Bypassing The Spiritual Bypass: Re-Association as a Spiritual Practice

The purpose of therapy is to help the client acknowledge, experience, and bear reality. -Bessel Van Der Kolk

    In psychology, dissociation is any of a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality. In the era of the smart phone, Facebook, Twitter, and binge watching Netflix, dissociation is perhaps the defining characteristic of modern American life. As I take a look around the coffee shop I am writing this in, what strikes me is that I’m the only one looking around. Everyone else in this bustling business in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle has their nose in a laptop or a smartphone. I muse to myself that never before in history has humanity been so able to remove themselves from their immediate surroundings; that not so long ago in our history too much dissociation would be a death sentence: removal from our surroundings would mean we would not be present for the subtle snapping of a twig or movement of a shadow, and the saber toothed tiger would get the jump on us. Now that we’ve killed all of our natural predators or put them in zoos, we can go through life in a very detached and neurotic state.

    Dissociation isn’t only about being cut off from our immediate surroundings, it also includes being cut off from ourselves. A client I worked with, a very successful academic, had a history of sexual abuse and was severely somatically dissociated, meaning she had very little connection to the feeling of her body and sensuality. Another client, a manager with narcissistic tendencies, had a tyrant for a father and was dissociated from any feeling of emotional vulnerability, and thus cut off from the ability to have real meaningful human relationships. Another client was dissociated from his personal power and agency, most likely from emulating his metaphorically castrated father, and as a result experienced trauma after trauma of being bullied and humiliated by authority figures, bosses, and romantic partners.

   One of the great things about modern day neuroscience is that we now know the physiology of dissociation. Stephen Porges, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois, gifted the fields of trauma healing, contemplative practice, and psychology with Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory states that dissociation is actually a manifestation of the “freeze” response, which is what all animals do, including the human animal, in the face of overwhelming stress. When fighting and fleeing don’t work, the dorsal part of the vagus nerve kicks in, (part of the parasympathetic nervous system), and puts the organism into the freeze/shutdown response. This is a state characterized by shutdown, conservation, immobility, and dissociation. The gazelle running from the cheetah enters the freeze state when it has lost the race. This serves many biological survival functions, including a drastic drop in heart rate which prevents blood loss, it emulates death so the predator may lose interest if it is not a carrion feeder, and it has an anesthetic quality to it, meaning the gazelle doesn’t have to deal with the pain of being eaten alive. Dr. David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer, recorded his own experience with the freeze response triggered by his encounter with a lion on the plains of Africa:

     “I heard a shout. Startled, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivore; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death.”

   One need not be mauled by a lion to evoke a freeze/dissociative response. The modern day triggers of the freeze response can be as simple as emotionally mis-attuned caregivers, micro aggressions in the form of systemic racism and sexism, information overload, and over work.

   Western psychology has traditionally pathologized all forms of dissociation, and understandably so. Disconnection from reality is a major cause of suffering personally and globally. One sees the devastating effects of dissociation in post-truth America; where scientific facts take a back seat to trauma fueled projection and a man with a blaring mental illness can get 61 million votes and become leader of the free world. But what western psychology often misses are the potential healing and liberating qualities of the dissociation/freeze response. These healing and liberating qualities are well known, documented, and mapped in the ancient wisdom traditions of the East, including yoga, tantra, Buddhism, and Taoism, not to mention the mystical branches of Islam (Sufism), Judaism (Kabbalah) and Christianity. Joseph Campbell, the great professor and mythologist, found that in indigenous cultures the world over every one of them had a way of entering non-ordinary states (technically dissociative states influenced by the dorsal vagus nerve) through the sacred use of psychoactive plants, dance, drumming, ritual, or extreme exertion. In fact, one of the diagnosis for mental illness in the indigenous cultures Campbell studied was the inability to enter non-ordinary dissociative states. In other words, if you couldn’t dance yourself into an ecstatic state and talk to the gods, you were considered a psychological failure, in need of some serious help. The major variable is how one enters the dissociative state: In the more traditional cultures one enters with the support of the community or tribe, in a state of reverence and respect, with the wisdom of the elders guiding the experience, and a relative sense of safety. In trauma or chronic stress one enters the dissociative states with a profound sense of fear and danger. There is a huge difference between a stressed out overworked person puking their guts out in a cold sweat on a weekend ayahuasca ceremony and realizing the impermanence of all of existence, and someone on a month long silent meditation retreat with good teachers and a regulated nervous system that opens up to the same truth. In the latter example, the truth is metabolized and integrated and becomes a source of well being, ease, and freedom. In the former example it is a traumatizing and shattering experience.

