I’m Christopher, a Mindfulness and Healing Facilitator
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”James Baldwin
My experience in trauma-informed healing began in 2013 when my friend Amy Paulson invited me to join her non-profit, Gratitude Alliance. Their teachings were provided by Amy’s co-founder, Elayne Doughty, a licensed psychotherapist who sought to make such knowledge accessible to communities who did not have access to modern trained therapists. Training with Gratitude Alliance, I learned a profound but simple phrase that speaks a kind of compassionate and difficult truth: “hurt people hurt people.” I facilitated trauma-informed learning with large and small groups in the Bay Area, Uganda, and Turkey. Later, I studied somatic psychotherapy through a year long program offered by the Hakomi Institute teaching powerful methods to non-licensed therapists, many of whom, including myself, offer alternative, holistic, and/or indigenous routes to healing.
As my focus is mindfulness first, my aim is to provide a framework and toolkit to enable individuals and groups to find solidity in deepening self-awareness. In taking on this practice, we begin to see both the busyness and business of our minds, as well as, parts of ourselves that are challenging and may create or perpetuate difficulties–often in ways that are not known to us. It is for this reason that I feel having a background in trauma healing and having studied somatic psychotherapy is so critical to being a guide to those seeking a mindful path (spiritual or otherwise). It is also for this reason that I feel it’s important to share pieces of my own life that have been so important in shaping the way I see the unique lives each of us lives–see more in-depth personal life below.
A short list of some of my teachers who do not know me but have provided continuous insight and guidance are Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Ram Dass, Eknath Easwaren (thank you for your translations of the Upanishad), Chogyam Trungpa and his son Sakyong Mipham, Suzuki Roshi, Osho (his writings, not the wild commune), Pramahansa Yogananda, Paulo Coelho (thank you for The Alchemist), Herman Hesse (thank you for Siddhartha), Lao Tzu, Buddha, and his distant brother from another mother, Jesus. There are more, of course, but these are the most immediate.
A More Personal View — My Life; My Teachers
Here’s way more than what you thought you might get in coming to an “About” page. Grab your popcorn, settle in, and prepare for a blend of joy and discomfort. Much of who I am has been shaped by the people in my life and the stories they’ve shared with me. While I’m my “own person,” I believe much of our foundation is formed in childhood and our teenage years, and those who are close to us play a significant influence in how we shape three major developmental areas of ourselves: our relationships to our sense of personal power and agency, our view of the world at large and our role in it, and how we love ourselves (and, therefore, how we love others).
When I was six years old, I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle. Master Splinter inspired me. I was enrolled in martial arts and studied it until I was 18. It gave way to break dancing and, eventually, capoeira. My early years in martial arts taught me so much about the mind and body, and a martial arts master who was a friend of my master gave me a collection of audio cassettes to teach me meditation (just like Master Splinter!). I was mostly inspired because I thought it would make me a better ninja and allow me to levitate and turn invisible.
One day after practicing meditation, I spent more than an hour in stillness trying to turn invisible. When I walked through the house, my parents played along and pretended I was invisible. I could see myself in the mirror, but I convinced myself it was because only I could see myself.
When I was about eight years old, I imagined the brains of all the people in the world as a massive, undulating sea. I imagined being able to explore every one of them, as if I could know what it was like to be someone other than myself. I had this feeling of being stuck in this body with this mind for all of my life. I often daydreamed what my classmates in elementary school saw and heard as they got off the school bus or walked into their houses.
I grew up in Virginia Beach, a diverse military town that “loves jet noise.” My mother was fiercely independent and cursed like a sailor (right or wrong, I blame that on her being from Long Island). She loved me unconditionally and always put me first. She showed me the power of a mother’s love and a woman’s strength. Due to her life experiences, she also created self-protection or coping mechanisms, keeping her heart closed much of the time to my father and step-father. I learned this behavior early on and I’ve spent much of my life unwinding this so I can not only let the love of others in but, most importantly, let love for myself in.
