ve ever experienced.

The Spaciousness of Love, Revisited

Dear Readers, 

I wrote the original version of this essay a few years ago and have decided to revisit it.  What you’ll find below is a slightly reworked version oriented toward finding ways to take right action in light of the most current tragic events in the U.S. and the revelations of social divides and social injustice made more evident by this pandemic.  I hope there is something within these words that resonates with you, and that it helps inspire you to reach deeply into your own heart; find new ways of loving and embracing yourself, so that you may find new ways of loving and embracing the people in your own community, and so on outward to your village, township, parish, county, city, state, country, continent, and world.  My invitation to you is to start with yourself, and only then move outward, because you are just as worthy of your own love as your neighbor is.  The Divine lives in all of us and is the center of all things.  God is the hub; we are the spokes; this life is the rim.  And the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to God.    

As I write these last words, the reality of quarantine and safe (or social) distance measures strikes me squarely in the face.  My heart longs to enter back into the world, and yet I feel trapped, without clear pathways, and also a little fearful.  The need to take action is strong within me and many of the people in my community.  I am reminded by my teachers that right action will look different for each and every one of us.  For some of us, our first right step might be to hold our children close and feel what it feels like to be safe.  For some of us, getting involved in our community’s social justice groups is the most pressing immediate action.  And others of us will be called to speak in loving kindness with family, friends, and neighbors, or write letters of trust and strength and hope.  Still others of us will find ways to connect with our spiritual communities and allow the passion and guidance of our spiritual leaders to bolster our hearts in faith and love.  

May we be drenched in Holy Spirit wisdom, and soaked in gratitude, faith, hope, and love.

The Spaciousness of Love

If love is kind,
it is not cruel.

If love is not jealous,
it is supportive.

If love is not pompous,
it is humble.

If love is not inflated,
it sees rightly.  

If love is not rude,
it is enlightened.  

If love is not self-seeking,
it is generous. 

If love is not quick-tempered,
it is tranquil.

If love does not brood over injury,
it is forgiving.

If love does not rejoice over wrongdoing,
it offers compassion.

If love bears all things,
it turns nothing away.

If love believes all things,
it does not deny. 

If love endures all things,
it does not cede. 

If love never fails,
it always triumphs.

In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a scholar of Jewish law asks Christ, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus says to him in reply, ““What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  The scholar responds with what we know as The Greatest Commandment:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-8).

From this quick exchange it seems our purpose on earth is simple, our mission, obvious, and the answer to the question of inheriting eternal life, a short one: love.  That’s it.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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However, as simple as love appears to be, isn’t it simultaneously complex?  What, exactly, is love?

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul articulates clearly and beautifully what love is and what it is not, what love does and what it does not do.  And he acknowledges that our actions can be either devoid of love or infused with it.  We can serve in bitterness and resentment or in humility and compassion.  Even our most helpful of actions can be empty of love, performed in a negative spirit that crushes our own and that of the recipient.   St. Paul even goes so far as to proclaim that love is the greatest of all virtues, greater than faith and greater than hope:  “Love will remain even when faith has yielded to sight and hope to possession” (USCCB Commentary).

Thankfully we can look to these guidelines and explanations of love to give us a starting point, a kind of pathway forward, but I know how much I stumble and wander about aimlessly, how often I fall and clamber in the dark of my ignorance, for even though I hear the encouragement, “love one another as you love yourself,” it is as if I do not have ears; I still find myself screaming, in my most wretched hour, “How?”

The Greatest Commandment, love one another as you love yourself, assumes that we already know how we are to love ourselves.  

Zen priest and founder of the Center for Transformative Change, Angel Kyodo Williams, describes love as space:  “[Love] is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that is love”  (OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett).

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If love is space, it is not a vacuum; it does not pull all things into itself but expands and allows people to be who they are.  Love makes room for the full expression of the human experience.  Unfortunately, there have been many times in which I’ve been loveless.  I’ve had a habit of pulling all things into myself, making myself the center of the multiverse, sucking the life out of life.  I have been selfish, judgmental, prideful, vain, and vacuous, full of disdain, contempt, and self-righteousness, as I suspect most of us have at one time or another.  It is a crushing cycle to find oneself in, as it damages others, as well as ourselves, on multiple levels.

I want to choose space.

Choosing space is hard.

