Trauma as Spiritual Potential
We don’t have to heal our trauma before we can have a valid spiritual practice. In fact, trauma is an opportunity.
This first appeared on the Association for Spiritual Integrity blog. Used by permission.
Try telling a goldfish that it’s wet. Assuming you speak its fishy language, it’ll probably say you’re nuts. The water it depends on is so inextricable from its goldfish self that it can’t perceive water as a separate thing.
It’s like what the spiritual teacher Adyashanti says about enlightenment. Our consciousness is our arena for awakening, yet consciousness so permeates our being that we can’t feel or grasp it. We can’t experience how obvious enlightenment is until our preconceptions are utterly confounded. The goldfish has to be tossed out of the bowl.
The goldfish also reveals something about life for trauma survivors, especially those for whom the identity-building phases of childhood were marred by abuse. Just as the fish can’t see water as separate, we grew up so fused to the trauma reactions embedded in our bodies that our notion of “me” was equivalent to those reactions. I was attacked sexually at a young age. After completely suppressing this memory, I developed an irrational fear of spending the night away from my parents. Sleepovers were torture. Lacking support around my fears and the abuse itself, I concluded that I had been born that way. Shame and feeling defective warped my sense of “me.”
The effects persisted as I entered spiritual practice as an adult. As helpful as meditation is, expanded awareness also confronts me with as-yet unhealed pockets of trauma.
Unfortunately, sometimes spiritual practice can eject traumatized people from their fishbowls too quickly, with damaging consequences.
Occasionally, I’ve winced at the things spiritual teachers say. More than once, I’ve thought: I hope nobody else in this room has been through what I have. Being taught that “anger is never okay” is dangerous if a survivor has blamed herself for her abuse. Given the teacher’s authority, that self-torture becomes spiritually sanctioned.
In Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, David A. Treleaven describes Brooke, who had lost her baby to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Before the tragedy, Brooke had benefited from meditation, so she thought a weekend retreat would be helpful. “At the end of the first day, disturbing memories (of cuddling her dying daughter) began to engulf her”…She felt “a black hole, pulling for her attention. Rather than feeling the expansiveness she’d experienced in the past, she felt trapped.”
Brooke brought her problem to a retreat leader, who listened compassionately. Brooke was instructed to “to keep being mindful of the images and notice when they shifted.” It would have been good advice for most people, but the retreat leader was not equipped to deal with trauma. The images had already thrown Brooke outside her window of tolerance. Once the traumatized brain is hijacked in this way, it becomes frozen in its panic.
Despairing, Brooke “left a note to the teachers saying…she had the flu” and left the retreat a day early. She may have viewed leaving the retreat as a failure. Actually, it was wise to leave a situation where she’d been encouraged to dig herself more deeply into a hole. The retreat leader is not to blame for the bad advice, but bad advice it was.
The onus is not on people in crisis to correct this problem. The shame of complex trauma makes it hard for survivors to question their teachers or trust their own intuition. Spiritual teachers do not have to become psychologists or therapists, but they must become genuinely trauma-informed. This means more than recognizing signs of trauma and referring people to therapy, though these are important actions. Engagement with traumatized students has to go further.
If we begin where we are — which is the only way to begin — then a traumatized person’s spiritual path is fully valid. I don’t view trauma as an impediment for a simple reason: Contemplative practice means engaging with immediate experience, and my immediate experience sometimes includes frightening symptoms.
I can usually be with these in friendly curiosity. Recently, though, I did become overwhelmed. Last summer, I started a program designed to open students to their soul-level purpose, the unique way we were each born to be and to serve in the world.
Prior to joining, I went through a vetting process, after which the director gave me a cheerful green light. While in the program, I experienced a deeper connection to nature and its messages for my soul than I had known before. It was lovely; I communicated with the energy of trees, and when I became lost on a long hike in a forest, putting my arms around trees gave me a surge of energy to keep going. I reveled in the magic of the forest.
Yet the soul-exploration work mined our psychic depths. From my healing work, I was used to this kind of deep digging, but the program accelerated the mining. I shared this with my small group, admitting that the practices had churned up significant trauma.
