On Saturday I heard Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, interviewing one of the world’s leading professors on trauma. 

Richard van der Kolk is author of the bestselling ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ and is a clinician and academic researcher as well as being practitioner himself of various methods. 

I felt such relief hearing anxiety and trauma doesn’t have easy answers, that it’s more pervasive amongst adults than we might realise, and that there are things that help. That connects me to relief, hope and shared reality.

Having gentle acceptance for our wounds seems to be the first step – and one that our bodies and cultural conditioning might initially resist.

The other bright glimmer for me was how resilient our bodies are, how strong the life force is – we thrive and keep showing up, even when our body is carrying significant stress. 

What helps?

So what hope did I hear for reducing that distress and suffering, which can be so profound and also so meaningless? 

One of the key points I heard is that practicing self-compassion is the most fundamental quality for wellbeing. Also, yoga is apparently the most scientifically proven beneficial activity for reducing the suffering of anxiety and trauma.

I heard van der Kolk describing mindfulness with some caution. What I took away was the inner safety that can grow from practicing meta observation: something like being able to notice, tenderly narrate and fully feel all thoughts and sensations. 

Over time, that gentle curious presence seems to give our bodies the opportunity to trust that we’re not trapped by any particular intense feeling in a present moment. 

Even the most excruciating, inexplicable panic or rage will change and ease, flowing through our body in its own pace.  But it seems we can’t think ourselves into this state of self-compassionate presence. It’s an experience we seem to need to develop gently at a body level, with courageously gentle practice.

Mindfulness as an invitation, not a demand

Tami Simon talked about how being fully present can often be overwhelming – all of our senses alive. Can you relate? I really appreciated hearing her name that. It’s actually very courageous to choose to be mindful. And mindfulness is a tool for our wellbeing – not something we “must” do to be worthy.

Today, I’d like offer you a relaxing thought: mindfulness is a gentle invitation, and it’s one you’re free to take or leave each moment.

It seems our bodies do a wonderful job of protecting us from overwhelm. And mindfulness can help our bodies feel safer to be relaxed and enjoy where we are, or to consciously choose to take another action that would make this moment even more enjoyable.

So if we’re telling ourselves we “must” be more mindful … then doesn’t that become another thing to judge ourselves for “not getting right”? To me, the point of any self-awareness is so that we can feel more relaxed and safe with ourselves.

In my experience, it’s that inner ease which creates the energy, clarity and compassionate courage to contribute to whatever it is we care deeply about.

Moment-by-moment tenderness and choice

I think the key is noticing and trusting how willing we feel. We respect our body’s wisdom, and are gently curious about what it’s wanting for us right now, free of the demand to act instantly.

I find I can relax and breathe more easily when I acknowledge how willing my body is in this present moment to widen its awareness.

Of course, the best time to practice this is not mid-crisis. It can happen quietly, wherever you are.

To break it down, the gentle invitation to mindfulness can go something like:

What part of my body has quickened or tensed? My chest and throat.

Am I enjoying how I feel right now? Not much.

Would I like to feel safer and more powerful? Yeah … but I’m scared I can’t.

Yeah, do I trust my body wants to keep me safe? Do I want to take some deep breaths to help it out? Yeah, okay,one. 

Do I want to count five sounds I can hear? Yeah, I’m curious enough.

Do I want to notice three colours around me? Maybe. Actually, now I’m realising what it is I might be needing right now. I’m going to name that silently to myself. I love it when I feel safe. I love it when I’m heard. I love it when I know I matter.

How do I feel now? Still upset, but more in conscious that I’m safe and I don’t depend on this one particular person here with me now to respect me or hear me or value me. I know I’m worth safety and care and respect.

I like to see mindfulness activities as one of the empowered and compassionate choices I can make for my wellbeing and self-trust. It’s not to prove to others that I’m trying my best to be a “calmer”, “better” person. It’s an invitation to my body and mind, which in itself helps me to relax as I’m treating myself with respect and love.

Respect for our sensory processing

Hearing Tami’s comments about how overwhelming it can be to be so aware, I thought of this artwork by Renoir – such vivid and sensory colours. And also this poem by Judith Wright.

While I’m in my five senses
they send me spinning
all sounds and silences
all shape and colour
as thread for that weaver
whose thread within me growing
follows beyond my knowing
some pattern sprung from nothing –
a rhythm that dances and is not mine.

Judith Wright, from ‘Five Senses’

A gentle creative self-connection exercise

So would you like to unroll your yoga mat or gather up some pencils and paper? Perhaps you’d like to spend a few moments stretching, drawing or writing your way through noticing when your senses quicken … and speaking gently to your body about that.

Here’s a meditation on that artwork. How willing do you feel right now to listen for a minute or so  … and keep checking in on how willing you are to stay with this activity? Or, what other needs are calling for your attention right now?

Artist is Auguste Renoir, “The Blue River”, courtesy National Gallery of Art Washington.

If you’re responding to the WordPress prompt quicken, this meditation offers a doorway to inspiration. It invites you to explore which part of your body and mind responds most energetically to the art.