One of the main challenges I’ve had with the idea of meditating, and one of the reasons I haven’t had a regular sitting practice, is that I have a strong resistance to slowing down. To Stopping. To Being Still. Although I crave the experience of inner quiet and peace, I have not found the will or interest to take this practice on as a tool for working with my chronic illness.
After writing last week’s post and realizing that sitting with all of one’s feelings and emotions is like Sitting in the Fire, the image took root inside of me. The feeling that gradually emerged when I thought of sitting practice, was Fear. A fear of being scorched. Like the Greek God Icarus whose wings burned when he flew too close to the sun, leaving him to plummet into the ocean. To his death.
For a very long time, the idea of sitting still has evoked inside of me a fear of death. It’s been unconscious. Surreptitious. Sneaky really. But there.
What I’ve realized in exploring this fear with gentle curiosity is that my resistance to slowing down is actually a trauma response. A nervous system pattern [see In an Unspoken Voice, Chapter 4: "Immobilized by Fear", p 39, (1)].
If a freeze / immobility state is what occurs when we have an experience that is terrifying and from which no escape is possible (see more in this post on trauma), then sitting still in order to allow any and all emotions, beliefs, and sensations to arise runs the risk of re-experiencing old traumas and of stimulating the same old unresolved reaction(s). While mindfulness is a tool to help us unhook from old conditioned patterns, sitting in the fire can also lead to dissociation or freeze or other nervous system reenactments. The difference lies in whether there are new and sufficient resource available.
Survival strategies are like the fly that keeps buzzing into the glass pane in attempts to get out – they are a form of distraction that don’t actually get us anywhere. It’s like wishing for rain to put out the fire – but getting only thunder clouds.
Survival strategies show up in a hundred different ways. Each is unique – to the person, to past experience, to the way our nervous systems are attempting to recover. While we commonly think of addictions to alcohol and other substances as representing a genetic disease or a lack of will power and moral failure, overindulgence of any kind can actually be a survival strategy. An attempt at coping with experiences that were too overwhelming to tolerate [see Gabor Mate's book "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts" (2)].
Any activity can be used as a distraction and a coping strategy. Survival strategies can involve participation in extreme sports. Shopping and spending sprees. Collecting and hoarding. Eating to excess. Being a workaholic.
For me, it’s been about staying busy.
In college I gained 30+ pounds with my all-you-can-eat cafeteria plan. And despite years of dietary limitations since the progression of my chronic fatigue, my preferred food group, if I could eat it, would still be Dessert.
Before my fatigue, sports were a wonderful, pleasurable way of filling up my off-hours. I used to dance 3-5 times a week even when I worked full-time. On weekends I would hike or snowboard or ski. And I was also learning how to windsurf.
Since developing chronic fatigue, I’ve found other ways to keep myself, and my mind, occupied. And to avoid slowing down too much even when I’ve been bedridden. I’ve made a lot of progress and gained much tolerance for being quiet and still, but the patterns are still there.
I can stay busy by reading, whether online or in books or with the news; by watching TV and channel surfing; working on my blog; by fantasizing about plans for what I’ll do tomorrow if I have a
little more energy few more spoons, etc. And on those days where I have a little more margin, or feel a little more “normal,” there are all those things that have been waiting in the wings, neglected, calling for attention, and that I dearly want to do: preparing more intense blog posts that may involve reading and research, taking the camera with me on my daily walk, making the phone call to my email company who has jacked up its prices (well, I actually keep avoiding that one, but it’s a task of daily life), washing my sheets, etc
Chronic Illness: a Physiological Survival Strategy?
I suspect that the factors that have lead me to stay busy are also involved in the origins of my fatigue. I, like pretty much everyone else I’ve ever heard of who has chronic fatigue, have regularly had exacerbations from overdoing – both consciously when having felt compelled, and at other times without realizing that I’d overdone it until it was too late. But I think it’s the underlying drive that is the issue. What we are discovering through research in trauma, in epigenetics, in looking at patterns across multiple generations etc is that life experiences affect our feelings AND our physiologies. Our minds, brains AND our bodies. Life experiences create patterns deep within our nervous systems. Patterns that affect our immune systems. our digestive systems. our regulatory capacities. our beliefs, etc.
Being frozen and paralyzed by fear is the equivalent of a physiological state of shut-down. Shut-down states seem to have a lot of similarities with chronic fatigue. And it all makes me wonder – might chronic fatigue actually be an expression of the freeze state? Might chronic fatigue actually be a state of physiological shut-down and high activation associated with the freeze response in trauma? Conversely, might it represent both ends of the spectrum: a physiological version of freeze AND a survival strategy to avoid this state? Might my tired body, caught in the ultimate state of slow-down, be also constantly in a state of physiological over-reactivity, like my external expression of behaviors of busyness?
I don’t understand it yet, but I keep wondering whether this is also the case, in uniquely different configurations, for chronic illnesses of all kinds. Do nervous system patterns lead to unique versions of physiological shut-down or high activation to express themselves as different chronic illnesses, as we see in PTSD? I suspect so. Because, in chronic illness as in PTSD, our brains may not realize that the old traumas in our lives are over. That we’ve survived. That it would be okay to crawl out of the cave and embrace the sunlight without being afraid of being burned.
Ready for a Meditation Retreat
This year, the idea of a meditation retreat felt intriguing to me instead of filling me with dread. I had curiosity about participating in a structured environment where everyone was getting still.
I’d say that this openness represents a sign of progress and possibility in my nervous system capacity. This meant that it was possible I might be successful at being less reactive, or at least at tolerating and recovering from the reactivity that was bound to come up. It also suggested my body might be able to take in more support.
I had an interesting set of experiences.
For example, I was surprised to meet with fear after meditating one night. I got to see it and know that it was just an emotion – rather than reality. I had enough mindfulness and resource and sense of safety that I was able to watch it. Be with it. Have curiosity about it. And I’ve been tracking it in the past few weeks. We’ll see where it takes me. I look forward to seeing what I learn. I’ll be sharing that with you when I know more.
In the meantime, I’ve taken a new plunge. It actually feels tender and sweet and a little adventurous.
I bought myself two meditation cushions. And while writing this sentence, I saw the connection with this post: it has the most beautiful flaming red trim.
Did you know that trauma has a flip side? Yeah. Like fire that doesn’t just burn everything in its path but that can crackle and pop in a contained space and keep us warm. Gives us light. Cook our food. Fire can also be beautiful. Fire can clear the way and allow for a fresh start. For transformation. And that’s what happens when trauma gets resolved and we come out the other side: Transformation. Greater resilience. The capacity to see more beauty in life. The difficult events become a normal part of our history with no emotional blips, just like any other memory. That’s the whole point of doing the work – whatever that is, whether it’s trauma therapy. mindfulness. meditation. etc…
I’ve started sitting. Not necessarily every day, although sometimes it’s been twice in the same day.
Not necessarily for very long. Although 30 minutes at a time seems very doable.
Not necessarily when I’m feeling particularly good – or particularly bad – although it’s been helpful to actually Get Still. To stop trying and stop distracting. To just BE with my experience when I’ve been having difficult experiences or gotten caught up in busy modes.
I’m being gentle with myself. No forcing. No pushing.
I’m looking at this as another exploration. An experiment.
I’ll keep you posted.
Do you have resistance to meditation? To slowing down? Do you have a pattern of distraction that helps you cope with emotions, stress, or difficult times? Do you see any links between trauma, survival strategies, and your experiences of chronic illness?
(1) Levine, P. A. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, North Atlantic.
(2) Mate, G. (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Berkeley, North Atlantic Books.