by Robert Grant Ph.D.
Impact of Trauma
Many victims of child abuse, domestic violence, rape, violent crime, war, vehicular accidents and traumatic loss do not find what they are searching for in psychotherapy. Most are unable to resolve the profound spiritual struggles initiated by experiences of trauma. As a result they often end up in spiritual direction.
By definition trauma is “an overwhelming life event that renders one helpless and/or fearing for his/her life.” “Trauma overwhelms abilities to cope” and is “outside the range of normal experience (DSM-IV, 1994).” Traumatic experiences exist beyond the parameters of “collective consciousness.” They throw into question or destroy beliefs about self, God and humanity acquired from parents, school, religion and culture.
Most victims try to share the nature and implications of their traumatic experiences with others in the hope of having their experiences understood, normalised and thus folded back into a social fabric that has been temporarily breached. Unfortunately, the majority of listeners have either been spared traumatic injures or are in denial about their existence. They are reluctant to step out of the status quo and acknowledge the reality of life-truths exposed by a victim’s revelations. The accounts of victims are typically minimised, distorted or attacked. Victims end up feeling misunderstood and further traumatized. Estranged they move to the edge of their social group and often begin to doubt the reality of their own experience. Some become marginalised and addicted while others pass frequently through the doors of psychiatric facilities. Others become revolutionaries and criminals. In rare cases, some become agents of change and prophets.
Most failing to receive support try to forget their traumas. Various manoeuvres are used to medicate or silence disturbing remainders of trauma, along with the profound questions they generate for future living. Personalities and spiritualities are then built around addictions and air-tight approaches to life that attempt to vanquish an everpresent anxiety that threatens to unravel the ground upon which they stand. Mystery and ambiguity are feared and avoided at all costs.
Fundamentalist approaches to religion may be chosen in the hope
of finding black and white solutions to complex and uncertain existential issues temporarily exposed by their experiences of trauma. Others seek spiritual practices that reinforce the ego and its needs for control. Processes of purgation or purification are feared and devalued.
Some, after years of avoiding the implications of their traumatic injuries, seek help. Spiritual direction is often the treatment of choice. It recognises the spiritual, offers hope and rarely advocates the excavation of a traumatic past. Many victims look to spiritualise the darker dimensions of their traumas in the hope of alleviating the fear and pain that permeates their existence. A failure to understand the function of suffering is one effect of a culture that resists the spiritual.
Many spiritual directors do not understand the nature of Post Traumatic Stress nor what is behind the symptoms of intrusion (flashbacks, nightmares, reliving experiences, panic attacks etc) and denial (depression, numbing, avoidance and magical thinking etc) that torment victims on a regular basis. As a result these caring professionals are unable to recognise that suffering involves an inability to expand images of self, other and God in view of the truths revealed by experiences of trauma.
Training in spiritual direction, as in psychotherapy, places little emphasis on the psychological impact of trauma, let alone the spiritual deepening required to heal traumatic injuries.
A brief description of the spiritual journey that victims of trauma are called to walk now follows.*
Trauma has a horizontal and vertical impact. Horizontally, trauma deconstructs any map, belief system or mythic structure used to organize reality. Images of self, God and humanity are challenged or destroyed. In essence, a victim’s version of reality is under assault or rapidly coming apart at the seams. This horizontal process of stripping initiates a similar process in the vertical direction.
The ego or social self, which is an accumulation of parental and social conditioning (is not the true self even thought it is taken to be), undergoes a process of deconstruction. Much of what has been considered one’s sense of self is in ruins. Victims are forced to realize that intelligence, looks, money, degrees, racial privilidges and religion (all grounded in genetics and good fortune, and which make up most ego-identities) have been unable to protect them from the impact of trauma. Many are forced to confront their mortality, inherent vulnerability, personal limitations, dependency on others, powerlessness and lack of substance existing at the core of their being. In many forms of abuse (human generated trauma) victims are rendered to the status of a thing or object by another human being. Deprived of their subjectivity or basic humanity, relegated to the status of an object or a non-entity, exposes victim’s to the precarious sense of internal consistency existing beneath what the ego can identify with. Trauma forces victims to confront a lack of ontological security (an effect of the horizontal deconstruction mentioned above).
*for a thorough analysis of the spiritual journey initiated by experiences of trauma please refer to “The Way of the Wound: A Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation(Grant, 1997).”
Life is not longer certain or safe. A personal insecurity (an effect of the vertical deconstruction mentioned above) is also exposed, that is, the “precariously established sense of personal unity”(Laing, 1961) that most human beings live with. Personal integrity or unity depends upon whether one has been recognised as a separate self at critical junctures in his/her development. In essence, abuse (human generated trauma) is a terrible reminder that one’s embodied or felt sense of self relies upon how one has been and continues to be treated by others. If the process of self consolidation, which is grounded in caring and consistent interactions with others who have confirmed one’s true self, did not occur then abuse has the capacity to undermine or unravel a degree or all of the progress one has been able to generate in regard to a cohesive sense of self. In essence, abuse has the power to reverse (especially at vulnerable times in one’s development) the process of identity consolidation and thus return one to a state of collapse or fragmentation.
