Meditation Retreats

How Meditation Can Be More Sensitive to Trauma

Mushim Ikeda is a Buddhist teacher and writer who leads the community engagement at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. Ikeda teaches meditation retreats for people of color, women, and social justice activists at the national level.

Most recently, she worked with Helen Weng, Associate at the Center for Healthy Minds, and Larissa Duncan, Faculty member of the Center, on a project to expand diversity during a neuroscientific meditation study. In this Q&A, Ikeda shares how mindfulness meditation can be both inclusive and exclusive, both healing and traumatizing – all depending on people’s experiences and how they are treated with care during the meditation practice or in their community.

Marianne Spoon: How can people’s identities and life experiences affect their meditation practice and well-being?

© MJ Jossen Mont-Reynaud


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Mushim Ikeda: It is important to note that there are hundreds of types of meditations that are techniques and activities that we perform with the mind and body. Here I am going to talk about mindfulness meditation, which is identical to insight meditation and vipassana meditation in the Buddhist tradition. The specific technique of mindfulness meditation is a thoroughly embodied practice. And by that I mean that we understand that the mind and body are not binary. Often this practice is learned through the specific activity of another person (a teacher) and therefore, given the diversity, the language of instruction used is very important when starting out.

As we know, some people’s access to education and health care may be restricted because we live in a society where there are structural and institutionalized forms of prejudice. Then there is more structural inequality, which is also structural violence. This is especially true for people who are Black, Native and Colored (BIPOC) or who identify as LGBTQIA, or for people with disabilities and illnesses, or for people who are neurodivergent. Huge sections of our society fall into groups that are affected by structural discrimination and whose basic human rights and needs as humans are not equally met.

When meditation teachers fail to understand that many people are likely to experience repetitive and complex trauma, their way of conducting meditation can be insensitive at best to profoundly harmful at worst. They could re-traumatize the very people they want to help.

MS: What about taking trauma into account when leading a meditation?

ME: At the East Bay Meditation Center, where I am, all teachers move into the language of instruction “trauma-informed” and “disabled-friendly information” and continue to learn and learn. They are based on the idea that the very words we use and the way the teacher delivers actual words – tone of voice, spacing, special attention to actual words – matter. The easiest way to accomplish this is to write down the research we receive on trauma. People with trauma find it difficult or impossible to learn when they feel like they have no choice or freedom of choice. That is why the directions and variations of what they are told are important. When a meditation teacher says, “Now do this. Now do this.” This may not be suitable for all people.

The same applies to the concentration on the breath, which is common in some widely used meditations. Some people have suffered trauma in which they were threatened with violence by disruption of the air supply (suffocation), and therefore their breath awareness activates their trauma response to a high degree.

A teacher needs to be aware of this possibility and probability because we live in a highly traumatized society. Instead of using a command language, we are using the invitation language. We give people many possibilities within the parameters of meditation techniques. We use invitations like “If this is available to you,” “If this is available to you,” “If you’d like,” “You can try both and see why you feel more confident.”

It is really evident that not all bodies are created equal and that people are not the same psychologically either. I would particularly like to acknowledge that this approach is based on the groundbreaking work of the Niroga Institute, access-centered movement, trauma-sensitive mindfulness and the intersectional neuroscientific research method of Dr. Helen Weng is from.

MS: How did this awareness develop for you as a teacher?

ME: When I was originally trained in Zen Buddhism in the United States and Canada, it was standard practice to talk about spiritual “devotion,” so it was part of my vocabulary. However, at least 20 years ago I lectured to a People of Color meditation group at the San Francisco Zen Center, and there was an immediate and very clear response from several black-identified participants who experienced racism in their daily lives and whose ancestors had been violent for generations suppressed. They said, “Surrender? Under no circumstance!”

It was then that I realized that the effect of my words was different from my intention. As a teacher, it was my responsibility to change and speak more skillfully. I realized the importance of considering trust and relationships between people of different status within the hierarchy of power and authority. An embodied meditation practice implies that teachers are ethical and transparent, and that students can understand that teachers serve the community and that the community does not serve or “submit” to the teacher.

When it comes to trauma-informed teaching, I don’t want to be unique – I want to be part of a larger movement where there is diversity in each group, including disability. There may be opportunities to be more resilient to trauma and to build resilience in communities that target oppression, and this is a key part of our work at the East Bay Meditation Center.

MS: What experiences have you had with scientists in order to extend the benefits of meditation to more people?

ME: To be honest, it’s good science to be really involved in the research. If there is one research study that has no awareness of the people who represent what we call the “many dimensions of diversity,” how can we say it helps most people?

Society tends to break across different lines, which can have profound implications for ethical, legal, and social institutional policies and structures that profoundly affect human “being” and people. In intersectional and inclusive neuroscience, there is no such thing as an average brain or body. There is no such thing. These dimensions of diversity need to be included, not excluded, in order to obtain more accurate research that will help understand neuroscience itself.

For those interested in learning more, Ikeda recommends this podcast by trauma-sensitive mindfulness writer and therapist David Treleaven on Mindfulness and Social Justice.

This article was originally published on the Center for Healthy Minds. Read the original article.

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