I was recently introduced to Havening
. I’d never heard the term before, but I was intrigued by a brief explanation that Havening is a neuroscientific tool to assist in repairing emotional trauma. I looked at a couple of links
and was so interested I tried the technique
myself, just to see what would happen.
The human brain’s structure, function and capability are still a mystery to us in many ways. The brain does appear to be highly plastic; that is, we learn, we unlearn and we can develop new neural pathways and rehabilitate, to a greater or lesser degree, some kinds of physical traumatic brain injury as well as emotional trauma. We obviously treat some brain-based dysfunctions by pharmacological means, in the form of prescription drugs or self-medication via alcohol, nicotine and illicit substances.
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In our current culture of emotional illiteracy, sometimes the only way we know to mitigate our emotional pain is to numb out or distract. Relieving our symptoms, however, doesn’t address the root cause of our difficulty, it only covers it up for a time. Havening is a tool that allows us to address the source of our trauma and pain without chemical substances or the need for specialized (and expensive) treatment. It empowers us, the experts on our wounds and broken places, to become our own healers.
Nowhere on the Havening website or in the video is there mention of us giving our consent to the possibility that we can change, grow and heal. However, that is in fact the first step. I have observed, in myself and others, that sometimes we become so deeply invested in our pain and limiting beliefs we’re really not willing to heal and change. We say we are. We say we want to feel better, but when it’s time to do the work of exploration, excavation and learning to make different choices in managing our thoughts and feelings, we don’t. We’re not willing to be wrong, let go of our grievances and stories, practice forgiveness and give up the satisfaction of shaming and blaming others.
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I suspect Havening is a waste of time for those who approach it unwillingly, just as more traditional therapies are a waste of time (and money) if we’re only going through the motions.
Assuming we consent to give Havening a chance, the technique requires us to sit with ourselves in a quiet, safe place and deliberately bring to mind a single difficult memory or event. Rather than running away from our feelings, we intentionally recreate and recall them in all their vivid intensity, and as we do so we notice how our bodies process and express our difficult feelings. When we have re-experienced, as fully as possible, the feelings around our memory or event, we begin to lightly stroke or rub our arms, self-soothing with our own touch and presence. Still stroking our arms, we close our eyes and visualize walking along a beach, counting slowly to 20. Still stroking our arms, we open our eyes and, without moving our heads, look to the left, then the right, then the left. We don’t have to do this quickly or with strain. We practice this lateral gaze, combined with stroking our arms, for a minute or two, then close our eyes and visualize walking through a summer meadow, counting slowly to 20 again. We follow that with the lateral gaze for a couple of minutes, all the while still stroking our arms. The third and last visualization is of walking down a staircase, combined with arm stroking and counting slowly to 20. We follow that with practicing the lateral gaze for a couple more minutes.
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At the end of this series of steps, we relax and intentionally probe the memory we started with. We notice how our bodies feel and what our feelings are compared to when we started.
I know from emotional intelligence
training experiencing our feelings fully and completely is the best way to allow them to move through us and dissipate, but I frequently feel so overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotions that I’m afraid to do that. Sometimes I think if I start crying, or expressing rage, I’ll never be able to stop; I’ll fall over some invisible edge of self-control into permanent madness and chaos. Havening is enormously useful for me because it gives me a safety net to fall into. No matter how strong my feelings are about a specific memory or event, I know I’m going to be able to successfully help myself calm down and feel better immediately. I don’t need to wince away or try to minimize my feeling experience.
I’ve spent much of my life starved for loving touch. I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about skin to skin touch that says “I’m here. I care about you. You’re safe with me.” In times of high stress and upset, I frequently wrap my arms around myself, the closest I can get to getting a hug. Havening provides the physical comfort of touch, which we know can calm stress and produces serotonin, a natural chemical our brains make that gives us a feeling of well-being.
