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Trauma-Informed Compassionate Exchange

Karuna training has long been a container for healing trauma. When I first started offering Karuna, it was only four years after the Berlin Wall fell. Once we started the first training in 1996, I was surprised to learn there was a strong need for German students to atone for the forefathers' sins using the Karuna container. It meant directly addressing the atrocities committed by their parents and grandparents involved in the extermination of Jews in World War 2. A majority of Karuna participants made the collective and personal pain of events in WW2 the focus of their Karuna practicum projects. I was very moved and inspired by their bravery and vulnerability in addressing this national karma. 

At that time, the United States had not done any such ownership on the national genocide toward Native Americans or the traumas imposed by enslaving Africans, who were the backbone of our prosperity. As the Summer of 2020 has so blatantly revealed, these racial traumas are up and beg to be addressed!

National traumas are systemically held in each of us as pain, conscious or not, and that pain lay dormant in all Americans. For some, the fear of touching that pain turns to violence against others. All Americans share our National history and the trauma of these unfortunate events in our social bodies, whether we choose to learn from that trauma or deny its existence. Resmaa Menakem, in My Grandmother's Hands (2017) reminds us:

“while we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies. If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict will need to be resolved."

Compassionate Exchange (CE) is a natural fit with trauma work, whether personal or collective trauma. CE is a skillful means supporting connection through mutual recovery, a means of integration, and a way to experience our interconnectedness as humans and the suffering we’ve propagated and thus share.

The enormous breakthroughs in neurological psychology and brain science have found language for Compassionate Exchange experiences long addressed but not necessarily named. In Karuna, we aspire to grow with this expanding knowledge base and integrate trauma-informed language into our training. We’re enhancing our language to address the pervasive trauma affecting us all in these troubling times. 

Compassionate Exchange (CE) is the practice of offering oneself to touch the suffering of others and offer a space of intrinsic sanity. This practice occurs in either a nano-second or through an on-going exchange or relationship. Buddhist Psychology understands that genuine compassion can only happen in a relationship of equals. The provider of Compassionate Exchange learns to both hold and enter into the process simultaneously, and thus CE is always a process of mutual recovery. 

Compassionate Exchange is an embodied practice that can only occur in the present moment. CE plays on nondual awareness and an ability to touch the space of our inseparable interconnectedness, which exists for all human beings. The CE practitioner offers themselves in an on-going practice, designed to regulate and resource oneself through tapping into our natural potency of heart.  Thus the practitioner of CE is studied in the nuance of emotional energy and possesses the ability to hold a firm conviction in intrinsic sanity. 

How CE looks varies greatly.  A CE practitioner offers a formal container to someone, with the agreement of touching into an active and painful topic. The practitioner of CE offers themselves as a safe and abiding compassionate friend. Someone who is there to hold whatever arises in non-judgemental awareness, intrinsic health, and that which supports another to integrate past trauma or move closer to integrating their experience. Another manifestation of CE is someone softening on the spot and merely sharing their truth in a non-judgemental reflection; this can serve to open up space when there is group trauma actively occurring. Trauma occurs when something is experienced as too fast, too much, and too overwhelming to integrate. 

Like the Pandemic that swept the World with shutdowns, interruptions, and suspensions of life at varying degrees, broken again by the divides of class and economic well-being, writing this now, the death toll worldwide due to Covid-19 is 2.34 million. That can be read as just a number, but then we quickly fragment and dissociate if we feel it. At least that is what happens to me. Encountering the trauma of a Pandemic, or any trauma in our lives, we fragment off through developing compensatory strategies, of a fight, flight, or freeze. 

Adaptive behaviors become habituated and serve to hold the fragmented pieces of ourselves unconsciously frozen, affecting us in multiple ways far from coping. Self-medication occurs with food, relationships, alcohol, and or drugs, and all have long been a common choice for managing. Yet, this behavior can also serve to dysregulate us from an integrated experience of well-being. In Contemplative Psychology, we hold addictive behaviors as ways in which we’re seeking connection and integration. In and of itself, we understand addiction has intrinsic sanity with destructive consequences. 

Bringing trauma-informed language to the practice of Compassionate Exchange, we’re developing our repertoire to support ourselves, friends, families, and colleagues. People need opportunities to integrate their experience in these fragmented times, and we need to name and acknowledge these moments of sanity. Anie Boudreau, a Karuna Teacher and founder of School of Reverence, informs us:

“It is a kind act to have a working understanding of the nervous system when offering oneself to others in engaged, compassionate coaching or other occupations.”  

In Contemplative Psychology, we access traumatic energy in the present moment by attuning to our bodily sensations, feelings and experiences directly and compassionately, without the need to suppress or act out emotions. This approach is not about demonizing our trauma, but more like taking the trauma as our teacher. When we fragment off, that’s information. As Resmaa Menakem says “Our bodies exist in the present. To your thinking brain, there is past, present, and future, but to a traumatized body, there is only now. That now is the home of intense survival energy" (My Grandmother's Hands, 2017). 

Compassionate Exchange work is naturally trauma-informed, but until now has not been languaged this way. Contemplative Psychology centers practitioners first, in the present moment in the body, and trains awareness in attuning to a tacit exchange that is always occurring with others and with the World. By bringing awareness to these unspoken exchanges with energy, we learn to track emotional reactions, fragmentation, and dissociation in those with whom we’re exchanging.

Contemplative Psychology expands our capacity to feel, hold, and experience intense emotional energy without splitting off our unintegrated parts.

Using trauma-informed CE we work with another to develop our window of tolerance through the fearless exploration of emotional energies. The term ‘window of tolerance’ coined by Dan Siegel,  defines someone’s range of functioning capacity in confronting adversity. When someone holds trauma in their body, whether conscious or unconscious, their windows of tolerance narrow and they’re easily triggered and split off emotions into fragmented habits to cope. That can look like addiction, dissociation, or numerous other adaptive behaviors which only serve to further sever one’s connection and authenticity. 

Our goal is to learn to resource ourselves through an open relationship to energy and build the heart and mind’s strength to stay with emotional and historical intensity. Knowing how to resource oneself in the face of intensity grows our windows of tolerance. Intensity capacity is the seed of our resilience, and our natural resilience is a by-product of intrinsic health. As the provider of Compassionate Exchange, we’re mutually benefited in growing and strengthening our own windows of tolerance when we work with others. First, we apply the method to ourselves and then offer ourselves as a compassionate vehicle to others. 

All this adds up to Compassionate Exchange as a perfect tool with which to resource ourselves and others. Resourcing is integration, a kind of synchronization that feels like coming home to our bodies in a relatively open way we might feel after a good night's sleep or a lovely walk in nature. Integration from a contemplative perspective means we synchronize our body, speech and mind in the present moment.

I have always championed the personal journey and life story of Anie Boudreau, who as a student of Contemplative Psychology and many other methods, has integrated her brain trauma, and on-going seizures into a path of awakening. Anie utilized an open heart and vulnerability to tame her physical traumas and work with on-going disruptive trauma skillfully. I’ve personally witnessed her teeter on the edge of death and then bring her experiences to the path to be of tremendous benefit to others. I mention her journey now with her permission because, with her help, we can reposition our primary method as trauma-informed Compassionate Exchange. 

Article written by Melissa Moore

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