The heart sutra reminds us that everything is an endless interplay of form and emptiness. Emptiness contracts into form; form dissolves into emptiness, and so on. This natural process of contraction and expansion reflects the fluidity and creativity of Primordial Awareness. Somehow in the middle of this eternal dance, Primordial Awareness forgets itself and becomes “stuck” in contraction. This too is part of the playful dance. Duality and all the beauty and suffering of the material world are birthed from this extended contraction. In the human world, the fragmenting effects of trauma and oppression reflect a similar dynamic of our bodies/psyches becoming stuck in contractions.
What is Trauma?
Trauma refers to experiences that diminish our ability to feel safe (in our bodies; in the world) and connected (to ourselves, others, the earth, and spirit). Trauma can take the form of individual, personal threats to our well-being, vicarious or secondary traumas that our work exposes us to, or social traumas (oppression).
Trauma shows up in the body as contraction. Contraction is how the body protects itself from threatening experiences. This narrowed focus is natural, and essential to our survival. Common contraction patterns include fight, flight, and freeze (or collapse, paralysis, appease and dissociate) responses which are activated when the reptilian brain senses a threat. However, with repeated threats, the body can become stuck in contraction. Just like Primordial Awareness, our cells and tissues can forget their inherent wholeness and fluidity.
Those of us who are engaged in community service and social justice work have ample opportunity to work with trauma contractions. We often bring personal trauma histories to our work; we work with traumatized communities. We work directly with the forces of oppression. Truly, our work is steeped in trauma. As social justice and social service workers we need to be aware we are dealing with all of this trauma so that we can take care of ourselves and our communities.
A vast perspective can help us hold all the trauma coming our way. Since contraction is part of the natural rhythm of the universe, then trauma contractions are natural, temporary responses. You don’t need to fight against these natural contractions in your body, or in the bodies of others. You can assume everyone’s body is doing its best to find safety and wholeness, and turn your attention to learning how to restore fluidity.
We can cultivate the conditions that invite the unwinding of the brain/body contractions with Grounding, Restoring, Awareness, and Safety Practices (GRASP).
The GRASP acronym is a reminder that body contraction is like a clenched fist that we can gradually learn to open at will. Below are some GRASP practices to try. You will notice that each practice asks you to listen to and learn the language of sensation, which is the language of the reptilian brain and trauma healing.
Notice where your body is being physically supported. Pay attention to the sensations of your feet on the floor, your sitting bones on the chair, your back on the wall or chair. Keep bringing your attention to what your tissues and nerve endings are feeling with this contact. Notice what it feels like to have the floor/chair/wall, etc. consistently holding you.
Your bones are your body’s reliable scaffold. Directing your attention to the bones can be very reassuring. Here are three bone meditations:
1) Using your hands, squeeze all of your bones, one-by-one. Notice their shape, and notice how when you squeeze, your bones push back. Pay attention to how dense and reliable each bone is.
2) One-by-one, slowly raise and lower leg bones, your arm bones, each finger bone, your skull, your shoulder bones. Pay attention to how gravity pushes your bones downward. Feel the weight of your bones. Lie down and slowly raise and lower your hips, feeling the weight of your hip and pelvic bones.
3) Do a body-scan of your bones. Feel or imagine the bones or collection of bones in each area of your body; imagine the shape, length and marrow of your bones. Looking at a picture of a skeleton can help you visualize your own.
Inhale slowly and deeply, then exhale down towards earth, making a sound or sigh that matches how you feel. Repeat this at least three times. Notice how you feel afterward. Try adding this practice to your staff or community meetings. Doing this as a group enhances everyone’s ability to ground and settle.
*Gratitude: write down or speak aloud a couple of things you feel grateful for. Make sure you pay attention to the sensations that show up in your body. This is powerful to do in pairs.
*Stand with one leg slightly in front of the other and gently sway forward and back for at least 3 minutes. As you sway, pay attention to any places in your body that feel warm or cool or neutral. Try doing this as a group. As you sway, call out appreciations of each other and the group. Feel your body sensations as you take in the appreciations. Notice what shakes loose. Allow yourself to yawn, laugh, shake or cry.
We know that oppression arises from lack of awareness and empathy. So it is vital to cultivate awareness and empathy in order to interrupt and heal from oppression; practicing awareness is essential.
*Body-scans can get us in the habit of listening to the language of sensation (notice any tendency to label or interpret your sensations versus simply inhabiting them; thinking about your sensations is different from being immersed in them).
Notice any sense of exposure or vulnerability in your body; this will clue you into when you are in fight-or-flight mode, and help you notice where your body needs safety practices.
*Periodically check in with yourself by asking, what is the mood of my body? You can start and end staff or community meetings this way to build everyone’s awareness and reduce reactivity.
*Practice being present with your body’s mood and sensations for a few minutes. Then switch to being present with the physicality and moods of the people near you. Bring your attention back and forth between your body and their bodies. It may help to close your eyes when you tune into you, and open them when you tune into others. After a while, see if you can pay attention to your body and their bodies at the same time. This practice enhances your ability to stay centered in yourself (and your truth) while empathizing with others.
*If part of your body feels exposed, give it a safe container: cradle your arms around the top of your head for a few minutes; cover your chest with a cat or hoodie or your hands; bundle up your body with blankets or pillows. Let yourself steep in the sensations for several minutes.
