For the past 12 years I have worked with defence force and emergency services personnel in the capacity of mental and physical health rehabilitation. Over this time I have held space for a range of conditions including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), chronic pain management and sleeping disorders.

A few things have become apparent.

  • This group of people are exposed to significant, out of the ordinary events.
  • They are expected to get back to work the next hour, the next day, the next week.
  • They don’t tend to ask for help.

The beauty of this course is that it does not attempt to fix people. This is not because it deems the job to be too gigantuous but because it works on another principle.

You’re already ok.

Buried underneath trauma, anxiety, depression, overwhelm and pain – you’re ok. 

More conventional “therapies” try and pull people out of their trauma. This course takes you by the hand and encourages you to go the other way.

In not out. Inward to the centre where you’re already ok.

The simplicity is also its challenge.

The layers

As we navigate through life we collect “stuff”.  Some ends up being diagnosed and dealt with while some remains a source of confusion and overwhelm.  At its worst, impossible to distinguish, identify or locate, it becomes debilitating. Some of the stuff we collect is grief, trauma, anxiety, negative self-talk, addictions, chronic pain and insomnia.

If we acknowledge that we are collectors, some days collecting more and other days less, it becomes pertinent to ask where it’s collected. We collect and store this stuff in our layers.

This course visits these layers in a systematic way. It follows a path you can recreate over and over, to etch what will hopefully become a well worn trail. Unlike conventional therapies, an example being talk therapy, we are not visiting these layers to eradicate what has been trapped. It is not about digging around to find out why you’re anxious or why you have PTSD or why you’re angry. It’s about learning to sit with what shows up.

When that skill is learnt, it becomes irrelevant what’s collected. It doesn’t matter – you’ll be able to sit with it.

From this point forward let’s re-label “stuff” with the word trauma.Society wide we tend to think about trauma as severe, significant presentations of PTSD and mental health disturbances.  The actual definition of trauma is something that applies to all of us.  

Trauma is any experience that leaves a residue in the body rather than moving through. With this definition in mind, we are all susceptible to picking up bits of trauma and it collects not just from big, life-shattering events but also day to day conflicts and interactions that don’t align with our core values. Importantly what might not be a source of trauma for one person may leave a residue for another.

The layers that are explored in this course are;

  1. Physical
  2. Breath
  3. Feelings and Emotions
  4. Thoughts and Beliefs
  5. Joy
  6. Awareness

THE THREE PRINCIPLES

EVERYTHING IS A MESSENGER

Everything you’ve collected and stored in a layer whether subconsciously or otherwise, is a messenger. If you have a mildly sore shoulder and ignore it, it’s likely the discomfort in your shoulder won’t get better but will gradually get louder and louder until the sensation becomes so apparent or debilitating you are forced to stop and tend to it. One way or another you will be asked to deal with what’s going on.

We not only notice what messenger we’ve collected but where it can be felt in the body. For example if at some point during the practice you notice a wave of sadness. The practice will encourage you to firstly notice the sadness and secondly where it’s located in the physical body. In the past we might ignore or disassociate from unpleasant feelings. We often get busy doing something else so we don’t have to deal with it.

What the practice will prompt you to do is stay with it, often for longer than you’d like.  The feeling of sadness might be in your throat or your stomach or your left calf. The practice will keep encouraging you to linger for longer in that physical location. It is both the challenge and the point to just stay when you’d really rather not. Not to try and fix or work out why or how or when but just to stay.

ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH AN INNER RESOURCE

An inner resource is a security blanket, a safe haven that is used to bring you back to feeling warm, secure and at a ease. To find your inner resource, think about a person, place, animal, event or perhaps memory that invokes feelings in the physical body of warmth, security and ease. The memory or image is the start point while the important element is that you physically feel the warmth, security and ease.

It might change over the course of a few practices or you may land upon it right away. Either way is perfectly fine.

If you were to set your inner resource as your favourite stretch of beach, what would happen if that part of beach were to wash away? Likewise if you set your inner resource as your dog, what will happen when your dog passes away?

In both of these examples, if you start with the beach and dog as the initial thought and then wait to see if a wave of physical body sensations shows up (ie. warm, cuddled, sun on skin, feeling of sand under foot, feeling of soft dog fur under hand) then it will not matter if the beach erodes or your dog passes away. The important aspect is that you have access to the physical body sensations that come from the beach or dog.

