A Meditation on What Haunts Us

I recently had the good fortune to visit New Orleans, which is a feast for the senses. But it was a message in a book from an old shop in the French Quarter that has stayed with me most. The book was on ghosts and the afterlife, written by a journalist looking for answers. The message was channeled by a medium.

According to that medium, the spirits want us to know that suffering is needed for spiritual growth.

When I read that sentence, my whole attention narrowed to a focus, and something inside me sighed and said yes. If that was true, I could accept the pain of the past, the struggles of today. I could breathe. And ever since, the idea has kept resonating.

Now, I make no arguments for or against the afterlife…or ghosts, or mediums. And I’m aware that the message itself is controversial. Really, Virginia, all suffering is needed? I know, it’s a hornet’s nest. But that doesn’t stop me considering the possibility.

The potential of hardship to lead to growth is mirrored everywhere in life.

Without the irritants of sand, an oyster would never create a pearl. Without problems and challenges, most of us would have little impetus to grow. I think of my own struggles to build a healthy business and know each great leap came specifically because some very real hardship or problem was nipping at my heels.

So when it comes to something beyond blood and bone, something greater than ourselves, something luminous—and most of us have sensed this at some point—is it such a stretch to consider that the same natural process might spur us on to spiritual growth?

I can only speak for myself. Whenever I consider the possibility that my suffering polishes me like a diamond, my chest opens and my breathing becomes soft.

And I think of all the clients I have seen over the years, many of whom have been through immense suffering and trauma, some even believing themselves broken. But the resilience and creativity they’ve shown, the skills learned, depths mined, and wholeness which is so much greater than the wounds it contains, say otherwise. They are some of the most amazing people you could hope to meet.

Sciatica…So Many Strange Symptoms

If you’ve ever had severe sciatica, you’re not likely to forget it. The condition can be excruciating, with burning or stabbing pain shooting down the buttock and leg. But sciatica’s not always like that. Sometimes, people have weird symptoms in a leg or foot and don’t link it to sciatica.

The nerve path

The sciatic nerve is the longest in the body. It starts in the low back, travels through the buttocks, and goes down the back of the leg to the foot. Specifically, its path includes the:

  • Two lowest vertebrae in spine
  • Piriformis muscle (in butt)
  • Hamstrings
  • Back and side of calf (nerve splits behind knee)
  • Foot and toes

So, what goes wrong?

If this nerve gets pinched, you can get pain or symptoms anywhere along its path. The two main places it gets pinched are at the low back, usually when a bulging disc presses on a nerve root, or in the buttocks, when a tight piriformis muscle squeezes the nerve.

How this shows up

I’ve seen clients with severe sciatica who could hardly get on my table without excruciating pain. But I’ve also seen people with more “mysterious” leg or foot symptoms that they don’t connect to their back or pelvis. For instance, imagine that:

  • Your hamstring and upper calf keep cramping
  • Your leg is numb in one area and tingly or painful in another
  • Your foot hurts or won’t lift when you walk (drop foot)
  • One leg feels weaker than the other

What can help?

Most sciatica will clear up on its own in a few weeks. So unless there are red flags, doctors typically advise home care like heat or cold, pain relievers, and gentle exercise.

In my experience, massage may be helpful if the pain is caused by a tight piriformis. Craniosacral therapy, however, is nearly always helpful. It can relieve pressure on the nerve by releasing restrictions, reducing inflammation, and correcting alignment issues in the vertebrae and sacrum. Often, the relief is swift.

You may also be able to relieve some pressure yourself. For a tight piriformis muscle, try these stretches. If the problem is your low back, try this flat-back resting position.

Know these red flags:

  • Sudden, severe low back or leg pain (especially after injury)
  • Extreme numbness or weakness in a leg or foot
  • Trouble controlling your bladder or bowel

If you have any ref flags, see a doctor right away. Don’t mess around with nerve damage.

