Reflections on 2 days that could’ve easily not happened.
The Lightest Touch by David Whyte
Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.
In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light
Eighteen months in the planning, twice rescheduled (i.e. corona pivots) and many hurdles crossed to bring Dr. Tra-ill Dowie to Adelaide for two days of Integrative Trauma Practice. I’ve known Tra-ill for 15 years and had the privilege of being his student – I knew it was worth it. You can imagine my relief when three days prior, it was announced “we are NOT going into lockdown”. I’m not sure I had it in me to reschedule a fourth time. Ironically, with venue capacity restrictions we ended up with a full house!
With all that behind us, Tra-ill begins by seeking our collaboration and asking for our input – role modelling how to work with others – seeking consent all the way. He then provided an explanation for the title of the training – The Lightest Touch – a poem by David Whyte – transposing the word poetry for therapy, the first line reads ‘good [therapy] begins with the lightest touch, a breeze arriving from nowhere, a whispered healing arrival …’ I was captivated from the start.
‘The solution to trauma is understanding’ he says. Sounds simple right? To understand it takes something – because it is complex – the human condition. Our human systems are complex and every human is unique, and every experience is experienced in a unique and individual way. Trauma is complex.
‘Trauma decants, slowly, emerging as symptoms and symbols …. And when it emerges the client presents.’ It makes sense and I know this to be true. This happened for me. The constant worry, the repetitious thoughts and behaviours that leave one perplexed and bewildered – ‘How did I get here? Why do I keep reacting in that way?’ Surely I can change this!
‘As a species, we are the result of trauma’ confidently states Dr. T. Instantly I feel affirmed as it’s clear to me that we live in a violent world, with a violent past. It’s in our DNA, in our living memory – patterns yet to be broken, continuing to cause harm for those living and yet to be born.
‘Trauma is a disorder of defense – it gets woven into the mind and when trauma occurs as a child it is usually a combination of both trauma by omission and trauma by commission.’ Trauma by omission … what happens when you don’t get what you need, whether that be food, warmth, safety, affection, responsive care. Our brains are hardwired to connect to seek connection and comfort in another. When this is interrupted at an early age – the development of the self and our identity is shaped by this. These early life experiences form the foundation of the structures of the mind. It’s very hard to undo. I understand why many people don’t or won’t or can’t. It takes commitment to work on oneself – to invest in therapy, education and good health – it’s the long game – it takes fortitude and courage as Dr. Cornel West would say.
We hadn’t reached the lunch break and Tra-ill tasks us to discuss and define ‘what is a mind? As ‘trauma is essentially a disruption of the process we call the mind’ – Mind-bending conversations and I’m beginning to realise that this thing we have been planning since March 2020 is good and it was worth the sleepless nights.
Mentalisation and ‘metacognition is where it’s at baby’ said like a rock star – ‘treat the attachment disorder first as this is the foundation of mind’. I am not sure I fully understand what he is saying but I start to drift back into my own history and see my corrupted child mind – the mind that made up so many things to survive and tried to make sense of nonsensical things – to soothe myself – to keep myself from slipping away. It brought tears to my eyes.
‘Traumatic experiences are like the “one-taste” experience – never again.’ This message is loud – I can feel it in my body. I hear myself say ‘the trauma stops with me – I am healing my trauma in this lifetime!’ Tra-ill reminds us in a different way “What is not transformed is transferred” Yes – the old patterns can be triggered in a millisecond – with as little as a pinprick – ouch – it still hurts sometimes. It takes a lifetime of practice to undo it. I take another big sigh and take a look around – everyone is engrossed in his words and personal stories and how his experiences have shaped him and brought him to this time and space. He talks a lot about time and the temporal flow of time – I can’t help but go back and forth into my own life – looking at the past and being in the present moment. Lucky it’s being recorded.
‘Good therapy is an artform of relating, slowly, gently …. reconstituting a sense of self.’ I think deeply about this notion of going slow and gentle with those that we work with and I see all the times I have berated myself for not progressing faster – all the times I have been so hard on myself. My entire life is flashing before me.
‘Every traumatised person is a product of another’s imaginings’. Said another way – the horrific things that happen to people are done by other people. Let nothing be foreign to you. Trauma is imaginable. It happens all the time. Constructive rage is empowering, he says. It’s necessary I think.
