On Sunday, November 11th, Dr. Peter Levine joined me for a profound exploration of how trauma affects our nervous systems and society, in a dialogue entitled “Creating Health In a Traumatized Society”. Our discussion, which was at times deeply tender, explored the link between healing trauma in the individual and the transformation and flourishing of culture and society.
Peter agreed with my suggestion that his work has helped bring about what might be called “the 3rd wave” of psychotherapy. The 1st wave of psychotherapeutic approaches focused on helping the client become conscious of psychological patterns, primarily using the conscious mind, the primate or cortical regions of the brain. The 2nd wave of psychotherapies focus on eliciting healing, corrective emotional experiences, experienced in the mammalian limbic regions of the brain. Now, a 3rd wave of psychotherapeutic approaches focus on helping free up stuck patterns of chronic activation or freezing in the reptilian midbrain.
Early in Peter’s career he began studying animals because they have identical lower brain structures to those in humans. He observed that animals exhibit shaking, trembling, and temperature changes just as humans do when confronted with threatening situations such as a predator. Yet animals seem to quickly return to equilibrium after a trauma while humans can take years or even a lifetime to recover.
He also noticed that there’s a wide spectrum of trauma, ranging from disabling battlefield post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the low-level that restricts even “healthy” successful people’s freedom to respond flexibly and appropriately in triggering situations.
This exploration gave rise to the lynchpin insight underlying Peter’s work—addressing trauma as it manifests in the somatic being. In studying wild animals, Peter realized that “we must possess the same abilities to rebound from trauma as these animals. So, much of my work has been coaching clients to trust those animal instincts.” Rather than denying or suppressing them as Freud would have us do, Peter believes there is something much wiser that can come from opening to the sensations and impulses that arise out of our instincts. We can be with these “creature” reactions of fight, flight and freeze without becoming the rage, the fear, or the shock; this allows us to integrate, discharge tension, and grow.
During our dialog Peter remarked that in the same way we are programed to pick up on and experience fear and threat from each other’s nervous systems, we are also programmed to experience peace. I suggested to Peter that within the context of the driving inquiry of Beyond Awakening—that is, how can a living spiritual practice enable human beings to create more enlightened responses to the global crisis of our time—his work offers a model of how to integrate mind, emotion and instinct as a basis for a fully-embodied spirituality. This model gives us the ability to show up as a more functional being, one who is operating less as a reaction to unresolved trauma, and more able to respond appropriately to experience, even sometimes unwinding trauma in our own bodies, communities and world.
I suggested to Peter that it would be helpful to our listeners, many of whom might never have occasion to enter into trauma therapy, to hear about addressing trauma as it lives in our ordinary lives.
He shared several practical applications of his work including “titration” and “pendulation.” First he suggested noticing that, even when we are in physical or emotional pain, there is always a place in our body or spirit that is peaceful or restful. Orienting to the space we are in, and connecting to sensations of peace, calm the nervous system and provide key resources when facing trauma.
Titration involves facing the experience of trauma gently and gradually, experiencing only what feels manageable and then backing off, never pushing to the point that we become flooded or overwhelmed. Pendulation means shifting your attention back and forth between sensations associated with activation (such as pressure in the chest) and sensations associated with peace (such as warmth and tingling in the hands and arms). By using titration and pendulation, we don’t face the trauma directly and re-traumatize the nervous system, but even so we gently expand our capacity to experience what had previously been disabling, slowly but surely experiencing greater and greater freedom.
I observed that this insight into trauma offered a basis for a much more profound and radical kind of self-compassion—not just compassion for ourselves at a mental and emotional level, but compassion for ourselves as creatures, analogous to the compassion we might extend to a suffering pet or wild animal. Peter agreed, and the mood of our dialog deepened and opened.
As he took questions from listeners, Peter went on to address, in an increasingly tender, compassionate, and intimate way, the way trauma expresses itself and even sometimes resolves itself across a spectrum of situations, including spirituality, intimate relationships, breakups, and sexuality.
In these ways, on a moment-to-moment basis, we can learn to compassionately and skillfully react to the arising patterns of trauma, for ourselves and our world. Peter summed up his philosophy by saying that he hopes there can be a “4th wave” of psychotherapy, in which we integrate and engage our resources on all levels, using the cortical, limbic and midbrain regions of our brains. I invite you to listen to the full dialog here.