“Trauma is the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood and untreated cause of human suffering. When I use the word “trauma,” I’m talking here about the often debilitating symptoms many people suffer in the aftermath of overwhelming experiences… The field of psychiatric medicine has chosen to view most of the long-term effects of trauma as an incurable disease… I believe that trauma is not only curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening, a portal, a door, an opening to emotional and real spiritual transformation.
Though it is a fact of life, and it is, trauma does not have to be a life sentence. I have little doubt that as individuals, friends, partners, families, communities and even nations, that we have the capacity to learn how to heal and prevent much of the damage done by trauma, and in doing so we will be able to significantly increase our ability to achieve both our individual and collective dreams.” — Peter Levine in Healing Trauma: Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body
If what Peter Levine says is true (and most trauma experts agree whole-heartedly), then perhaps all of us interested in the cessation of suffering might perk up our ears. As we will review below, ending suffering is the whole point of the 8-fold Buddhist path as well as the path of Ashtanga Yoga laid out by Patanjali. Sometimes, however, I get the feeling that we are so enthralled by tantra and transcendence, promises of love, light & levitation, or at least getting the leg behind the head, that we fail to understand that most of us have not constructed the most minimal foundations for eliminating the grossest forms of suffering in our lives.
How then, would we expect our efforts on the cushion or mat to be effective? As Peter notes, we greatly underestimate the impact of trauma and its insidious effects on our nervous systems. If we continue to leave these effects untreated, the value of our more subtle work will be lessened, or in fact, we may exacerbate certain kinds of imbalances and form unhealthy relationships that cause us to suffer more rather than less.
If we are honest, we see that many efforts are in fact not working that well, as some of the most “practiced” and “accomplished” teachers and students continue to propagate extreme suffering amongst themselves and others. Granted, these paths are generally thought to work little by little over countless lifetimes, and numerous stories glorify the brutality of certain gurus as catalyzing an enlightenment we aren’t even able to imagine, but nonetheless, what qualities do we really want to manifest in our own lives, and are our practices actually helping us become who we want to be in the world? Are we interacting with people whose qualities we would want to emulate or gawking over people who inspire a sense of other-worldly awe that bears little relevance to our embodied situation?
For those of you who fancy yourselves to be advanced tantric practitioners for whom this world no longer matters in all of its illusoriness and impermanence, you can continue to do your visualizations and just ignore this post. The work I’m talking about is for the rest of us, granted yes, those of us who are able to do the hardest-ever practice of admitting honestly that we are perhaps at an earlier stage on the path, or at least temporarily having to deal with circumstances that require attention outside of our traditional sadhana.
When I hear teachers I consider truly great, they seem to hold all life in high regard and have a keenly developed sense of wisdom and compassion, so I wonder whether some others are missing a certain necessary foundation. There is no use doing advanced practices when you are fundamentally unprepared. Would you put a spire into thin air without the rest of the building? Well you could, but results would be predictably disappointing…
I would like to briefly summarize my own personal story about healing from trauma, but first, let’s just start by reminding ourselves that our starting point is suffering! That is what these practices we are doing purport to alleviate. Almost sounds like a buzz kill… It’s less glamorous than a tight yoga butt or superpower. But actually, there’s a lot of magic in it, and starting where we are doesn’t mean we can’t touch into the mystical. In fact, we have a greater chance to do that when we can be real about our true biological needs and get them met.
In the Four Truths of the Nobles (commentary by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the Buddha suggests that:
1) Suffering comes along with taking birth: “The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment. Subtle suffering is more difficult to recognize because it begins with happiness. But by its very nature this happiness must change because it can’t go on forever.” (I often feel relieved to work with my psychotherapy clients rather than yoga students, because at least they understand the first Noble Truth and are actually looking for ways out.)
