Most survivors of trauma, whether the disaster was man made or natural, find some element of betrayal in their experience. Perhaps there was violence done to them by another person, stranger or trusted companion. Perhaps a natural disaster struck and was made worse by the misguided or ill-informed actions of others. Or maybe it was simply that something bad happened, and it just is not fair. That feeling of being betrayed, of foundational beliefs being shaken or the “oughts” of relationships being ignored, strikes deep. This is why so often the concept of forgiveness becomes part of the healing process. But forgiveness is complex, it’s tricky, and if we as directors try to push for survivor to offer forgiveness prematurely, we may actually hinder our directees from experiencing the empowerment and relief found in the process.
Psychologically speaking, forgiveness is a natural outcome of healing. When deep healing has occurred and a survivor is able to feel safe the trauma can finally be released. Forgiveness comes when the anger, in whatever form it was carried, that was keeping a survivor safe and alive are no longer needed. The service performed by those strong emotions and biological responses is complete, and they are let go. Forgiveness may be helped along by justice being rendered, or at least acknowledgement of the pain caused to the survivor. Forgiveness is the conclusion of the healing process.
This is not how forgiveness is viewed in many religious traditions. Particularly in Christian traditions, forgiveness is often touted as a first step in healing. It becomes an “ought,” something that is required of the survivor. This is unfair to the survivor as they may not be ready to release yet. For many, the word “forgiveness” also carries with it an implied absolution of the wrong done or the perpetrator. Some traditions or individual faith leaders may even push for reconciliation between perpetrator and survivor. These are not healthy, nor helpful, directions to force a survivor. Forgiveness is an important human concept and experience that easily becomes clouded by dogma.
If we, as spiritual directors, are able to hold open handedly our personal concepts and definitions of forgiveness - how it plays out and what it looks like - we will better serve our directees. We can be sensitive to what the implicit meanings of forgiveness are in our tradition and perhaps offer safer language. One such option would be “unburdening.” What would it be to be free of the burden of what has happened to you? How might you become free of the burden? Usually, the word forgiveness is not needed. In cases where I have had directees who felt they must offer forgiveness, and who specifically defined forgiveness as both absolution for the offender and the first step to reconciliation, I have gone so far as to say, “Forgiveness as you define it is unnecessary for healing.” What is necessary is to release the self from the power the event or person holds. It is necessary to become free as much as possible from fear. These hard found freedoms have great healing benefits, but the journey to them can be long and should not be rushed.
Forgiveness comes when the anger, in whatever form it was carried, that was keeping a survivor safe and alive are no longer needed. The service performed by those strong emotions and biological responses is complete, and they are let go. Forgiveness may be helped along by justice being rendered, or at least acknowledgement of the pain caused to the survivor.
Letting go of anger, hate, and a desire for vengeance is an important part of healing. However, the part of us that was or feels betrayed is often one of the last parts of us to receive healing because all the other aspects of what is changed in our day-to-day life have to be settled, and we have to sort through the pressing emotions and reactivity before we can address meta-emotional concepts like unburdening.
How can you as a director hold space for the lengthy and important journey your directee is taking towards releasing the burdens held over from their trauma? How can you help them navigate the language and theologies involved? What does the word “forgiveness” mean to you? What do you believe is truly required for healing to take place?
Still Listening: New Horizons in Spiritual Direction, by Norvene Vest
This post, written by Erin Jantz, originally was published on December 13, 2016, on the ICTG blog.
Life is full of joy and meaning. We are surrounded by beauty, love, and laughter. I personally have enjoyed living in just enough of a mountain town in Southern California this fall to be surrounded by striking colors in the trees as we mark the seasons. Of course, California is also experiencing its worst drought in decades. So between the tall trees boldly wearing their scarlets, rusts, and golds are dead lawns, empty fields, and dirt lots where even the weeds have given up trying to grow. It feels as if the desert is trying to reclaim us and we’re not sure yet which way the tide will go.
There are many times where all of the moments and little glimpses that make life so meaningful are more notable by their absence than anything else. Days that feel like drudgery. Like we will count ourselves lucky if we just manage to put one foot in front of the other enough times to make it through the day. Anxiety, tension, and responsibility creep in and disturb our days and our nights. We are waiting. Which way will we discover? Oasis or parched land?
These days are thirsty. Our souls are thirsty.
This sense of scarcity, the fear of lack, seems poignant as we enter this season of celebrating miracles. Mawlid, Chanukah, and Advent all remember waiting in near darkness. Mawlid celebrates revelation. Chanukah, provision. Advent, holding out for the hope of Light to come. I am struck every year by the words of the first stanza of the Christmas carol, “O Holy Night.” The author says:
Long lay the world
in sin and error pining…
Pining. Not languishing. Not living it up. Pining. Thirsty and parched, but not despairing. Pining implies missing something that is known and deeply loved, and longing for its return. Over the last few months ICTG has been called on again and again by people who’s stories tenderly wrench our hearts. Suicide, sudden deaths, shootings, fires, broken trust, and grief are just some of the burdens being carried through our doors. People with thirsty souls searching for the oasis. People who are pining.