During the practice you will bump up against some of your collected trauma, pain, discomfort, thoughts or beliefs. When this becomes overwhelming, your inner resource is your safe refuge, giving you access to physical body sensations of warmth, security and ease. Once the overwhelm has been replaced with warmth, security and ease, the practice will prompt you to return back to what is present in the layers.

Here’s an example. Imagine a warm cup of tea. Visualise the tea. Then feel the sensation of the warmth in the throat and belly from the tea. Over time, can the visualisation of the tea drop away and you can stay with the feeling of warmth in the throat and belly.

THE PRACTICE IS FRAMED AROUND AN OVERALL LIFE DESIRE

This is a deeply held wish, a desire that inspires all elements of your life; relationships, career, health, finances. It gives your life purpose and meaning.  In formulating your overall life desire, people often describe an obligation.

One way to approach this is to reflect back upon your life as if you were one hundred years old. What mattered in the end? What would you like your legacy to be? 

As you spend more and more time becoming aware of yourself, your overall life desire will often work its way up to the surface and make itself known to you, rather than you trying to go out and find it.

WHAT IS THE PRACTICE?

The practice is a form of meditation based on self-enquiry. This means that rather than the script describing an image, story or point of focus for you to visualise or follow as is the case for other types of meditation, you are provided with gentle prompts and a map to navigate your layers, to see what may have collected there, to sit with it and observe it from a few different perspectives.

WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT?

Each week we will focus on a different layer. You’ll be emailed some information to provide context along with an audio recording. Please read the information first and then listen. If you can, please listen to the short recording, like a guided meditation, everyday. If everyday isn’t possible, try for 3-4 times per week.

There are no physical movements. You can listen to the practice seated or lying down.

READING THE ROOM

It is glaringly obvious when we find ourselves in the presence of someone who lacks the ability to read their current environment.

A yoga teacher who demonstrates a sequence of advanced postures. If she looked up at her students, she would see they haven’t moved past the first one. 

Our politicians rarely look out at their audience to see what’s important to the collective.

We expect our leaders, parents, bosses, partners and children to read our situation and respond accordingly. However we rarely do this for ourselves. We rarely read our own bodies and all the collected trauma it houses. This can be because we don’t know it’s a thing we need to do and/or we don’t know how to.

The leading expert on PTSD is psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. His work centres around the idea that trauma as it collects, is stored in the body. Unless therapy involves an interaction with the physical layer, the trauma can’t be eased.

THE ROLE OF THE BODY IN TRAUMA

In times of great distress, the most functional thing to do is to get out of your body.

  • A person dealing with a significant emotional event
  • Recent bushfire situation – the most functional thing to do is to help the community, get busy, fight the fire
  • A person dealing with grief
  • Current COVID-19 situation – the most functional thing is to get on with it, assist children and parents, re-negotiate time, finances and future

The threat might have long passed but you may still be operating in this mode. The longer you spend “out of the body” the more that becomes your mode of operation.

This “out of the body” mode is more specifically described by the polyvagal theory. It is one of three available modes:

  1. Fight or flight (“out of the body”)
  2. Rest and digest
  3. Tend and befriend

It’s likely you haven’t heard of the third mode, tend and befriend. This is the sweet spot and where this course is taking us. A few things are required in order to access this mode.

  • To be located in a physically safe and predictable external environment
  • To shift to an observing role
  • To welcome what comes up

In order to encourage these requirements, the practice takes advantage of “Autogenics”. This concept was developed in the 1930’s after it was found that people who felt relaxed described their limbs as heavy and warm. Research was conducted and it was discovered that if we spoke about warm and heavy to ‘unrelaxed’ people, the relaxation response could be enticed.

Welcoming what comes up is linked closely to viewing everything as a messenger.  We spend a great deal of time judging, overthinking and analysing. It is difficult but highly illuminating to move to a space where we don’t seek to understand our trauma, our thoughts, our pain, our discomfort but just to sit and welcome it.

When you hold something back, there is an inevitable response of hardness and separateness. When you welcome, softness shows up in its place.

