Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the Sounds True Foundation.
The goal of the Sounds True Foundation is to provide access and eliminate financial barriers to transformational education and resources such as teachings and trainings on mindfulness, emotional awareness and self-compassion. If you’d like to learn more and join with us in our efforts, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is David Treleaven, PhD. David is a writer, educator and trauma professional working at the intersection of mindfulness and trauma. He’s the founder of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, TSM, a community of practitioners committed to setting a standard of care through mindfulness-based practices, interventions and programs. His work has been adopted into multiple mindfulness teacher training programs around the world including UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.
David is the author of the acclaimed book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and is a visiting scholar at Brown University and has worked with a number of organizations to bring trauma sensitive mindfulness to their staff and programs.
David’s work reveals an astounding and at first troubling fact that some people who immerse themselves in mindfulness meditation actually become retraumatized through the practice if teachers are not well trained and trauma informed.
What does it mean to become a trauma informed mindfulness teacher? And then, as spiritual explorers ourselves, how do we navigate our journey with the tools that we need so we can expand through spiritual practice, metabolize trauma, and do deep inner work in ways that are safe and that promote our flourishing? You can listen to this conversation to learn more with David Treleaven.
To begin, David, if you can share with our listeners a little bit about how you came to make such a focus of your work on the intersection of trauma healing and mindfulness meditation—how did that become such a focus for you?
David Treleaven: Yes, it was all personal. At first, it was just a lot of pain. I [was a] big meditator. I was in Toronto growing up, and a friend’s mom was doing a youth group for meditation. I thought that sounded cool, so I went and tried that. I totally fell in love with the practice. And then [I] was deep into psychology, trained to be a psychotherapist. My main work there was working with male sex offenders in British Columbia. So, all over the province, individual and group work.
I was having these two different areas of my life; learning a lot about trauma, feeling a huge draw to want to work well around trauma and then having a contemplative practice that felt so important. I went as deep as I could. We got really into it, I had some awesome teachers, and started to have some experiences that were pretty challenging on longer term retreats. I was coming back off the retreats feeling a little bit worse for wear. A couple of friends were like, “Hey, what’s going on for you?”
The more that I talked to people, they said, “You know, have you thought much about trauma?” That opened this whole inquiry for me about what’s the relationship between meditation and trauma, and then started to do some trauma work and found that what I was getting out of the trauma work was something that I was needing so desperately in my meditation practice.
So, that’s been the conversation for me for the last 15 years, is how do these things fit together? And then, what do people need to know about trauma to practice well? That’s been a huge, huge point for me.
TS: I think we’re going to talk quite a lot about that because I think it’s an area of confusion and inquiry for many people. It certainly is, for me, something that I want to understand better.
Right in the beginning of your book called Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness you write, “For people who have experienced trauma, mindfulness meditation can exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress.” I think often people think, “Mindfulness meditation, it’s going to help me with everything.” Right? “It’s going to help. I’m going to become more aware. I’m going to become more grounded. I’m going to become more calm.” What do you mean it can exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress?
DT: When I brought this to a publisher, that was the exact question. They’re like, “What are you talking about?” That was the headline, and it was actually what came from my own experience; and then talking to lots of people, that was the call, was wanting people to know, “Hey, this is a bit of a double-edged sword. So, the question comes up, “Well, why?”
First to your point, I think that’s really legit. We have all this research now that mindfulness is helpful in reducing stress, trauma is a form of stress, and therefore a lot of people say, “Well, A plus B.” You think it would help, and it does for a lot of people. I want to make sure I’m clear about that right up front. Then there’s going to be this subset of people where there’s a reflexive orientation to traumatic stimuli and they get caught in a vortex.
TS: OK, hold on. Let’s make sure that we understand what that means, a reflexive orientation to traumatic stimuli. I am going to interrupt you, David, for the everyday listener here. What does that mean?
DT: Yes, it’s funny, that does sound technical. Basically, the idea is that if you’re traumatized, you’re going to have a series of symptoms, as you know, that will look different for everyone. But we could say you’ll often experience some form of traumatic stimuli in the present moment. That could be that I’m re-experiencing traumatic images, memories, sensations, emotions. That’s just often an experience, as you know, for people who are struggling with trauma.
Meditation is a very powerful practice. You’re asking people to pay attention in a very sustained and consistent way to their experience. Inevitably, people struggling with trauma will bump into that traumatic stimulus—again, thoughts, memories. That’s not bad news.
For some people, that’ll be incredibly healing. They can be present. And then for others, it will be a point where this is this reflexive orientation. It’s like their mind is hyper-focusing on the stimuli. They feel like the trauma is happening again, they get caught in a bit of a vortex and if they don’t have tools to move through it differently in that moment—we could talk more about that—they can end up caught in a bit of a cycle in meditation practice. So, more is not always going to be better with attention, and it’s just trying to shine a light on that aspect.
TS: There’s a spectrum of people who would say, “Trauma has affected me at this side of the spectrum.” I feel like I’m someone who’s had a lot of trauma in my life. Most people have had some degree of trauma. They might be on the other end of the spectrum. How do I know, as someone who’s approaching spiritual practice, “Oh, I better really pay attention here because I could get retraumatized”?
Whether it’s by mindfulness meditation or something else, what kind of awareness do I need to have about myself as I enter a practice?
DT: That’s great. Well, the one, whenever I’m teaching, mostly I’m teaching teachers, but whenever I’m talking about this topic, I’m trying to come forward to not making it as fearful at all. The people don’t need to be afraid that if you’ve experienced trauma or even if you’re experiencing some symptoms of trauma, that doesn’t mean automatically steer clear of powerful practices like meditation.