It’s good to remember that love is not passive; it’s an action, whether or not it looks like action from the outside.  To love is an act of the will; it is to choose, and we can’t make choices without awareness.  To be aware is to choose to see rightly, to see ourselves as we really are, without quite so many labels, inherited or created, without stories in which we are always the protagonist; but instead, to choose to see ourselves simply as children of God worthy of love, worthy of forgiveness, by our sheer existence.  Awareness can help create this space to see, this space in which we can choose dignity, this space to act in love toward ourself and our neighbor.

All this takes practice.  When we work on our yoga mat to create space in the body for healing, we do so with awareness.  When we work on our meditation mat to create space in the mind for choice, we do so with awareness.  And when the mind is able to choose, we are able to work in our daily lives to create space in the spirit for loving ourselves.  The hope is that if for a moment we can focus on the tree trunk, instead of the ever changing leaves, perhaps we will be able to notice, for even an instant, our constant spirit, instead of our changeable thoughts and emotions. And from inside this space, this separation between ourselves and our thought-feelings, we will find compassion for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and for each person we encounter.

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Creating space isn’t easy.  It requires openness of mind and heart.  This can be unnerving and can seem irrational.  As human beings we strive to protect ourselves from the possibility of physical, mental, and emotional harm and to fulfill our basic needs.  This is survival mode, and it causes us to lose touch with others and even with our truest selves.  As we frantically search and scan our surroundings, our circumstances, we become absorbed with negativity.   When this is our baseline functioning, we run the risk of closing in on ourselves, forgetting who we are, and who we are in relation to those around us.

But we can try, little by little we can try to find that necessary spaciousness.  What can we practice letting go of to make space for something else, something like welcoming, like embracing?  Making space for ourselves, and making space for one another are true acts of love.  Even paying close attention is loving, for where we place our attention, there also will our love be.  Bringing our awareness to the present moment, including the people and events within that moment, and allowing space for the moment to be what it is, is living in love.

Our practices of the limbs of yoga – the yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana – with the wisdom of Holy Spirit, will lead us to the answers.  We’ll figure out what needs letting go of through practice, so we can’t quit; we can’t give up; we can’t deny ourselves the practices even when we are overcome with grief and anger – we take the grief and the anger to the practice with us. Just like we take the joy and the delight to the practice with us.  We take everything to the practice. Practice is truly our own best teacher.  

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Yoga instructor Bryan Kest speaks of a yoga practice on the mat as being like a mini-day, or a mini-life in which we encounter obstacles and challenges, and we practice being with them with equanimity, so that when we go out into the world we function from this baseline of non-reaction, with gentleness and self-compassion as our default mode.  Not only do we practice navigating difficulty as yogis, but we also practice nurturing ourselves through deep restorative postures and energy work that have the capacity to restore and bolster our right action in the world.  And this is paramount – we must care for ourselves so that we can care for others.  Continued, sustained practice creates in us the capacity to grow in wisdom and expand in love.  It is when we deny what is present, when we hide from what is happening, when we close in on ourselves and shut everyone else out through fear that our chests tighten, our hearts constrict, and our capacity for love diminishes.  Kyodo Williams encourages us when she says, ” for people who are not monastics, the world is our field of practice.”

And so we practice. We get on our mat every day; we let go of reactivity, harsh self-criticisms, vanity and pride, greed and grasping; we start to cultivate space for responding, for healing, for choosing, and for seeing rightly. We fail. We try again.

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We welcome wisdom into our heart and begin to understand what it means to be wisely generous and wisely selfish, so as not to overextend or overwhelm ourselves, but so that we pace, renew and restore and keep going. We take that spaciousness off our yoga mat, through the doors of our worship space and out into the moments, the circumstances of our lives, and we practice some more, and we practice again, and unceasingly, like prayer.

Love is not cruel; it is supportive and humble.  Love sees rightly and is enlightened.  Love is generous, tranquil, forgiving, compassionate, courageous, honest, eternal, and triumphant.  Love is wise.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Love bears all things because love is spacious.  When we understand this and put it into practice by giving ourselves the space to be who we are without judgment, we will be able to give this same non-judgemental space to others.  From this place we will hear the encouragement, “Love one another as you love yourself,” and we will know, because we live it, because we feel it in our bones.

Space is ever-expanding.  So is love.  Love never ends.

Mindful Moments: 3 Chocolate Practices for Ash Wednesday & Beyond

Mindfulness is the practice of noticing what’s happening in the present moment without judgement.  It’s being aware of your sensory experience: sight, sound, scent, touch, taste. It’s offering your kind attention to your emotions and thoughts, all without analyzing or criticizing.  In my Catholic experience, chocolate has been associated with Lent and Easter for decades, and it’s possible some of you have memories of giving up chocolate for Lent and then eating a basket full on Easter Sunday.  Mindfulness is a big part of my yoga practice both on and off the mat. And chocolate is a big part of my life, both during Ordinary Time and during Lent. So, I thought I’d share a few mindful Lenten prayer practices that I have found useful at various times in my life.  