   By the time I found my way to my first 10 day silent Buddhist meditation retreat in my early 20’s, I was already a professional dissociator. I learned from a very early age how to dissociate, and I had a lot to dissociate from. My home environment was emotionally and physically abusive, I was raised by a single mom, and I was an emotionally sensitive child in a hyper-masculine blue collar suburb, my public education consisting of the mind numbing regurgitation of facts and blind submission to authority. I would lose myself in reverie, daydreams of my real parents coming to rescue me; then fantasy novels, JRR Tolkein and Isaac Asimov, comic books, television. When I reached my teens I discovered the wonders of chemically assisted dissociation in the form of marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA. These chemicals evoked states of consciousness that I yearned for but never found in ordinary reality, states of bliss, feelings of oneness and union and connection; it felt like I was tapping into the mysteries of the cosmos. But then I’d sober up and I’d be in the fucking suburbs again. In the words of Keith Richards, long time heavy heroin addict (heroin being perhaps the reigning champion of chemically assisted dissociation) “All the contortions we go through just not to be ourselves for a few hours.”

  In the tradition of Buddhist meditation I first trained in, we started by cultivating a state of samadhi through concentration (shamatha) practice. Samadhi practice is one of many ways one can enter into dissociative states through the Buddhist tradition, and very importantly it is seen as a preparatory phase of practice, not the end or the goal of meditation. The idea is that by the time people come to meditation practice, life has sufficiently kicked their ass to the point that their minds and nervous systems are in need of a little vacation. If one has a knack for it, one can practice concentration meditation and enter into profound states of peace, bliss, and union that rival and often surpass those offered by psychedelic substances. One learns how to dissociate in a healthy way, a way that doesn’t require the use of addictive chemicals or entertainments. This is seen as preliminary to the real work of Buddhist meditation: seeing deeply and unflinchingly into the nature of reality. In other words, a radical re-association into the beauty and horror that is human existence. This is interestingly quite similar to the Somatic Experiencing/ Organic Intelligence approach of stabilizing adequate resource/ orientation to blue, before entering into traumatic material.

   In my early/mid 20’s, however, I was not so interested in seeing deeply into the nature of reality. I was primarily interested in escaping it, which was the habit of my addicted brain. For a time I lived in a van on the streets of Seattle to save money to go on two or three month silent meditation retreats. I was a natural at concentration meditation, and on retreat I would enter into profound states of samadhi (jana) for weeks at a time. When samadhi is strong, the constant self referencing thoughts that bombards us so insidiously go away. So does emotion and likes/dislikes, and even one's personality. What is left over are deep feelings of peace, pleasure, the feeling of floating in a benevolent sea of milk and honey. To put it another way, I got to take a long vacation from being Brent. Keith Richards would only get a few hours from his smack, I got weeks at a time from my samadhi. This was a source of great pride for me. The bummer was coming off of retreat, and after I stopped reciting my mantra or concentrating on the breath or visualization, my personality would come back, in all its wounded and neurotic splendor. I would sober up from my samadhi fix, so to speak, and that old acronym for sober really rang true: Son Of a Bitch, Everything is Real. Samadhi practice did lots for my understanding of the nature of dissociation, how the personality constructs itself, and the peace to be found beyond the material realm. It did very little, however, in the way of improving my ability to be in the material realm, to be in time, or to love and work in a healthy way.

   Mine was a classic case of the “Spiritual Bypass”. Spiritual bypassing, a term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. Other terms for this same pattern include spiritual pride, spiritual narcissism, or spiritual materialism. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth. While western psychology swings too far one way pathologizing all dissociation, the spiritual bypass swings too far the other way fetishizing dissociative states.

