Chris Anderson explains how a juggling monk helped him understand the value of mindfulness when coping with conditions common for survivors of sexual abuse.
There is a framed picture of a juggler hanging on my wall. My aunt, who gave me the picture, said it reminded her of me — a nonchalant figure, completely self-absorbed, his back turned to the world while casually tossing a few balls in the air for his own amusement.
Initially, her summation of my character stung. I was unusually sensitive to criticism, especially coming from the one person in my family I felt I could trust. In time, I’ve come to better understand her frustration. I understand that the aloofness that so irritated my aunt was a condition common to many sexual abuse survivors -“dissociation.”
When the anxiety, fear, and hurt became too much, I would, as is common to many of us, vacillate between being overwhelmed and spacing out. I’ve since learned that my spacing out was actually a important self protective process called “dissociation” and it was, to some degree, a learned response to the sexual abuse and trauma I had experienced.
Dissociation is “the disconnection from full awareness of self, time, and/or external circumstances.” It is also a normal part of mental functioning that we all do from time to time. But when checking out becomes a chronic problem, it can cause frustration with a survivor’s loved ones, creating difficulties in connecting with one other. This can add to the stresses that we already feel. And at the far end of the dissociative spectrum are severe conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly called “Multiple Personality Disorder”).
Becoming present and being mindful is one part of the healing journey for many survivors. It includes overcoming this learned habit of dissociation and co-existing in the present with uncomfortable feelings and memories.
MaleSurvivor includessignificant work on mindfulness and meditation during our Weekends of Recovery. As Jim Struve, LCSW, Co-Chair of the Weekends explains, “Mindfulness and Meditation are both useful tools for the journey to heal from sexual trauma.” Meditation and other forms of mindfulness practice have been shown to have long-term benefits that include lowering anxiety, improved mood, and psychological well-being.
Many of us find meditation to be a difficult skill to master. As Jim says, “meditation can be a frustrating enterprise for survivors of trauma, as it may be difficult to overcome feelings of anxiety and inner messages of fear and shame that are necessary to achieve extended calmness. Unsuccessful attempts at meditation are often experienced as failure.”
Which brings me back to juggling….
He then began to juggle.
He continued, “So for example, right now, if I focus too much on the balls, then there’s no way that I can relax and talk to you at the same time. Equally, if I relax too much talking to you, then there’s no way I can focus on the balls. I’m going to drop them…. So we’re looking for a balance, a focused relaxation where we can allow thoughts to come and go without all the usual involvement.”
Balance – being present – being mindful. All are elements we seek in our recovery from abuse. The juggling balls are a metaphor for that mental and emotional state of balance we are seeking.
Now I’m not suggesting that juggling is some miracle cure for dissociation (although I will say that I’ve started juggling for 10 minutes a day and it has been helpful for me). My point is that as we look for tools that will help survivors move forward it’s important to have options. For some people, sitting meditation is a powerful tool. For others, simply being mindful while jogging, or even driving, can be just as effective in helping them stay in the present moment. The point is that what resonates for one person won’t necessarily work for all people – and that’s okay.
Each person’s healing journey, while it will partake of some common elements, will be unique. For professionals, it’s important not to force survivors into a practice that might not work for them. For survivors, it’s important to not get discouraged if we don’t find the right practice at first. There are endless ways to practice being mindful and, sooner or later, something will resonate.
So as it turns out, my aunt may have been wrong about the picture. Maybe the juggler isn’t striking a cavalier attitude of aloofness. Maybe he is modelling mindful practice and staying connected to his present. That is a far more positive interpretation and that’s the way I’m going to view the picture from now on.It’s also important to recognize that mindfulness itself is only one of the tools we need for healing. Staying present can enable us to do the difficult work of healing from trauma and abuse without disconnecting. But the healing journey requires that we learn more skills, such as empathy, trust, and physical self-care to name just a few.
Have any thoughts or questions you’d like to share with me? Drop me an email at [email protected]
Originally appeared at MaleSurvivor.org
Lead photo: Flickr/François Philipp