1. Give Up Chocolate Mindfully

When I give up chocolate for Lent, it’s a big deal.  Seriously. Because I love chocolate, the dark kind. I savor it daily.  When a person enjoys chocolate the way I do, it really is a sacrifice to give it up.  Non-chocolate-lovers might not have a felt experience of this. If that’s you, think of a special treat or snack you really enjoy and imagine not enjoying it for 40-ish days.  It can seem near impossible, excruciating, or completely pointless! However, it’s comforting to remember that the point of not eating chocolate (or any food or beverage of your choice)  is not so that we suffer, so that we lose weight, or so that we check the box of “giving something up for Lent.”  

2. Don’t Give Up Chocolate Mindfully

We don’t have to give up chocolate. In fact, we can choose to eat chocolate during Lent, and eat it mindfully.  Mindful eating is a practice of paying close attention to the experience of eating your meal by noticing the details of your food, how it looks and feels, its aroma and flavor.  Mindful eating slows us down and allows time to contemplate all the needed resources for the food to grow, such as healthy soil, the the sun and the rain, as well as the many people who made the food available to you: the farmers, harvesters, packers, shippers, and sales attendants.  And finally, mindful eating gives space for your lived experience of enjoying it: noticing the shape and color, then the scent, then the texture, then the taste, and as you swallow, offering thanks. This practice has a way of slowing us down to savor, to acknowledge that we don’t stand alone as individualists, but are an integral piece of the interconnectedness of all life.  

“This practice might allow
the act of eating to become
a prayer in itself.

These moments of mindful eating can create space to grow closer to Christ through an experience of profound gratitude for the many blessings we enjoy.  We often begin our meals with prayer, and some of us end our meals with prayer, but this practice might allow the act of eating to become a prayer in itself.  Try it out with your favorite piece of chocolate after your next yoga practice, or anytime!

3. Mindfully Explore Your Relationship to Chocolate 

What happens when we look closely at our cravings?  (Remember, it doesn’t have to be chocolate. It can even be cravings for non-edible things like attention or acknowledgment.) Consider this breath practice for Ash Wednesday:  

  • Identify a specific food, drink, or experience you have everyday.  Decide to be curious about your relationship to this item.  
  • When you notice a craving for it, acknowledge it, perhaps by labeling it with a name.  Then pause. Take a long, slow, deep breath. And wait. Does the craving pass?  Are there any emotions present here?
  • Take four more breaths, and if you like, link your breath with your favorite prayer or favorite name for God.  Then, look again. Is the craving still there? What emotions are present? Where do the emotions manifest in your body?  Are there any thoughts moving through your mind?  

Remember, in the moment of mindfulness there is no judgment, only awareness of the experience.  After your five breaths, decide to satisfy the craving or decide not to, remembering that neither of these actions is necessarily bad or good.  Mindfulness is noticing, and this noticing might give you interesting information. Stay curious. Breathe deeply. Pray well.  

For me, mindful moments are a pathway to prayer. They offer space and time for me to connect to my self, to my God, and to others. And that’s really what the Lenten journey is about – growing closer to others through prayer, through Christ, through a loving relationship with your own inner being. God has plans for you this Lent. Spend Ash Wednesday being open to possibility, open to connection to yourself and God’s Divine presence within you. And from there, move out from contemplation and into doing. In the words of Richard Rohr, ask God, “What is mine to do?” Listen and look closely for the answers and allow your prayer life to become an access road to action.

I’ll leave you with four prayer quotes for Lent gathered by Sr. Melanie Svoboda on her blog Sunflower Seeds:

“God is hiding in the world. Our task is to let the Divine emerge from our deeds.” Rabbi Abraham Heschel.

“Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” Pope Francis.

”No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” St. John Chrysostom.

 “Lent’s not what you give up; it’s how you reach out.” Regina Brett.

What do you think?  Do any of these practices sound interesting?  Do any of these quotes inspire you? Perhaps you’ll start with the practice of exploration on Ash Wednesday, and then decide how (or if) the other two practices will be a part of your Lenten journey this year.  You might like to make up one or two chocolate practices that are unique to your own experience. If you do, be sure to share your experience here.

Happy Fat Tuesday, Happy Lent, Happy Practicing!