“The heart is an organ of fire.” ~Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
The limbic brain, the seat of our emotions and learning as human beings, can be destroyed by unhealed trauma. Ancient Christian mystics, often called the desert fathers and desert mothers, referred to this brain as the heart brain. Our emotional world, governed by the limbic brain, can feel like a fire that is raging out of control. Some trauma survivors are affected oppositely—they become shut off to feeling altogether. Often we shut ourselves off from emotion by choice, afraid of what feeling them might do to us.
Our emotional world and other matters of the heart are much like a fireplace that keeps a cabin warm. If the fire rages, it can burn the cabin down. If the fire dies, the cabin goes cold. Recovery teaches us how to keep the fire in balance—properly tended to create for us a beautiful warmth.
Invitation: Interlace your hands together and place them over your heart. If directly touching your body feels too activating, you may hover this cross-fingered gesture a few inches away from your heart. Spend 3-5 minutes in this position and listen to what messages your heart—and the emotional world it represents—may be giving you today.
Prayer or Intention: May the emotional fire of my heart create warmth—not destruction—today and on the path ahead.
Excerpt from the forthcoming, Trauma and the 12 Steps Daily Meditation Reader, releasing on September 30, 2020 from Creative Mindfulness Media
Photograph & Meme by Dr. Jamie Marich
Originally published on InTheRooms, May 2019
During my first attempt at recovery, I learned to play the guitar. At the time, I worked for a Catholic Parish and aid organization in post-war Bosnia-Hercegovina. There was a kind Irish priest (and former rock n’ roller) also in residence who knew that I liked to sing. However, the only instrument I played, the violin, didn’t lend itself well to accompaniment. So he very patiently taught me the art of making chords and strumming. I found that when I was bored in those early days of figuring out what to do with myself, practicing the chords and the necessary movements to move between them more fluidly kept me busy. Then one day, the chord progression I was working on provided me a back drop to create a tune. Led by that tune, I started singing the angst of my heart and calling out to my Higher Power, desperate for a deeper spiritual awakening.
Did I just write a song?
Playing music and writing music was a lifeline for me in my first few years of sobriety. I ended up taking my last drink less than a year after I stumbled upon what it meant to compose music that is deeply meaningful to my personal journey. Always a lover of reading and writing poetry, the thought of composing a song always felt impossibly complicated. Yet through my trial-and-error, coupled with some experimentation, I discovered just how accessible writing songs was for me as a form of expression. In the field of expressive arts therapy, we call this being in process. In other words, not having a fixed or forced outcome in mind. Rather, we set an intention to express and to explore, learning from our mistakes along the way. Being in process like this teaches us lessons we may have never dreamed possible.
In the field of expressive arts therapy, we encourage clients and people in the community to keep an open mind to exploring all forms of creativity and expression—music, dance/movement, writing, visual art, dramatics, you name it! We embrace an all-of-the-above approach. So while the creative form that may feel most accessible to you can be a great place to start (for me it was music and writing), the practices that feel outside your comfort zone may have the most to teach you. For me, I long believed that the visual arts were my “weak link,” because I was never any good at art in school. Yet when I began deepening my commitment to practicing all of the expressive arts for my own healing and recovering journey, I actually discovered that visual art had the most to teach me. Because I wasn’t focused on it being “good,” I was just able to have fun, be in my body, and learn to not beat myself up for making mistakes. As result, playing with the visual arts in the later years of recovery had just as much to teach me about myself and the healing journey as playing music did in those early days.
This all describes the magic that we call process in the world of expressive arts. You may have noticed that the title of my latest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions in Trauma Recovery takes a twist on the recovery slogan “progress not perfection.” For me, both the power of process in expressive arts therapy and this wisdom at this slogan are trying to teach us the same thing—don’t force outcome. Learn from the process and the journey. In early 2017 as I begin stirring with ideas for bringing this book into existence, this poem came out of me that ended up revealing the title:
Works of art in gestation
Are often called
Works in progress
The slogans and inspirational
Clichés call for
Progress not perfection
We judge students and employees
With the metric of a
What if we were to change
Every use of the work "progress"
With the word "process"?
What if works of art in
Gestation are called
Works in process?
