The times I’ve joined a 60-day retreat in Myanmar have been insightful, healing and enlightening. It has brought me a lot of benefits that I still reap on a daily basis. I notice a greater calmness and equanimity in myself than before. I also notice that it is easier to deal with challenging situations because there is more intuitive wisdom.
Yet it has not only been good for me. I went through hell during the first 60-day retreat in 2013. It didn’t have to do with the different culture, the different climate and the extreme program (60 days from 03.00h – 21.00h continuous meditation in silence) only.
Looking back now I understand that it also had to do with something else; the meditation led me directly into my own deeply hidden trauma.
Vipassana meditation can be challenging and you have to be quite persistent to complete a 60 day retreat. It is not only a physical challenge, but also a mental one. The beauty of this is that there is a no-escape. There is no room to avoid or to cheat. If you really want to meet your inner dragons and want to heal them, this is the form in which it happens (under your own power) as far as I am concerned. I have noticed it myself, deep unconscious fear patterns have been touched and healed. These patterns were so subtly hidden in my mind, that I have never been able to see them in everyday life. Not even during an intensive therapeutic process with psylocibine.
During the practice of vipassana mediation you continuously direct your attention so that it becomes sharpened and refined. In addition, you develop a great power of observation. This allows you to observe very subtle changes in your field of experience.
The effect of it is that you can notice where and when, deep down in the mind, stressful or unwholesome patterns are ‘born’. This ‘noticing’ at the same time makes these patterns calm down and extinguish. In other words, the deep and original cause of our stress is solved. This goes far beyond the level of thoughts, beliefs and emotions, because these are only an effect of these deeper subtle patterns. If you practice this form of meditation long enough, you will purify the mind step by step from these unwholesome patterns.
All what remains is our original nature, which manifests itself in joy, happiness, calmness, serenity, inner peace, equanimity and intuitive wisdom. Probably you can imagine that ultimately this will lead to a total purification of the unwholesome factors of the mind. And simply put, this is what Buddhism refers to as enlightenment.
If there is trauma energy in our system, this form of meditation can be too intense. Trauma energy is fixed and unfinished energy, in the form of suppressed dissociated memories or emotions, often fixed in our nervous system. For many people their trauma energy is locked under coping strategies. These are, so to speak, small patterns that cause the attention to move away from these traumatic memories. Examples are, overthinking, daydreaming, pointing outwards to others or external objects, getting caught up in desire or aversion, shooting into irritation or anger, shooting into arrogance, or in inferiority, being taken over by fear, etc, etc.
Because of these coping strategies it is almost impossible to consciously evoke the subtle dissociations. And that is a good thing, because it protects us from this overwhelming energy stored therein. For other people with trauma it is almost impossible to regulate the trauma energy. Their lives consist of a sequence of so-called reliving the trauma, which is triggered by various events in life. Sometimes this happens in action, sometimes it happens in relaxation and sometimes it comes from an unexpected angle (a smell, a voice, an atmosphere, a location, etc.). At that moment there is a lack of power in the nervous system to be able to regulate this. Usually these people have found a modus in it and have developed their own coping to avoid the overwhelming energy.
With vipassana meditation we focus our attention, and learn not to react to whatever appears. This eliminates the protective coping strategies and releases the suppressed trauma energy. On the one hand this is good, because it gives a chance for processing, but on the other hand this energy can be so overwhelming that we can relive the trauma and re-traumatize ourselves.
The latter was what happened in my first retreat. It was as if my head wanted to explode, my heart gave out and besides that the contact with my body disappeared. I seemed to float in an unpleasant way with extreme fear. The fear escalated and my system went into a panic mode in which I seemed to lose control. Memories from the past emerged and my body began to make uncontrolled movements. I thought I was going crazy.
In itself this is not even that bad. In a retreat people go through the most bizarre experiences. It is only important that there is a teacher who guides you through this in a loving and safe way and brings you back within the limits of your own resilience. The problem in Myanmar was that because of the cultural differences and the language problem, my teacher could not give me the security I needed. My system therefore went too far outside my ‘window of tolerance’ and I ended up in the enormous powerlessness that I had experienced as a child.
Luckily at that time I had a small book about trauma with me and read it (secretly). This put things into perspective for me and because it taught me a few skills to regulate, I was able to continue the practice. This booklet was written by Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing.
Later, after I learned how to regulate myself in a subtle way during my training as a Somatic Experiencing Therapist, the 60-day retreats became more manageable for me. At an early stage I was able to recognize the trauma energy and let it flow through my body. This gave me the opportunity to navigate through these trauma experiences myself and stay much more relaxed and calm.
Because the knowledge of trauma and our nervous system has only increased in recent years, it is only now possible to embed this in the 2500 year old technique of vipassana meditation.
As far as I am concerned, vipassana meditation in its original form is still the way to liberate the mind. Nothing needs to be encrypted. But for the first steps on this path it is necessary that there is sufficient inner foundation and resilience to handle it.
This is why I created the three-day Trauma Sensitive Retreat. Here you will learn the basics of vipassana meditation and at the same time how to regulate and contain yourself, and how to increase your resilience when your system is plagued by unsolved trauma.