Ep. 16: Dr. Tamara Turner – Dealing with Trauma Through Music and Movement

It’s a fact that different cultures deal with trauma differently.

How do you deal with it?

A lot of people in the Western world try to run away from suffering that was caused by any kind of traumatic experience – accidents and injuries included. We try to forget, we put a brave face on, but good-intentional sentences from people around us such as “Just hang in there,” or “It’s gonna get better,” don’t really help, don’t they?

But perhaps instead of running away from this or acting as if it doesn’t affect us, there’s a better way to deal with any kind of trauma – and that is moving towards suffering in order to process it.

We so often hear that music can heal. Dr. Tamara Turner knows all about it. As a medical/psychological anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, she’s spent over a decade researching how music is used for healing, particularly in North Africa.

This week’s conversation goes deep into the healing power of music for physical, emotional, psychological, and generational trauma – as well as ways to tune into your own body better. We also discuss why music may not be a universal language in the way people usually think and why she, as a Westerner, was so often told “Ma truhish” which means, “Don’t let your mind travel.

Tune in… 

Show notes & links

The show notes are written in chronological order.

  • Dr. Tamara Turner’s research: https://kcl.academia.edu/TamaraTurner
  • Dr. Tamara Turner’s LinkedIn profile:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamaraturner/
  • Dr. Tamara Turner’s website: ‘coming soon’
  • Dr. Tamara Turner’s email address: tamaradeeturner@gmail.com
  • Gilbert Rouget: Music and trance: A theory of the relations between music and possession [get the book here]
  • Berber – indigenous people in North Africa [read it here]
  • Gnawa community [read it here]
  • Discovering Diwane: ancestral African ritual music [read it here]
    • also, check Dr. Tamara’s research (the first link above) since there she has lots of articles on Diwan
  • Stambali or Stambeli
    • Stambeli: the last dance with the spirits [read it here]
    • Richard C. Jankowsky (2007) Music, Spirit Possession and the In-Between: Ethnomusicological Inquiry and the Challenge of Trance, Ethnomusicology Forum, 16:2, 185-208 [read it here]
  • Sufism – mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. [read it here]
  • Stephen W. Porges, PhD | Polyvagal Theory – Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. is Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. He is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland.

0:00 – excerpt from the episode
1:30 – intro (listen to discover a little more about your host. Martin will tell you a new lesser-known fact about Dr. Maya)

Dr. Maya Novak:
Different cultures deal with trauma differently. A lot of people in the modern world try to run away from suffering that was caused by any kind of traumatic experience - accidents and injuries included. But perhaps instead of running away from this, there’s a better way to deal with any kind of trauma - and that is moving towards suffering in other to deal with it.
This week I’m joined by Dr. Tamara Turner who is a medical and psychological anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. Her work focuses on rhythm, dance, and rituals as a way of dealing with trauma and suffering. She has spent more than 15 years researching these topics and the connection to healing across cultures, particularly in North Africa… and now she is working to bring this invaluable knowledge into the context of our Western culture to continue her research here and make a difference in our approach to trauma and healing. Tamara, welcome - so great having you here…

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Oh, I'm so extremely happy as well. And, you know, I'm so intrigued by your background. So can you talk a bit about how did you get into medical and psychological anthropology and ethnomusicology?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, happily, thanks. Well, I started out in music, so as a young woman, my first dream was to be a female conductor and composer. I didn't see a lot of female role models, but I was a very musical kid. I did my first degree in music composition, so yeah, that was my first path, that was my first vision. As I was starting to study music across cultures as a composer in order to understand how different cultures think about music, that's what got me interested in and just completely other worlds and ways of thinking about music. So not just different instruments and different styles or genres, but how other cultures think fundamentally differently about what music does. So, yeah, I had this classical music background. I did a certificate in film scoring as well, and I did some scoring of documentary films. But in the 90s, I started traveling to West Africa, and then a bit later to North Africa, and what struck me was how music there was a fundamental part of healing. So, rather than a nice aesthetic experience where you go to a concert and you sit quietly and you watch and clap, music was at the center of communities, and it was a group effort where people were bodily engaged. They were engaged in somatic ways, and it really was and is a primary form of healing there. Healing had always been an interest of mine, and I was slowly starting to connect with music over my 20s and 30s, but it was really when I went to North Africa and saw music being used as a primary form of healing that I just wanted to go back to school. So, in my thirties, I decided to go back to school in anthropology and ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is more or less the study of music's meaning across cultures. Music is a social practice. We know it exists in many, many cultures in many different ways. Sometimes you'll hear this phrase like "music is a universal language," but actually, at ethnomusicologists, we argue against that because there's a kind of like a language you have to understand vocabulary and grammar in order for music to translate. But it's a universal human practice, and that means that it varies across cultures and how humans understand it and use it. So, I use music as a way of looking at healing. What is it doing? How does it bring people together? How does it reveal hierarchies and power struggles and ways in this context and ways of thinking about illness? What is illness? What is wellness? And what can music tell us about that?