At this point recall the definition of trauma, anything that leaves a residue in the body rather than moving through it. Events, emotions, words, interactions, conflict – anything that doesn’t align with your core values.

The practice this week is a 30 minute audio recording focusing on the physical body layer. Find a safe, predictable, comfortable location to do the practice. Lay down or sit, it’s irrelevant but set a high standard for safety and comfort.

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Trauma + the body

Last week referred to the three modes available in terms of how we respond to situations.

  1. Rest and digest
  2. Fight or flight
  3. Demobilise

The relatively recent knowledge of this third option, demobilisation helps to explain so much of what has been previously misunderstood about trauma and more importantly how we deal with trauma.

Rather than thinking of the three modes as options, it’s more accurate to think of them as stages. What happens with trauma is that we stay in fight/flight mode and are not able to move back to the rest/digest phase.

The vagus nerve sits at the core of this levelled response.

What happens in the body during stage one: rest/digest

  • Ventral vagal complex (VVC) is activated
  • Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is aroused
  • We have a wide range of facial expressions
  • Breathing has a slow normal rhythm
  • Heart rate slow and rhythmic
  • Blood flow includes the digestive and elimination functions
  • Vision includes peripheral
  • We feel calm, centred and relaxed
  • Also referred to as the tend and befriend stage because we have the capacity to consider, reflect and observe ourselves

What happens during stage two: fight/flight

  • Dorsal vagal complex (DVC) is activated which connects from the diaphragm to the stomach, kidneys and intestines
  • Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is aroused
  • Facial expression changes, tone of voice and speed of speech
  • Sweat glands activate
  • Breathing shallows
  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood flow is directed to the periphery, away from digestive functions
  • Field of vision narrows
  • We are hyper-vigilant

What happens during stage three: demobilise

  • Dorsal vagal complex (DVC) is still activated
  • If there is no way out or we perceive there is no way out we revert to vital processes only
  • Heart rate drops again
  • Breath shallows more
  • Gut stops working or empties
  • The ability to sense physical pain reduces

It ‘s not a problem that we activate stage one, in many instances it keeps us alive. It is absolutely necessary for survival that we are able to access this stage instinctively and quickly. The fight/flight response might very well have kept you alive therefore we need a level of gratitude for that stage kicking in at that time. The body above all else priorities the preservation of life and this is evident through the stage one responses.

The poly vagal theory, tells us that once the threat has passed and relative safety has returned, we can move back to rest and digest mode. We cannot undertake self-growth, development and reflection unless we have shifted out of fight/flight and there is a requisite level of safety in the body.

The body doesn’t pick and choose what to do in any given situation, it always begins at level one and if that doesn’t suffice then it elevates to level two. If that doesn’t bring a resolution, then it elevates to level three. Here’s how the stages look in a situation.

Stage 1: Rest/digest response | We consider our options, we are observant and reflective about our situation. We look to those around us for help, we call out, we seek comfort and support.

Stage 2: Fight/flight response | We don’t have the capacity to consider the array of options present. We fight off the attacker, we run to safety. We can only react not reflect.

Stage 3: Demobilise | We shut down, play dead and conserve energy for vital survival processes only. If we are held down, trapped or pinned, we will demobilise. We don’t consider anyone can help us nor do we feel there are any options at all.

THE PRACTICE

We are designed to spend the majority of our time in the rest/digest mode, feeling calm and relaxed and able to consider options and reflect. Given this practice is a form of self-enquiry, it’s essential to operate from this mode whilst doing the practice.

Predictability is key in this mode. Predictable equals safe. Safe is stage one. We must source predictability from the body because life will never deliver it to us. We move from spot fire to spot fire; work issues, family conflicts, corona virus. Life is unpredictable and will always be unpredictable.

Given this emphasis on predictability, you might have noticed there is a predictable sequence followed in the practice.

  1. Recalling your inner resource
  2. Recalling your overall life desire
  3. Body relaxation
  4. Noticing the messengers
  5. As needed move back and forth between messengers and inner resource. Referencing your inner resource is designed to bring you back to the safe and predictable mode of rest and digest.

This is why we listen to the same recording for an entire week. For this work, you need predictability not variety. We need to learn how to recognise when we’ve left rest/digest mode and how to quickly return back to it.

