Author Archives: Vanissar

GETTING UNSTUCK PART III: EMBODY YOUR ROUTINES & IMPROVISE

 

This unsettling time is a perfect opportunity to learn exactly how your body gets stuck; and to discover which “getting unstuck” tools work best for your particular temperament.

I call this process Befriending-Your-Body. I have broken it up into steps:

Befriend Your Body Steps

1. Befriend Your Triggers
2. Practice Safety

3. Befriend Your Somatic Temperament
4. Create Practice Routines

5. Embody Your Routines
6. Improvise!

In this final article, I cover steps 5. and 6.

  1. Embody Your Routines

Neuroplasticity is a thing! Repeatedly attending to something builds new neural pathways and abilities.

The good news about living in a time of crisis is, the more you turn to your self-care routines to get extra help, the more you embody their fruits.

This means that over time you will get unstuck faster.

Two Insomnia Routines

One thing that contributes to me getting stuck is insomnia or interrupted sleep. Fatigue renders me more vulnerable to being triggered in daily life.

With peri-menopause, I often wake too early in the morning (sometimes with heart palpitations) and cannot get back to sleep.

Insomnia has given me an opportunity to learn how my body finds safety and relaxation.  Applying steps 1. to 4. to this problem, I tried on various practices, and gathered my favorite getting unstuck tools.

From this experimentation I developed two helpful routines for insomnia. My routines include pelvic breathingrestorative yoga,  Trauma Release Exercises, and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).

Once you have your routines, practice them until they become embodied. “Embodied” means you are so familiar with something that it becomes automatic.

Here are the two insomnia routines that I call Turn it Down and Turn it Up.

Turn It Down

I have three favorite restorative yoga poses that I return to again and again, because my body loves them. They require pillows, blankets and a bolster. I keep these props near my bed so it is easy to set up my pose.

I combine these three restorative poses in a sequence that usually returns me to sleep within forty minutes or so.

During the first pose, which I do for twenty-forty minutes, my mind is quite active. I have learned to welcome it: “Hello, mind that gallops like a horse.” I let it wander around.

But sometimes I obsess about something so much that I get riled up. As soon as I notice this I tell myself, “Hmm, this line of thought is making me wakeful and agitated.” I try to observe this without fighting with myself.

I may take a few deep breaths; I may marvel at the power of my wild-horse mind. Most of all, I pay attention to how good it feels to have my body held by the props: “Here I am, resting, watching my wild mind run.”

Sensations Are Key

Sensations are the language of our brain stem, our fight-or-flight brain. To engage and influence it, to reassure it, we need to use its language.

So when I do child’s pose with a bolster, I notice the bolster beneath my belly, holding it firmly. I notice the comforting feeling this gives my belly.

When I do a supported upper back backbend, I notice the bolster under my neck, the blanket under my chest. I invite my body to sink into the support.

When I feel “done” with the first pose, I move the props to set up the second pose. I frequently fall asleep in the middle of the second pose.

If not, the third pose almost always works. Hooray! Even if I don’t get back to sleep, restorative poses are still restful.

When Turn It Down Doesn’t Work

Sometimes, depending on what I ate, where I am in my menstrual cycle, or who is president, restorative yoga doesn’t cut it. My body refuses to settle.

Self-observation has taught me that this signals an urgent communication from my body. In the quiet of the night, my mind is raw and open. My body insists: listen to me!

It is difficult to listen. I worry about being wide awake, dread that I will be unable to function in the morning.

This vicious cycle of sleeplessness plus panic about sleeplessness is not a recipe for going back to sleep.

After I fuss for a bit, eventually I remember my other insomnia strategy.

Instead of moving towards the five components of a restorative yoga pose (quiet, warmth, darkness, motionlessness and support), I move towards expression.

Instead of Turning it Down, I Turn it Up.

Turn It Up

This routine is the best choice when I am triggered or “stuck.” It is all about getting active and expressive.

I turn on the light and journal.  If I am too tired, I lie in the dark and talk or sing aloud, narrating my sensations and emotions.

With pen or voice, I complain, worry, rage, argue, philosophize or grieve.

Sometimes I do the TRE exercises, and let my body tremble and shake how/where it wants to.

If I am especially stuck, I may use EFT to “loosen the soil” so I can unearth what is bothering me.

With this process it is crucial that I not direct the movement or expression. I simply allow my body to tell its story.

Usually it turns out to be something I was too busy to catch during the daytime. Usually it is a big deal.

This process can lead to sobs or roars of terror, grief or rage as I uncover and utter truths I have been avoiding.

Again, sensations are key. When I journal or mutter to myself in the night, when I let my body tremor or howl, I participate in the sights, sounds, textures and vibrations.

I feel my aliveness. I take my animal body seriously and give it respectful attention.

Turning it Up is uncomfortable, but it deepens my relationship with myself.

This routine often takes longer than my restorative yoga sequence: somewhere between forty-five minutes to two and a half hours.

When it’s done, I am at peace. At this point I tend to fall asleep. If not, I can easily put myself to sleep with a simple practice such as fingerholds, deep breathing or a restorative pose.

Turning It Up doesn’t just get me back to sleep. It helps me reclaim my dignity and courage. It brings new energy, clarity and purpose. This more than compensates for any sleep I have lost.

After much curiosity, experimentation, and practice, I trust my Turn It Down and Turn it Up routines. I am confident that I can find my way back to sleep.

 

  1. Improvise! 

It is good to have two or three routines or sequences that are well-practiced and familiar. Then you can add or subtract practices as needed.

Even when you cannot access your favorite routine, you can use your knowledge of your triggers and your somatic temperament to create new routines on the spot.

While traveling recently, I had nothing on hand to serve as restorative yoga props.

Instead, I did two practices that did not require props: pelvic breathing and TRE. I practiced them one at a time, alternating between the two for about an hour.

Mixing things up can be effective. TRE is very active and expressive, while pelvic breathing involves slow, gentle movements.

Eventually my body settled. If it hadn’t, I could have added in EFT or fingerholds, two more practices that do not require props.

