On trauma, simplicity, art, healing, and love

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A useful practice for living into new stories is to pay attention to themes or patterns that show up, especially coming from different directions and sources. Lately, I’ve been encountering the theme of healing trauma — in podcasts, conversations with friends, dreams, memories, and articles. It started with Bessel van der Kolk’s interview on “On Being,” describing his research into using yoga to train and improve people’s “heart rate variability,” which greatly improves resilience in the face of trauma. This work is groundbreaking in treating PTSD.

In a webinar I watched yesterday, he spoke about how profoundly interconnected we are as a species, that emotions ripple between us and into our bodies whether we’re aware of it or not. He showed two slides of a mother and baby monkey. In the first, both mother and baby are calm. In the second, the mother is agitated and screeching, the baby looks terrified and stressed out. I found myself thinking of my own childhood, steeping in my mother’s anxiety, depression, and (as the psychologists call it) hyper-arousal.

No wonder I can have a hair-trigger for anger, and have had bouts of anxiousness and depression my whole life. At some point, a therapist labeled me a trauma victim, which I found repellant. I was never abused, never in a violent car crash, had only the usual illnesses. But on some level, it makes sense: my childhood was a “normal,” average — even mild — experience, yet it was suspended within the damaging stories of our culture at large.

True, this is a lens through which I see the world, but as animals, we all experience trauma as a natural reaction to the stress of separation, the violence of competition, and the story of scarcity. Add to that, perhaps unique to the human species, the effects of a depressing insistence on the material and denial of the spiritual, and it’s not a happy recipe.

Not to mention a general tendency to focus on the negative in any situation, which only brings more of the same. And a reliance on experts to help in every arena: doctors, police, lawyers, pharmacists. We have no idea of our own true power, nor of its source, ready to hand if only someone gave us a key.

Trauma could indeed be a current meme, a buzz word referring to our general hyper-aroused emotional state. Overuse of “trauma” as a diagnosis for all of society’s ills runs close to trivializing it. I certainly have never been a victim of violence, nor been in a firefight in Iraq, nor seen my buddies’ limbs blown off. Dr. van der Kolk observes that trauma is getting stuck in avoidance or escape. If that’s not an accurate description of our culture, I don’t know what is.

Turning to a bright vision of a desired future runs the risk of being crushed under the old story that nothing can be that simple. It’s labeled as naïve, wishful thinking to learn to focus on the breath, do yoga, take a shamanic journey to the spirit world, perform ceremony to call in healing energy, connect with the animate world through attention to the senses. This runs so counter to everything our culture values and gives attention to: experts arguing point/counterpoint, senators voting for the Keystone XL then telling bald-faced lies about its benefits, drug companies influencing health care policy to keep prices high, the Koch Brothers spending close to a billion dollars to buy the next election. It’s all so cynical and hopeless.

Everything seems to be made as complicated as possible so that no one can hope to understand or influence it. It’s luciferian brilliance keeping us tied up in our own bullshit, trying to extricate ourselves using the same strategies and thinking that got us here. A classic example of the Chinese finger trap. As usual, Einstein is a great help here:

“Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

“Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Meanwhile, I keep seeing connections all around: the New Day Campaign, Bessel van der Kolk’s work, art, music, movement, yoga. The surprising observation that art comes from the same place as addiction. The trauma that we are all bathing in — some worse than others, yes. All the kids who are on the spectrum, or doped up on medication, showing us the utter inadequacy and destructiveness of the old story, and the urgency to turn in a new direction.

“You probably remember: in the nineties everyone wanted to be a shaman, now they all want to be farmers. This is a very good trade in my opinion. Immeasurably more healthy, more real, visceral and properly more spiritual. I can’t stress enough the wisdom in losing our seduction to be the one wielding the rattle. (other than little babies of course, which is a scary analogy for the west).” ~ Martin Shaw, storyteller

To that I would say, maybe our farmers are our shamans, in touch with the spirits of plants and the earth herself. As are our artists. And we are all of that — farmers, gardeners, artists. We get our hands dirty, we create out of the raw materials of life, invoking the aid and inspiration of spirits and ancestors, of guides. We are guides ourselves, and wanderers. Pilgrims and sages. Children and wise elders.

“Inspiration” is divine breath, as “enthusiasm” means to be filled with God. There is a way to a new future. There are myriad ways and we are all finding them, bumping into each other, paths criss-crossing in the forest.

“Well met, dear stranger, well met.”

“Here is a token for you to carry as you go, a stone from the forest floor, a travelling companion. Go with God and with my blessings.”

“Thank you for all you are doing to heal yourself and this world.”

Be in love with it all. Be love as you journey. Love will save us all. It is the only thing that can.

3 thoughts on “On trauma, simplicity, art, healing, and love

  1. No doubt, if one is able to come from love, to see things through a filter of love, to give and receive love, the world would be so very different, so much kinder and more balanced. A challenge worth taking on, knowing it is something that takes time and commitment to cultivate, as it’s not easy to do. It takes practice, like cultivating gratitude. Yet what could be more worthy than to dedicate oneself to the practice of coming from love?

  2. Exactly. It’s a bit of a paradox, since to give love we must love ourselves. And trauma creates a state of avoidance – of others and of ourselves. How, then, to reconnect? Maybe it’s like that quote about peace – there is no way to love; love is the way. Just attended a presentation on animals and healing trauma. Will likely write about it soon. Thanks, Lisa!

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