For many of us, healing from trauma is the most important journey we can take in life. Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach tells the inspiring story of her client Rosalie, and how she started to heal the wounds in her mind, body, and heart.
*Trigger warning: The abuse Rosalie suffered is described graphically in this story.*
As a child, Rosalie had been severely abused by her father. When he was drunk he’d climb into her bed at night and rub his body against hers until he climaxed. If she resisted him, he’d hit her and threaten her with worse. If she tried to run away and hide, he would become enraged, chase after her and mercilessly beat her. On two occasions during the year before he and her mother divorced, Rosalie’s father had forced her to have intercourse with him.
When Rosalie came to see me, she was thirty-five years old, single, and mildly anorexic. She’d already been through several forms of therapy, but was still going on and off starvation diets and suffering from regular anxiety attacks. Her body was thin, rigid, and tight. She was mistrustful of everyone she knew. On the most basic level, she mistrusted and hated herself. She felt she was fundamentally flawed—“damaged goods,” as she put it.
There is no way to avoid what’s in the body. We either pay attention to it, or we suffer the consequences.
For some people who have been traumatized, practicing meditation alone and/or without proper guidance can lead to fear, confusion, and shame. Mindfulness practices can unleash buried emotions and potentially overwhelm and re-traumatize the practitioner. On the other hand, trauma-induced defenses against raw feelings may impede a meditator’s ability to focus attention or contact places of wounding. In either case, meditation can feel unsafe, discouraging, or outright impossible, creating a sense of personal failure.
The guidance of a somatic-based therapist can provide a safe container for processing traumatic memories and associated feelings that arise in consciousness. Yet for there to be an ongoing unfolding of healing, insight, and freedom, the intentional cultivation of mindfulness and self-compassion are necessary. In working with many clients and students over the years, I’ve found that the synergistic blend of somatic-based therapy and meditation can be profoundly transformational.
The body is the foundation for attention in both somatic therapies and Buddhist meditation, and the place of healing trauma. In order to survive traumatizing events, we dissociate from our bodies to varying degrees, numbing our sensitivity to physical sensations. We all have deep conditioning to do whatever we can to avoid feeling the rawness of fear and pain in our body. Avoidance might manifest in lashing out in aggression, burying ourselves in depression, or using substances to alter or numb our present experience. Yet the pain and fear don’t go away. They lurk in the background and, from time to time, suddenly and painfully emerge to take over our life experience.
The late psychotherapist Alice Miller, author of The Body Never Lies, informs us that there is no way to avoid what’s in the body. We either pay attention to it, or we suffer the consequences. “The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it,” she writes. “Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.”
The Good Fairy: Rosalie Finds an Inner Resource of Wisdom
When Rosalie and I started working together, it was clear that her time had come—her body was presenting its bill. During our first few sessions she walked me through her life story. While she was very bright and could easily articulate her problems and their causes, it was as if she were talking about someone else’s life. She told me that when we were talking she wasn’t aware of feelings in her body, yet outside of therapy she was sometimes besieged by bouts of panic or rage. At those times, the feelings in her body were so intense she wanted to die. Her worst experiences came during the night—if she didn’t smoke a joint or take sleeping pills, she’d wake up in the middle of the night in a fit of terror. Her dream was always the same—she was hiding in a small dark place and someone beastly and insane was about to find her.
Rosalie needed to find ways of “resourcing”—of accessing an inner sense of being secure, calm, and connected. We can resource by visualizing a safe place, or a trusted, loving being—a grandparent, friend, teacher, spiritual figure, or pet. We can also resource by mentally repeating some words that are meaningful and comforting to us, by learning to breathe in a calming way, or by placing our hand gently on our own heart.
Each person needs to explore and discover ways of redirecting their attention that help them shift from the stress reactivity of fight, flight, or freeze to more balance and well-being. For Rosalie, that process started when I led her in a very deep guided meditation, a guided journey.
Each of us has the wisdom of the good fairy in us.
On the day of the journey I invited Rosalie to sit comfortably and close her eyes. I guided her with the hypnotic imagery of slowly descending a long winding staircase that ended facing a closed door. I suggested that with each step she leave behind distracting thoughts and become increasingly relaxed and curious.
By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, Rosalie’s body was very still, her eyelids flickering, her face slightly flushed. She nodded when I asked if she saw a door, and I suggested that behind it she would discover something important to her healing, some gift from her unconscious mind. I reminded her that no matter what she experienced, she was safe. We were here together, and she could come back whenever she wished. Then I told her she could open the door whenever she was ready.
Rosalie nodded again and then stiffened. “What do you see?” I asked softly. Her voice was barely a whisper. “A little girl. She’s in a closet…hiding.”