I think to your point, Tami, it would be paying attention in a moment-to-moment way or even just practice to practice, session to session. “How am I doing?” Just staying awake to it. For example, I try meditation for the first time, or I do body scan. How did that go in a really practical way? Because ultimately trauma-informed practice, to me, it’s a deeply person-centered practical approach. Like, what works, what doesn’t. If you find yourself more dysregulated after meditation, great information. Maybe you need some modifications. But for other people, they might say, “Wow, I feel more present. I feel like I can be with memories.”
So, you’ve got to stay mindful of it. It’s not a cookie cutter approach at all. But if you want to talk more about the symptoms, we could go there if you want, of what to look for.
TS: Yes. Well, there’s so much to talk about, David. We’re just going to unpack it slowly. What I want to do is I want to go into each of the five principles of trauma-sensitive mindfulness that you lay out in your book. We’re going to discuss each one in a slow and gradual way here.
To start, you said something really interesting I just want to pick up on, that if you find yourself more “dysregulated” after practice, that’s something to pay attention to. Because one of the things I’ve noticed is in doing various kinds of practices, not just mindfulness meditation but other practices, there can be a quality of unraveling of the sense of a solid, coherent self. Like, that’s part of the reason why I’m doing these practices is to discover who am I that’s not this very solid identity so I can feel undone, if you will. Is that the same as being dysregulated? How do you actually know when you’re “dysregulated” in a way that you need to attend to it?
DT: I love that we just jumped right in the deep end. I mean, that’s such a huge question to me. I was doing a workshop where I talked about the window of tolerance, which we might get into here, as a frame to answer the question “How would I know when to lean in or back off of practice?” Someone said, “Well, how does the window relate to enlightenment?”
I think it’s a really tricky spot. Let’s try to get into your question. So, is the unraveling happening? Yes, that’s a part of practice, right? That’s what many of us are actually engaging in practice for. I wouldn’t equate it with dysregulation, and yet those kind of opening practices or powerful practices can end up having some disorienting and even dysregulating effects.
The research that I’ve seen around trauma and meditation is really saying, how does the person appraise the situation? Do they go to a teacher and the teacher says, “Yes, you’re dysregulated and you’re unraveling, but that’s great news—keep going”? Or maybe you go to a therapist who says the opposite, says, “You need to back off here.” I think this gets into some really tricky territory of what are the goals of practice, what are you up to, and what are the frames that we’re using to decide when to push on and when to back off?
If I could just say one more thing, Tami—
TS: Please, because you sort of reframed the question, but I don’t know if I got the answer which would mean, in my own experience, how would I know you’re dysregulated in a way that you need to pay attention to and make some corrections versus you’re dysregulated in some positive healing process kind of way?
DT: Well, if we can make it, if you’re open to being personal around it, this is the conversation I’d want to have with anyone who’s asking that question because that is the question, I think, for a lot of people around trauma sensitivity inside of practice. “How would I know?”
Where I’d be curious is what is your day-to-day like, and what’s your assessment of you and your life and your practice when you’re having these moments of more unraveling? Is it—this is tricky, where I don’t use the word “happier”—but would it send you in a direction where you’re like, “No, this feels like progress for me,” or “This feels growthful and directionally appropriate for me,” or does it feel actually more destabilizing?
TS: Right. I mean, quite honestly, I don’t know sometimes.
TS: I don’t know. It feels like a whole lot of both. I mean, I trust the process that I’m in and I do have a sense of trust but—OK, let me ask this in a different way. We’re going to move right ahead into the starting point for all trauma-informed practice that you write about in your book.
You say, “Stay within the window of tolerance.” Can you explain for people who are like, “I think I know what the window of tolerance is, but I’m not quite sure”? And what does it mean to stay within it? Because to tie this to our previous question, if I’m within the window of tolerance, I’m not “dysregulated.” Correct?
DT: Yes. Yes, technically. You could say that. This is great. So, why don’t we hang here at the window […]. I love that you brought that in because I think that could be a nice question to keep tagging back to because that’s where it gets relevant. It’s like, “Well, what do I do with this?”
Let’s use the window as a frame. It comes from Dan Siegel, as many folks will know, from his book The Developing Mind in 1999, where he’s using complexity theory and systems theory and saying any system will have a window, as you know, where integration is possible and it’s functioning in the most harmony. There’s a balance here between chaos and rigidity. Then a couple of people use this model and said, “Oh, this really applies to trauma.” Pat Ogden and a number of people use this. They’re talking about the window as a zone of optimal physiological arousal and this is where we’re feeling our hearts beating but it’s not racing, we can feel relatively connected to ourselves and others, can string together thoughts. So, this is that band in the middle.
Then on either side of the window we have the two extremes. Up top, we have hyperarousal. This is where we’re experiencing too much physiological activation, were agitated, hyper aroused or hypervigilant, sweating. On the bottom we have hypo-arousal. This is where it’s the opposite. Not enough physiological arousal, we’re more spacey, numb, or shut down. The window fluctuates, as you know. We’re going to be experiencing all different elements of the window all the time, but the key point that I think the trauma people brought out is that when you’re experiencing ongoing symptoms of trauma like posttraumatic stress, you tend to be in dysregulated arousal, so you’re more hyper or hypo aroused. Put in another way, that would be more like fight, flight, or freeze. You’re out of your window, and that just makes life so hard and painful and difficult and makes practice difficult too. That’s a starting point for the window. Where do you want to go here from there?
TS: Well, I think the interesting question then would be, here I am, I’m a meditator; how do I know when I’m outside the window? What are the signs? How do I personally know while I’m on the cushion?