Dr. Maya Novak:
That's interesting that you are going against the idea that music is a universal language, right? But it makes sense, especially when we are talking about healing and using music for healing. There is potentially, I imagine (I mean, I don't know a lot about this), a different structure than if you just go to a concert and listen to a song that you sing along to. Or, I don't know, am I understanding this correctly or not?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
No, I know, you're right. Yeah, so I mean, there are so many examples, but one of the things I still chuckle about is, you know, I had spent a lot of time in North Africa, and when I was living in London, I had a lot of Algerian friends. I brought one of my Algerian friends along to a concert, and I can't remember exactly who was playing, but it was a western classical music concert. I remember her looking at me at one point and saying, "When is this going to be over?" It was not her cup of tea, so there you go. Voila! Music is not a universal language. You have to learn its meaning, its structure, and the emotional arc in different kinds of music. It's highly cultured and something that you learn through a culture. Now, when we talk about something like resonance and vibration, there's a bit more to say, but yeah, I mean, a musicologist's job is to continually point out how we have to be very careful whenever we're using the word "universal." First of all, yeah, music is so cultured that it means different things to different people and has to, and that is learned.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, that's really interesting. So when we're talking about healing with music, can we use any kind of music for healing or are there better options that resonate better with healing? Let me give you an example - I'm not a huge fan of hard rock or goth music because it doesn't resonate with me. I know it resonates with some people, but it doesn't work for me because I find it harsh and not pleasing to my ears and body. I'm not sure if people can actually heal with this type of music or if it's better to use something more subtle and calming.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Right. And, well, the former. So, it would be highly personal and based on your cultural upbringing, and how you relate to music, which varies from person to person. That can change over our lifetimes too. Consider the kind of music we like when we're younger versus older; our musical tastes change and speak to us differently as we evolve emotionally and as human beings. Our emotional lives should ideally deepen as we age. Therefore, it is very specific both personally and culturally. Because I'm going to be talking about music in trance as we get more into this, there's a fabulous book that goes into this in detail. The book discusses musicologists and anthropologists who were asking, what is the magical musical bandwidth, frequency, or vibration that creates healing? The conclusion of the book is there is none; it's highly cultural. Gilbert Rouget, a French anthropologist who studied music and trance across cultures, authored this book. In the 1960s, many believed there must be a specific frequency or instrument, such as the drums in Africa. Because everybody’s playing drums all the time. However, Roer proved it is dependent on the culture; in some places, it's the violin that puts people in a trance, and in others, it's the drums or the guitar. It's very specific to that particular cultural background and context. That's not to say that we can't talk later about vibration and resonance and how we might think about helping ourselves. But when it comes to music, which is different from sound, we think of as organized sound with specific emotional and cultural meaning. We can never get outside of our culture, it's like a fish trying to get out of the water. We are fish in water, and our culture is a significant part of who we are, so we should respect the cultural side of what we find healing.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Wow, that's really interesting because I always assumed that drums were the key to trance since they were often featured in documentaries and discussions about trance. So, for me, it seemed obvious that drums were usually a part of the healing process. Thank you for clarifying this; it's really interesting. Could you provide some insight or background on the communities you work with in Morocco and Nigeria, and perhaps some connections with other healing traditions that use music and dance to heal trauma?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, so the communities that I've been working with, both in Morocco and Algeria, are the descendants of slaves. There was a trans-Saharan slave trade, just as there was a transatlantic slave trade, and a lot of times it was similar populations. So, we can actually find some musical similarity in this community in North Africa, as with the blues, interestingly. If there are any musical people out there listening, you may know the term of a pentatonic mode or a 5-note scale that the blues is very much based on. Well, sometimes my community friends in Morocco and Algeria would joke about this being our blues. This is our version of the blues. These were sub-Saharan African populations who were then forcibly transported across the Sahara desert to be servants and had to take on various different roles across North Africa at the height of the slave trade. We see the most amount of traffic between the 15th and 18th centuries. There were at least 7 different ethno-linguistic groups that then formed these communities in North Africa, and amongst each other, they formed these rituals, these all-night-long healing ceremonies, to deal with their pain and suffering. So, this has been going on for at least several hundred years. It has developed over a long period of time. And as part of my doctoral research, I did extensive investigation into the history of the trans-Saharan slave trade, as well as the first documentation we have of these rituals. When the French arrived in the 1830s, then very quickly, we already saw documentation of them trying to find out what these, what they called "African rituals" were that were taking place in Algiers, for example. These ceremonies developed specifically out of dealing in order to deal with that intergenerational trauma from the slave trade and also being black in a non-black environment. Some of you may not know, but in North Africa, it's right on the Mediterranean. So, the indigenous people there are amazing, or what we sometimes call Berber, and it's a Mediterranean kind of culture there in North Africa, and it's Arabized. But most people are not ethnically Arab. So, it's a real mix. That's just to say that. But being black there even today is noticeable, so it is a minority, considered a minority community in this part of Algerian Morocco. So, all across from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia, there were different caravan routes, and these created slightly different communities, and because of the different groups that were primarily transported to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. For example, I started off in Morocco working with a group called the Gnawa, and then in Algeria, the group is called Diwane, and in Tunisia, it's Stambali. So, these are all similar kinds of phenomena, but adapted and changed slightly differently based on the geography.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Wow. So when we are talking about healing trauma, are these ceremonies primarily used for this intergenerational trauma that is connected to slavery and this type of suffering? Or are they using these ceremonies to heal any kind of trauma - so anything that is not necessarily connected to these intergenerational adverse experiences?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, thanks for bringing that up. So, although these ceremonies developed from the context of intergenerational trauma of slavery, today they're not explicitly just for that purpose. The rituals are used more generally, and in fact, there's not a lot of open discussion about slavery in this particular culture. Talking about feelings doesn't really happen the way we think about it in the West. Their approach is more to dance it out, and for this community, it's an embodied practice. As an anthropologist, I was asking a lot of questions, but in general, people are not openly talking about the history of slavery or their ancestors. Today, they're using these rituals to deal with all kinds of pain and trauma, including racism, being a minority community, poverty, relationship breakups, and all kinds of things that are difficult about life. These ceremonies can serve these purposes. And also there's a strong family connection. The communities that have been practicing these rituals know each other and have been doing this from childhood, so there's a strong sense of family and community that perpetuates these rituals. People can bring all kinds of problems or challenges to these rituals and be supported through community and family, including physical and emotional pain. There are no guidelines that say, "This is specifically for this kind of pain and not this other kind of pain." People can turn up and dance it out if they're feeling it and want to. I hope that answers your question.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Wow! Yes, absolutely, thank you! But it's interesting because in our culture, we are sitting down and talking about our feelings and very often we try to leave our body right to just not to be so engaged, and there, they are not talking about it so much, but really embodying the whole traumatic experience and dancing it out and healing it that way. Is that correct?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
