I recently picked up a book called Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. In this memoir a young Yale-educated lawyer exposes a disheartening legacy of relational and multi-generational trauma. As a child of the “white working poor”, J.D. was able to break out of emotional “stuckness”, but as he insists, only with the loving support of his grandparents and others.
To clarify these dynamics, J.D. turns to research called Adverse Childhood Events or ACE’s. The ACE’s studies from the National Institute of Health document the effects of relational multi-generational trauma on thousands of individuals and offers a startling glimpse into the effects of trauma, including emotional dysregulation, relationship difficulties and serious physical illnesses. When we combine ACE’s research with the study of epigenetics we can trace epigenetics how what happens to us can change how our genes function and leave us with emotional wounds from poverty, loss, discrimination, immigration, war and insecure and frightening relationships with caregivers.
J.D. brings a new perspective to the intense suffering of people who seem to be “apparently normal” (van der Hart, Nienjuis and Steele). The “apparently normal” among us are the ones that suffer deep emotional and physical pain but have learned to hide it with addictions, the drama of troubled relationships and a competitive, consumer culture. We are now seeing that the suffering of the “apparently normal” people with unprocessed emotional trauma affects our political and social environment, not just the individual or family. Under the thin façade of “normal” lies profound anguish and growing accumulation of a crushing health issue.
As research indicates, our central nervous system is formed in and through relationship and is the foundation for our emotional well-being. Neuroscience calls us to move from a cognitive approach to bodily-based relational ways to process emotion. So many of us have endured a legacy of historical trauma from immigration, wars, famine, genocide and other experiences of the past. How do we learn to process emotion rather than ruminate on it while increasing blame, shame and immobility?
The memories of reactions to both historical and personal trauma lie in the body, in organs, muscles, bones and fluids. These unprocessed emotions form a vast organizational structure that connects the systems of the brain and the body such as the nervous, immune, endocrine, digestive, circulatory and respiratory functions.
Somatic Meditation for Emotional Processing
Somatic meditations offer resources for health and development as well as creative interventions for their work with people with unprocessed emotions. The following meditation is one that is inspired by the work of Reggie Ray, allows us to gradually integrate generational emotional trauma. This meditation is best done in relationship as both parties work to co-regulate vague, somatic symptoms that seem to relate to early childhood trauma and/or historical trauma. Deep unprocessed emotions lie in the viscera of the belly, the abdomen, chest, throat, face and brain—as well as the voluntary limbs and skeletal system. Be prepared for the emergence of feelings that have been out of awareness as you enter into this meditation.
- Take time to lie down on a solid surface, a rug or mat under your body, and a pillow under your knees. Gently notice the felt sense in your body, slowly sweeping your awareness over your toes, feet, ankles, legs, pelvis, back shoulders, elbows and head.
- Encourage your bones, muscles and tissues to feel gravity and begin to let go of any tension and holding. Imagine the earth beneath you in its texture, form and presence.
- Bring your awareness into a surrender into gravity, trusting the earth to receive any discomfort that has been in your body. You may notice the subtle vibrations of the earth that can begin to move into your body.
- As you witness your own body, observe and acknowledge the inner movements and feelings. You are entering into your fundamental birthright, your ability to fully live as an embodied human being. From the perspective of embodiment, your awareness becomes a potent internal dynamic for healing.
- As your awareness moves from observing from a distance to a sense of being in your body, that embodied awareness becomes a potent healing dynamic, gently shifting the organization structures of trauma. From an inside perspective and embodied awareness, bring your attention to your belly.
- Gently place your hands on your belly and notice from the inside what sensations, movements and feelings are present. Simply notice, don’t try to change anything or interpret anything. Simply be with, in and joined with whatever appears. Here we are. Embodied. Together.
- As you notice the sensations, your brain is listening and, in its infinite wisdom, can implicitly do whatever it needs to do for healing. A neural connection here, a release of hormones there, or perhaps a non-voluntary movement.
- You can trust your innate wisdom to do what is needed. If you move back into rumination—just readjust and come back to embodied awareness.
- Next bring your attention to your midsection. Place your hands on your ribs and observe from the perspective of your hands what you might sense going on inside the abdomen.
- Now shift your awareness to embodiment and enter into the felt sense of the chest, lungs and solar plexus. Simply notice with great compassion any sensation, movement or lack of movement.
- Emotional processing through bodily-based awareness needs accompaniment. Take your time to be with the sensations and movements, join your awareness with them and it will lead to where it needs to go. Notice color, tightness, heaviness, density, space, vibration, pulsation or numbness.
- Don’t try to fix anything—simply hold awareness so the unconscious brain can take note and devise its own strategy for healing.
- Continue this exploration into the throat, embody the sensations, movements, tightness, space, color and any other phenomena that may emerge. Trust this journey into the core of emotional processing in the throat and neck.
- Take a few moments now to shift to the face, bring a little movement into the eyebrows and then embody any sensations, movements or numbness.
- Attend next to the jaw, allowing it to drop down into gravity and notice how that shifts any sensations in the face or viscera. Follow the tracks of the somatic phenomena as it moves through the body.
- Allowing your inner wisdom to guide you with subtle, “barely perceptible cues”, into the unknown and hidden places of old historical trauma or more current holding of overwhelming emotions. Engage your awareness and follow deep into embodiment.
As you complete this inquiry through your embodied awareness, let go of this focus and simply breathe and relax, preparing to enter into your day. As you come into a more external, yet embodied awareness, you may want to jot down some notes that come to you as you allow your reflective abilities to integrate this inquiry.
Gradually, over time, your body will re-organize to allow new responses to emotional experiences that are different from the reactions of the past. Continue to be intentional about your emotions, let go of the endless attempt to solve them through rumination and enter into a somatic inquiry within the memories as they live in the body. And then offer to guide another through this labyrinth of human transformation.