The practice this week is a 15 minute audio recording focusing on the breath layer. A slow exhale stimulates the vagus nerve. This is the engaged nerve in the rest/digest mode. Find a safe, predictable, comfortable location to do the practice. Aim to do this everyday. You can do it multiple times a day.

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The power of opposites

We can only really understand something fully when we look at and reference its opposite.

We know grief when happy shows up.
We understand life more under the banner of death.
We appreciate wellness, following a bout of sickness.
We appreciate love and hate with each other as a backdrop.

The thinking brain.

It is not possible for the thinking brain to hold opposites. It can toggle quite quickly between two contrasting things but it’s not able to hold opposites simultaneously. In order to hold opposites concurrently, it requires that you have departed the thinking brain and be operating from awareness.

Awareness.

Awareness is a word that is thrown around often. It’s described as a skill, a destination and an outcome. For the sake of simplicity, let’s work with the following:

Observing something with a spacer between you and it.

Importantly awareness can’t live in the thinking mind so to be able to experience and reference opposites we need to find a way to get out of the thinking mind, if only for a little while.

Understanding messengers via their opposite.

If we understand, via this practice, that all sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and experiences are messengers then we can’t fully understand these messengers without knowledge of the opposite. If anger is present, we need to reference an opposite of anger to understand it more deeply.

The first reason for including opposite work is that it allows us the scope to understand what’s contained in our layers, our messengers more fully. The second reason is that it shows us that opposing things can exist concurrently in our layers.

It is common for people to make absolute statements and judgements about themselves.

I am an anxious person.
I am not smart enough for that career.
I am so shy.
I am always late.
I have never recovered.
I am not strong.
I can’t trust anybody.
I’m a terrible sleeper.

These absolute statements become obliterated when we can feel its opposite, even in a small way, simultaneously present in the body.

Even it there is anger present, it will be somewhere in the body, not everywhere.

Even if there is anxiety present somewhere, it won’t be everywhere.

More on opposites.

When asked to observe the opposite of something we tend to go as far to the other extreme as possible.

Hot – Cold
Heavy – Light
Nice – Horrible
Desirable – Undesirable

When we let go of the thinking mind, as the practice prompts us to do, the opposite that may arise may be completely illogical. The opposite may be the slightest shift to the right or left.

Hot – Warm
Heavy – Able to be lifted
Nice – Not quite so nice
Desirable – Tolerable

Don’t look for logic. Even a slight difference is considered the opposite.

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The hard week

This week calls for bluntness. It’s historically the hard week. When delivering this course face to face, if people were going to miss a week, it would always be week 4.

The concept of messengers has come up each week. The practices have encouraged you to recognise messengers, sit with them and start to understand them with the help of their opposites.

When sitting with messengers becomes too difficult or we choose not to or we forget how to, there’s a few common things we do instead. This requires a frank conversation, not just between you and I but also between you and yourself.

You might recognise one or both of these. They might pop up at different times, in different intensities.

  1. DISASSOCIATION
    This can show up as; avoiding, ignoring, pretending, getting busy with something else, constantly visiting friends, uncomfortable being alone. It shows up as humour, excessive sleeping, over eating. Substance abuse fits here as well; booze, drugs, smoking. Addictions make the list; shopping, technology consumption, binge watching.
  2. FUSE
    This can show up as; feeling overwhelmed, identifying strongly with emotions, being attached to emotions, believing what you’re currently experiencing will last forever and that you are your emotions. Not being able to separate from a sh*tty situation, becoming enmeshed with it. A traumatic/stressful aspect of your life stops you from being able to relax into other ‘ok’ aspects of your life.

Think of these tendencies as sitting over the top of the messengers. They are loud and attention grabbing but they aren’t the messengers.

Recall the overarching premise of this practice is that it doesn’t attempt to fix people. It doesn’t focus on the drinking, the drugs, the eating, the anxiety, the overwhelm, the flashbacks.

It believes you’re already ok. Buried underneath the tendencies are the messengers. Buried under the messengers is your very ok centre. The tendencies, however destructive, don’t influence the centre.

More conventional “therapies” tend to focus on the tendencies. This practice leaves them alone and goes deeper to the messengers.

Sit with them.
Welcome them.
Wait patiently alongside them.
Be curious about them.
Understand them from a different perspective.