That's correct. Yeah, and I was consistently instructed by my interlocutors, my friends, and the communities I was working with to help me understand from their perspective how they saw things. They were very patient, and I always had so many questions. Of course, this is our way; we're a very cognitive and mental culture. But there are other ways of understanding, such as bodily ways of understanding and emotional or intuitive ways. We can all relate to that a bit, where sometimes you just know something intuitively, and maybe you might think of it through words later. But there are other ways of experiencing and understanding the world that don't go through the prefrontal cortex. So I was consistently encouraged by my friends, and sometimes when they saw me thinking too much, they would just say "Ma truhish." You know, like, don't let your mind go too far. You just need to go to the ritual and try it. So sometimes, with all my questions, I eventually figured out, "Okay, you know what? I'm going to stop asking questions. I'm just going to watch and observe and see if I can get a sense, like a bodily sense, an intuitive sense of what's going on here." It's not the norm to go around and talk about your feelings all the time, especially painful feelings. This is important to mention again when thinking about how culture structures our ways of thinking about healing and our ways of dealing with suffering. In this culture, there is an idea that if you're always talking about negative things, you can actually draw more of that to yourself. I mean I think we can all relate to this. So, rather than constantly talking about everything that's going wrong in your life, it's more beneficial to focus on the positive things and work on healing through bodily and emotional experiences. Of course, this is also in the context of Islam, and this particular community has ties to Sufism. So there are religious and spiritual ideas surrounding gratitude and always being conscious of what you're grateful for. There's a cultural norm where you don't constantly talk about all your problems. You might say, "well, you know, this isn't so great" or "that's not so great," but you also say, "thank God I'm alive and I have my family." So there's a conscious effort to be grateful. There are also many cultural norms about not explicitly talking about suffering. Instead, we dance it out. That's not to say people don't express their suffering; it's just that it doesn't come out in words. The reason for that is that words have vibrations. For example, there are certain kinds of words that people correct me on. They say, "we don't say that; that word has a negative vibration, and it can draw negative energy." Energy is also a focal point in how we think about healing in this culture. I know this is kind of spinning off on some other side topics, but since we're talking about music and sound and vibration, I wanted to point out that words can carry a kind of energy vibration in this culture. So people are very careful about how they speak about things.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Oh my goodness, I have so many follow-up questions and comments. I mean, the whole episode could be based on what we've covered so far, and we still have so much to cover. But I do agree that words have vibrations, and it's important for us to consciously be aware of what we're saying out loud, but also what we're thinking. Because even if we don't say it out loud, potentially, we're just ruminating on something inside. And what you said before about talking over and over and over about the same painful thing, I think there's a slippery slope where it just becomes rumination and not letting go, just being in the same state over and over again. So I think there potentially has to come a time when we say enough is enough, and we let it go.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, I think it depends on the conscious attitude and intention that is being brought to it. So I would say, in this community, they think about moving towards suffering, as you said in your introduction, instead of away from it, but that's with a particular intent in mind - to heal it. So, I agree that talking and ruminating is not the same as really going into something with open arms and an open intention to work on and heal something.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Now, before you slightly touched on trance and drums and everything, and I know that you also have personal and experience with trance. How would you describe it and also what kind of role it plays in traditional ways of healing?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Okay, yeah, one of my favorite topics. [chuckles] So again, to parallel what I was saying before, trance is dependent on culture. And how different cultures think about consciousness. In Arabic, there is no word that translates as "trance." So, in English, we have this one word that can cover a whole lot of different states. The first thing to note is that in this particular community I was working with, there would be three different categories describing a general conscious state. But there were at least 12 other words to describe how they felt, how these states felt, and what kind of movements a person might be making in those states. So, that's to say, there is a lot of nuance to what different conscious states can be like. "Trance" is a very, very broad term. Generally, we're referring to a different kind of state than we would go about in our normal daily life. We might think about low-level trance. We've probably all or most of us have had an experience where let's say we've got something on our mind, and we're driving home, and suddenly we realize, "Oh, I'm home! I don't even remember driving. I don't remember that stoplight." We're just kind of on autopilot, and our mind is on something else, or absorption when we're deep into a film or a book, and we lose track of time. These can be low-level states of trance where our brain is in a different kind of state. In this community of Diwane in Algeria, I think of it as like they are virtuosos of figuring out how to get themselves through music into these highly diversified different conscious states. We could have something that's lighter with what I call an emotional trance. In certain Sufi communities, you might think of rapture, or you could think of a music concert where people are, even with young people these days, they go to these trance concerts where because of deep emotion, letting your emotions kind of carry you, you would go into another state or ecstasy. So ecstatic dance, some of these sort of popular practices in the US. That's a whole other topic. But yeah, there's so there's an idea that we can follow our emotions and go into a certain kind of state, a different altered state. But there are lots of different kinds. There's dissociation for those listeners who might be familiar with the DSM. There are ways that we can be in and out of our body and have different relationships to our conscious self, to our body, feeling our body or not feeling our body. So, yeah, it's vast, and there are many different kinds. Part of my research has been to understand all of these nuances and how these can be intentionally cultivated through music, with the idea that when you allow certain parts of your consciousness to come offline or online, to tune in or tune out, that this has a way of shifting the body into states of healing. So, it's a conscious, not always conscious, but an effort. It's a way of shifting our relationship to ourselves in order to promote restoration and healing.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, it's interesting. While you were talking about expressing emotions through dance and the body, I couldn't forget about Western culture. I'm not saying that every person in the West feels ashamed or afraid to express themselves with their bodies and go into a trance or ecstatic dance - I know many who are not and it's beautiful to see. However, in our culture, there is a bit of shame associated with being so free with your body. So, how do we bridge this gap? If we want to heal trauma in a different, more organic way, we have to be comfortable in our bodies. What do you think? How can we bridge that gap so that we can also let go of shame, be okay with our bodies, express what needs to be expressed, and heal and let it go? Do you know what I mean?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, that's a tough one. I would say it begins with small steps and just trying out small things at home in your own personal space where you have privacy and you're not concerned about anybody who might see you. Go into a room, and we can talk about this practice a bit more in detail if you like, but I think it begins with small steps of self-acceptance and self-love and tuning into the body in small stages. Where we open ourselves to get feedback from our body in ways that maybe we're not accustomed to, and then letting the body lead the way. This is really what I learned - this was a key phrase that was repeated to me over and over over the fifteen years - was that the body is the key, and the body should lead the way. The body has ways of knowing that are pre-linguistic and are before language, like these ways of understanding the world I was talking about. Sometimes we get so up in our heads that we forget that the body actually has immense wisdom, and it can heal itself. Getting out of our own way, getting out of the prefrontal cognition and cognating, is to first take these small steps and start to learn how to tap into and hear our body in different ways with enough love so that we can. Yeah, it's not easy at first, but these small steps of accepting, "Okay, my body might want to move in this way, and okay, I might judge that as a bit weird, but let's just see what happens and see where it takes me," and remaining open to that.

