When it comes to the world of somatic and nervous-system based trauma healing, some of the biggest changes can happen very quietly.
This may seem strange because we definitely associate unresolved trauma with big experiences and symptoms – depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, behavioral problems, explosive rage, abusive relationships, etc. And while sometimes the process of resolution can be feel equally big, with big emotions moving, like rage, grief, disgust, terror, joy, and triumph, I have found for myself that as I get deeper and deeper into my practice and my system, the most profound changes often happen very quietly, almost invisibly.
I think this is because of the nature of what we are healing, is, at its core, very subtle. Though it plays out in big ways, at its core trauma lives in the pathways of the nervous system, in the very cells of our body, and even at the level of the DNA. And when things really shift and change at those levels it is simultaneously profound, and quiet.
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Little Seth Comes Home
I used to have to regularly get away.
I needed to escape from responsibility, relationship, work, the city, and essentially, myself. I needed to carve out time once in a while to be alone, so my poor damaged little self could run rampant for a while. So I could drink, smoke, and eat in excess, play video games, binge watch shows and generally totally escape into indulgence and comfort. Those escapes were part of how I managed the fact that essentially, I just didn’t feel safe in relationship to pretty much anyone or anything.
Over time that need got less and less, and I began to get less and less comfort from the experience. As that happened I began to feel the toxicity of those indulgences more, and realized that I actually felt more or less ok in the world, and that I didn’t really need to escape in the same way. One by one, those comforts actually became discomforts.
Then, one day, as I was on one of my retreats from the world something occurred that made me come back home two days sooner than planned. Rather than being outraged and feeling like I was being betrayed (which is what would have flooded me in the past), I actually felt like fate was rescuing me from my own outgrown habits.
Or, to be more clear, I felt both things simultaneously – I felt the echo of that old outrage – like, I should be feeling this way and, simultaneously, I felt relieved and genuinely happy to go home and back to my wife, Irene.
This was one of those profound, quiet shifts. I was simultaneously able to be in contact with my adult, regulated self, and that fragmented corner of my psyche and self that had, for so long felt that the world was a wolf at my door.
That experience of differentiation meant that the very young piece of damaged self was ready to integrate, that I no longer needed to be in one state or the other, but that the formerly dissociated piece of self was really ready to just be me.
So I went home, hugged my wife, and got in the bath. And that’s when the really BIG quiet experience happened.
As I lay in the tub I felt something so profound, and yet so subtle, that at first I couldn’t identify what it was, just that it was strange, new, and good. Then it hit me – for the first time in my life I simply felt safe in my home. Not just mentally or emotionally safe, but cellulary safe. A part of my being that had been clenched like a fist through the fabric of my atoms, let go.
Once I realized what was happening it brought some more visible tears and some quiet sobs of relief, but that was my emotional response to the shift, not the shift itself. I also realized that this was a continuation of a process that had begun about 7 months prior, which I wrote about in this article.
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Do Not Give In To Hate, That Leads To The Dark Side.
Two nights ago Irene got back from 6 weeks away, teaching workshops in Europe.
During her time away I took 18 days off from work, and this was the first time in about 10 years that I had that kind of stretch of time alone, at home, with no responsibilities. And this was a real test, and a real opportunity to see if little Seth really felt safe enough to just be an adult, or if I would slide back into my old coping strategies.
It turned out that yes, that old piece of self did still feel safe enough to just be part of me, and there was no need for me to flip into being him and giving him what he thought he wanted – but there was still a bit of a divide. I really needed that length of time at home alone to enable him to grow up and become truly integrated, and that’s a process that I’m pleased to say happened successfully!
Going for walks instead of just staying sedentary as ‘ol little Seth used to like to do. I was taking my ‘self’ for a walk and in that experience I had another one of those quiet evolutions inside. I was simply walking around the park close to our home and looking at the sky, which at that moment was a glorious muted shade of violet through the stark branches of the autumn trees, and it’s like a part of myself who had kept his eyes closed for about 40 years, opened them. And saw. Saw the Earth and it’s beauty and felt safe in that experience. It’s hard to convey the poignancy of that moment in words, but essentially it felt like being a young child again in the best possible sense.
Being in the flow of music production. I finished my first album of original songs during that time, which I will be releasing soon. I used to only be able to enjoy making music under the influence of cannabis and alcohol, and now it is a sober, and much more enjoyable experience. I would wake up, have some breakfast, and work on music for 6-10 hours. Just lost in the flow of creation. Good stuff.
The biggest (quiet) experience though, came when Irene got home. My wife is a strong, independent person who needs some time and space when she gets back from being away and immersed in very different dynamics. She’s not the ‘hurl herself into my arms and kiss me passionately’ type. She’s more the, ‘give me lots of space and don’t touch me too much for a little while’ type. And that’s totally fine. I’m not entirely the same, but I definitely get it!
