A few weeks ago, my mother, who had just received her second COVID vaccination, came over the pick up my dogs for the weekend. As mental health worker, I’d also been recently vaccinated, although my life hasn’t changed much since then; I still rarely leave my house except to go grocery shopping. Before she arrived, she sent me a text asking if she could have a hug when she arrived. It would have been the first time we had touched in over a year.
As soon as I saw her text message, however, I felt my heart drop. My body tensed and I felt slightly panicky. I sent her a text back, making some excuse that she needed to wait longer after her second vaccine before we could hug. But in reality, I just wasn’t ready.
What is trauma?
While our work over the last year during the pandemic has been to acclimate to solitude, uncertainty, grief, and social upheaval, I suspect much of our work in the upcoming years will be processing trauma. A “traumatic event” is one that overwhelms our system’s ability to cope. A defining feature of trauma is that the event cannot be integrated in memory; it cannot be processed cognitively. In some cases, it literally cannot be spoken, because there are no words. That is the nature of trauma. This is why people will often use phrases like “unimaginable” or “unspeakable” to describe great tragedies. The events cannot be articulated.
The evidence that trauma has occurred will show itself to us in our bodies, either in the presence of PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance, anger, and shame, or in the absence of language and the ability to be in the present moment (dissociation). Trauma “speaks” not through words or ideas, but through the language of the body and somatic reactions.
A traumatic response becomes maladaptive only when it no longer helps us survive. Powered by the autonomic nervous system, fight, flight and freeze reactions are adaptive and serve a useful function; they are our system’s best attempt at survival in situations where we our powerless. Since March 2020, our nervous system has learned to associate physical contact, intimacy, people without masks, and crowds with danger and death. Our adaptive responses (to “freeze” and stay home or fly, i.e run away from danger) have helped us survive the last year. But what happens in our bodies when the danger is removed? Why do we continue to feel like we are in danger?
In Kakfa’s story The Hunger Artist, a man gains fame and fortune by publicly fasting. He locks himself in a cage and allows people to watch and monitor him as he refuses food. When society changes and fasting goes out of fashion, however, he continues to fast and seek recognition for his self-control. He cannot find a new profession or new way of being. On the brink of death, he admits that he fasts because he actually does not like food. At a time when our own society is shifting, this story to me is an eerie admonishment to be aware of the cages we make for ourselves, a reminder of how habits can be tragically impossible to change.
Traumatic events disrupt the functioning of the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for storing memory. A professor in graduate school explained it to me this way: if we are violently assaulted by sheep, our brains become overwhelmed with a stress hormone that disrupts the ability of the brain to store and process memory in the moment. After this event, because our brain has not stored the memory of “sheep” correctly, we will come to associate “puffy and white” with danger. Even though we were initially assaulted by sheep, our brains now believe that white clouds, cotton candy, and cotton balls are dangerous and will trigger feelings of fear, panic, or shutting down. Similarly, becoming vaccinated does not flip a switch and undo the stress of being constantly overwhelmed with fear that we may inadvertently contract COVID and die, or potentially give COVID to a loved one. Our bodies have already learned that physical contact with loved ones, crowds, etc., mean danger. Even when danger has passed, we will have a long road ahead of us to teach our body safety again. We will have to teach ourselves that “clouds” are safe.
What is being trauma-informed?
Within the therapeutic community, being “trauma informed” usually means that a therapist acknowledges the inevitability of trauma impacting the body. A trauma informed therapist prioritizes clients’ autonomy, and encourages clients’ innate strength and resiliency by viewing the client as the authority on their own experience, and cultivates interpersonal safety. A foundation of being trauma informed is valuing and encouraging choice. This choice can mean having choice over where to direct attention and awareness, what to do with ones body, what to talk about in session, etc. Choice is so important in the treatment of trauma because it is the opposite of powerlessness, the main experience of trauma. For many people, choice is also necessary to create and maintain a sense of safety. Treating trauma is creating safety, and choice is a prerequisite to safety.
