Vol 1. Trauma and Waking Up
The “Zen Mind, Body Bind” series has three ideas in mind. It contributes to the ongoing exploration of the integration of the Mind/Body and Eastern/Western dichotomies; explores trauma as gateway to genuine spiritual liberation and; highlights the strengths and weaknesses of contemplative and therapeutic practices in the resolution and integration of traumatic experience…
For a variety reasons, I was and still am a very committed meditation practitioner. I ‘m fond of remembering the long periods over 7 years I practiced extensively in India and Thailand. I felt quite at home in monastic settings and I dedicated myself to the aspiration to achieve enlightenment, appreciating periods of austerity, meeting with teachers, living from a backpack. I had uncountable mysterious subtle body experiences and I most certainly have since weathered the standard pitfalls of spiritual bypassing and constructing a “spiritual ego” as part of my drive to discover- and avoid- the Truth more deeply!
One evening in India, in a public meeting with one of my teachers, I was guided to an experience quite different and in all ways beyond any of my subtle body experiences. Later that evening I was suddenly watching myself penetrate the universe, turn inside out and dissolve into infinite space. This was obviously very pleasant and liberating and as I look back, the awakening experience has shaped my life every day since. The following morning, the non-dual experience disappeared yet I noticed something very new; my reference point of “me” had expanded to include a fairly persistent awareness of infinite space.
Then things turned very hard. Three months later while in another retreat, I was suddenly overcome by immense terror. Sometimes it was so debilitating I thought I would lose my mind and go crazy. Evil was all around me. At times my body began shaking violently and I experienced periods of intense gagging. These symptoms collapsed into periods of numb dissociation and feelings of helplessness, and I wondered if I was dying. The infinite space I had been granted three months earlier appeared to merge with my dissociative states, which is to say I could not tell them apart with any sort of confidence. In retrospect, I believe the collapse of my ego structure from the awakening experience gave way to a whole constellation of unresolved trauma symptoms and I spent the next decade in a long and painful gauntlet of uncoupling dissociation from the liberation of Emptiness.
Meditation teachers have been traditionally grossly under equipped with interventions to allow the frozen energy of trauma to free itself through movement practices and encourage more sitting or “to just be aware”. This is not to say that this instruction is not partially true but western modalities have done much more sophisticated work to address trauma freeze states and dissociation with more efficiency than just sitting it out.
In the other extreme, therapists who may have done lots of personal work on themselves but little meditation do not have enough experience with emptiness to distinguish it from dissociation in themselves and others. For example, when clients experience a “blank”, therapists without this discernment may inaccurately detect dissociation or worse yet a “spiritual bypass” when in actuality they have robbed a client of liberation!
Finally, meditation practitioners who have tasted the freedom of emptiness but not yet stabilized it can spend years on the cushion ignoring the felt sense of their bodies and trick themselves into believing they are attaining spiritual progress. If this is not pointed out or discovered, it will often increase the mind/body split which is the opposite of enlightenment in all ways. As it has also been pointed out, dissociation can be used to “spiritually bypass” psychological structures and traumas which need to be attended to and integrated.
However, the reverse is true as well. We can spend years trying to "heal" ourselves of our trauma and never transcend our narrative, constantly rewriting our scripts into ever more "wholeness" but never drop the project while unwittingly building more refined psychological cages.
The pith is this: all of the “psychological work” we do to grow ourselves up may not do much to liberate ourselves from the whole construction of our egos and, similarly, countless hours in contemplative states practice may not do much to repair the deep wounds of our ego. Almost all of us tend to lean toward one pole or the other (Waking up or Growing Up) and it is essential that we take stock of ourselves as accurately as possible, lest we trick ourselves-genuine enlightenment & self actualization allude us.
If you are wanting to know more about a trauma sensitive approach to meditation I highly recommend this wonderful three part blog by Mark Foreman, PhD.
In the next article of this blog I will be exploring the foundations of debate between the trajectories of “Waking Up” to state experiences versus the process of “Growing up” into more mature stages of development. This is a new conversation- emerging from the past decade or so- and needs attention because having the two paths coupled together-even philosophically- is at the heart of where things can go very awry.