Get a load of this astonishing claim: “Through the regular practice of centering prayer,” writes Thomas Keating “the dynamism of interior purification is set in motion. This dynamism is a kind of divine psychotherapy, organically designed for each of us, to purify our unconscious and free us from the obstacles to the free flow of grace in our minds, emotions, and bodies.”
I would never have had the courage to write such a thing based on my experience alone, though when I read this passage in Open Mind, Open Heart, I was gobsmacked. Keating’s words describe my experience precisely. I read them and wept.
I have said, time and again, that I think of my life before my time in the Wilderness and after. (Read more about that HERE.) Almost as soon as I was deeply Still on a regular basis, I felt the process of interior purification begin. I couldn’t have described it at the time, though eventually I would talk about having been “turned inside out and upside down;” such that all of the issues stored in my psyche and nervous system seemed to surface, one at a time, in a way that seemed perfectly modulated. In other words, that which surfaced was never more than my system could handle. Deeply buried issues of mine were brought into the Light and transformed, gently and thoroughly. (IMPORTANT CAVEAT: My experience may not be typical. Roughly 25% of the 36 million or so Americans who meditate will, at some point, experience UEs, or “unwanted effects,” as a result. Please read the note below for more information, and tread lightly here. Meditation is a powerful tool and you may need the guidance of a trauma-informed teacher.)
What does this mean practically? Here’s a blunt example: Before I went into the Wilderness and sank deeply into Still/Wild, I had a long run of destructive relationships. After my time in the Wilderness, I was simply incapable of anything less than kind, constructive ones. I had been in therapy countless times; enough to understand and articulate the fact that I was inexorably drawn to men (because I happen to be heterosexual) who, er, called forth that in me which needed to be exposed and transformed, we’ll say. (This is one way to work through one’s issues, but it is the long and painful way.) And yet, even as I came to understand my own behavior, I couldn’t seem to change it, and my relationships went from hard to much (much) worse. Post Wilderness, I simply wasn’t drawn to men who were abusive or broken in any way – because, I believe, I myself was no longer broken in complimentary ways. To be clear – and this is important, I think – I didn’t have to discipline myself to steer clear of abusive men or to walk away from disempowering relationships; I simply was no longer drawn to them in the first place.
What is this process of transformation like, in real time? During my particularly Still/Wild summer, I spent time, every day, in the little chapel at Montgomery Bell State Park in TN (near my home at the time). When I first went into the Wilderness, as I have described it, I was too sick and tired to sit up for long periods of time, and often slept in the pews. For whatever reason, I stubbornly went back, day after day, and sank into the silence. My prayer at the time was an inarticulate cry of the heart. The important thing, I think, is that I kept showing up. As time went on, deep seated and heavily encrypted issues began to emerge. Sometimes I understood precisely what was emerging, and sometimes I only had a general sense. Sometimes I felt immediate relief, other times I had to sit with profound discomfort for some period of time before it moved through. I now understand that this was part of the process of “integration and healing,” as Keating would say. During that summer, I had no idea how transformative the experience would be in the long term; that it would irrevocably change the course of my life for the better. But I knew that each time it happened I felt some relief, and so what was deeply uncomfortable at first became tolerable and, finally, valued beyond measure. This process continues today, so long as I have a regular and rugged Still/Wild practice. (In other words, it has started to happen again as my practice has deepened these past few weeks.)
I would encourage you to read Keating’s words again, and to deeply consider them. I can attest to the astonishing veracity of his claim. The promise of interior purification is one of the most profound gifts the Stillness brings; not because we are dirty and need to be made clean, but because we deserve to be free of the trauma that gets lodged in our minds, emotions and bodies as we move through life.
The process requires commitment and discipline. To sit with the discomfort until it melts away, once and for all, isn’t easy in the beginning. But it is so fiercely worth it.
Please note: Meditation is not risk-free.
I'm convinced that nothing in the world changes your lived experience, or the lives of those around you, as dramatically as a regular and rugged contemplative practice. That said, it’s important to acknowledge that roughly 25% of the 36 million or so Americans who meditate will, at some point, experience UEs, or “unwanted effects,” as a result. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5584749/) These unwanted effects can include increased anxiety, depersonalization, and depression, for example. While these UEs are generally short-lived and don’t result in cessation of practice, for some number of people – especially those who have experienced trauma – meditation can result in episodes that are long-term and terrifying.
Despite this fact, meditation (generally in the form of “mindfulness”) is now found in nearly every corner of modern society. Mindfulness is taught in schools, at work, in hospitals and is generally presented as a one-size-fits-all-cure-all. Stressed out? Meditate. Sick? Meditate. Anxious? Definitely: meditate.
The reality, however, is that for anyone who has experienced trauma, meditation can exacerbate that trauma, and it can bring harm. Those of us who teach and/or evangelize about its benefits have an ethical obligation to understand the risks; to inform and equip ourselves. We must also understand that when it comes to mindfulness practice, all things are not equal. As David A Treleaven points out in his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, “…an ongoing sense of threat is very real for people who are targeted by systems of oppression.” (116) Asking someone who experiences an ongoing sense of threat to pay close, sustained attention to their inner world, Treleaven reminds us, can be exceedingly risky.
All that to say: Meditation is not to be trifled with. If you are someone who teaches meditation on any level, I recommend reading Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven, and familiarizing yourself with the Work of Willoughby Britton Ph.D and Cheetah House.
My own contemplative, or “still” practice, turned me upside down, inside out, and changed my life for the better in ways that are hard to describe. I will spend a lifetime telling this story, on the one hand. But I hope to do so in an informed way, while recognizing that there are very real risks, as well as benefits, when it comes to meditation.
If you have had a bad experience resulting from meditation or mindfulness practice, you are not alone, and help is available at cheetahhouse.org.