This article is adapted from the Dharma Ocean podcast Episode 190, “Working with Psychological Distress,” with Dr. Reggie Ray. Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Ray is the Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the somatic teachings of the Practicing Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
I want to begin today by talking about psychological health and psychological—as we say in our culture—“illness.” I actually wouldn’t use that word because I don’t like the implication that when we are psychologically distressed, somehow, this is a bad thing. Being distressed in our emotional lives, in our psychological lives, feeling overwhelmed by experiences, feeling things coming up, memories from the past—this is not a pathological situation. In our culture, we fundamentally pathologize whatever is unpleasant or uncomfortable. Things happen to us psychologically, emotionally, energetically that are of a distressing nature, sometimes even unbearable. But they are all part of the journey. And they’re not unfortunate parts of the journey. They’re not even negative parts of the journey.
They arise in our lives as moments in our own growth—moments when we are confronted with our own limitations and are invited to go further. When we have a memory that comes up from early childhood of an unbearable situation that we were in, this is not to be regarded as a bad or negative thing. From the perspective of Somatic Meditation, it’s a positive thing, an opportunity. Mind you, we have to address that opportunity in the right way. We have to meet it. And the whole tradition of Somatic Meditation gives us the tools to meet it, profit from it, and take it as an open gateway for further development.
The reason these experiences are not regarded as a negative thing is that that experience has always been part of our lives, obviously. And even if we are operating within the so-called realm of normalcy, and we don’t regard ourselves as being particularly traumatized or mentally disabled; nevertheless, all of those experiences of our early lives, those very painful experiences, which we all share, create a tremendous amount of limitation in our ability to live and really experience the full possibilities of our state of being. Those early and later experiences, those that we might officially call traumatic and those that we don’t, they’re within us. We initially turned away from them because they were too painful, too unbearable, and we couldn’t manage. And they’re there. They reside in the body. They’re locked up. A great deal of our ego function, no matter who we are, is tied up in trying to maintain them in their condition of being unconscious—keeping them pushed down and not relating to them because they’re too painful.
We spend a huge amount of ego energy keeping those experiences at bay and keeping them out of sight and not relating to them. It’s my personal feeling that most of what we call the human personality, not all, but most, is a series of responses to block out that much fuller history of ours. When we sit down to practice meditation, and we are not dealing in a creative way with all of the unlived or incomplete experiences of our early years and our later years as well, meditation just becomes another way to keep all that stuff out of our awareness. And again, this is a spiritual bypassing in John Welwood’s language or “spiritual materialism” in Chögyam Trungpa’s.
I want to go step-by-step to talk to you about the way in which Somatic Meditation, or “bodywork,” addresses the whole range of difficult experiences that we have repressed into our unconscious or into our body. This approach brings us in touch with all of the unresolved emotional experiences of our lives. And that is part of the intention of the Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhist tradition. The Vajrayana tradition realizes that we can sit down and meditate—maybe we’re very normal, highly functional people—but nevertheless, when we sit down to meditate, a lot of our awareness is tied up in trying to keep painful and unbearable experiences out of our consciousness. Then that awareness is not truly available.
Most of our awareness, when we meditate, is not available for us to experience because it’s tied up in maintaining repression. This is not a new insight. It began with Freud and has been passed down to present-day trauma work. It’s what everybody understands. From the Vajrayana point of view, if we’re talking about realization in this life, then we have to dig deep into our state of being. And actually, we don’t dig deep, but we make ourselves available for unresolved experiences that need to come to the surface and be worked through. Admittedly, this is a difficult journey, and it’s sometimes dicey; we have to be brave. This is a hero’s journey.
That being said, then the question naturally arises, can I step into this path safely? Can I do these practices? And can I expect that I’ll be able to come through and be successful? One answer is that when we do this work, no matter who we are, we’re going to need help. And the help could come from our teachers, it could come from our Sangha brothers and sisters, and it could come from others who are knowledgeable, skilled and informed about working with the body.
Some body workers are sensitive to the emotional, and others are not. Somatic therapists who work with the body, such as Peter Levine’s group, or Van der Kolk’s group, or Hakomi therapists, may be needed. Another important somatic therapy for working with trauma is memory reconsolidation or coherence therapy. We have people within our community representing these different traditions—we have quite a few trauma specialists. You might find yourself consulting them, and you might find yourself consulting people outside of our community. But I think for everybody, something along those lines at certain points in your journey is going to be essential.
Dharma Ocean work is intense, and there are people all over the world now who are doing it. It’s very beautiful and very powerful. Once in a while, somebody will turn up who is dealing with a whole level of trauma for the first time that we would call incapacitating. Incapacitating means that they come to the edge of their body, which is really where the trauma or the difficult experience, the unbearable early memory, and sense it lurking there. They don’t, at this point, have the tools to deal with that. They need to do that work first.
This is my lineage, and it speaks to me. At the same time, you may not feel ready to plunge wholly and completely into the journey. You may have a sense within yourself that there’s some work that needs to be done. I would encourage you to take some time for your own healing and find a good somatic therapist—dig into it and get to the point where you have released some of the charge that’s built up in your body. Make a relationship with that deeper pain and torment that’s in you. That’s what makes us dysfunctional. We’re overwhelmed by it, and we can’t manage.
Do some work with that for a while. And then you and your therapist, you and your psychiatrist will know when it’s time to take up the Somatic Meditation bodywork. If you do somatic therapy, you’re doing it within the protection and the care of somebody who can really hold you day-by-day and week-by-week. What I want to emphasize is once again, though, is that it’s very important for each of us not to pathologize our experience. If you are a person who suffers from incapacitating depression, life is calling you to come through that deep depression and re-ignite and re-engage with life.
But it’s another whole thing if you think that somehow you are fundamentally defective, or somehow your life is different from everybody else’s, or that you feel somehow you’re a bad person, or you feel you’re irremediably ill. Those are negative judgments that are not very helpful. They’re also not true.
About Dharma Ocean Foundation
Dharma Ocean Foundation is a global educational organization in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.