   The spiritual bypass is especially dangerous at this time in history, not necessarily for the people engaging in it, but because this pattern often leads to negligence. It’s a huge bummer that a mentally ill tyrant is now leader of the free world, and if the spiritual bypass is running the show, that reality can easily be avoided in the name of getting back to a samadhi fix or ayahuasca journey. Spiritual bypassing is particularly insidious and nauseating when adopted by folks of privilege. An ivory tower of spiritual pride is constructed smack dab in the middle of the fortress that is white and economic privilege, leading to lack of empathy and action for the less fortunate.

   The danger of spiritual bypassing in the time of Trump is echoed through Noam Chosky’s critique of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications: “They make a situation that is unbearable bearable”. Numbing the pain through pharmaceuticals, blissing out in meditation, or soaring through the cosmos in an ayahuasca ceremony have their place; however the danger is that the anger and anxiety evoked from injustice are bypassed rather than channeled into effective action and social change.

  During my late 20s I began to see the limitations of spiritual bypassing, primarily from a series of failed romantic relationships and work. I was also blessed with having good meditation teachers that saw what I was doing. I began to radically shift my meditation practice from concentration to open choice-less awareness, meaning rather than paying attention to one object like the breath or a mantra to the exclusion of others, I would let all of life flood in, including my neurotic thoughts, inner critic, unprocessed emotions, and whatever else. I would go on meditation retreats and rather than meditating on bliss, I would meditate on the messy phenomenon called Brent. I started gravitating more towards the non-dual teachings of Buddhism and away from the whole idea of the spiritual retirement home (that one day I’d magically pop into a great state of consciousness and remain there). I took inspiration from Zen Buddhist stories of the bodhisattva Monjusri, a mythological figure that would take a human form and enter the taverns and teach the drunks the dharma, then hang out with homeless people and teach them, then enter the bordellos and teach the prostitutes and johns the dharma. To me this represented the shift of my spiritual practice from transcendence to embodiment (re-association). I began to see that my messy wounds were not obstacles to overcome, but the perfect training ground for the awakening of understanding and compassion. While spiritual bypassing is defined by trancendance, spiritual re-association is defined by the willingness to keep showing up for the messiness, vulnerability, and inevitable heartbreak of life.

  In the Somatic Experiencing/Organic Intelligence world, we have the term “coming out of freeze” to describe the journey from dissociation to re-association. Humbling is the best word I have to describe my own journey out of dissociation. Interestingly humble has the latin root “humus” meaning “of the earth”. Freeze and dissociation are of the sky; these days I’m much more interested in being a messy, smelly, embodied, weird human being. Re-association has the very humbling quality of making the details of one’s life much more important, because one is actually present for them. For me this has taken the form of ending a marriage, moving out of my home, changing my career, and pretty much every other detail of my life. Similar shifts are taking place in colleagues, friends, and fellow pilgrims on this journey of embodied spirituality. This path is not for the faint of heart, but the earth desperately needs people who are actually standing on her.

-May God break my heart so completely the whole world falls in.  -Mother Teresa



noun  1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. 2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

    Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.  We are often inspired by stories of human beings displaying acts of great resiliency. Bob Marley played a free concert two days after being shot by a would be assassin, bullet still in his arm: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” Mother Teresa helped the sick and dying in Calcutta for decades and even asked for more trouble: “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” This quality of resilience is swiftly gaining popularity amongst educational and psychological institutions, perhaps in response to decades of helicopter parenting and the resulting impairment of this quality. In 1899 the Newsies of New York unionized, went on strike, stood up to bullying and violence from Joseph Pulitzer and the mafia, and demonstrated; shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge and eventually winning their demands. The average age of a Newsie at the time was 9 years old.

   Other role models for amazing resilience include all undomesticated animals, and indigenous peoples. Zebras, for example, live extremely stressful lives, sometimes having to share the watering hole with 550 pound lions that would like very much to eat them. There might be a life or death chase or struggle that occurs on a daily basis, after which the zebra, if it survives, will shake off the stress and return to eating grass as if nothing ever happened. But, Zebras don’t get ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, or any other stress related illness. In fact, stress related illness is unknown amongst wild animals or wild humans; stress related illness is a disease of culture. What is up with that? Receiving a nasty email or someone unliking us on Facebook is enough to send some of us to the bar, drug dealer, or psychiatrist. This question inspired one of my main teachers, Dr. Peter Levine, to study and develop “Somatic Experiencing”, a method to resolve the effects of trauma and chronic stress in the human nervous system.