Outro

I hope this series inspires you to befriend your body, one step at a time. Just like making friends with humans or animals, befriending our bodies is a rich adventure.

When you practice the getting unstuck routines that work best for you, you expand your personal reservoir of resilience.

Above all, these times call for self-aware, resilient people.

For the sake of all, let’s make a commitment to replenish ourselves each day.

Let’s build robust psycho-spiritual individual and collective immune systems to get us through this long political flu-season.

Blessings to you.

Let me know how it goes.                               

               

to schedule an appointment or workshop:
Contact Dr. Tarakali at

www.vanissar.com
       
or on Facebook: Tarakali Education

 

Dear Friends,

Here is my interview with Sarah Holmes, co-director of the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine:

Interview with Vanissar Tarakali – June 15, 2017

Sarah invited me to talk about how I became a somatic practitioner, and what led to me create the Taken Under Wing Bird Essences.

We also talked about the wisdom birds have to offer us humans, and how to use specific Bird Essences to support Trauma Healing, Social Justice work and Befriending our Bodies.

Thanks for listening.

Vanissar

 

GETTING UNSTUCK PART II: YOUR SOMATIC TEMPERAMENT

With our planet in peril, we live with enormous uncertainty and pressure. Yet each of us has limits. We need to sleep, rest, and play in order to sustain our efforts to save the world.

Likewise, no single individual can solve our collective problems. We need many of us acting together to preserve life and love. Each one of us needs to be kind-to-themselves so we can all keep showing up for the long haul.

In this Getting Unstuck series, I hope to inspire you to learn exactly how your body gets stuck; and to discover which “getting unstuck” tools work best for your particular temperament.

I hope you will then use this self-knowledge to be kind to you and do what you can in collaboration with others.

I call the getting unstuck process Befriending-Your-Body. For this 3 part article, I have broken it up into six steps.

Befriend Your Body Steps

1. Befriend Your Triggers
2. Practice Safety
3. Befriend Your Somatic Temperament
4. Create Practice Routines
5. Embody Your Routines
6. Improvise!

I will now cover steps 3. and 4.

3. Befriend Your Somatic Temperament

(be more than a foul-weather friend) 


Last time we discussed what to do about triggers and feeling unsafe.

But sometimes you will not be in crisis mode. Hooray for you! Now is a good time to get to know your somatic temperament.

The purpose of this is to be able to habitually love and care for yourself, and to lower your body’s baseline level of fear and reactivity (anxiety, hypervigilance, etc.) over time.

To more easily restore yourself after life throws you off balance. Learning to work skillfully with your somatic temperament can prevent you from “getting stuck.”

What do I mean by “somatic temperament?” It’s not necessarily about being introverted or extroverted, neurovariant or neurotypical, “highly sensitive” or not, etc., although such self-assessments can enrich us.

I view somatic temperament on two levels. One level is your body’s personality, with its affinities and sensitivities. Your soma’s receptivity to certain interventions and modes and its aversion to others.

The second level is discovered intuitively, by inquiring into your body’s deep wisdom and suchness. It is about making friends with your body, as it is.

Your body’s suchness is difficult to put into words, but it can be approached by affirming and acknowledging your body’s senses and sensations.

In what follows, I will be asking you questions to help you become acquainted with your somatic temperament.

Your sensations and your imagination are your best guides. Invoking an attitude of curiosity and respect for your body will yield helpful information.

I suggest you journal or sing or speak aloud the following questions and your answers. Or ask a friend to join you, and take turns asking each other the questions.

The first list is long, so pace yourself. Skip any question you want.

It can be good to hang out with the questions and the answers for awhile, and then set them aside. Let them percolate. You can pick them up again later, and see what “ahas” unfold.

Your Body’s Unique Temperament Questions

(Suggestion: Pick a few questions to answer in detail.)

 

* What animals or plants or landscapes are you drawn to? Which ones show up in your dreams or daydreams?

* If you found a wild animal that was hurt, how would you want to approach it? What animal(s) showed up first with this question?

* Which of your ancestors or ancestral lands do you have an affinity for?

* What words or sounds are you drawn to?

* What textures do you like?

* What kind of motions or movements feel good to you (rocking, hopping, shaking, swaying, undulating? Fast or slow movements? Rollercoasters or kayaking? Do you like tai chi, or yoga, or dancing)?

* If you like dancing, what kind do you prefer (bellydance, hip hop, slam dancing, tango, ballroom)?

* What “tone” of voice does your body respond to [ie. gushy, low-key, humorous, patient, kind)?

* What lyrics or poems come into your mind?

* What colors make you feel good?

* What are your favorite shapes (circles, triangles, spirals)?

* What kinds of light please you: (candlelight, sunlight, morning light, starlight]?

* What elements (earth, wind, water, fire, air/space) are you drawn to?

* What substances (rock, metal, wood, clay) do you have an affinity for?

* What scents or fragrances do you like?

* What kinds of silence or stillness do you prefer?

* What social environments work for you? Private spaces, such as intimate gatherings, one-on-one conversations, house parties? Public spaces, such as concerts, parks, trains or cafés? Do you prefer to be alone or with strangers or friends nearby?

* What are your favorite forms of water? (Lakes, rivers, or oceans? Ice, steam, or liquid?)

* What weather suits you most? Which seasons? Times of day?

* What kinds of touch do you prefer, and when?

* What is your relationship to time? Space?

* Do you prefer structure or open-endedness?

* Are you built for comfort or speed?

* Do you prefer surprises or predictability?

Other questions to ask yourself:

What makes me drowsy?  What comforts me? What makes me smile or laugh? What relaxes me? Inspires me? What makes me thankful?

What restores or reboots me? What/where makes me feel like I belong? What connects me to something beyond myself?

Spend some time asking and answering these questions–not just with your mind but with your body–notice your sensations…

…temperature, texture, movement, stillness, emptiness, fullness, numbness, visuals, smells, sounds, tastes, pressure, contact, internal feelings, imagery, mood.

When you can, find your answers by trying things out. Put yourself in the appropriate situations and notice how your body feels.

Be open to learning something new about you.

