Vol 3. Trauma... Your story, not You
So the question framing this article is, “Who are you without your story?” According to trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk , “When people receive sensory input they generally automatically synthesize this incoming information into the large store of pre-existing information. If the event is personally significant they generally will transcribe these sensations into a narrative, without conscious awareness of the processes that translate sensory impressions into a personal story.” In a relative sense, this is what we call “normal”. Most of us, most of the time, call our memory “me” and if all goes well in terms of development we may be blessed with a cohesive sense of ego, and Grow Up through sequential stages in relative health.
Traumatic experience, on the other hand, disrupts linear memory and, hence, our sense of self in many ways. “Our research shows that in contrast with the way people seem to process ordinary information, traumatic experiences initially are imprinted as sensations or feeling states, and are not collated and transcribed into personal narratives” [my italics], says van der Kolk. Brain imaging studies reveal that traumatic memories often correlate with a deactivation of Broca’s area of the brain, responsible for speech. Language, which involves a capacity for symbolic processes and abstract reasoning, must be functioning in order to create a cohesive time bound sense of self and so traumatic memories- often experienced as heightened emotional states, strong somatic sensations and fragmented visual images- cause many to experience a bewildering break in the thread of the personal narrative. This is can be very unnerving.
A further challenge in “our traumatic story” is that we are often left in a wake of negative assumptions about ourselves, many of which may not even have words but are stored in our implicit memory. In the process of alleviating traumatic symptoms, many confront an overwhelming sense of helplessness, hopelessness, unworthiness, or powerlessness. For a hypothetical example, a baby abandoned at birth may have never been told she was worthless but the overwhelming fear of her survival imprinted in her nervous system could be coupled with an implicit or assumed belief system that she is somehow unlovable or flawed even though she did not have the developmental capacity to “think” this. If we were traumatized early in life such as in the example above, all further developmental levels may be tainted with these subtle assumptions of deficiency. So we become what we believe, both implicitly and explicitly and what we believe to be our story, becomes “me”.
Most of the psychological research about working with trauma reveals that body-centered approaches which include mindfulness, careful guidance to re-experience the traumatic material and bringing in positive resources while doing so are indicated. However, therapists and spiritual teachers alike need to be careful not to completely reject cognitive processes including intellectual understanding as part of treatment. In fact, a cognitive rewriting of our “stories” and our belief systems while understanding how we think can be tremendously valuable to our processes of both Growing Up and Waking Up.
Now let’s make an abrupt transition to the perspective of Waking up. Let’s take our question: “Who are you without your story?” as a present moment inquiry rather than a conceptual question. If I look from the surface, I can see that everything I experience could be called “my story”. Right now I hear a sound, presumably coming from overhead, a familiar “tweet” and almost simultaneously I like the sound, and an image in my mind forms of a bird, and then I remember it is supposed to be 70 degrees today and I love the springtime! This is “a story” of how normal memories and preferences combine with the present experience intersect to formulate “my story” in a relative sense. Then, going a little deeper, who am I without the extra layers (stories) I have added to the sound? With nothing extra added, I am simply the witness of the sound and even the witness of the idea of the bird, and the joy of springtime. And deeper still, even the witness is a very subtle story constructed as a way to manage and contain the vastness of “my experience”. Looking deeper still, no separation of sound or me, all one thing. There is no separation or sense of self, traumatized or otherwise. This is freedom from the self which does not rely on a past story or changing a thing in our experience.
So in light of this, why bother with resolving trauma? Why not just focus on Waking Up? From my own experience, having had profound insight into Waking Up many years ago, I can now see that returning to the worldly realms of consciousness I can see that my traumatic experience- a lens of powerlessness and hopelessness- caused me to doubt my insight entirely which condensed the vastness of freedom into a nihilistic, meaningless world of bleak mind states.
For myself and others doing the somatic and psychological and cognitive work to rewrite the script of our stories has been essential for Growing up and also has let the ego structure relax enough for deeper insight into Waking up. And indeed, one of the outcomes of resolving trauma is a sense of mastery, empowerment and worthiness that is essential for building true confidence in our own experience of being awake.
*I have referenced van der Kolk’s article below and his book “The Body Keeps The Score” is a must read for anyone seeking a cohesive framework for trauma exploration. However -just a warning- as is the case for almost all trauma research to date, he sadly does not say a word about Waking up and has limited his perspective to the Growing Up trajectory.
VAN DER KOLK, B. A. (1998), Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52: S52–S64. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1819.1998.0520s5S97.x