I recognize the catch in my breath, the drift of my mind. I inhale into the sensation, and exhale to relax my shoulders and jaw. Pressing my feet into the ground, I bring my mind back into the space behind my eyes. I am here.
My teaching focus for July is the seventh limb of yoga: Dhyana. Dhyana means meditation, which can be thought of as training the mind to witness itself as we process information.
Meditation found me in yoga teacher training. I'd been a dedicated yoga student for six or seven years at that point but had never considered meditation -- I couldn't even imagine pausing my rapid-fire thoughts. As part of our training we had to start a meditation journal, where we logged when we meditated, for how long, and any feelings we experienced. I blew off the assignment, never finding time for the minimum four minutes. Then one day I found myself on an empty SF Muni T-train platform down to my office near Candlestick Park with a 13-minute wait for the next train. With nothing else to do, I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breath. For a moment, everything else went quiet and I just heard the sound of the wind and traffic and felt my chest rise and fall with the breath.
At that moment, something shifted. A synapse fired. A month later in training, our meditation teacher told the group of teacher trainees to repeat the exercise but without blowing it off. That was when I began a daily practice that sustained me through the ensuing months of divorce, relocation, and two job changes. While I occasionally take a break, I return to my meditation practice again and again to strengthen the synaptic connection that formed on that train platform.
My reading this year has also reflected a practice of looking at the mind. First I read High Price by Carl Hart, a researcher who takes a behavioral neuroscience approach to study addiction and its social determinants, and who witnessed the crack epidemic intimately as a child in Miami's low income neighborhoods. I moved on to I'm Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite artists and a practicing Buddhist monk. He also struggled with nearly lifelong depression that sometimes crippled his work and fueled his own drug use. Then I spent a few weeks with Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which contains quite a few meditation techniques. And just this week I finished reading Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye. In it he tells the stories and shares research on how some of his patients process visual information and how it shapes their relationship with the world.
Sacks' book got me thinking hard about neural plasticity and how it relates to healing from trauma. In The Mind's Eye he discusses how people adapt to the world when their place within it shifts; the changes that people experience in their perception of the world following an injury to the brain. For some people this can fundamentally challenge their identity: an acclaimed concert pianist who couldn't read music, an author who couldn't read what he wrote, or an avowed lover of stereo vision who loses vision in one eye. That last one is Dr. Sacks himself, who was diagnosed with a malignant tumor pressing on his optic nerve. In addition to detailing pathology, the stories all relate the many ways that people can adapt to huge changes and continue a life of purpose.
Five years ago, I was raped. At the time I was just starting my career as a social worker, work that requires a tremendous amount of empathy and healthy boundaries. I struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the first two years following the assault. My experience of PTSD was one of pathological detachment from my body and from the world around me. Like one of Sacks' patients who slowly lost the ability to recognize what was once familiar, I inhabited a world of fear. I didn't know what threats were based in reality and what were in my mind, frequently avoiding social situations, especially if this involved public transportation (I didn't own a car at the time). I had very little sense of my own body, leading to what I can only describe as a weird lack of perception of where I was in space (proprioception) and of my own emotional and increasingly physical pain. I crashed my bike (my main form of transportation) several times during this period. If I couldn't trust myself to stay safe, then who could I trust? This fear fundamentally changed how I approached other people. When your job entails you working with people on their own struggles and fear, this is a big liability.
One of the biggest reasons I got treatment for my PTSD was that I didn't like how I was showing up in the world. The slightest perceived threat would send me into a spiral of anxiety, fear, and anger. I lashed out at my partner and avoided friends and family. Seeing a certain street sign, crowds, seeing stories about violence in the news, the smell of alcohol, being touched -- all triggers that I assiduously avoided because they were all connected to my trauma. That connection was established strongly in my brain, because the brain is built to recognize threat and keep you safe. But this traumatic response short-circuited much of the empathetic architecture that had been built previously. Trauma overstimulates the amygdala, which kicks into overdrive and then hijacks the hippocampus, which is responsible for the formation of short term memories. Instead of processing new information about the world -- namely what might be a potential treat -- I simply was caught in the story of my trauma and continuous reliving elements of it. I had to learn to recognize my reflexive response kicking in so that I could take back the functions of my prefrontal cortex, the logical brain.
Until relatively recently, the scientific community didn't think that the brain retained much plasticity -- the ability to form new neuronal connections -- into adulthood and especially outside of the "critical period" of neuronal development and synaptic pruning early in childhood. Brain injury was forever. Thankfully that view has shifted and we now have treatments that use current neuroscience knowledge to heal. Case in point: therapeutic treatment for PTSD is essentially a process of forming and strengthening new connections between stimulus and response.
This is where meditation was essential for my process. Learning meditation basics while I was in therapy for PTSD helped reinforce what I was learning in those sessions about my triggers and emotional and somatic responses. Every day I sat with the troubling thoughts and emotions that plagued my dreams and waking life. By giving them some space so that I could safely recognize those stories kicking in and by learning to ground myself in the present moment, I slowly loosened the hold that these memories had over my life. On days like today they still come to the fore, but the visceral impact is dulled. The literature reflects these lived experiences as well: meditation has been shown to increase the density grey matter in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, indicating structural changes in (and possibly stronger connections between) these areas governing memory and decision-making. Meditation has been shown to reduce the volume of the amygdala, as well as decreasing connectivity between amygdala and prefrontal cortex. This means that decision-making can potentially be less based in reactionary fear. People around me began commenting on how centered and calm I seemed, even in crisis situations.
My relationship to meditation has naturally shifted over time. More and more, I see my practice as a way to witness my own learning. It's a way of honoring my experiences without letting those experiences take over or define me. It's a way to rewrite the story and rewire the brain. This month I was able to take an international trip alone, riding public transportation everywhere, even going to a couple of bars with friends. Every morning I woke up excited to meditate again.
- Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain: This is a great outline of the neurological effects of trauma on the brain
- How meditation changes the brain: An interview with one of the pioneers of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an evidence-based program for treating PTSD and other mental health conditions.
- If you have experienced trauma and having any thoughts of self-harm, I encourage you to talk to your doctor about finding a therapy provider who works with trauma and accepts your coverage (check your card, sometimes mental health benefits are administered by a third party payer). Some of the therapeutic techniques that have a strong evidence base for PTSD are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing.
- If you are interested in trying yoga to help heal from trauma, keep an eye out for teachers who have studied trauma aware yoga or yoga for survivors of sexual assault. Make certain that teachers ask before making a physical assist in class.