The twentieth century was the age of commercialization. The century opened with industrialization that undermined agrarian independence and wrought destruction on a global scale. The tonic was the media revolution that eroded cultural disparities and gave the working class a voice. But the century closed with the digital age, allowing us to filter our realities and impose decision-making systems that protect us from inconvenient truth. The result was a restless seeking for rationalizations – wealth being the most flexible of them – that justify our violation of moral principle.
James Gordon has spent his life ministering to the wreckage of commercialization. That includes victims of ethnic and political purges as well as those objectified by sociopathy. Himself a child of trauma, Gordon was sympathetic to his patients’ suffering and unwilling to accept “treatments” that simply masked symptoms. Adopted by guides – both mentors and patients – Gordon assembled methods that address all aspects of the human response to trauma. Founding the Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), Gordon enabled thousands to learn his methods and apply them in treating millions of people.
In “The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma,” Gordon packages his methods as a self-help program. Gordon honors that premise throughout, avoiding dense technical terminology. The practices are simple and motivated by inspirational vignettes of lives transformed through their application.
Any healer confronting the wreckage of trauma understands that recovery is an iterative process. This is evident in the structure of Gordon’s program. Each chapter presents a practice that yields immediate benefits. The side-effects of trauma are probed more deeply as the practices progress, leading to both psychological and physiological re-exposure. The program is thus not a direct, linear journey, but iterative. It is more a project of self-exploration, with forays into wild territory eased by a return to gardens already cultivated.
In summarizing Gordon’s program, I must draw upon my therapeutic background. Gordon has deep experience to draw upon, and so does not need to explain why what he does works. That has its limitations, as I will discuss at the end of this review.
The program begins with metabolic stabilization (a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic control) and mindful reinforcement through relaxation. The techniques are meditative (“Deep Belly”) breathing and a modified progressive relaxation. The reader is directed to a recording available on the CMBM web site. With this first practice, Gordon adopts hypnotic procedures without explicitly declaring them.
The second practice is familiar from crisis intervention – with an inspired twist. We are asked to draw three pictures of ourselves, with our problem, and with the problem solved. This is often done in discovery during therapy, but drawing is an ideomotor activity, and thus taps into the subconscious realm. Freed from sequential logic, we discover that we have the courage and ingenuity to imagine a solution. The seeds of hope are planted.
The first two steps are then deepened with shaking and dancing, and dialog with our emotions. Shaking begins in the hips and progresses outwards, sustained for long enough to exhaust the major muscle groups, thereby reconnecting us to forgotten movements. The shift to hope-filled music and dance anchors that awareness to joy. Emotional dialog – a form of journaling – allows us to reap the lessons offered by our painful emotions – for those entering recovery, that often being “it’s time to let go” of fear or anger or shame.
We are then ready to seek social support, reaching out to trusted family, friends, and counselors to confirm that we are indeed capable of positive relationships. Once established, that is transferred to us: through hypnotic methods we build a Safe Space in our subconscious that is populated by a Wise Guide. This guide changes identity as we move toward recovery, and is often a familiar person or creature. Through dialog it builds confidence in our ability to call forth wisdom and understanding.
That constructive capacity is expressed through our relationship to our bodies with exercise and diet. As we gain strength and liberate trapped poisons, we become ready to synthesize our practices. That starts with Chaotic Breathing, explosive exhales sustained for up to forty minutes. We then dialog with the recovering body, making peace with the experiences that it locked away so that the mind could seek normalcy. That extends to daily life as we learn to release the distorted expectations that haunt us.
At this point, Gordon transitions to empathic connection with the world around us: physical intimacy, patient and focused exploration of nature, animals, and laughter as an ice breaker. We explore our family history, finding unsung heroes and often gaining a sense of perspective on social progress.
Gordon reiterates these steps as he summarizes a multi-session group workshop. The last formal process is another ritual on paper. It starts with three drawings: yourself, your aspirations for self, and the process of that transition. These are compared to the first three drawings to reveal the dramatic gains achieved. Finally, we make a list of all that we wish to leave behind, and a list of all that we have gained. The first is to be burned in a private, sacred ceremony; the second is to be posted prominently at home.
But inserted before that last ritual are three chapters on psychic shifts. The first two describe guided meditations for gratitude and forgiveness. The third considers the empowerment found in seeking and expressing love, purpose, and meaning. I believe that Gordon takes these aside because they are long-term goals that may unfold over years or decades, with participation in several workshops.
This is a powerful and comprehensive toolkit for trauma recovery. Its structure may seem arcane, but that reflects the breadth of its application. Practitioners may have only a few days to spend in a refugee camp. The simple early practices give immediate relief.
My principal concern with the work is that the vignettes have a “shock and awe” flavor to them. Perhaps selected to inspire hope, these stories of breakthrough change may establish expectations that, if dashed, will generate another failure to be overcome. This is gently implied throughout the book, in references to the appendix that lists professional guidance for those needing support.
I am also disappointed that Gordon leaves the psychic principles to the end of the book. Trauma does not affect everyone equally. Love, purpose, and meaning are the core elements of hardiness that underlies resilience in the face of loss. And gratitude and forgiveness are essential to liberation from the past. That Gordon speaks of a lifetime of Shaking and Dancing, Chaotic Breathing, and conversations with Wise Guides implies either that trauma should be a routine expectation, or that the practices are insufficient to attain liberation.
For the hypnotherapist, this book is a valuable practical demonstration of integrated therapy. Gordon does not emphasize, as I have here, the dependencies between steps. I wish that he would: that is essential to guiding clients through resistance. When someone gets stuck on a step, the symptom addressed is evidence of a defense against deeper trauma. Removal of a defense requires a substitute behavior, a point that would be valuable in bypassing blocks in the process.
To summarize, “The Transformation” by James Gordon is a brilliant and practical guide to mental healing. It should be read by sufferers and supporters alike. And in spite of Gordon’s reticence to recognize the extent to which progress involves dialog with the subconscious, the book is valuable to the hypnotherapist, showing the power of integrating our diverse modalities.