While working in Haiti with trauma victims after the 2010 earthquake, I discovered the importance of spirituality in Somatic Experiencing® work. Let me first say that I understand spirituality, in the broad sense, as being all of the unique ways in which each of us connects and relates with: our self, other beings, our physical environment, and however we might conceive of the supernatural world. In response to trauma, a common defense mechanism of the human body is dissociation—a disconnection—from all these important forms of connection: self, others, and the surrounding world. So in this view, trauma and spirituality are very much intertwined.
I recall having a conversation once with a man who suffered a terrible, life-threatening automobile accident, from which it took him several years to recover. He told me that since this accident, he no longer fears death, because in that terrifying event, he could not remember feeling any pain. He had no cognitive memory of what had happened to him. On the contrary, the memories he retained from that traumatic episode were almost overwhelmingly positive. He said that he only remembers feelings of peace, well-being, and freedom. Does that seem surprising? He told me he felt this was: “God's way of protecting me from more than I could handle.”
I recount this story because it presents a positive side of dissociation: when it serves as a mechanism to protect us from feeling too much pain. The problem arises when we get stuck in dissociation after the traumatizing event has passed, no longer able to engage life fully.
Many of the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, with whom I worked, reported that they were unable to feel any sensations in certain parts of their body. This was a symptom of a possible ongoing dissociation. When our body is numbed such that we cannot feel pain, we are simultaneously deprived of enjoying the pleasurable sensations in our body.
When, as SE® Practitioners, we help people reconnect with their body and discharge excess traumatic energy, we are also helping them to expand their capacity to feel positive sensations. These feelings of pleasure and well-being are very important in helping to restore the body's capacity for self-healing. Positive sensations also help each person to reconnect with self, which in turn, allows him or her to be more fully present to others and the world around them.
Ultimately, this experience of being fully present to self and others is essential to healthy, whole living. This applies not only from a spiritual perspective, but also from a physical and emotional standpoint. Actually, the physical, emotional, and spiritual are all intimately interconnected, such that they can't really be separated from one another, especially in addressing trauma.
Reverend Dennis Moorman, MM, SEP – Dennis is a Maryknoll priest and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, currently working in Brazil with trauma renegotiation and assisting with SE trainings.