2) Suffering has a cause: “The truth of interdependent origination is that if we do unvirtuous actions, we are creating suffering.” (Even if we were to genuinely believe that a certain master’s apparently abusive behavior is intentional and meant for our spiritual development and even if we took something exceedingly valuable from our own experience with such a teacher, there is still no excuse for other students and teachers to perpetuate abuse as happens every single day whether subtle or gross. If that “guru” is truly beyond generating karma, that is exceedingly rare and the rest of us had better be very careful about the seeds we sew at every moment, because there is no way they will fail to come back at us sooner or later.)
3) The cause can be uprooted: “If we abandon unvirtuous actions, we remove the possibility of experiencing suffering in the future… Therefore the Buddha has said that we should give up the causes of karma and the disturbing emotions.” (If you are practicing with a teacher who greatly disturbs your emotions due to gaslighting or other means, it is time to consider whether you are developing “equanimity” and “taming your ego” by trying to ignore your feelings and suppress your gut reactions, or causing yourself a slow trauma train wreck that will surface at some point of stress down the road.)
4) We have methods (the 8-fold path) at our disposal to end future suffering: “correct meditation, correct mindfulness, correct intention, right view, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood and correct effort.” (I would simply like to add that the Buddha grew up pampered in a palace. If your upbringing was a little different, you might need to do some preparatory work to get to the point where you are able to jump in to these limbs in a meaningful way.)
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Chip Hartranft edition) echo these 4 truths as follows:
II-15) Everything is suffering: “The wise see suffering in all experience, whether from the anguish of impermanence or from latent impressions laden with suffering or from incessant conflict as the fundamental qualities of nature vie for ascendancy.”
II-17) Suffering has a cause: “The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards.”
II-16) Suffering can be ended: “But suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.”
II-29) The 8-limbed (Ashtanga) Path is our method for ending suffering through the development of discriminative awareness (quite different than blind faith): “The eight components of yoga are external discipline, internal discipline, posture, breath regulation, concentration, meditative absorption, and integration.”
Having seen the 4 truths spelled out by Buddha and Patanjali, we can see that Peter has laid out something similar with specific reference to trauma. 1) He calls trauma a fact of life. 2) He implies that the cause (which lies in the nervous system rather than in an external event) is becoming increasingly well-understood. 3) He and others have seen thousands of people heal and blossom from the 4) methods that are currently being developed and refined. So there is hope, even if you have felt like a hopeless case for any number of reasons or started to wonder whether all of your efforts may be futile.
Thrangu Rinpoche in the same exposition I quoted from talks about the necessity of eliminating the grosser obstacles on the path before focusing on the finer details. Patanjali also notes the obstacles to yoga and some suggestions for getting them out of the way, but I believe many of us need more help, help that often gets poo-pooed in spiritual circles.
It’s time for a brief personal anecdote. After twice moving across the world for my yoga teachers and making every effort to practice diligently and well-roundedly over a period of the past 16 years, one of them asked me why my practice wasn’t working (since the “happiness” that he claimed comes as a natural result of the practice wasn’t manifesting in me. In fact, I was severely chronically ill, angry, pathologically depressed, and generally incapable of doing much of anything other than my practice and some minimal teaching). I really wondered why myself, since I believed what I was being fed, something not quite as simplistic but nonetheless along the lines of “Practice and all is coming!”
Well, long story short, having now trained in counseling and specializing in trauma for the past few years and having done quite a bit of shamanic and psychotherapeutic work in addition to my yoga practice in a healing vein, I am now feeling better. The yoga in the form I was engaging would not have sufficed. I would have continued to suffer tremendously (like mega-high-amplitude) and become all the more ill. I would have inadvertently continued to be isolated from the rest of humanity, which would have made all of my afflictions worse.
Know what? I had no idea that I had trauma. I considered myself very fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but lo and behold it turns out my nervous system had perceived a high level of threat for a long time and felt very, very traumatized. (Many people cannot point to a single event or set of aversive circumstances and therefore ignore the possibility that there is trauma stuck in their bodies and attribute their pains to other causes. In fact, as I myself found out AFTER graduating from counseling school and writing my capstone on trauma, my own memory and perception of certain events had been skewed and obscured in a way that makes trauma very slippery to pinpoint for many and very easy to deny in those of us who actually want to take control of our own lives and not sit around feeling fragile and sorry for ourselves).
