The Benefits of Buddhist Mindfulness: My Interview with Pablo Das
My recovery is founded upon a few important principles: connection with other like-minded individuals and their collective empathy, and mindfulness practices to help cope with life’s stressors.
My journey has transitioned away from the 12-Step modality toward Refuge Recovery and more mindfulness-based practices. But I haven’t quite found my footing. Sometimes it has been overwhelming to sit and meditate, on occasion I struggle to concentrate, and I can feel very reactionary to certain events or situations. I never really understood why and had chalked it up to experience, trying again the next day.
Discovering Trauma-Informed Buddhist Mindfulness
That was until I attended a workshop led by Pablo Das, on Trauma-informed Buddhist Mindfulness, at the Portland Insight Meditation Center. I have not felt that connected, understood, and part of something greater for quite some time.
In just a few hours, Pablo managed to pinpoint many of the triggers that led to my substance use disorder (SUD), he described how trauma manifests, and he walked us through how to apply Buddhist mindfulness in a way that suited our experiences and met our needs. In short, he explained me to me, and gave me the tools to feel more connected. He blew my mind.
I felt compelled to create more awareness about his message, and I hope to bring that to awareness to you in this short interview.
Liv: You talked about how trauma is an overlooked dimension of addiction and leads to chronic dis-regulation of the nervous system. What do you mean by dis-regulation and how does it affect the nervous system? What might those symptoms look like?
Pablo: To be “regulated” means that one is present and able to respond in an empowered way to whatever is happening. It means that one’s nervous system is activating and deactivating at appropriate times and within in a manageable threshold in response to perceived threats and to life in general. It means you have enough capacity and resilience to meet the demands and responsibilities of daily life and can bounce back from setbacks and challenges in a reasonable amount of time.
People who have been impacted by trauma feel chronically overwhelmed. They feel anxious or have frequent panic attacks. They feel edgy or frequently “over capacity”. They have physiological and emotional responses to things that seem “too big” for the circumstances. They may be sensitive to light and sound and feel overwhelmed by normal stimuli or by other people. They may also experience hair trigger fear responses and states of dissociation. All of these experiences are deeply uncomfortable if not unbearable.
People with a trauma history usually have to manage body and mind states that the average person only experiences if they feel gravely threatened or that their life is in danger. The emotional life of the average trauma survivor is more intense, more complex and takes longer to return to their normal baseline than the average person. Because self-regulatory capacities are impaired or never develop, this sets us up for addictive patterns because we learn that we can go outside of ourselves and use a substance or behavior to regulate our otherwise chaotic internal life. Addiction can be seen as a (unconscious) strategy for regulating the dis-regulation in the nervous system which probably arose from trauma. The problem with addictive patterns is that the behaviors or substances we use actually compound our suffering in the end. So they don’t actually work beyond the short term. In this way addiction can actually be seen as a symptom of trauma. You practice somatic experiencing as a means to help resolve and manage trauma.
Liv: Tell me about how trauma is stored in the body and how somatic experiencing helps to provide trauma resolution?
Pablo: Many of the most compelling trauma symptoms show up in the body as sensation, vibration, emotion, muscular tension and movement. We can’t really talk it out. Somatic Experiencing is a body-centered approach to the management and resolution of trauma which privileges physical movement and is organized to support completion of self-protective responses that one was unable to complete during the overwhelming event.
If one is unable to fight off the dog or get out of the way of the car, we are left feeling disempowered or victimized. Somatic experiencing works to renegotiate an event and give your system the experience of a different outcome which can be experienced as more real than whatever actually happened.
Liv: What I loved the most about your workshop was that you created a self-directed approach to the day, meaning you gave participants permission and empowered us to tailor the mindfulness activities to a level that felt comfortable and achievable – such as meditating with your eyes open. If you had the opportunity to give readers (or even advise SUD practitioners how to be more trauma-informed) a few instructions on how to find their footing in mindfulness activities – in a way that didn’t feel triggering or overwhelming – what would those instructions be?
Pablo: One of the things that gets lost when we experience trauma is the sense that we are in control. Both externally, as well as internally, everything feels like chaos. So I always start by handing people the reigns.
I start my workshops by asking people to sense if they are in the right place in the room and give them permission to follow their impulses and move to where they feel most comfortable in the room. Then I tell them that they are free to choose their level of participation and I’m careful to create a space that is free of any sense of shame or punishment. I want people to feel and experience their own agency.
In terms of mindfulness training, I begin with awareness based self-regulatory strategies. I’m aware that when I walk into the room there are folks who’s bodies, hearts and minds are all potentially overwhelming places to place their attention. So I let go of any attachment to traditional anchors like breath and body and ask the practitioner what they can be present for. My criteria for choosing an anchor is twofold. First, what helps you stay present? And second, what helps to calm your nervous system? It might be the wall, or a tree, or a painting.
All that’s required to be present is that you’re paying attention to something happening right now. We can utilize external anchors as self-regulatory strategies to work our way back to the body once we have self-regulatory skills on board. Unfortunately, the vast number of dharma or mindfulness teachers don’t understand trauma and can teach mindfulness in a way that is not helpful and sometimes even re-traumatizing. My work over the last several years has been to accommodate the most sensitive nervous systems into safe trauma-centered dharma practice.
Pablo Das (HHC, SEP) was trained as a Buddhist teacher at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. He is a practitioner of Somatic Experiencing (sep), a body-centered system for the resolution of trauma and assists S.E trainings in California. He was on the founding treatment team at Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist-based trauma-informed outpatient treatment program for drug and alcohol addiction. He trained as a holistic health coach at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and studied food therapy under Annemarie Colbin at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. He maintains a private coaching practice, working with clients one-on-one, integrating Buddhist practice and principles, trauma resolution and holistic health models. He has worked in suicide prevention for the LGBTQ teen community. He is also an indie-folk (antifolk) musician, writer and storyteller. He lives in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at: causes of wellbeing.com [wellbeing.com]
Images Courtesy of Pablo Das & iStock