Sacred Wounding: Traumatic Openings to the Larger Self

 Mijares, S. (2005). Sacred wounding: Traumatic openings to the larger self. In S. Mijares and G.S. Khalsa (Eds.) The Psychospiritual Clinician’s Handbook: Alternative Methods for Understanding and Treating Mental Disorders. NY: Routledge Mental Health.


Sacred Wounding: Traumatic Openings to the Larger Self

© 2004 Sharon G. Mijares

This chapter discusses alternative methods for treating post traumatic reactions to violence and sexual abuse. Although abuse can never be condoned, the therapeutic response to overwhelming stress and abuse can actually open doors to transformation when treated within an integrative, psychospiritual paradigm. I compare traditional theory and treatment models with psychospiritual theory, responses and treatment based upon the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Stephen Gilligan, Roberto Assagioli, and mystical teachings from religious traditions. Three client narratives are presented to illustrate how trauma and psychospiritual treatment can lead to transformed identities.


            The cultural paradigm has a large influence on diagnosis and treatment of trauma. Although Western psychology has gathered considerable data regarding the effects of trauma on mind, body and development, its primary focus has been on its pathology, ignoring the client’s larger identity. For example, one limitation of mainstream psychotherapy is that it is primarily focused on the symptoms and ignores the client’s larger identity. The initial response from the therapist can have a large impact on how the client perceives herself in relationship to the trauma. A typical therapist’s response is one of reviewing the symptoms of trauma syndrome with the client and outlining a treatment plan focused upon alleviating these symptoms. However, a therapist can acknowledge the trauma, educate in regards to symptoms and also recognize the client’s capacity to learn and grow in any circumstance. This is why increasing numbers of clients are choosing psychospiritual therapists and mind-body healers. Many clients and therapists prefer an integrative treatment model because it also includes belief systems based upon life’s deeper meanings. A psychospiritual treatment model utilizes traditional approaches, but also emphasizes theories and treatment paradigms based upon the world’s mythologies and religious traditions (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988; Mijares, 2003). Traditional treatment models do not include this larger spectrum; hence the client continues to be plagued with an identity of victimhood. Even the term survivor is more related to identity as victim, rather than one associated with the evolutionary capacity of heroic transcendence.

Paul Tillich, the German theologian, described how physics and consciousness combine in mystical unity. His student, Jean Houston, noted that “Many have had this experience, some by virtue and grace, others by years of search and inner discipline, still others through some kind of trauma that lowered the particle resistance that keeps us so firmly entrenched in the foreground” (Houston, 1987, p. 22). In other words, there is an opportunity for a quantum leap in consciousness. Trauma has an effect on the victim’s sense of time, place and person. An adaptation is required. One can never be the same again. The victim has been forced into an archetypal experience, one that can open a previously entrenched consciousness to influences from the past that have the power to transform his or her life

Traditional Diagnostic and Treatment Models

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR) describes the crucial feature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as being

…the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close association. (2000, p. 463)

The above description acknowledges physical, mental and emotional responses that can occur when one’s life, wellbeing and safety (the integrity of one’s body and identity) are threatened. Any event that endangers the integrity of one’s being, a loved one or others can cause traumata.Trauma research has particularly focused on war veterans and victims of violent assault (physical and sexual), child abuse, racial threats, and political terror (Herman, 1992; Yehuda, 2002). Following the Oklahoma bombing and 9/11, trauma research and treatment have increasingly focused on the aftermath of terrorism.

Several psychotherapies are recommended for the treatment of PTSD. These include

·       Exposure Therapy involves facing original emotions associated with traumatic experience; the client and therapist may go to the scene of the trauma in order to experience the original feelings as a step toward resolution  (Foe & Cahill, 2002).

·       Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy (CBT) is concerned with core cognitions related to the trauma. The goal is one of cognitive restructuring, focusing primarily on fear-based cognitions (Bryant, Moulds & Guthrie, 2001).

·       Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) includes a variety of cognitive-behavioral techniques. Cognitive restructuring, thought stopping, guided self-dialogue and behavioral techniques of breath control, relaxation skill building and covert modeling are used to teach the client how to manage anxiety, fears and avoidance behaviors (Foe & Cahill, 2002).