I grew up with two siblings, both at least 10 years older than me. My brother has Hurler’s Syndrome which causes mental retardation but he has long been an amazing teacher to me in ways he’ll never know. My sister, who was the oldest, cared deeply for both of us, and as she grew up, she eventually chose to work with youth with mental differences. It was a difficult and suprising time, but she eventually divorced herself from our family and I never heard from her, again. It crushed my mother and tore her heart apart for decades. I know she had her reasons, and though I felt incredible anger for some time, today, I only feel love for her.
[Due to our surroundings and upbringing], we create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody… Trying to be good enough for them, we create an image of perfection, but we don’t fit this image… this image is not real. We are never going to be perfect from this point of view. Never!… It is no longer about being good enough for anybody else. We are not good enough for ourselves because we don’t fit with our own image of perfection. We cannot forgive ourselves for not being…what we believe we should be…. We dishonor ourselves just to please other people.… And the limit of your self-abuse is exactly the limit that you will tolerate from someone else. If someone abuses you a little more than you abuse yourself, you will probably walk away from that person. But if someone abuses you a little less than you abuse yourself, you will probably stay in the relationship and tolerate it endlessly.Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements
I have several fond memories of my father before my parents’ divorce. He built a treehouse out of reclaimed wood for me. It was no small feat and it provided a space for years of imagination and play. My father tried his best to win my mother’s love–to encourage her to essentially lower her walls of self-protection. That, of course, was for her to do and it could never be forced. But we (modern humans) tend to be unskillful in these things and tend to give others more reason to keep their walls up. At that time, he was the sort of person who would lose himself in a relationship, which would only cause my mother to keep her walls up.
I suspect there were many reasons my parents divorced. When my father got angry, he erupted. I remember his screaming, angry voice, and his threats. And I remember my mother always finding ways to defuse him or even shut him down. My mother is fierce. Their divorce process lasted for years, in and out of the court. It was messy and there was so much emotion, lying, threats, and strategic maneuvering. Though they both tried their best to keep my relationship “alive” with my father, it became muddy and diminished. I thought he was a liar, and, eventually, I felt he believed his lies. I felt like I was on the fringe of his world, never quite in it. While he was technically in my life, as I grew older, I felt like I was mostly just obliged to communicate with him because “he’s my father.” I’m surprised it happened at all, but it took nearly 30 years for us to find a way to communicate authentically–I suspect this is something few of us get a chance to do with our fathers–but, stumbling, we found our way. My relationship with my father taught me a great deal about loving someone despite the masks they wear. In ways I didn’t realize when I was younger, my father’s need to be liked (and at times “loved”) to the point of losing sight of himself was a behavior I also learned from him and have worked hard to release.
The overarching, objective truth of my life up to this point is that both of my parents have always been in my life in some way. Whatever the dysfunction, they tried their best with me, even when they were suffering. I consider myself fortunate to have known my biological parents, to have been raised by them, and to still have them in my life. I believe it was their love for me as well as the ripples of the heartbreaking ways they treated each other that shaped so much of who I am, including the ways I destroyed my relationships, struggled to feel like enough, and sought to be liked and loved by others to the detriment of myself.
A few years after my parents’ divorce, my mother married my godfather. I found it easy to consider him my step-father and his children as my older siblings. I never felt like they were strangers and I always felt cared for by each of them. My godfather/step-father is loyal to a fault and holds himself to higher standards than any one I’ve known. He’s incredibly hard on himself and, in ways that are similar to my father, derived significant self-worth from my mother’s views of him. This was and is a path that will lead to suffering. Yet earlier in life, it was a way I also came to emulate. Even so, I’ve always seen him as an incredibly strong individual–like the kind you wouldn’t want to mess with. My step-father had the kind of childhood that would break most people. It took many years for me to develop a fuller picture of him, but I came to see the immense pain he holds inside and essentially quarantined in his mind so he could still function as best he knew how. He’s brilliant and has always only wanted to be helpful to others. He’s always given so much of himself, yet he was often taken advantage of and pushed aside. Despite his pain and, often, his frustrations he would take out on himself, he has forever been a pillar in my life.