What if we encouraged
People to focus on
Process not perfection?
What if our metrics of
Evaluation took on the tone of
What if we were to live our lives in process?
All life could transform
Into a journey of art making,
Fueled by the expressive spirit
We could refrain from
Judging ourselves so harshly
And instead savor the unknown
From the unknown and yes,
Even from our mistakes
We can discover a new way of being
From what we once labeled failures
We may unearth a new solution,
A new way to solve a problem
By creating in the moment and
Not forcing the big picture
May we encounter the essence of meaning.
If you are looking for meaningful ways to bring expressive practices into your recovery journey, please consider checking out Process Not Perfection. It is written for the general public in a voice that I hope allows you to feel safe enough to take this journey with me. I also have several opportunities where you can connect with a growing community of folks in recovery who also practice the expressive arts, specifically the Dancing Mindfulness and Expressive Arts Community Forum on Facebook. You are also welcome to visit my complimentary resources website at www.traumamadesimple.com for a wide selection of meditation, yoga, and other skill videos linked from my YouTube channel. And if you explore that YouTube channel (Jamie Marich) long enough (and go back far enough), you can also find some footage of me playing music!
I have this vivid memory from when I was about four years old of me laying on the grass in my backyard. My arms were spread out to the sides and my legs were slightly apart. It was summer and I had shorts and a t-shirt on. I could feel the grass on my arms and legs, could smell the flowers from the garden, and had this amazing feeling of being content and connected. I imagined in my head the world spinning and knew that I was a part of that, that everything was completely in harmony around me. The feeling in my body was light and I could feel a slight tingle. It felt almost like I was moving on a gentle wave. The entire world felt right and I knew that my place in the world was to be a part of the connection of everything. Some may call this a g-d moment while others would argue that I just had an amazing imagination.
It makes no difference to me what others think. The important part was how I felt. I have spent a lot of my life trying to recreate this feeling, but the only time I could even come close was when I was dancing. I started dance classes at age seven, going on eight. By this point, the world had tainted my feelings of pure content and connectedness. I was watching my godmother die of breast cancer, beginning to really understand the term "being bullied," and had an overwhelming sense of being horribly different from my classmates. In spite of my troubles, I quickly learned I LOVED dancing more than I ever thought. From the time I could walk I knew that life was better with a little saunter in my step. Joining a dance class and being surrounded by others laughing and dancing was pure joy for me. The only thing missing was that feeling of connectedness that I just couldn’t seem to grasp again.
Fast forward a decade. I was now a well-versed mental health client, full-fledged self-injurer, and budding alcoholic/addict. Dance class still brought amazing joy to my life, but was no longer enough to break through the darkness that took over my life when I left the studio. I threw myself into theatre at school, and that helped, but my overall joyous outlook on life was gone. I was living a double life- out as a lesbian at school and straight at home, the "perfect" CCD student in church and devout pagan with friends, and happy at dance and drama club, but miserable the rest of the time. Leaving high school, I knew I would probably never live to see my 30th birthday.
I spent years searching for the answer. I came out of the closet fully, I moved across country (and then back), I tried new religions, and I got married. All the while still dealing with depression, self-injury, and avoidance-based substance abuse. After a particularly bad time in my life, I decided that I would do anything to find myself and be happy. On a whim, I signed up for a retreat in Pennsylvania. Living in New Jersey I thought, "how far could it be?"
Six hours on the road, and several stops at beloved convenience store, later and I found just how far Pennsylvania goes. I did quite poorly in geography and so I found out the hard way that it borders Ohio. That first night of the retreat I rekindled my love for dance, which had gone by the wayside for years. The first experience of Dancing Mindfulness I had was powerful. I had tears in my eyes as the opening dance session came to a close. I knew I had found something I needed. Within the three days of the retreat I made closer friend connections than I had ever experienced before and spent hours deep in conversation with Lexie, a woman who I now fondly call my twin.
Somehow between Lexie and Jamie (founder of Dancing Mindfulness and co-leader of that retreat), I left the retreat with plans to be trained as a Dancing Mindfulness facilitator. I didn't have my BA (I had been working on it for 10 years at this point) yet and didn't consider myself a valid part of the mental health world, regardless of my years of work in the field. I couldn't understand how anyone would think I was capable of facilitating such a deep practice.
