Posts Tagged ‘Peter Levine’

As a teacher in a psychology graduate school where the emphasis is on personal growth and healing, I have had ample opportunity to come in contact with multitudes of women of every stripe, shape and color. From time to time one of them and I will resonate over a wide range of harmonic chords. When we do, that’s often initially a sign that both positive transference and counter-transference are running pretty high, i.e. we’re both overlaying emotionally charged memories onto one another of significant people from each of our personal pasts. Invariably, over the time we spend together, some powerful relationship dynamics will show up inviting healing trying to happen. And in the best of all nourishing worlds, it will.

Harmonic Convergence


Tori was one of those “harmonic” students. Deeply interested in trauma and the brain, she became an informal graduate assistant. Over the weeks and months we began spending more and more time together collaborating on a number of research projects, co-creating highly energized times filled with all kinds of exciting, applied research possibilities.

One day Tori brought me a brochure describing a seminar at Esalen: The Body Keeps the Score. Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine were co-presenting a weekend on healing trauma through Somatic Experiencing. “Want to go?” Tori offered. “Sure,” I said. “Book us a couple of rooms.”

When we got to the highly charged environment that is Esalen, somehow or other the room reservation got bungled: they only had one room with two beds in it. “What do you want to do?” I asked. “We’ll take it,” Tori told the woman at the desk.

We walked over and dropped off our bags in the room, looked around at the two beds, one single and one double, and then headed over to the dining room for dinner.

Over garden salad, pilaf and pecan pie, Tori and I began talking about the room and the change in sleeping arrangements. At one point in the discussion, she became quite serious, looked at me and said: “Here’s the deal. I know myself pretty well. We can sleep together tonight and make love – and it will be some of the most sublime, ecstatic sex you’ve ever had – and we might continue our relationship as lovers for a year or two, but then I’ll be moving on. I’ll probably never have anything to do with you again after that. Or, we can not sleep together tonight, in which case the odds of us remaining lifelong friends increases substantially. The choice is yours.”

What followed then was one of the most memorable nights of my life.


Back in the room fresh from the hot springs, we both changed into pajamas. Tori crawled into the double bed and got under the covers. I came over and propped up a pillow and got into bed beside her … on top of the covers. Along with me I’d brought my Inspiron laptop computer. I slipped in a Netflix disk and for the next ninety minutes Tori and I spent an unforgettable evening watching Napoleon Dynamite. When the movie was over, I kissed her on top of her head goodnight, and then went over to the single bed to sleep alone. Driving home from Esalen we both experienced more love, connection, innocence and joy than either of us had ever felt with sex.

Every few months, these many years later Tori and I email or talk on the phone. We didn’t buy into the powerful Illusion of Separation that becoming lovers and then breaking up often orchestrates. Occasionally we collaborate on projects, or spend time visiting together when one of us shows up in close proximity. When we do, our secret, smiley, heart-connection phrase is: “Vote for Pedro!”

Self, Respecting Women

I offer up this story for several reasons. As a brain educator and trauma researcher, I was more than familiar with Tori’s personal trauma history. As with many students training to be healers, hers was particularly painful, filled with multiple violations and betrayals by important people in her early life. Knowing how trauma, in an attempt at healing, will often draw us back into situations that replicate early overwhelming experiences, I was more than aware of that possibility unfolding between Tori and me (The poetic irony wasn’t missed by us that we were at a seminar focused on healing just such trauma as Tori’s. Reenactment between us would most likely not have led to healing in the least).

Over the years I have borne personal witness to untold suffering visited upon other graduate faculty who have succumbed to such enticing offers as Tori’s. Not only did such faculty add yet another traumatic reenactment to the already over-encumbered neural real estate of the student, but they inevitably added more trauma to their own storehouse of suffering. Promising careers became ruined, self-esteem plummeted. I’ve seen police get involved, lawyers, prosecutors … trauma upon trauma leading to suffering on top of suffering.

