Peter Levine, Ph.D., has devoted most of his life to understanding the body and its experience of trauma. He has sought to understand how the body encounters trauma and if it is possible to live a healthy life after experiencing trauma. With his book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (2010), Dr. Levine not only shares his own traumatic experience of getting hit by a car, but takes us on a bit of a bumpy ride through his thoughts on medicine today, the evolution of consciousness and animal behavior. He draws from myth and archetypal behavior, neuroscience and biology to contextualize how he developed his methods of helping his clients live and thrive after traumatic events. His case studies span his career, from beginning with a hunch to later developing techniques around his understanding of trauma and the body. One case study is from his work with a survivor from 9/11, which demonstrates well how he defines fear.
Perhaps some would prefer him to get down to the case studies rather than talk about animals, biology, myth, and consciousness, but he ties everything together, linking successful animal behavior, after a close encounter with death, to being able to release the energy the body produces during an attack. It makes sense to read the whole book, but if you are not into reading entire books then the case studies and his own accident give an idea of how he works with blocked energy after a traumatizing event.
“The person who can freely run away from threat does not feel fear. He only feels danger (avoidance) and then experiences the action of running. It is solely when escape is prevented that we experience fear” (327).
I found Dr. Levine’s discussion of fear to be interesting given that today we have a lot of politicians working hard to make all of us fearful of just about anything. So if we feel trapped we feel fear, and if we have an economy of fear, What might those politicians be trying to make us do? These are questions we can think about right alongside trauma.
Getting back to the book. For Dr. Levine, a body does not have to live forever with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
“post traumatic stress injury is an emotional wound, amenable to healing attention and transformation” (34).
Dr. Levine takes on the medical model that continues to position itself as “healthy healer” (34) to the masses of bewildered individuals who are looking to alleviate their suffering. He proposes that doctors treating patients with PTSD join with their patients in their suffering. Sounds paradoxical, but how else can a body offer healing if it has no clue what suffering is? We have all suffered. But, many of us have not felt our own suffering in our bodies. And so here we go again trying to beat back Descartes who died in 1650, but lives on in many heads that think they simply do not need their bodies. Dr. Levine’s approach is somatic: get in touch with your body and what it feels in order to work with patients who are traumatized. And really, what patient is not traumatized? Here’s the gift that Dr. Levine and many others who are out there talking about knowing your body (not just what’s on your mind): offering any sort of care takes knowing what is going on in your own body (at all times!) as well as your patient’s.
The key to embodiment, according to Dr. Levine (and most Buddhist teachings, and in one way or another most religions), is awareness (287). Becoming aware of our bodies, it seems to me, is like being born all over again or maybe for the first time. Dr. Levine makes a point to distinguish awareness from introspection, just in case anyone wants to say something like: Of course I’m aware, “I think, therefore I am” (That would be Descartes, and as we know he died a long time ago, most likely in bed as, if I recall correctly, that’s where he did most of his writing). Thinking is not awareness (Buddhism again). In fact, thinking often gets annoyingly in the way of most of our opportunities to be aware of what is going on in and around our bodies.
And what happens when we stop thinking, do we fall apart? Actually, and this is proven in recent neuroscience too (check out Antonio Damasio, and if you’re afraid of him read Siri Hustvedt), emotions are what keep us sane and able to function.
“A person who is deeply feeling is not a person who is habitually venting anger, fear or sorrow. Wise and fortunate individuals feel their emotions in the quiet of their interiors, learn from their feelings and are guided by them. They act intuitively and intelligently on those feelings. In addition, they share their feelings when appropriate and are responsive to the feelings and needs of others. And, of course, because they are human, they blow up from time to time; but also they look for the root of these eruptions, not primarily as being caused by another, but as an imbalance or disquiet within themselves” (338)
In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, offers insights into how the body feels and senses itself in its environment. Dr. Levine draws on his experiences with his clients, providing several case studies to illustrate his theories, and offers several methods for getting in touch with our bodies as well as for feeling more contained and safe in our bodies. It is not overly scientific and can be understood by someone who does not have an extensive understanding of trauma. I think it is particularly useful for those who desire to live a more embodied life. I’m sure it’s in your local library. That’s where I found mine.