DT: That to me is the inquiry, and that’s one of the payoffs of adopting a trauma-informed lens to any practice. It’s just staying in that question of like, “Hey, where am I right now?”
One of the ways that I like mindfulness talked about in terms of research is mindfulness as enhancing self-regulation. Enhancing our ability to know what’s happening when it’s happening and gauge where we are, for example, in our window.
So, if I’m in a meditation—and again, getting back to your piece that you brought in a bit, where there’s that kind of unraveling—maybe I’m starting to experience anxiety and hypervigilance for good reason in my life. That doesn’t necessarily mean to back off. This way, I want to make sure this is clear upfront, sometimes people hear the trauma sensitivity, and they think, “Oh, when we hit discomfort or we’re out of our window, that immediately means we’re trying to ground and get calm.” But that’s not what I’m suggesting here. It’s more tracking yourself through different practices and experiences to see how the practice is impacting you.
The main headline for me with meditation is if you’re doing a practice and you find that you’re out of your window in the practice, and the practice is making it worse, if it’s exacerbating the dysregulation, you’re hypervigilant and you become more hypervigilant for that practice and in the days following, that can be a sign that you might need some tools or support in order to be continuing on with that practice. That’s my case. You could disagree with it, but that’s what I propose to people.
TS: You know, it’s not so much agree or disagree. I think I’m really trying to understand here, David. What’s coming up for me as I’m listening, one, I want to make sure all of our listeners feel embraced in this conversation and can follow along with us, so I want to give a little context.
In my own life experience, I did a lot of, you could say, extreme meditation practice. That means 12 hours a day for ten days in a row. Extreme practice. I’m coming from that frame of reference. Part of what informed me was interviewing different people who had various kinds of awakening experiences and hearing them say, “I was sitting on the cushion, my heart started racing, I thought I was going to die.” They are so out of the window of tolerance, and I stayed with it. In staying with it, I had these kinds of breakthroughs.
TS: You know?
TS: And so I’m trying to make sense of that and the very helpful framework you’re proposing here, which is if we find ourselves outside of our window of tolerance, that may be a time to shift what we’re doing and stop the practice and get a hug or go hang out with a dog or go for a walk or do something else. I’m trying to make sense of both these things at the same time and wonder how you do.
DT: I’m so glad you’re personalizing it because, as we talked about just coming on here, I tend to be mostly working with meditation teachers and want this to be totally applicable to all people here listening.
Because you’re sharing, I’ll share my own experience. I love, by the way, that you’re doing, that was your, kind of, come from with those long practices.
Similarly, I was also going on retreats and was experiencing sometimes complete dissolving of the boundaries of my body which on some level through trauma lens, you could say, would be dissociation. I was disconnecting from my body. And yet, in the context of teachings, it was actually a very positive experience. Other times, similarly, I’m super anxious, connecting with some trauma and really hanging with it.
Let’s pause. The key question for me, at least through the lens of trauma and the window, is what’s “integratable”? That’s my frame. I’m curious if this resonates for you. When I got down to California (I had been in Canada) I was like, “I’m going to go for it. I’m just going to do a whole bunch of really intense practices.” I was doing the long meditations, I got into holotropic breathwork, intense breathing, having these massive out-of-my-window experiences. I would just blow my system and think, “This is incredible.”
My experience in the days and weeks that followed is that my psychobiology would kind of come back together in the way it was before. Nothing had really changed. Something didn’t integrate. The experience was too much for me to handle.
My experience with trauma work—and again, I’m curious about your path here—was that it needed to be more stepwise for me over time and I needed people to help me decide or guide me working with the window in more skillful ways. I was out, I was back in, I was out, I was back in. It grew my window over time instead of these big blowup experiences that didn’t, for me at least, have any kind of lasting impact or effect.
That’s the edge that I get curious about, is when do we straddle the boundary of the window?
TS: Right. I think it brings up this interesting question when you say what’s integratable, because is the platform that we’re integrating into a smaller sense of self than where we’re going? And so, now, we’re taking huge experiences. No, they can’t be integrated because, in a sense, if they were to just be integrated, they would be sort of subsumed in some way by some small—or is that not what you mean? Because, of course, the spiritual journey, at least in my experience, is always this enlarging of our field of being and our sense of who we are.
DT: I love what you’re saying about the frame because I think there can be a way that people would apply trauma sensitive practice to try to just get back into a controlled smaller self-experience which I don’t want to advocate for because I do want people to get to actually transcend, to have these big experiences.
The people that I’ve been working with or feeling like I’m advocating for are people who, these are the hundreds of interviews I’ve done over the years, who said I was going big, but it was really destabilizing my life because of trauma. It was actually too much for me to handle. I was having these big experiences, but I wasn’t able to actually wash the dishes or go to my job. It was too much too soon. So, to me, it’s a question of pacing. I’m curious how that lands for you, but that is the journey of trauma to me, is learning when can I lean in and when, maybe, I back off. That’s actually in service of healing and transformation.
If I can just share one quick story, Tami. The first trauma work that I did, the trauma therapist said, “I want you to start by telling me about what’s working.” I was like, “I don’t want to talk about what’s working. I want to talk about my trauma. That’s—”
TS: Yes, “I want to talk about what’s not working. That’s why I’m paying you, right?”
DT: I mean, it’s OK, right?
TS: “Let me throw these all down in front of you.”
DT: Right, exactly. Go for it. And I’ll never forget; she just looked at me and she said, “Your capacity to be with what’s working for you right now is actually going to support you to be with what’s not working. That’s what you need right now at this phase.”
You and I might be talking about different phases, I’m curious what you think there, but that was exactly what I needed and what I wasn’t getting in meditation practice.
