meditation practices after trauma

Trigger warning: sexual abuse and loss of air flow

When I was thirteen I decided I wanted to learn how to meditate, and from about ages fourteen-seventeen I meditated daily, sometimes for as long as forty-five minutes each sit.

When I got to college my practice ebbed and flowed. But it always felt like something I could return to.

No longer.

I have tried several times to meditate in my new life of being a survivor and living with PTSD. Each time has led me to some sort of panic attack or flashback.

Last night I tried meditating, but this time with somebody else present, hoping that in not being alone, I might be able to settle into the old joy and relief I experienced meditating.

After less than ten minutes, I was crying, standing up, leaving the sitting area, and shaking from a flashback.

I went online and decided to do some research. I had a feeling there must be resources out there on meditating after a traumatic event. My feeling is correct. There are so many!

The first article I clicked on felt like gold, because it validated so many of my experiences, and gave tips and encouragement.

“The body and breath are anchors for awareness that can be returned to again and again. Mindfulness of the breath is especially useful for trauma survivors, who tend to hold their breath as a way of not connecting with the present moment. Holding the breath is an unconscious response to anxiety, and may also be part of the process of dissociating from the experience. If, however, the trauma was related to the act of breathing (such as choking or oral sexual abuse), then the breath is obviously not the best meditation anchor. In these cases, during “sitting” periods, try listening meditation, body sweeping, mantras, or touch points.” -Amy Schmidt and John J. Miller

Such a relief and validation to read these words. I had been feeling ashamed that I wasn’t able to do my old practice, which always included “watching the breath” as a central approach. But reading the above passage made so much sense. Integral to my trauma is the loss of breath. No wonder this does not feel like a safe place for me to start.

I kept reading: “It can be helpful for survivors to practice in a way that seems contrary to the traditional Buddhist teachings. In the sutras, the Buddha advocated a warrior-style practice: ‘Let only my skin and sinews and bones remain and let the flesh and blood in my body dry up; I shall nor permit the course of my effort to stop until the end is reached.’ Instead, trauma survivors need to learn what one teacher calls the ‘reverse-warrior’ practice….working with trauma is like having two jobs: You’re doing the practice of meditation and the practice of healing at the same time. In this regard, the meditation focus needs to be on simple, small steps.” -Amy Schmidt and John J. Miller

This passage also feels tremendously helpful. However, I happen to quite like seeing myself as a warrior. So instead of “reverse-warrior practice” maybe it can be “adjusted-warrior practice.” So I can still be warrior, but also remember it’s okay to make adjustments to common practices in honor of healing and being kind and gentle to my own personal practice.

For anyone interested or who thinks they might be helpful for you or someone you know, below are some of the links I stumbled upon last night after trying to meditate.

May each individual remember that meditation practice is not only a practice, but a personal practice, and depending on our life experiences and circumstances the shape and form of the practice might need to change. This does not mean we are not warriors.


5 thoughts on “meditation practices after trauma

  1. “Skillful means” is the idea of adapting the intensity of one’s practice in order to be able to persist with your intention. Often skillful means get corrupted by the conditioned ideas of what we are supposed to be doing as opposed to what is actually happening.
    It is good to remember that because conditions are constantly changing, your ability to connect ebbs and flows. There will be moments when you are able to be present with the edge of the envelope, and these happen in part because of your willingness to accept the times when you are not willing to be at the edge, but are willing to maintain a form – whatever it be – sitting, dancing, writing etc..
    To have the intention to be open allows you to practice. What makes it a practice is our willingness to persist without demanding a certain result, but having faith in its eventual success. If what you are doing doesn’t provide this, find what does.
    There are certain universalities that apply to all the forms. Therefore you can learn from someone else’s struggles and progress without feeling that you must accept all or any of their form.
    Everyone has an inner knowing, which gets obscured by the mind’s idea that the answers must come from what is already known (how else could it be judged?) and that the answers must come in a form that you determine is acceptable. Therefore practice is the process of allowing the unknown (to the mind) come into awareness, usually by some form of stillness and inner silence.
    The mind/ego always wants healing to occur before the full learning of what the injury is about. Your inner knowing wants your learning to be complete so that it never happens again. In other words, the ego wants the discomfort to go away and your inner knowing wants the discomfort to lead to understanding. This is highlighted by the presence, or conversely the need for, patience.
    Healing is always possible, and doesn’t really involve time. However the price of healing involves a level of letting go that often takes a long time.
    Practice always involves some form of letting go. Letting go of how you think things should be, starting with the comfort or discomfort of your experience. Another of the letting go’s is about having judgments about the state of your practice.
    The point is that form is infinitely flexible (which is another way of saying that practice/intention can happen within all forms and experiences) and because of karma/conditioning there is a learning mode which harmonizes with your particular needs.
    It is up to you to find what aligns with your nowness, and yet this also involves letting go of the idea that it is up to you to know how this process works. [It seems to me that all spiritual truths involve some level of paradox].
    Gentleness, patience, and the willingness not to know, but to allow truth to be known, is a formula that succeeds 100% of the time regardless of the form
    The fruit of the effort is a realization that all is well and there is nothing that you can do, or can be done to you, to change that. Of course most people don’t know this, although it will make your journey much easier of you adopted this as your default mode.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I like this line very much: “Practice always involves some form of letting go. Letting go of how you think things should be, starting with the comfort or discomfort of your experience.”
      I think the line “The fruit of the effort is a realization that all is well and there is nothing that you can do, or can be done to you, to change that” …. is very challenging and could feel silencing to survivors of trauma who don’t have adequate support. First there needs to be validation that what happened was not okay, or else self-blame is so often the go-to. Maybe eventually a trust in the universe returns (I’m not there yet personally) but I think validation is so so important before suggesting that survivors just think “all is well all is well.”
      I like the idea of striving to have the intention of openness. Very eloquently put.
      All the best to you.
      With gratitude,

  2. I am so glad you commented on my comment because I found your site. I have been trying to meditate for years but have such difficulty with the breathing and stillness. I feel like my inability to do it was preventing me from eradicating my PTSD. I live a very contemplative life and have short practices on breathing with dawn, noon, and sunset each day. I think this is my practice of meditation. I also journal every day which is another form of creative mediation for me. I do think you are right about figuring out what works best for you. Thanks for the resources I will look them up.

    1. It is very inspiring to hear that you have been able to find ways to incorporate conscious breathing into your daily life. I am still working on that. Writing for me is certainly a way of mediation. If you haven’t seen it, maybe check out this wonderful book “How the Light Gets In” by Pat Schneider, it’s all about writing as a spiritual and contemplative practice 🙂
      Hope the resources are helpful, they have been very supportive for me. All the best to you!

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