·       Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) This technique of bilateral eye movements was developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 80s. The client is asked to describe the particular images, emotions, sensations and cognitions associated with the traumatic event. The therapist then moves his fingers back and forth in front of the client’s eyes while the client tracks the therapist’s fingers, focusing on the traumatic memories. Implications of neuropsychological mechanisms are associated with bilateral eye movements that initiate integration and resolution (Christman et al, 2003).

·       Pharmacological interventions. Although PTSD is one of the most prevalent of diagnosed mental disorders, it has the least research regarding psychopharmological treatment. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors MAOIs and tricyclic antidepressants have been widely prescribed. Some victims may have other mental disorders, and this is taken into account when prescribing pharmacological agents. (Mellman, 2002). These interventions are used to support psychotherapy rather than to replace it. In particular, medications are prescribed to reduce “frequency and/or severity of intrusive symptoms…tendency to interpret incoming stimuli as recurrences of the trauma…reduction in conditioned hyperarousal…reduction in avoidance behavior…depressed mood and numbing…psychotic and dissociative symptoms…impulsive aggression against self and others” (van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996, p. 512).

The above criteria are problem focused. As previously noted, the therapeutic goal in traditional psychology is to reduce symptoms and return the client to pre-trauma functioning. Its theoretical orientation and related treatments are not focused on a quantum leap in consciousness and lifestyle. Hence, an opportunity to facilitate the client’s evolution is often missed. The client can never really be the same again; the heart, mind, and spirit have been affected. A complete life change is possible as a result of the ego’s disorganization. The psychotherapist’s orientation, combined with the client’s level of receptivity and intuitive understanding, can open the door to the winds of change.

Cross-Cultural Paradigms

            Meaning making is a process of social construction. This does not mean that core truths are non existent, but rather that the meaning a particular culture gives to them both reflects and affects the consciousness of that culture. In discussing social construction and meaning making, Kenneth Gergen advises that “any given theoretical view simultaneously serves to sensitize and to constrain; one sees more sharply but remains blind to that which falls outside the realm of focus. Thus it may be argued that any theory that commands widespread belief, that serves as a univocal view of reality within a given culture poses a threat to that culture” (Gergen, 1994, p. 168; in Rosen, 1996, pp. 21-22).

It can be argued that the current model of psychopathology as illustrated by the DSM limits our clients and our culture. In regards to PTSD and the client—it supports an identity of psychopathology and victimhood. In regard to PTSD and the culture—the pathologizing of the client represents a loss of a broader and richer perspective for therapist, client and the culture at large.

The growing awareness and compassion for victims of tragedy, terrorism, and crime is good. I do not discount the valuable work being done to help victims of trauma, but simply suggest that a therapist can utilize the knowledge gleaned from these traditional models of psychotherapy while holding a larger space for the client’s healing and transformation. The following supports this wider perspective—one in which the client’s dominant story can become one of new learning, discovery and a richer life.

The late religious historian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) researched patterns of initiation, rites of passage and various rituals related to the mysteries of birth and rebirth from the Americas to Siberia. In discussing the making of a shaman (medicine man, healer), Eliade explained that “a man may become a shaman following an accident or a highly unusual event” (1965, p. 88). In response to the psychopathology often attributed to shamanistic beliefs and behaviors he noted that “…if shamanism cannot simply be identified with a psychopathological phenomenon, it is nevertheless true that the shamanic vocation often implies a crisis so deep that it sometimes borders on madness” (pp. 88-89). The shamanic experience differs from traditional psychopathological states in that “It has an initiatory structure and signification; in short, it reproduces a traditional mystical pattern” (p. 89). The shamanic crisis often brings one to a complete disintegration of consciousness. This chaotic state can be compared to the same chaos that precedes cosmological manifestation—in other words an ordeal related to transformation. The shamanic crisis embodies themes of initiation (an event that takes one out of the ordinary) resulting in a transformed identity which in turn contributes to the culture. The wounded becomes the healer. Traditionally the crisis is not perpetrated upon the future shaman by an outside force, but arises from an internal state of consciousness. However, many modern day versions of the wounded healer include imposed traumata.

