By Peter A. Levine
Reviewed and Recommended by Doug Goldschmidt, PhD, CSW
In Peter Levine's excellent book, Waking
the Tiger: Healing Trauma, those of us who've experienced trauma are challenged
to understand our experience in terms of our basic animal natures. He presents
trauma as the organic response to what may be, or appear to be, life-threatening
situations. A snake escapes getting squashed by a car, a gazelle narrowly eludes
a hungry lion, and a pigeon is grabbed by an eagle but escapes. You get punched
by your father, raped by your uncle, or hit by a car. All of these elicit automatic
responses from the brain that lead to a series of organic responses. Indeed, we
know a good deal now about what happens inside the brain when trauma strikes.
The initial response to traumas is essentially the same across the animal kingdom.
For most animals, the response to trauma is to energetically release
it and move on. The release may be to shake or to close down for a short while.
But the central point is that animals release their trauma and don't go on through
life with them. No animal could survive in the wild if it were to get paralyzed
or confused by holding onto a trauma.
He attributes this ability largely to other animals' lack of the
higher brain functions that humans utilize to explain reality. It is not the trauma
per se that causes us to ruminate about what has happened to us, but the
structure of ideas about reality, some inherited, some learned, that we use to
wend our ways through a world of language, images, and feelings.
Many of us experience a trauma - physical assault, sexual abuse,
and medical procedures - as events that live with us, not as transient states.
The traumatic event, or events, become parts of our bodies as we become stimulated
over and over again throughout by real events that seem to be like the original
trauma, but aren't. Or we experience the traumas as flashbacks, nightmares, and
intrusive memories and physical sensations. We avoid situations and relationships
because we unconsciously fear a new trauma.
Or worse, we continue to be traumatized over and over again as
we attempt to somehow work out the trauma. We may think of ourselves as unlucky
in love, but the repetition of abusive relationships is rarely just bad karma.
So how do we get free? For Levine the answer is not through the
torturous search for a "true" memory of what happened. As he points out, our memories
are creations and not historical data. We shape and reshape our memories as we
experience reality. The memories are not videotapes, but attempts to explain aspects
of our lives. Their accuracy is neither here nor there.
Rather, Levine looks to the process of what happens when we experience
trauma. He sees recovery as getting past a series of mental vortexes that can
block our ability to continue traveling down life's stream. As we travel down
the stream, our relationship with the traumas changes, just as our relationship
with a loved one who has died changes as we continue to live, and they do not.
When we get caught in the vortexes created by our traumatic histories we become
struck, and whirling within the vortexes, we can relive the traumas - through
flashbacks, anxiety, or actual repetitions of particular aspects of the trauma.
Levine doesn't minimize the importance of our memories, but emphasizes the primacy
of our feelings, of our body states, and of our body's need to physically remove
the traumas in order to heal. In this sense, he reminds me of Stan Grof's work
on healing the body through breathwork. But the methods proposed here are considerably
Our recovery follows from our committing to the healing, of allowing
the healing to occur, and then moving on. And this is an important point - it
is about allowing the inevitable process of healing, about allowing the most primitive
aspects of our animal selves to do their work to return integrity to our organism.
It reminds me of something I once said at a retreat - stop doing, look at where
it has gotten you. Start allowing things for a change.
Levine rounds out the book with lots of specific examples of
what healing looks like and how to respond to trauma as it occurs. This is a fine
resource for those who want to follow their body's wisdom in their search for
renewal - for those who want to try getting out of the way and allowing their
bodies to heal themselves.