Skip to content

Healing Past Relational Trauma with Wholehearted Presence

The swirling busyness and restless energy settled and a profound stillness permeated the room, enveloping the group like a soft feather blanket. Sitting in silence and sensing the body was unfamiliar territory for most of the two-dozen workshop participants.  After all, for many of them, the body had long-been associated with shame, self-judgment, discomfort, and trauma.  Yet, there they were, courageously bringing compassionate awareness to their embodied experience, one moment at a time.  Opening to the life that had been refused, again and again, until that moment.¹

This is a description of the first day of the first REAC²H workshop, which was conducted with a group of female survivors of childhood maltreatment.  REAC²H is an acronym that stands for Restoring Embodied Awareness, Compassionate Connection, and Hope.  It is an innovative approach to healing past relational trauma by cultivating present-moment awareness and self-compassion.  The workshop was designed by Dr. Jon G. Caldwell, DO, PhD after years of research and clinical work in the fields of traumatology, attachment theory, affective neuroscience, and contemplative practices.

The REAC²H workshop was specifically designed to help individuals who have experienced “relational trauma”, which encompasses various kinds of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that occur in the context of close relationships.  Relational trauma has meaningful effects on the attachment system – an innate, biological system that facilitates interpersonal connection to adaptively shape human development.  Thus, relational trauma and the resulting disturbances in attachment can have profound effects on a person’s developmental trajectory across the lifespan.

Read more

How We Relate Predicts How we Meditate: Attachment Style is Linked to Mindfulness

During a recent trip to Los Angeles California, I was aroused from early morning slumber by an eerie sensation of movement.  As the veil of sleep was pulled from my mind, I gradually registered the meaning of the shaking bed beneath me and the groaning structures above me: earthquake!  A shot of prickly energy ripped through my gut and landed in my chest, quickening my heart.  Adrenaline sharpened my senses and time seemed to slow as I instinctively made my way to the patio door.  I looked out onto the street, half expecting to see creviced sidewalks and toppling buildings.  Instead I saw people nonchalantly walking their dogs and sipping their morning coffee.

Despite the apparent banality of the event for local Angelenos, the earthquake was a hot topic at the airport among people unaccustomed to earth-shaking awakenings. As I waited for my flight, I found myself listening to a conversation between two newly-acquainted women.

The first woman excitedly asked the other, “Did you feel the earthquake this morning?” Leaving no room for a response, she went on, “Wasn’t that something! I mean, have you ever experienced such a thing? I didn’t know what to do – I jumped up and ran around in my nightie like a chicken with its head cut-off!”

The second woman, pulling back a bit from the shared space, cocked an eyebrow and flatly replied, “Didn’t bother me much really. This is L.A. after all – comes with the territory I suppose.” Shifting in her seat uneasily she scanned the terminal while drumming her fingers on the chair’s armrest, “Have you seen a trash can?”

The first woman took hold of the other woman’s arm, causing her coffee to quiver and nearly spill, “I just kept thinking, ‘What will I do if this hotel comes down around me? How will people find me? What will my husband do without me? I mean, he can barely make spaghetti!”

The second woman slowly unhinged her arm from the first and with a shrug said, “I guess if it’s your time, it’s your time.” Slipping out of the chair (and the conversation), she stood up and wandered away while casting a comment over her shoulder, “Never a trash can when you need one.”

As a social scientist, I was fascinated by this exchange. You might be wondering what we can possibly glean from this brief conversation between two strangers? Well, I believe that their interaction can tell us something about their attachment tendencies and their capacity for mindfulness. As it turns out, these two constructs, attachment and mindfulness, are linked by how a person expresses and regulates emotion. Let me explain.

Read more

Coming Home to Precious Presence

Over a decade ago, in the early stages of my own process of awakening, a colleague intuitively noticed that I was having a particularly difficult day and suggested that I “try to stay in the present moment”.  My mind was reeling, my emotions were on overdrive, and I’m sure I was focused on some temporary, self-destructive fix.  He caught my frantic, darting eyes with his and gently implored, “Just try to be right here, in this moment, just as it is… being present for our own experience can be pretty cool.”

Needless to say, I really didn’t understand what he was talking about.  I had heard about “transpersonal meditation” and “being in the now”.  But these phrases typically brought to mind images of bald guys in flowing robes chanting “Ooooommmm” in a remote hill-top monastery.  These notions, naïve as they were, seemed to be completely at odds with my hectic, restless, and discontented existence at the time.  I remember thinking, “Who has time for the present moment?!”

As I progressed in my self-reclamation journey, I began to recognize that my incessant running from the-here-and-now was associated with tremendous suffering.  The constant busyness and perpetual mind-motion was probably meant to fill some void within myself.  Yet, despite my frenetic void-filling behaviors, I still felt a lot of emptiness inside.  Eventually, the pain of my situation was enough that I decided to try something different; I got curious about what I was running from and what it would be like to stay with my own experience.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this simple inquiry – “what is really here and can I be with it” – has been at the heart of various contemplative traditions for thousands of years.  Within the traditions of Buddhism, a style of meditation practice known as vipassana involves training the mind to have greater awareness or insight of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  Today, this type of practice is generally known as mindfulness and can be defined as “bringing attention to the present moment without judgment.”  In recent decades, numerous scientific studies have shown that mindfulness techniques can improve relationships, health, and general wellbeing.

