Safe Place and Bomb Shelter
Where do you feel safe? Some people feel safe by the sea watching the waves and smelling the salt and the foam. Feeling the soft sand under their bare feet might add comfort and calmness for some. Others feel safe in the dimmer light of a forest or by the calmer waters of a lake. Some people actually feel safe in their car, listening to their favorite music or driving on their accustomed road trip, the one they go on almost every week.
It is interesting that although being in a car and driving on a busy road is objectively unsafe, the closed space can inspire for many, a feeling of safety.
Some people only feel safe while talking to their best friend or just holding hands. Others feel safe by the campfire, or the indoor fireplace in their own home, sitting in their special soft couch. Some people feel safe with a good book; others need to touch and hold their furry pet to feel really safe. Where do you feel safe?
Becoming familiar with the path to an inner Safe Place is essential in many forms of therapy. Inquiring into a challenging emotional aspect of one’s life is always challenging and thus, requires safety. Navigating the challenges of everyday life without succumbing to overwhelming anxiety, also requires a safe place; imagined with enough details and felt sense, so that one can retreat into and rest in. Any attempt to heal from trauma requires establishing some familiarity with safety before going into anything frightening, challenging or reminiscent of the original trigger. The next step involves the development of agency: the sense that “I matter” and that my intentional action can have an impact in the world, and on other people.
Very often, the unconscious protection against trauma, abandonment and neglect is dissociation. Here is one definition of dissociation: “Disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” Many other definitions point to the disconnection between thoughts, feelings, memory, physical surrounding and identity. In this definition, I appreciate the mentioning of discontinuity.
Attachment research links secure-attachment to the ability to have a coherent personal story. That is a story that can be told with flowing continuity, like scanning a wide panoramic landscape and moving slowly across the horizon, taking in the light and the dark, noticing the beauty and the pain, all without loosing consciousness.
The gaps or breaks in the story, in thought, in experience or in identity suggest automatic defenses that prevent frightening or unpleasant memories from surfacing into consciousness.
In Feldenkrais work, the trainer might notice slight discontinuities in a movement and invite the practitioner to go over that place very slowly as if using a magnifying glass. Moving back and forth over the gap brings awareness to a possible wound and can gradually heal it.
The Native American shamans have a more holistic way to describe dissociation by calling it loss of soul. The soul cannot tolerate being in a helpless body that is going through intolerably painful experience and it simply leaves. Any remote memory of the frightening experience prompts the soul to leave again, and stay in another place that is not here and not now. Wherever the soul goes to is unconsciously associated with safety and dissociated from the present; it is at least safer than the current reality or the present memory. This is NOT a safe place in the sense described above; it is more akin to a bomb shelter; one made of thick concrete and rebar, where nothing from outside can penetrate, and nothing in it can be seen or sensed from the outside. The abuse or neglect goes on outside; the soul left the body to be in the shelter.
A bomb shelter is a place one runs into when the sirens scream. Everyone around runs under ground and there is pushing and shoving and lots of racket. The heart races, the blood pressure rises and there is adrenaline and stress in every muscle, in every cell and in every thought. The sympathetic system is fully engaged, ready for fight or flight. All other internal activity stops abruptly. That emergency rush is the origin of the discontinuity mentioned above; the adrenaline erases memory. How did I get here? What was I doing before? How will I get out? It takes a long time to settle down into calmer internal modes of operation.
In contrast, going into a safe place is a slow and reflective action, involving intention. First, one takes several slow and deep breaths, trying to attend only to the breath, and let other thoughts recede into the background. It might help to just note: breathing in… breathing out… in… out… slowly the mind settles and become empty, or at least more spacious. There is no rush. One is aware of the surrounding and of the path ahead. Each step is placed exactly on time, exactly in place, and there are no mistakes, because they do not matter.
There is only the breath and the natural flow of time. At some moment there is a sense of arrival. It might be an image or sound or a familiar sense in the lower belly or the chest. Sometime it is a feeling in the throat, a particular taste, or a certain sensation behind the eyes. Maybe some words appear, from a poem or a phrase that links one to another experience, out of time. Moving water can help; both with their sound and with the distinct way they interpret and reflect the light. Strangely, it is like a good and deep sleep, yet one is fully aware of place and time and of identity. This is where I stand! (or sit) I am here!
The peaceful sense of a safe place can last minutes or hours, in both cases it is out of time, flowing on the axis of eternity, not on the clock trajectory. Returning from there is somewhat like waking up from a good dream, yet the presence thread is not broken. There is continuity of awareness going in and coming out. Thus one can hold the complete picture, as if past, present and future are all here.
The sense of safe place can be found even in the most horrible circumstances. Viktor Frankl describes the experience of seeing a small patch of green grass through the tiny window of the barracks in Auschwitz. That little green blurb helped his soul stay in the body, placing the vision of the good life he had before next to the awful present reality. Holding that contradictory impressions allowed him to maintain what he calls Tragic-Optimism, or the ability to hold a vision for a better future while not denying the present reality.
I like practicing going over thresholds. The bathroom is a good one to start with. Can I maintain continuity of awareness opening and closing that door, moving into a different space of water, scents and associations? Going through the door between the safety of my house and the outside world. Getting in and out of the car. Going in and out of the therapy office, the supermarket, a museum or a concert hall. Like the Feldenkrize practice of slow, back and forth movement mentioned above. Can the awareness be kept uninterrupted over the external transition?
I am a different person in each of these spaces; yet, with awareness of the threshold I can be all of them at the same time.
Rumi describes that threshold experience:
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!
Now, take a few slow and deep breaths, and slowly allow your awareness to just note, in… out… in… out… We need to spread some breadcrumbs as we go there, for the path to become as familiar as the safe space itself. In fact they are not different. There is no arrival, no departure.
From one point of view the very nature of trauma is the discontinuity. The experience of flashbacks, in vision, sound or somatic pain, is coming from that same disjointedness that keeps unprocessed and unwanted memories free to enter consciousness, and disrupt whatever else is going on. In that sense, practicing the journey to the safe place, and stepping over the threshold with awareness, are good antidotes. The practice stitches together fragments that were previously torn apart. It processes frightening and detached memories and makes them part of a larger whole that is the self.
Thick Nhat Hahn ends his poem Call me by my True Names, inviting the inner contradictions to the same place:
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Who is the poet speaking or praying to? It is the internal witness, the one that can compassionately go over the threshold, pass between the worlds without being shattered and declare: you are one! I am one! In all my contradictory experiences and expressions.