And then at the end of December the Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with Christmas. They call him Immanuel. God with us.
…'Til God appeared
And the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new a glorious morn…
God with us.
How do we make sense of these vastly disparate experiences? The oasis and the desert? Darkness and Light? Joy and grief? Trauma's effect of our spirituality has a distinct aspect of pining to it. There is significant grief associated with unalterable changes in perspective. The sin and error that is sometimes foisted on us leaves us weary and unsure of our worth.
Immanuel, God with us.
God being with us is so touching because it is an unbounded experience. We can find and experience God as much as we are able. God is with us in the breath-taking awe of turning a corner and being surrounded by trees dressed in fiery colors. God is with us in the scratching and scraping of the dead grass and dusty ground. God is with us in the joy of the new and the grief of the loss of the familiar. With us in the darkness and the light and all the spaces in between. God is in our waiting.
For this edition of the Village of Care, we interviewed Kiki Williams. Kiki is a NY based Yoga teacher and dancer who shared with us the unique ways that Yoga can aid in healing from trauma. Kiki’s warmth and care for people flows through their words and we hope you’ll find it encouraging as you come alongside people who are seeking whole-person life.
In your experience/opinion, what makes yoga good for people?
Everything! It’s a practice that engages both the body and the mind. It’s equally beneficial for lowering blood pressure, increasing muscle strength, gaining a greater sense of mind-body awareness, and learning to be with difficult emotions. Depending on the practice, it can also be relaxing or energizing, or a little bit of both! In my own experience, yoga has allowed me to feel and be deeply connected with my body and my mind. I can have an experience and register both the emotional aspect of it, as well as the way the emotion manifests in physical sensation, such as a faster heart rate when I am anxious. Yoga has also helped me feel into my own strength and power. The practice continuously offers opportunities to push past perceived boundaries and expand into a greater sense of being. As I often tell my students, yoga is less about the poses themselves or contorting your body to look a certain way, but rather is a metaphor for life. You will do poses that are challenging, and poses that come with ease. Throughout the course of even a 60-mins class, you may encounter comparing mind, self-doubt, frustration, joy, and fun! And just like with life, the lesson is really about how we show up in each moment, if we’re willing to be present with whatever arises, be it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The more practice we get sifting through all of that on a yoga mat, the easier it becomes in everyday life.
How does trauma-informed yoga differ from a standard practice?
I actually take some issue with the idea of a standard practice, because it negates the reality that most folx are in fact walking through life with some degree of trauma, as if there is a “standard” way to be and exist in the world, and absolves the teacher in some sense of their responsibility to read a room and adjust the class based on who is present and what is needed. But I don’t know if that’s where you were going with that question! Trauma-informed yoga is different than a standard yoga class in several ways, but one of the main ways is language. When someone experiences something traumatic, they don’t choose it, it is something that happens to them without consent. So everything done in a trauma-informed class is an invitation- there’s almost no commanding language. Oftentimes that is made explicit in the beginning by the teacher, and then reinforced as the class goes on. Statements such as “Perhaps you might try...” or “If you’d like you can...” allow students to make choices that they feel comfortable with, and thus rectify a sense of agency that was damaged during a traumatic event.
A trauma-informed practice is also not goal-oriented in the same way a standard class is. In a standard class, the teacher might be offering an apex-pose model, which involves working up to a specific pose by doing exercises and poses that directly relate to that pose. For example, if the apex pose is a deep back bend like Chakrasana (wheel pose), the teacher will likely engage smaller backbends, open the shoulders, and lengthen the quads, all in preparation for the apex pose. While this model can still be used for a trauma- informed class, the point or objective isn’t about the apex pose itself, but rather about providing opportunities to connect and be present with the breath and the body. The disembodiment that often comes with a traumatic experience often lasts far longer than the event itself. By offering moments to notice any physical sensations in the legs, or to try breathing into your back and feel it press against the floor, etc, gives folx the opportunity to form a new relationship with their bodies.
For me, when I think of healing work, I am thinking of whatever upsets one’s current conditioning and opens pathways to an expansive and authentic heart and mind, or in Buddhism the heart-mind. While we have to be mindful of our limits and capacities, the opportunity to be challenged or to be in discomfort is often how we chip away at the trauma thats built itself up around our beings. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s necessary work.
In your experience, what people/groups benefit from a trauma-informed approach to yoga?
