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Working With Contraction: Practices To Sustain Social Change

Working With Contraction: Practices To Sustain Social Change

Welcome to September: a month of focus on Health and Healing at Turning Wheel Media!  

We’re thrilled to begin this month with a weekday series of posts from body worker Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D., who offers theoretical perspectives and practical tools for healing, influenced by Tibetan Buddhist wisdom.  We thank her so much for being with us, and thank you for reading and joining the conversation.  May you be well!  —TWM

Photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

Part 1

The heart sutra reminds us that everything is an endless interplay of form and emptiness. Emptiness contracts into form; form dissolves into emptiness, and so on. This natural process of contraction and expansion reflects the fluidity and creativity of Primordial Awareness. Somehow in the middle of this eternal dance, Primordial Awareness forgets itself and becomes “stuck” in contraction. This too is part of the playful dance. Duality and all the beauty and suffering of the material world are birthed from this extended contraction. In the human world, the fragmenting effects of trauma and oppression reflect a similar dynamic of our bodies/psyches becoming stuck in contractions.

What is Trauma?

Trauma refers to experiences that diminish our ability to feel safe (in our bodies; in the world) and connected (to ourselves, others, the earth, and spirit). Trauma can take the form of individual, personal threats to our well-being, vicarious or secondary traumas that our work exposes us to, or social traumas (oppression).

Trauma shows up in the body as contraction. Contraction is how the body protects itself from threatening experiences. This narrowed focus is natural, and essential to our survival. Common contraction patterns include fight, flight, and freeze (or collapse, paralysis, appease and dissociate) responses which are activated when the reptilian brain senses a threat. However, with repeated threats, the body can become stuck in contraction. Just like Primordial Awareness, our cells and tissues can forget their inherent wholeness and fluidity.

Medicine Buddha painting by Robert Beer

Those of us who are engaged in community service and social justice work have ample opportunity to work with trauma contractions. We often bring personal trauma histories to our work; we work with traumatized communities. We work directly with the forces of oppression. Truly, our work is steeped in trauma. As social justice and social service workers we need to be aware we are dealing with all of this trauma so that we can take care of ourselves and our communities.

A vast perspective can help us hold all the trauma coming our way. Since contraction is part of the natural rhythm of the universe, then trauma contractions are natural, temporary responses. You don’t need to fight against these natural contractions in your body, or in the bodies of others. You can assume everyone’s body is doing its best to find safety and wholeness, and turn your attention to learning how to restore fluidity.

We can cultivate the conditions that invite the unwinding of the brain/body contractions with Grounding, Restoring, Awareness, and Safety Practices (GRASP).

The GRASP acronym is a reminder that body contraction is like a clenched fist that we can gradually learn to open at will. This week I will offer some GRASP practices to try. You will notice that each practice asks you to listen to and learn the language of sensation, which is the language of the reptilian brain and trauma healing.

[To Be Continued…]

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Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D. is a body-whisperer who offers learn-through-the-body workshops & coaching for people who are transforming our world. She teaches how to collaborate wisely with our bodies to transform trauma & sustain social change. Healing oppression facilitator & DiversityWorks trainer, Dr. Tarakali passionately practices Generative Somatics, Intuitive Reading, Energy Bodywork & Tibetan Buddhism.

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Comments (2)

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks for this article Vanissar!

    Before starting work at Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I worked for 6 years in the field of sexual violence. So I was working very directly with people who were contracted around trauma. At the time, I was also engaging in a lot of healing work around my own history of child sexual abuse, and was looking closely at how race, gender, and sexuality had shaped my life.

    I really appreciate how your definition of trauma includes all of these aspects of trauma – the personal threat, the vicarious exposure, and the social oppression. In my investigations of my own experience and the experiences of others, I found that it’s often hard to disentangle these experiences of trauma from each other. My vicarious exposure to trauma brought up memories of my own abuse. For many women of color I spoke with who had been raped, their decisions about who to tell, whether to report, and what would help them heal were often shaped by their experiences of racism.

    The more I saw this, the more I saw the role of our rape crisis center expanding to one that had to respond to all forms of trauma – the individual, the vicarious, and the social. Because to the body, trauma is trauma, regardless of whether the source is sexual violence or racism or homophobia.

    I’m really looking forward to this series and learning more about GRASP!

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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