Religion has always been understood as a source of emotional well-being. Research in recent years has also demonstrated that it has health benefits.
People who have abandoned conventional religion are finding both these things through diverse alternatives. Faithful adherents of traditional faiths may see it as reductive to look at religion mostly from the perspective of the advantages it gives us. Their practice, they might say, is based on higher, less self-interested reasons, such as the acknowledgement and worship of the creator of all. But spirituality without religion largely omits this conclusion and so this series has been looking at ways people find similar results through different means.
One of the things that draws people to religion and spirituality is “healing.” In some cases, that can be physical healing — and this is not always the palm to the forehead — “Heal!” — stereotype of faith-healing so commonly ridiculed. At almost any church service down your street on a Sunday morning, prayers will be said seeking divine intercession for members of the congregation who are unwell.
People also turn to both religion and spirituality to heal emotional wounds. No doubt plenty of emotional wounds have been inflicted by religions and religious leaders themselves, but we’re focusing on healing.
Seth Lyon calls himself a “psychobiological trauma specialist and modern medicine man.” He is also a survivor of trauma — not catastrophic trauma, he acknowledges, but a family life that left him traumatized nonetheless.
“My reaction to that was to take off into the woods for 15 years,” he said. There, in the mountains of Montana, the rainforests of Oregon and on the big island of Hawaii, he pursued many of the familiar paths people choose as alternatives or adjuncts to religion: meditation, energy work, breath work. Eventually he discovered Somatic Experiencing and ended up in Vancouver a couple of years ago, bringing this form of healing to locals.
SE, as it is shorthanded, is based in Dr. Peter Levine’s 1997 book Waking the Tiger and works with nervous system physiology to unlock and overcome the long-term effects of trauma on the body and, if you like, soul. SE is intended to release the physical tension that remains in the body as a result of emotional disturbance.
“It basically works at restoring regulation to the nervous system, meaning that when someone becomes traumatized what happens is they get various survival energies — the fight, flight, freeze energies — stuck in their system for various reasons but mostly because those processes are not being allowed to complete,” Lyon explained. “Somatic Experiencing is working with someone in a very individualistic, nuanced way to help bring their physiology and their personality all to a place where these processes can complete naturally. It’s quite hard to explain precisely how we do that because there’s many, many, many different ways, but essentially it’s about helping someone reach a place where their body can do what it knows how to do to allow these various survival energies to complete and pass through.”
This is both a physiological and an emotional process, he said.
“It’s physiological in that various aspects of your nervous system are involved,” he says. “It also is always going to be tied with emotion because when we feel under threat there’s always some sort of intense emotion involved.”
One way Lyon approaches SE is through sound, in part because he studied music composition and percussion before turning to this calling.
The neocortex is the advanced part of the brain that allows us to think abstractly, develop language and motor commands, and it’s the part that “lights up” when we are engaged in religious or spiritual pursuits like prayer or meditation.
Enjoyable music and pleasing sounds engage this place too, and these can be used to stimulate the neocortex, alleviating bad stuff and, in the SE parlance, allowing the incomplete processing of traumatic energies to pass through.
Animals face life-threatening experiences more often than most of us do, but they do not accumulate trauma the way humans do because once they are safe, animals “discharge” excess negative energy by trembling or deep breathing. This process restores equilibrium, according to SE literature. The website of Levine, who founded SE, says humans — and here the neocortex comes in again — tend to override our animalistic responses to trauma through “rationalizations, judgments, shame, enculturation, and fear of our bodily sensations.” We then “recycle” the terror and helplessness we absorbed through trauma and relive it to our physical and emotional detriment.
“Basically my goal is to fundamentally help someone achieve nervous system regulation,” said Lyon, “which simply means the parts of their nervous system that are supposed to be on are on when they’re supposed to be on and the other parts are off when they’re supposed to be off and everything is moving and grooving in the organic way it’s supposed to.”
“For me, that’s my religion I guess you could say,” said Lyon. “The church of nervous system regulation.”