Last Thursday evening, I went to the Zen Center to meditate, have dinner, and attend the fourth session of a class I have not yet mentioned, but which has been very beneficial so far. It’s called Trauma and Zen Practice: A Somatic Approach to Studying the Self. I read the description a few times without thinking it would be up my alley, and then noticed it was based on the work of Peter Levine. A close friend was recently describing this and seems to have found great value in it, so I decided to go ahead and take the class, taught by Jane Lazar with assistance from Patricia, a Novato therapist.
The focus, rather than on sharing the details of particular difficulties, is on learning the theory behind Somatic Experiencing, and mostly on apprehending and practicing related skills.
Over the past week or so, I was noting the fruits of having sat with so much fear (re quitting and unquitting my job), including more openness to others and a stronger sense of shared humanity—a greater appreciation for the simple company of those I see each day, even if I don’t know them well or even speak to them. I now feel inspired anew to turn as fully as possible to whatever comes up in meditation, so I was interested by last week’s class discussion of “pendulation,” where you sense directly some physical or emotional pain, and then turn your attention to some part of your body where you are experiencing ease, relaxation or pleasure. (If there is no such part of your body at the moment, you can use something you can see for the pleasant part, some soothing or beautiful sight.)
Then, as the spirit moves, using whatever timing seems right, you “pendulate” back and forth, which our teachers said is is a way of gently and subtly rocking your nervous system so it doesn’t get stuck in either the on or off position. I’m far from an expert on this, but I would guess that if you’re stuck in the on position, you might be angry, wired, manic, agitated, or at least tense, and maybe if you’re stuck in the off position, you’re depressed or frozen.
I said I have found it very worthwhile to sit with discomfort and see that sooner or later it changes. Sometimes it even changes into something extremely pleasurable. (It can take literally days, but it’s fairly miraculous when it finally happens.) I wondered how that fit with pendulating—if I were to turn away from the pain to something more agreeable, would that shut off the possibility of experiencing that organic transformation?
The response was that both approaches have value, and where you might want to turn from bare attention to pendulation is when things get so intense that you lose your inner compassionate observer. I would think that by the time you get to that point, it might be too late to do anything constructive at all, so it might be better to turn to pendulation when you can see you’re heading for that cliff’s edge (just my thoughts there).
It was suggested that if you notice activation in your body, you can turn your attention to those sensations and see if they begin to change or ease up. If not, you can try grounding—noticing how the earth is supporting you, particularly feeling touch points such as your feet on the floor or your butt on the cushion or chair. You can also center yourself, by literally feeling your center—your hara—or noticing if your body is basically aligned and balanced.
Then there’s orienting, which I’d never heard of, but which our teachers have said is particularly useful. In orienting, you look around freely, moving your head and/or torso as desired, just noticing what’s around you. If you see something it gives you pleasure to rest your eyes on, you can hang out there and notice any positive physical sensations that might arise. In general, they said to be alert to any benefits that any of these practices bring.
I’ve been practicing pendulation since last week's class and made an interesting discovery, which is that the moment I’m aware of activation, I’m immediately eager to do the part where I turn to something more pleasant. After it happened four or five times in a row, I realized that, when not formally meditating, it must be my habit always to retreat quickly from the unpleasant, either trying to rationalize it away, getting lost in a story about it (often the story of how very right I am), or acting it out.
This is great to see because now that I know I am permitted to turn away from the feeling to something more pleasant as desired, I can be braver about staying with it, and I have noticed another thing: now that I’m noticing more about what’s happening physically, I can benefit from the messages my body sends about what to do and not. A few times in the past few days, I’ve been writing an email, for instance, and everything is humming along fine, and then I start a new paragraph and can very clearly feel a sort of “I don’t think this is a good idea” feeling in my belly, which tells me my intention may have strayed from the helpful and constructive. I'm sure that feeling has been there tens of thousands of times to date, and not noticed an equal number of times.