 

 
4. Create Practice Routines
Gather & Combine Elements that Suit Your Somatic Temperament
 

Hopefully out of this inquiry you will notice patterns and preferences that resonate with your body.

Start gathering those beings, places, objects and activities together:

* Make a list on some special paper. Write it in a font you love, or with colored ink.

* Make a collage that gathers your preferences in images and words.

* Make a song about your favorite things.

* Collect objects that embody what your body is drawn to, and add them to an altar or cozy place in your home:

These could include beverages, photos, real or imaginary places, words, symbols, pieces of fabric, fragrances, or representations of elements or movements.

Think of what you have gathered as your raw materials for creation: Your palette. Your spice cupboard. Your seed packets, pots and soil. Your pen and paper, your cast of characters, your collection of found objects.

Now you are ready to experiment and create!

Create some simple practices.
Find out your body’s “Yeses” “Nos” & “Maybes.”

For example, choose a beverage by applying what you have discovered from the first list:

If you like warmth and substance, if your body likes variety, diversity, then think of a beverage that has all of those qualities, like flavored coffee or spicy tea.

If you like coolness + subtlety + surprises, then try out a beverage that embodies all of that, such as fresh squeezed lemonade with lavender.

Go ahead and make or find that beverage and drink it. Savor the taste, temperature, texture. Be aware of the effect it has on your mood.

Drinking the right beverage with attention and sensory awareness can be a rejuvenating ritual, a spiritual practice.

  • For soft textures, wrap a fuzzy blanket around you, or wear silk.
  • If your favorite movement is undulation, gather evocative sounds or pictures and videos that show ocean waves, serpents, tree roots, or plants growing via time lapse.
  • Find a live web cam and check in with your favorite animal or bird.
  • For elements such as water or fire, take a bath, footbath or shower. Swim in a pond. Light candles, sit by a fireplace or watch a video of lava.
  • For fragrance, burn incense, resin or rose petals or chamomile, or diffuse essential oils into the air. Crumble fragrant dried herbs or spices (pine needles, sage, rosemary) around the room.
  • Make a tea of cinnamon, rose petals, or lemongrass.


Notice which practices are strong “yeses” for you.

 

Pick 3-5 Things to Practice

Once you have tested them out, choose 3-5 of your “yeses” as the practices to perfect. Your personal somatic temperament tools.

Try them by themselves. Try combining a few of them at once, or one after another.

Practices can be brief and simple. If you like the texture of velvet, wear some, and touch it from time to time, paying attention to the sensations.

Put a picture of a favorite animal by your bed; gaze at it and feel your emotions and sensations.

You can also combine favorite elements to create your practice.

If you like water, fire, warmth, a feeling of being completely held, and certain scents, you could take a bath by candlelight.

Add some rose petals or lavender to the water.  Get in the tub and feel yourself held by the water. Breathe in all the sights, sounds and smells.

It is good to have at least 3-5 easy-to-do practices in your toolkit to mix and match, and to use in various settings.

Outro
I like to think of these somatic temperament practices as daily or weekly nourishment for our bodies–a way to fill up our reserves.

 

With practice, you can become skilled at befriending your unique somatic temperament.

Repeating these practices frequently will enrich your life and help you cultivate an internalized sense of safety and well being.

And an added bonus is that when you are in crisis, some of these practices will come to mind, or your body will spontaneously remember and repeat them.


End of Part II

Next month:

Getting Unstuck Part III:
Embody Your Routine and Improvise!

You can schedule a free 20 minute somatic coaching consultation with Vanissar here.

New Service: Trauma Survivors in Love Coaching for Partners

TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE (TSIL):
PRIVATE COACHING FOR PARTNERS

By appointment over Skype, Zoom, Hangouts or in-person in Oakland, CA.

Intimate relationships are our birthright. But the neurobiology of relational trauma (neglect, attachment trauma, abuse & oppression) can hijack our hearts & derail mutual trust. 

Dr. Tarakali will help partners identify their TSIL issues, offer somatic & intuitive tools & provide opportunities for partners to practice mutual trust-building & support. 

To make an appointment contact vanissar@cs.com
or call (510) 594-6812

Read theTSIL blog

Getting Unstuck (Part I)

The current social and political climate is poking our most sensitive wounds and hurling us—individually and collectively– into scary places. Many of us are getting stuck in old patterns we thought we were done with. Sound familiar? Yeah, me too.

The good news is that we can get unstuck.

When big jolts come, our bodies automatically revert to our earliest survival patterns. We can “go there” so fast that we don’t even realize it, and we can get stuck for days or even weeks.

The reappearance of those familiar patterns means that our reptile brain’s survival arsenal of fight, flight, freeze, appease or dissociate has been activated.

Having a survival mode is essential, but it’s no way to live. We need to access our agency and creative power.

But how do we do that in such tumultuous times? When outrage after outrage assails us, and everyone around us is on high alert?

It’s a challenge.

Yet this time of shocks and crises can be a gift and an opportunity. It can motivate us to transform our lingering patterns of reactivity and victimhood.

Now is the perfect time to learn exactly how your body gets stuck; and to discover which “getting unstuck” tools work best for your particular temperament.

I call this process Befriending-Your-Body. I have broken it up into steps; this first article will cover steps 1. and 2.

Befriend Your Body Steps

1. Befriend Your Triggers
2. Practice Safety
3. Befriend Your Somatic Temperament
4. Create Practice Routines
5. Embody Your Routines
6. Improvise!

1. Befriend Your Triggers

When life shocks us, our bodies can get stuck in repetitive movements and contractions that reflect the reptile brain’s repertoire of fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate survival strategies.

From this universal reptile brain repertoire, each individual adapts their own strategies in response to the recurrent traumas they encounter.

When triggered, we automatically revert to these strategies.

These trigger responses can look like withdrawing from the world, or compulsive eating, spending, TV watching, working, or compulsive anything.

They can also look like getting depressed, numb, immobile, irritable, trying to please everyone, experiencing negative thought loops for days or weeks on end, or picking fights with others.