The insubstantiality, existing at the core of one’s being, is the place that all mystical traditions seek. In this space the ego has been stripped and repositioned in regard to the soul or Deeper Self. Here one is forced to confront the ground of his/her existence. Victims of trauma are not introduced to this space gradually. In fact, some have never been allowed to develop a sense of self or ego with which to stand in relation to this profound and less structured ground of consciousness. The descent of victims into this terrain is often sudden and brutal. As a result, most stumble and many collapse. They are often lost and not knowing who they are.
More tragically many in this predicament have difficulty finding healers familiar with this territory and who can provide direction. Rather than create safe spaces in which victims can walk around in the charred remains of their former ways or organising self, “world” and God and thus expand, on all levels of their being, their capacity to embrace Creation they are encouraged to return to the functional demands of the social world. Opportunities for depth conversion and rebirth are often lost forever.
As a result many wander from healer to healer trying to articulate and give form to a profound movement transpiring in the depth of their being that will not let them rest until it is embraced and obeyed. Having “eaten from the fruit of knowledge” they will not discover peace until permanent contact with the transpersonal dimensions of their being have been made.
Every attempt to get back into the collective box that made up the “pretraumatized world” leads to an increase in psychological symptoms and spiritual suffering. Suffering is a continual reminder that they have experienced more of reality than was previously acknowledged. In others words, suffering is when partial renditions of life or illusions collide with reality.
Many spiritual practices advocate certain techniques, such as wearing simple clothing, shaving heads and meditating for long periods at a time are all in the service of disidentifying with the social persona or ego while simultaneously calming the restless mind in order to make contact with the transcendental core of consciousness.
Trauma thrust victims into this space against their will. They must negotiate the territories exposed by trauma or be overcome by them. Without proper guidance their chances of surviving this encounter are severely limited.
Trauma as Experiences of Conversion
Many have found the spiritual path as a result of trauma. Francis’s imprisonment, respiratory illness and sharing the fate of the disempowered in a Perugian prison; De Chardin’s WWI experiences as a stretcher bearer, Ignatius long convalescence in a hospital as a result of having his knee-cap blown off in a war, John of God’s having been tortured in a mental hospital after undergoing a religious experience, John of the Cross’s kidnapping by confreres and torture in prison, Theresa of Liseaux’s losing all of her maternal caregivers, having a father go insane and contracting tuberculous all before the age of 22, Gandhi’s being thrown off a South African train because of his skin color, Buddha’s wandering outside the protective walls of his father’s castle and encountering a beggar, along with Mandala’s 27 years in prison are just a few examples of individuals, who as a result of being traumatised were stripped of their egocentricity and naive approaches to life and thus allowed to encounter the Spirit existing at the center of their being.
The predominant image of trauma in Western consciousness is the life of Christ. He had a price on his head as a child, was a refugee, was repeatedly betrayed by friends, continually fled from people trying to kill him, was publicly humiliated, scourged and crucified. All these experiences qualified him as a trauma victim of major proportion. His life was an example of how to take up the path that all are required to walk. Traumas are not just bad luck! Christ come to show us that the Way of the Wound is the way through the ego to the Spirit.
Trauma thrust victims onto a path that saints, shamans and mythic heroes have been walking for thousands of years. Trauma is a contemporary form of spiritual initiation in which victims are deprived of all that is considered sacred. Trauma forces victims to let go of all they has been used to insulate and protect them from the realisation that they are nothing unto themselves, ie., unless connected to their soul, God and others.
This path of conversion has been lost to contemporary healers. They are no longer required, as shamans once were to experience and endure their own dismemberment and rebirth. As a result, many contemporary healers unwittingly encourage clients to return to styles of life in which the ego’s need for centrality and control proliferates.
The challenge is to learn the lessons of one’s wounds, let go of partial approaches to life (the Spirit is intolerant of partiality) and not harden one’s heart as s/he is required to negotiate a gauntlet of social cruelty, ignorance and isolation. These are just a few challenges that every victim of trauma must meet. The tormenting restlessness and anxiety experienced by victims is the result of having been cracked opened by the Spirit and not knowing how to proceed.
The path of healing, for victims of trauma is long, fraught with danger and uncertain. Spiritual directors must realise that something profound has shifted in the consciousness of victims. Until this shift is understood and a map provided - victims are doomed to wander from one form of treatment and addiction to another in an attempt to silence a call that demands divesting oneself of anything that separates him/her from the Spirit.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry (DSM-IV), American Psychiatry Association, Washington, D.C., 1994
Grant, R. (1998). The Way of the Wound (A Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation), PO Box 504, Burlingame, California.
Laing, R.D. (1961). Self and Others. Pantheon Books, New York.