Read more

Opening to the Shadow Self

Call it suppression or repression or whatever… the point is that we have a tendency to avoid pain.  Not because we are wimpy – quite the opposite actually – much of the time we avoid pain as a way to “stay strong”.  We avoid pain because it feels overwhelmingly huge and there just doesn’t seem to be enough “space” to deal with it.  We think that we have to stay strong, for our partner, our kids, our job, or our quivering sanity.  After all, life just keeps moving, and for most of us, at a pretty quick pace.  So, what do we do?  We stuff it down… we tuck it and run.  We sequester the shadow parts of our self and we keep moving.  We survive.

Once the unwanted parts get tucked or stuffed, we don’t really want to dredge them up.  We convince ourselves that the unpleasantries of our past are better left in the dark recesses of our minds; “I mean, what good would it do to bring it all up now”, we might say to ourselves.  In fact, over time we may not consciously remember what we pushed into to the shadowy corners of our psyche.  We may develop nifty habits to keep the threatening information from bubbling to the surface, like addictive behaviors, unhealthy ways of thinking, or maladaptive emotional patterns.  These aversive measures do keep the blackness at bay, at least for awhile, but they don’t hold.

Life has a way of reminding us of those things we don’t want to think about: The weight of an old betrayal that we relegated to the attic of our mind threatens to break through the sagging ceiling and drop into the living room of life each time someone threatens to leave us; a shot of fear rips through our body when we pass by the craggy door of our psyche’s cellar where long-ago we banished our unwanted shame related to hurting a friend or family member; we pull the emotional curtains tight to shield us from seeing the characterological garbage we threw over the back fence of feeling.  It’s all tucked and stuffed… but not necessarily gone.

Read more

Practicing Boundaries without Armoring the Heart

Life seems to offer plenty of opportunities to practice boundaries!  Whether it is in our relationships with family and friends or at the grocery store check-out line, we have many chances to decide if, when and in what ways information and people can be part of our lives.  Maintaining healthy boundaries is widely considered a fundamental aspect of the recovery process and an important practice for general well-being.  However, without a measure of thoughtful awareness, boundaries can inadvertently create walls around our heart, keeping us from connecting wholeheartedly with ourselves and others.

At The Meadows we often talk about two kinds of personal boundaries: external and internal.  An external boundary has to do with monitoring and regulating the quantity and quality of other people’s interactions with us.  An external boundary is sometimes considered a physical boundary because it deals with how much closeness we allow between ourselves and others.  This degree of space between us and others can be related to actual physical proximity and contact or it can be related to emotional closeness and intimacy. Read more

From Islands to Landmasses: Gradually Increasing a Sense of Safety within the Body

As I try to understand the effects of psychological trauma, often it’s the body that tells the story.  This was certainly the case with Jennifer (as I will call her).  During our first meeting, she entered my office with a veneer of aloofness, but her eyes told a different story; they were darting about, quickly scanning me and my office for any signs of threat.  She sat lightly and uprightly on her chair, legs ready to spring into action.  Her breathing was shallow and quick, and was probably matched by her racing heart.  Her eyes hungrily snatched-up any movement inside and outside my office – always on the prowl for signs of danger.  Hers was the body of someone who didn’t know safety and probably hadn’t known safety for a long time.

During our second meeting, Jennifer and I talked about what it was like for her to always feel as though she was on “red-alert”.  We talked about her constant scanning of the environment and what that felt like in her body.  She described a wad of tightness in her belly that was almost always there – a persistent bodily reminder that she must never let her guard down.  Her body was constantly ready to attack or to escape. Read more

Befriending Our True Nature

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but there was a time when I had luscious locks of hair – truly, it was a thing to behold!  I used to spend large chunks of my mornings carefully coaxing my hair into perfect shapes with the help of Aqua Net hairspray… (remember that stuff?)  My hair was a vital part of my identity – it was synonymous with what I knew of myself.  No doubt, I derived some of my personal worth and esteem from my hair.

Then in medical school, my hair began to “thin” (which is a euphemism for “fall out in droves”).  During that time, I would wake up in the morning with a sense of dread as I assessed the damage on my pillow.  Some mornings it looked like someone had snuck into my room in the middle of the night and rubbed their shedding cat all over my pillow.  Absolutely nightmarish.

As you might imagine, this unexpected change of events was troubling for me.  After all, I had great expectations for my hair and me – we were going places – we were going to live out our lives together in follicular bliss.  I went through the classic stages of grief: denial (for a long time), anger, bargaining, and depression.  The final stage, acceptance, eluded me for some time because it required that I look into the void – the hole in my self-worth (and on the top of my head) that was left by my over-identification with my hair.