One well-known example is evidenced in the life of the late Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). As a Jew he survived imprisonment in Auschwitz and Dachau and the loss of his possessions and family. During the traumatic imprisonment and torturous daily life, he reconstructed his view of life, and examined the importance of the meaning given to any event. Within five years following his release he had achieved a second doctorate, becoming an influential psychologist. His book Man’s Search for Meaning (1959) was initially written in 1945, not long after his release from Auschwitz, and published in Austria in 1949. Since then it has sold millions—a testimony to the power of the human spirit to learn and develop under the direst of conditions.

Canadian researchers, Christopher Davis of Carleton University and Jolene McKearney of St. Francis Xavier University (2001, p. 2) note that numerous studies (Collins, Taylor ad Skokan, 1990; Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema & Larson, 1998) reveal that persons coping with loss or trauma often discover that their lives change in some unexpected and positive manner. Davis and McKearney also found that when subjects contemplated traumatic conditions, including their death (mortality salience condition), they tended to attribute increased meaningfulness to life and an enlarged worldview (2001).

This has also been evidenced in the lives of the many Tibetan refugees, in particular the monks, who following the Chinese government’s killing of over 100,000 monks and destruction of over 6,000 monasteries, escaped into India and went on to teach Buddhism to Western students. The Dalai Lama “understood their dispersion as an opportunity to share their form of Buddhism with the wider world and therefore preserve it. (Goss & Klass, 1997, p. 378). Their teachings of loving-kindness, compassion and impermanence are having a positive impact on Western consciousness.

Tibetan teacher Pema Chödrön explains in her book When Things Fall Apart that “suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last—that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security. From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land” (1997, p. 9). The recommended solution is loving-kindness to the self—to the one within who has been traumatized—and ultimately to others.

Myth and Religion: Archetypal Themes of Abuse and Self Discovery

The victim of trauma is thrown out of the womb of safety and well-being. The world becomes a fearful and lonely place, for she has been exiled from the relational field. His or her innocence has been sacrificed, and he or she has been initiated into a world of darkness. Themes of exile and sacrifice are found throughout religious stories and mythological lore (Campbell, 1949, 1974; Jung, 1964). For example, the Old Testament tells us that the king of Egypt ordered all midwives to kill every male child born of the line of Israel. An Israeli woman hid her son (Moses) for three months, then placed him in a basket to be found and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Jesus’ life is similarly threatened as Herod orders the massacre of all male infants. The Bible tells us that his parents take him from the land of his birthplace into Egypt to protect his life. In the end he becomes the slain lamb of innocence, to be resurrected as a model for all.

A similar story is told of the Indian deity Krishna. The future Krishna’s parents are imprisoned by King Kamsa to assure that all of their offspring are killed, for there is a prophesy that the eighth child of the Goddess Devaki (Krishna’s mother) will kill the king. A goddess secretly takes Krishna away from his parents’ jail cell. He is raised by cowherders until the time comes for Krishna to confront the wicked ruler and take his rightful place. Kamsa learns that he has been out-\witted and orders the massacre of all male children. The theme in the story is one of exile, conflict, and the return to one’s rightful place—the authentic self.

These stories suggest that the victim of trauma has entered an archetypal journey. An oppressive perpetrator or horrific event has disrupted the client’s previous identity. An opportunity for a complete life transformation is at hand.

Client Example: Aiki

The following case example of acute trauma syndrome concerns a victim of a violent rape. It demonstrates how early and succeeding sessions with this woman helped to empower and transform her life. She was educated on the effects of PTSD, cognitions were explored and she was trained in stress reduction exercises, but the therapy also encompassed the entirety of her life—including its spiritual dimensions.

One morning I received a call from a local women’s center concerning a rape victim. The woman had survived a four-hour ordeal with an extremely violent and crazed rapist; her breast and knee had been injured and her sense of safety and well-being destroyed. The woman required both medical and psychological treatment.

The woman was in her mid thirties. (For the sake of this article, we will call her Aiki.) She had been born in Okinawa, Japan and immigrated when she was seven years-old. She was a married mother of two children. Although she had taken only a few university courses, she was very intelligent. In the description of the rape event, I learned that Aiki was willing to fight for her life. She had even bitten the testicles of the man, who, despite his own injury and profuse bleeding, continued his attack. She fought throughout this horrendous ordeal and eventually made an escape.

