“I sit down to meditate and my mind explodes with catastrophic thinking. I don’t get a moment’s peace from my mean inner critic. What’s the matter with me? I even fail at sitting still with nothing to do.” Said by every traumatized meditation student I have ever worked with.
These days, meditation is becoming a recommended treatment to heal everything from fibromyalgia to panic attacks. It is true that healing is a powerful side-effect of meditation. It is also true that relaxation and breathing practices heal the nervous system and improve our physical and emotional health.
Giving your inner critic more air time isn’t meditation. It’s torture. Forcing ourselves to sit through storms of self-recrimination traumatizes us more.
We need a certain amount of healing from trauma and the compulsions of our mind before practicing meditation will allow us to experience stillness and peace.
Meditation is the seventh rung of Raja Yoga, a holistic comprehensive system from India. The first two rungs guide us in daily life through principles like kindness, truth, and non-attachment. Rungs three and four bring in yoga poses, breathing, energy work and relaxation. Five and six help us develop the capacity to withdraw our attention away from distractions of daily life and focus inward.
Relaxation, breathing and yoga can open up space and glimpses of peace and stillness. Then, with our life working better, and with our body breath and mind somewhat healed, we are able to meditate and enjoy the stillness within.
Mindfulness and the Inner Critic
Children who grow up without stable attachment with parents feel unsafe and unprotected. This is the root of the current epidemic of anxiety and depression and often drives addiction as a way to escape our pain. We need to get away from feeling unworthy and broken.
Someone is angry and abusive with us. We feel alone and without resources. We are humiliated, afraid and helpless. Our nervous system goes into fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn strategies to ensure we will never feel that terror and hopelessness again. Hating ourselves feels safer than completely disconnecting from our parents.
Critical voices of our parents become our own inner critic. We experienced their abuse or neglect as evidence something was fundamentally wrong with us and this belief is deeply lodged in our unconscious mind and in our body. We take over shaming ourselves.
In Vipassana meditation, a popular form of mindfulness meditation in the West, the practice is to observe what comes and goes in the mind. In this way we get to know ourselves. The first step in change is awareness. We can’t work with what we don’t see.
Trauma informed mindfulness is where we notice what is going on in our mind, then we intervene. We are firm with our mind to stop compulsive, catastrophic and worst-case scenario thinking. Bathing in toxic thoughts makes us feel worse about ourselves.
Beliefs of your unworthiness are not true. These are false core deficiency beliefs.
You were hurt, alone and not to blame for what happened. As adults, we can see that we couldn’t cure mom’s depression or dad’s temper or whatever was contributing to their unhappiness. It had little to do with us. We were made to feel that their frustrations with life were our fault. This is not true.
A child’s strategies don’t work because they are not responsible for, and do not have the power to heal a parent’s mental health, addictions or to stop violence.
From our perspective now, witnessing can help us see our fears, beliefs and the strategies we tried. We become familiar with the energy and feelings in our body and they don’t scare us anymore. We feel safe enough to be present because we know that sensations are not here to hurt us.
We develop the capacity to stay grounded and steady even when our mind is stirred up and we feel afraid. We become respectful, patient and kind with ourselves. We know when to move closer and when to take a break to breathe and become grounded again.
“Safety IS the treatment.” Dr Stephen Porges
We do not need to push or be aggressive with ourselves. Acknowledge that you do want to heal and you are doing the best you can. Kindness and compassion for ourselves is possible and essential. Be patient and understanding with yourself. It takes courage and time to heal.