Dr. Maya Novak:
That's such a great point because sometimes we tend to think in absolutes of either 0 or 100%. So, it's either we're not going to do something or we have to go all-in, like being in a circle of people who are very ecstatic and expressive with their bodies, and then there you are and you don’t know what to do and it’s weird. So, I think it's great what you said about starting small and being in a room by yourself to see what happens. It's not necessary to suddenly jump over a huge gap and go from being really closed up to being completely open, as that could also be traumatic.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Exactly, right? So, we have to go very slowly with ourselves, and this is where it can be helpful to work by yourself at first. If you don't have to think about establishing trust with another person, who you may be afraid of being judged by or how you might look, you can just start with yourself. There were times for me when I was home alone, and I would put on music and just try to let the body lead the way. Don't think about dancing from a choreographic standpoint, of what should I be doing, but really... it does take time, but the body will show you how it needs to move and what needs to move. But it doesn't happen overnight, and it needs to happen in small steps because we have to establish a relationship of trust with ourselves and with our bodies.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Absolutely, and I think that one thing that is also very important after we try this out is that we don't analyze it or think too much about it. We shouldn't think, "Oh, that wasn't good how my body was expressing itself." So being very gentle with ourselves in those first stages, right?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Right. And you had mentioned that you wanted me to talk about a potential practice Would you want me to say more about that here, or shall we come back to that later?