Afterwards, my small-group mentor contacted me with her concerns. She was worried not only about me, but the group. After we talked on Zoom, I decided it was best for me to leave. The program director wrote that once I was ready, I was more than welcome to enroll again. The people I dealt with were extremely kind. My mentor expressed regret that the program was not set up to deal with trauma.
The experience left me with more questions than answers.
First, I was “ready” before. My healing began about thirty years ago, but the process never ends. Who’s to say the same problem wouldn’t arise? And how could I bring my whole self into the program if it wasn’t equipped to deal with people like me? The subtle messaging wasn’t intentional, but I felt it. I could come back once I was fixed. Or at least more fixed than I currently am.
After my plans for the next year crashed and burned, I felt disoriented, with a lot of time on my hands. I kept focusing on meditation.
Here’s what I’ve learned: If what Adyashanti says about enlightenment being impossibly close to our everyday experience is true, then trauma survivors are pretty damn close to being monks. Our consciousness is highly tuned to the moment, if not in the most productive ways (we’re wired to look for danger and interpret life accordingly). We know that the world only offers hollow promises of peace. We are courageous and resilient, and spiritual practice demands both. To the extent we’ve experienced healing, we’ve done it through a practice. Like monks, we turned toward our pain and discovered it cannot devour us.
My confusion about leaving the program was helped by a wise friend. He wrote, “You (have) tremendous gifts to offer. You are navigating the razor’s edge between deep, intense trauma and spiritual presence/awakening. One side drops off to powerful feelings and can swamp you; the other side drops off to the calm or nothingness connected with spiritual bypassing and disassociation. The task you face is to be on the razor’s edge… with courage and grace. Very few people are doing what you are doing. You have shown… perseverance to plumb this territory and this territory includes numbness, grief, confusion, and self-doubt. Stay the course.”
While still in the program, I kept encountering dead butterflies: Twice, unnaturally plastered to the sidewalk, and once in a dream. These images felt significant. That day in the forest, I had fallen asleep under a tree. When I got up, I noticed a caterpillar hunching its way up the tree trunk. I watched it for a while, then blew on it to see what would happen. It froze in fear, flattening against the tree. 15 minutes later, when I continued walking, it hadn’t moved.
The insects had something to teach me. The caterpillar reminded me of myself. I felt I was in a similar process of waiting. During metamorphosis, a caterpillar rots inside its cocoon. It doesn’t sprout tiny wings and expand like some happy embryo. I, too, felt spiritually dead. The mature, dead butterflies? It seemed they hadn’t completed their life cycle. Butterflies don’t simply drop dead on suburban sidewalks.
Through years of healing, I’ve experienced many transformations. But these always related back to my history. I have shed fearful identities for more-healed versions of myself. I could continue on, but the butterflies I encountered were dead. What did it mean?
In meditation, it came to me. Protective walls keep my small self in isolation from other beings. As a child, I needed those walls. The reality of abuse disappeared behind walls of forgetting, thin as butterfly wings.
The new transformation is no longer about healing, though that will continue, but about releasing the walls of identity. Seeing myself as a trauma survivor was my self-orientation for decades. But ultimately, this was an idea about myself: a mental construct, true in the relative world, but reinforcing separation.
Yes, the goldfish has to be thrown out of the bowl. But how can spiritual teachers support students who struggle with trauma?
They can normalize it. More teachers can speak openly (perhaps about their own trauma), reframing it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. The courage of survival can be harnessed. Some retreats might offer trauma-friendly practices.
One such practice could be inviting students to titrate their own experiences. It can feel intimidating and shaming to tiptoe out of a meditation hall when you’re overwhelmed. If this were treated as a natural part of someone’s practice, perhaps leaving a retreat wouldn’t be necessary.
The more students spiritual teachers have, the greater chance that some of them struggle with serious trauma. To the extent that teachers don’t recognize these students’ gifts, they may fall prey to the same attitudes as society at large: Survivors are “weak,” and we need to “get beyond it” in order for real life to happen.
Wise practice opens us up to abide in the spacious Mystery that includes trauma, because it’s immensely bigger than all we experience. Trauma is not a spiritual curse. It contains tremendous possibility, and teachers can go a long way toward supporting that possibility.