Episode 4: Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness with David Treleaven


I am really excited to share the conversation I had with David Treleaven on the podcast today. David is quickly becoming an important figure in the mindfulness community, especially since the release of his book Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness, which we will discuss at length. He offers some fascinating insights on the intersection of mindfulness and trauma, two topics that seem to be on everyone’s mind these days.

For those you that haven’t heard of David, he is a writer, educator, and trauma professional living in the Bar area, whose work focuses on the intersection of mindfulness, trauma, and social justice. 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. He is currently a senior teacher with Strozzi Institute, which helps leaders embody skillful action, and with generative somatics, an organization that integrates personal and social transformation. He is busy gearing up for a series of workshops on trauma-sensitive mindfulness, including at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at UMass Medical School and of course at MindfulnessMTL.

We had our conversation about a month before he is set to arrive in Montreal for the event. It’s called Mindfulness Growing Pains and features a public lecture about research on “Meditation-Related Challenges” and a 2-day training for mindfulness and meditation teachers on “Working Skillfully with Meditation-Related Changes.” David is one of 3 presenters and MGP. I spoke to the other 2, WB & JL in episode 2 of the podcast which can be found on MS website. mMTL is a not-for-profit community initiative I co-founded in 2015 to bring together mindfulness practitioners, teachers, health-care professionals in Montreal. All the information is available at mindflunessMTL website and Facebook page.

You can find David online on his website and Facebook page. You can find updates from me on Facebook and Twitter.

David is deeply passionate about the work he is doing and it comes across clearly in the discussion. He is also incredibly knowledgeable and generous provide lots of interesting information, stories, and practical recommendations.

We talked about:

The basics about trauma and how mindfulness can help with trauma recovery. We also talked about some of the risks involved in using mindfulness unskillfully with trauma survivors. The was a fairly long discussion of clinical issues in the trauma mindfulness intersection, including an analysis of a recent clinical experience of my own. And we spent some time unpacking David’s claims that trauma is inherently political and that mindfulness teachers ought to develop greater sensitivity to the social and political context of trauma.


Here are some highlights:


DT: The story of how I got here is… It’s a long one and I’ll give you the headline version. I grew up in Toronto, I was a meditator there and I had a pretty long practice. I really took myself pretty seriously in my early 20s, really got into it.

I had an experience on a retreat. I was in a longer-term retreat, and I had an experience of really dissociating from my body at the time. I was deep in practice, I had a day or so of not being able to really feel my feet on the ground. I went to the teachers at the time and received mostly what was a basic instruction of trust that, and take it back to the cushion. That’s what I did, I was a really earnest meditator. Took it back, but then when I was at the other side of a retreat, I realized the retreat had really ended up being dysregulated for me. I started talking to people about what had happened on retreat and it actually led to this intersection of mindfulness and trauma. Which was surprising to me, I didn’t feel like I had necessarily a history of trauma in my past, but for reasons I get into in the book, it actually made a lot of sense. I ended up doing a dissertation on the topic of, really what’s the intersection of mindfulness and trauma. The dissertation defense got recorded and the video went “viral”. I put that in air quotes because as much as a dissertation on meditation and trauma could go viral… A couple thousand people saw it, including Willoughby Britton from Brown University who you had on the show and on the podcast. Her and I started to get into a collaboration and a conversation.


DT: What came out of this work was actually realizing — and I get going on this more in the book — is that the years of work I had done working with sex offenders and being exposed, over and over again, to some really traumatic stories, was creating some tertiary or secondary trauma. I was having some symptoms of having nightmares and actually some uncontrollable sensations and that’s what was popping up on retreat for me. So this work really helped me see “Oh my gosh, okay well, trauma actually holds some relevance for me.” That’s what was showing up on retreat for me.


JF: I wonder if we can kind of backup a step and kind of start with the basics. There may be many people are familiar with somatic experiencing or trauma in general, but want to make sure we’re all on the same page and we can kind of set the foundations with some basic stuff.

For example, what is trauma? What are you referring to when you use that word? It’s so widely used, I think there’s an increasing sensitivity to it and an increasing interest in understanding more about it. What exactly do you mean and what are we talking about?

DT: So trauma is an extreme form of stress. It’s a term that we tend to reserve for the worst things that can happen to us, as humans…

You know, I actually was just on a plane and watching Van Jones on CNN. I was just browsing through the news and Oprah was on CNN. So here are these two, you know, pretty big celebrities at this point, who are really in the news and they were both talking about trauma. I thought “Wow this is this is really starting to come to the fore.”