When I asked what the little girl was hiding from, Rosalie shook her head. After a few moments I asked how old she was. “She’s seven,” she responded and went on quickly, “It’s her dad. He’s going to find her and hurt her.”
I reassured her that the little girl was safe right now, and suggested that by relaxing and just noticing what happened next, she would discover some way this girl might be helped. When I saw her breathing more easily, I asked what the little girl was doing now. “She’s praying. She’s saying it hurts too much, that she can’t take it anymore.”
I waited a few moments then asked her gently, “Rosalie, what might help that little girl handle all that pain?”
She frowned, “She’s all by herself…there’s no one there.” Then her words came slowly. “She needs someone to take care of her.”
“Who could best do that?” I asked. She paused, intent and focused. Suddenly her face filled with a look of surprise and amusement. “A good fairy! I can see her there with the little girl…she’s with her in the closet.” Rosalie waited for a moment and then reported, “The fairy’s surrounded by a shimmering blue light and she’s waving a golden wand.”
“Rosalie, does the fairy have a message for the little girl, something she wants to say?”
She nodded. “She’s telling her that she can do something to help, something that will let her forget for a while about the horrible things going on, so she can grow up and handle it when she’s stronger.”
I paused for a bit and then, speaking softly, asked how the fairy was going to do that. Rosalie’s response was calm and deliberate.
“She says she is going to touch different parts of the little girl’s body with her magic wand and they will harden and be able to hold all the terrible feelings for her.” Rosalie paused, listening inwardly, and then continued, “The good fairy is saying that even though it’s uncomfortable to be so bound up, it will be her way to survive, to be quiet and manage what’s happening inside her.”
After a long silence, I asked Rosalie what had happened. “Well, the fairy put the little girl’s rage and fear into her belly, and then she bound it up so it could stay there. And then she put a magic lock on her pelvis and vagina so her sexual feelings couldn’t get her in any more trouble.”
Rosalie took a few shaky breaths, and I gently asked, “What else?” Tears began rolling down her cheeks as she said, “She told her she’d have to let her rib cage tighten so she wouldn’t feel the pain of her heart breaking.” Rosalie was quiet and then she went on, her voice a little stronger. “She said her neck would be a fortress with very thick round walls so that she wouldn’t cry out for help or scream out in anger.” Rosalie fell quiet and I just sat with her in silence.
“You’re doing beautifully,” I told her, and then added gently, “Is there anything else the fairy wants you to know?” Rosalie nodded. “She says someday the little girl will no longer be able to hold all this in, and her body will start unwinding its secrets. She will let go of everything she has been holding for so long, and she will do this because her deepest wish is to be whole and real.”
Rosalie was weeping softly, her shoulders shaking. “She told the little girl not to worry. She would find people who cared and would hold her as she finds herself again.”
Rosalie sank back in her chair, and I asked her what was happening now. “The good fairy is putting her arms around the little girl and taking her to bed.” After a few moments she continued, whispering, “She’s telling her that when she wakes up, she will forget what happened, but she will remember when she’s ready.” Rosalie was quiet and when she continued her voice was tender: “The good fairy just told her, ‘Until then, and for always, I love you.’”
As if she had just finished the last page of a cherished book, Rosalie reached for the shawl I leave on my couch, wrapped it around herself, and lay down, curling into the cushions. “Is this okay?” she whispered. “I just want to rest for a few minutes.” Her face looked serene, as if these were the first real moments of ease she had touched in a long, long time.
In the weeks that followed her inner journey, Rosalie slowly emerged as if from a cocoon. I noticed that even her physical movements were lighter and more fluid. She reported that she felt better about herself: Rosalie was beginning to accept that, for all those years, she had been doing the best she could. It wasn’t her fault that she had never chosen to face the intensity of her feelings. It wasn’t her fault that she had tried to control her body with anorexia and armor her heart against intimacy with others—this was her way of defending herself from more pain. There had been something intelligent and loving guiding her.
I asked if she would mind if I shared her “fairy story” in one of my meditation classes. That made her happy—she sincerely wished that others would experience the new inner freedom she felt. When I told the story to the class, a number of people cried as they realized how they too had pulled away from their bodies, how they had locked up their energy and were not fully alive. Hearing Rosalie’s journey opened up the possibility of forgiving themselves for not facing their own deep wounds, and it helped them understand that it was natural to seek relief by hiding and defending in the face of unbearable pain.
Each of us has the wisdom of the good fairy in us. We might access it in prayer, as we read and reflect on a truth that resonates, or as we quiet ourselves and listen inwardly to our heart. The message comes in many forms, but when we are suffering, it always involves loving ourselves into healing.