TS: First of all, I just love that, what’s working and let’s keep feeding and doing more of what’s working so we can integrate bigger and bigger perspectives. I just love that as a teaching, David.
Also, I want to have this conversation with you. This conversation is important to me because obviously hundreds of people are contacting you and they’re saying, “I went to a meditation retreat,” or “I did intensive yoga practice,” or “I had some kind of other psychedelic journey or something that I thought was going to be part of my spiritual journey and a healing journey for me, and in fact I was retraumatized. David, you’re now the expert in this field. Help me.”
There’s obviously a huge need out there that you’re addressing and offering a framework to help. I think we’re pointing out here how anything, any framework can get overused and misused and needs to be understood with a lot of nuance. We’re starting with a lot of the nuance, but I also want to make sure that we’re talking directly to that person who says, “I really relate to this idea that this intensive practice I did retraumatized me.”
I think this might be a moment. How would I know if I did some kind of practice, and actually I was retraumatized? How would I know?
DT: I think the simplest answer would be that it exacerbated whatever painful traumatic symptoms were in place before that experience. That’s what I would… And again, that’s just a conversation to have with someone. But doubling down, it’s not always the move. Sometimes with trauma, we might actually just need different practices.
Where I get uncomfortable is sometimes people will hear that and think that I’m advocating for quality of safety-ism, we just need to keep this all contained and safe. I don’t want to say that because it’s really important that we have these experiences, I think, that stretch our boundaries. But the question, and this is centered to speak directly to that person. “OK, you’re probably in a lot of pain. You’re coming to practice with the best of intention.”
The people that I meet, they were hurting, in so much pain. They had heard about the benefits, often, of meditation and they came in just saying, “I am going to do everything I can to just commit to this path.” I think, in part, that zeal or the commitment sometimes led people to double down in the face of the exacerbation when symptoms were getting worse.
That’s the question I would want to be in with people is, yes, sometimes powerful practices like meditation or doing kind of psychedelic therapy, it can be too much too soon, too fast for people, and it ends up flooding the system. We get overwhelmed, even retraumatized to the point where it feels like we were unsafe again or we were unable to move through the experience.
But I’d also say to that person, “It’s OK. That happens. Good information.” You can come back here and say, “OK, let’s have a conversation about, maybe what different factors would need to be in place for you here.” And it’s not your fault that, of course, you wanted to heal so you went big, or you went and did a practice. That’s great. I want people to keep coming back to different practices. I think that’s a positive thing.
TS: OK, so this first principle of trauma sensitive mindfulness, stay within the window of tolerance—you mentioned that you train teachers. If I’m a mindfulness teacher and I’m looking out at 50 people who are practicing meditation, is there a way I could identify, “Oh, that person is outside their window of tolerance. I can see it from here.” How would I know as a teacher?
DT: It’s so tricky. This is why I’m doing the trainings with people because it’s often a nonverbal practice, as you know. That can be combined with interviews every couple of days if we’re on retreat.
So, how would a meditation teacher know? At the most basic level, if the window holds water for people and they’re adopting that, it’s to look for signs and symptoms of hyperarousal or hypoarousal with someone. I think the simplest way is if someone’s accelerator of the autonomic nervous system or the brake is slammed to the ground. So, if someone is just… You know, that feeling where the accelerator slammed, you can’t get it to that loop, hypervigilant, just racing thoughts, it’s too much; or the opposite, where we’re flooded, we’re numb, dissociated, checked out.
If you’re noticing nonverbally that someone, through the different practices you’re offering, is ending up stuck in either of those two places, that to me is where having a conversation can be useful. It’s not to say, “OK, don’t meditate. We need to stop.” It’s actually to just get curious with someone and not just double down.
There’s one more point, Tami, on this. I think what’s really important for anyone who’s holding people on practice is to not orient to being out of the window as a bad thing. I know, sometimes I do in my practice, like “Dammit, I’m in my window. I’m hypervigilant. I’m trying to teach this stuff,” instead of going “Wow, this is a really smart factory-loaded system in my body that’s responding to stress in my life and in the world. “There’s something really intelligent in this, let me work with it,” as opposed to trying to, “Oh, just get back in the window,” which is not always so helpful.
TS: Right. That’s very helpful. Now, I can imagine teaching a group—I used to teach meditation, actually. I wish, David, you and I had had this conversation a decade ago. I think I would have been a much better teacher when I was teaching. But I could imagine looking out at the group and I could identify if someone’s foot was way on the accelerator. I would be able to see that that person seemed kind of racy, or speedy, or panicky. I could see that.
I think it’s harder in the context of mindfulness meditation to identify if someone seems a little numb or checked out because people are sitting basically still. How do you know? I mean, you can ask questions, but how do you figure that out?
DT: Well, it’s really kind of you, but ten years ago I’m doubtful that—I’d be curious to unpack that with you. I bet you were already bringing a lot, and many people do.
I was speaking, when the book came out, to people who were not necessarily thinking in a way that was bringing in an understanding of psychology or trauma, and they were doubling down. Like, just bring it back to the cushion. I actually think, for what it’s worth, Tami, that’s actually changed a lot. If we were talking three or four years ago, I think the field has changed immensely. People aren’t having as terrible experiences. I feel really happy about hearing the experiences people are having.
But to your point, I can’t tell you the number of people. I meet so many people who go, “Wow, I didn’t realize I’ve been a great associator and I’m getting props from my teacher in my community of being able to sit still for three to four hours at a time. But actually, I’m realizing that this came from a pretty deep trauma or self-protective strategy that enabled me to do that, and it’s not actually supporting me in my life in this moment.”
