Mindfulness is more powerful when combined with an understanding of trauma.
I approached the topic of mindfulness meditation and trauma as an academic, but also as someone who wanted to understand what happened to me one night in 2006.
I was on a silent meditation retreat in Massachusetts and felt something akin to a circuit breaker going off in my body. I’d been practicing mindfulness for years, and trusted that like every other experience I’d had in meditation, this too would pass.
It didn’t. At least, not entirely. In the coming days on retreat, the world became a murky, subterranean place. My senses became muted and muffled, my appetite vanished, and I was being bombarded by intrusive images and thoughts.
When I’d meet with one of the teachers and explain what was happening, I’d also leave with similar set of instructions: be mindful. Trust the process. Don’t give up. And for the time remaining on the retreat, that’s exactly what I did.
When I returned home that summer, my friends and family members’ faces revealed what I already knew: the meditation retreat had left me worse for wear. I was disoriented, numb, and having difficulty returning to my everyday life. At the same time, I still loved mindfulness and meditation. My practice had helped me become more aware of my body, less identified with turbulent thoughts, and happier and more content than I’d ever been.
When I tried to unpack my experience with colleagues, I was surprised to hear them use the word trauma—a term I’d studied as a psychotherapist but never associated with my own life. But after starting personal work with a trauma professional, the symptoms I’d been having began to make sense: I learned I was experiencing vicarious, or secondary, trauma after years of therapeutic work. I’d been continually exposed to stories of violence that had become traumatizing, and my symptoms had shown up on retreat.
Galvanized, I began to explore the relationship between mindfulness and trauma. I began talking to mindfulness educators, mental-health professionals, and trauma survivors, eventually writing a dissertation on the topic. With appreciation for what mindfulness could offer, I also started speaking more publicly about the experience I’d had.
I quickly learned I wasn’t alone. After a grainy video of my 2012 dissertation defense began circulating online, I started hearing from people who’d had similar challenging experiences in meditation.
With each email, I grew more concerned. Given the high prevalence of trauma and the soaring popularity of mindfulness, it was likely that there were others out there who were struggling—potentially beneath the radar of people teaching mindfulness. I knew there were mindfulness teachers trained in trauma, but others weren’t, and I wondered if they could recognize the signs of trauma and know when to refer to a trauma professional.
This is why I wrote Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness—to support teachers and practitioners in offering mindfulness practices in a safe, effective, trauma sensitive way.
Trauma and Social Justice
One of the principles of trauma-sensitive mindfulness is that trauma is not just an individual tragedy—it’s rooted in larger social systems that shape our lives. Trauma is a psychological and physiological experience, but it’s also a political one.
This became clear to me while training to become a trauma professional. While teachers spoke powerfully about the biological roots of trauma, they rarely discussed its social roots—including systems of oppression that perpetuate trauma. I was being trained to think about trauma as a personal experience disconnected from the larger world. And while this framework was familiar to me as a student of western psychology, it felt especially problematic in the context of trauma.
A year later, I discovered generative somatics—an Oakland-based, non-profit organization that offers trainings based on a systemic understanding of trauma. The organization focuses its efforts not just on individual healing, but transforming larger systems that perpetuate trauma. Through this work, trauma increasingly became a lens through which I saw and understood the world.
Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is informed by my connection to generative somatics. I believe that becoming a trauma-sensitive practitioner requires more than adopting traditional therapeutic skills: It asks us to recognize the ways trauma connects to the world around us. Even traumatic events we might see as accidental happen in a social context that privileges some while targeting others. Knowing this can inform our work, and help build safety, trust, and best support those we’re working with.
Finally, I believe that trauma-informed practice involves resourcing social justice movements that are challenging systems that perpetuate trauma.
In this spirit, 60% of proceeds from my book will be shared equally between three organizations:
I invite you to check out the above organizations, donate if you’re inspired, and also find and resource movements that speak to you.
My More Formal Bio
David Treleaven, PhD, is a writer, educator, and trauma professional whose work focuses on the intersection of mindfulness and trauma. He received his master’s in counseling psychology at the University of British Columbia, and a doctorate in East-West psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. This year he'll be offering workshops on trauma-sensitive mindfulness at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at UMass Medical School, Omega Institute's Mindfulness and Education Conference, and Mindfulness Montreal in Canada.