“The Body keeps the score – mind, brain & body in the transformation of trauma” – Bessel Van Der Kolk (Penguin)
This book is quite extraordinary and seems to me a must-read at least for anyone teaching mindfulness (or any body-based therapy) and an incredibly useful insight for anyone seeking to practice it.
In short, this is the story of Van Der Kolk’s 30 year journey of research and discovery as to what really causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the ways it can be treated. He is a psychologist and neuroscientist and is, from start to finish, a scientist (everything he looks at needs to be based on peer reviewed evidence), a sceptic (leading him to question established understandings and methods if the evidence is not solid) and an open and enquiring thinker (leading him to at least consider totally new ideas in terms of treatment).
It turns out, as the title suggests, that pathways to healing must involve a realistic account of the part body memory as well as changes in brain structure play in perpetuating the suffering of those who have experienced trauma – and that we will get nowhere unless we understand these processes and respond to them. Talking is good – but it is not enough. The body must be engaged with as well.
For a clinician in the field I would imagine this is nowadays one of the set texts – even though controversial for some. But what about the rest of us? Interestingly, although Van Der Kolk’s main work has been with the most severe forms of trauma, his definition of trauma includes experiences many of us may have had which seem milder. To be defined as trauma in Van Der Kolk’s reckoning an experience needs to include two things: 1. pain or distress and 2. the person was unable, at the time, to get away from it or look after themselves in the midst of it. Interestingly he suggests that the experience of boarding school from a very young age might even be included in this.
This, then, suggests to me that even many of our milder wounds and dysfunctional ways of being in the world need also to be understood much more in terms of the imprints these experiences have left in the body – and how the emphasis mindfulness places on body awareness can be such a support in this.
I feel huge gratitude to Van Der Kolk for the painstaking work he has done in this field. Do read it!
MEDITATION AND ACTIVISM
I am wracking my brains for books on Meditation and Activism and strangely am not sure if I have read any.
In the Christian tradition, Thomas Merton certainly wrote about it, Richard Rohr and his Centre for Contemplation and Action is also certainly in tune. I have read German theologian, Dorothee Soelle’s work including, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance which is wonderful but quite weighty. Her biography, Dorothee Soelle: Mystic and Rebel may be worth reading too.
So, it would be good to hear suggestions of specific books or other resources if anyone has read any which simply explore meditation and activism in their broadest sense. So, over to you!
DVD: A Celtic pilgrimage with John O Donohue.
This is a beautiful documentary film about the pilgrimages John O’Donohue used to lead amongst the huge spaciousness of the landscapes on the west coast of Ireland. John was a catholic priest for 20 years but left the church in part, as he says, because he felt the church had reduced spirituality to morality and lost its mystical tradition. Anything by him is good. This gives a beautiful sense of space.
21 lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape books, London)
This is the third of Harari’s trilogy of books about how the human race got here (‘Sapiens’), where we might be heading (‘Homo Deus’), and now this book which suggests what we need, therefore, to think very very carefully about as we shape our future. Harari is a meditator in the Vipassana tradition and, indeed, lesson 21 is meditation but the insights throughout are rich with references to what we become aware of through practice. Reading it gives me new impetus to persevere with both meditation and teaching meditation as he gives such a powerful sense of how important such things are for the future of the human race. Sapiens was also brilliant, though I have not read Homo Deus.
RESOURCES EXPLORING SILENCE
Silence is an intriguing thing in our noisy world. Here are two things I have read recently with different ways of engaging with it.
Silence in the age of noise – Erling Kagge
- This little book is written by a Norwegian explorer who was the first person to travel alone to all three ‘poles’ of the earth: North, South and Everest. And here are 33 reflections on the idea of silence many of which are inspired by his experience of very long periods of outer silence. I found it quietly inspiring.
Quiet 25 – a group journey into silence – Matt Freer & Tina Jeffries
- This booklet contains notes to lead a five week group course exploring silence. Written by key leaders in the Quiet Garden movement it is very practical and very gentle suggesting ways to build silence into your day starting with 5 minutes and building up to 25. Available through the Quiet Garden web-site: https://quietgarden.org/2017/quiet25-course/
MY FAVOURITE BOOK ON MINDFULNESS
There are rather a lot of books on Mindfulness these days, some good and some not so and some not even really about mindfulness. So far my all-time favourite is: Mindfulness – 25 ways to live in the moment through art by Christophe Andre.
Andre is a medical psychiatrist based in Paris who teaches mindfulness and who is also a deeply thoughtful man. This is not a systematic explanation of mindfulness or a course but, as it says on the cover, a series of beautiful reflections of living mindfully using 25 very different pieces of art as his starting point for each reflection. I found it a delight to read. It lifted my spirit and gave me hope each time I turned to it and I found myself thanking my wife for giving it to me for my birthday over and over again.
Mindfulness, of course, is seeking to release us from the kind of over-thinking which is no longer serving us but the irony is that we can so easily get caught up in over-thinking about mindfulness and then get bogged down again. This will always be a danger when anyone starts to write about mindfulness. But this is exactly why I loved this book so much – because it did not fall into this trap. There is a lightness and a sense of poetry throughout. And if you love art (or even if you don’t) it will be just the book to dip into regularly or from time to time to inspire your on-going practice.
Garn Farm, a.k.a. ‘Warmth and Wonder’
- A beautifully converted self-catering barn on the welsh borders
Garn farm is currently one of my favourite places to go for a short or long self-catering break. I have spent time here writing, in semi retreat, on a short weekend break and with groups. The owners, Matt & Polly who live in the farmhouse next door not only have a very simple gift for hospitality but a very strong sense of their connection with the land they own and its context. So when you come here for retreat or holiday everything speaks to you about this connection. Their dream is to create a space where people can come and not only be refreshed through ‘getting away’ but also be inspired through reconnecting with nature. The barn itself sits on the side of a hill with stunning views across the valley. You can take short walks all around their land and pass the various livestock they keep. Or you can take a short drive to any number of beautiful walking spots nearby. Highly recommended – do visit their web-site.