By Patrecia Lenore Last October, at the Omega retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, a four-year-old dream came true. In 1993 at my first retreat with Thay at Omega I was in the midst of memories of incest and deep suffering. The Dharma discussion leaders were unable to answer my questions because of their inexperience with these issues. Luckily, I met other survivors of childhood abuse. We shared with each other and more or less got each other through the retreat. After watching the Vietnam veterans share their stories, I promised myself I would ftnd a way to provide support at retreats for survivors of physical and sexual abuse.
During the following months and years, I had so many questions about meditation. What do I do when memories of abuse arise during meditation? How do I forgive my father when I had only just gotten in touch with the memories and was understandably feeling a lot of anger? Smiling at the anger then seemed out of reach. I didn't want the anger, but it arose anyway. I felt a lot of shame. I wondered if the dissociation that often happened during meditation would ever cease.
Since then, I have found answers to many of these questions, some from teachers in other traditions, some from our wonderful, compassionate Dharmacharya, Lyn Fine, and some just from my own experience. In 1994, my friend Meg Dellenbaugh and I spoke about the need for Dharma discussion groups for survivors at retreats, because inevitably, the kinds of questions we asked ourselves would come up for other survivors. Finally, in 1996, I overcame my shyness and fear and asked Therese Fitzgerald about Dharma discussion groups for survivors. Through her encouragement and the help of Leslie Rawls, Meg and I offered these discussion groups at the 1997 retreat.
The number of people in our group at Omega varied each day from 30 to 125. We were not surprised. Statistics for sex abuse alone indicate one in four women has been abused. Add physical and emotional abuse, and the statistics are much worse for women and men. This is a very big problem in our society.
Meg and I opened the discussions by acknowledging that retreats are often difficult for survivors because meditation sometimes brings up memories of the abuse, strong feelings, and shame which might prevent us from speaking. We wanted to provide a space in which people could share difficulties-and triumphs-in the practice that are specific to survivors. There was much deep sharing, both about the pain of childhood abuse and the hope of living in in the joy of the present moment. Many people wept. Some said they were sharing things they had never spoken of to anyone. Meg and I spoke about particular practices which can be helpful in the midst of memories or strong feelings. For instance, one of my favorite practices is the five steps of transforming feelings that Thay offers in Peace Is Every Step (p. 53). Another one that my teacher, Lyn Fine, often reminds me of is making gratitude lists (100 joys). I also offered loving kindness meditation and Meg offered a beautiful mindful movement exercise. One woman shared that each day she looks deeply and writes one gratitude on a list by her bedside. If she is having a bad day, she has the list to look at. Some people shared about how the Touching the Earth practice was helpful.
There were many perceptive questions. The dedication and sincerity of practice was strongly evident, as was the desire of everyone there to help each other. As I write this, tears of joy about the closeness and sharing in these groups come to my eyes. Several people came every day despite conflicts with other special interest groups, and there was a strong interest in continuing to have these groups at each retreat. Some people said they would not have been able to stay through the whole retreat if the survivors group hadn't been available. Meg and I thank everyone who helped make this possible and hope that this important practice will be able to continue.
In a similar vein, Lyn Fine and I offered a small retreat in June (12 people) for survivors of abuse at our Sangha in New York. In addition to sitting and walking meditation, we offered drawing and writing practice. Again, there was much deep sharing. One woman shared with me that she had felt peace for the first time in her 50 years. A week later, some of us offered what we had written to the CMNY, much as the veterans do at the Omega retreats. For me this was very healing. Most of the survivors I know are able to tell their stories only in therapy or special groups composed only of survivors of abuse. I think it is very important to be able to tell our stories to larger communities. As Judith Herman points out in Trauma and Recovery, it is important to tell our stories so that both the survivors and the community may heal. Sharing breaks the isolation, allowing us to see ourselves in each other. In the words of a song: "May we love, may we heal, may we open to the universe."
Patrecia Lenore, Flower of True Virtue, practices with the Community of Mindfulness/New York Metro.