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Written From the Body



 

About four years ago I was on retreat with Pema Chodron, the Buddhist queen of discomfort. Not too long into the retreat, she introduced the zones of tolerance, a tool that I was familiar with from my education and training as a therapist, as well as the canon of work on mindful self-compassion. I use the zones of tolerance a lot in my work. In short summary, the zones of tolerance look like a bullseye. In the center is a circle that represents our comfort/safe zone. A layer outside of that is a circle that represents our challenge zone, and the outer circular layer is the overwhelm zone, also known as our threshold. As you can imagine, the comfort zone is where safety and familiarity are. The challenge zone is where we feel some tension, but not overwhelming tension. This is where our growth edges are and where we can learn most effectively. As you may have guessed it, the overwhelm zone is where our threshold is. In the overwhelm zone, the demands on our nervous system exceed our ability to meet those demands. We are no longer able to learn at our threshold and instead we experience trauma. Because we all have different nervous systems, histories, and skills in self-regulation, these zones differ from person to person. What is challenging for me and what is challenging for you may be totally different. This is why trauma is subjective.  



For most people, the work is in stepping into the challenge zone. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that the work is in stepping into the challenge zone, then dipping back into the comfort zone. It’s an ongoing vacillation between these two zones; between expanding our capacity and soothing ourselves. What shocked me in Pema’s iteration of the zones of tolerance was that she said that for people with extensive trauma histories like myself, our work is in being in our comfort zone. I’ll never forget her saying that. It was a breakthrough moment for me. It was the first time that anyone had ever given me permission to be comfortable. It was the first time that being comfortable felt like it could okay. Having spoken to many trauma survivors since then, I’ve learned that many of us will compulsively make a beeline towards discomfort as a way of reliving trauma. That my last two partners, and most of the partners throughout my life, became physically aggressive at some point in the relationship is not a miss on me. I was moving towards what I knew, the charge of an unhealed wound. Trauma survivors are so familiar with pain, discord, harshness, and the like that to move away from these experience is counterintuitive. Often, we don’t know that we’re in pain, or if we do, we believe that at some level, we deserve it or that it’s just the way life is. But for the most part, early in the journey, pain is an ambient experience that we live with and being at our threshold is home. We are masters at being split off from our bodies. We learned that our bodies are not reliable narrators, that the pain that we feel is to be endured rather than met with compassion or heard with wisdom. Our bodies live at the threshold, never knowing safety or softness. We experience life in a contracted state.

 

I once had a partner who was very committed to being comfortable (many partners actually). A significant area of incompatibility for us. Often, she would walk into a room and see me sitting in a contorted position while working and she’d come along and adjust me by putting pillows behind me and propping up parts of my body. Then she’d say something along the lines of, “Doesn’t that feel better?” It did. I had no idea that I was even in pain until she showed me what it was like to be comfortable. We cross pollinated and I learned a lot from her inclination towards comfort. I don’t get the impression that she learned anything from me, but I think she was there to learn. While teachings on staying with discomfort are some people’s medicine, for people who have trauma histories, those teachings can be harmful if they’re not brought into their proper context, which is that ultimately these teaching are teachings on staying with what’s alive in the moment. Historically, I used these teachings to reinforce traumatic wounding and to deny aspects of life such as joy, pleasure, comfort, laughter,  expressions of affection, my needs, touch, softness, and the lightness of being.

 

After stepping back from Buddhist spaces, and specifically a monastery that I had been practicing at, I recently decided to reengage. The reason I disengaged from the monastery was that the space, being an institution (among other things) brought up my institutional trauma. My trauma story is an epic tale. In short, between the ages of 12 and 18 I lived between institutions and the streets of L.A. While institutionalized, I was brutalized, forced into solitary confinement for days and months at a time spanning years of my life, and psychologically and physically abused. While all abuse is cruel, institutional abuse has a particularly potent flavor. Think the Stanford Prison Experiment meets Russian orphanages. The monastery pushed my trauma to the surface; prompting night terrors, disassociation, panic attacks, and a deep fear that I was trapped, not just inside of the monastery, but trapped in my body. From the outside, I mostly seemed like anyone else on retreat, and perhaps even a bit steadier in my practice, as I’m a maverick at solitude. Except my solitude was not the solitude of contentment. For me, it was an experience of going dark to the world. Shutting myself so far inward that I couldn’t be touched, a skill I learned from being sexually abused and needed during the years of institutionalization.



During my hiatus from the monastery, I started to anchor into my body in a new way. I took Pema’s teaching from the retreat and ran with it. I deepened into a mindful self-compassion practice. I took up working with clay and other creative mediums. I let go of my painful relationship with my father when he died, which was really the first point of pain and abuse for me. Also, I had a few kind and gentle friends along the way who simply by being themselves have shown me what gentleness looks and feels like. Somehow within all of that I started to cultivate a feeling of safety in my body. I was and am growing roots that are deep, grounding me to the earth.  