I have met people who said, “I was slipping through the cracks.” And yet it’s tricky, as you know. Deep concentration, that can also feel like hypo arousal, where we’re just really calm, even disconnected from the body. So, I think it’s that ongoing nuanced conversation with someone about how are they doing, how’s practice, what are they noticing?
TS: You’ve been listening to Insights at the Edge. One of the greatest gifts we can give to others is to hold space for their experience especially when it’s very different from our own, and even challenging to us in some important ways. Empathic healer and wisdom teacher, Matt Khan, has written a new book on the transformative power of holding space. It’s called All for Love. You can preorder the book at SoundsTrue.com or wherever books are sold. And now, all for love. Let’s return to Insights at the Edge.
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OK, so let’s talk again to the spiritual explorer themself. This person says, “OK, I know there’s a certain point in my practice,” whatever that practice might be, “when I feel outside the window because of the accelerator. What can I do, David? What can I do at that point? I need to shift practices,” which gets to the second principle that you have of trauma-sensitive mindfulness, shift attention to support stability. Give us some ideas of how we shift attention, whether we’re in hyper-arousal or hypo- arousal.
DT: That’s great. The first thing I’d say to that person—I almost feel like we’re getting to have direct conversations here with people—is “Awesome job. That’s such great noticing.” That’s huge. I think that’s sometimes 50 to 70% of the whole practice, is just even noticing that “Oh, wow, here’s the moment the accelerators really slammed down. Do I need to make a shift here?”
The first thing I’d say is, great just to even notice that. Second piece would be just to hang with it for a moment, just to see. Let’s get curious here and see what happens, not reflexively say, “OK, I have to get back in the window and clamp down.” But then, third, this is where things get really interesting to me, and I’m sure you and I could geek out here, but what can you actually do? Where we direct our attention is going to have huge implications for our physiological arousal or basically how we’re doing in a moment to moment way.
You and I right now, here we are engaged in this conversation. I got this beautiful plant here beside the computer and I can also direct some attention to this beautiful green, organic, structured plant. In this moment, just noticing that, the aliveness, the color, it’s grounding for me. I feel my feet on the ground. It grounds me a little bit.
Conversely, if I shifted my attention to the feeling in my stomach of being really excited to meet you and wanting us to go really well and feeling anxious, then that would probably turn that up and amplify that. In terms of trauma, attention can help us actually come back in the window in a big way.
Quick example, and then I’ll turn it back to you. Someone’s in meditation. They have their eyes closed, they’re in practice and they’re connecting with an intrusive image connected to a trauma that just is repetitive. It’s not escaping them, and it keeps coming back. It’s very painful.
In practice, maybe I noticed my heart’s racing. Maybe I stay with that for a bit. I don’t need to run away from it. Just, “OK, let me see. I can be with these sensations.” At some point, I notice my heart’s racing so much that I’m starting to lose any mindfulness. I feel like I’m flooded. It’s too much. I feel overwhelmed. Maybe I open my eyes and direct it to something else in the room for 30 seconds or a minute, something simple as an anchor. In doing so, I’m basically hitting the brakes. I’m modulating the intensity of the practice that I’m doing.
We could talk about more examples if you want, but there’s lots of little ways that we can just modulate the intensity to practice to help us surf or tether that window and come back in and we come out. But really, actually, self-regulate in our practice.
TS: So, that helps when I’m feeling hyper aroused. When I’m in a state where I feel just so lethargic that perhaps I’m numb or want to be numb, what do I do then?
DT: Yes, it’s a great question. I mean, I’m curious, but my experience has been I need to open my senses more to my surrounding environment. Gosh, that pool is deep. When I’m in that zone, my eyes are closed, I do not want to come out of that numbness. What I’ll need to do is I’ll often need to open my eyes or sometimes go outside if I’m doing a practice. Sometimes connecting with another person, for me, that co-regulation, having a conversation, awakenings. Whatever is going to increase the energy somewhat for me.
But then also, Tami, I know for me that’s a really important compassion moment of like, yes, you just want to stay here. Sometimes just being in a practice, yes, you’re in hypo-arousal. You’re frozen and stuck and this is taking care of a lot and has taken care of a lot.
Sometimes just staying with some compassion can be really helpful for me too. But attention is key, where we’re shifting. If we want to come back in our window, looking up, looking to the horizon, having a conversation, standing up. All these little things can help.
TS: It sounds like part of what you’re saying here is there’s so much empowerment that can come from knowing that we can be an active operator of our nervous system, which is something that I’ve learned through hosting these conversations with some different experts on trauma healing, that that’s just such an empowering thing to know, that you get to have choices about the nervous-system state you’re in. You’re not a prisoner to whatever state it is.
DT: That is some of the most meaningful conversations that I’ve had with people that I’ve met or worked with where they said, “I was in my practice and I made a decision”; just to your point, it made me feel like I was empowered; I was not running away. This wasn’t just like I’m feeling uncomfortable or even painful and I have to avoid it. It was like, no, I can be with this, and I made a really compassionate wise decision because of these tools that I’ve learned. That’s so meaningful for me. That’s the best of trauma sensitivity.
All the work that you’re doing sounds true. There’s so much great information out there right now with trauma and I think it’s really empowering or can be empowering. Where I think it can go the other way is if people start to just overdo it with tools and they end up actually not getting back to a core part of, to me, meditation practice, which is just being with our experience. If we start micromanaging or overdoing it, I think that can also be unhelpful as well. So there’s a bit of a middle path here, I think.