  In short, the theory shared amongst many stress researchers and neuroscientists (Peter Levine, Dan Siegal, Robert Sapolsky, Bessel Van Der Kolk, and Stephen Porges for example) is that wild animals don’t get chronic stress because they don’t have a neocortex. A moment of acute stress, whether it be from a stalking tiger or shady human in a dark alley, releases a cocktail of stress hormones, namely adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which last about 3 minutes or less, unless another stressor triggers another flood. The stress response was designed to last for shorts amounts of time. A large body of evidence suggests that stress related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. When a zebra is running from a lion, it’s stressed out, but when it’s not, it’s chill. Human beings can continue to have an existential crisis years after a stressful event (what does it all mean?), because we have a big human brain that can literally think up stressful events that aren’t actually happening, triggering the same physiology as if it were. "My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened" wrote Mark Twain.

  Another main reason wild animals and indigenous folks are so resilient is that they don’t futz with the natural arch of the stress response. The theory is that when the wild animal (humans being an animal) are scared, they run. When they’re angry, they fight. When neither of those is gonna work, they freeze and play dead. When the danger has passed, they shake it off and move on with their lives. Much of modern culture trains us to be stoic, to keep a stiff upper lip, to internalize our struggle and not appear “weak” or “emotional”. Woody Allen joked that “Oh, I don’t get angry. I just grow a tumor.” Resilience is often confused with stoicism, when in fact stoicism is a recipe for being stuck in a never ending cycle of a stress feedback loop: the stress cycle is interrupted by our efforting, resistance, or over-thinking, and gets stuck like a broken record. 

   The chart below represents the natural cycle of the stress response, and we can use our big human brains to futz with this cycle, never allowing it to fully complete. Like a sneeze or an orgasm that never quite gets up to threshold, we can inhibit anger, fear, tears, sadness, or grief from fully expressing by holding our breath, keeping ourselves busy, or constant media exposure. In Somatic Experiencing sessions, I’ve seen time and again the healing nature of giving oneself over to this natural biological cycle of the stress response; when people let go enough, the cycles of anger, fear, helplessness, shaking, tears, and emotion naturally arise, hit a threshold of intensity, much like a sneeze or orgasm, and pass, leaving the client feeling immense relief and empowerment.





   From a Buddhist and Existential Psychology perspective, resiliency is so central to well-being, because security and safety are very relative concepts. Helen Keller, another example of amazing resilience, said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Difficulty, pain, heart break, old age, sickness, and death are so woven into the fabric of life that trying to avoid them is like trying to run from your own shadow. Buddhist meditation practice, then, is not to run from pain, but to make one’s peace with pain. In the words of the Buddha, “Pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, they come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a great tree in the center of them all.” This approach is typically not the knee jerk response of your average domesticated human being, especially a human being that grew up ingesting advertisements from various business entities that make their living on selling security, insurance, and safety; the implicit message often being: “Feeling scared? Go buy something. Feeling lonely? Go buy something. Feeling empty? Go buy something. Feeling in danger? Go buy something. Feeling unworthy? Go buy something. In pain? Go buy something.” Bishop Tutu, the South African social activist and holy man, spoke to the American tendency to run from discomfort (the stress response) and called America “the land of the unmourned dead.”

  Resiliency, then, is not about stoic, militaristic, stiff-upper-lipped machismo. Nor is it about helicopter parenting, trigger warnings, or bubble wrapping the world. It is about the willingness to step into the fire of the stress response; learning to trust that your 600 million year old nervous system knows how to recover from acute stress if you just let it. It is about the willingness to say “yes” to discomfort and pain and suffering. It is about letting life effect and move you deeply, while riding the ups and downs of life. Like the Tibetan saying goes, “If there are sharp rocks on the ground, you can cover the world in leather. Or, you can put on a pair of shoes.” The shoes are resilience, they are made from trust, honesty, wisdom, compassion, and humility.