Her early life history was particularly significant as it demonstrated an instinctual tendency to defend herself and fight off attackers. Her mother had left her father when Aiki was around three years old. It was not culturally acceptable at that time for a wife to leave her husband (irregardless of abuse), so Aiki’s mother had been socially ostracized. As a result, school children taunted Aiki with sticks. She began carrying a sickle to defend herself against attacks.

When Aiki was seven, her mother moved with the children to America and married an American. Their lives changed dramatically. Aiki was introduced to Christianity and separated from her Buddhist roots. She grew up and, like her mother, married an American. She did not need to work, so she stayed home and raised her sons. The marriage had several problems and both partners had been unhappy for a long time. Although her employment experience was limited, she was an excellent artist--having spent years copying the works of the great masters.

As I listened to her story I had a great appreciation for the warrior nature within this woman. She had tremendous strength. Typically, therapists focus primarily on the rape. Although I educated Aiki on the traditional symptoms of acute and post traumatic stress disorder, I was also interested in the overall lifestyle, the circumstances of her life. Aiki was lacking fulfillment in many areas. Her marriage had many problems and she felt repressed in many areas. The rape acted as a catalyst for these unresolved issues to come to the forefront of her life.

Her style of processing the rape was intense in comparison to other women I had treated. In the beginning, she slept with a gun under her pillow (which caused me great concern). I related this to the little girl with the garden sickle and began to talk about that little girl and how she was still active in her life. I used and taught hypnotically induced relaxation exercises. She responded well to trance work. In fact, she did exceptionally well. Rather than focusing simply on the rape, we focused on all the areas of her life, including her childhood and marriage, and how these affected her life as a woman. I acknowledged her bravery as well as her fears; and explained that no matter what any woman did, or how she dressed, nothing gave anyone the right to violate or attack her. This always needs to be addressed. Women, like children, tend to blame themselves for the wrongs of others. Her own cultural heritage as a Japanese woman also had its influence: she did not have a felt sense of equality or power in her marriage and life.  

Along with processing responses to trauma, the treatment focus included women’s issues and her empowerment as a woman, improving the marriage, and getting beyond fears in order to step out into a career.

Her way of handling the rape was unique. She read every book available and became an expert in the area. A few months later, the local Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) asked me if I would recommend an appropriate client (rape victim) who would be willing to share her experience with SART for newspaper coverage of their five-year anniversary. I asked Aiki if she was interested in this venture and confirmed that her name would not be used. She readily expressed her gratitude for the entire rape response program. SART next asked her to speak at a large convention the following month. Later I learned that in front of local television cameras she stated “You were told my name was Alexandra--why should I use a false name? I’m not the person who committed a crime! My name is Aiki” (and she gave her full name). She was then asked to speak at the national conference. The audience included detectives, legislators, medical staff. I was also invited. Aiki spoke against rape with such power that tears were in the eyes of male and female participants alike. The following month we were both honored by the District Attorney’s office. The DA then asked her to be the key speaker for a video to be shown in Canada and the United States. this client channeled her energy, emotions, and response to trauma in a positive direction. I had to let go of my ideas and expectations of more traditional responses.

I had a couple of individual appointments with her husband and a few sessions with both of them to address issues within the marriage. The focus here was twofold: first, to help him deal with his responses to the rape, and second to shed some light on the various ways, both subtle and overt, that he had been neglecting his marriage and his wife. His neglect had its part in her being in the wrong place at the wrong time (the night of the attack). This was never directly presented to him, but it was obvious that she had been spending a significant amount of time away from the home as a result of loneliness. His appreciation and admiration of her grew as he saw her on television and realized her strength and beauty. It increased even more when she began to blossom in her career.

