Trauma as a Source of Spiritual Growth, Personal Reflection
In “The Development of Spiritual Healing”, Murshid teaches us that to overcome death and disease the body needs to be maintained in harmony through self-care, self-regulation, and self-understanding. The many practices we learn: the balanced movement, rest, nutrition, community are all geared toward this goal, and toward building resiliency.
So it is with trauma. Most of what we do as healers is to assist the innate healing process to resolve the trauma, to reframe the traumatic into a more positive framework that in turn allows the soul to flourish. This helps each person redefine the balance and meaning as needed.
Trauma usually comes when we least expect it, and in a variety of different forms. In my own life I have not experienced any major physical or psychological trauma, but I have been proximate to terrible things happening around me. As a physician in the field of geriatrics and palliative care I find myself facing many patients who are dying, and families going through severe grieving. Sometimes the end of life process is filled with peace, but often it is beyond difficult. It is painful and hard for everyone involved, and it takes a lot of mastery to maintain awareness and stay grounded. Over the decade plus of practice, I have learned to stay present and grounded, so I can help to the best of my abilities. But nothing prepared me for what happened recently. The type of trauma that came has shaken me deeply at my core. I have two best friends from childhood. We have stayed close. Even though we haven’t met or talked on the phone very regularly, the depth of inner connection and love has remained through the years. I’m writing these lines on my way to the funeral of one of my best friend’s daughter, who took her own life at the age of nineteen, on the other side of a wall where my friend was sleeping.
One of the key principles in healing and doctoring is to try to find meaning in one’s suffering, to conceptually align it with something positive, something that can give one strength and courage to move forward. Here is a situation where no matter how you look at it, the meaning is veiled, and one can argue that there is none. This beautiful young woman decided to end her life, leaving her family and friends in a deep state of shock with broken hearts. When I first learned about the news I was on my way to Zikr, the treasured evening that I was looking forward to. The drive was surreal, as if suddenly a switch went off, and I was no longer able to be in my usual state of being. I could not concentrate on the Zikr or on anything else that night except playing with kids and having “normal” talk around the dinner table. But every few minutes my thoughts would drift back to the tragedy, and I would feel as though I were floating away into a state of dis-ease. I started hurting all over, sleep was disrupted, and I found myself needing to talk to close friends and family. I did not cry for several days, but when I did, it was sudden, and during work. When I bumped into our psychiatrist in the corridor, I’m glad he was there to hold the space and offer his shoulder.
Days later, I lost my carefully constructed life balance. I still ate well and took vitamins. I tried sleeping and staying connected to those dear to me, but my practices were disrupted; my sleep was not good enough, and most importantly, I started falling deeper into minor disruptive patterns, such as self-pity, lack of exercise, drinking more alcohol and binge-watching TV. The small “demons” in my life came out of the closet and were closing in. It took a few more days to realize this.
On my way to Israel to be with my friend, I had plenty of time to reflect and go deep inside to feel what I was feeling. The trauma triggered me to act; it caused my inner resources to be mobilized in a way that I had not seen before. In a matter of hours, I stopped everything I was doing, obtained a new Israeli passport, and rearranged my work schedule. In addition to the obvious external life actions, on the inner plane I had several guiding dreams and realizations. I also had deep meditative Sohbet with Karen, after suddenly waking up one night at 3 a.m. Suddenly, all demons were back in their closets, and the new source of energy that originated from my sorrow provided strong constructive direction for my being. My trip to Israel become one long meditation on pain and loss. I was not just grieving anymore; I was constructing a story, a story of meaning, of why she left and how to hold my friend.
Being with him was a privilege that came with a price. His spiritual belief system helped him, and made us much closer than we had ever been before, but it did not make the suffering any easier. When I felt his visceral pain, I cried. At times we laughed, forgetting the tragedy for a few minutes.