Throughout my life I’ve also been surrounded by animals. My first best friend was a German Shepard who taught me how to walk. He’d let me drag myself to my feet despite his hip dysplasia and he’d walk slowly with me holding on to him, turning to watch me. He still lives in my heart. Counting my current dog (whose still very much alive and vibrant), I’ve loved, lost, and grieved 45 animal friends. At one point in my youth, my family had 12 cats, 3 dogs, 7 birds, 1 rabbit, 2 hamsters, 5 fish, and 2 horses. Having animal friends taught me about patience and frustration; about the joys of living and the reality of death. Each animal-being had its own personality, unique ways of expressing affection (and hunger), and, at times, ways of telling me they want space.
My first relationship was significant. It started in high school and lasted 12 years. I basically played out all the negative traits I learned from my parents marriage while she played out her own model of love she learned from her parents and older sister. In high school, our relationship was messy, full of small slights against each other, though our actions weren’t entirely clear to us. I remember us having awful, screaming fights. I shoved my emotions down and lied to her. I stayed with her even though I built so much resentment toward her. I stayed because I was convinced that breaking up would have meant every time I said “I love you” was actually a lie. I didn’t want to “divorce” her in the way my parents did, though we weren’t even married. And I didn’t want to be the “asshole” to leave her after she chose, time and time again, to stay with me. While I’m grateful for the learning and growth that predominantly followed that relationship, it created great suffering for both of us. I recall how convinced I was that I was a great communicator, but in actuality, I was awful at it and, instead, became well practiced in hiding my emotions and spinning clever dialogue to cover it up. It took many years for us to reconcile, but hindsight and my current partner helped me build a foundation as a loving, authentic man. I still put my foot in my mouth and stumble with some old patterns, but I feel far closer to being the communicator I wanted to think I was in my teenage relationship. Youth, am I right?
In 2009, I dropped everything. I left my job, broke my lease, and with $30 in my pocket, some dried fruits and almonds, and a backpack with a tent and a few changes of clothes, I hit the road to hitchhike around the US. I left thinking I knew nothing about this country I grew up in. I left thinking the US was full of angry, hateful, ignorant people. I left because I wanted something unpredictable in my life. Yet, for five months, as I traveled from Virginia through southern states to Los Angeles, up the Western coast to Washington, and back across the Northern Plains to Pennsylvania, I lived mostly on the kindness of strangers. I asked each person why they picked me up–why they would risk letting a stranger in their car. The stories ranged from guilt to religion to simple kindness. I met other hitchhikers, train hoppers, homeless youth, poor and wealthy, and I was taken in by so many, sometimes given food, money, or a place to stay. It was a profound time in my life and it seeded changes in not only how I see others, but how I began to see myself.
I have one more deep, personal share: I was sexually abused for a several years when I was young. I won’t share much about this in writing here, but it feels important to include as it defines a part of my development alongside all else I’ve chosen to share. My mother taught me all about penises, vaginas, and sex from an early age. She felt it was important I not be kept in the dark and suddenly be surprised by it all one day. I would raise my own child that way. I believe, however, that it was my knowledge of those things that helped me process what was happening to me during the years of my sexual abuse. My mother didn’t know it was happening, at first, but she came to notice certain red flags and began to inquire. At first, I denied it when she asked, but she never stopped asking. While there were effects resulting from the abuse that showed up in my teenage years and 20s, the fact that I was able to talk about it eventually with my mother as a teenager helped me be with it, to integrate it as a part of my life, and still have compassion for the individual who abused me. Being able to talk to someone or even process this abuse is not the experience most people have. I could quote a statistic, but I believe it would fall short of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in our world. I honestly assume a significant portion of the human population alive today has experienced a form of sexual abuse or rape, particularly in their younger years, and I also presume they hardly, if ever, found someone they could talk to about it. The #metoo movement brought many to speak up, but there are still so many others who did not and may never.
Several years ago, because of my trauma-healing work with Gratitude Alliance, I had the honor of being part of a significant march in a village in Uganda led by my friend Tabitha Mpamira and her organization, Edja Foundation, to unite the voices of young people speaking out against defilement and rape that afflict thousands without any accountability or punishment placed on the offender. Her organization and this march rode the energy of the #metoo movement, and it is this kind of action that aims to break cycles of harm.
Thank you for reading.