Even in a permissive, super-charged sexual environment like Esalen (and external environs can play a big role in such dynamics), Tori’s offer of erotic nirvana held little draw for me. My interests have long been in something greater, something much, much different. It’s something evoked by the easily remembered, child-like innocence that unfailingly arises every time I hear the rallying cry, “Vote for Pedro!” As Napoleon Dynamite himself would say … “Sweet!”

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… or… Why I Write This Weekly Column

In the fall of 2005, while listening to Peter Levine’s CDs on Healing Trauma during a solo road trip from Palo Alto, California to Boulder, Colorado, I hardly suspected that I would have a major epiphany. The epiphany was this: I was someone walking through the world with significant brain damage. Not the kind of damage someone might suffer from an automobile accident or a sports injury; but something much more subtle … and sinister.  And that damage profoundly impacted every day of my life – and this is key – mostly without me or anyone else even being aware of it. What I didn’t know about how my brain worked – or in this case, how it didn’t work – was clearly hurting me. And unbeknownst to most of the parents, teachers and clergy at the time, it also hurt many of the kids and families in the neighborhood where I grew up.

Disorganized and Don’t Know It

One way those early experiences hurt me is by significantly reducing my ability to control and constructively channel anxiety on any day. How I mostly managed it was simply by avoiding or leaving situations that made me anxious. And those situations were legion. When I occasionally went, I found most parties and music concerts to be completely overwhelming. I rationalized this incapacity by thinking of myself as “sensitive.” Out in my daily life, if someone raised their voice or got angry in any way, my anxiety levels immediately spiked in response. If I was approached by strangers on the street, they immediately triggered sweaty palms and intense hyper-vigilance. Flying in airplanes filled me with dread that I was forced to place under tight wraps on any flight. Having to apply for jobs was enough to trigger a major life crisis – I once started crying in front of a job foreman after he told me he’d decided to hire someone with more experience than me. In case it isn’t obvious, all these behaviors powerfully impaired my social intelligence, leaving little room for being at ease in the world.

Awakening to What I Don’t Know I Don’t Know

In the wake of that Colorado road-trip epiphany, the question naturally arose: “What might I do to help insure that other kids (and parents) with similar early damaging experiences learn first of all how to recognize them and the potential damage they can do, and then learn how to manage them with greater ease?” I have more or less lived into the answers to those questions: learned how my own brain works and how it might work better; and I’ve especially learned about those things … I don’t know I don’t know. Since then I’ve been conveying that learning to parents, teachers, kids and clergy as best I can here.

So that’s the genesis of this weekly column, and this is my 200th weekly post without a miss. Over the last three years I would estimate I put in anywhere from eight to ten hours a week researching and writing this column. That totals roughly 1500 hours so far. After I log another 8500, ferreting out Pema Chodron’s  “places that scare me” and writing about them, according to Florida State professor K. Anders Ericsson, I might be able to consider myself a renowned expert.

Where the Rubber Meets the Synaptic Gap

Writing this column is truly a labor of love. I would do it for free if I had to. (Wait, I already DO do it for free! Mostly). Learning about how my brain works often feels exciting, inspires rubber-meets-the-road creativity and frequently makes my brain work better.  I get really amped when I read about scientists like V. S. Ramachandran using a simple hardware store mirror to remedy the suffering of veterans with phantom limb pain. I get equally jazzed when master illusionist Beau Lotto demonstrates how I truly should believe none of what my brain hears and very little of what it sees. I smile in recognition of the brain science involved at the root of innovative programs like City at Peace or Good GRuB or the Reading with Rover program for kids with learning differences. That’s a program that has kids practice reading to non-judgmental “teachers” – the neighborhood dogs!

Do the Math

Another reason I write this column is based on simple statistics: there are currently 38 million households with children under 18 in this country. If parents in all 38 million of those households were savvy about how the brain works and the conditions under which it really rocks, that would be wonderful. But research suggests that getting only 10 percent of those households brain savvy is sufficient to reach a Tipping Point! 3.8 million mothers or fathers is NOT all that many. It might not happen in my lifetime, but it WILL happen at some point down the road. And I’ll go to my final resting place  knowing I made my small contribution. It brings a joyous smile just thinking about it.