TS: I know, David, your expertise is this intersection of mindfulness meditation and trauma healing; but as we’re talking, I’m thinking about all these other approaches to spiritual discovery that people are engaging in. What’s really coming up for me—and I think you mentioned even doing breathwork with Stan Grof—is the current rise of popularity of all different kinds of breathwork approaches, breathwork with music. It’s like there’s no sense in the way I’ve seen a lot of people teaching breathwork that there’s any interest in people staying in their window of tolerance. In fact, the goal, it seems to be, to explode the person into having some kind of different realizations. So, I’m wondering if you’re going to soon start getting lots of calls from people who have had breathwork-related trauma and you’re going to be training breathwork teachers. I’m curious what you think about that.
DT: It’s so interesting. I mean, it’s so interesting. I don’t know about you, in the work you’ve done, but when I was a new therapist, when people would cry or have catharsis, I’d feel like, “All right, I’m doing something. Something’s working.” […] I’d probably want to amplify it: “Great, go deeper.” Because it felt like something was happening and people were “getting their money’s worth.” I think catharsis has its own pull and draw for us. It feels like something’s happening.
The breathwork is intense. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of stories. I heard a story recently from a very prominent breathwork circle where someone had had a big experience, brought some trauma up and they just dropped him at the hospital. They didn’t really follow through. I don’t think there was a real trauma framework about how to work with that level of activation.
So, maybe. I’m curious what you think where it’s going, because there’s also, I feel like, psychedelic therapy. There’s a lot of big experiences which I’m all for. My question is, when is it going to be in service?
TS: Right, which brings forward now your trauma-informed approach. I think one thing that I think is hard to disagree with is that we need to be trauma-informed. Everybody needs to be trauma-informed in the world today, in a world where there is so much collective trauma and where so many people who are part of our families and communities are experiencing trauma. We need to be trauma-informed.
Now, we get into, well, what does that actually mean?
TS: That gets into, you have these five principles. One of them, you have for practice, stay within the window of tolerance. I can imagine that’s going to get debated, David.
TS: And I’m not sure where I land on it, to be honest with you. I think I’m learning; I’m trying to understand it. So, I think, to be honest with you, that’s my reflection on that.
DT: This is great. Let’s talk about it. Sometimes people mishear “stay in the window” like that’s the goal. The way that I meant to frame it in the writing—I should go back and look and see if I did a good job—is actually just to have that as a baseline competency that you know is there. I don’t mean that that’s the goal of practice at all.
It’s more that, if someone doesn’t know how to hit the brakes or modulate the intensity of practice or just to say they don’t know how to come back in their window, then to me more is not going to be better. We want people to know how to hit that e-brake, but then people can hear “Oh, well then, we’re just trying to be calm, and it’s just all about having this Zen approach,” which I think can be misappropriated and totally misunderstood. That’s not that’s not the goal of trauma-sensitive practice. I would debate it as well.
Let me put it back to you. If I was to say that I think it’s a useful competency for someone who’s coming to meditation to have but that they could explore at some points being out of the window through different practices, what do you think of that?
TS: The wonderful thing about these conversations is I always learn so much and it clarifies so much. And so, as you’re saying this, the idea is that we understand how to get back into the window of tolerance when we choose to and when we need to.
DT: Right. Absolutely.
TS: That makes perfect sense to me. That’s a competency that each one of us wants to have.
DT: Totally. It’s like a tool. I think of all the people. I mean, IFS parts work, like Richard Schwartz, that’s a whole amazing area. That’s a great tool for traumatized people working with parts. The more that I meet people who have worked with their trauma, and they’ve come to a place in their lives where they’re satisfied, is that they have this whole toolkit. I think that’s a real step one. Toolkit is just, OK, what are the practices that are going to support you around your window to come back in?
So, yes, I’m thinking of it as a competency, but not to limit. Because this whole question of safety, I think safety can become tyrannical in some ways.
TS: Yes, I hear what you’re saying. OK, I want to make sure that we cover all five principles as promised. We’ve introduced the first two. The third one, keep the body and mind working with dissociation. I’d like to hear more about that and, specifically, how we know in our own experience if we’re dissociated, versus, as you talked about, those expanded states of melting into boundlessness. Am I dissociated, David?
DT: This is where I feel like I should be interviewing you on this. I want to hear your opinion, but I’ll try. I’ll throw this out there. When I was starting, this was probably ten years ago now, I feel like embodiment in meditation was big. Reginald Ray—was he writing for Sounds True, or no?
TS: Yes. Yes, and I studied meditation with him for many, many, many years. 15 years.
DT: Here’s my Reggie story. I was assisting with tech 15 years ago at a two-day weekend workshop and Reginald Ray came. Hundreds of people here in San Francisco. He sits down and the first thing he said is, “Everyone, I have come to the conclusion that all the meditation practice that I’ve been doing in my community has been for naught, because we haven’t been embodied.” You just hear a pin drop in the moment where he was really saying, “I think there’s a quality of disembodiment happening inside of practice. This is a key part of practice. Let’s have that conversation.” We went to a whole bunch of practices. Sure, we could debate this.
So, to your question around trauma and embodiment, there are going to be practices where transcendence, I think, can be a key part, even a goal of practice. I’m not saying that we don’t have to always be embodied in practice. I met so many people that were just trying to get away from the pain and constant suffering of the body by transcending it in practice as opposed to learning practices that would help them be more present with the sensations that were causing them so much pain.
In my experience with trauma, often, it’s that befriending of traumatic sensations that ends up creating a sense of healing and transformation and has people feel like they’re getting their lives back. I don’t know if it’s answering your question about what you do with the edges, but, yes, go for it.
TS: Right. Well, let me ask you a personal question. How do you know when you’re starting to dissociate in a situation?