Facilitator training changed my life. I came out of it with a deep passion for a part of the practice known as Dance Chapel. It's a non-facilitated practice and the way I experienced it during that training brought me back to my youth, when dancing and laying in the grass brought me comfort. The world was blocked out and it was just me and the music. I didn't realize it then, but I was beginning to feel that universal connection again.
I took the concept of Dance Chapel and ran with it. At first I attempted to start a community class and offer a public Dance Chapel once a month. When my small following began to dwindle and the relationship between the studio hosting me and I ended, I turned to my private Dancing Mindfulness practice. I found solace in making playlists for myself and playing with what songs fit where. I woke up at 4.30 am during the summer and drove to the shore to dance my playlists as the sun came up. I played music and danced everywhere. Finally I began to feel that comfort that I had felt as a four year old laying in the grass.
This feeling continued to grow as my relationships with those in my Dancing Mindfulness family deepened. I learned to accept support and love. When I finally realized I was abusing substances, my Dancing Mindfulness family was there to support and help me through the process. I learned to dance through withdrawal, hard emotions, pain, and success. I have danced into sobriety, out of my marriage, and into the unknown. Mindfulness is now a part of my life; I am aware of what I am doing in every moment instead of distracting myself from reality. My body, my mind, my soul, and my image of Spirit are all now connected by the power of being able to connect to my emotions through dance and movement.
It has been almost three years since my first experience of Dancing Mindfulness at that fateful retreat. I dance every day in whatever way I can. Sometimes I set aside time to dance a full playlist and sometimes I just dance around wherever I am (home, car, store, et cetera). I have found myself again. With the help of Dancing Mindfulness, and the family I have found in this community, I have celebrated my 30th birthday, found sobriety, and created a life I am excited to live.
Published on Elephant Journal, 3/3/15
My name is Jamie—I’m an alcoholic and an addict.
I happily introduce myself in this manner at 12-step meetings, even now as a recovering woman with over 12 years sober.
People ask why I still refer to myself in these terms. They regularly challenge me, saying: “Surely Jamie, you’re healed by now? You know so much about trauma too—you teach this stuff for God’s sake! Why do you still call yourself an alcoholic and a drug addict?”
I continue to identify as an alcoholic and an addict because it keeps me in touch with reality.
The reality is that alcohol and drugs won every time. I believe that if I chose to put them back into my body, the chance of them engulfing me again is quite high.
Sure, I now have an enhanced understanding about the traumatic and biochemical origins of my addiction. Yet the reality is, drugs and alcohol made a dangerous impression on my body, mind and spirit. Why would I risk putting that into my body again? Just to prove that enough counseling, specialty trauma therapies and holistic modalities sufficiently healed my brain?
I choose to identify as an alcoholic and addict, to keep me in touch with the reality of where using these substances took me. Being reminded of this reality has special purpose for me because I drank, used, and engaged in other dangerous activities to escape reality.
To read the rest of this article, please visit Elephant Journal.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to demonize my parents—they did the best they could with what they had and believed, per their faith, that they were doing what was best for me.
As you will discover, such motivation is a common component of spiritual abuse and important to this conversation. I can look back on my childhood now with gratitude for what it taught me about recovery and my own spiritual identity…Although I hail from the notoriously crime-ridden city of Youngstown, Ohio I was never directly impacted by the social injustices, corruptions and devastations that earned the city of my birth nicknames like, Bombtown U.S.A.
The war zone in my house was not one that you see in movies about the All-American dysfunctional home: whiskey bottles emptying at a steady rate, mortgage payments getting eaten up by the loan shark or the innocent being thrown up against walls or otherwise maimed by flying household objects. There was a much different war that raged on in the battleground of my home and the desired prize was the capture and conquest of my soul.
To read the rest of this article, please visit Elephant Journal.
An Open Letter From a Trauma Therapist to Yoga Teachers: 12 Simple Ways to Make Your Classes More Trauma-Informed (Elephant Journal Piece)
The benefits of yoga practice in helping people affected by trauma can be tremendous, and they are becoming better researched and documented.With so much press on the issue, many survivors of trauma check out yoga classes on their own, unaware that so much variety exists in styles of yoga and teachers.