While it is true that losing one’s hair can be difficult, many of us have lost much more.  The experience of change or of losing something dear to us is all the more difficult when it is connected with a sense of who we are… our very identity!  When we lose something that is tied to our inner worth, it can be excruciating – like a part of our very being goes away – leaving a terrible feeling of vacancy and emptiness.

Yet, the very nature of this life, this incarnated existence with our imperfect bodies and minds, is that we will experience change!  Really, the only thing we can surely count on is impermanence.  All of us have experienced change and loss… and we are bound to experience more of it.

So, this begs the question: In this sea of change – this constantly shifting landscape – how do we come to understand our true nature? Read more

Paying Attention to Rising Waters

Alongside green acres of alfalfa, a twisting river cut through the farmland on which I spent much of my formative years.  In the summers, after the chores were done, my friends and I would spend hours on the river swimming, skipping rocks and catching fish.  (At this point in the story, you may be tempted to whistle the theme song to “The Andy Griffith Show”… but I must protest – I’m not that old.  If you’ve never heard of that show… well then, maybe I am that old!)

The water level on the river was controlled by an upstream dam, according to the needs of the farmers in the valley.  At times, we could cross the river without getting our shorts wet.  But at other times, the river would swell quickly, creating swift currents and daunting whirlpools under the river’s main bridge.  These whirlpools were something of legend and lore among children in the area – there were wild stories of men, women, children, and even animals disappearing into these whirlpools, never to surface again.

One lazy summer afternoon, my friend and I were floating downstream on driftwood logs that we found on the shore.  We were so busy talking and splashing that we failed to notice that the river was rising rapidly.  In fact, by the time we became aware of the water’s alarming elevation, we were already moving downstream at a pretty good clip.  Fear washed over both of us as we realized that the now-turbulent currents were too strong for us to leave the relative safety of our driftwood and make it to shore before reaching the whirlpools.  Without saying a word to each other, we both decided to ride it out. Read more

Recovering From Early Social Adversity: Valuable Lessons from Adopted Orphans

During my first meeting with Rebecca (as I will call her), I asked about her family history of mental and emotional difficulties, which can tell me something about her genetic susceptibilities, and about her early life experience with caregivers.  These two elements of the evaluation often provide critical information about the unique way in which nature and nurture contribute to human development (see my previous article on this topic).

When I asked Rebecca these questions, an unforgettable look flashed across her face that was part shame and part longing as she explained to me that she was adopted and had no “valuable information” to offer on these topics.  All she knew was that she had been adopted by an American family from a Romanian orphanage at the age of two.  In fact, to her surprise, this little bit of information proved to be extremely valuable as we tried to better understand how her challenges in adulthood were related to her early childhood experiences. Read more

Facing the Truth Behind the Mask

“Recovery is about living more in truth than in lies… it’s about facing reality and growing up.”

 –  Pia Mellody

 Over 2,500 years ago, in Athens Greece, playwrights like Sophocles introduced a form of theatrical art known as the tragedy.  Greek tragedies typically dealt with weighty themes such as betrayal, loss, pride, jealousy, rage, love, courage, honor, life and death.  Often these dance-dramas also explored man’s relationship with God and the existential challenges that are part the human condition.  Actors wore elaborate masks with exaggerated facial expressions so that their character’s role, emotional state, and intentions might be accessible to the audience.  Commonly, one actor played several characters during the course of the theatrical performance, changing masks for each character and sometimes for each scene.

Fast-forward to our lives today and the Greek tragedy might be used as a metaphor for some of the key aspects of recovery from trauma and addiction.  Like an actor in a play, often we are reacting to life’s existential challenges according to a script.  This script can influence how we move about on the stage of life; it can spell out our roles in relation to others, how we think and feel, and how we act in various situations.  From the first moments of conception and throughout development, by way of ongoing interactions between ourselves, others, and the environment, this narrative is written into our psychobiology – it becomes an implicit script in the mind-body system.

Moreover, similar to actors in Greek tragedies, our implicit scripts encourage the use of certain masks or personas.  In many ways, this is completely natural and necessary for a life in which we play many different roles.  For most of us, the scenes on life’s stage are constantly changing; we may transition from a family mask to a work mask, then to a friend mask, and back to a family mask, all within the course of one day.  However, unlike the actors in a Greek tragedy, for us these personas are not distinct, separate people – they are aspects of a single being, linked together by the person behind the masks.

For some of us, our own life resembles a Greek tragedy, with painful experiences of betrayal, loss, abandonment, and trauma.  These experiences are written into the mind-body script that tacitly flavors our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  Some of these life events can be so traumatic that we don’t even want to look at the script – we would rather not face the reality of our situation, it’s just too painful.  Yet, our bodies and minds still play the part, even when we don’t pay attention to the script; something happens on the stage of life and we just react according to our past experiences, maybe without even being aware of the script. Read more