Somatic Experiencing and Mindfulness

by: Michael Salem

For many people, the word ‘mindfulness’ still has a mystical connotation; i.e., something that could not easily enter the daily lives of most Americans. Things are changing, though. As one example, Congressman Tim Ryan has published the book A Mindful Nation extolling the practice of mindfulness. Ryan’s publisher calls him an “all-American guy from the heartland,” suggesting there is a growing opening for mindfulness in mainstream America.

But what is mindfulness? Often the word is associated with meditation, or more specifically, sitting meditation. While there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with sitting meditation, this view is limiting. It limits the benefits of mindfulness to a specific practice, as opposed to emphasizing its broader functionality. By functionality, I mean: What is it that makes mindfulness good for us, and in what way?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical School, has proposed just that sort of functional definition. “Mindfulness,” he says, “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In his preface to Congressman Ryan’s book, Kabat-Zinn shares his perspective in a way that SE® practitioners can resonate with: “Instead of losing our minds just when we need them most, with the help of mindfulness we can integrate all the dimensions of our experience— emotional, somatic, cognitive and social.”

In other words, mindfulness can be defined as our ability to override the default mode of impulsively reacting to events from a fight-or-flight mode. Having access to all the dimensions of our experience, and integrating them, allows us to see whether or not the situation is as threatening as it first appears to be. This gives us the power to react in a way that is appropriate to the present moment.

We could say mindfulness is the process of shifting from a reactive mode to a proactive one. We move past reactivity (sympathetic activation) through self-regulation that uses awareness of body as a gateway to the experience of self-awareness. And in this process, Somatic Experiencing® can be seen as skillful means to enhance mindfulness. You may already see the connections, which leads me to ask a favor …

I am writing an essay about SE as a mindfulness practice, and would love to hear from my fellow SEPs their experiences in this regard. I am happy to mention contributors by name or anonymously— whatever you prefer.

The essay is focused on the transformative effects of paying attention to somatic experience in the context of developing our ability to self-regulate. So this is different from writing about SE as a way to heal trauma. And it’s different from exploring SE as a tool that therapists can integrate with other modalities as they conduct therapy. In this essay, I am not examining pathology, but rather the potential for personal development in the practice of SE.

I hope to hear your experiences in this respect. For instance, here are just a few thought-starters:

  • Can you describe how you explore difficult (but not traumatic) situations with the tools of SE?
  • Share your experience, in ordinary situations, of the moment-by-moment attention that reveals (as if in slow motion) what we normally don’t even notice?
  • Describe a moment where you realized you were reacting to a situation without a sense of fight-or-flight. What was it like to experience it in that way?
  • With your clients, do you notice changes over time, not just in terms of healing trauma, but also in overall reactivity?
  • Have you ever imagined the sessions you conduct, as an SE practitioner, as a ‘mindfulness practice’ in the ways I’m describing?
  • In your sessions— through tracking of the client as well as self-tracking— do you notice the interplay of reactivity and regulation in the dyad as well as inside each of you?

Would you share your experiences below? Simply mention if you prefer to keep them anonymous and they’ll come to me without publishing here. I would appreciate your perspectives as fellow SE practitioners.

Best,

Serge

Author Serge Prengel is an SEP in New York City. He hosts SEPtalk.com, a podcast of 30-minute conversations with different SE practitioners. Each new conversation explores how SEPs integrate SE into their practice.

Photo by mindfulness

Comments (4)
  1. I had been a meditator for well over ten years when I was first introduced to SE during my doctoral studies in clinical psychology. Included in my experience was at least five ten-day silent mindfulness meditation retreats, as well as involvement in a meditation training organization as a student, teacher and Director. As a therapist then, mindfulness and SE have always been included in my offerings to clients.

    The often quoted Kabat-Zinn definition to which you refer describes exactly what we, as SEPs, ask of our clients when we say, “So just notice that and let’s see what happens.” As we know, with trauma the body scan technique should be introduced with caution and only after definite grounding and resourcing skills have been developed. But when exploring difficult (not traumatic) situations–really ANY non-traumatic situation–helping clients to bring awareness to the situation (think SIBAM) is what we do and I know of no better way to help clients begin to develop this skill than through focusing on the breath and the body scan technique.

    So as a personal development tool, SE IS mindfulness with special attention given the autonomic nervous system. The “…paying attention…on purpose, in the present moment…nonjudgmentally” to the autonomic nervous system and to the rest of the body develops a skill in clients that is generalizable to all situations because it’s always the present moment!