DT: That’s a great question. Honestly, Tami, I try to track the half-day or day after a sit or when I’m dissociating to see if it has lasting impacts. I might notice that I’m dissociating, and I could feel like I can’t feel my feet anymore, my butt’s not in the chair, I’ve lost contact with any kind of physical sensation. If I notice that, I’ll often try to ask the question, “Cool. Where did I go?” Instead of just going, “OK, I got to get back. I got to get back.” If I notice it, I’ll say, “OK, I’m diffused or I’m kind of ten feet up into the left,” and then I’ll assess for myself, like what’s the move here, what do I want to do?
But for me, it’s often the aftermath. I’m noticing, did it spin me out and leave me dissociated for the rest of the day or did I eventually filter back in? Because I don’t want to make dissociation wrong. I think that’s actually a highly intelligent, sometimes even a welcome part of practice. So, to me it’s about the aftermath of it. What about you? How do you work with that?
TS: I think what you’re saying is very useful. I think, for me, what I find is that certain times I can become frozen if a situation seems overwhelming. When I’m meditating and I feel like I’m dissolving into boundlessness, I don’t feel dissociated. I feel vast and I also feel connected to my body at the same time.
I dissociate when I’m in a relational situation, and I’m shutting down, and I’m going vacant, and I’m just turning into ice and there’s something I can’t process. Usually, I thaw out afterwards and reflect on what was so painful, and then I have to feel what was so painful. That’s a whole process before I come back into a new integration, which brings us to your fourth trauma sensitive mindfulness principle, which has been probably the biggest healing key for me. You write, “Practice in relationship.” How important it is to support safety? Not make a small safety, but a sense of connectivity in relationship.
DT: There’s so much to say here. Do we have another two hours? Can we just keep—well, here’s a personal story because I just so appreciate you bringing yourself in here.
I was on a long retreat at this place called the Forest Refuge. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s in Barre—
TS: I do, yes.
DT: A long-term retreat place, and I got so excited. A couple weeks in, I was in my room so solo. I mean, it was just so solitary. I realized, “Oh boy, I really recreated my childhood here. I’m back in my room, I’m alone, I’m not with anyone. I’m kind of cutting off, I’m numbing, I’m shutting down.” It was so painful. It’s such a big cry. It was such a big part of the retreat was really touching that pain. Like you just said so powerfully about noticing the freeze then facing it with the tools you have.
So, that was a big part. I think for many people, as you just said, it was a big part of my own healing, often as for people. Often, with trauma, it’s like people weren’t there in the way that we needed or maybe they harmed us. And so, there’s something so key about just being back in relationship.
Then there’s this whole branch around the ways that social engagement actually really stimulates parts of the brain that support mindfulness. I think of it as a key part of practice. I’m saying that as someone who was on retreats where, in a moment that I was feeling so vulnerable, I’d open my eyes and all I would see was the back of people’s shoulders. There were no safety cues for me. There were no cues like someone’s warm face or the teacher kind of upfront. It’s just this whole thing. There’s so much there that’s needed.
TS: You train mindfulness teachers. What do you train them in, in terms of creating the kind of relational connection during a meditation retreat that will be helpful to people?
DT: That’s so big. I mean, I think that was the principle, is leveraging the interpersonal connection when appropriate and then letting people have their powerful experiences in solitary practice.
I think it’s this beautiful dance between making great attuned contact with someone, hopefully having them in an interview or having them feel met, safe, trusted, and then letting them go back into practice, titrating that. Maybe it’s a coach or a therapist where you’re building trust over weeks at a time. But, yes, relationships sound like, for you too, it’s been such an important part of practice for me both relating to myself mindfully like intrapersonal practice and then interpersonal practice as well.
TS: Well, when you said earlier in our conversation, when the trauma healing person was working with you and said, what’s working, I thought to myself, yes, you know what’s working for me in terms of trauma healing has been deep, intimate healing relationship. It has helped me heal birth trauma and developmental trauma unlike any number of hours on the cushion.
TS: It was the combination, actually, that really generated the healing.
DT: For me too. Whether I get excited—and I think a lot of the work you’ve been doing here in these conversations, is the weaving. It’s so rich. When I got to bring the energetic imprint of benefactors, people that had just mentored me and been with me, and I could bring their presence into a practice, it was a game changer for me. So, I love that mixing of tubes or drinks that just has so much healing happen.
TS: Now, your fifth principle of trauma-sensitive mindfulness is to understand social context. How do you train mindfulness teachers to do that?
DT: Well, it’s a lifelong path, of course, but the main point I wanted to make is whenever we’re offering any practice, I think it’s just really useful for the person who’s a teacher or coach, anyone in the position of authority, just to have an eye to or an awareness of social context.
When I was, for example, doing more one-to-one work and I was working across gender and working with someone who’s a woman, for example, some of the requests, some of the practices I’m doing are inviting this person to do, they’re going to have a really different experience of bringing that practice out in the world, the amount of attention they might get targeting around sexism or their bodies.
So, to me, it’s actually just a very practical way that we can be more effective, is just continuing to look at the conditions that have shaped people’s experiences in relation to trauma. For example, all that’s up right now in the US around abortion, and that people will experience that news in different ways based on the bodies that they’ve come up in. I just think the more we’re aware of that, the more responsible that we can be.
I think we can go too far. I think identity, if we go too far towards the identity train, it can end up being problematic as well. I saw a bunch of teachers who were just trying to skip identity, like “We’re all one, it’s all good.” To me, it’s that call for having a middle ground.
TS: We’ve been focusing our conversation on trauma-informed mindfulness meditation practice. But let’s say someone’s spiritual practice is yoga and they’re listening to this conversation and they’re thinking, “I’m a yoga teacher. How does this apply to what I’m doing?”