How to Befriend Your Triggers

Get Triggered

The first part of befriending your triggers is to get triggered. We all do, and it is something we can make use of. At some point, we realize that we are triggered.

Befriend Your Trigger Sensations

The next part of befriending your triggers is to befriend your trigger sensations. This involves i) feeling them and ii) appreciating them.

i) Feel Your Trigger Sensations

Next, we observe ourselves, looking for the specific somatic (body) sensations that accompany our reactive (triggered) states.

These somatic cues are unique to each of us. Here are some examples of how trigger states show up in the body.

Fight responses can show up as clenching our jaw and/or fists/arms. In conversation, it can look like defensiveness, or argument.

Flight responses often show up as physically leaving the room, or our muscles subtly pulling away from a perceived threat. In conversation it can look like avoiding certain subjects.

Freeze responses can show up as silence, holding the breath, or feeling stuck or paralyzed. To others, we may seem poker-faced or extremely calm.

Appease responses often show up as smiling, submissive body language, or yielding our personal space to others.

It can look like caretaking, “making nice,” or trying to smooth things over by asking sympathetic questions or cracking jokes.

Dissociate responses can show up as “checking out” from our experience and not noticing our sensations and feelings. To others it can seem like we are “not all there.”

Dissociation can also show up as emotional detachment, forgetfulness, or a drive to “figure out” everything.

Try to notice the specific sensations present in your body when you are triggered.

What areas of your body become hot or cold? Tense or slack? Where does the energy go, out your arms, up and out of your head? Or does your energy withdraw, implode?

What places in your body contract? Does your heart suddenly feel small, or your breath tight? Do you lose awareness of your legs or back?

Let yourself be gently *curious.*

ii) Appreciate Your Tigger Sensations

Next, slow down and deliberately welcome your trigger sensations and thank them for taking care of you.

Do this for at least two of your sensations, giving them your full attention. What happens to your body’s mood when you say thank you?

Repeat these two steps over and over.

Practicing self observation and appreciation is essential groundwork for being able to calm yourself and access your creative power.

 
2. Practice Safety
 

Now we want to find out how to guide our body back to calmness and safety by inviting the sensations of safety.

Try On Some Safety Practices

Somatic safety practices are designed to invite your body find a sense of safety.

You can find many somatic safety practices to try on here:

Articles:

De-escalating Reactivity Practices

Emotional First Aid Practices

Videos:

Finding Home in Your Bones

Befriend Your Body Part I

Befriend Your Body Part II

Befriend Your Body Part III

Befriend Your Body Part IV

I recommend that you try out several practices, repeating them a few times
to discover which ones your body responds to best.

 

Choose Some Practices to Combine

Once you have found at least three that you like, try combining them in sequences.

Here are a few sequences to try:
(you can find instructions for these practices in the above articles and videos):

  • 3 Breaths (3 minutes) + Squeeze your feet/leg bones (5 minutes) + Stand and sway (5 minutes);
  • “Draw a Yes” (5 minutes) + Containment with props (5-10 minutes) + Gratitude practice (5 minutes).
  • Head containment (3 minutes) + 3 Breaths (3 minutes) + Fingerholds (5-10 minutes)

Practice Your Sequence(s)I recommend that you spend 5-20 minutes each day practicing a sequence you have chosen or one of the ones above.

Repeat frequently. Before you know it, you will get really good at your sequence, which will come in handy!

Outro

We are likely in for quite a few more collective shocks, so now is a good time to learn exactly how your body gets stuck, and which “getting unstuck” practices work for you. 
Whichever tools you pick, remember that the more often you practice, the more automatic a practice becomes.When practices start to take on a life of their own, you no longer have to think about them, you will simply find yourself automatically doing them.End of Part I

Next month:

Getting Unstuck Part II:
Befriend your somatic temperament and embody your practices.

Would you like Dr. Tarakali to help you Get Unstuck?
You can make a coaching appointment through www.vanissar.com

TRAUMA SURVIVORS & SPIRITUAL AWAKENING PART II: SHEDDING TRAUMA IDENTITIES

Last month I discussed the importance of making spiritual guidance accessible to trauma survivors, and the relevance of the trauma survivor’s spiritual journey for us all.

This month I continue the inquiry into trauma survivors and spiritual awakening with a look at how we shed our traumatized identities.

All spiritual awakenings involve the shedding of old identities. This is both good and bad news for trauma survivors.

On one hand, trauma survivors tend to suffer so much that we are eager to discard the old “me.” On the other hand, identity shifts can be uncomfortable and disorienting.

People who have somatic bodywork often emerge with an altered sense of their body’s size, shape, or density: “I feel much taller/wider!” or “I feel denser/lighter.”

Their experience of standing or walking is different. Even micro identity shifts such as these can be unsettling.

A certain amount of unsettledness is unavoidable. The whole point of healing is to heal, right? This means going beyond our victimized identities to live with more freedom and fluidity.

Still, those miserable identities are cozy, like a worn out sock. As your healing process unfolds, you will lose old familiar “yous” and once-/essential survival strategies.

This can feel scary and sad. You may need reassurance. You may need to grieve.

What Helps Us Shed Old Identities?

Relationships

Relationships can be catalysts. Long or short–term relationships with friends, mentors/therapists/spiritual teachers, animal companions, children, lovers, and chosen family.

Learning communities and spiritual communities can catalyze identity shifts.

Practice

Practice is a powerful way to shift our identities. Anything we do again and again is a practice, whether it is brushing our teeth, creating art, meditating or exercising.

Repeatedly practicing the same things over months or years eventually, inevitably changes our sense of self. If there is something new that you want to feel, be or do, you can set it in motion now.

Grace (The Uninvited Guest)

Grace is the queen of catalysts! By Grace I mean the unexpected, out of the ordinary disruptions that show up in our lives. Grace is not always fun, but she is always transformative.

All these catalysts are illustrated in the following stories of my own trauma-identity shifts.

Shedding Old Identities: Two Personal Stories

Old Identity: Fragile, Isolated Victim-Body

Identity-Shift Catalyst: My Animal Companion

For me, early childhood attachment trauma, neglect and violence/violation all shaped my body to identity as fragile and always-in-danger from others.