Aiki was terrified to go out into the world as she lacked formal training and had limited experience in the working world. Here trance and breathwork proved helpful. She once again did well with trance work--often receiving images and feeling  inner guidance. She began to formulate her career goals. These began in the area of managing an art gallery with a vision of promoting women’s art. She joined my women’s group which focused on women’s development and met other artists. This led to training in faux finishing (artistic wall painting) from some recognized experts in this field. Her training as a classical artist was integrated into this work as she began to design panels and art on walls. The same warrior energy found in the young child defending herself against attackers and a woman fighting for her life against a rapist was channeled into creating a prosperous career.

I suggested breathwork because it induces rapid healing processes. The muscular armoring softens as a result of deeper inhaling and exhaling (Grof, 1988; Reich, 1972). The nervous system and brain are stimulated with deeper and faster breathing patterns. Contracted emotional and energetic states are released. After experiencing breathwork with Stanislav Grof, the founder of Holotropic Breathwork, John Mack explains,

The transpersonal dimension of the work has a powerful spiritual impact, reconnecting the breather with primary religious experiences, a sense of sacred awe from which he or she may have been cut off since childhood. Powerful heart-openings and uplifting, luminous, or transcendent experiences bring the breather to a higher sense of value and purpose and of connection to the universe. (Mack, 1993, p. 364)

This description is evidenced in Aiki’s first encounter with breathwork.

I was somewhat concerned that unresolved trauma might surface, but I put my trust in the breathwork process and its capacity to both release and resolve trauma. She began a rather intense breathing pattern (in comparison to others I had worked with). Her entire body was quivering in response to this intensity. I simply sat alongside her and silently supported her process. An hour and a half later she described her intense cultural resolution of the rape along with an experience of spiritual awakening.

She had gone into a trance state in which she saw the bombing of Hiroshima, followed by the releasing of peace doves. She experienced cultural themes of suicide in that she picked up a sword (internal images) with the thought of killing herself for having dishonored her family. This was inwardly processed as she put the sword down and found peace within herself. Next she had a vision of the back of a Buddhist monk in saffron robes. He turned around and she saw her own face—outwardly sobbing as she recognized “I’m a Buddhist.” The deep breathing session ended shortly after that experience. Her life had been affected on every level: improved self-image and marital relationship, career development and spiritual dedication—all as a result of that rape. No one would wish such a painful and terrifying circumstance upon anyone, but, as previously noted, the response to the trauma has the potential to transform one’s life.

Self Relations Psychotherapy

Stephen Gilligan’s Self Relations (SR) psychotherapy focuses on recreating a healthy relationship between the cognitive-egoic self and the somatic-feeling self as a means of re-uniting with the larger universal field. SR psychotherapists recognize that “there exists a power and presence greater than the intellect and individual in the world” (Gilligan, 1997, p. 22) and incorporate the client’s spirituality as part of the healing process (Gilligan & Simon, 2004). The theory incorporates teachings from Buddhism, Gandhi, Milton Erickson and the martial art: Aikido.

The significant element of the psychotherapy is that it utilizes the above to encourage embracing and holding the neglected parts of ourselves, rather than struggling against them. This is called sponsoring. Often clients have learned to ignore the pain, rage, terror and longings of their feeling selves. This is an internalized, introjected replication of the message often given to the victim by the perpetrator, that the victim’s body, feelings, thoughts and well-being are irrelevant. Sponsoring the unwanted, repressed, fragmented feelings and experiences of our neglected selves brings the possibility of healing, wholeness and reconnection to the larger relational field. From this perspective, focusing on diminishing symptoms (the goal of traditional psychotherapies) tends to contribute to the problem by ignoring the neglected selves. I have found that Self Relations psychotherapy melds well with psychospiritual healing, and my own training as a practitioner of Sufism.

I am a member of Sufi Ruhaniat International, an Inayati school of Sufism founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan (1877-1927). In particular, this school encourages a deep, experiential, lifetime study of the world’s religious teachings. This has augmented my own psychospiritual knowledge while enabling me to utilize a specific healing technique and philosophy that adapts to the client’s style and needs. Like other Eastern and indigenous traditions, Sufis use meditation, breathing practices and intoning to facilitate alchemical and transformative healing. These practices have a deep effect upon consciousness and the body.

