Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 edition of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
A Miracle is Just a Shift in Perception
By Colleen DeRango
In working with clients to help them heal their trauma, many of us in the Somatic Experiencing® community have come to recognize that one component preceding a shift in perception may not be a thought at all: It may be the body's "felt sense" of moving from a state of calm to anxiety and then to calm again, or what is called "pendulation."
Peter Levine's influence at Mellody House has generated a subtle shift in the way we work with clients; our focus is on supporting clients in establishing a sense of "internal resourcing," as opposed to concentrating on difficulties or problem areas. Somatic Experiencing reinforces this focus and gives us the necessary tools and language.
Consider an example: A cat attentively and expectantly watches a mole dig a tunnel under the lawn. The cat waits with positive expectancy for the mole to move. This visual image represents the idea of seizing or grabbing hold of the positive. As counselors, we do this by supporting the client in reconnecting with the felt sense of "I can."Sometimes this "I can" sensation is expressed in a bodily movement. Other times, the client experiences a bodily change, wherein he feels "less tight, less anxious, less painful, less stuck." Gently encouraging the client to experience his "felt sense" of this less painful state is often the beginning of the miracle of moving from "I can't" to "I can." Clients are adept at sensing their own states of non-calm; so we focus on beginning from a place of "safety, calm, centeredness - or when they last felt most like themselves." We reflect on how they experienced these states and, from this place of resource, we support them in "touching into" the edges of the more difficult sensations of "tightness, strain or constriction."
Therapists support clients in listening to what their bodies are sensing, and we challenge them to trust it. For example, in a guided meditation or group session, if a client begins to feel "closed-in" or "anxious," he's encouraged to do what he wants to do - and to experience it from a "felt sense." Oftentimes this includes leaving the room while sensing what it is like to be able to get up and leave. When we introduced this strategy, we thought perhaps clients wouldn't return. Yet they have always returned and quite often shared with the group their sensations of empowerment.
Additionally, we give clients choices; for example, in meditation sessions, they are welcome to follow the guided meditation or to make a choice about how they want to meditate and then do so. Choice, when given to trauma survivors, is powerful; clients often share that they experienced the act of choosing as a felt sense of power, as opposed to the powerlessness many experienced during past traumatic events.
Knowing that trauma is about disconnection and that healing is about reconnection, the client experiences the sensation of being able to move, versus the trauma of being forced to stay. We wondered if clients would use their ability to choose as an excuse to leave group. Interestingly, the clients who left once rarely left again; they shared that they experienced a "sensation of empowerment" as a "life force" versus "life depletion." In SE language, we would identify this as the "miracle" of self-regulation, i.e., activation and deactivation. In SE we also learn that the body has the ability to self-regulate and that "trauma disconnect" interrupts this capability.
Somatic Experiencing® meshes well with The Meadows' model, which is trauma-based. In the powerful Survivors' Workshop, an experiential exercise encourages the client to "identify with his functional adult caring for his inner child." He then shares his reality with the people in his life who have been "abusive, neglectful or abandoning." This involves resourcing prior to touching into the anxiety or pain. The workshop is completed within a community of five or six other clients. As in SE, healing work is meant to be processed with someone, versus by oneself.
At Mellody House, we reinforce the value of community in working toward trauma healing and recovering from addictions and self defeating, addictive behavior patterns. In essence, we encourage clients to support themselves and one another from a place of compassion. Following the SE approach of giving counselors permission to make mistakes while training, we encourage our clients to "experiment and make mistakes," encouraging the "try" without the limitation of the expectation of perfection. The successful part of the try is "pounced on positively," not only by counselors, but by other clients as well. As the client experiences the "felt sense" of "I can do this," energy becomes available to "touch into" more pain, anxiety, frustration or "stuckness." The "I can" part of self-regulation is restored, and the result is a client who senses new empowerment. "I cannot drink" becomes a "felt sense" experience of "I CAN not drink."
Clients who have achieved "self-empowerment" have an energy about them, a "coherence" that other clients seem to move toward. And somewhere along the way, the shift toward healing gains momentum, stronger than perhaps the "triggers to use." As a client discovers that "more of me is available to use my strategic thought" to manage the triggers, he develops resiliency.
I realized early on that I could talk at length with clients about their problems and still not know how to restore their resiliency. But if we can "pounce on the positive" and support clients in identifying their "felt senses" within, their human systems move into healing. The "I can" capacity of the human system is amazing.
In considering the recent Somatic Experiencing Conference, where many of us gathered to learn and to share our experiences, I think about the simple enjoyment of connecting with others in this community. My sensation of restored resiliency was reinforced by a wonderful "ventral vagal" connection with so many SE practitioners. What a strong reminder to balance work with fun, connection and growth.
In closing, instead of saying, "A miracle is just a shift in perception," one might say, "A miracle is the ability to shift and change perception." Either way, I believe in miracles.