My body’s default mode became a constant anticipation of assault or invasion, without expectation of physical protection or kindness.

As a result, my body has often experienced touch initiated by others as a threat.

I have worked a long time to overcome an automatic flinching or withdrawal response when people touch my back or hug me without permission.

Over the years, I have learned to recover more quickly from unexpected touch.

But my bird companion catalyzed a quantum leap.

Notes from my journal:

My body has been claimed by a bird. A bird who does not know this body was invaded and tortured.

She walks deliberately up my arm, without hesitation or reverence. She claims my shoulder as her home and tree.

A parrot wriggles into my shirt cuff. Her muscular, velvet body massages my arm, burrows into my sleeve.

Hidden now, she chortles, creeps further; a gleeful green face pops out of the top of my shirt.

Zee doesn’t fear the trauma memories in my belly; she is blasé about my “private parts.”

When I nap, She clambers up and slides down my pants ‘til I wake up, giggling. I am her personal sandbox/teeter-totter/blanket fort. The perfect playmate for hide and seek.

What mothers of small children find out: this body is no longer my own. This body is not its history. It is safe haven, playground, reference point.

After her shower, she dives inside my bathrobe sleeve to preen herself dry. Appearing at my armpit, she offers her head for a scratch, mutters contentedly.

This new body, claimed by a bird.

My feather friend wants my company: near, very near or at some distance when she needs solo time, exploring time. But always wanted.

When I walk, she hangs from my sleeve, watching the world upside down .

When she naps in the cave of my shirt, my chest is her happy place.

My new body is beloved, not appropriated. Needed, but not exploited. Wow.

I begin to see myself through her eyes, feel myself through her senses. To her, this body is not a site of trauma. Her body leans against me, insisting: I am her refuge.

And this body is no longer fragile–

–Not when she flies at me ferociously. Not when she growls and charges like a dragon defending her hoard. Her beak is sharp! But she chuckles. It is all in fun, Klingon-style fun!

This body can handle boisterous play. This body can take a joke.

This body can do and be new things, because a small, green body has changed my body. Changed its meaning, mood, and purpose.

This bird knows me as flock and kin. She has transformed me into mother, protector, sparring partner.

She does not care about my history. I belong to her now.

Old Identity: Urgent Hypervigilance

Identity-Shift Catalyst: Chronic Exhaustion

When I was a child, peace and safety were fleeting and unreliable. Unpredictable menace set a physiological tone of low grade terror; produced a habitual state of vigilance and heightened adrenaline/cortisol.

I first noticed how anxious I was at fifteen. I could not “let down.”

I got student massages at a massage school, and learned “relaxation response” techniques. I pursued this path for decades, and grew skilled at relaxing.

But Grace asked me to go deeper. Grace showed up as a debilitating fatigue that arose over the past two years.

I was forced to go to the very root of my bone-deep habit of urgency.

Perhaps the bike accident and the extended bug infestation in my building wore me out. Perhaps it was peri-menopause.

It got so I needed two naps to get through the day. I tried to get a diagnosis. I got my blood tested. I inquired into adrenal fatigue. I learned how to manage my low blood pressure.

But it did not shift. This mystery was not ready to be solved. And now I was too tired to worry about it.

At the same time, my new landlord brought in tenants with seven dogs and two toddlers.

My sleep was disrupted like never before. I faced exhaustion every day.

And then sugar and caffeine stopped working for me.

Thanks but no thanks, Grace!

So there we were; me and fatigue. I had no other choice; I decided to befriend it.

I let myself be curious. I wondered, what is this fatigue? Is it really “fatigue,” or is my body trying to teach me a new way of being?

Surrender started with a decision to trust my body’s fatigue instead of trying to fix it.

I followed my body’s lead: sleeping when I could, laying down or doing restorative yoga when I couldn’t.

I allowed my body to be supported by the mattress or props, by earth and by gravity.

I felt glimmers of gratitude. I knew that whatever we repeatedly practice, we start to embody.

Having to rest quietly and free up my schedule was a blessed opportunity to embody rest.

To be honest, this shift in attitude was neither instant nor easy.

Being tired terrified me; all my life I fought it off as hard as I could.
But now I was too worn out to fight.

As fatigue and rest permeated my daily life, my identity shifted:

I learned to sit while tired, meditate while tired, walk while tired, even work with clients while tired. And…nobody died. Nothing bad happened.

One day, after a short, sweet nap, I was engulfed in unshakeable slowness. I was dismayed.

I got up anyway. Exhausted. I took Zee out for a walk anyway.

It was sunny, and besides, why not?
With this thought came the exhilaration of a rebel breaking a stuffy rule.

We got as far as a nearby park, where I found a sunlit bench. I felt a delicious heaviness, a fatigue that I rather…enjoyed?!? What?

The thought came, “I have been waiting all my life to surrender to fatigue.”

One sleepy morning I remembered that the me that I used to be (the me subjected to random nighttime assaults) was afraid to fall asleep.

Now, as Zee dozed in my lap, I wondered. Could tiredness be a friend, a warm lap to doze in?

This emerging me asked interesting questions, like “Why shouldn’t I feel tired and lazy and nap intermittently throughout the day?

Why does that have to be a problem? Why can’t I just enjoy it?”

With these questions came a sense of permission and ease. The tightly coiled wires in my solar plexus unwound; my breath softened.

This re-tooling of my identity from hypervigilant/hyper-worried to being able to rest deeply is a work in progress.

The old habit of terror and vigilance still kicks in. When it does I scan my surroundings, use my senses to verify my safety in this moment.

I make a point of noticing, with my eyes, my ears, my nose, my nerve endings, that I am not starving, not being assaulted. I can close my apartment door and be alone, safe and warm.

In this moment–the only one there is—there is no danger. I am doing fine.

This identity shift is still underway.
But it is well underway.

I am pleased. Deep rest and relaxation is my birthright.
I reclaim it.

Recap: What Helps Us Shed Old Identities?

