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Listening Deeply, Working With Trauma, and Being a Working Mom: An Interview with Sarah Clark, LAc

Interview by Kellyn Adams

Kellyn: How did you make your way to practicing acupuncture?

Sarah: My first introduction to acupuncture was through being a patient and experiencing a profound opening through receiving it.

Kellyn: And you taught writing before you became an acupuncturist, right?

Sarah: Yes, I was a writing teacher at the time, working with community college students. And when they were given permission to write about themselves, what would come forward was often their trauma histories. Because writing is powerful way to process, and when we have unresolved trauma, it tends to surface when there’s an opportunity. After a few years, I realized I really wanted to help people with that. Not that teaching someone to write a graceful essay isn’t a huge gift to the world. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to help them work through what was coming up rather than help them sculpt it on the page.

And it wasn’t such a big leap, actually, because in each of the acupuncture points—as perceived by its name and its cosmology—is a narrative that responds to the narrative that the patient is working with, either by enriching it, or by illuminating something about it that wasn’t clear before, or even sometimes by cutting through it so the patient can see what’s really true about the story they’ve been carrying.

But also, with this medicine, we get to go deeper than working with the patient’s current narrative. We listen to the current narrative in the context of their entire landscape.

Kellyn: Say more about that.

Sarah: Well, one main theory is that as Five Element acupuncturists we listen for where that first imbalance occurred. Where—from an elemental perspective—was this person most affected by that first shock, that first experience of separation? Because when we can identify that deeper place, we can work with it. And then—in addition to healing their back pain, or easing their menstrual cycles, or improving their digestion—we can bring about a truly holistic shift in our patients.

And most of the time, the patient isn’t going to come in and tell me about that first wound. Most of us aren’t even able to point to that one first moment when our sense of wholeness was shaken. So there’s a different kind of listening that allows us as practitioners to perceive it—through the sound of the voice, the color emanating from the skin, the pulse picture, the emotional nuance that seems just slightly out of place.

Kellyn: What I appreciate both as a practitioner and as a patient of this medicine is that deeper level of listening that can happen.

Sarah: Yes, because when that deeper level of listening occurs, that’s when the healing begins. That listening opens up the possibility of a shift. And then as we progress to treatment, we have this beautiful narrative that flows through the points on each channel. All of the channels course through each of the five elements. All of the channels connect the realms of heaven, human, and earth within us. And so when we are listening deeply to our patients, we are just asking, within which element, and from which realm, does this person need a reminder to make a shift?

Kellyn: How do you create that space of deep listening with your patients?

Sarah: I have to remind myself to slow down and really give them space, to allow the deepest reason that they came in to surface. They might not be aware of it. But there’s a moment when it will surface and it’s for us to be able to witness that, even if we don’t chase after it in the moment of the intake. Sometimes it’s just through nonverbal communication that we witness it together. Because it can be too tender to talk about.

Kellyn: So, you’re a working mother. How do you stay centered so you can be there for your patients?

Sarah: My personal practice now takes the form of practicing the work of the Shan Ren Dao, which translates as Good Person Path. And this also informs my practice as an acupuncturist. It’s a profound system of emotional healing from a Confucian and Daoist Five Element perspective.

From my study of this tradition, I have a practice of working with the Five Elements through chanting and qigong, and a consistent inquiry into where I’m out of balance. So when aches and pains, or other physical issues, or relationship challenges come up, I’m asking which element—within the Five Elements that course through meis out of balance? Where am I out of sync?

And I’m not saying it’s always easy. I’ve had chronic left hip pain for a long time. And I’m looking all the time at what it might be about. But I just haven’t been able to move it completely. And that’s okay with me. Because this practice is not really about being free of pain. It’s about asking the question, “Where am I out of balance in my relationships— or in my way of relating to the world—that’s causing this physical pathology to surface?” Where am I blaming or resenting (which would be Earth pathology)? Where am I harboring rage or hatred (which would be Fire)? It’s really about coming into a deeper awareness of the negative emotions that we all carrybecoming more conscious of where we’re directing them outward to our relationships, or where we’re stuffing them down so that they become toxins that get lodged in our tissues.

Kellyn: Tell me about your work with TRE?

Sarah: TRE stands for tension or trauma releasing exercises. TRE is a way of re-initiating the autonomic nervous system’s natural response to stress by unwinding trauma and tension from the body. When we’re exposed to repeated stress (as most of us are) or we’re traumatized in some way, the first response we have is to physically contract. When we are then restored to safety, or to a more relative state of safety, the natural progression for the nervous system is to release that contraction through tremoring. David Berceli, who created TRE, spent 15 years working in traumatized regions of Africa and the Middle East, and he noticed that after major traumatic events, adults would repress the tremor mechanism—because it’s not socially acceptable. It’s not understood as a positive response to stress. But the toddlers, who hadn’t yet taken these messages on about what’s acceptable and what’s not around their body movements, would tremor freely, and they were able to recover much more quickly than the adults around them. We see the tremor mechanism in animals in the wild as well. They don’t walk around in a state of contraction. After a prey animal has a brush with death, they tremor, they shake it out of their systems, and then they move on.

Kellyn: Can you talk more about the benefits of TRE?

Sarah: What we’ve found is that TRE reduces symptoms of PTSD, that it speeds the healing of injuries, it decreases chronic pain, it improves sleep and mood, and it naturally improves the quality of our lives and of our relationships. And this makes so much sense, because as we release physical contraction, we are also releasing whatever stress or emotion has been stored there.

And the way that TRE resonates with Five Element acupuncture and the Shan Ren Dao is that it’s really about trusting the intelligence of the body.

Kellyn: Can you say more about what it’s like to be a parent in the midst of all this?

Sarah: Parenting is like having this little four-foot-tall reminder all the time of where I’m stuck. My five-year-old walks around all the time and triggers me as much as he can. I’m hyperbolizing here. There is of course a lot of joy in parenting too. But I think it’s important for us as parents to remember that parenting is really a practice, and you’re never going to be perfect at it. And, therefore, it’s a practice of cultivating compassion— for yourself in this very difficult role that we have as parents—and for your child.

Kellyn: I think the best parents I know are the ones that readily admit that they’re not perfect.

Sarah: Oh, yeah, and if you can’t go there, parenting is much more difficult. So it’s just a constant reminder to be humble. Okay, here I am. It’s a work in progress. And as parents, we need support. It’s easy to get blocked, because those relationship patterns that we’re not conscious of will come up. You have this kiddo and then all of the sudden you’re confronted with a painful pattern that’s deeply ingrained. And you don’t know how many generations it goes back, but you have to figure out how to stop it right here. And that’s when I reach out for treatments. And a love of mine is to help parents who are coming up against those obstacles. Because it’s really only through opening to compassion and allowing the grief to flow that we can begin to change those patterns.

Kellyn: It’s such a good reminder. With parents, their number one role is to be responsible for other people. And it’s hard sometimes to ask for support when you’re carrying all this responsibility for the people that you love.

Sarah: And shame can come up too. And that’s often what keeps us from reaching out for support. That relationship pattern comes up. Maybe you were hit as a kid and so now you’re struggling with that as parent. That’s what happens when we’re traumatized. And if the shame comes up around it, it can keep us stuck. So sometimes we first have to come in for the shoulder pain. And then we start to open up. We build rapport with our practitioner. And then we can begin to approach the deeper wounds—the shame and grief—and begin the process of healing on that level.