“I Can Handle Whatever I’m Feeling”: Rosalie Returns Home to Her Body
While there are times in life when we might have had no choice but to contract away from unbearable physical or emotional pain, our healing comes from reconnecting with those places in our body where that pain is stored. For Rosalie, as for all of us, moving toward freedom requires bringing a mindful presence to the pain that has been locked away.
In addition to the safety provided by the therapeutic relationship itself, ongoing and skillful psychotherapy can unravel our history in a way that allows it to become a gateway to living experience. By paying attention to memories, we tap the related emotions and feelings that are locked in the body.
When the psyche connects us with what the body holds, we need to learn to stay present with the pain when it arises. This can be very difficult, especially when the habit of recoiling or hiding from intense and unpleasant sensations is deeply entrenched. With Rosalie, once her defenses began to lift, it was crucial for her to develop meditative tools she could use to face the pain of trauma whenever it might arise.
In several subsequent sessions with Rosalie, I introduced her to the practices of mindfulness and compassion, along with further self-resourcing. We started with a body scan in which she moved her attention slowly up and down her body, focusing on each region—feet and legs; torso, shoulders, arms, and hands; neck and head. At first, she had a hard time focusing in a steady way, so I encouraged her to imagine breathing energy and light and love into the part of the body she was attending to, and then totally letting go and relaxing as she breathed outward. As she was able to deepen her attention in each area, I suggested that she simply notice whatever sensations she felt there, accepting them exactly as they were.
In one session, when Rosalie told me she was having a hard time feeling sensations inside her stomach and pelvic area, I asked her to name a color that felt healing to her. I was inviting her to further resource herself. She immediately remembered the shimmering blue that had surrounded the fairy. I suggested that she imagine feeling those areas of her body bathed in that blue, letting the color wash through her with each breath.
This resourcing helped her relax enough to open to the sensations in that area. After some moments Rosalie nervously reported, “I do feel some movement, some tingling,” and then, “That’s enough for now.” While she wasn’t able to sustain her attention in that newly awakening region for very long, Rosalie was proud of her initial efforts. It had taken courage to reenter the places in her body that had felt so dangerous.
Rosalie arrived at our next session excited about a new man she had met. By the following week, however, her excitement had turned to anxiety and her body was rigid with fear. She really liked this guy and didn’t want to pull away from him. “If I can’t make peace with this fear, Tara, I won’t be able to hang in there,” she said. Rosalie knew she needed to meet her body’s experience—the harsh gripping of fear—with mindfulness.
This was new for Rosalie. Up until now she had only explored a mindful presence in her body when she was relatively resourced and relaxed. That was safe, but opening to raw fear meant facing directly the painful wounds of her childhood.
Closing her eyes, she became silent and still. After about a minute she put her hand on her stomach. “In here,” she said, “I’m really scared…I feel like I could throw up.” I encouraged her to resource by letting the warmth of her hand, her own gentle touch, help her bring a full, caring awareness to the unpleasant feelings. I asked her if she could feel that area from the inside and just notice, with kindness, what was happening.
Rosalie took several full breaths and sank back into the couch. For the next few minutes she named what she was experiencing: soreness and squeezing tightness in the center of her belly, the sensation of her chest rising and falling, the loosening and dissolving of the hard knot in her stomach, a quaking and jumpiness spreading throughout her stomach, a stabbing fear, shaking, the image of a young child alone in the closet, the thought “I can’t stand this,” heat spreading up into her chest and throat, a strangling feeling in her throat, breathing in blue, opening and softening in her throat, an upwelling of sadness. Then she became quiet and still. When she finally looked up, her eyes were glistening.
“Tara, all this is happening inside me, and I’m just holding that little girl in my arms.” After a few moments she went on: “I feel like I can accept this pain. I can handle whatever I’m feeling.”
Loving Awareness: Rosalie Discovers the Alchemy of Healing
Rosalie’s experience with the good fairy had revealed her own inner wisdom, her intuitive capacity for self-protection, and her longing to be awake and whole. Taking the risk to open mindfully to sensations was now giving her trust in her own heart and awareness.
Each time Rosalie could sense her body from the inside and accept the sensations that were arising, even the most frightening ones, she felt more confident about her ability to be at home in her bodily experience. She could handle whatever came up. This was the gift of an accepting, mindful presence. Most significantly, as she stopped resisting pain and instead opened to hold it with compassion, Rosalie was directly dismantling her identity as an abused, weak, and worthless person. She was making way for the realness and wholeness of being that the good fairy had promised.
Rumi writes, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” In both Buddhist meditation and Western somatic-based therapy, the process of experiencing and accepting the changing stream of sensations is the alchemical grounds of transformation. Together these pathways provide the safety and tools for deep healing and spiritual awakening. Learning to meet whatever arises in our body, heart, and mind with a kind presence opens us to a precious freedom. We come to trust and inhabit our true nature—the loving awareness that is our essence.