For example, the following represents a Sufi exercise encouraging relational healing. In my chapter in Stephen Gilligan and Dvorah Simons’ anthology Walking in Two Worlds: Theory and Practice of Self Relations (2004), I share an exercise used with many clients that helps them glean a felt sense of relationship with neglected parts of themselves. The client is asked to become more aware of her breath and to follow the feeling of breathing lower in the body using a natural (rather than forced) breath. She is encouraged to relax into the base of the breathing wave. (This is where exhale completes and the breath naturally begins the next inhale.) The client is then guided

to enter the gentle darkness at the bottom of things and to use the awareness of breathing as a way to remain connected to the part that observes and witnesses all of the interactions within. Are there voices, sensations, or feelings on the ‘surface’ of the depths that have been waiting to be heard and recognized?…breathe toward the self (or selves) in your depths with as much love and thanks as you are in and out. Ask for help by aligning your breath to the breath that began the cosmos, the “Holy Breath,” and feel your own potential for creation, which arises from ‘what waits in the darkness. (Douglas-Klotz, 1995, p. 23)

The following client example is an application of Self Relations psychotherapy and Sufi practices (also found in Gilligan & Simon, 2004) such as those described above. It is a story of repressed memory recall related to childhood trauma.

Client Example #2

The first time I met Kristen she requested hypnotherapy to explore possible abuse from a second grade school teacher. However, I didn’t feel comfortable with regression therapy in that she appeared to be emotionally vulnerable and I didn’t want her to be re-traumatized. I recommended instead that we focus on her present state in order to promote spiritual, emotional and cognitive development.

Kristen was very compassionate, sensitive and feminine. She was also quite timid, and unable to speak up for herself in a crowd. In order to manifest strength and wholeness in her life, Kristen needed to integrate other archetypal qualities, including both her masculine side and her earthy feminine nature (instinctual power). This was the foundation she needed in order to integrate any prior abuse issues. I therefore focused on developing ego strengths. Through trance and breathwork she was able to recognize and affirm her spiritual intuition, helping to cultivate ego strength through increased intuition and awareness. I also taught her Sufi breathing and intoning techniques. These were given to the client as homework assignments.

Her career goals included gardening and herbology; however, these goals were not pursued due to perceived obligations. Her husband’s employment-related difficulties consumed his energies and family care consumed hers. Kristen eventually discontinued individual psychotherapy, but did remain a member of the women’s group.

A few months later I received a phone call. Kristen had been paralyzed by debilitating feelings of terror after while watching a television program on childhood abuse. Her husband had to carry her to bed due to bodily tremors that resembled seizure like activity. She began seeing metaphorical images of school children with amputated legs and arms.

She responded well to an intense breathwork session. The nonordinary states of consciousness reached enabled her to process some of her experience and at the same time access transpersonal healing states.  John Mack explains that When we are able to access, or re-access, emotions that have been warded off in the body cells or in autonomic regulatory systems, then the human organism’s previously blocked natural healing powers can become available. It is in this working through or integrative process that the greatest therapeutic value of nonordinary states may reside” (1993, pp.369-370).

While the client was in this state I hypnotically deepened her trance and encouraged her awareness of inner guidance. Kristen experienced a visual image that symbolically represented spiritual support. This image acted as an anchor and continued to provide strength and support whenever she felt emotionally overwhelmed. Memories of familial childhood abuse came up and she readily processed them.

Her husband found employment in another state. They moved away and returned three years later. Kristen then experienced another episode of terror and intrusive images of abuse. Stress and confusion related to the relocation and financial security issues appeared to have triggered the unresolved trauma from second grade. Also, she was ignoring previous learning regarding self sponsorship. All of her attention was focused on others. In neglecting herself she was replicating feelings related to childhood neglect, resulting in a reappearance of unresolved trauma. I recommended Pema Chodrön’s When Things Fall Apart (1997) as biblotherapy, believing that her Buddhist teachings concerning maitri (loving-kindness) towards the self provided a strong message of self care.

The memories and associated feelings began to manifest in my office. Again, she was overwhelmed with waves of terror. I sat next to her on the couch and spontaneously took her hand. I could feel the intensity of the energy. Her body was evidencing the trauma it had stored for almost thirty years.  She was flooded with childhood memories of abuse perpetrated by the schoolteacher, and needed to stay present with this terrified part of herself.