  2. Tom walls, MA, SE student

    “…paying attention…on purpose, in the present moment…nonjudgmentally” The problem is that almost every client does have judgements. These judgements are most of the time related to the caracterstructure and underlying survival patterns (shaped by developmental trauma) of the client. Working only with fight/flight is not enough. In therapy I work with these judgements which are blocking the client to be in the present moment. Say it simple: That’s why clients come in therapy, they have difficulties being in the present (or in flow, you name it).

  3. I practice meditation ( tibetan tradition ) 4 years, and for 6 years i am part of SE movement in Europe. SE sesions and healing gives nervous system capacity to slowly create big bowl where you can relax in maditation with real stability and integrity. Anybody who meditate regulary and seriously, wilcome in same postraumtatic stres activation during praxis. One point is selfregulation ability and second point is resulting.
    Tibetan lamas say, high practice of vipasana, or mantra is suitable for people with stabil nervous system, otherwise it may be dengerous, loss of stability.
    I am also suspect that SE has special blesing which dissolves karmic results in many levels of maturation. If karmic results are develop then it needs more time to dissolv it.
    Most of clients are closed in concepts, any litle help of anohter level of conciousnes is helping them.

    With meny thenks,

    Zdenek Weber

  4. Delameilleure Fred

    Private

    I am 55 years and since 1996 (!) I am wrestling with severe chronic tension and tightness pain in my chest and breathing problems (is it CHV?), due to unresolved emotional issues (anxiety, panic, HSP, OCD, perfectionism, low self esteem, trauma). I have tried lots of therapy, regular and alternative, without finding any relief. I also have been reading very widely (too much?) on different spiritual traditions, psychology, philosophy and all kinds of therapy. The Flemish government (I worked as a social worker in youth care) has put me on sick pension last year. I guess my inner wounded child is in quite a panic and feeling lonely. I cannot relax, due to permanent high activation of the amygdala/sympathic nervous system… and extremely high sensitivity. The pain can be very very severe as if I can’t breath through because of a symbolic knife inside me from back of the head to neck, shoulders, chest, diaphragm. I was verbally attacked in 1996 by my father who had been drinking and pointing at me saying: ‘You won’t have or be able to do anything in your life’. An Indian ayurvedic therapist once diagnosed too much yang, too high vata (air) resulting in breathing disorder and heavy chest pain. But although I tried to find the root cause of all this ( undoubtedly too mentally), I couldn’t understand what it is. The armour around my heart is there since a very long time and there is this awful feeling that my heart (chakra) is closed and I am not able to accept or give love. I am aware I have constructed all this in order to protect myself (ego defensive mechanism) but I don’t succeed thus far to let it go. I keep wondering also wether medication (which I take since years), since it suppresses lots of things, can be an impediment for my inner child work and spiritual growth. Although I don’t take much; I know how addictive this medication is! But on the other Kim Nataraja of the Christian meditation movement told me that it is not an obstacle spiritually since the spirit in me is always pure. Since I have all this debilitating pain (long use of medication makes symptoms even worse!), I am also always very doubtful in my mind about what I have to do. And then I keep asking myself whether I have to search for still another therapy. I was among many other approaches for some time into http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/peter-levine.html) and I found also http://traumaprevention.com/ But there are so many different therapies over there! It feels like I am holding on to things, straining and sabotaging myself, not being able to let go, stepping on the gas (lucky I have a very strong and healthy physical body), perfectionistic and so forth. I am such a driven and passionate person, an artist with lots of energy, which is however not good directed. When I learn something new, as recently EFT or Qigong, I would practise too much every day, attempting to get rid of the pain, which is not a good attitude of acceptance. I read Tara Brach http://www.tarabrach.com/articles/trauma.html and I come now to my question. I always am struggling with following (either/or or both/and) issue. On the one hand I believe mindfulness meditation can relief trauma, emotional pain by learning to be what is now, on the other hand healing modalities such as fe EFT, although you say the sentence ‘although I feel this…, I accept myself as I am’, there seems to always be the tendency to fix things (see all the videos on so many issues). I need SIMPLICITY, RELAXATION above anything and this kind of EFT detective work, I don’t know what to think of it. Moreover I recently came across this extraordinary phenomenon (do you know him?): http://www.bruno-groening.org/english/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L22Oq9RyN_E My specific question to you is this one? I read Osho’s book on ‘Meditation’ and I wonder whether the ‘expansion’ meditation (becoming all encompassing) is not the best I can do with this constriction trauma pain in my chest. Can you give me any advice?

    Love,
    Fred

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