 



In returning to the monastery, I was apprehensive but also ready. I knew that within the monastery walls and the discomfort there was a teacher and a teaching. I also knew that I had to be wise in how I approached this teacher. I reached out to a dear friend and monastic at the monastery, the teacher who was leading the retreat, and a fellow trans sangha member. Together, we created a plan. What felt true was that if I was going to create a new story, if this was going to be a new and different experience, I would need to stop hiding the wound and instead practice reaching out and letting my safe people into the wound to care for it with me. From the point of view of a traumatized brain, the presence of others signals a threat to our safety rather than a safe and soothing other to co-regulate with. Trauma has taught me the art of holing up and the high-level survival strategy of being self-sufficient to the point of intense self-awareness, a self-awareness that has taken care of me as much as it’s hindered me from being taken care of by others. Yeah, I see you overfunctioners out there. Other people have been so damn unreliable, haven’t they? So unreliable that we’ve learned to be hyper self-aware and hyper aware of other people’s unexamined stuff too. Ah... I’ve digressed (expect another post about this). Back to the retreat. After the retreat, I flung myself into the arms of the teacher and cried, I stood in front of her sobbing, unable to speak and deeply absorbed in eye contact. Finally able to get a few words out I said, “It was different this time.” Both of us were immersed in the rich intimacy of the moment. Several moments past and I said, “And I saw this kid. The weird kid that I always was.” She responded, “Yes, I was that kid too.” “And now that kid is trying to

save me.”, I said. She said, “Yes! Those are our powers!”. Funny, I’ve been an adult my entire life. A perfect parentified child, and now, I hear my heart calling me to be little again, to be curious, open, joyful, vulnerable, and gentle, to return to something so much earlier than my wounding. Something wondrous.


We all have protectors. Parts of ourselves that we’ve developed to relationally protect us. Some people’s protectors look like people pleasing, the empathic soother, being “the one who knows”, being of service to others, etc. I’ve found that the protectors that we developed to take care of us are often proportional to the threats that we’ve face. I developed a particularly fierce protector. My protector is intense, fearless, tough, sometimes on a high horse, difficult to read, cool and detached, as well as fiery, and covered in black tattoos. I’m beginning to call them Terry the Lovable Terminator. One of the things that kept Terry active in my life was homophobia and transphobia. As a queer gender non-conforming person assigned female at birth, being labeled aggressive has been a way of stereotyping and demonizing me. If you are perceived as a woman who is not performing gender according to the social construction of gender, you are seen as aggressive. And of course, if you are a black woman, regardless of how well you preform gender, you are seen as aggressive (I see you out there and I love you). Examining my protector felt like giving in, like I was admitting that I’m an aggressive "othered woman" who hates all men and is looking to corrupt young and meek Christian virgins by bringing them into the coven of homosexuality. I’m not against that narrative. I mean, it’s funny and appeals to the antagonistic witch in me. The truth of course, is that I’m not aggressive and I became what I needed to be to take care of myself. We all did, and it’s okay.   

 

There’s a point in our lives when our protectors are no longer needed. That point arrives when we begin to ground into safety in our bodies and we allow that safety to extend outwardly into the rest of our lives. It’s not so much a critical moment as it is a practice of deepening into the body. In my experience, the practice looks like noticing when Terry the Loveable Terminator is with me and then naming that I’m feeling unsafe. Once I’ve named it, I check in with my belly and soften it, I then scan up the center of my body, specifically checking in with my chest, neck, and face which runs along the pathway of the vagus nerve. By softening those areas, I’m sending a signal to my brain that I’m safe (hello Polyvagal Theory!). I then check in with my breathing and sometimes do some mindful self-compassion which can look like asking myself what I need in that moment or offering myself some empathetic support. I do this practice throughout the day. Softening over and over again helps me to open my heart towards myself and others, and it allows me to step away from traumatized Terry and towards the weird kid of wondrous magic. As I practice rooting in the body, I see my protector less and am more able to recognize other people’s protectors.

 

As I continue to process the patterns in my relational world to better understand my role, other than recognizing a clear trend towards harshness, I can also see that many of my partners have pervasively experienced shame. This is quite different from my own experience and from that of the people I’ve had the most supportive relationships with. I, for some freakish reason, am high in authenticity and don't experience shame reflexively (although I do experience it sometimes). What that meant for my relationships is that my unbridled enthusiasm for deep excavation and my unflinching curiosity and honesty would be experienced as a threat to their sense of self. I totally get that. Not everyone is on my journey (psychotic trip?). I've learned that to be compassionate to myself and others, I need to be unbearably explicit in letting people know how I do relationship because not doing so doesn't give people a chance to consent to the work and apparently can also cause people to throw glass bottles at me. About that, I’m still learning to listen to the wisdom of my body when it tells me that someone isn’t safe, isn't a good relational fit for me, or specifically when I sense that someone is holding a lot of shame or harshness (they’re often connected). I get it. I really do. Shame is the inheritance of many of us, and especially queer people. I have space for that. I just don’t have space of it in the intimate realms of my life. Shame

doesn’t make for a safe relational holding environment or a corrective experience, and for me, would be a walk back into the belly of the beast.












I have a friend who is a skilled medium. He gave me a gift that changed the trajectory of my life. He told me who I am. He said that he woke very up early in the morning, something that happens when he’s about to meet a high being. He said that I’m on a master path, that the people in my life should be bowing down to me (that absolutely should not be happening), and that I am the light and source itself. I was uncomfortable when he first told me this. Suffering from some kind of faux humility perhaps. I told him that everyone is the light. He said, “Yes, but you more so than others.” He meant this in terms of a soul’s journey; the trajectory of lifetimes of clearing away what isn’t us to reveal the light of love. It took me awhile to digest the information he gave me and to feel my way through it. When we met in Thailand, having seen each other in person for the first time, he said that all of the black I

was wearing was in contrast to the beauty and brightness of me. I said, well, perhaps the black is self-protective. He said he wished that I could see myself the way that he saw me. I hope he now knows that I do. I see myself because he reminded me of my light. Now, I am standing in the light and it’s with the light that I’ll explore the dark caverns of myself and this world. With the kindness that the teacher at the retreat showed me. With opening to touch and letting people in. With the softness of my belly and the slowness of long breaths. With laughter and tears. With a rawness so alive that anything unlike it can’t take root and survive.





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rebeccagrossmanannie
May 01

You are just the most wonderful bundle of wise determination and tender humble loving. Cheers to you on this next leg of your journey.

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