*I learned this practice from Capacitar http://capacitar.org/ One-by-one, “hug” each finger of your hand with your other hand, gently closing your fist around it. Take three slow deep breaths, feeling the sensations of warmth and holding in your finger.
*Notice an area tension in your body and draw a “yes” around this area. Thank this part of your body for “holding things together.” Appreciate it for its efforts. Pay attention to your sensations.
*To create a sense of group safety, have everyone sit side by side in pairs during difficult discussions or when sharing painful or challenging experiences. This practice builds a biological sense of safety and allyship, and relaxes the reptilian brain. You can add some of the other practices to these dyads, such as grounding breaths, feeling held by the chair/floor/wall, or gratitude sharing. This will increase mutual trust and group resilience.
*Make space for yourself: Clear space around you by pushing your arms out with your hands pushing forward as if you are stopping something. Do this 3-4 times in every direction: above, below, in front, behind and to the sides. If you want to, say aloud as you do this: “Go over there.” or “This is my space.” or “No.” Repeat this until you feel a calm, clear sense of space around your body. Clearing your space each day reprograms your body to send clear non-verbal messages to others to respect you.
Practice this together as a group and notice the effects on everyone. Claiming space creates room to reflect and respond mindfully. As you begin to own your space, your sense of spaciousness and safety will increase. Your reactivity (any tendency to auto-appease others, freeze, get defensive, attack, check-out, bail, escape, shut down, etc.) will decrease.
Why is practice so important? A couple of reasons:
Body practices are deceptively simple. They actually are powerful, but only if you do them! You need to practice something at least 300 times for it to become familiar, and 3000 times for the practice to become part of you. However, since doing a practice for even 60 seconds ten times a day has an impact, reaching that 300-3000 mark is doable. Practice to discover what practices your body likes best, and then give your body these gifts as often as possible.
What you practice is what you become. Habitually practicing mindfulness, slowing down as individuals and as an organization translates into less reactive, crisis-driven norms and policies in your organization or community group.
Connie Burk of Northwest Network identifies four values she sees as vital to creating a sustainable organizational culture: engaging with others first, before (if necessary) opposing them, setting clear intentions before taking action, being fully resourced before taking on additional work, and generating what we believe in instead of reacting to what others are doing.
All four of these values are based in an ability to slow down, breathe, and make decisions from the collective creativity of our mid-frontal cortexes instead of being hijacked by our reactive lizard brains. If we are anchored in this creative flow, then even if we are sitting with organizational conflict or a campaign setback or oppressive laws, it doesn’t have to swallow us up. We can co-create something new together.
Let’s look at another motivation to practice GRASP practices in your community group. Both the personal traumas we bring into the work and the group response to oppression have a profound impact on group dynamics.
Personal Traumas We Bring to the Work
The body subjected to trauma or oppression can come to automatically experience itself as a powerless “victim” body. In his book, Power-Under: Trauma and Non-violent Social Change
Steven Wineman names this victim body “subjective powerlessness.” When we identify with powerlessness, it is difficult for us to acknowledge our agency–our power to influence others and shape our surroundings. When we are caught up in the victim body it is easy to lash out at others with self-righteous critiques (usually in the name of “calling out” injustice), and difficult to take responsibility for our power to harm others and undermine collective work.
For these reasons, it is critical that everyone doing social justice and social service work take responsibility for understanding and healing their own trauma and reactivity. Organizations and groups can promote the well-being of the collective by actively supporting and providing opportunities for members to do their personal healing work.
It is important to remember that effective healing work works with the body. You cannot talk or think your way out of trauma reactions; to change these reactions you need to learn the language of sensation, which is the language of the reptilian brain. As Peter Levine observes in his book In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, “emotional reactivity almost always precludes conscious awareness…change only occurs where there is mindfulness, and mindfulness only occurs where there is bodily feeling.” p. 338
The Group Response to Oppression
Since oppression is trauma, when we come together to discuss or dismantle oppression everyone’s reptilian brains go on high alert. It is easy for everyone in the room to be ‘triggered”. In addition, fight or flight reactions are based on instant assessments. As a result, when the reptilian brain is triggered, it undermines our ability to hold contradictions. We see things in terms of yes/no, right/wrong, friend/enemy. Groups of habitually triggered people are prone to infighting and polarization. Sound familiar?
We can preempt this situation in our workplace or organization by learning about and anticipating each other’s fight or flight responses. We can make a commitment to support one another to move from reactive states to creative states. We can also use GRASP practices to create the conditions for our body armoring to soften or disappear, and for our rigid, traumatized identities to relax.
Although long term, consistent use of GRASP is essential, even a little practice can produce surprising shifts in group dynamics. We may find one moment there is tense conflict, and the next moment, mutual understanding. This is the moment when the energy that was bound in contraction is freed up. Our bodies remember their fluid power, and the entire group shifts from reactivity to creativity.
Over time and with practice, this softening process makes room for more aliveness, fluidity and agency to show up in our work for justice and healing. Working skillfully with our individual and collective contractions can reduce reactivity and polarization, and restore creativity and resilience to our bodies and communities.
In this way we can create the world we want to live in right now, and nourish the justice work that is building that world for all generations.
Many thanks to the amazing teachers whose generous wisdom I aspire to transmit: Joann Lyons, Denise Benson, Phyllis Pay, Anam Thubten.