I’d say in part the reason that’s happening is because of all the organizing happening these last four years: Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement… I think trauma is just baked into these movements. I’m glad it’s coming to the fore and I think it’s such an important conversation.

This other part is, I really appreciate you saying, “Well what are we talking about?”, because trauma can also… We don’t want to water it down.

I want to say to your listeners right upfront, trauma is not just a negative emotion. It’s not just a really really bad feeling. It’s actually this very particular intersection of a lot of different psychological, neurological mechanisms happening.

I do want to define it right now and say, as I understand trauma, it’s any event, or a series events, that’s stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, and profoundly unsafe. That’s the terrain we’re in with trauma. This could be witnessing or experiencing violence, or in a serious accident, being targeted by oppression… Research says, you know, 90% of us will be exposed, or will experience traumatic event in our lifetime.


JF: What is your take on how mindfulness is currently being used to help support trauma recovery?

DT: This was one of the primary motivations of writing the book. It was to support, well really to challenge the idea, that mindfulness based interventions or mindfulness practices, are necessarily a panacea to all problems.

My experience early on in the research was, there was a number of people who were making a jump — and this happened, you know, in your interview with Willoughby and Jared. People were making a leap and saying, well, mindfulness is being empirically shown to reduce stress, so then, it would hold that, when it comes to traumatic stress, mindfulness interventions would be helpful.

In my research and experience, that wasn’t actually the case. It was for some people, and others not. That was the frame of the book, it was to say, mindfulness can both help or hinder trauma survivors.

And to your point, really I think the most important thing for any of us that are offering mindfulness instruction, or interventions, is just to be cognizant of the fact that it’s not a panacea, and that we don’t necessarily know best.

To me that’s where there has been, at times… It’s to really try to push against — I don’t know if I’d call it “arrogance” — the sense of like, “we can do no wrong”. I think that’s the first to your points. That’s just the first, laying the groundwork of saying, if we can go into the conversation about how mindfulness is being used with survivors — in a complex way that’s nuanced — then, we’re already ahead of the game, because I think, it’s deeply subjective.

What has been happening in the research is, this notion that mindfulness can enhance self-regulation. That can be actually profoundly beneficial for people who are experiencing post-traumatic stress, and who are actually dysregulated in their bodies and their minds.

When we talk about self-regulation, we’re talking about the ability to regulate one’s attention, regulate emotions, and also be a tune with one’s body, this is all so helpful.


JF: Right. So, what’s missing here… Why do we need to improve our sensitivity? What’s the danger?

DT: That’s also a great question. The basic argument that I’m making — and I want to know what you think of this, or your experience is, working with clients and students — is that: Imagine for a moment, that you’re someone who’s experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. That could be flashbacks, that could be… At any point, you could be flooded by sensations that are profoundly disregulating. Imagine that’s your way of being, that’s it, that’s how you’re moving through the world.

And then you come into a contemplative environment, and you’re asked to pay close and sustained attention to your present moment experience. Now that can be… Again, that’s a huge shift for a lot of people to make. And I think it can be very very helpful and often is for a lot of people.

But there’s this potential pitfall, where if someone is attending to what’s predominant in their field of awareness, and what that is is a flashback, or the feeling of one’s got clenching, or legs tensing, you know, of symptoms of trauma.

That can actually end up exacerbating the symptoms and have someone left kind of worse for wear. What’s challenging inside of a contemplative environment is, you don’t always know, as the teacher, how everyone’s doing. You can’t always see… You can’t check in with necessarily everyone at the end of the class. So people can end up falling through the cracks.


JF: How do we process this very fine line between, when it’s okay to turn toward and be with, and when we need to go seek safety and stability and grounding? How would you recommend people work with that, walk that line?

DT: Joe, that’s the million-dollar question right? It really is. That is the question.

My recommendation, when we’re in this territory, in this particular issue, is for people to stay in that question. I really think that’s the path. A willingness to really stay awake.

Again, speaking to folks who are offering mindfulness interventions inside of their clinical work, or as mindfulness teachers, or for those listeners who are practicing, but especially for those who are in a position of power and authority.

To me there’s a responsibility in that, to stay very live, and very current, and very subjective, with the people that we’re working with, to be in that question you’re asking. When does leaning in to practice actually support and alleviate suffering? I’ll put it that way. And when is it exacerbating symptoms?


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