Teresa Pitt Green, Founder
Meditation has proven to offer improvements and even relief from symptoms related to acute or chronic mental and physical illnesses as well as to post-traumatic symptoms associated with abuse.
Survivors often agree. So do family members, chaplains and health care professionals who also grapple with a vicarious experience of the abuse or trauma suffered by those for whom they care.
In mental and medical health care settings, there is seldom much distinction made between meditation, prayer, contemplative prayer, mindfulness and other inwardly-focused recovery options. So, for the purposes of this reflection, none is made here – even though readers may have strong views one way or other.
The point is that in medical and therapeutic settings, there is a body of research demonstrating salubrious effects of some kind of inward movement, or quieting of self, which requires letting go or dismissing distractions and noises of the current day, of feelings current and old, of memories, of unresolved issues.
Business reporter Lila MacLellan wrote in the New Gen business news magazine Quartz (May 29, 2017), “What contemporary and ancient meditators have always known, however, is that while the hype may be warranted, the practice is not all peace, love, and blissful glimpses of unreality. Sitting zazen, gazing at their third eye, a person can encounter extremely unpleasant emotions and physical or mental disturbances.” (For McLellan’s full article, click here.)
Disturbances and challenges vary widely. Some in the research study MacLellan reported were not entirely negative. Yet, in a practice that delves into our connection to the spiritual realm, we do encounter light and darkness.
For example, when we survivors must face the reality of evil done to us (not by us), there can be an important healing in turning to the Light for help. For survivors of abuse in some way related to faith, this may require directly avoiding what is associated with the evil done, e.g., the Church.
Yet, for anyone venturing toward this spiritual level of healing, we find that this contrast is not simply a metaphors with minimal impact. This is a dividing line between abuse and our innocence. It is a disturbing, though freeing, watershed. Yet, it involves encountering not just the Light and dark in ourselves. This is one way that, for abuse survivors, that meditative pathway inward crosses through a neighborhood where no one should walk alone.
Nancy Kehoe, RSCJ, PhD, in her book entitled Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness (2009) described the resilience and courage of institutionalized mentally ill persons – some who had suffered abuse. She observed how their draw to the divine played out in settings, however kindly and professional, where their spirituality was constrained within a different paradigm. What if a health care professional encouraged one of these to meditate without an affirming guide to believe them should they encounter the darker sides of the spiritual realm?
This is not an argument against meditation or any quieting practice.
This is, however, a cautionary tale for enthusiasts – including survivors and therapists – who promote meditation in recovery.Yes, it works. No, it is not an exercise class at the gym.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote that “the battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man” and woman. I could see the truth of that in myself, but only later as life recovers over time did I understand that the battle in my heart also involved Light from outside myself and the darkness of abuse in my life and my world and my Church. My Savior, yet again, was saving me.
I’m not the only survivor of abuse (including by clergy) who has come to see this battle line as the wound running across our childhood, in every moment of abuse when evil seemed to win – until we came forward with our witness to truth to challenge the silence. There is healing to be found beyond the meditative aspect of turning inward. There is Light to drive back the darkness from its false victory in our lives.
There’s a difference between suggesting meditation and pointing someone to the Light. It’s good to be aware of what you are suggesting to a newcomer to recovery, and it’s a mark of humility to realize that, even if you did not, they may need a guide through the potential disruptions and encounters with darkness.
Fundamental to any gesture or suggestion or therapeutic intervention in the life of someone who has been abused is a far more critical commitment within our own heart to honor the treasure of that precious individual’s resilience, courage, gifts, and sanctity by encouraging them to use even solitary meditation as a reason to break the isolation of shame and to connect with others who are trustworthy and able to participate in a network of support.