Mindfulness seems to be the current “big thing.” It is touted by not just therapists and mindfulness practitioners but also by life coaches, motivational speakers, the popular press, and more. You can hardly look at any form of media without coming across articles and talks about the benefits of mindfulness. But is mindfulness for everyone, and is it always positive? These days, it may almost seem sacrilege to ask that question.
I have been practicing mindfulness meditation and teaching it for many years as a therapist and a taijiquan and qigong teacher. I have seen and felt it work very well in healing. But there are times the practice can raise issues, especially when trauma is involved. David Treleaven, the author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing has been researching trauma and meditation for more than ten years. He first became interested from his own experience during meditation.
According to Treleaven’s research, “an estimated 90% of the population has been exposed to a traumatic event, and 8-20% of these people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder.” He uses Pat Ogden’s definition of trauma: “any experience that is stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, or profoundly unsafe.” The trauma extends from witnessing or experiencing violence to being subject to the everyday oppression and violent power dynamics of the culture in which one lives.
Treleaven had been practicing mindfulness for some time prior to attending a retreat, and found it helpful for coping with what he experienced as a therapist in a male sex offender program. At one point during a meditation at the retreat, his mind came to focus on one story of sexual violence he had heard in his work as a therapist. As he put it, “the lights went out.” To cope, he saw a trauma specialist. From that experience, he learned that trauma is less about what happened and more about the lasting effects on our physiology.
As soon as I finished reading this book, I began suggesting it to friends who are counselors as well as yoga teachers I know. One of the really nice things about the book is that Treleaven gives readers a very clear protocol on precautions and what to have in place if you do teach mindfulness and someone with trauma begins to need help.
He has three goals for the book and meets them all. First, Treleaven wants to minimize distress for people practicing mindfulness. Second he wants to “forward a systemic understanding of trauma.” Throughout the book, he comes back to social justice and the ways people are treated in this culture. He goes so far as to donate 60% of the proceeds of his sales from this book to three organizations that seek to rectify social and cultural conditions that “create and perpetuate trauma.” One thing that comes through again and again is the depth and sincerity of Treleaven’s beliefs and dedication to acting on his beliefs and principles. His sincerity is inspirational and admirable. Lastly, he advocates “for a continued partnership between mindfulness practitioners and trauma professionals.” He has extensive and well thought out guidelines on how to do that.
This book is an exceptional resource for therapists that includes case examples which offer an excellent overview of trauma and its effects. He draws from experts like Pat Ogden, Babette Rothschild, Daniel Siegel, Peter Levine, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. He also draws from Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory to give an understanding of what is happening inside us when we feel unsafe; our neuroception activates and our body goes on alert to cope.
Treleaven shows readers how to empower clients with clear explanations of trauma. One example is Siegel’s “River of Integration” imagery. There is also the “window of tolerance” imagery from Ogden, Minton and Pain. He uses the guidelines from the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, which says that trauma informed care realizes the widespread impact of trauma, realizes signs and symptoms of trauma, responds in an integrated way and resists re-traumatization – the “four-R’s.” He covers dissociation, how trauma shows itself in the body, and more, and outlines ways of working with each issue. Treleaven has researched working with trauma and integrated a wealth of knowledge and wisdom into a thoughtful and sensitive guide.
I appreciate that he covers social context and how to be respectful when working with someone.Recovery in trauma happens in relationships. As Treleaven writes, when we commit to working with trauma, we bear witness to suffering. His approach is holistic and includes the systems in which we live. He seeks to empower in a positive, healthy way that increases resilience and well-being for all.
Mindfulness cannot replace trauma therapy, but it can be a valuable resource. But we must be mindful that mindfulness, particularly mindfulness meditation, can exacerbate trauma. This book gives us the knowledge to be as proactive as we can be in order to prevent that. It also gives us resources to help someone when “the lights go out.” I am grateful for the work that Treleaven is doing and that he has shared this insightful, caring, and valuable book.
Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing
David A. Treleaven
W. Norton and Company
272 pages, Hard Cover