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, please continue, and let's go into this practice.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Okay, great. So, again, with starting small, let me give a little example of some things that I've been trying lately. Right now, I'm dealing with a broken ankle and there was a lot of physical trauma when I fell skiing and twisted my leg in a quite a weird way. So, there's some physical trauma going on there and weird kinds of pains. I noticed a lot of other things going on in my life at this moment as well. The other night, I was lying in bed and I just started massaging parts of my foot and sort of testing how the tissue was feeling. Then, suddenly, I started getting these intense waves of pain that were quite like a wave - it would come up and then it would ebb and flow, ebb and flow. They were intense enough that I found myself letting out sounds, moaning a bit. It was these really intense waves of pain, and then they would subside. I tried just backing off my fingers like, "Okay, I'm going to stop massaging. I'm just going to let my fingers rest here and see what happens," and the waves kept going. They would raise up and then subside, and I just stayed with it. After a couple of minutes, sobs started coming out of me. I just started sobbing, and I don't even know about what, but I just felt immense grief. So, I just let it come, and luckily, I was home alone. So, I just kind of let myself moan and sob, holding my ankle, having no idea. "Okay, this is connected somehow. I don't need to know that now. I don't need to understand why. But my body is releasing something here." I mean, these energy waves were really interesting, and so I let that happen. That went on for a while, and then it stopped, and the next day, my ankle felt so much better. I could walk on it. It was more flexible. I had more mobility in it. So, I don't know exactly what that was or where there's heartbreak, is there grief tied in, was it something about in that moment where I fell, and my ankle is somehow trying to open me up to this part of something in my past? I don't know, but just being open to my body in that moment, allowing it to come through sound as well and allowing myself to make sound and tune into my ankle and just reach out to it and just be present with it, whatever pain was coming and going. Yeah, I felt a shift the next day. So, there's little things like this we can do where you send your consciousness to this part of the body that's hurting, just try as much as possible to send your consciousness there. And then any sound that wants to come out, sometimes you can even, depending on what part of the body it's in, there's ways of trying to get that to vibrate with your own humming. So, you can try. It's a little hard to for me to get down into my ankle. But if there have been times when I was really anxious, I would just try to find a tone that I could hum to resonate that part of my solar plexus to just try to get some energy in there. Again, it's important to do it with this intent of openness and just being curious about what might come up there. So, it's a different way of relating to ourselves, maybe than we're used to. But again, just going in with openness and allowing things to come with a consciousness in the body. This is something that I learned. Year in and year out working with these communities is really establishing this relationship with the body in this intentional way.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Thank you for sharing this story because it's a beautiful story, and you know, also, it's a great insight into how connecting with the body and that injured part of the body can lead to healing. When we start talking about pain, massages, and such, we often think that there is something physically wrong with our ankle, knee, shoulder, stomach, or whatever it is, that there is some physical trauma happening, and this is the only reason. But it's true, what you're saying, and this is also my personal experience, and the experience that I have had with my clients is that when you connect with that body part and release what needs to be released, you can actually go within a few minutes, or like you said overnight, from something very painful and constricted into freedom and release, feeling better emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually on every single level.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, and I had an experience like that where I developed a pain in my chest about a year and a half ago without any kind of accident or physical clue that something was wrong with my body. It was very strange, and I remember checking with all these doctors to figure out what it could be and what this muscle could connect to. People were saying they didn't know what it was, but it was some sort of bizarre chest pain. Of course, I was quite concerned because it was chest pain. Finally, I thought, "Okay Tamara, you know what to do." So, I just sat down in a quiet space and asked my body what I needed to know, what this pain was telling me, and if there was something I wasn't looking at. I sat there for maybe two or three minutes in quiet, holding that part of my body where the bizarre pain was, which was below the collarbone and went through all the way to my back. Once again, sobs started coming out, and I just sat there on the floor of my room and cried for a while. After a few minutes, the pain was gone, which had been there for weeks. In about five minutes of just that kind of open intention towards the body, I don't know what that was about. I was going through some things at that point, but it wasn't like "oh, this is I'm crying because of x y z." It was just that I had accumulated a lot of heartbreak and grief over the years, and it was finding its way into my body. These kinds of clues in our body of really letting the body lead, I found that over and over in different contexts to be very helpful.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Oh, absolutely! I know that your story is helping so many listeners with this insight. I also love that you're talking about connecting with the body, and that body part. Something I didn't mention before is that very often when there is a part of the body that is injured or in pain, we are angry at that part and angry at ourselves. In a way, we don't want to communicate with that body part, so there is actually almost like resentment. And if there is resentment and anger, then healing is very difficult. So it's really about opening our arms and hugging that body part, if we can hug it, or just mentally, emotionally hug it and connect with that part and ask. Like what you just described, which I'm a huge fan of because that's how I approach healing as well. You know, what do you want me to know? What do I need to know about this so that you can feel better? It's really about listening and connecting.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, I really agree with that. That's been my experience too, and I think just as you were saying, we can't go from 0 to 100. None of us are perfect. We don't have to do this perfectly. I found myself feeling resentful about my ankle a few times too. And then I actually apologized. I mean, it might sound odd, but you know, sometimes being like, "I'm so sorry," trying to talk to my body, having a good relationship with the body where it is, it's changing my life because I'm finding it difficult to walk right now. Everything is harder, even making a cup of tea takes extra time because I'm hobbling to the kitchen. So there, you know, and part of that is again the culture that I live in, where we value productivity, we value efficiency, we value getting as much done in a day as possible. And I realize, well, this is why I'm partly resentful at my ankle, like, "Come on, you know what's taking you so long?" And actually, yeah, that's just not helpful. And trying to shift the attitude, and first of all, being aware of this attitude, and then trying to shift into, you know, this is giving me space to have time in my life I didn't have before. So there's a spaciousness in my life right now because of my broken ankle, that I can't move as quickly, I'm tired at the end of the day from the healing that my body's trying to do. And at first, that might be frustrating, but it's also giving me something that I want to attend to. I want to be open and not miss this opportunity also to learn something from the experience and from my body. So I'm in it too, I'm learning also. I don't think there's this perfected state that we all need to get to, but just an experiment being open, being curious, and catching ourselves when we can, of trying to have a compassionate view towards ourselves.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Absolutely. Now, when we're talking about emotions, there's one thing that I'm so intrigued by. It's when you were living in Northern Africa, how they explain or express what emotions are and where emotions live. It's very much not that they're a part of us, but it's actually something outside of us. Am I remembering this correctly? And can you talk a bit about this?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, happy to talk more about this. Well, I think the most helpful way to think about it is that they view the body as porous in ways that in Western culture, we don't. We tend to think of ourselves as being contained individuals, and it's this sort of neoliberal idea of the self, and I have this power, etc. etc. Whereas in these cultures I was working with, it's a much more fluid conception of the body, so you can have your own emotions, but they can move outside your body into a space. I think this kind of connects to how we think about mood, so if you're around a lot of grieving people, you might also start to connect empathically with their grief. It's not that different of an idea. They think about emotion as being almost like a contagion, where you can get into that energy. So, if you think about it as energy, I think that's maybe more helpful. Emotion is energy, and energy can move in and out of bodies. It might be hours that there might be personal reasons for it in our lives, but we can share it with others empathically, and if you've ever been around somebody who's really angry all the time, you know that's not so nice to be around, and again, this energy that people exude. So, the way I think about it is that there was such an attention to energy and to paying attention to the kinds of energy that we're carrying and the kinds of energy that we're sharing, and music is so powerful in that way because of its ability to shift energy, to shift vibration, and get us into another space, another emotional space, another conscious space. So, I found that quite profound. It also makes us more accountable to other people and to share, accountable but also to be able to rely on our community. One of the things I've noticed about mental health in the West is we are so focused on the individual and the individual's feelings or the individual's brain or their biochemistry or their behavior or whatever this person is doing, whereas in these North African communities, even the term mental health doesn't really sit well. It was more about community health and relationships, family, ancestors. So, whether it's physical trauma or emotional trauma, the community was carrying the weight of that. It wasn't just this one person who had to go figure it out and see a psychotherapist. It was really about coming to this space, getting in touch with your body, letting your body lead. And then in these rituals, you are always surrounded by your family and friends and relatives who are there to support you and literally catch you when you fall down from dancing so hard. That is really key here too that I think makes dealing with trauma in our Western culture really difficult, honestly, because a lot of us don't have that kind of support. We don't have friends, and community, family, and ancestors that we feel are there for us all the time. So, that, to me, was also very profound thinking about, okay, these might, you know, I might be feeling grief about this, but I can share this grief. This grief is carried also by my community, and I'm held, I'm being held in the presence of my community.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, and while you were talking, I remembered things and stories that I often hear from people who are injured. This is that even if they have a very supportive system of friends and family around them, with serious injuries that take longer to heal, it's not like the flu. You know, a week or two, and then you're fine. And with your ankle, you know it's not just two weeks, and then everything is perfect. It can take weeks, months, and sometimes even years. What people experience is that even those around them who are so supportive, all of a sudden, they get tired of listening to their pain, both physical and emotional. It becomes difficult, and then all of a sudden, a person who is injured feels alone. It's like, “Who am I now? Should I be talking about all of this? And how can I heal?” So, I think it's very important that we think about having a support system or, you know, in our Western culture, potentially if it's not just our family and friends, those that can support us and can step into this ring with us and hold our energy and help us through this. What do you think? What are your thoughts about this?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, that's tricky. It is hard. I think, again, that our culture values so much about productivity and efficiency, and human doings instead of human beings, that sometimes that impatience can come from feeling like, “Get on with it.” We do it to ourselves. We do it to others. I'm finding it in my own case right now of having to very consciously watch my thoughts around rather than asking, “How much am I getting done today?” to ask, “How am I present with myself today?” And every case is individual and personal. But whenever we can be there for ourselves, and whenever we can, again, maybe get out of our heads and get more into our bodies and try to just be present with ourselves. Sometimes I think that what you were calling this rumination before, if we're always externalizing in that kind of way, it can have this quality that's hard for our loved ones to sustain for longer periods. It's almost like there's a difference between talking about the pain as this and kind of going on and on about it in a particular way versus really coming into it and realizing, “What do I actually need here? What's going to help me heal from this?” So even just in terms of, “I'm in this as well.” So experimenting with, “How can I do this for myself?” So, for example, just as much as I can be there for myself to just say, "This is really hard. This is really hard for me right now. What I'm dealing with," and the self-compassion there. You know, I could go on and on about, "Well, I can't do this, and this is harder, and this is harder," but sometimes stopping and slowing down and just being in that heartbreak or grief or frustration, just being in that emotion without having to talk about it or verbalize it or put it into words but just sit with it and it's hard. We're not trained to do that in our culture, to just really be in that emotion. It's okay to not feel good right now and to just let yourself cry or let the pain come up in your body, just be there with it. It takes a lot of practice, and I'm still learning that too, even after all these years of working in cultures where it is about, almost like I want to say, stop talking about it. Just like even what my friends were telling me in Algeria, "Tamara, just stop asking about it. Just go to the ritual and dance," and I did have a man once actually say that to me where I was asking all these questions and he put his hand on my forehead and he said, "Don't let your mind go too far. You just need to go dance," and the theme again is to come back into your body, feel it, be present with yourself first because we can't just keep externalizing and onto other people. Yes, we need that support network. But if we can't be there for ourselves really compassionately without having to explain and go on and on and on, but just be present in it, it is harder for our community to support us, because we kind of put across this energy of neediness or maybe complaining or however they might judge it. So first, we have to do that for ourselves and it's not easy, but baby steps again. Just baby steps of practicing being present and conscious with the slightest little sensation in your body all the way up to letting the pain ride it like it's a wave. And yeah, it takes a great deal of self-love and self-compassion.