The idea that our salvation is in our own hands and that we need to walk our own path and the teacher cannot walk it for us is quite unfortunate, as it feeds into our modern pathological individualism, incessant self-blame and pressure towards self-improvement, and desperate need to heal in order to even survive in a hostile economy. While ultimately true and liberating, a greater recognition that the teacher or our community or others around us could walk the path WITH us is direly needed. Indeed, these paths were developed with the expectation that seekers would have intact nervous systems and deep trusting relationships with truly accomplished teachers, conditions that are rarely met in the yoga world today, though I do not exclude the possibility that it could happen, or even deny that there have been times (for which I am inexpressibly grateful) when I have experienced it myself.
While we can dissolve many kinds of samskara/conditioning with pure awareness (if we are in a state where we are able to cultivate that), traumatic conditioning seems to be a special case. When we have been traumatized in relationship to others, we often need others to help us to repair ourselves. This is not a pathetic failure to practice correctly. This is the truth of interdependence, something a lot of spiritual teachers like to give lip service to but seem not to comprehend when they leave us hanging with a bunch of practices to do as if that is all we should need.
That is not all we need. Interpersonal neuroscience demonstrates that our nervous systems need others to co-regulate with in order to develop properly and that even under optimal developmental conditions, various forms of trauma can disrupt these systems to a point beyond what we can fix by a little bit (or a lot) of breathing or posing by ourselves or even with our million Instagram followers. 😉 We are all being bombarded through media with the suffering of an entire world teetering on the brink of disaster. Even when we feel we are on a conscious level cool as a cucumber, there may be parts of us that desperately need reassurance through mindful contact with others.
Hence, all the hype these days about self-regulation, be it in the yoga or therapy realm is really a lot of hooey if you are speaking to somebody with any degree of trauma load, which turns out to be quite a majority given that oppression can cause trauma, not just shell shock, and that trauma is now believed to underly a great majority of mental and physical symptoms and disorders, not to mention how we all have various forms of ancestral trauma that we can see in our genes as well as behaviors… In other words, if you have any kind of problem, consider trauma as a possible underlying factor and investigate whether you are suffering needlessly from it.
There is nothing heroic about suffering, whether it’s torturing yourself with an inadequate or inappropriate yoga practice, mild insomnia or something that seems far more grave. If you can just get rid of it, go ahead. If I had only known sooner, I would have had a very different life. (No regrets per se, like Peter says, it has opened my eyes to worlds I am so grateful to know, but then again, maybe the cost would not have had to have been quite so high… I also do not mean to say that it will be a quick fix. It has taken an extreme investment in my case and is still a work in progress, but some additional relief has come at every stage of intervention.)
So maybe you’re young and fit, love your yoga teacher and are enjoying your life. That is wonderful and please don’t think there is anything wrong with that either. However, if there comes a point where any of this shifts, and you find that what has worked in the past no longer serves you, that is when I hope you will remember that other kinds of help are available.
I do not mean to knock the methods and profound philosophical roots of yoga, which I do trust from my own experience as being extremely powerful under the right circumstances. I still practice and teach them with conviction, but not with the naivety I once did. I have started to see that so many of us need some supplemental work at some point or another.
I felt sooo much shame on my own path, wondering why I needed extra help when I pretty much collapsed after working so hard for so long and gaining so much training and apparent competence. In the end the mantras did less for me than a hug from a person who truly cared for me as a person.
There should be no shame in getting the help you need, and my hope in writing and teaching about trauma is to get the word out so that more people will understand how it is affecting us all, and how we can more skillfully and compassionately work through it and move on to the more subtle suffering that at least at first masquerades as happiness LOL! 😉