Before you can spend more time operating from your already ok centre, you need to know it’s there.

The practice this week is longer not shorter. The reason is that motivation tends to fade at this point, the hard week. The ability to show up everyday to practice feels for many people like too big an ask. The practice is 30 minutes. Aim to listen twice but more often if you can.

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Challenging + soothing

Our capacity to destroy is matched by only one thing, our capacity to heal.

Over the past 20 years I have held a very close relationship with PTSD. It has visited dressed as close friends, ex-Defence colleagues, family members. It’s still wears those clothes because unfortunately it’s something to be managed not eradicated. It also visits professionally, dressed as clients, yoga goers, sometimes the wearer isn’t even aware.

I want to tell you a story. It happened whilst I was teaching this course, Affected 24/7 in 2019.

I heard from a friend that it happened.

On account of the trauma course I was about to start teaching the following week, I distinctly remember thinking, “there’s so much work to do in this area.”

One month later, while teaching week three of the course, it happened again.

What happened was suicide. Two guys I previously served with in the Navy. Both clearance divers. They were mirrors of each other in the same way that all divers are mirrors of each other.

These guys were not just good operators, they were exceptional operators. The very best company at sea. They were professional and trustworthy. They were successful.

I had the usual few days where this sort of news churns around in your head and puts a damper on everyday life but then things took a downhill dive. I found myself in a place I’d not yet been before.

I could no longer trust my definition of success. If this is what happens to people I defined as successful, then my definition had been thrown completely off tilt.

It felt like the day the definition of your parents as superhuman no longer fits. The day a few mistakes and crappy advice reveals their humanness.

The final piece of the puzzle showed up at a party I recently went to. I met this guy. He worked in law enforcement. The beer in his hand seemed to shorten the distance between him and I on account of the story that poured forth. The poor bugger was broken.  He listed his physical ailments, many from detaining criminals, chasing criminals, being hit by criminals. The list was long. He couldn’t trust anyone he worked with. His workplace was a cesspit of angry, deranged criminals. He couldn’t sleep. He also felt jaded and upset by the system he was supposed to rally for, that in reality it let down more people than it held up. The same people who although made his working days hell, needed mental health assistance not law enforcement. In so many ways this poor guy was broken.

Halfway through talking, his daughter walked up. She needed a quick word and a hug; reassurance about something. A few moments later, off she went, settled and content. In those few moments, he was the only person she wanted and he could only see her. That sort of relationship doesn’t happen overnight. He had clearly spent years showing up for her, soothing her, being the reassuring hug the world often didn’t give.

I realised something at that moment. The definition works both ways.

The divers, because they were so successful at work, never gave the world any reason to contemplate the possibility their success didn’t extend to every arena of their lives.

The law enforcement guy, the fact he was such a mess, physically, mentally and at work, made it illogical to think he could be successful in another aspect of his life.

The two-way definition is just as debilitating in both scenarios. It makes it really difficult for outwardly successful people to ask for and receive help. Help doesn’t intuitively find its way into their productive lives. This is evident in the number of suicides in the clearance diving branch alone, the most highly trained and specialised category in the Navy. The world sees them all as successful.

It also drives slightly broken, somewhat unsuccessful people down even further. They, along with the world stop looking for the pockets of success in their lives. They get written off as all broken.

We humans are so good at doing extremes. It’s all or nothing. Successful or sh*t. Nothing in between.

Week three of the trauma course I taught while all of this was unfolding ironically focussed on opposites. On recognising contrasting emotions and that our bodies are able to hold contrasting emotions simultaneously. We are not good or bad, right or wrong, happy or unhappy, angry or calm in absolutes but a constantly changing collection of these different emotions. This element of the course ended up being the most challenging but once familiar, the most soothing.

Challenging and soothing. Side by side.

In preparation for putting all the layers together, it’s time to visit a word that gets thrown around often. Although hard to define and easy to misconstrue, it’s where we’re heading. I’d like to offer some definitions I personally find helpful.

Awareness

  • Equanimity under all circumstances.
  • Responding in the same way to both comfort and discomfort.
  • The ability to recognise messengers as passing sensations.
  • The ability to hover calmly and objectively over thoughts, feelings and emotions.
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Awareness

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