As I held Kristen’s hand I spoke to her adult self, “reminding her that she was a thirty- six-year old mother of three children, and that this child, her neglected child self, needed love and compassionate healing” (Mijares, 2004). We gently breathed together as I reminded her of the presence of the higher Self. The session ended with the Sufi intoning and breathing practice described earlier in order to soothe and heal the energies released by the abreaction. In this compassionate atmosphere Kristen was able to sponsor and create harmony between her adult ego self and her neglected child self. This is the goal of Self Relations Psychotherapy.

Not long after, the family purchased a new home with vast gardens. The previous homeowner had been a master gardener. And now Kristen is also a master gardener. Her gardens are visited by many, and she is being noticed for her work. Her spirituality finds expression in being with and caring for nature. It was the first time that she had actually remained present in both states and she has maintained this connection. Three years have passed and she has not needed further treatment.

Grounding in the Body: Somatic Awakening.

            As noted in the introduction, the late Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974) stressed the importance of attending to the different parts of the personality, noting that a psychological foundation was needed in order to integrate and contain spiritual frequencies (Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996). Many trauma victims turn to spiritual teachings and experiential practices hoping to avoid the feelings associated with the trauma. Churches, monasteries and ashrams are filled with devotees seeking a better state of consciousness. But, far too often, these devotees are attempting to experience a “spiritual awakening in an ill-prepared or undeveloped personality” (Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996, p. 59). Self Relations psychotherapy deals with this by focusing on integrating the neglected self and building a relational self. This is an embodied, somatic process; therefore, attention to the body represents a fundamental condition for integrative healing.

Research has tended to focus on the body’s pathological response to abuse, for example, the effects of trauma (especially childhood trauma) on the body. Alterations have been noted in stress-related neurotransmitter structures. Neurotransmitters corticotrophin-releasing factor and somatostatin have been found in increased amounts in people exhibiting PTSD (Bremner, 2002; Bremner et al; 1997). Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) indicate alterations in the hippocampus, associated with memory and learning (Bremner et al; 2003). These findings are often seen as permanent changes, and they support pharmacological treatments.

            At the same time, however, other researchers are validating the plasticity (changeability) of the brain and its relationship to learning and neurological patterning. Research with PET has evidenced brain changes taking place in obsessive-compulsive disorder clients in response to Buddhist mindfulness training (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). Also, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for patients with depression is receiving increasing attention (Segal, Williams & Teasdale; 2002). Researcher Joseph LeDoux explains in his book Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, that “Most systems of the brain are plastic, that is, modifiable by experience, which means that the synapses involved are changed by experience” (p. 8).

Recent discoveries also indicate that the brain is part of the mind-body relationship; it does not run the whole show. The stomach has an intelligence of its own and sends and receives neurotransmitters (Gerson, Kirchgessner, & Wade; 1994). More recent discoveries indicate that the heart is also comprised of neuronal tissue and mediates with the brain (Pearce, 2002). Because somatic responses are rooted in personal history and archetypal experience, an integrative response is needed. The following example (Mijares, 2004) emphasizes the relevance of the mind, body, spirit relationship in psychotherapy.

Client Example #3

Alicia had been diagnosed with chronic muscle fatigue and fibromyalgia. Her father had sexually violated her throughout her childhood. She wished he would die. Then he unexpectedly did when Alicia was 12-years-old; thereby adding guilt to mingle with her shame. Alicia entered adulthood with opposing coping styles: she attended religious services and joined a spiritual commune but also frequented bars and nightclubs and loved to drink and party. For years she successfully dissociated from any feelings associated with the abuse, but her body carried the memories and the psychic pain. It manifested itself in her illnesses (Morriss et al, 1999; Amir et al, 1997). Alicia found that late nights at local bars increased her physical pain, and that the pain diminished when she focused on meditative practices. Also, the pain increased when she neglected her childhood wounds and related feelings. Although her medical doctor had prescribed Zoloft at the onset of the illnesses, it appeared to have little, if any, impact on her self-sabotaging behaviors (for a while she bounced back and forth between these differing life styles as the patterns were deeply entrenched).

