When we talk about ending our suffering or go about the process of healing ourselves, the elephant in the room is our trauma. The Buddha taught that we suffer because of our cravings, our emotions. These cravings and emotions (the trauma) were formed by the ego mind in reaction to what we experienced, mostly as children, whether within the family, among peers, or in our culture (the traumatic incident). Our suffering is actually a result of these emotional reactions, which we often obsess about, not the incidents themselves. We suffer because of our ego-mind.
I just realized in starting to write this post that although I have in effect talked about trauma constantly, both my own and in general, I have never used that phrase, not even in my recent book, How to Find Inner Peace, which was just published. The reason is simply that I had not heard the term applied in this context until I recently came across some videos on the internet.
Trauma is a useful term to use because in a single word it says it all. Psychological trauma is defined as damage to the mind “caused” by a distressing event. Although contrary to the American Psychological Association, trauma does not just result from “terrible” events like “an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” It can result from everyday occurrences, certainly repeated ones, like a child being called “bad” or “stupid” or being neglected. Also, as the Buddha taught, the event does not directly cause the damage; it is the intervening factor of the ego-mind which causes this self-inflicted wound.
Most of us have found that despite our awareness that our emotions are a product of the ego-mind, we find it difficult not to place blame for our suffering on the traumatic incident itself. This makes spiritual healing impossible. But even for those of us who are fully aware that we suffer because of our ego-mind, the ego-mind’s habit energies are incredibly difficult to free ourselves from. I have always thought that the reason for this was that the ego-mind was so powerful. Because we’ve identified with its “I” our entire lives.
But there is a further significant reason, as I have recently learned. Trauma resides in the body, not just the mind. And healing ourselves spiritually does not free us from the trauma which is in our body.
Thus, healing trauma requires a two-pronged approach: spiritual and physiological. In my book and in posts I have described healing trauma spiritually through the process of the heart’s embrace. By sitting with the painful event(s) and embracing them as something that happened to you; that regardless how much pain was caused, those events made you the person you are today, including the part that is open to ending your suffering; own the event as part of your story and nothing to be ashamed of.
This last point is very important. So often we blame ourselves for bad things that happen to us, that other people do to us. Somehow it’s something we did, it is our fault. Either because we can’t allow ourselves to thing ill of people who are important in our lives, like our parents, or because we have been conditioned to think of ourselves as causing trouble, of being to blame. Of feeling guilt.
But these trauma events are always about the other person, not us. We do not cause the traumatic incident to happen to us. We may put ourselves in the situation where it happened, but the direct cause is always the other person. Had the other person had a different psyche, the incident would not have happened. So stop taking blame or being ashamed.
In my book, there’s another aspect to the healing process that I discuss … speaking the truth, certainly to oneself, but also often to whoever caused the trauma. As children we weren’t able to defend ourselves or were scared to speak the truth, whether for fear of losing the love of a parent or the friendship of a peer. This is one of the things that often makes anger so overwhelming.
Beware though, speaking the truth does not mean just venting your anger. That would not be productive to your healing process and would be abusive to the person you are talking to.
The right way to speak the truth has several components. First, be very clear what the truth is. We’re talking about your heart’s truth here, not your ego-mind’s. You must separate what actually happened from the spin you have put on it over the years. As the saying goes, “The facts, nothing but the facts.” But don’t go into all the gory details, just enough to make your point. Second, state clearly but free of emotion how the incident impacted you, whether in a practical way or emotionally. Third, place this statement of truth in the context of compassion, both towards yourself and the other person(s). Explain that your need to finally speak the truth and free yourself from this negative energy is having compassion for yourself. You show compassion towards the other by stating what happened free of emotion and recognizing explicitly that what occurred was the result of the other’s suffering … no one voluntarily chooses to be mean.
Between practicing the heart’s embrace and speaking the heart’s truth, the psychological aspect of trauma will heal. Not overnight, but with time,
But that does not heal the other aspect of trauma, the physiological. When we experience trauma, since we usually don’t express ourselves at the time … we may scream or cry but that is not expressing ourselves, just our emotional reaction … we shove it down inside us where it lodges in our body, often for decades or our entire lives.
When we experience trauma, our body and mind set up various systems to bear the pain of the trauma incident. This impacts many parts of our body … hormones, the brain, the nervous system. The result is that we live in a world that we didn’t live in before. We are trapped in it. Regardless what the syndrome … depression, addiction, anxiety … our world has changed. We have lost our innocence.
And this post-trauma world-view is not accessible to language. It is not something that can be changed or healed through talk-therapy. It can be ameliorated through talk-therapy or through spiritual practice, but not healed.
What we need to do is release the trauma by feeling the trauma, the emotion fully, without thinking about it. This sounds counter-intuitive and is certainly not something the ego-mind is open to. But this is what we must do. Only when we do not fear the trauma will we be healed. And as we work to release the trauma, we need to create a new habit-energy by purposefully feeling good, feeling great, being in touch with our heart, especially when we go to bed.
To release the trauma from our body, we need to turn to a physical exercise, since the trauma is our body is not accessible to language. One method which has gained a following is based on the observation of animals in stress. When the stress is passed, they shake, sometimes violently, to free themselves of the trauma and go on with their life unaffected. (I used to raise chickens and observed this after traumatic events.) And so psychologists have developed various exercises that induce shaking/tremors and encourage the body to feel the pain and release it. These exercises are to be repeated regularly for an extended period, depending on the severity of the trauma. Here is a link to one such exercise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7f92fscxUQ
When my partner tried this technique, it worked like a charm from the first. He induced shaking and, without thinking, felt his pain fully and vocalized it. Afterwards, he felt relief. When I tried it, nothing happened. Even when I induced shaking and allowed myself to feel the pain. My ego-mind was not going to allow this.
I should explain that I recently discovered that I still had something very dark inside me, a deep trauma, which causes me to feel that I am not worthy of being loved and fear being abandoned. Which in turn causes actions that hurt both myself and my partner. It is also, I believe, the underlying reason for my facial stress/frown, the grey cloud that is always over me; it goes deeper than the false core belief that I thought was its cause. Which is why it is still with me. Given the depth of the trauma, I’m not sure what it stems from. It may quite possibly be something that I am not conscious of. That has been walled off by my ego-mind. It may even stem from a past life. But what the specifics are are not important in this therapy.
So I first turned to another method. During meditation, I breathed in through my mouth (not as usual through my nose) which opens up the throat chakra and allows the trauma, the emotion, to rise. Also during meditation my true Buddha self sought out this trauma (not to find specifically where it lay, but just in general to be open to it), embraced it, and for the first time I felt something. I could “hear” the faint sound of a scream.
I repeated this practice several times before returning to the shaking exercise. This time, when I induced the shaking and allowed myself to feel the pain, a sound emerged from my throat, naturally, which I would describe as an agonized, gut-level scream. Not a piercing scream, but a deep one. This continued for several minutes until I purposefully stopped shaking and stopped vocalizing.
After you stop screaming and shaking, it is important to show yourself love and compassion, embracing yourself, by bringing up your knees and holding them close to your chest, and then gently rock yourself to each side. Continue this for a few minutes.
I have done this now several times. Being in touch with this deep pain is not painful. Hearing my agonized screams is not painful. It is grounding. I feel like I’m doing something good for myself, something loving, combined with my embracing myself, which will eventually result in the release of the trauma, although I have the sense this will take some time.
In the meantime, I’ve noticed that I seem to feel more open to life, more able to take pleasure in each passing moment. That in itself is a blessing.