But little Seth, oh poor little Seth, who was feeling all safe and integrated, well… it turns out this was a final test of sorts to see if that integration really could stick. Because to that part of myself it felt like I was being betrayed, rejected, insulted, and that it would probably be a good idea to just get a divorce right away.
I had felt this many times before.
This was my ultimate trigger – feeling rejected by my primary attachment person and the behaviour that could ensue had wrecked previous relationships, and had greatly endangered my current one in the past. And I felt all that in its full intensity. Felt the incredible driving urge to retaliate, to marshall my arguments, to attack in defense of my wounded ego. If I did not, my survival would be at risk!
And yet I did not.
The integration stuck, and for the first time in my life I was able to simply say a quiet goodnight, and retreat to my room with my guts churning and a sucking black hole in my chest.
Even while I lay in bed it took about 30 minutes of staying extremely stern and focused with myself so that I did not go to her room and start verbally attacking. That little voice would scream to be let out and I would have to tell myself – ‘YOU WILL NOT! You will stay with the pain in your body and you will NOT make this worse by engaging from this place.’
Because that’s a big part of what all this trauma healing work is ultimately about, especially in the context of relationships and old attachment wounds – being able to stay present with terrible pain, on your own, and to not react the way our survival centers tell us we should.
Yes, we can have good shifts and changes in our sessions with practitioners, and we can have all sorts of good increases in our regulation and healing through those shifts. And that is crucial! We have to increase our capacity, tools, and sense of internal safety, which is a process that is very well supported by a good somatic practitioner, so that ultimately we can develop the kind of self-knowledge and skills that will empower us to pass through this kind of terrible crucible, guided only by our own internal resources.
So that when the time comes that your wounded soul is laid bare, and you are standing on the shores of desolation scraped out hollow by the winds of survival, and you know, you KNOW that the only way to survive this pain is to plunge yet again into that toxic sea, that you nevertheless stand firm on the shore and say NO. I. WILL. NOT. I will feel this pain in my body and I will use my tools and let my system feel what it needs to feel and then settle, for this is about me. It is not about anyone else.
It’s about feeling all the pain that tells you that you must act, speak up, defend yourself, justify, get revenge, fight, or run away, and instead of doing any of those things you simply feel the pain and wait for it to change, and in that turning away from the habitual actions and behaviours you make it possible for all those old, well-worn nervous system ruts and brain pathways to disintegrate and find new options.
And that process, at least visibly, can be a very quiet experience.
From anyone else’s perspective I was just lying there peacefully in bed, while an invisible, tremendous battle was taking place in my mind, my body, and my very cells.
And so my victory, which rang through the halls of my DNA like a church bell, was a very quiet one. There was no big emotions on display, no movements of the body, and there was no one there to witness or validate my experience. It was a private, cellular triumph; a quiet somatic victory that established once and for all that yes, I am whole now, and I cannot be defeated.
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So why do I tell you this?
For one, it’s because I feel it is important to understand how incredibly deep and slow this work is. And people generally don’t want to hear that. They want the next hack, the next ice bath, or detox regimen. And those things simply do not work when were are talking about this level of change.
It takes in-depth education so you can understand your physiology and how it plays out through your body and mind, and it takes having access to the right tools, in the right sequence, and it takes years of dedicated application of that knowledge and those tools, to shift things at the very deep levels.
That doesn’t mean it takes years to feel better! I’ve been doing this work as a client for about 7 years now, and as a practitioner for about 5, and I got a lot of healing and benefit even during the first few months, and there has been tremendous growth all along the way; but when we are talking about early/developmental trauma, which is the kind of trauma that almost all of us in the industrialized world have experienced to some degree, it takes a long time to heal those wounds – which affect us down to the sub-atomic level.
I also tell you this because I feel it’s important to know that this work is ultimately about what we are able to face and process on our own. The best practitioner in the world is still only with us for a limited time – often for one hour a week at most. And it is their job to help us get to the point where we don’t need them!
As Peter Levine once said, ‘nobody can do it for you, and nobody can do it alone.’ We need our good practitioners and we need to remember that the work does not stop when we leave their office.
I also share these stories because I think it’s quite remarkable, inspiring, and wondrous how refined and almost mystical the process of trauma healing can become once it reaches the quantum levels. Early on, a big part of the process may involve us learning how to allow ourselves to unravel and be a big, snotty, teary, rageful mess – there’s great beauty in that too, especially when emotions have been long repressed, and I think a lot of people understand that those kinds of big emotions are often a part of healing trauma.
But what is not really talked about is how miraculous and magical these deep processes of transformation can be, and when those deep, deep internal changes come, they are very often quiet.
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PS If you don’t know where to start, start here. Irene and I both know that it can be tricky to find a good somatic practitioner and that’s why she just made this video on how to find one.
We also know that there are not nearly enough quality somatic practitioners out there to meet the demand, and that is why Irene has dedicated herself to creating online resources that can help a person get started with the right education and tools no matter where they are. So, if you want to get started and can’t find a good practitioner be sure to check out everything she offers on her website.