Because of her religious leanings, she related well to psychospiritual psychotherapy. I combined breathing practices, Sufi intoning, and hypnotherapy (Dolan, 1991; Hornyack & Green, 2000) with Self Relations psychotherapy. The hypnotherapy enabled her to relax more deeply and to access inner guidance. The intoning and breathing practices, which resonate at deep cellular levels, facilitated alchemical transformation. (Mijares, 2004). I also invited her to join a women’s group that focused on Goddess stories and rituals that empowered women (Mijares, 2003).

She began to appreciate her emotions and recognized that healing included reconnecting with the neglected child self within. I explained Jung’s philosophy that childhood trauma blocks natural spontaneity and innate creative power (Jung, 1964); therefore, the wounding becomes the sacred place where one reconnects with life’s deeper potentiality. Alicia had been dependent upon the Zoloft, afraid that she’d fail in her therapeutic goals if it were discontinued. She also found it to be physiologically addictive. Slowly she began to withdraw from the drug, and was soon able to claim the psychological and spiritual changes as her own.

Since then she has entered into the healing field and heals by energetic touch. Alicia appears to be symptom free and no longer disturbed by fibromyalgia and chronic muscle fatigue. To quote Yvonne Dolan, Alicia “has reclaimed her body” (1991) and she also appears to be walking the path of the wounded healer.


In this chapter I have shared an approach that integrates positive psychotherapies and applies spiritual practices. Obviously, clients differ and these experiential philosophies and exercises are not appropriate for all. Persons with limited intellectual exposure, impoverished emotional intelligence (lacking altruistic characteristics) and diminished spiritual intelligence and experience (Vaughan, 2002) may be unable to relate to psychospiritual paradigms. Therefore, the therapeutic goals of client and therapist must be matched with the style and needs of the client.

The formal and experiential training of the therapist provides the grounding the client needs in order to heal at a deep level. If the therapist is still within, he or she holds a sacred space allowing for the flow of transformational, creative power. The client can safely feel painful emotions and at the same time realize something more—the reclaiming of his or her life, psychologically and spiritually

Increasing numbers of clients are seeking integrative approaches for healing trauma, and many professionals in the healing field are enriching their practices by training in supplementary forms of treatment. Other trainees have simply disregarded traditional training and directly entered alternative training modalities. My own practice is deeply influenced by Stephen Gilligan’s Self Relations Psychotherapy, but many programs specialize in integrative treatment models for healing trauma.

One such example is The Foundation for Human Enrichment, established by Peter Levine, co-author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (Levine and Frederick,1997). There are currently close to two-thousand students enrolled in Somatic Experiencing, a process that sees and treats the resolution of trauma in relationship to paths of ancient wisdom. At this time they have nearly two-thousand students enrolled in Somatic Experiencing, a process which sees and treats the resolution of trauma in relationship to paths of ancient wisdom. Another program, Holotropic Therapy, was founded by Stanislav and Christina Grof in 1976. Since that time over 800 practitioners, representative of 36 different countries, have successfully completed the certification training program, utilizing hyperventilating breath and stimulating music to enhance nonordinary states of consciousness (Grof, 1987). Among the ranks of certified holotropic practitioners are psychiatrists, general medical professionals, psychologists, marriage and family practitioners, acupuncturists, and other professionals.

These treatment approaches support psychological and spiritual healing, but the most important element of spirituality has not been discussed. True spirituality manifests in love and compassion—at ever deepening levels. This is the core of psychospiritual therapy. If the therapist’s heart has opened to these divine qualities, he or she can reflect them to the client. This sacred holding allows the client to absorb a deeper felt sense of healing.


Anchoring is a term used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). The technique is used to reinforce preferred emotional and behavioral states. For example, every time the client experiences the desired emotional state, she reinforces it with an external reference point, the anchor (visualizing or touching the crystal).



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Dr. Sharon G. Mijares is a Depth Psychologist. She has authored seven books and numerous articles, and is a Core Faculty member of the California Institute for Human Science. She is a also a professor at National University assisting with its addition of Cultural and Social Justice components in its programs and within her courses. Sharon has studied mysticism, occult, and shamanic traditions for 48 years and is Shodan (Black Belt) in Aikido.