I am writing as a I begin to settle in at home in Devon after an extremely full month away teaching in Canada and the U.S.A. The final week of the trip, I witnessed the shockwave passing through New York City as we met there for Seminar 3 of the Craniosacral Biodynamics training. People were still recovering from the wake up call of the recent hurricane, called Sandy, when another Sandy event occurred.
It began as we returned from a lunch break with an announcement that there had been a horrible shooting in a primary school close to where some members of our group live. Regardless of where home was, the parents of young children in the room were rocked into various degrees of fear and terror. The children affected were as young as six years old. The shooter was the son of a kindergarten teacher! She had been the first target of his outbreak. How could this be?
Our work with Biodynamics begins with attention to our relational field with the client, based on the understanding that a client’s system will not settle enough to address core issues unless there is sufficient sense of safety. We all did our best in the unsettled field after the announcement to help each other to deepen under the shock, to remember our resources, to allow ourselves to be present to the whole of our experience, not just the shock or fear.
For so many of us, even if we can settle into some semblance of presence and beingness, events like the one at Sandy Hook, are like slaps in the face. What can we do? How can we help? Why is there so much suffering and why would a son of a kindergarten teacher act like this and why would there be guns in her house, just waiting to be used?
In my meditation practice, I have learned to send loving kindness out to all those in need. We begin with ourselves.
May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free.
We intend to cultivate our own peace, happiness and awareness, and then share it with others.
May all beings share my merits. May all beings share my happiness. May all beings share my peace. May all beings be happy, be peaceful, be free.
If there is anything in the way of me sharing that, I intend to be with that and come to terms with it.
May I pardon all those who may have hurt or harmed me in any way, in thought, speech, or action. May I be pardoned by all those I may have hurt in any way, in thought, speech, or action.
Life presents many opportunities to practice! A shocking event like the one last week is like a mid-term exam, perhaps an initiation.
I look at myself in the mirror as I brush my teeth. I think of the parents too frozen to even feel their grief yet. And I cry. I cry as if crying the tears they are not yet thawed enough to feel. Part of me wants to freeze, too. It is too much! It is too much to imagine all this meaningless carnage. Young innocents, cute children, little ones trusting the safety of their school surroundings … murdered… I take a deep breath and stop my mind’s extrapolating on what I have heard. Children have been killed. Women have been killed. School is not always safe. But I am safe in this moment. I can still breathe, feel my body, ground into the earth, brush my teeth. Life goes on. In this place, I can begin to find a way to help. If I freeze, too, I become part of the enormity of the wave, reinforcing overwhelm.
Working with our own trauma in this way, staying in present time, with awareness of breath and body sensations, and whatever supports us in this moment, enables us to be present with whatever arises. As I look in the mirror, I hear my inner meditation teacher become critic complaining that I should be able to be with anything. Orienting to the judgment and criticism there takes me further from that goal. Practicing being with what I can be, I find myself a moment later with a sense of my heart softening and widening to hold more. I cry and am present. It is appropriate to cry. It is a sad event. It is not helpful to freeze the tears in this moment, even though I learned to do that as a child to stay safe. I acknowledge, in this moment I am safe. I have a deep heart longing to support all beings in also being safe. How can I help?
In this more restful state of presence, my mind begins to make some connections, which I think are useful. I want to share them here.
I draw on my studies in Prenatal and Birth Psychology, as well as my years of work with my own and others’ trauma and shock from that early time in our lives. I think of the work of Lloyd deMause, who wrote a book called Foundations of Psychohistory. He describes how societies historically held and raised their children related to the way of understanding childhood at the time. Birth practices connect to how children are perceived within a culture.
In modern, western culture, children are perceived as possessions – my children. Empathy for children has grown over the years, but they have not always been perceived as fully human. Only relatively recently has our modern, western culture acknowledged that babies feel pain and are sensitive beings. Until the late 1980s, surgery was performed on babies without anesthesia! These little ones were left to struggle with their un-named PTSD. Some earlier cultures, like the Spartans, treated their babies roughly to ensure their success in a rough world.
I am reminded of a brilliant book by medical anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd. Birth as an American Rite of Passage meticulously describes common medical interventions to birth, and shows how they are generally not necessary for health (or even undermine health). Instead, they appear to be perfectly designed as an initiatory rite for both mother and baby into a culture where doctors are sacred authorities. In other cultures, where women, and other people, are more valued in and of themselves, birth may happen differently.
In Prenatal and Birth Psychology, we see research demonstrating and beginning to explain the profound effects of modern birth practices. We see increasing numbers of children unable to self-regulate their emotions, challenged by learning difficulties and insecure attachment patterns. We now know that brains develop differently when babies designed to bond with mom immediately after birth are put on cold tables, handled by strangers wearing masks instead of faces, separated from mom or birthed surgically as a predictable outcome of anesthesia or other drugs administered to the mother during labor.
When I feel my own anger and judgment arising as I think about the young man who murdered all those children and his mother, I can more easily find my way to compassion when I think about how he may have come into this life. It takes extra work to be emotionally intelligent when our first social imprints at birth, or even before, are impersonal, unwelcoming or ambivalent. We humans are incredibly resilient beings, but even our ability to be resilient depends on our sense of safety and welcome. If we did not have it in the womb or when we were little, it can be developed later, but it does not then develop as naturally. We need to work at it and we need support. We need a safe, relational field.
I find it hard to imagine that this young killer lived in a safe, relational field. Owning guns suggests to me the likelihood of some level of fear, some sense of threat. Reading the news after this event, I see comments about the need for guns for teachers so they can defend themselves in school! Perhaps, this kindergarten teacher felt a need to protect herself from angry students! I don’t know, but I suspect she did not feel safe. I also suspect that communicated to her son and that he did not grow up feeling safe. I base this on years of experience as a therapist with people who have felt unsafe for too long, as well as the multitude of writings and research on the topic.
What would it take for a man like this to feel safe? Research suggests that it would be easier if he felt safe in his early years. Then the question becomes, what would it take for a child to feel safe? We actually know the answer to that one! Children feel safe when those around them, especially mom, express and provide a sense of safety. It seems that the greatest thing we can do for our children is to ensure that their mothers are safe and well taken care of! If we could take all the money put into having more guns and defense and put it into supporting pregnant and new mothers, I suspect our next generation could rest into being, and that the rest of us could more easily rest into being with them.
And for those of us who have not had the ideal birth or childhood, it is not too late to learn to shift our orientation from the pain of the past to the potential of the present. Our brains literally change when we practice mindfulness, being with what arises in present time. May the wake up calls touch us deeply and help us to awaken. It is not too late.
May we all be peaceful.
May we all be happy.
May we all be free.