Dr. Maya Novak:
That is so true, and what you said, that we are not used to, or trained, or however we want to describe it, to just be with the pain, any type of pain, and just listen to it and just be in that emotion. Because how we are trained is to run away from it. It also happens when a person cries and then the other person tries to console them, but what they do is, "There, there. Stop crying. Don't cry. It's not so bad." It's almost like not allowing the person to actually get out of their own way and just cry. And so what if we are just crying? I mean, that's how rainbows then come alive, and beautiful things. So, I think that it's also very important for our culture to learn that when we see someone who suffers, to just let them suffer, not to try to make them feel better because we feel bad seeing someone who is in a bad state. If it makes sense, I know that this is a bit cheesy...

Dr. Tamara Turner:
No, absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. I think, and this is something again, it's important to remember that our culture does not teach us another way. So we can't blame ourselves. We are all learning this. But it is important to have the ability to not offer explanations because I know the temptation is to offer solutions or advice, but sometimes people just need to be heard. We just need to be able to be in something that's hard, and it can be awkward, but we just have to sit with the awkwardness and be there with that person. I think the reason why we want to give explanations or tell them to stop crying is that we're feeling uncomfortable. We're not taught how to just be with pain. We're taught in our culture to "don't worry, be happy" and to "get on with it" because "it can't be that bad".

