Trauma Sensitive Zen


One mark of a well-polished Zen monk is the ability to accept any situation as it is, without trying to change anything.  The first line in the ancient Zen poem, “Faith in Mind” reads, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.”  A good chunk of Zen training is learning to let go of picking and choosing, and simply accepting what you receive.  One who can do this finds the Great Way easy.


In my own experience, when I finally realized that my teacher – Dai-En Roshi – was less interested in my opinions and more interested in me dropping my agendas and simply listening to her, my relationship with her began to improve quickly.  I was no longer burdened with having to prove myself.  My job as her student was to be an open ear.  My teacher described this phenomenon by making the analogy of pouring water from a full vessel into an empty vessel.  This is “shiho” or Dharma Transmission.  In order to receive from the teacher, we need to empty our self.


Aoyama Roshi in, “Zen Seeds” writes, “A monk’s mouth should be like an oven.”  In other words, just as an oven does not refuse what goes into it – cooking everything without discrimination – so too should a monk accept what comes to him or her without showing preference for one thing or another.


I remember hearing a story from my teacher about a Japanese Zen monk who tied bricks on to his knees in order to force his legs into kekkafuza (full lotus).  Monks and laypeople alike, in Japan, are expected to sit hankafuza (half lotus) or kekkafuza if they want to practice zazen at a temple.  Recently, I received a letter from Eiheiji, our head temple in Japan, inviting myself and my students to do a four day sesshin.  One of the requirements was the ability to sit hankafuza or kekkafuza for “a long time”.


When my teacher practiced in Japan at a Rinzai monastery, she was expected to sit at least hankafuza, even though one knee resisted touching the tatami.  It took several months before the muscles in her hips softened enough for her knee to touch the ground.  I remember her saying that the only reason she did not quit was because the pain in her heart was greater than the pain in her knees.  If the ratio had been the other way around, she would have quit.


Examples of Full and Half Lotus Postures


Forcing one’s legs into a lotus position may sound really harsh.  Most American teachers that I know encourage their students to sit in ways that work for their body, including in chairs.  I personally feel grateful to my teacher for requiring that I learn to sit hankafuza or kekkafuza.  If she did not have the faith in me that I could do it, I would not have attempted it.  There is something about sitting in a lotus posture that is quite grounding for me and really helps me to focus my attention.  But I also understand that this is not for everyone, and I would never force my students to sit in this way.  If their body was limber enough, however, then maybe I would encourage it.


While most Western teachers tend to be less rigid when it comes to how you sit, you nonetheless could find yourself sitting in stillness and silence anywhere from 20 minutes to 7 days.  This requires anyone to have the ability on some level to let go of picking and choosing.  This is how the Great Way becomes easy.  When we let go of what we want and learn to accept the situation as it is, peace comes to the mind.


Zen Master Dogen’s “Universal Instructions for Zen Meditation” claim to be universal.  Anyone should be able to do it.  They only need to follow his instructions carefully, dedicate themselves, and be still.  But can his instructions be applied to everyone?


For some people new to Zen, and even those who have been sitting a long time, expecting someone to sit for a long time without moving – regardless of posture – may be inappropriate, especially for those with a history of early childhood trauma, PTSD, or belonging to a marginalized community.


For a trauma survivor having the ability to choose is the pathway to healing.  Not allowing choice can actually exacerbate trauma symptoms.


Trauma is defined as, “extreme lack of choice by an individual in a chronic way” (David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga).  Trauma includes not only having one’s physical body hurt at a particular time, but also systemic forms of violence such as what the African American and Native American communities are presently facing as a result of the historical oppression they continue to experience.  The recent “Stand up for Standing Rock” and the “Black Lives Matter” movements serve as testimonies to a systemic form of trauma.


One dimension of trauma that has been well documented in trauma survivors is a poor ability to make choices.  Brain scans reveal, among other things, an under stimulated pre-frontal cortex in the brains of trauma survivors.  The pre-frontal cortex is where the executive function operates.  This is the place in the brain that is stimulated when decisions are made.