DT: The basic principle that we’ve been talking about also applies when it comes to yoga. If you’re asking someone in a posture, in an asana, to pay sustained interoceptive attention or inner awareness to what’s happening in their bodies, you’re likely going to bump them into trauma at some point. Again, that’s not bad news, it’s just a really powerful thing to ask someone to do.
As we started at the beginning here, it was to say more won’t always be better with inner awareness and attention. It can be very helpful, but if you just keep doubling down on paying attention to, say, traumatic sensations in the body, during a yoga practice, there’s going to be some people at the edge of the tails who may end up having a really painful experience. And so, I think having room and curiosity about their experience and knowing some modifications, that can be helpful as well.
TS: One of the things I read in your book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is this sentence: “Breath is not a neutral anchor for people.” I thought that’s really interesting because, of course, I participate in so many different webinars and Zoom calls. People start with, “Let’s pay attention to our breath,” often to become centered. I started thinking, maybe that’s not the right anchor. Some people are having a hard time even just for a few minutes using that as their centering device. I’m curious what you have to say about that.
DT: It’s so tricky. This was a big light bulb moment for me of realizing that the respiratory system is totally connected to our sympathetic nervous system, which relate to trauma and fight/flight so that when we’re asking someone to pay attention to the breath, that can often bring them really close in to the trauma that they might have lived through or could stimulate a trauma.
For many people, the breath is going to be great. It’s dynamic, it’s an easy place to focus. I think, for most, it doesn’t mean do away with the breath at all. To me, it’s about providing a couple options. Maybe you’re doing a breath meditation and you’re saying, “OK, pay attention to the breath. If that feels overwhelming, you can also feel your feet on the ground or you could just pay attention to sound if that’s available to you.”
It’s just bringing in a couple of those options and not assuming that the breath is always going to be neutral, because we want people to cultivate sustained attention through mindfulness through the breath, but maybe a different anchor is actually going to support them to do that.
TS: You offered listening to sound. Is that something that relates to the nervous system differently when we’re listening?
DT: For some people, it can be more of a neutral anchor. Quick nuance on this would be there will be some people that might go out, identify a sound and then travel out so they get to be out of the boundaries of their somatic experience that might feel overwhelming. For others, it just might be the receptive experience of hearing, if that’s possible.
The person I learned this from is someone named Michelle McDonald, who is Theravada teacher. This was 20 years ago. She was working with sound because she was finding attention to physical sensations in her chest, abdomen, or around the nose was just too much for her and she was finding the breath or the sound was just much more helpful for her.
So, you get to play with a couple of different anchors. That’s what a lot of the training I do is, finding these little nuances to help people bring in options without overwhelming people. We don’t want to give them 20 anchors and overwhelm them along the way.
TS: Now, one of my hypotheses at this moment in time is that we all need to be trauma-informed. All of us. No matter what you’re doing, we need to be trauma-informed business leaders, we need to be trauma-informed educators and trauma-informed lawyers. No matter what our profession is. If you were to summarize for me, David, what it means to be trauma-informed no matter how you express yourself in the world, what would you say the answer to that is?
DT: Did you see this Oprah conversation around trauma-informed practice a couple of years ago? I think it was a 60 Minutes piece. Well, she was doing a 60 Minutes piece on trauma-informed practice. Apologies, I forget the person she was speaking to, but they have a book out now. I remember watching her go through a massive paradigm shift, to answer your question, where she said it was the difference between what’s wrong with you and what happened to you.
This light bulb went off for her where she was, I think, orienting the people in a more problematic way around social conditions, and then said, “Oh, wait, trauma is here. What would need to be in place to support you? Or, let me just get curious.”
So, to me, to be trauma-informed is to understand the world in terms of the impacts that trauma can have on the mind and body, which is, to me, it’s just so fascinating. You can learn so much. If you can have a basic curiosity about someone’s lived experience and not just write them off, then I think we’re all the better for it.
Just a quick story to illustrate this. I was actually on a retreat with someone sitting beside me, they were experiencing some labored breathing. They were quite tight in their practice, and it frustrated me so much during those two days. At the end, I had a conversation with this person, and we talked about it. It turns out they had had, I won’t get into the details, but had a traumatic experience that really had shaped their experience of breath and breathing. For me, I just softened. It’s like, “Oh, my God, you’ve been living through a real hard trauma through this retreat.” It gave me more compassion, and I understood their experience in different ways.
So, to me, to be trauma-informed is to actually get curious about people’s experience and then be able to skillfully respond when trauma comes into the space.
TS: Finally, David, this is now the field that you’ve become really a leader in helping mindfulness meditation teachers become trauma-informed. What do you hope the results will be of your work?
DT: I’m seeing people take the work and apply it in the most beautiful, dynamic, creative ways. Honestly, Tami, it’s powerful to talk to you because, as I was saying to you before, I feel like I got shaped around this work, around Sounds True, coming along the way these years. Actually, in the last couple of months, I feel like so much of what I tried to be bringing attention to in the book, it’s kind of happened. Not that the work’s done at all, but I now see people taking the work and bringing it to say mindful concussions or traumatic brain injuries or particular elements of developmental trauma.
People are bringing into all these amazing different areas, and I’m just happy to see the work go on and I’m happy to keep showing up and lending my voice whenever it’s helpful.
TS: I’ve been speaking with educator and psychotherapist, David Treleaven. He’s the author of the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing.
TS: Thank you so much, David, for helping Insights at the Edge listeners become trauma-informed spiritual explorers. Thank you.
DT: Thanks, Tami.
TS: Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at resources.SoundsTrue.com/podcast. That’s resources.SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. And if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.