The fundamental difference with what I learned in North Africa is that there is space made for this. Nobody's asking you questions or telling you what to do or asking you to explain why you aren't getting on with it. It's just a space where you go and you dance out your pain, and people witness. So, the word that could help us the most is "witness". You don't need to say anything or give advice. Just be there to witness with the person and feel what they're going through. And again, we have to do that for ourselves as well. We have to be our own witness in those moments and acknowledge that this is really hard, painful, frustrating, and heartbreaking, without adding "but", "must", or "should". It's just the ability to be in those emotions and to let them move within us, to make sound when possible. That, in itself, is healing because emotions are not just a path to an end or an end game. Being in our emotions is what it means to be human. So, we have to allow ourselves to be present with ourselves in those places.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Absolutely. You know, it's really about the learning process. When we started talking about this, I was thinking about the learning process my husband and I went through. In the past, when I felt bad and was crying or fell down, he would go into solution mode, offering me solutions 1, 2, 3, 4, when many times I didn't need any solutions. I just needed him to see me, hear me, hold me, and let me be in that moment, and then I would be okay. It was a learning process that took quite a few years, but now we are at a space where he asks me, "Where are you right now? Do you need a solution, or do you need me to just be here?" And 95% of the time, I just need him to be there, to hold the space. It really starts with ourselves, as you've said so many times. We have to first be okay with ourselves and hold the space for ourselves, so we can communicate what we need in that moment to other people, because otherwise, from my experience in the past, I was just so confused. I didn't know what I needed in that moment because I didn't know for myself what I needed.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Right, yeah. I think the most compassionate thing we can do in those moments is just to be present for ourselves and for another person because most of us are smart enough to figure out when we're ready, we will know what we need to do. But we have to allow that breathing room to just be in the place of "This is awful," and that is part of being human-- experiencing and being present with those emotions. That's another kind of self-love. Real self-love isn't just loving yourself when you're feeling great, happy, and everything's going well. It's really being able to be compassionate and loving with yourself when it's not all of that. The same goes for our partners. Unconditional love for our partners is loving them when they're not at their best. And again, it's not easy. It doesn't happen overnight, but step by step, there are little things we can do to keep moving in that direction.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, so how do you see the future of healing any kind of trauma, physical trauma, emotional trauma, everything that we talked about today, in our western culture? Would it be beneficial for us to start creating some sort of circles where we can feel safe and secure, and be able to express ourselves? Or, what do you think would need to happen in our culture to actually bring those human modalities and benefit from them?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, I see it as two main things. One is - and this is already starting to happen - that attention to somatic therapies and really getting into the body, especially in cases of emotional trauma. We see this increasingly with somatic experiencing, various work on Stephen Porges's polyvagal theory, and more research being done about not being in our heads. Basically, get out of your head and get into the body, because the body is really holding trauma there. And it works both ways - physical and emotional trauma. So that's the first thing. I see that continuing, and I think we're on a good trajectory as far as that's concerned. But what I think we're really missing in our culture is that community aspect and this kind of holistic - well, that word is tricky because holistic has been used a lot. I call it an ecology of care, and I think care has to be an ecology. When I've worked in these different cultures, especially in mental emotional health, the approach in North Africa was much more about community, family, and relationships. Mental health was almost like thinking of the in-between spaces between people or these interstitial spaces between structures. So, rather than your mental health being in your body or in your brain or inside, it was dispersed and shared across a community. Suffering was, again, a shared burden, and so in whatever way we can start to think more in terms of community in our own situations and geographies, I think that can only help us. Being able to build support groups, especially in ways that don't involve just talking. [chuckles]

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes! [chuckles]

Dr. Tamara Turner:
The other trend I see starting to happen is this recognition of the power of the arts in healing. We have creative arts therapists whose work is starting to gain attention again. The power of the arts to help us heal is immense because they are not engaging this prefrontal cortex of rumination or trying to put things into words, but allowing us to express expression and like externalization of what's going on. There's a lot of need for this, and there's a lot of room for this to be developed. My specialty, of course, is more music and dance therapy, but there's a lot happening in art therapy as well. Whatever potential there might be for your listeners to connect with expressive arts therapists, they might want to feel into whether that would be right for them because that does allow this kind of developing a creative expressive relationship with oneself that doesn't involve putting it into words.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Absolutely, and it's really about being present with the body. So not trying to run away from it, especially because, with physical trauma, there are so many different kinds of physical traumas such as sexual abuse or any kind of really adverse experiences. When a person goes through that - and that's my personal story, you know, I was sexually abused as a little girl - it's a learning process of how to be in my body and not trying to run away. Because that was a part of a survival mechanism, right? To go out of the body. So now, being here in this moment and being present is really important. It's really important that you are in your body. It is hard, and as you said, we need to be kind to ourselves, gentle with ourselves and supportive, being our biggest cheerleaders, because everything starts with us.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's a really good reminder too of going slowly with ourselves because we don't want to re-traumatize people by going too quickly. So, being very patient with ourselves to do that slowly and kind of being able to touch base and know, "Okay, that's enough for now," and I've now got this layer of work to do. So, it's important to go slow, and that's part of the compassion, and you know, even with my own situation being very different. Just being conscious of the fact that part of the self-love and self-compassion is just pacing ourselves and not pushing too hard, because we just want to get it over with, but going slowly.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yeah, ah as you know with an injury, it's like, “Come on. You're taking so long, please can it just be over so that I can be back in my perfect life as it was before?” Right?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Right, yeah.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Now, if someone stopped you right now in the street and said to you, “What is your number one advice that you could give me? I'm healing from physical trauma.” What would be your number one advice in that regard.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, I would say, go as deeply as possible into that part of your body with your consciousness and loving intent, and ask it what it can teach you. Ask it what needs to be expressed there, what needs to come out. Usually, there's something tucked in the tissues. As some people say, "your issues are in your tissues." So, there's going to be something there that needs to come out that we often don't make space for. You can do this in private, in your car, or if you feel self-conscious about it. But just be present with yourself and let it come out, whatever is tucked in, whatever issues are in your tissues.

