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Women, Violence and Meditation: Transcending Traumatic Stress

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Women's History Month closed this year with what I consider to be a momentous event: a sold-out, March 31st conference at New York City's Air and Space Museum, entitled "Women, Violence and Meditation," hosted by the David Lynch Foundation's "Operation Warrior Wellness."

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brian was conference chair, in the company of a distinguished panel of women gathering to explore the use of meditation to heal anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies in women and girls who have suffered trauma. The conference's main focus was the scientific research and ongoing studies into one form of meditation that has proven promising for alleviating PTSD -- the Transcendental Meditation ("TM") technique.

Shocking Statistics We All Should Know

Violence against women plagues American society and women worldwide. Here are a few of the facts:

One in three women in the United States has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime.

One in four of these women say they were violently attacked by their husbands or boyfriends.

Almost half of the women who report a rape say it happened when they were seventeen or younger.

Only a small percentage of those women will seek professional help.

Often unable to speak about the occurrence due to shame or fear of retaliation, victims may suffer from flash backs and debilitating side effects throughout their life.

A Personal Story: Transcending The Trauma

On hearing about the conference, one of my meditation students asked me to share her story.

As a teen, she was held at knifepoint and sexually assaulted. She decided not to report the tragedy and dealt with it instead by trying to forget it. She fought off depression and shame with drugs and other destructive behaviors. The memory kept coming back, along with the fear and anxiety associated with it.

"I heard about meditation a year later and I learned. It was only during meditation that I discovered a perfectly peaceful part of myself that is completely untouched by what had happened -- a timelessness and feeling of happiness that I had never known. Not something just imagined but the clearest, deepest and most real part of my being. I practiced the meditation twice a day and eventually became the exuberant girl I had once been, only wiser and calmer, at peace with myself and my past."

Can Meditation Help Repair The Brain's Trauma Center?

Is there a neuro-physiological basis to such reports of recovery from trauma through meditation?

It is believed that trauma is stored in the non-verbal area of the brain, the amygdala, which neuroscientists regard as the seat of the fight or flight response. Often the victim of trauma can't process the event by talking about it. While counseling has its benefits, it is limited in helping overcome post-traumatic stress, which is why most doctors prescribe medication.

According to Dr. Fred Travis at the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition, traumatic experience "switches on" the amygdala, thought to be the brain's fear center, and reduces activity in the pre-frontal cortex. "Traumatic stress creates a veil of fear through which a person experiences the world. You are hyper-vigilant, vulnerable, you think people don't understand you," says Dr. Travis. "Because this is what your brain is telling you.

Traumatic experience has turned on the amygdala and it's as if the switch is broken from overload. "To turn it off," Dr. Travis says, "we need an experience that is the opposite of trauma -- an experience that is holistic and not fragmented, an experience that is silent and not chaotic. When you transcend during meditation, those fear signals from the brain get turned off."

Does It Really Work?

If a meditation technique can allow you to transcend or go beyond thoughts and emotions to experience your own inner essence -- the field of restful alertness deep within -- it may prove to be a highly effective means to reduce symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A handful of controlled studies support the effectiveness of meditation in alleviating PTSD -- with research ranging from Vietnam War veterans to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by W. Scott Gould, Deputy Secretary of the Veteran's Administration, "Transcendental Meditation has received substantial attention at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health." He says the VA has embarked on a series of clinical investigations into the effectiveness of all forms of meditation.

The David Lynch Foundation claims initial success for its Operation Warrior Wellness, dedicated to providing meditation training to veterans. But perhaps most inspiring are the firsthand stories of veterans and others who claim to have experienced the results directly.

Tara Wise Jones, executive director of the National Women's Veteran's Association of America, is one such veteran. "I felt so low, I didn't want to be here," she says. "Transcendental Meditation saved my life. It calmed my mind, helped to restore my nurturing nature, restored my femininity and has helped me to become a better thinker. Once I learned, I didn't have to depend on anyone else, it makes me feel good inside mentally and physically."

Jones spoke at the women's conference along with Dr. Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night -- a Los Angeles shelter for women and girls that includes meditation in its recovery program.

When Bad Things Happen -- Meditation Helps

"Why did this happen to me?" is often the biggest question and main source of confusion and pain that a victim of trauma, rape or abuse must live with. We can't always explain the reasons for acts of violence, yet the power of good is far greater than the effects of negative experiences.

Meditation connects us to a part of ourselves that is all-positive, innocent and profoundly good. Deep within us -- beyond the subconscious -- is the silent, transcendental field of our awareness, which remains untouched by life's negative impressions. From this experience arises a power of reassurance that can pervade every fiber of our being, so that we become whole -- healed and at peace with everyone and everything.

Veteran Tara Jones Wise on meditation, women and PTSD