As a Zen priest and therapist in training, I often struggle to integrate my understandings of being trauma informed with my spiritual training. I was trained in a Japanese lineage that valued group harmony, humility, and selflessness more than agency and choice. This in part reflects the Japanese value of harmony, or wah (和), a value so integral to Japanese national identity that the character is sometimes synonymous with “Japan” itself, for example in the word for Japanese food, “wah-shoku” (和食). My monastic training was incredibly strict, and we were constantly encouraged to examine our own selfishness and the ways we were attached to our own identities, needs, and desires. The most clear example of this is the common injunction to “follow the schedule,” to take up work and community activities regardless of personal preference. Over and over I was told to “forget myself.” And of course, the religious emphasis on selflessness transcends Japanese monasticism. Letting go of the rigid hold on our sense of self is a theme that exists across religious traditions, for example in the poetry of Sufi and Catholic saints.
It’s worth mentioning that my experiences are extreme. Zen practice emphasizes form more than other traditions, and the training I received was particularly strict. In the past few decades, especially in the West, Buddhist teachers have made progress in introducing “trauma informed” sensibilities to our communities. Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, by David Treleaven, is one good resource to start thinking about how to bring choice and agency to meditation practice. And Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens has written extensively on working with the trauma of slavery and police brutality on the black body.
Still, a value of selflessness and transcendence underlies most Buddhist traditions, and I think we have a long way to go; despite my training as a therapist, I can feel the resistance to being trauma-informed quite strongly in myself. A few months ago in my counseling psychology graduate course, some students said that they were “triggered” by the teacher’s requirement that they turn their cameras on during class. Hearing my peers express their desire for choice and agency, I was immediately enraged. For days I sat quietly seething, hurling silent insults at them of being selfish, immature, and unprofessional. Only now can I see that what was stirred up for me was a recognition of how I have not been able to integrate the two seemingly contradictory values of choice, on the one hand, and the spiritual value of selflessness within my own life.
Like many Buddhist practitioners, I suspect, I am deeply averse to and wary of my own needs; some part of myself thinks that if I allow myself to need and want, this will overwhelm everything. For a long time, Buddhism functioned in my life as a way to cut off or extinguish my desires and needs (unsuccessfully!). Now I am clear that I want a spiritual practice that encourages me to be larger than my narrow sense of self, and that is also trauma informed. Conversely, I want to be in trauma informed spaces that prioritizes the health and functioning of the collective, or group, in addition to individual needs. This is a challenging balance to achieve.
Inviting in the dharma
In order for Buddhist communities and Buddhist practice to meet the needs of people in the coming years, I believe we need to continue developing and deepening our trauma-informed ways of practicing together. As vaccines become more widespread and we eventually shift to being together in person, we will need to go slow and be patient with ourselves and each other. We will need to really look at how we have been traumatized by the last year during the pandemic as well as by the ongoing violence that occurs within American society: the trauma of racial and gender violence, the trauma of poverty and displacement, the trauma of isolation, the trauma of facing climate disaster, and the pervasive, senseless violence of mass-shootings.
Some simple ways to do this is by using invitational language. We can “invite” people to chant or meditate, rather than requiring it. The Buddha himself gave choices! He reminds us that we can meditate either sitting, standing, walking or lying down. We too can offer choices: eyes open or closed, for example, or a choice between two different work assignments. If the suggestion to use invitational language brings up anger and resistance, or if you believe this is too “soft,” I invite you to examine why that might be coming up for you. What is your own relationship to power, force, discipline, allowing, gentleness, and endurance? Where did you learn that spiritual practice needs to be forced? What is your body saying?
Now more than ever, we need more intimacy with ourselves, not less, and a non-judgmental way to hold everything that is occurring within us. We need to be okay with taking breaks, with opening our eyes and moving rather than sitting still, if that’s what the body needs to feel safe. We need to encourage ourselves not to shy away from anger and desire, to really listen to what the body is communicating. The body does speak to us; it will tell us what we are missing, what we need, what we will and won’t accept, what is too much and not enough. And even the silences, the wordlessness of trauma can teach us something too, if we are patient, if we are willing to learn its silent language.