Dr. Maya Novak:
This is such a great point. Yes, and really working with the body and not trying to run away because in order for us to heal, expressing it through the body and everything that you talked about today is potentially the way to go.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, and I want to tie it back to the music part. I realize I didn't say too much about what's going on in the rituals. In these rituals, when a person starts to feel like they need to express themselves and they're in pain, they move into a ritual space, and their community is around them, watching. They move up in front of the musicians, and the musicians are specifically playing to their state. So they're adapting the music to fit whatever this person is going through, changing the phrasing and rhythm, and carefully watching this person. The idea here is that the music is helping this person work their body. They use the phrase in Arabic, "working the body," and the music is working the body. This is a bit harder for us to do in our culture because we don't use music in this way. But you can find a favorite song, a song that makes you cry or triggers you in a productive way. Use that and let your body lead, instead of your mind asking, "Do I look good? Am I moving in the right way?" Forget about that. Close your eyes, put on the music, and let your body show you what kind of movement it needs to make. Sometimes you can be very surprised by what's coming out of the body, the things that are stored in us. It's getting the mind out of the way again and letting these things come forward. This might be the closest way of approximating the healing approach I've been studying, where the music and the vibration are stirring something in that person that can then be released. So we can approximate that in a way.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Absolutely, and thank you for explaining that, because I had a follow-up question and I forgot about it, and you just brought it back. So, thank you for that. Because I wanted to ask you, how can we choose the right music? Because, as you said, right now in this culture, we don't have this kind of space of having a real ritual around music. So, how can we go into this with ourselves? And I think that you just explained it. You know, whatever makes you cry or just brings up some kind of emotions, take it from there.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah. And there have been different times in my life where I chose particular artists that were bringing up something in me. I think it just depends on the life course, but there will be certain things that kind of get under your skin and are stirring you in a particular way. It could be grief, anger, fear, or all kinds of things. And just that kind of attitude towards yourself of "well that's interesting, I wonder what might be underneath that, is there something more there?" I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this, but I remember times in college where if I was really frustrated, I might put on more hardcore music and just allow it to be released for me too, and dance around the living room to it or let myself make noise. Is there anything that can kind of get vibration in the body? So the idea there is, again, because everything vibrates and that's alive, that you bring that vibration into the body. That's also the intention behind making sounds or letting yourself moan or letting yourself get into the presence in the body with sound. Get it vibrating, get some consciousness in there, get intention in there, get presence in there in whatever way you can. That's again what one of the theories behind this music in North Africa is, that you're moving the body and there's sound, and people will growl, they might scream, and of course, we have all kinds of judgments in our culture around this. "Oh, you must be crazy if you're doing that." But if we can release those judgments and just allow ourselves to be human and realize that we're restricting ourselves in our expression, that could be really healing. There are ways of releasing that through the body in safe spaces that can be really transformative. I hope that helps.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Absolutely. And it's really about letting go – like you said - of all that shame or judgment or things that we put on ourselves because we were brought up with messages like "you shouldn't be doing this" or "you shouldn't be doing that" or being very shameful in regards to the body. "You shouldn't be talking about this" or "you shouldn't be doing this before age 18, 25, whatever." So, it's a lot about not connecting with the body, and then all of a sudden, we don't know how to connect with it. So, yes, thank you for sharing this.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yeah, and you know, again, sometimes it helps me to think about it like it's all energy. So whether it's angry energy, fearful energy, joyful energy, or grief energy, it's energy. And energy is not positive or negative, it's just energy. We have lots of judgments against what we call "negative" emotions in quotes, but it's all part of being human. Letting that out, making noise, and letting your body move, that's really how things heal. It's about getting movement back into these areas of your consciousness in loving, patient, compassionate ways.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, and it's about moving the energy through the body and healing it that way, so that we are not stuck in some sort of state, but that we are really bringing vibration into the body. Moving that energy and then releasing it and letting it go and allowing ourselves to heal.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Well said, yes.

Dr. Maya Novak:
I have one last question, which is a fun question, and that is, if you were stuck on a desert Island with an injury, possibly with what you have with your ankle right now. And you could bring only one thing to help you heal amazingly well, what would that be and why?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
It would be a musical instrument, and it would be this instrument that I was learning in North Africa, which is a bit like a guitar. It's a three-stringed instrument that sounds a bit bluesy, sounds a bit like a blues guitar. And I would do that because I'd know that for me, singing and playing music and feeling the vibrations of music in my body is what's most healing.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Oh, beautiful. Tamara, where can those who would like to get in contact with you? How can people do that, or where can people find more information about you and your work and connect with you?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Well I'm in the process of making a website. You can find me on Linkedin as Dr. Tamara Turner and I can also share my email with you. We can share that in the notes as well if people want to reach out. I'm in the process of developing some community music therapy programs here, so stay tuned. I hope to have more information on a website coming up about how to translate these practices into our western approach to healing.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Fantastic. So what I suggest is that we put in your email address for now. But once your website is ready, we're gonna update on my end my website and my show notes, and people will be able to click on that link. So it really depends when and in which year people are listening to this podcast whether my website mayanovak.com/podcast has either your email address or your website. How does this sound?

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Yes, that sounds great.

Dr. Maya Novak:
I'm so intrigued by everything that you said and I'm so excited about the next time when I have the opportunity to move with my body and move this energy and just let it all out, and not judge it and not think about it. So. Thank you for this because it was extremely helpful, and I know that people around the world are also very grateful for this conversation.

Dr. Tamara Turner:
Thank you, Maya! Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed this conversation with you. Thanks for the work you're doing.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Thank you for tuning into today’s episode with Dr. Tamara Turner! If you haven’t done it yet, subscribe to the podcast on whatever platform you’re using to tune in, and… please leave a review so we can reach even more people who should be hearing these lessons. To access show notes, links, transcript, and video of today’s conversation go to mayanovak.com/podcast and click on episode 16. On my website, you can also explore options of working with me – either as my private client or let me guide you through my self-paced programs. Visit mayanovak.com. Until next time – keep evolving, blooming, and healing.

Love and gratitude xx
Dr. Maya

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  1. Maria Millikan

    Loved this so much . From the beginning I was not expecting ankle injury to be a part of this inspirational conversation !
    It’s 18 months since my messy fracture and I have hardly cried but hearing Dr Tamara speak with such gentleness bought me to a tsunami of tears – of gratitude that I found my way into this slower pace of life but also recognition of how hard it’s been . Then you made me laugh out loud because I am right now in the conversation of saying “OK is this IT????- how much longer is this going to take – I’m over it !! “
    Maya from the very beginning of this journey your exercise programme and meditations have given me power to take responsibility for my own healing and now your inspirational conversations with truly amazing people have all resonated with me deeply – each it seems just when I need emotional input to stay afloat .I took my first fragile steps listening to music , and alpha wave music plays as I walk with grace and safety ( although not yet with the elegance of flow ) beside my horses with a vibrational connection of trust and relaxation in them I didn’t know existed .
    Now I am going to up the vibration and dance hand in hand with the pain 🙂
    Much love for all you are doing

    1. Tears can be so healing. I’m so glad that this conversation helped you get some release, Maria. Thank you for sharing this and I’m grateful to be a part of your healing journey. ❤

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