And so we are nearing the end of day one and Tra-ill brings us to a delicate, intimate space – the space where healing happens. With consent of course he shares a written piece from a client who wrote in length his experience of facing his own death (existential I mean). The death of the old self – although he didn’t know that’s what he was doing when he agreed to meet Tra-ill and undergo a therapeutic process. But he did it. Tra-ill reads this man’s story sensitively, carefully – the pain and discomfort is real – it is hard – and he could have easily walked away. But he did not. Because he saw something for himself – something better – deep in his heart he knew that he didn’t have to be this way. He persevered and HE did it. He changed his internal mechanisms and his external world started to change. We are left knowing that transformation is real – but it is not magic. It is a process of first awareness and then courage. The courage to take yourself on. We have this weird perception that it is so frightening to look – to see who we truly are – warts and all – that we avoid it at all costs. But when we do, it’s always less scary than we imagine it to be.
Phew, day one over.
Tra-ill begins day two by asking how are we? Is it pitched at the right level? What are we thinking about in light of yesterday? He wants to know. Everyone is more relaxed than yesterday and very glad to be here. Most are interested to know more about attachment disorder and how to treat it. For this is the root cause for many and most who walk into therapy.
‘You have to earn the right to challenge someone!’ Whoa! He’s right and I am reminded of all the times in work clients when I have been too bold, too forward, too pushy – I know when I have challenged too soon – the client recoils. He’s talking about Deep Respect. Or is it more than this? Being with clients in the moment, being fully Present, creating a container for authentic self-expression. It’s not easy for people who have been harmed to talk about what the harm has done to them. Mostly it’s a secret to the outside world.
Good therapy is an artform. Like a dance between two people – there are moments of being extraordinarily in sync with the other not thinking about the dance – completely in the moment, dancing – with full confidence that you know the next move, without knowing what the next move will be. It’s glorious and feels magical. Good therapy is like a dance.
“Suffering is trauma temporalised”. I grapple with this and only in writing this piece weeks later do I think I might understand. Our suffering places trauma – the event or whatever happened – in a moment and place in time. It allows us to locate it – work with it – see it – feel it – and transform it. That is the hope anyway.
“We want to extend the emotional capacity to hold the trauma experience” – Ah I see – hold the trauma experience and simultaneously mitigate the suffering. It makes sense. We can’t change the facts of the past, but we can change how we relate to the past – and this change happens in the mind. Tra-ill stresses the importance of mentalisation and focusing on meta-cognition – while having Radical Empathy for the other and their experience. I love this term Radical Empathy and I want to shout it from the rooftops that we all must do this now! I refrain of course.
“People respond to how you hold them in your mind” Tra-ill points out that when the words you speak are incongruent with your thoughts about a person – they know. This is a radical concept if you think about how our society encourages the withholding of the truth in order to “be polite”. We have not been taught to say what is on our mind in kind and loving ways. We have plenty of examples of how to say hurtful, mean and stupid things – but when it comes to owning and expressing our thoughts and feelings, honestly – as a collective, we have a long way to go. And it is understandable as trauma disrupts our communicability.
This brings us to the skill of relating and the understanding that good therapy is about relating. I am reminded of Irvin Yalom’s work – being in the now “focus on what is happening between you and me in the here and now”. Is trust present? Is a sense of safety present? People come to therapy to get their needs met, to be validated, to be heard and believed.
The focus of imagination is under-estimated in therapy. Imagination forms the horizon – it can see a future worth living for – it’s in this fluid space that recalibration of the mind and meta-cognition can occur. It is here that past relationships are healed.
With little warning, Tra-ill informs us that he is going to do a demonstration of his practice – with a colleague who has been sitting among us for the entire time. He has earned the right obviously. The session begins and very quickly we are witness to a level of intimacy that is rarely encountered in our day to day lives. The gentleness, the slowness, the moment to moment consent sought by the practitioner, moves the session into an imaginative, creative space. The trust between these two people is palpable. Tra-ill’s voice is so quiet and gentle, I could barely hear sitting up the back – but this did not distract from the process. What I saw and felt was an interaction – a delicate, skilled, attuned process – carefully facilitated by both the practitioner and the client. It was clear the client had autonomy and was guiding the process while Tra-ill remained deeply connected, present and patient. There was no rush and there was silence and pause – mind holding mind. It’s not surprising the outcome was transformative – for all present that afternoon.
It is difficult to put into words what one takes from being witness to such vulnerability and privacy. I know it was a privilege and an honour to be there – to be part of someone’s inner world is entirely humbling and I am grateful. Some may say that it was a kind of magic. But it is definitely not that. It is many years of experience, years of study, years of observing and working with the human condition, deep self-reflection and self-awareness and a preparedness to get amongst the funk with clients. Let nothing be foreign to you for “trauma is imaginable” and “it is your job to make it so”.
We come to the end of two days of listening, learning and grappling with new ideas – my brain is full. I sense the room is full of satisfied and dare I say slightly discombobulated punters and we all agree it’s been worth it! I think about my work tomorrow and the clients I will encounter – all I can hear is “Go ten times slower and more gently than you think you need to go”.