  “You can turn away from the suffering of the world. That is your right, and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very turning away is the one suffering you can avoid.”

-Franz Kafka

The Little Duck

It’s a duck

Riding on the waves

A hundred feet beyond the surf.

It can rest while the Atlantic heaves

Because it rests in the Atlantic.

 Probably it doesn’t know

How large the ocean is.

And neither do you.

 But what does it do, I ask you?

It sits down in it.

It rests in the immediate

As though it were infinity

 That’s spirituality

And the little duck has it.

 -Donald C. Babcock

Resilience Part 2

  When I teach a 6 week meditation training course, often during the first meditation of the first class I invite folks to sit with the question: “Why am I here?” After a minute or two I ask another question, “Why am I really here?” And after another minute, “Why am I really really here?” This line of inquiry is designed to get us in touch with not only what is it we want out of meditation, but what is it we want out of life? Why am I here on this planet? I practice a similar technique when first sitting with a new client in a Somatic Experiencing session, borrowed from my teacher Steve Hoskinson, “So, what brings you in?”. Over the years I’ve come to notice that a lot of folks are very in touch with what they don’t want (anxiety, depression, addiction, loneliness, shame, unhealthy eating habits, etc.), and somewhat at a loss for what they do want. Maybe this is a result of the fetishization of symptoms in Western medicine and psychology, maybe it’s because the symptoms of chronic stress are so pervasive and uncomfortable that they drown out the quieter yearnings of the soul. At any rate, figuring out what you want and going for it is at the core of contemplative practice, Somatic Experiencing, and a meaningful life. Yogi Berra, catcher for the New York Yankees, said, “If you don't know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.”

  Freud said “Love and work…work and love, that's all there is…love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles said that love and strife were the primary moving factors not just for humans but also for the whole universe. I find when we get down to what it’s all about, we get down to these two central forces, love and work. If I could be so arrogant as to add to Freud, I would add meaningful love and work.

  Joseph Campbell rapped about meaning: “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

  New Wave philosophers “The Buggles” called the information age “The Age of Plastic” way back in 1980, accurately predicting the effect of technology on culture and the resulting superficiality. This is quite a visceral description of the existential pain lying deep in the hearts of many in the modern world; love and work for many are as empty and shallow as a suburban strip mall. Love in The Age of Plastic takes the form of 700 Facebook friends we barely know, but try desperately to impress with photos displaying how great our lives are, strategically taken at certain moments to cover up the deep loneliness and emptiness. Rather than having meaningful conversations, we tweet one-liners or text emojis. Dating and courtship in the Age of Plastic takes the form of Zagat-rated lovers; rather than looking deeply into the eyes of the other in search of the their soul, we look deeply into their OkCupid profile to suss out how much money they make, the size of their breasts, if they like scary movies, or other trivialities. Love-making in the age of plastic takes the form of an entire generation or two of men addicted to pornography, and 15 year old girls reporting the heart breaking phenomenon of “sex before kissing”. Love in The Age of Plastic has other chilling statistics; one in four Americans reports not having a single person to talk to about important issues, loneliness among American adults has increased 16 percent in the last decade, and three out of every four adults agree with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger.” ie touch deprivation.

  Work in The Age of Plastic often takes the form of that rabbit in Alice and Wonderland: “I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date!” It used to be that we would leave work at work, but with modern technology we can work 24 hours a day with our smart phones and laptops, answering emails in airplanes or in our pajamas, leaving us exhausted but unable to disconnect. Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California at Irving strapped heart-rate monitors to a team of U.S. army civilian employees, she discovered that email was in fact a major cause of stress. The average worker checks their email 74 times a day, according to Mark’s research. That’s about nine times an hour in a typical eight-hour workday. One worker shared, “Email is relentless. There’s no break. You’re on this treadmill. You’re trying to stay on top of your email, which really means staying on top of the tasks that you’re being asked to do on email, but then you keep getting more and more email which represents more and more tasks.” One client described to me the lack of meaning in her job with a very evocative image, “It feels like I’m a monkey on a typewriter.” Add to this cocktail economic insecurity, stiff competition, and systemic greed and incompetence in leadership, and we have Work in The Age of Plastic.

