Reality, Trauma & Grounded Spirituality
We are sophisticated animals. Our nervous systems have evolved in response to a brutal world, one in which we fought one another for dominance, hunted and killed prey and fled from predators who wanted to eat our flesh.
Today, in the presence of stressful enough stimuli, we all react from these instincts. Adrenalin and cortisol stream through our veins, heart rate accelerates, blood rushes form the core of the body to the muscles that will enable fight or flight, pupils dilate and digestion halts, energy is mobilized to maintain survival by any means necessary.
The thing is, we no longer find our lives threatened anywhere near as frequently as we did on the African savanna or in the Swiss Alps. But the stress response comes from that time, and it is activated by our ordinary everyday lives as well.
Have you ever felt like a business meeting, contentious conversation, rushing to be on time or some other ordinary experience was provoking a life-or-death response in your body?
This is primal instinctive biology in response to modern living.
Many of us have grown used to an ongoing low-level stress response, but we wonder why we suffer from insomnia, digestive issues, chronic inflammation, or out-of-proportion emotional reactions. These symptoms may be caused by an autonomic nervous system over-modulated toward the “sympathetic” mode of fight-or-flight.
Once habituated to living on this side of the spectrum, our bodies are often unconsciously coiled up in tension and suffering from a legion of conditions that would perhaps be remedied by spending more time in the “parasympathetic” mode of rest-and-digest. Practices like meditation and yoga can help us reset the balance.
If we turn this overstimulation up a few notches higher, we experience an overwhelming level of stress in which more energy is mobilized than can be effectively discharged.
Another name for this kind of overwhelming stress is simply “trauma.” Of course for most people trauma is also deeply psychological. Generally, psychologists speak of two kinds of trauma: abandonment trauma and invasion trauma. There is also a distinction made between shock trauma and developmental trauma.
But the main thing to grasp is that we all have it.
FINGER ON THE TRIGGER
We all have experiences of unmanageable, overwhelming stress. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, or even the loss of a job, a car accident, being mugged, the experience of childhood abandonment, molestation, rape, physical violence, humiliation, or the emotional cruelty of bullying, none of us escape some form of traumatic experience in our lives.
These kinds of experiences are traumatizing precisely because our organismic, embodied self does not know how to process, heal, recover and integrate them effectively. We need help.
We are not perfect. The world is not perfect. Our experiences are not perfect.
In childhood, our developing self has certain needs. We need to be mirrored—to have the people most important to us reflect back our existence, our experience and our emotional responses to life. We need to be soothed, consoled and nurtured in our vulnerability. We need to be supported in finding the fledgling legs of our independence, confidence, self-esteem and integrity.
This is simply part of being human. Without these needs being fulfilled, without these resources being internalized, we struggle even more profoundly with the challenge of existing in an imperfect, sometimes traumatizing world.
Problem is, most of us don’t get these kinds of needs met and don’t sufficiently internalize the resources that build authentic, grounded resilience.
The thing about trauma is that it can happen to anyone, anytime and for no reason. Part of why it is so hard for our brains and psyches to process trauma is that it makes no sense. It rips apart our illusion of a predictable, fair, benevolent existence.
Trauma is often dehumanizing. It stands as an exact opposite of the experience of being mirrored, supported and nurtured that we all require to be healthy organisms.
We are emotionally vulnerable animals. Sophisticated animals no doubt. Very, very intelligent animals that are deeply vulnerable.
Our memories of traumatic experiences are stored in a very primitive way. They lurk in our subconscious waiting to be activated by triggers. The reason for this lies in how our brains are affected by the stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol. When bathed in this stress cocktail the brain stores memories in an impressionistic, primal, unintegrated way, leading to varying degrees of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
Think of the Iraq veteran who hides under the bed clutching a broomstick as if it were a rifle after a car backfiring has triggered the traumatic memory of being in a war zone. For some time he may believe he is actually back in Iraq, when actually he is in the Los Angeles Veteran’s Hospital.
When unintegrated feelings and memories are triggered, we often act as if they are happening in the present moment. Healing trauma is about integrating these memories at a higher level of organization, discharging the mobilized nervous and emotional energy, and reminding the body of its capacity for resilience and homeostasis. This kind of healing is an almost entirely experiential embodied process, that may or may not have a cognitive component, depending on the trauma and the person themselves.
Less extreme triggered reactions happen to all of us, often unconsciously—they may shape our learning process, choice of lovers, career paths, life decisions, beliefs about reality, and our capacity to be aware of our emotions and to communicate effectively with others.
We all can be prone to react intensely to a situation in the present only to later realize that we were misinterpreting it through a past lens. Think of the powerful emotions that arise in romantic relationships but often have to do with childhood. One name for this overlap between the present and unresolved material from the past is “being triggered.”
Learning how to work with being triggered mindfully, honestly and effectively is the centerpiece of an integrated spirituality. It is also the reason why experiential practices that teach mindful awareness are so valuable, because these can cultivate the ability to notice and be curious about triggers, emotions, sensations and memories in a more reflective and less reactive way.