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Anyone who meditates
or has done Lamaze breathing for childbirth knows when we focus on breathing or a mantra our minds learn to be quiet. The three visualizations used in Havening, combined with self-touch and counting, immediately distract from the intensity of our emotional pain, as does practicing the lateral gaze. We rarely use our eyes to look laterally without moving our heads, and to intentionally and repetitively do so takes focus.
The purpose of this specific set of steps is to “rewire” a neural pathway caused by emotional damage or trauma. The links in the first paragraph explain the science and neurology behind this better than I can, so I won’t reiterate. What I will say is, somewhat to my astonishment, I noticed a sharp decrease in the emotional pain surrounding a memory the very first time I tried Havening. I didn’t lose the memory, but it was no longer attached to such an intense emotional reaction. I could think of it and remain physically relaxed and centered. I could see it more objectively. I could say, “Yes, that happened. It hurt me, but now it’s over.” Overwhelming unpleasant feelings were no longer connected to the memory.
As I practice Havening, I notice a couple of interesting things. The first is that the memories that give me the most trouble are small. A single phrase that broke my heart and irrevocably changed everything. A memory of no words at all, just someone else’s strong emotion. I use Havening to address my most private mental slideshow, where each slide is a single small period of time; a single scene, rich in sensory detail; a single moment of terrible clarity and revelation. I marvel at the power of these small pieces to shape our lives so profoundly. I never think of Havening around divorce and break-ups or even deaths. Those obvious upheavals are not the events in my life that have had the most power.
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The second thing I notice is how my visualizations are changing. The first time I did Havening, I followed the cues in the video exactly. I had no plan to elaborate on the three visualizations. As I’ve made a practice of the technique, though, my visualizations are becoming more and more vivid and sensual. I imagine walking hand-in-hand with someone. I imagine the feel of the sun, the sound of the sea, the grand sweep of a lovely curving staircase and a crowd of people waiting for me at the bottom. I also note that the unintended elaboration of the visualizations is all positive. I feel safe, protected, loved and joyous. There’s no lingering feeling of pain or discomfort from the memory or event I recalled just a minute before.
Havening is, above all, a flexible tool. Anyone can use it and fit it into his or her particular spiritual, religious or philosophical framework. It’s completely private and open-ended. Havening can be done once a week or three times a day. I can work with a single memory for a week if I need to, or tackle a new one each time I practice. It works equally well with old memories or new upsets.
Havening provides a kind of emotional detox. Since I’ve been doing it I feel lighter, more peaceful and as though I can think more clearly. I’m less easily triggered and hijacked and I respond more and react less. My head and heart are less cluttered. My feelings seem more like allies and less like enemies.
The biggest gift of Havening is the way it supports my intention to be authentic. It seems to me we all suffer some degree of shame
about the things that really hurt us. It’s hard to explain, even to ourselves, why a few words or a gesture hurt so much. We tell ourselves and others not to be silly or dramatic or have such a thin skin. Havening provides an open door, an invitation to honestly acknowledge our hurts and take responsibility
for soothing them. It gives us permission to feel our honest feelings without the need to minimize, explain or justify. We are fully empowered to respect and address our own pain.
Finally, Havening has become a ritual of self-care. I like essential oils, and I set out a blend from Young Living, a bottle of massage oil and a small hand towel by the chair I practice Havening in. I rubbed a white candle with the essential oil blend, and when I sit down I light the candle, mix the oils and use the mixture on my arms, hands, cuticles, etc. as I practice. Ten or fifteen minutes of deep moisturizing, aromatherapy and massage, in combination with Havening, leaves me feeling calm, strong, centered and cared for.
Havening is a new technique with a lot of promise. I’m interested to watch it evolve and be subject to scientific studies. Several practitioners are expanding Havening for other psychological applications, and I follow the blog with interest. In the meantime, it’s a powerful tool that costs nothing, does no harm, and results in significant benefits.
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Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.
We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.
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Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.
I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.
In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.
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Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.
Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.
Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.
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When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones needing the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.
It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.
A good time to allow ourselves to rest in peace.
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except where otherwise noted