   One of the unfortunate effects of traumatic stress and/or chronic stress is that the nervous system gets stuck at a very high state of arousal. Like an engine with the RPMs redlined, any extra stimulus becomes highly aversive, with the old saying “the straw that broke the camel’s back” being a very real danger. Also, less arousal becomes highly aversive as well, with both conscious and unconscious core-beliefs keeping the nervous system revved up, such as “If I relax, who’s gonna pay the bills? Last time I relaxed something terrible happened. Idle hands do the devil’s work. If I relax someone else will take my job. I’ll relax after my email/to do list is done (which is never).” In it’s extreme expression, a slight stimulus is enough to send the nervous system into chaos, such as an environmental toxin/fragrance, eating gluten, difficult feedback, a difficult interaction, a nasty email, sleeping in a new bed, even leaving home. When the nervous system is redlined life is about survival, not meaning. Life becomes the pursuit of money and security and stability, rather than the pursuit of meaning and thus real happiness. Fritz Perls, the famous psychologist and developer of Gestalt therapy, would ask his patients, “When did you die? When did you stop singing and dancing and dreaming?”

  So often we trade what is meaningful for what is comfortable/ familiar. Resiliency is the ability to ride the inevitable waves of discomfort that come with change. In Joseph Campbell’s seminal book “Hero with a Thousand Faces” he found that the great myths of the world had very similar plot lines, what he called the “mono-myth” or “hero’s journey”. The myths center around a character who goes on a journey in the pursuit of meaning, the first step of which is to leave the familiar. Frodo and Bilbo Baggins leave the Shire, Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine, Dorothy leaves Kansas, the Buddha leaves the palace; all heroes leave the familiar in search of something beyond words or recall, something indescribable but deeply meaningful. “I’d like to boldly go where no one has gone before. But I’ll probably never leave Aurora.” says the character Garth in the genius 90s comedy ‘Wayne’s World’. Garth is a character that wants to spread his wings but can’t muster up the resilience to leave the familiar comfort of his white bread Michigan suburb.

  Again from Joseph Campbell: “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.” To change, even if for the better, is highly stressful. The events that bring meaning to life; like adventurous travel, starting a new relationship or ending an unhealthy one, starting a new business or ending a job that no longer serves you, entering therapy, talking to a stranger, standing up against injustice, speaking your truth; these are all highly stimulating activities. When the nervous system is redlined, these key life events that move life forward are often put on the back burner.

   The beauty of good Somatic Experiencing, mindfulness practice, or other healing work is the growth that happens as a result of taking a load off the nervous system and building resiliency. On the second or third year of SE training, the cohort I belonged to experienced amazing changes naturally occurring in their lives as a result of doing good healing work: “I got a new job. I moved into a new house. I got a divorce! I’ve got a new lover/spouse.” An SE client I work with got shot twice in the leg by a Seattle police officer at the age of 13 for pulling a cell phone out of his pocket while doing graffiti (yes, he’s a POC). At its worst, his traumatic stress redlined his nervous system to the point of agoraphobia. After 3 years of weekly SE and a long and winding healing journey, he has a full time job he finds very meaningful and is trying his hand at dating.

  A classic Buddhist technique for living a meaningful life is to meditate on one’s inevitable death. One zen practice is to spend a little time each day on your imaginary death bed, looking back on your life. From this perspective, what really holds importance and value? 60 hour work weeks to buy Teslas and khakis to impress people you don’t like? Binge watching Netflix? Pabst blue ribbon and bong rips? Getting lots of likes on Facebook? In the classic Carlos Castaneda books Don Juan the Yaqui medicine man instructs his student to remember death at every step. “When you realize death is behind you three steps waiting to tap you at any moment, so much pettiness is dropped.” When I remember my own life from this perspective, what’s been meaningful for me has not been the windows of financial security or comfort I’ve experienced, but the adventures I’ve had, the moments of deep connection I’ve shared with others, the wild healing journey I’ve travelled, and the risks I’ve taken in the name of living a life of depth.

    “My story isn't pleasant, it's not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.”  -Hermann Hesse