People with addictions (addiction often being the by-product of early childhood abuse or systemic trauma), have poor ability to make clear choices.  “Just say no”, or asking someone with an addiction history to be self-disciplined may be unrealistic.  Repeated lack of choice from an early age, or being constantly denied agency in one’s destiny has prevented the development of the ability to make sound judgements based on necessities or desires.


Part of the path to healing for trauma survivors, then is having opportunities to make their own choices.  In the Trauma Sensitive Yoga classes that I teach – both in prison and in the Mental Health Unit of a hospital, a large component of the class is giving individuals opportunities to choose how they would like to do a yoga posture.  I don’t have any expectations that they will follow what I’m doing or saying, and I tell them this explicitly.


This way of conducting yoga or meditation is not the way a typical mainstream yoga or mindfulness meditation class is taught.  Mainstream Yoga teachers, like Zen teachers, give instructions and expect students to follow them.  The more you are able to follow the instructor to the tee, the more of an adept student you are – the deeper capacity you have for “shiho”.  The mainstream student who can imitate the instructor precisely has shown evidence of being able to drop their ego.  This is considered a good thing in the Dharma world.


This is not so for trauma survivors who have not yet integrated their trauma.  In fact, if a trauma survivor shows up at a mainstream yoga studio or a Zen center that is not trauma sensitive, and is told to do things “this way and that way” and to let go of their choosing, they risk having old wounds reopened.  Furthermore, a teacher who is not sensitive to how trauma effects a survivor, may, at best, prematurely give up on the student, and at worst, re-traumatize them.


Dr. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, writes, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”  For a survivor, it is deeply hurtful to be told what to do.  That is why, in the context of a Trauma Sensitive Yoga class, the teacher commits to empowering the students by not telling them what to do.  Rather, they use invitational language and offer suggestions.  Power is given to the students to decide, based on their own felt experience, what works and does not work for them.


Prior to studying Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga, as a Zen and Yoga teacher, I pretty much expected that serious students would simply follow what I ask them to do.  I assumed that the student was not ready if they could not do what I asked them to do.  It was a major bodily and mental shift for me to begin teaching in a way that empowered the students to make decisions for themselves.  I clearly remember a palpable shift in my body-center when I gave a student of mine a choice for how to proceed.  I was no longer in control of the situation.  I was not in control of the student.  It was liberating not only for the student, but for me, too!


In the past, because of my lack of understanding around trauma, not being in control would frustrate and seriously aggravate me.  I would feel imprisoned.  My thoughts were, “Hey! I learned to do this.  I learned to drop my own ego.  That’s what this practice is about.  Why can’t you do it?!  Just let go of having an opinion!”  Of course, I was not able to verbally articulate this, and I probably wouldn’t have even if I could.


Once I understood that people with trauma are suffering in the present moment because of earlier childhood experiences or systemic forms of trauma that remain lodged in their body, my heart opened up.  I realized that it doesn’t do any good to make a survivor conform to my will.  The kind response, rather, is to offer opportunities, within the student-teacher relationship, for making choices.  I empower the trauma survivor to create their own destiny, as opposed to me trying to shape it for them.


Given the widespread prevalence of trauma[1], my studies of the way trauma effects people have caused me to reflect on the way I teach Zen and the way that I’ve seen it taught in the United States. Is a blanket way of teaching meditation helpful for everyone?  Do we know the signs of trauma in our students?  Are we truly “liberating all beings” when we are not sensitive to those that come to us with a trauma history?  Are we causing more harm than good as Zen teachers when we do not take into account an individual’s trauma, or the trauma caused by systemic forms of trauma (e.g. racism)?


Are we fulfilling our calling to teach the Dharma when we turn away those with trauma?  Many Americans have some degree of trauma that goes unnoticed or undiagnosed.  How do we know, when a student offers resistance to a teaching, that this is because of their own ego?  How do we know when a student’s resistance may actually be a sign of their own healing?


The Great Way is not difficult when trauma survivors get to pick and choose.  However, for Zen teachers who are insensitive to trauma, the Great Way may be very difficult to teach effectively.  Buddhist teachers offer meditation in prisons, mental health units, hospitals, to veterans, and to special needs populations, and to the marginalized.  The prevalence of trauma in these circles is even higher than those of the general public.  A minimal understanding of how trauma affects neurology, psychology, and community are absolutely essential for Zen teachers.