As a mental health/addiction counselor specializing in trauma, I often suggest yoga for my clients. Since I have an active yoga practice and teach trauma-informed yoga/dance, I am generally able to steer people towards the right fit of style, studio or teacher. Yet many of my well-intentioned colleagues who lack yoga knowledge often tell clients just “go to yoga.”
With the wrong fit, clients may become retraumatized or further alienated from body-based practices.
Addressing my colleagues on guiding folks to the right class is a separate subject. Here, I strive to address yoga teachers in all styles. Traumatized, vulnerable, or otherwise emotionally injured people will come to your classes.
You may believe people will decide whether or not your class is a good fit for them and will naturally check out if your class is too much. Some of you may believe that “yoga is yoga” and the people ought to be informed about what they are getting into.
To read the rest, please visit the original publication at Elephant Journal by clicking HERE.
I discovered Dancing Mindfulness at age 5 although I don’t believe it’s creator Jamie Marich was born yet. It was a common day. I was invited over by some older teenage girls to come play “American Bandstand” in their makeshift playhouse….an abandoned school bus carcass discarded at the end of their driveway (If the Harler girls from Mathias Drive in Columbus ever read this please contact me as I want to thank you for saving my life). I can remember it like it was yesterday when the 45rpm began whirling on the little plastic record player and they encouraged me to “strut my tiny stuff” down the aisle of the bus to the thumping sound of “These Boots are Made for Walking”. Without knowing it I embodied my first Element of Dancing Mindfulness: breath. As I was given permission to show up fully in a non-judging environment I felt myself inhale fully and exhale completely. Unbeknownst to me I had been holding my breath since birth as if to guard myself from harm. As they smiled and cheered me on I remember, for the first time ever, I felt joy inside of me well up until it overflowed to the point I had tears pouring out of my eyes. My face had spent many of my short 5 years covered in tears but never from joy. I couldn’t contain this new feeling nor did I want to. I felt foreign freedom and sense of letting go as I danced, shimmied, swayed and of course strutted. This dance brought me intense elation, a lightness of Spirit. For the first time ever I wasn’t trying to be good enough, smart enough, perfect enough. In fact I wasn’t striving at all. I just was. I was one with my body, my breath, the amazing sounds. I caught myself giggling like the other girls I would enviously watch on the playground at school and I didn’t even know why I was laughing. I do now. I had touched my innocence. I must share I didn’t have much to laugh about at that time. I was growing up in a home ransacked by alcoholism. I began escaping to the “playhouse” every chance I got. I would hide in a hedgerow in my backyard which gave me a perfect view to the school bus and like a panther I would sit crouched and wait until I saw signs of life near the bus and pounce out into the open hoping the Harler girls (and not my troubled and intoxicated mother) would see me and ask me to dance. But all too soon the Harlers moved and with them went my safe haven in which to thrive. My short lived freedom was sweeter than anything I had ever known but it was over. My hedgerow hideout was also soon discovered and I was no longer allowed to disappear. I soon found sanctuary in a tree but soon I was told was for “boys” and made to get down-and stay down.
After that my “her-story” is not unlike many other women that I know. I grew up in the tender yet tumultuous 60’s-70’s with a lot of family secrets. By age 11 I began discovering substances that would bring me fleeting feelings “similar” to that of the abandoned bus dances and the safety of the hedgerow bliss I had enjoyed. That discovery caused over 20 years of self-destruction including full blown alcoholism by the time I was 14.