Finally, feel free to click here (or here on Amazon) to buy a digital edition of this parenting brain book. Pass it on freely to as many parents as you know and help continue to positively change the brains of 38 million parents in America. It’s an ambitious aim that truly is best for the children …

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Somewhere between birth and roughly age three, I suffered a substantial decline in social intelligence. My earliest memory of one significant incident was being left in the care of total strangers in St. Raphael’s hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. I went to sleep only to wake up in great pain – the result of having had my tonsils removed. I remember being given an orange Popsicle to eat. I also remember throwing it up before I was half way through.

Hospital Trauma

It’s no accident that I’ve retained this memory for almost 60 years! Current traumatology research points to a very high probability of traumatic memory formed in the wake of any hospital procedure that uses a general anesthetic. In my case, it appears that my autonomic nervous system retained awareness that sharp implements were cutting pieces of flesh out of my throat. In response it sent out fight or flight chemicals (adrenaline, cortisol, etc.), the same as it would do if I were consciously awake and experiencing the pain of this traumatic assault. But, because my body was immobilized, what I ended up with was PTSD, and an intense dislike of orange Popsicles. And a growing fear of strangers.

The Power of Powerlessness

It’s freezing or being immobilized that seems to cause much of the problem, as evidenced by the next insult to my social intelligence. This  took place at around age four. My older sister, Andrea was pushing me on a swing in the park across the street from our house on Carlyle Street. I can clearly recall the exhilarating feeling of going up just a little bit too high on the back swing and the thrill of arcing back down and then gliding up into the front arc. On the next downswing however, I was suddenly struck full in the face and knocked painfully to the ground. Blood began flowing freely, and my eyes filled with tears as I lay immobilized on the ground with my nose beginning to swell rapidly. Through those tear-filled eyes I saw my sister yelling at a girl who was running with her little brother out of the park. For no known reason, she had simply walked up and smashed me in the face as I swung toward her. This experience too, carved large inhibition grooves on my emerging social intelligence. It was becoming clearer: strangers were not safe.

Public Humiliation

The next incident I recall came when I started public school. I remember standing in the lunch line amidst a whole group of new kids, most of whom I did not know. Johnny Mathis, the one kid I did know, was standing behind me. Suddenly, he grabbed hold of my arms and held me as he yelled out to the other kids: “Look at Brady and his wimpy, pointed elbows!” I remember being held frozen and turning tomato-red as all the other kids stared at me, or rather, at my elbows and laughed. Strike three of dozens – hanging out with strange people had become way too hurtful for me. Still, it took a number of other immobilizing and painful experiences at the hands of strangers before my social intelligence was essentially reduced to zero. (One result: I spent seventh through twelfth grade public school never uttering a single word in any class).

The Tragedy of the Common

The tragedy of seemingly innocuous events such as these (when viewed through 1950s knowledge and sensibilities) is that they foster conditions that are completely antithetical to the way the brain is designed and ideally structured to unfold. As I’ve since learned from Peter Levine’s and Maggie Kline’s book, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, a typical childhood is filled with experiences of all kinds that disrupt, disorganize and delay optimal neural development.  Many of them happen without any parental or adult awareness of grave damage done. Here are a few pictures of everyday incidents demonstrating what I mean:

In each of these pictures the experience of emotional overwhelm in combination with immobilization appears to store these experiences similar to the way it records and stores real life-threatening incidents. The same neurotransmitters are involved. The same brain disorganization results.

Waking Up to Brain Development

Parents, teachers and childcare workers would be wise to be aware of the neural disorganization incidents like these can produce. One good intervention in the wake of such experiences is to have the child stand up and move – walk or run. Repeating movements like Brain Gym or Smart Moves that cross the midline of the body (making the sign of the cross?) are also helpful. Finally, some kind of “triumphant action” is further useful to diminish the sense of powerlessness resulting from such overwhelming experiences. Actively working to transform it in this way provides greater power for developing confident social intelligence.

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