Identity shifts vary. Some identity shifts seem effortless, like my bird-friend’s influence on my body. Some are knock-down, drag-out fights, like my wrestle with fatigue.

Identity shifts can be quick, but most are gradual, and some seem to take forever.

What helps us shift old traumatized identities?

Relationships Help.

  • Loving Relationships Help.

Before I loved Zee, I loved other birds. Before I loved birds, I loved animals. The animals that I knew as a kid were sources of resilience and allyship.

I have loved birds since I was thirteen, and before I loved birds I loved my grandpa.
My grandpa, who loved birds, loved me.

  • Trusting Relationships Help. 

My restorative yoga teacher has earned my trust over the years.

Her no-nonsense authority holds the class space. She stands in between me and the door so I can let down my guard.

Her pose-adjustments are respectful, matter-of-fact. She offers support with no strings attached.

Her deep, steady drawl comforts me. Her very presence permits me to rest.

Repeated Practice Over Time Helps.

Repeated practice.

Attending restorative yoga classes for eleven years has strengthened my ability to rest.

Loving and trusting birds for thirty years has made bird-love almost effortless.

Grace Helps.

Experiences I would never ask for. Unwanted, unexpected allies took me places I never dreamed of.

Grace wears us down until we can let those tired, old reactions go.

And now, Gentle Reader,

What in your life needs to die?

Who will you love?
What will you practice?
What will you do when Grace arrives, uninvited?

TRAUMA SURVIVORS & SPIRITUAL AWAKENING PART I

This piece begins a series of inquiries about trauma survivors and the spiritual awakening process. In this series I will be asking questions such as,

How is the spiritual awakening process different for a trauma survivor?  and, What unique wisdom can trauma survivors offer to quicken our collective spiritual awakening?

By trauma survivors, I mean folks who develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after life-threatening experiences.

This includes accidents, medical emergencies, chronic illness, domestic violence, hate violence, sexual assault, oppression (racism, ableism, classism, etc.), attachment disruptions, neglect or abuse (sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual) war, incarceration, torture, displacement, etc.

What do I mean by spiritual awakening? Spiritual awakening is a process that transforms our bodies, hearts and minds from a “me” perspective to “all beings” (including “me!”) or “all that is” perspective.

Awakening is usually gradual, although there may be dramatic milestones.

The most important thing about spiritual awakenings is their viral impact.

As we gradually embody more kindness, wisdom and courage, we become contagious and inspire kindness, wisdom and courage in others.

I have a two-fold purpose in exploring the relationship between trauma survivors and spiritual awakening:

1) I want spiritual guidance to be more accessible to trauma survivors;

2) I believe that the trauma survivor’s spiritual journey is relevant to us all.

  1. Making Spiritual Guidance More Accessible to Trauma Survivors

Humans have developed countless spiritual technologies to suit the particular contexts and temperaments of diverse individuals and cultures.

We need to build on these traditions.

As a trauma survivor and a spiritually inclined person, I find traditional spiritual instructions usually need to be tweaked for us trauma survivors.

* For example, the common introductory meditation practice of “following the breath” is challenging for those of us who hold our breath to keep overwhelming feelings at bay;

Or those whose traumatic experiences involved our airways being cut off. For us, focusing on the breath is an advanced practice.
An alternate “way in” is needed.

* Another issue is meditation instructions that reinforce a trauma-induced tendency to space out or “leave” our bodies.

Accommodations may be needed, such as heavy doses of grounding practice, or gentle somatic practices that help us gradually tolerate and re-inhabit our body sensations.

* Finally, some of us cannot bear to sit still with our thoughts, sensations, and undigested trauma memories waiting to emerge.

Sitting meditation may be counterproductive during the early stages of trauma healing. Movement meditations may be more appropriate.

A relationship to Spirit (something larger than us) is everyone’s birthright. Trauma survivors deserve to have accessible doorways into spiritual practice.

I have learned much about “what works” for me and other trauma survivors, and am eager to share my discoveries.

  1. The Trauma Survivor’s Spiritual Path is Relevant to Us All

Most importantly, the trauma survivor’s journey of awakening is everyone’s journey.

We have entered a time where just about everybody is–or soon will be—immersed in collective socio-political and ecological trauma.

The trauma survivor’s story is now, more than ever, the human story.

Our present context is and will be for the foreseeable future, traumatic. We need to quicken spiritually to muster all the kindness, wisdom and courage we can.

We need to wake up!

Now is the time to learn from trauma survivors, become trauma-savvy, and cultivate spiritual awakening.

Learn from Trauma Survivors

It’s a good time to learn from the people and communities who have survived and thrived during and after individual and collective trauma.

We can study the biographies of trauma survivor-spiritual leaders. There are famous survivor/spiritual teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, Hildegard of Bingen, and Thich Nhat Hanh. We can study their lives.

We can learn from our trauma survivor ancestors. People who were able to access love, courage and determination in dire and hopeless situations such as fascism, apartheid or war can teach us about resistance and resilience.

We can learn from communities that have survived genocide, slavery, witchhunts, pogroms and other forms of systemic oppression.

We can look to the people who found the spiritual strength within ongoing trauma to turn things around.


We can learn from the trauma healing/spiritual awakening stories of ordinary trauma survivors. Many ordinary trauma survivors have stories of spiritual awakening to share. We are community resources.

The journey from trauma to spiritual awakening breathes in our cells and tissues. We are living maps.

One principle that this trauma survivor has discovered is, whatever helps heal trauma also builds your spiritual muscles.

Practices that soothe your fight-or-flight reptilian brain, such as bodywork, acupuncture, authentic movement, restorative yoga, tai chi, somatic healing, resting in space and silence, being in nature or with animals, and making music are all excellent preparation for spiritual awakening.

Follow the lead of trauma survivor-activists. Refugees of climate change and global capitalism, island peoples and people with disabilities or chronic illness are the canaries urging us to wake up.

Water Protectors. Dreamers. Black Bodhisattvas who insist their lives matter. These trauma veterans are our spiritual warriors and guides.

Become Trauma-savvy
In times of sweeping socio-political trauma, the collective body is frequently swept away by terror, rage, despair, hunger, cruelty, and our own fight, flight or freeze psychobiology.

