The recovery model developed in the book, Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss is represented by an acronym that spells out the word FLOWING. Last time we considered the letter F for feel, so this entry will focus on the letter L for listen. We might think that listening is merely a function of our ears, but in this case, the effort is more about our internal awareness and has to do with engaging and receiving meaning from any of a variety of sources.
The best approach to internal listening is found in the practice of mindfulness. By settling into a calm, undistracted state we find opportunity to truly engage with the meanings and memories that tend to flit through our minds in seemingly random ways most of the time. During mindfulness practice, rather than grasping onto or fighting to push away those emotions and sensations, we create the space to be with our experiences. From our starting place of feeling what happens with our bodies and our emotion states, we can gently hold those physical/emotional cues with curiosity to discover deeper meanings learned within the stories held there. For instance, we may have a general sense that a childhood classmate was a bully, and we did not enjoy being around them, but if we can engage with the tightness in our gut that arises when we think about running into that person at the school reunion, and take the time to learn more about it we may be quite surprised.
The sort of listening that is suggested in the model can take any one of several forms; we might SIFT through the information available by attending to sensations, images, feelings and thoughts to discover deeper elements of meaning. In reference to the bullying example above, the tightness in the gut might remind us of the empty feeling when our lunch money was taken, or an image of the teacher’s angry face at the missing homework assignment due to it having been dropped in a puddle when the bully dumped our backpack. As we take in whatever initial signals arrive in response to our curiosity and engagement with the internal part to whom we are listening, we might get further information about the deep sense of vulnerability we had when we needed to take the long route to the schoolyard to avoid getting caught by the tormentor, and perhaps that it represented only one small part of the struggles going on in our life at that point. These contextual elements of the otherwise isolated seeming loss can lead to understanding and even to the creation of connections between the neurons in our brains and bodies. Those multiple connection points will allow experiences of loss to become absorbed and integrated, rather than remaining disconnected and pulling energy away from more balanced functioning.
The advantages of a mindfulness practice are more than just clarifying the context and meanings within old hurts. Such practices also help to build resources for coping with past, as well as with future disruptions to our sense of safety and well-being. Regular mindfulness practice has been found to decrease anxiety and depression, to raise the level of baseline happiness, and to improve pain management. We so often find ourselves on a treadmill of endless tasks to be completed, and comparing ourselves to others in unflattering ways. Mindfulness practices can take many forms but virtually always involves stepping back from those pressures to learn to tolerate discomfort, and to appreciate what we have in the moment. Generally, there is a focus on breathing as the object of meditation, which offers increased oxygenation to the body and slows the heartbeat to a more natural rhythm. These physical changes decrease stress levels and reset the baseline to a more receptive state.
As we listen to the deeply held burdens of our experiences of loss, we may develop a better understanding of the complexities of our lives, and be in a position to offer ourselves compassion and soothing. Those attitudes go far toward healing the disruptions and self-doubts that may have been carried from those early days. Our perceiving adult, Self can offer a supportive response to victimized or traumatized child parts, effectively encouraging them to release and become more in tune with present day life. This attitude shift may bring a whole new level of energy and competence to our adult functioning, and even extend to a new sense of compassion for others. We might even begin to grasp the pain that was indicated in that schoolyard bully’s behaviors, and to see that they were only acting-out the confusion and pain of their own situation. Perhaps we’ll even find ourselves anticipating seeing our former nemesis again at the reunion in the hope that they, too, have found a peaceful resolution to their struggles. This kind of open-hearted response can arise from listening to our own deeply held meanings, and will be the subject of the next entry in this series of essays on FLOWING to Well-being.