Feeding the Heart with Joy

How often do we feed our hearts on stories of violence, ugliness, and heartbreak? If we follow the news, then daily. This diet makes our hearts heavy. In times like these, we need to feed ourselves better stories and experiences—not only for our personal well-being, but also to remind ourselves of better possibilities for humanity.

So, let me offer your heart something nourishing.

On a recent summer evening, I found myself at loose ends. My boyfriend and I had planned to picnic at our local concert in the park. But that day turned out to be his cat’s time to die, and he and his daughter needed time together. So, with a heightened sense of the briefness and sweetness of life, I decided to go to the concert myself.

The park was brimming with people. The music was in full swing. I waded into the midst of the crowd, through families seated around picnic baskets, older people in lawn chairs, and whirls of tumbling and laughing children.

The musicians, a swing band, played with a palpable sense of joy. They told us this was their favorite concert to play all year. I could feel it. This joy radiated, spreading from the crowd to them, and back again.

I sat on the grass, feeling my body connect to the earth, the entire park supporting my weight. A profound peace descended. I looked at the people around me—really looked—and felt suddenly overcome by their beauty.

The older woman, in a dressy hat and lipstick, staring with adoration into the face of the corgi on her lap. Unnoticed beside her, the weathered partner staring with equal adoration at the woman.

The couple who knows how to swing dance, their steps the perfect complement to the music. The huge, lumbering man who turns graceful when he hits the dance area. The slender woman, swaying with a toddler on one hip and a pinscher pup on the other.

I could go on. The delighted little girl dressed in a velvet fuchsia dress, and the mom who rolls and plays with her all evening while their huge family laughs. The barefoot grandma chasing and tumbling with the barefoot girl, both in matching sundresses.

Strangers talking. Introverts smiling. Non-dancers sitting still, their faces lit from within.

All around, the best in us, the brightest, shining out and bonding us. All to be found in a couple of hours, on a summer’s evening, in Trolley Barn Park, in my neighborhood of University Heights—and probably in yours, too. All you have to do is look.

Talking to the Lizard Brain

Last month, I talked about how old trauma replays in the body like a broken record. So today, let’s look at how we can use body sensing to tune in to this “recording” and let it play through in a new way, rewiring and releasing the trauma.

Let’s start with our lizard brain…

The most primitive part of our brain—the reptilian brain—is the brain stem. It controls our fight-or-flight responses. And it operates below the level of cognitive thought.

So, let’s say you’re out hiking. You come around a bend and see what looks like a snake on the trail. And, wham, your body jumps out of the way before your thinking brain can process that it’s just a stick.

The lizard took over.

Now, when we’re traumatized…

We’ve got all of this fight-or-flight energy stuck in our body, especially in the central nervous system. We’re locked in fight-or-flight, which means we’re operating mainly in the brain stem. To transform this, we’ve got to speak brain stem.

The neocortex understands words. The limbic brain speaks emotions. But the brain stem? It speaks sensations.

So, for instance…

Let’s say you’re in a session and notice an electrical buzz along your arms and chest. As you stay with that sensation, it starts to transform. Soon it turns to heat. You might get some flash images of an old car accident. And you start to sweat and tremble. You’re discharging old shock energy.

Or perhaps you feel a sprung tension in your legs, like they’re poised to take off running. As you stay with that tension, it slowly grows and you feel the urge to move. On the table, your legs begin a slow running motion that builds. They’re running away now—an action they didn’t get to complete before.

Body sensing is an effective way to transform trauma

When we access sensations, we are talking to the lizard brain. This lets us engage directly with the trauma, but in a way that slows it down and helps it transform.

We can discharge the pent-up energy. And we can rewire nervous system patterns that keep signaling our muscles to do things like run or block. In other words, we can reintegrate all of the nonverbal trauma patterns held in our tissues.

Most importantly, we can transform trauma in a way that’s slow, that avoids emotional flooding, and that’s grounded in a sense of what feels safe and OK in the moment.

Trauma: Maybe Not What You Think

When people think of trauma, they often think of the “big” stuff, like combat, child abuse, car accidents, and natural disasters. And from there, the thought process often goes: PTSD…flashbacks…find a therapist…fix the head.