Instead of transforming our situations together, we often perish or barely survive.

How did our more resilient ancestors avoid that? Now is a good time to find out!

This time ‘round, many of us are awake to the pitfalls of our survival biology.

We have the precious opportunity to respond creatively and powerfully to the collective triggers, instead of being hijacked by our reptilian brains.

Each of us can learn how to witness ourselves with compassionate eyes when our animal bodies react to protect us from threats.

We can grow our awareness of how we get stuck in those reactions. We can practice shifting our resilient bodies from victimhood to grounded power.

Trauma has always been part of the human story; now it’s been brought into language, and into the light. We are more trauma-savvy than ever before.

We are discovering the neuroscience of trauma. We know, more than ever before, how to empower traumatized individuals and communities. The wisdom is available, so let’s get trauma-savvy!

Cultivate Spiritual Awakening

Spiritual awakening is integral to this moment. Kindness, wisdom and courage enable us to respond to injustice and collective trauma from a creative, non-reactive place.

Spiritual practice and spiritual narratives re-wire our brains over time so that we can access an ever-expanding view of peripheral vision and choice.

Conclusion
The trauma survivor’s path of awakening has become our story. Our story to inhabit and co-shape.

The stakes are the highest–life on earth.
It’s time to activate our collective immune system. Time to unearth our joy and our purpose.

Trauma survivors who have worked deeply with their trauma(s) can teach us how to use trauma to wake up spiritually.

The essential wisdom of the trauma survivor is the certainty that we can visit the terrain of our personal hell and emerge with new tenderness, substance, and grit.

In the writings to come, I will share some personal stories of how I navigate spiritual awakening as a trauma survivor, and how trauma healing and spiritual awakening are reciprocal.

I invite you to share your stories with me, and each other.

I will also share tips and tools for integrating spiritual practice into your daily life, and for befriending your personal trauma story to deepen your awakening.

Remember:
Your whole life has prepared you for this time.
You are ready, and we need you.

TARAKALI EDUCATION SERVICES 2017

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YOU ARE WORTH FIGHTING FOR: AUTOIMMUNE DISORDERS & SELF-LOVE

Learn to forgive, set free the bones;
Touch with your flesh, take off the rubber gloves;

Love like your life depends on it, because it does.

~Michael Franti, Speaking of Tongues


According to a study cited by Bessel van der Kolk, incest survivors such as myself are at risk for autoimmune problems.

Learning this after being diagnosed with two autoimmune disorders led me into a dual, outer/inner inquiry into the psycho-biology of invasive trauma. Here are my reflections.

OUTER INQUIRY

Inflammation and Autoimmune Disorders


Autoimmune diseases are characterized by the body attacking its own cells, tissues and organs.

Autoimmune disorders include vitiligo, pityriasis alba, lichen sclerosus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, celiac sprue disease, pernicious anemia, scleroderma, inflammatory bowel diseases, Hashimoto’s disease, Addison’s disease, Graves’ disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, type 1 diabetes and possibly multiple sclerosis.

Autoimmune conditions manifest as overwrought immune systems and chronic inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s “fight” response to infection or invasion. Chronic inflammation is like being in perpetual fight mode.

You could say that autoimmune disease is a state of perpetual self-fight where the body treats itself as an enemy. This metaphor of self-attack or self-hate is congruent with psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) studies (summarized by PNI doctor Mario Martinez) that connect shame with inflammation.

According to Martinez’ Biocognitive Model of Immunology, human biology is shaped by our cultural beliefs. One example of this is how the varying cultural beliefs and language associated with menopause produce different perimenopause experiences for women.

Martinez notes that the Chinese term for menopause is “second spring.” In Japanese it is “the turn of life.” In these Asian countries, menopause is viewed as a natural season of life.

In Peru and other South American countries, the term for hot flashes is bochorno, or “shame.”

Interestingly, Chinese and Japanese women experience far less pain and inflammation (which PNI associates with shame) during perimenopause then Peruvian and other South American women do.

Dr. Martinez recommends that we be aware of our inherited cultural messages, and consciously affirm language and beliefs that encourage wellness.

Dr. Martinez’ Biocognitive Model is aligned with the Tibetan Buddhist perspective that says “Everything is a projection of our own mind.”

Inflamed Boundaries; Inflamed Immune System

Child sexual abuse survivors and other PTSD survivors tend to over-defend (or under-defend) against violation long after a traumatic invasion.

I have written previously about how we respond somatically and inter-relationally to situations and people that remind us of the initial trauma.

The traumatized body recreates traumatic experiences by projecting them onto the present, and interpreting low-stakes situations as threats. Our system becomes “inflamed” with reactivity.

Trauma also generates interpersonal boundary problems. This shows up as porous energy boundaries and difficulties with clearly communicating “yes,” “no” or “maybe.”

Trauma survivors’ boundaries are often too rigid or too permeable. We may respond to everything with “no” (consciously or unconsciously), or be unable to say “no” at all. Neither extreme supports the safety and connection that we need to thrive.

With allergies and other immune imbalances, our biology is doing something analogous to “saying no to everything”. Again, inflammation is the body’s response to infection or invasion.

In the case of allergies, our body interprets foreign bodies like pollen, foods, fragrances, etc. as hostile attacks on the body. Our hypervigilant immune system over-reacts and over-protects us with the huge somatic “No!” of inflammation.

We know that incest survivors are vulnerable to systemic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. I wonder, are survivors also prone to allergies?

Does the violated body superimpose its history of traumatic invasion onto benign substances, and then stimulate allergic “No!” reactions?

And what about survivors of other violating traumas, such sexual assault, “stop and frisk,” immigrant detentions, and other invasive forms of oppression?

Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies and Lifetime Exposure to Violence and Abuse studies add richness to this inquiry.

These studies link cumulative child and adult experiences of neglect, violence and abuse to increased incidence of illness.

We can extrapolate from these studies to include the social traumas of racism, ableism, classism, sexism and other oppressions.

