Sacred Restoration: Co-Creating Trauma Healing Spaces to Support Returning Home By Alexandra Whitney, PhD, SEP™

by | Jun 25, 2024 | FEATURED STORIES

In 2018 I had the daunting privilege of working with Dr. Peter Levine when he asked me to develop and organize the Returning Home project, our first Somatic Experiencing® trauma healing intensive retreat and associated research study for Military Veterans suffering from combat and service-related trauma. As I now prepare for the third retreat this summer in midcoast Maine, I am reflecting on this journey. 

The Returning Home Project was a massive undertaking for someone who had no experience working with veterans. However, I was born into a military family, where my grandfather, father, and brother all served on the battlefield (WWI, WWII, Korea, Iraq). Due to generational war wounds in my family, I felt a calling to tend to the hearts and minds of those who had also suffered from military service and war. 

Oddly enough, I also had no previous experience organizing a complex therapeutic retreat. This led me to feel a bit like Forest Gump who magically found himself in elevated places with no apparent qualifications. How did I arrive at working alongside Peter Levine? I had vision, bravery, and a fire burning within me to do this work and to follow my unexpected destiny. The bravery I refer to is what Chögyam Trungpa describes as a “tender shakiness,” a place in the heart where one can lean into fear and thus become fearless.  

During my first visit with Peter, he asked me over a bowl of cashews, “What qualifies you to do such a program?” Without hesitation, my answer was, “I grew up in the hospitality business. My mother was a caterer, chef and masterful hostess.” I continued that I too have owned my own small catering business and have worked as an Innkeeper – welcoming guests, cooking, cleaning toilets, making beds, arranging flowers…” He chuckled. In earnest, I knew that my ability to connect heart-to-heart with people and offer hospitality by caring for others through delicious food and creating a beautiful, welcoming environment for rest and restoration would be primary medicine for our Returning Home veterans. 

One week before the start of the retreat, I visited the venue – a rustic Christian family camp on a beautiful lake in Maine – to ensure they had completed our agreed-upon renovations and cleanup. I was aghast. The camp was filthy after a summer of kids running around having the time of their lives and the agreed upon necessary renovations had not been made. 

I knew in my bones that this environment would impede healing. Everyone, including participants, told me, “They are veterans, they can sleep anywhere!” But how can the nervous system heal when the environment is dirty and run down, the bunk bed mattresses and pillows are plastic, crunchy and stiff, and overall the place is unappealing to the aesthetic eye? I was determined to find a new venue. Mind you, this was early October during the height of New England foliage sightseeing, just 7 days prior to the start of the retreat. Chances were slim! 

Vision. Bravery. Destiny. 

“Wedding venues,” I thought. “Nothing more beautiful in Maine than a wedding venue.” I was led to Point Lookout, a luxury wedding venue tucked away in the Maine woods overlooking the Penobscot Bay. Breathtaking medicine for the nervous system! As stars aligned, the Events Manager had a connection to veterans and pitched a charitable plan to his Director who agreed to offer us the venue at cost, a 75% discount! The beds were luxurious with down comforters. Everyone had a private bedroom in a well-appointed cottage. During the retreat we enjoyed gourmet meals and walking meditation in the surrounding woods and evening campfires overlooking the ocean. After the first night, many veterans remarked that they hadn’t slept so well in years.  

The retreat doors opened on the 10th of October to a fog of disorganization. Some of the chaos was due to changing venues last minute and having to sort out complex issues. For example, the group space for meals, meetings, yoga and hanging out was a 3,500 SQ foot EMPTY building! Remember the sweet discounted price we got? I had to fully furnish this space in just seven days. And I did. 

Vision. Bravery. Destiny. 

The moment the first wave of veterans walked through the door, I felt a flood gate opening and all of the incomplete details were like large objects that got swept up in the raging current of a tsunami. There was little I could do but just hold on and ride the wave. 

I quickly learned that it takes a village to create and execute a trauma healing retreat and to hold a container of safety for 21 combat veterans suffering from PTSD. For without the village of devoted and well-seasoned SEPs, this retreat would have been swept away by the current. SEPs are the root system to how we in the SE community heal trauma. They are on the frontline, holding the line and grounding their clients with heart, perseverance, skill, and wisdom. 

On Day 2, I was walking with Peter down the hall, frazzled and expressing my concerns and apologizing for all the things that appeared to be going wrong. Peter was chewing gum and smiling as I was near tears, heading into a shame spiral. Grinning, he said, “That’s great! You’re collecting data!” His nonchalance and appreciation for mistakes literally stopped me in my tracks. While I watched him saunter into the dining room, I was pleasantly stunned and relieved by his reframe. 

Thanks to Dr. Michael Changaris and our beloved late Dr. Michele Solloway, the research was executed with thoughtfulness and excellence. As a result, the retreat data showed clinically significant results. The Returning Home veterans experienced a measurable decrease in their PTSD symptoms. These positive results led me again, in 2021, to work in partnership with Peter’s Ergos Institute of Somatic Education to present our second generation Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Healing intensive retreat, Waking the Tiger. Lessons had been learned from Returning Home, but, still, I continued to “gather data” while co-creating a village and harnessing the collective wisdom of our SEPs and participants. Once again, the outcome of the retreat for the participants was measurably beneficial. 

This August a new team will offer Sacred Restoration, our third generation Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Healing Intensive for the general public that is based on the Returning Home curriculum. Thoughtfully co-organized by Dr. Melissa Sinclair (please check out her work with the SE Ukraine Task Force), an amazing team of SEPs and other providers is forming (please see their bios on the Sacred Restoration webpage). Dr. Michael Changaris and I will continue our research through a follow-up study to Returning Home.  

Vision. Bravery. Destiny. 

Sacred Restoration is about honoring the spiritual and emotional bravery that is required to heal trauma and to restore our “basic goodness” so that we can return Home to our Wholeness. This Somatic Experiencing Intensive is an invitation for our SE community to co-create our village and to spread the wisdom of Peter’s teachings and the transformative power of Somatic Experiencing®. Please join us. We welcome your application to join our team of SEPs, your ideas for potential future collaborations, and referrals of your clients to our next Intensive, August 27 – Sept 3, 2024 at the nourishing Wanderwood Farm in Nobleboro, Maine. 

To learn more about Sacred Restoration or to join our mailing list to hear about future events, please visit our website, follow us on Instagram @eightfoldpath501c3 or call Alexandra Whitney at +1.303.588.4939.