Now let’s look at another aspect of psychology: defense mechanisms, or more simply, defenses.
The most common defenses that the human psyche employs when unable to deal with an emotion or experience are denial and rationalization. More pronounced defenses include dissociation and delusional thinking.
Denial is of course not a river in Egpyt, but the capacity to pretend that something we would rather not acknowledge simply does not exist or never happened at all. Like all defenses, denial serves an initially beneficial function, but over time becomes a liability. In the face of an unbearable experience, it may be the best thing to “put it out of your mind,” simply because it is too much to confront.
But for most of us these denied aspects of experience become unconscious, limiting factors that stop us from loving deeply, living fully and thinking critically about life. They also leave us vulnerable to triggers that provoke unresolved traumatic memories and feelings. This may in turn provoke helplessness and shame, and then renew the cycle of denial.
In some ways American culture actively encourages denial of suffering and vulnerability in the name of acting like a positive, empowered “winner.” In this sense many conventional societies are anti-psychological, in that they reward those who perpetuate the illusion of being a masked self who is free of human vulnerability.
This of course leaves the individual to deal with their trauma, suffering and an imbalanced nervous system alone and in secret, if at all. Most will choose to stay in denial.
Rationalization is technically not what you might think at first glance, because a rationalization is actually deeply irrational. Rationalization is pretending that a dishonest or irrational explanation for something we would rather not face honestly is legitimate.
Of course, some forms of rationalization are temporarily beneficial. We might tell ourselves that we didn’t get that job or the apartment we had our heart set on because a better one is waiting for us, as a way of not sinking into the feelings of disappointment. We might tell ourselves that it is “their loss” when we ask someone on a date and are rudely rejected, as a way to cover over the fact that we feel humiliated and sad.
These examples are of course on the mild end of the spectrum, but we rationalize more serious trauma as well. Perhaps we say that the Louisiana hurricane in which we lost everything was actually for the best because it prompted a move to New York. The partial truth of this probably hides the true tragedy and suffering of an extremely difficult experience.
Perhaps it is clear so far that we use defenses to override the truth of our emotional experience. Whether subtle or pronounced, defenses distort reality a little. In the short term this may be useful and even necessary; in the long run it has what I hope are obvious disadvantages. We can understand the disadvantages in terms of the creation of a rift between our lived and felt experience on one hand and the story we are telling ourselves on the other.
This rationalized “story” is the defensive strategy. Over time it is fragmenting rather than integrating, because it denies our emotional, embodied human experience —allowing us to identify with a less true version of our lives.
A far more severe defense, and one associated explicitly with trauma, is called “dissociation.” This is literally disconnecting from our embodied experience. Survivors of rape or torture often describe watching the events as if they were outside of their bodies. People in the process of healing and integrating severe trauma often report the sense of the experience having happened to someone else, that is until they start re-associating and sorting through the ugly details and feelings of what they have gone through in a supportive context.
Whilst still dissociated, one might deny the experience and buy into various rationalizations that support the idea of the trauma being not that bad or not actually real. Many of us have learned to mildly dissociate from the reality of suffering in the world and and in ourselves as a way of not being overwhelmed by the existential trauma of things like homelessness, the environmental crisis, political injustice, poverty and the awareness that we and everyone we love will one day die. While understandable, this can also make us callus and lacking in compassion.
Put dissociation, denial and rationalization together, and you may find a tendency toward delusional thinking. Why? Well, if I am disconnected from my embodied experience, in denial about my emotions and invested in rationalized beliefs about the nature of reality, I may have a very interesting but distorted worldview.
I will probably also have combined these defenses in response to a lot of painful emotions and unresolved trauma. Though not technically a defense, I may also be prone to a paranoid or obsessive-compulsive preoccupation that tries to control or interpret reality through the lens of special numbers, signs, synchronicities or ritual behaviors that I believe keep me safe from harm.
One thing I am hoping is coming through so far is that defenses formed in response to trauma is one facet of a bigger subject—namely our psychological difficulty with living in reality. In reality we are vulnerable to trauma. Our nervous systems can be overwhelmed by certain experiences. Our lives intersect with the lives of others who can do us harm for no good reason. There is injustice, oppression and violence; there are people who do very bad things in the world around us.
In reality we have all manner of feelings about these things that we often hide. We each have one life and one nervous system, and are subject to the effects of our experiences.
All of this pales in comparison to the knowledge that in reality we will one day die. Whether it is violent or peaceful, imminent or distant, we will one day not be alive anymore.
Are there other facts about reality? Of course. There are kittens and rainbows, there is great art and there is love. There are moments of profound meaning and beauty. There is connection to community and meaningful work. There is great food and riveting cinema and a million other passions to explore.
But our psychological conflict is about suffering, vulnerability, trauma, randomness and death, and our spiritual practice and philosophy can either help us to deal with this more honestly and gracefully, or it can be a way of perpetuating our fragmenting defenses.
Here’s the rub: I don’t think it can do both. It’s an either/or proposition.
Not that spirituality should instantly dissolve our defenses and awaken us immediately to an authentic, integrated perspective on reality. This would be impossible. Rather, the form of spirituality we are engaging in either moves us in one direction or the other.
Now that we have covered some of the most common psychological defenses, we can look at how much of what we think of as spirituality contains aspects of denial and rationalization.
The most obvious elephant in the room here is Death. Most religion and spirituality explicitly denies death. Either by giving us a set of rules to follow, rituals to enact or a deity(s) to worship, we are told we have magically found a way to live forever—but only if we commit to the faith. Whether it is reincarnation, heaven, being taken away by the mothership, or being transformed into a light being when the stargate opens and the planets align, there is usually some kind of anticipated transition into immortality.
Of course the elaborate beliefs that support the denial of death are a form of rationalization. An even more explicit rationalization has to do with suffering and trauma. Religious folks will generally say that it is God’s will or part of God’s plan when something terrible happens. New Agers will say it was destiny or past life karma or a manifestation of negative thought forms.
Everything that happens, from the smallest of coincidences to the biggest life tragedies, from the personal struggles to mass events like the Holocaust or Japanese Tsunami, are interpreted as expressions of a hidden cosmic order that makes some kind of ultimate sense.
Many religious and spiritual philosophies suggest that the world is either an illusion or just the opening act on the afterlife. These beliefs actively encourage dissociation from our bodily experience.
Whether through denying our sexuality, overcoming unacceptable emotions, rejecting intimate bonds with others, or meditating on identifying with a true self that is beyond our human limitations, dissociating from our human experience in order to attain knowledge of the great beyond is held up as a virtue by many traditions.
This is true of many aspects of both classical and tantric yoga philosophy, as well as of Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. New Age spirituality is also quite preoccupied with out-of-body experiences, channeled beings, paranormal powers, and becoming identified with an abstract Oneness beyond human individuality.
If we look objectively at much of spirituality and religion we can also see the preponderance of delusional beliefs: supernatural beings, miraculous events, future prophecies, savior figures, demons, angels, books written by omniscient deities, transmigration of souls, otherworldly realms.
In today’s world, all of these things are considered symptomatic of psychotic delusions, unless of course they are organized in a way we recognize as one of the world’s major religions. This brings me to the central idea that has inspired this entire piece of writing: most spirituality and religion can be understood as a defense against difficult emotions, trauma and existential anxiety.
Seeing this, we can respond by enacting a sustainable, grounded spirituality that uses philosophy, science, psychology and practices like yoga and meditation to embrace our humanity. We can use spiritual practice as a container for actually healing the underlying trauma and learning to stay present with the real emotions we have about the reality of our lives. We can recognize the core dysfunction inherent to many spiritual philosophies and debunk rather than perpetuate these rationalizations of denial, delusion and dissociation.
It takes courage. It is messy. It entails not only taking responsibility for thinking critically, not only being willing to feel more fully and deeply, but also being willing to stand up and speak out loud into the open air, “Just because something is ancient doesn’t make it true!”
THE NEXT STEP
We can locate the validity of our philosophy and practice in present knowledge, embodied experience, emotional honesty and a desire to be more fully alive.
As yoga teachers and especially as those who train yoga teachers, this means taking a more psychologically aware and intellectually honest look at the core philosophy we are espousing.
While there may be much of value in reviewing the historical place of certain key texts, if their tenets perpetuate denial, rationalization, dissociation and delusion, we might consider that this is perhaps not the best medicine for the many traumatized people drawn to spirituality.
Those of us incorporating a neuroscience-influenced, nervous system/somatic psychology-based approach to yoga might do well to ask ourselves if it makes sense to meld this with a contradictory scriptural philosophy that explicitly teaches belief in magical powers, disgust for the body, identification with an immortal true self, and non-attachment to the illusory material world in the name of finding true liberation in God-realization.
We might also look at the preponderance of magical thinking, dissociative beliefs, supernatural faith, and clamoring after supposedly divine gurus as indicative of the level of unprocessed trauma in our community and commit ourselves to providing grounded, embodied perspectives that will serve as a resource for sustainable, authentic, integrated spiritual growth.
We might consider that if we are to be leaders in a community with an ungrounded zeitgeist, we have a responsibility to critique this and provide sustainable alternatives rather than angle our marketing so as to exploit it. But first I guess we have to get some things straight for ourselves:
- We are sophisticated animals, not fallen angels.
- We are not perfect. The world is not perfect. Our experiences are not perfect. Part of healing from trauma and waking up to an integrated spirituality lies in accepting these facts and dealing with our true feelings.
- There is no other world to escape to. No supernatural force is guiding our lives. Our traumas are not “lessons” or expressions of our karma or the result of “sacred contracts” entered into before we were born.
- There is no set of magical signs, numbers or planetary configurations that will give us the edge in an unpredictable world. There is no guru that will pull back the veil to reveal the ultimate truth and truly transcendent purpose of life. 2012 will be over soon, and guess what: the supposed Mayan prophecy will not have come to much.
- We are vulnerable, mortal, magnificent creatures who live but a smattering of fleeting moments in which to love, create, think, and experience this extraordinary universe. The more we embrace and work honestly with reality, the more we can do this to the fullest.