Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TM to Transcend Trauma and Abuse?

Russian street kids

I'm a big fan and supporter of meditation and mindfulness as an adjunct to Western psychotherapies - piles and piles of studies have shown that it works. However, it is not appropriate for all clients. One population where it needs to be used judiciously and often isn't - as in this article from the Transcendental Meditation folks at the David Lynch Foundation - is with trauma survivors.

One of the symptoms of trauma and abuse is a tendency to dissociate - the person will experience almost discreet selves, one that holds the trauma and its pain and memory, and one that manages the self-system to keep the trauma repressed. Pierre Janet was the first to clearly define this process and it took us 100 years to get back to it - imagine how much farther along we would be if Janet had won out over Freud.

From van der Hart, Nijenhuis, Steele & Brown (2004):
Based on astute clinical observation and theoretical analysis, Janet and his contemporaries postulated that dissociation denotes an organized ‘division of the personality’ [13,16], in our terms, a structural dissociation of the personality. This division involves insufficient integration among two or more ‘systems of ideas and functions that constitute personality’ [15, p. 332]. These systems do not exist in a vacuum but encompass a sense of self, no matter how rudimentary or vastly developed [e.g. 16–18]. The notion of dissociation as a structural dissociation of the personality gained more clarity in the work of Charles Myers [19].
This is especially true in children - for more on this see anything by Allan Schore.

Knowing this, teaching kids who have been traumatized and/or abused a skill that can help them dissociate from their pain and fear is a recipe for a child who grow up without ever fully and adequately processing the trauma.

Bad idea.

Read this article with this information in mind. TM may be great for some of these kids, but it takes professional discernment to know which ones, and I don't think that is happening.

How to Transcend Trauma and Abuse

- Writer for the David Lynch Foundation and 25-year teacher of Transcendental Meditation

Posted: 06/26/11

Many children who run away from violence and abuse at home end up living on the streets. In the U.S., over 300,000 such children are involved in sex trafficking. For some of the lucky ones who have been rescued, in this country and abroad, meditation is a vital part of their healing and recovery.

"Children of the Night," a highly regarded youth shelter in Southern California, has teamed up with the David Lynch Foundation to offer the Transcendental Meditation technique as part of its program to help child prostitutes overcome trauma and build a positive, productive life.

"I never thought I could do it," says one of the teens, speaking of meditation. "Before I started TM, I had a really negative energy -- I had to have that vibe to survive. The first time I meditated, it was the most calming experience I ever had in my life. I started to become happier. I felt, like, human. When I do it, my anxiety goes away completely."

Puki Freeberg teaches Transcendental Meditation classes at the shelter in Los Angeles. "As everyone knows, abused kids are often shut down emotionally," she told me. "Trauma is stored in the nervous system. TM is known to provide physiological relaxation -- deeper than ordinary rest or sleep, studies show. Through the deep rest, knots of emotional stress just melt away."

To many, meditation suggests mental control, contemplation, or striving to become more aware of one's thoughts or feelings. Fortunately, this meditation technique involves no effort, no rehashing the past, and is easy to practice -- even for turbulent teens.

"You don't have to control the mind or sort through negative emotions to meditate," says Puki. "TM allows these kids to transcend or get beyond their busy, agitated minds and quickly settle into a state of comfort. They take to it pretty easily and love meditating because they get immediate relief."

No one can change what's happened to these children in the past, but the human spirit is so infinitely flexible that with proper care it can rebound -- especially when we're young.

Meditation as a tool for healing and transformation

But can a simple, gentle meditation technique transform the crippling effects of trauma and abuse?

Renowned psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal says yes: "And I mean transform as in, 'He or she is a different person.'"

A senior researcher for 20 years at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Rosenthal is famous for pioneering the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder. After delving into the hundreds of scientific studies on the Transcendental Meditation technique, he concluded: "If TM were a new prescription drug, conferring this many benefits, it would be a billion-dollar blockbuster."

In his new book, "Transcendence," Rosenthal documents the effect of this meditation on a range of people -- including his own patients -- suffering from severe anxiety, depression, and other disorders caused by trauma and stress. He identifies transcending during meditation as the natural, innate mechanism responsible for the healing breakthroughs brought on by twice-daily TM practice.

How does a meditation technique help a child or anyone get beyond the inner tumult and negative impressions caused by trauma and abuse?

The power of transcendence

Tensions and fear lose their hold as the mind effortlessly turns inward and transcends mental activity, going beyond thought to settle into a silent field of clarity and inner peace.

This experience has been shown to bring about an immediate, positive shift in brain function and metabolic rate. Brain research on subjects practicing the TM technique shows the onset of widespread EEG coherence in the alpha range, indicating not only relaxed inner wakefulness but also expanded awareness -- one's consciousness becomes more whole.1 Simultaneously, the physiology gains deep relaxation, as indicated by decreased breath rate, increased skin resistance, reduced cortisol and other factors.2

The neurophysiology of this meditative state clearly distinguishes it from ordinary, eyes-closed rest, and the benefits of experiencing it twice a day far exceed what one might expect from mere relaxation.3

A global initiative

Father Gabriel Mejia, a Catholic priest, has been sheltering street children in Columbia, South America, for over 25 years. From small beginnings, his project has grown to 52 centers throughout Latin America, serving more than 3,500 children at any given time. Some of the homeless children are as young as six. Their stories range from heartrending to horrifying. Many had resorted to sniffing glue to escape the torment of life on the streets.

At the shelter they are given food, a safe place to sleep, and a hospitable environment. They can stay and learn vocations and become part of a close-knit, supportive community. Finally, they have a family. But to overcome the trauma -- the fight-or-flight way of life that becomes baseline for such children -- even all this isn't enough.

As part of their rehabilitation, the children learn the Transcendental Meditation technique. Father Mejia: "When a child closes their eyes and begins to meditate, they open themselves to a field of all possibilities. The world opens for the child, and then the child discovers their essential nature, which is love."

Over the past five years, more than 150,000 at-risk youth around the world have learned this meditation technique through personal, one-on-one instruction and a series of ongoing classes. Meditation comes to these children as a gift.

A teenage girl diagnosed with ADHD recently signed up to learn meditation at the TM center where I teach. She happened to see a video of children being rescued by Father Mejia's helpers on the streets of Columbia. In comparison, her world didn't seem so bad, she said. "If these kids can learn meditation and overcome their problems, so can I."

VIDEO: "Children of the Night" -- Child Prostitutes Learn Transcendental Meditation

VIDEO: "Saving the Disposable Ones" -- Father Gabriel Mejia Gives Food, Shelter, Kindness and Transcendental Meditation To Homeless Children

Scientific references:
1. Cognitive Processing, 11:1, 2010; Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 302-318, 1999;
International Journal of Neuroscience, 14: 147-151, 1981
2. International Journal of Neuroscience, 100, 77-89, 2000; American Psychologist [42] 879-81, 1989; Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 16(3):415-424, 1992; The Journal of Mind and Behavior 10(4):307-334, 1989; American Psychologist [42] 879-81, 1987
3. Journal of Clinical Psychology [45] 957-974, 1989; American Journal of Hypertension 21(3): 310-316, 2008; Intelligence 29: 419-440, 2001

There are two videos at the Huff Post site for those who are interested.


Anwer said...

I think you are pointing out the possibility of 'spiritual bypassing'. You warn about dissociation, while Norman Rosenthal describes transcending as the "mechanism responsible for healing breakthroughs". He even compares TM to a 'prescription drug'. If there's anything we should transcend, it's our reliance on drug-like experiences to cope with problems!

william harryman said...

I agree with you Anwer, we don't need to be giving these kids anything that resembles a drug.

And that is my essential issue with TM used this way - it's giving the kids a way to numb their pain, no different than if they smoke weed or shoot heroin in terms of delaying or side-tracking their healing.

Lawson English said...

While there are scatterred reports of people who have had issues with Transcendental Meditation due to relaxation induced anxiety, TM teachers have reasonably effective guidelines for dealing with these issues.

Research on veterans with PTSD (it is hard to imagine a more stressful situation than being in combat) shows that TM helps alleviate PTSD symptoms by as much as 50% in the first 2 months of practice.

And, unlike most other forms of meditation, it is perfectly possible for a beginner to use TM in the most extreme conditions, such as being in the middle of combat. If you have a safe place to sit and close your eyes for 10-20 minutes, you can still easily practice TM regardless of what is going on around you.