Big stuff can be traumatic, but so can many other things we often discount.

And the symptoms of trauma are a lot broader than flashbacks.

And it’s not the “head” that’s traumatized—it’s the whole body.

Which is key.

It means we can’t just “talk to the head” to transform trauma; we have to talk to the body. And much of that conversation happens below the level of the conscious mind.

First, a definition…

Right, so people (really) argue over the definition of trauma. But for our purposes, trauma happens when your survival or well-being is threatened by something that overwhelms your capacity to respond and leaves you feeling terrified and helpless.

Trauma can fly under the radar

A lot of common experiences can be traumatizing. For instance, many medical procedures routinely cause trauma, especially for small children or if you were immobilized or anesthetized. Other examples include:

  • Repetitive painful childhood experiences like bullying, neglect, or a lack of support for being gay
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Difficult birth (for mom or baby)
  • Illness or high fevers
  • Falls and physical injuries

…and so much more.

How humans muck it up

Our bodies are uniquely designed to move through traumatic experiences unscathed. Animals in the wild do it all of the time. An antelope escapes a wolf pack. It bucks and trembles, shaking off the adrenaline. It walks away calmly.

But humans…

Our big brains take over and stop this instinctual process—or well-meaning people interfere. We shut down the shaking. We don’t let our bodies kick or block or run. All of that fight-or-flight chemistry and energy just implodes, getting stuck in our bodies.

How this shows up

That’s when the headaches start…or the nightmares, the constant anxiety, the crummy immunity, the depression. Or maybe its muscle tension or hair-trigger anger. Maybe you jump at the slightest sound. Maybe you can’t feel pleasure.

Trauma symptoms show up in a million ways. But they are all held in the body…old events on replay, like a broken record. Through body sensing, we can tune in to the “recording” and let it play through in a new way, rewiring and releasing the trauma.

Next month, in part two of this topic, I’ll describe how.

A Super Simple Way to Recharge

On a recent weekend in April, I found myself exhausted. Not the kind of exhaustion you get from lack of sleep. No, this was the emotionally drained, I’ve felt too much, dealt with too much, can’t do any more kind of exhaustion.

I decided it was time for an Enough Day. This was a concept I was lucky to meet up with in bodywork school (thank you Diana). It’s a day when just waking up is enough, no plans or accomplishments beyond that needed. It a day just to be…and see what unfolds. Pajamas encouraged.

I wanted to take the day to just relax. Ha!

Picture me on the sofa, drained and “relaxing,” while my mind keeps asking, “What are we doing? What are we doing?” and my wired body buzzes. Maybe you’ve been there?

Yeah…when I get myself into these places, I know my body needs a little help getting out of them. I often turn to nature. Camping for a couple of nights would have done it. Wading into the ocean waves for a while might have, too. But those involved getting off the couch, which wasn’t happening.

That’s when I remembered my somatic therapist’s suggestion to watch nature videos with the sound off. Just let yourself watch, he’d said, and check in with your body. That one seemed manageable.

I found a gorgeous production of coastal waterways, muted the TV, and started watching colorful fish dart between reefs. The fish captivated my attention, but in a soothing, slightly hypnotic way. From time to time, I checked in with my body.

The first thing I noticed was my body gasping for breath. Every few seconds, it would take deep, gulping breaths, as if surfacing from underwater. Guess I hadn’t been breathing much.

After a while, the gasping stopped, but my body was still buzzing. Ocean kelp came on. It floated in sunlit water, a slow tidal motion. My breathing slowed. The buzzing stilled.

Coastal waterways rolled into Amazon rainforest, which rolled into desert savannah. At some point, I fell asleep. When I woke up, my cat, Mara, sat rapt in front of the TV watching lions hunt.

I laughed. A few minutes later, I started wondering why there were five tigers together in a troop…weren’t they solitary animals? My thinking mind had kicked back in. That was OK, though. I felt much better. Mara and I played bat-the-birdie for a while. It was enough.