Literally everyone! I say this because everyone has trauma. That trauma looks very, very different from person to person, of course. I don’t believe it’s possible to be a human in the world and not have trauma, be it from this lifetime, familial, or ancestral. Oftentimes I think people hear “trauma” and their mind moves towards a very specific place, usually towards physical trauma of some kind. But for so many folx, a lot of our trauma is emotional and ancestral, and arises in how we do or don’t communicate, create boundaries, and care for ourselves, amongst other things. So in a trauma-informed class when there are choices given, it can be quite difficult for folx to decide what to do because they’ve only ever been told or commanded. Or because the pace can often be slower in a trauma-informed class, folx who are used to hiding behind busy work days and overloaded schedules often find that moving slowly or being in silence makes them anxious. Or if you grew up in a very rigid household where play and pleasure were not acceptable, then the suggestion to “do what feels good in your body” can be a completely foreign concept, and deeply uncomfortable to engage with. For me, when I think of healing work, I am thinking of whatever upsets one’s current conditioning and opens pathways to an expansive and authentic heart and mind, or in Buddhism the heart-mind. While we have to be mindful of our limits and capacities, the opportunity to be challenged or to be in discomfort is often how we chip away at the trauma thats built itself up around our beings. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s necessary work.
What groups in particular are you working with? What challenges are they facing? What is unique about their circumstances?
Currently I teach a wide range of adults, Hasidic Jewish women, and high school students, and their challenges are quite different. My Hasidic clients are extremely active and busy people who have much of the same hurried nature as most New Yorkers. This often results in a lot of physical tightness in the body, particularly in the calves, feet, and shoulders. The demand on their time is such that my time with them is probably the slowest-moving of their entire week. Thus, I always make it a point to start and end in stillness, with a focus on the breath- an opportunity to engage their parasympathetic nervous systems, find ease in the body, and practice being present in the current moment.
With high school students, however, their challenges have a wider range- they’re physically exhausted from lack of sleep, but are also some of the most stressed and anxious people I’ve encountered. For many, home life may not be the most stable, and they often feel an immense amount of pressure from school, guardians, and society to accomplish a very specific idea of success, one that usually leaves them depleted and riddled with self-doubt. Then you consider hormonal changes, and peer pressure, and it’s easy to understand where their lack of grounding arises from. My work with students has a lot to do with introducing them to being present with their body- noticing sensations, sounds, and what physical reactions might occur with various emotions. As their relationship to and understanding of their bodies strengthens, they also then cultivate a greater sense of agency for how they meet the circumstances of their lives. Using breath and body awareness, they learn to calm their anxiety, and make grounded, thoughtful choices.
What accomplishments do you get to witness that people in other fields might not notice or understand the importance of?
I get to see people become more embodied and more aware of their bodies over time- they begin to notice their own physical patterning and “wake up” various parts of their bodies and minds that had no liveliness or awareness prior. This is very exciting for me. When I first start working with a client, the body is often like one big mass that moves around- the left arm lifts and the whole left side of the body moves every which way along with it, but the client may not even realize. Over time, students are able to cultivate a very intimate and nuanced understanding of the inner workings of the various parts of the body. By bringing an intentional awareness practice to the experience of movement, you are also strengthening your awareness generally. I am speaking very physically here, but as I tell my students, yoga is a metaphor for life. In yoga there’s something called the koshas, which are 5 layers or sheaths of the body, from the physical to the spiritual. As we become more connected to our physical body, which is the first layer, it has the opportunity to soften and open, and thus make the way to move even further inwards and to connect spiritually.
It’s equally beneficial for lowering blood pressure, increasing muscle strength, gaining a greater sense of mind-body awareness, and learning to be with difficult emotions.
What additional types of care do you see as being helpful to people looking to heal holistically from trauma?
If the resources are available, therapy is so lovely! Especially if the therapist introduces mindfulness practices that allow clients to have tools outside of sessions. Being able to speak about our trauma, outside of our own minds, allows us to better understand it. Being able to process our experience in some external way allows us to release the trauma in whatever way we’re holding it- silence, physical illness, muscular blockages. It also brings the experience from the individual to the collective, which fosters support, connectivity, and community, which is so important. Silence can occur because we feel alone, or shame around our experiences, and we tell ourselves the story that no one has experienced what we have, or that no one will understand, and it’s very much a Western thing to suffer in isolation like we often do. One of my favorite teachers/authors, Malidoma Patrice Somé of the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, speaks passionately about community being necessary for healing. Community is the reflection needed during difficult times and transitions that support both the strength of making it through (elders) as well as reasoning behind continued perseverance (youth). There is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our healing- that by healing myself, I create both space and an example for others on their path to healing as well.
What effect do you see on/in people’s faith or spirituality as a result of their practice?
This is actually a more challenging space for me to see change/growth. Because most of my current work is with Hasidic Jewish women and children in public school, I have to approach the subject of yoga and meditation from a more secular or anatomical/physical lense. I can and often bring in universal themes, such as compassion or self-love, but even mentioning the word “faith” can be problematic in both of those spaces. The affect I do see, however, is the deepening connection and understanding of the physical body, which is a critical stepping point towards deeper connection spiritually. What I learn through my Buddhist meditation practice, for example, is that it is because of our manifestation in these human bodies that we are able to have complex thought and experience spirituality and spiritual growth/healing in the way that we do. We wouldn’t be able to do it without a physical form, and so even just the simple awareness we practice as we move through postures or exercises, is in itself a part of spirituality.
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From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.