My return to movement didn’t come for another 46 years. I had a span where my life resembled a bad country song. In 2007 within months my dog (the ultimate confidant) died, my dad died (he had been my hero my whole life; the only steady, constant person in a pool of insanity), my only child moved 700 miles from home to try and rebuild a relationship with his father and I got divorced. I was thrown into premature menopause from the stress according to my physician. Everything that had ever made sense to me was suddenly gone. The following few years were a roller coaster of emotion. I had deep and powerful spiritual beliefs and practices yet I found myself struggling. I entered a relationship with a wonderful man, a spiritual partner, and yet I found it growing more difficult to give of myself. Then as if on a death wish type mission I made some career decisions that although looked good on the outside from an intellectual perspective yet was a horrible fit for me. My gut, my heart, told me not to make the change yet I didn’t see any other way. My heart had endured so much pain in recent years and without even knowing it I had at some point given up trust in it. I began plummeting deeper and deeper and I rapidly sunk into a depression deeper and darker than I had ever known. I no longer had the sweet ease and comfort brought on by mind altering substances. I was raw and it was real and I couldn’t find relief. I had developed a beautiful meditation practice as part of my 12 step recovery program and during this time I couldn’t quiet my mind no matter how long I sat. It was during this time that a friend in casual conversation mentioned going to a Dancing Mindfulness class. Something on the visceral level sparked. I am convinced it was Divine Intervention in answer to the screams of my soul begging for help night after night. Instantly following her mention I went online and unfortunately found there wasn’t a class anywhere near me but I immediately ordered the DVD available. Well....let’s just say I haven't missed a day of movement since. I began taking “Dancing Mindfulness” breaks each hour at work (a perk of the less than stellar fitting job was a solo office where I could close the door and dance). I would close my office door and “drop in”. I found my breath again. My spirit. A new story began to emerge. At the end of those sanity breaks I felt like I could go on. These mini Dancing Mindfulness moments gave me the energy and clarity and connectedness to my Mind, Body & Spirit I needed. When I got home at night I would dance as best I could for 20 minutes trying desperately to follow along with the instructions on the video learning about the Attitudes and Elements. On days when I didn’t have to go in early I would start my day dancing. Me! A woman who was on the floor 2 months prior curled up in a ball wondering if suicide was once again my only option?
I followed an inner nudge and began researching training classes only to find there was one being hosted in the near future by the Dr. Marich only 2 hours from my home. Until my training I would dance day after day in my basement after work. I started developing an insatiable desire to share the technique. It didn’t make sense. I had never even stepped foot in a Dancing Mindfulness class. I followed this nudge and miraculous financial, physical and emotional synchronicities began appearing culminating in me being certified as an instructor.
I knew this is what I wanted to do but fear and inadequacy keep me in it’s grip. I had tried to teach “other” movement forms before and just couldn’t get off dead center. I feared this would once again be my story. I decided to continue my personal practice. As I began training deeply on my own I found myself suddenly devastated by a mysterious back injury. In the first days following the injury I missed dancing more than anything as I lay day after day on the floor. Some days all I could do was focus on the rhythm of the dance of my breath or do my best to embody the vibration of sound. In my mind I would tell a new story by visualizing my cells moving inside my body healing the inflammation, pushing the bulging discs back in place, soothing the angry muscles in my hips. Some days all I could do was as the creator of this movement, Dr. Marich, had taught me in training “think of the floor as your canvas. Your body the brush.” I would mindfully move one leg, then the other. I would gently arch my back with a crescendo of music. During this challenge I had no choice but to practice acceptance and non-striving. As soon as I could so much as stand upright, I tapped into the element of “beginners mind” and began to mindfully stand for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, as long as I could and sway listening carefully to my body’s needs. I was literally teaching myself to listen to my inner wisdom and trust that my body, with its now weakened spine and damaged hip structure, would support me in a new and glorious way. I learned unique ways of moving and I embraced this meditative form of movement like a hungry child with a fresh orange. I devoured every drop of soul nectar available. Daily I practiced non-judging as I fell short of my ego’s goal to return to full movement each day. Slowly, dance by dance, moment by moment, as all the elements and attitudes fused together I not only found physical health but my spirit healed in miraculous ways. I have danced in witness each morning as the 53 year old woman I am has organically merged with the enchanted 5 year old school bus queen of the strut. I write this 12 weeks post injury. I have regained full range of physical motion from my daily practice and much more importantly I have regained full range of motion in my heart. As the technique began shining a light on my truth I found that the grief I experienced in 2007 had hurt so much I had slammed the door on my heart shut. With each session the door begins to crack open a bit. A little more light enters. Today Dancing Mindfulness has not only flung the doors wide open but I am blinded by the light of healing I have experienced. In 2015 my hope is to share this incredible mindfulness in motion. To share the thrill of a truly holistic personal experience. The ultimate experience of self discovery; becoming one with myself.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity