1.“When a young tree is injured it grows around that injury. As the tree continues to
develop, the wound becomes relatively small in proportion to the size of the tree. Gnarls, burls and misshapen limbs speak of injuries and obstacles encountered through time and overcome. The way a tree grows around its past contributes to its exquisite individuality, character, and beauty.”
Peter A. Levine, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”
1690s, “physical wound,” medical Latin, from Greek trauma “a wound, a hurt; a defeat,” from PIE *trau-, extended form of root *tere- (1) “to rub, turn,” with derivatives referring to twisting, piercing, etc. Sense of “psychic wound, unpleasant experience which causes abnormal stress” is from 1894.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Frida Kahlo, “Without Hope”
Trauma is an inextricable part of human experience. We are all wounded, we are all damaged. As Carl Jung wrote:
“The patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient’s secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to treatment.”
That rock against which our psyche or its substantial part got shattered is a treasure that needs to be retrieved from our deep personal underworld. Equally strong in us is the will to tell the story of our trauma to the world and to bury the trauma as deep as we can. In her book Trauma and Recovery: from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman calls this conflict “the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” This is why victims of trauma (i.e. all of us) oscillate between numbness and intense reliving of a traumatic event. Within our psyches we carry unconscious memories not only of our personal traumas, but also of collective ones, about which we know from history. The wounds of our ancestors are our wounds. I also share the view that not only do we carry traumas from our birth, childhood and from the course of our whole lives but our subtle mind has imprints of past life traumas which at times may resurface and compel us to feel our old, even ancient wounds.
Mark Jones, an evolutionary astrologer, mentions Judith Herman’s findings on trauma in his own book (Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes). Inspired by her, he discusses three types of psychological trauma that have surfaced into public consciousness in the last two centuries. The first type of trauma has to do with misogyny, which revealed itself as diagnoses of hysteria in women: “a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in the opposite sex,” as the historian Mark Micale put it (quote after Mark Jones). Women’s “hysterical” symptoms and unmanageable aspects were simply and predominantly manifestations of their unexpressed potentials.
Circumstances for women at that time were unbelievably repressed, as Herman points out:
“Until the late 1870s feminist organizations did not even have the right to hold public meetings or publish their literature. At the first International Congress for the Rights of Women, held in Paris in 1878, advocates of the right to vote were not permitted to speak, because they were considered too revolutionary.”
The suppression of the feminine is at the core of many types of trauma. Connected with it in a way may be combat trauma; we all hold within our unconscious memory the senseless brutality of war violence, the pointless suffering of many of our ancestors. Herman writes:
“The moral legitimacy of the antiwar movement and the national experience of defeat in a discredited war had made it possible to recognize psychological trauma as a lasting and inevitable legacy of war. In 1980, for the first time, the characteristic syndrome of psychological trauma became a ‘real’ diagnosis. In that year the American Psychiatric Association included in its official manual of mental disorders a new category, called ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’… Thus the syndrome of psychological trauma, periodically forgotten and periodically rediscovered through the past century, finally attained formal recognition within the diagnostic canon.”
One of the chief characteristic of trauma is that we feel compelled to re-enact traumatic events over and over again because the truth will out and the splintered parts of our psyche gravitate towards reintegration. We are drawn to the same scenarios over and over again, which is quite frightening if we think of the implications for the chances of world peace.
Asmus Jacob Carstens, “Sorrowful Ajax”
The third type of trauma discussed by Herman results from sexual abuse and domestic violence, thus from the public collective domain we turn to the quiet private suffering. Violence and aggression, which are approved of in the public arena, flourish behind closed doors. Mark Jones writes:
“Victims attempt in vain to express personal power, and instead find themselves bound to their poisoned nest. … A high level of self blame among victims of domestic violence and a pattern of chronic victimization work in tandem to keep people trapped in the situation despite their suffering.”
Edvard Munch, “Ashes”
The fourth type of trauma added to Herman’s taxonomy by Mark Jones is the so called evolutionary trauma. It has to do with the unresolved traumas from birth and from past lives. We are reminded of Grof’s COEX systems of condensed experience, i.e. a set of experiences that are related and organized around a powerful emotional core. It all starts with a root experience, to which subsequent, thematically related experiences, are attached as memories. Each subsequent experience acts as a reinforcement of the core (nodal) one. Strong negative COEX systems result in energy blockages: they affect negatively our thoughts, emotions and communicative expression:
“Past-life trauma includes those prior-life memories held within the long-term memory which is signified by Uranus/Aquarius/11th house. …This deep state of the unconscious symbolized by the Uranus archetype can be brought towards conscious awareness through the attention and focus of the individual, as part of the process of individuation. Through contemplation, regression work, dreams and intuition, this state of awareness can arise as the experience of states of being that transcend the merely egocentric focus within the here and now.
The archetype of Uranus corresponds to that part of the core self that holds memory, the subtle mental nature, and this subtle mind or memory can hold traces of trauma which can cause constriction, the formation of patterns within the subtle mind that can then manifest as difficult mental and emotional states, even physical circumstances within a person’s life.”
The most brilliant book I have read on healing trauma was Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine. It is deeply satisfying on both theoretical and practical level. He does not mention Grof’s COEX but he does speak a lot about how we remember traumatic events and how we effectively disassociate from them, repress and deny them. Faced with a life-threatening situation, we go into the survival mode. Our mind goes into a research mode, comparing the present situation with past memories in order to make a fast decision. We access pictures, images within our memory, which help us respond to the situation:
“These pictures are organized by their levels of arousal, activation, emotion, and response. Our gestalts of experience are categorized by the levels of activation at which they occurred. An analogy of this could be a multi-storied library with several floors of shelved books. The lower stories hold books associated with lower levels of activation (arousal) and those in higher stories are related to higher levels. If we think of the books as containing images and responses (related pictures) to that level or category of activation, then at each level there are possible, appropriate resources and responses from which we can choose. When we need a response we do not search the entire library; we scan the books at the appropriate level of activation.”
I cannot recommend this book enough. Before reading it I only had a vague understanding of what trauma was. He has nevertheless confirmed a lot of my intuitions regarding the ways to heal trauma. I love his assertion that trauma affects not only the mind but also the body – in equal measure. Talking about it and prescribing medication only serves to heal the mind part of the equation but this is unfortunately what most traditional therapies are limited to. Both mind and the body are profoundly affected by trauma and both need healing. When faced with a threat humans and animals have three responses at their disposal: immobility (freezing), fight or flight. He says:
“I believe that the key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they shake out and pass through the immobility response and become fully mobile and functional again. Unlike wild animals, when threatened we humans have never found it easy to resolve the dilemma of whether to fight or flee. This dilemma stems, at least in part, from the fact that our species has played the role of both predator and prey. As in the Greek myth of Medusa, the human confusion that may ensue when we stare death in the face can turn us to stone. We may literally freeze in fear, which will result in the creation of traumatic symptoms.
Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms e.g. anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing (or corralling) the undischarged residual energy.”
It was fascinating for me to realize that at the heart of trauma there is an immense amount of energy waiting to be released. This energy can be a great gift endowing us with wisdom, and “returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love, and compassion,” as Levine says. It is the wounded healer who has the greatest capacity to heal others and the whole world.
Levine’s book is also full of practical examples from his therapy sessions and it contains exercises that may help us get in touch with our own forgotten traumas. He recounts one of his first sessions with a patient, which proved pivotal in his understanding of trauma. Nancy was suffering from intense panic attacks, which were so severe that she was unable to leave her house alone. In their first session she went into an intense anxiety attack:
“She appeared paralyzed and unable to breathe. Her heart was pounding wildly, and then seemed to almost stop. I became quite frightened. Had I paved the yellow brick road to hell? We entered together into her nightmarish attack. Surrendering to my own intense fear, yet somehow managing to remain present, I had a fleeting vision of a tiger jumping toward us. Swept along with the experience, I exclaimed loudly, ‘You are being attacked by a large tiger. See the tiger as it comes at you. Run toward that tree; climb it and escape!’ To my surprise, her legs started trembling in running movements. She let out a bloodcurdling scream that brought in a passing police officer (fortunately my office partner somehow managed to explain the situation). She began to tremble, shake, and sob in full-bodied convulsive waves. Nancy continued to shake for almost an hour. She recalled a terrifying memory from her childhood. When she was three years old she had been strapped to a table for a tonsillectomy. The anesthesia was ether. Unable to move, feeling suffocated (common reactions to ether), she had terrifying hallucinations. This early experience had a deep impact on her. … Nancy was threatened, overwhelmed, and as a result, had become physiologically stuck in the immobility response. In other words, her body had literally resigned itself to a state where the act of escaping could not exist. Along with this resignation came the pervasive loss of her real and vital self as well as loss of a secure and spontaneous personality. Twenty years after the traumatizing event, the subtle and hidden effects emerged. Nancy was in a crowded room taking the Graduate Records Examination when she went into a severe panic attack. Later, she developed agoraphobia (fear of leaving her house alone). The experience was so extreme and seemingly irrational that she knew she must seek help.
I now know that it was not the dramatic emotional catharsis and reliving of her childhood tonsillectomy that was catalytic in her recovery, but the discharge of energy she experienced when she flowed out of her passive, frozen immobility response into an active, successful escape”.
Nele Azevedo, “Ice People” (via http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/melting-masterpieces-impressive-works-of-art-made-from-snow-and-ice/272538/)
One of the most important findings of Levine, to my mind, is the necessity to empower the victims of trauma. Instead up of constant dredging up and reliving past emotional pain, which will lead to nothing else but further re-traumatizing, he teaches his patients that they are not helpless and the frozen energy can be recovered and used to their benefit. He asserts: “If we remain ignorant of our power to change the course of our instinctual responses in a proactive rather than reactive way, we will continue being imprisoned and in pain.” It is not possible to change past events but we can modify our present reactions. We need to engage our animal natures, our bodies, to get back with our primal and natural instincts in order to heal our traumas and retrieve our souls. Trauma can be a unique opportunity for healing and renewal, both on individual and collective levels. Levine calls a resolved trauma “a blessing from a greater power.” The world of trauma is the same world that brings joy and light.
Salvador Dali, “Birth of New Man”
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
Mark Jones, Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes
Peter A. Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma