Still soaking in four days of utter quiet yoga retreat, Orr Hot Springs. I knew the teacher and one other participant, a rare escapade cloaked in anonymity. There was absence of polite engagement, lack of demand for my time, zero obligatory social updates. I came and went as I pleased, unbound as it were. Introvert that I am—the one who has learned how to be out in the world—totally honored, supported by gentle asana guidance and balm of hot water. And I was surprised by what arose from silence, emptiness, spaciousness.
First the back story. A couple weeks ago I was moved by a podcast interview with psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, an innovator in treating the effects of overwhelming experiences or “trauma” as we name it these days. In the ‘70s, as a specialist in nightmares, he treated Viet Nam vets. One vet returned for treatment after two weeks and was no better. Van der Kolk asked if he had taken the prescribed medication. The vet said he had not, explained that to take the medication would be a betrayal of his fallen comrades. His nightmares kept their memory alive.
Stunned by this revelation, I pulled the car over to just listen. Except for my own intimate experience, I had never heard the persistence of trauma framed in the language of betrayal. Rain pinged on the roof and a giant rainbow poured itself out of the sky right beyond the windshield. I felt like van der Kolk was in my front seat gently affirming my comparable response to my own age-old heartbreaking family saga. And as he talked about memory function, my insight deepened. Healthy memories are fluid, evolving and shifting over time. Gather a group of siblings and several conflicting versions about the same family event will be in the mix. But traumatic, overwhelming experience creates memories that remain static, lodged forever in the moment they were created. Replayed again and again, unchanged.
The rain lightened up, the brilliant colors began to fade, I continued my journey a bit shaken, altered, curious. Fast forward two weeks, rain steadily falling on our yurt space at Orr, my friend and I back and forth-ing with childhood details we had never shared. It was a story I had not told in a very long time, relegated as it had been to the counseling couch and countless dance floors. But in the telling I felt the truth of its rigid nature. Even in this place of acceptance and forgiveness, the images and descriptive words have never changed. Even though it has opened my heart in a fierce way, there is a cast-iron unyielding quality to these memories.
In the quiet Orr void, practice opportunities arose to be with these memories and I gingerly stepped back in. Titrated the amount I could handle in tong-len. Allowed a visual art piece to take form before my eyes. Did a bit of writing. Acknowledged the tender part of me that believes I am done with that chapter. As if that were even possible. This is not about wallowing in the past. But someday I would love these memories to be vibrantly alive in a way that allows them to grow and transform, soften and shift. Make space for all the goodness present in those years, riding right alongside the overwhelming.
Tender humans we are. These communal practice spaces fertile rife with memory on the move. Grateful to be held in sacred rooms such as these. Deeply touched to offer holding for others as well. In a few days I’ll be assisting Lucia Horan at Esalen in that holy holding. In the holding comes the unfolding. In the unfolding comes shape-shifting transformation. There is no such thing as steady, predictable progress. Everyone has their own unique timeline. We stumble along in our own extraordinary way.
Extend your soft palm before your eyes. Give it a little kiss. Feel the love.