I learned about trauma thanks to my connection with yoga, and thanks to the encouragement of a friend who is a psychologist.  I’m not presently aware of trauma education being offered for Zen teachers, so I feel an imperative to offer some of what I do know.


I have been teaching meditation in prisons for twenty years, and in Behavioral Health and Addiction Treatment centers for seven years.  It’s only within the past two years that I have been actively studying trauma, and this has deeply affected how I teach Zen to those populations.


I begin every meditation by reminding the participants that it is their choice to be here or not.  I make it clear that they can leave at any time.  They do not need to remain in the group.  Nor do they need to continue to do what I am saying, especially if they find it unhelpful.


By beginning my classes in this way, I am immediately handing my power over to the participants.  I’m empowering them to make the choice as to whether to remain in the class or not.  If the participants are in prison, then this empowerment through choice is even more precious.  They don’t have the choice to leave their larger environment, and often they don’t have choices even within the many activities that they do.  By making it clear that they choose to be doing meditation or not, I am letting them know they are in charge, and also not shaming them if they decide to leave.


When I teach meditation, I also incorporate choice into my instructions.  While the Buddha’s life, itself, is a model of experimentation to see what works and what does not, this attitude is not clearly reflected in Zen Master Dogen’s, “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”.  Depending on the teacher, too, the degree of choices built into meditation instructions may be somewhat limiting for a trauma survivor. For example, Zen teachers insists on practicing with eyes open.  While having eyes open and noticing the external environment may actually be beneficial for addressing trauma, if it is done without choice it may become problematic.  I may say something like, “Zen meditation is traditionally done with eyes open.  You are welcome to close your eyes or have them open.  That’s your choice.  Feel free to try both ways and see which works better for you.”


Offering alternatives to posture can be incorporated into meditation instructions.  Students can be encouraged to change postures in the middle of meditation, to move to a chair, to walk, or even to lie down.  The point is to allow opportunities for the development of agency, a feeling that one has control over themselves and their environment, and can change how they are relating to the situation.  Expecting a survivor to “just sit” and not move does not foster agency unless that person chooses to do so.


Another way I foster agency in a prison setting is to hand the meditation bell over to the students.  I ask if anyone would like to be in charge of ringing the bell to start and end meditation.  I also have the students decide how long they will sit for.  10 minutes?  20 minutes?  This way, they take leadership in their own environment, rather than me telling them a proscribed length of time and expecting them to do it.  I am also conscious of the fact that whatever they decide in terms of the length of sitting may not be in their immediate best interest.  It may be too long for some, and too short for others.  Again, if I’m teaching from an empowerment model, this is not a problem.



A Trauma Sensitive Zen class may look different from a “normal” Zen meditation group.  “Daishu ichi nyo” means “everyone doing the same practice together.”  It’s about living in harmony in a cloistered environment.  Everyone meditates together when it’s time to meditate. They work together when it’s time to work.  They sleep when it’s time to sleep.  This is expected of anyone who practices at a Zen center.  To be lying down or doing walking meditation when everyone else is doing sitting meditation, for example, is not the practice of “Daishu.”  In a recent meditation retreat I lead, I gave students the opportunity at any time during the sitting period to practice walking meditation, to lie down, or to take a break all together from the group.


While “Daishu ichi nyo” may be absent in a trauma sensitive setting, if the teacher is actively empowering the students to explore different ways of being, then there will remain intact a strong spirit of inquiry which may otherwise be lacking.


I myself am still exploring ways of creating a safe, stable, and transformative atmosphere for practitioners with trauma.  The above are just a few examples of what I do.  Employing the element of choice in the context of Zen instruction, contrary to how it is often taught, can be healing and liberating both for those with trauma, as well as for those who teach meditation.

[1] According statistics found in David Treleaven’s, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, one in five women in the United States will be raped, and it is estimated that every 28 hours a Black person is murdered by police, security guards, or State sanctioned vigilantes.

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