As a Transcendental Meditation (TM) teacher, I've worked with inmates at Rikers Island, veterans, and women and children in the shelter system. But I have specifically gravitated toward teaching survivors of domestic violence, because I have friends and family who have experienced it. That my loved ones have been victims of abuse sadly reflects the statistics: every nine seconds in the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Abusive relationships occur across all socioeconomic, cultural, and educational backgrounds.
Many survivors say that their physical wounds heal, but the emotional and psychological damage far outlasts the relationship. Studies have shown that practicing TM can help to relieve the painful aftermath of trauma. When the New York City Family Justice Centers invited the David Lynch Foundation, where I teach, to be a part of the services offered to its clients, I was honored by the opportunity, and I've been there ever since.
TM is a form of meditation, practiced twice daily for about 20 minutes, seated with the eyes closed. (There is no particular pose required.) It's very simple, but it's important to work with a teacher at first in order to perform the practice easily and comfortably. On the first day, the teacher gives each student a sound, or mantra, chosen specifically for her, and instructions on how to use it effortlessly. This is followed by group classes over the next few days. It does not involve concentration or contemplation. Even if the active mind is busy and full, overwhelmed by unpleasant thoughts, we use our mantras to transcend those thoughts and settle into a state of restful awareness that is a natural part of our consciousness — we've just lost access to it. During meditation, students experience both their minds and bodies as peaceful, clear, and blissfully free.
Often the women I meet have some resistance to the concept of closing their eyes and spending time alone in their head. After all, that is where painful thoughts and memories lie. The enjoyment of just being can seem challenging and abstract. But with each meditation, their bodies are able to heal deeply rooted traumas, and their brains begin to function in a healthier, more integrated way.
You might be surprised to know that we spend a lot of time in class laughing. We laugh at how good it feels to have a sense of freedom from within, and to be free of self-punishment as well as external abuse. In the past, for many of my students, it just didn't seem possible to feel anything but exhaustion, fear, anger, hurt, confusion, numbness, being overwhelmed. But with TM, they begin to let go of those negative feelings, and the energy they spent holding on to them is released.
Recently a young mother asked me to meditate with her before a court date where she would have to be in the same room as her abuser. The last time it had happened, she'd been so nervous she couldn't speak. This time was different. She walked in calmly, but not coldly. She knew she had every right to be angry and sad, but she was no longer going to be intimidated. She spoke with an ease and deliberateness, and she noticed people in the room treating her with more respect. She respected herself. She wasn't distracted by worries or doubt — she saw her path and stayed its course.
Of course survivors need other resources, but I've found that TM is a powerful way to help my students focus on their own needs and desires and not anyone else's. Survivors often neglect themselves and put others' needs before their own. But you must take care of yourself. It's like they tell you on an airplane: you must put on your own oxygen mask first — secure your vital needs — before you can expect to help anyone else. When a survivor is living with symptoms of trauma and stress, it can be challenging to know what she needs and wants; it can be hard for her to sort what she wants to accomplish.
By starting the day with TM, her first waking moment is an act of self-care, and then in the late afternoon, she meditates again, to recharge for her evening. When the nervous system is able to restore itself through deep rest, research shows that the effects are increasingly sustained throughout the day. Progressively, this style of functioning for the mind and body naturally empowers the survivor to make the best choices for herself without much deliberation and with more confidence.
While the circumstances under which I meet my students are painful, I love the work I do. To witness their resilience and healing is nothing short of a complete joy.
Rachel Katz is the lead teacher for the David Lynch Foundation's Women's Health Initiative