A few weeks after I returned home, and life returned to its previous rhythm, I often found myself drifting back into meditative Sohbet with Karen. My soul is still redefining the tragedy and looking for the best possible trauma resolution not just for me, but for everyone around Karen. Travel well Karen, the Ray of Light that you are, toward the Love, the Harmony, and the Beauty, United with All …
For this month, we will turn our attention toward learning a centering practice that combines the elemental breath with a practice originating from principles of biodynamic craniosacral therapy. The entire practice takes about 20-30 minutes, and should be done seated, with spine erect, except for last part if one prefers standing.
Start with the foundational elemental breath, five breaths each. At the end of each element, pause and center your attention on the midline. The midline takes its origin from the notochord, the remnant of our embryologic nervous system. This is not a physical space, it is not located in the midline of the spinal canal, rather it is an imaginary, usually vertical line that connects our upper and lower poles. This midline is a bio-energetic remnant of the notochord. Most of the time, it is physically centered around the length of the spine, but it can deviate from it and is not “attached” to any specific anatomical point. Tai Chi, Aikido, and other martial arts masters have known about the energetic midline for thousands of years. All the martial arts are centered around access to this midline. Each physical move’s intent can be traced back to the midline, and when this is done, consciousness of the power of fluidity of offensive or defensive moves becomes self-evident.
While we often think about chakras as energetic centers of our body, the midline can be thought of as the line connecting all chakras. The midline does not have to be straight; it can have curves and kinks. Whatever your perception of the midline is in that moment, don’t judge it. Your energetic body does what is best to show you what you need to see in the moment. This is the most natural way your body, mind, and soul can sense the midline.
When you are tuning to the midline, try to sense it without observing or forcing your attention onto it. The most important part of this is to be in lightly receptive mode. The best example is to let your attention be as a little bird sitting on a large branch of a mighty oak, fully absorbed into the majesty of the tree’s beauty, but without projecting your own sense of glory and beauty onto the tree. The tree is aware of your birdy presence, but it is not disturbed by it.
After you have finished with the last part of the elemental breaths, stay seated with spine erect. Tune back into the midline and sense the lower pole going deep into the earth and the upper pole reaching up to the skies. For more advanced practice one can try standing up if able to balance comfortably with eyes closed.
Next connect your breath to the midline again. On each inhale, sense the subtle shifts within the midline. It may change color, shift location, or it may become more still. No matter what happens, do not allow your attention to follow the shift; rather let all these changes be the wind that passes.
After few minutes of connecting breath to the midline, place yourself into the most recent stressful situation that made you lose control. Re-experience this state for a minute or two. Now take your attention back to the midline and center the stress of the traumatic experience around the midline. This can be done as a direct imaginary act. Let the midline work itself until you feel more balanced. After approximately 5-10 minutes of this final part, relax your concentration and end the practice with the healing prayer, regardless of whether you were able to achieve full balance.
It is good to repeat this practice daily until one learns to sense the midline quickly, and the centering of traumatic experiences around the midline becomes comfortably automatic.
The essence of this practice is in light but steady observation. By observing the midline while our psyche is in stress, we allow our energetic center to shift the autonomic system into the needed internal balance, retraining it to perceive the stressful situation as nothing more than just another act to balance. On a more esoteric, quantum physics level, this practice uses Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: we can’t measure (be involved) and observe the same phenomena at the same time with equal accuracy. By giving up the involved, measuring part of ourselves in favor of observing, we lose our capacity to “know” exactly what damage or change is happening, but gain instead accuracy in seeing what the balanced state of our life is.
It is a good idea to start this practice with minor stressors and gradually move stressors toward more and more difficult situations. This practice can be done in real life during actual traumatic events, but it requires rapidly tuning into the midline, and it takes months to years to develop.
I feel that it is timely that we engage in doing this practice weeks after the Florida tragedy that took 17 lives in seemingly meaningless act of violence. By doing at least one practice session to center our thinking around what happened in Florida, we not only help ourselves to deal with how it affected our own psyche, but will continue collective movement toward resolution of gun violence in our society. I believe we have a duty to engage in any way possible to assure that gun access is limited to only those individuals who can safely and wisely handle them.
Let the beauty we love, be what we do…
Raqib Mikhail Kogan, MD, RCST, ABOIM