Since oppressive micro and macro aggressions are also forms of violence and abuse, they must impact the immune systems of targeted children and adults.

It seems that abuse, violence and oppression can become internalized as low self-esteem and shame in our psyches, and as inflammation and autoimmune disease in our bodies.

“White Raven’s Moonlit Flight” blanket by April White
INNER INQUIRY

If My Body is Attacking Itself, What is My Mind Doing?


I have been pursuing a parallel, internal inquiry: If everything is a projection of my own mind, and my body is producing autoimmune problems, what is my mind projecting?

This is not a New Age-y, “You create your own reality” question. It is a curious question arising from both mind and body.
.
Remembering Mario Martinez, I explore this question by paying attention to my habitual self-attacking thoughts and beliefs.

When I am still inside, I can “overhear” a self-punishing undercurrent. It’s a ceaseless critique of my failings, my unfinished to do lists, my physical pain and life challenges.

If I listen closely, this ruthless voice reminds me of my father’s infamous lecture-interrogation marathons. We couldn’t leave, not even to go to the bathroom. Hours of this left my siblings and I fainting with fatigue. No wonder my inner critic has such stamina!

Other times I hear my mother’s sharp, guilt-inducing tones, or my sister’s accusations. Although I have not heard these voices for years, my mind recreates them.

Other self-attacks take the form of thoughts that frighten and discourage me, such as “I will never get out from under this (problem),” or “What a strange pain!—it must be cancer!”

How insidiously these thoughts tear me down. How exhausting it is to worry, worry, worry. My mind fusses like a badgering micromanager, an inconsolable baby.

It fusses over my housework backlog, predicting the dire consequences of unwashed dishes or dusty shelves: (“Dust collects toxins! How can you ignore it!”)

My mind fusses over my perimenopausal fatigue and inertia (“This cannot be normal!”), and my uneven exercise routine (“Why are you so lazy?”). It fusses over every imperfection. Wow.

How can I expect my immune system to protect me, to recognize me as friend while my mind habitually attacks me? I am setting a bad example.

It’s time to find new ways of talking to myself.

A Declaration of Peace

Recently I blamed and shamed myself for being in a difficult situation. Then I heaped on more self-criticism for my reactions. Finally, I was fed up.

I told myself and my inner child, “It stops here…I absolutely refuse to make myself miserable about my situation or my response to it.”

I declared an end to the war on myself.

Hey body, let’s stop attacking me.
Hey cells, can we be loveable?
Adorable, even?

Since this declaration, something is shifting. This shift is subtle and slow. Easy to miss. Yet things are different. For instance, sometimes I find myself surprisingly likeable.

The self-hating attacks subside. In the quiet, my nature is revealed.

More often now,
I savor what I used to dismiss in myself:

  • I compose ditties on the spot, sing them to my parrot, with my whole heart. And instantly forget them. There’s always more.
  • I invent nourishing meals and nurturing herbal concoctions.
  • I am good company. I find myself funny and warm. How strange to enjoy me! Like a door opened and I stepped through.
  • It thrills me to make beautiful, useful and healing things: 
  • Yummy food and drink, songs, essays, parrot obstacle courses, outdoor adventures. Ramps and carriers for disabled birds, workshops for activists and lovers, self-care interventions, authentic movements…each creation conjured with care.

I see my nature.
I am a creator. A sower of life.

I am inclined to rest in stillness and write slowly, reflectively, or angrily, passionately;

I am inclined to meditate. To walk in the wind and sun and rain. To love what I see, and share it with Zee.

It’s my Nature.

More often now,
I savor what I used to disparage in myself:

  • I look in the mirror and I see sensitive eyes. Wisdom and humor. Hey, I am kinda cute. How strange! This perimenopausal femme usually sees fatigue, wrinkles and gravity in the mirror.
  • Cuteness!?!  Wow. Truly, “everything is a projection of our own mind.”
  • My appetite for life spawns messy messes all around me. Bits of paper from spontaneous projects. Piles of dishes from cooking sprees.
  • Parrots are prolifically messy, spreading seeds and pollen to locations near and far. I am always discovering carrot crumbs and kale shreds on my furniture, in my clothes. Gory pomegranate stains in my shower. 
  • I find parrot messes acceptable, adorable, even.
  • What about my generative chaos? Why aren’t my messes adorable?
  • It’s a life changing question.
  • Now I see my messiness is a by-product of my creativity and passion for diversity; a product of my aspirations. I want to do ALL the things.
  • Lately I can view my flaws fondly instead of tragically. I gaze where I used to scrutinize.

As old mental habits fall away,
I see my behaviors and their consequences differently.

I see the consequences that are off-shoots of my nature:
The consequences of my tsunami nature crashing into my PTSD-shaped body.

The consequences that I used to self-surveil, self-terrorize, obsessively analyze are amusing, endearing.

I have declared peace on myself.

A Body That Loves Itself
This armored body melts.
Behaviors and consequences soften into “the music of what happens.”

Even my bird companion is more relaxed. Hmmmm.

How on earth did this happen?

I know that practice is key–
–Is it decades of being a bird-mom to quirky, unfathomable feather people?
Is it years of providing space for their safety and self-expression?

Now the bird-mom mothers me! I provide space for this quirky, unknowable me.

Oh self-attacking immune system, this body, this me is NOT a problem. Not a threat. (My parents misperceived me. It was a mistake.) I am a forgiveable human.

More than forgiveable, I am lovely and amazing.
My presence is as precious as any flower or bird. Any cloud.

Immune system, protect me, all of me, from disdain and worry!

Immune system, I grant you permission to cherish me, ALL of me:

The pain, the fatigue, the works in progress, the despair, the creakiness, the default distrust, the spiritual epiphanies and awakenings, the piles of unwashed dishes, my art, my mistakes, myhealing at my own damn pace.

All of it, worthy of love.

Immune system, I am worth fighting for, not against.

Fight for me!


Resources:

The Mind Body Code by Dr. Mario Martinez
The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Embracing Each Moment by Anam Thubten

You can book somatic coaching appointments with Dr. Vanissar Tarakali through www.vanissar.com