Personal Experience

Trauma and the Spiritual Journey

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 that are initiated by experiences of trauma.  As a result, many of these individuals 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 typically take place 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 trauma victims try to share the specifics and implications of their traumatic experience with others in the hope of having these experiences understood, normalized and, thus, folded back into a social fabric that has been temporarily torn and completely shattered.  Unfortunately, the majority of listeners have either been spared traumatic injures or are in denial about their impact on them.  As a result, most people are reluctant to step out of the status quo and acknowledge the reality of information and aspects of reality that have been exposed by another’s revelations.  The accounts of trauma victims are typically minimised, distorted or attacked by other people.  As a result, most victims end up feeling misunderstood and further traumatized by the reactions of others.  Estranged, many tend to move to the edge of their social groups and often begin to doubt the reality of their own experience.  Many become marginalized and addicted while others pass frequently through the doors of a psychiatric clinic, drug rehabilitation facility or a 12 – Step Group.  Others become mentally ill, chronically fearful and/or angry. Still other become revolutionaries and criminals.  In very rare cases, some become agents of change, social heroes and prophets.

Most failing to receive support attempt to edit and/or forget their traumatic experiences.  Various manoeuvres are used to medicate or silence disturbing remainders of these experiences, along with the profound questions they tend to generate for future ways of being-in-the-world.  Personalities and spiritualities are then built around the effects of an addiction and air-tight approach intellectual or spiritual approach to life that attempts to vanquish an ever present type of anxiety that threatens to unravel the ground upon which these individuals 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 and ontological issues, that have been temporarily exposed by their experiences of trauma.  Others seek spiritual practices that tend to reinforce the ego and its needs for self aggrandizement and control.  Processes of purgation or purification are feared and devalued due to the fact that they usually involve intense and prolonged periods of overwhelming pain and isolation.

 Some, after years of avoiding the implications of their traumatic injuries, seek help.  Spiritual direction is the choice of treatment for the existentially and spiritually inclined.  It recognises the spiritual, offers hope and rarely advocates the excavation of past traumatic material.  Many victims look to spiritualise the darker dimensions of their traumatic experience in the hopes of avoiding what they suggest about the malevolent aspects of humanity and the cosmos.  Most in spiritual direction fail to understand the function of suffering, especially in cultures that resist the humankind’s ontological lack of foundation. 

 Many spiritual directors do not understand the nature of Post Traumatic Stress nor what is behind its symptoms of intrusion (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, reliving experiences and panic attacks), as well as its denial  symptoms (e.g., depression, numbing, avoidance and various forms of magical thinking etc) that tend to regularly torment most victims of unresolved  trauma.  As a result, many caring professionals are unable to recognise that suffering involves an inability to expand images of self, other, world and God in view of information that has been revealed in and through experiences of trauma.  

Training in spiritual direction, as in psychotherapy, places little emphasis on the psychological impact of trauma, let alone the spiritual deepening that is required to heal most traumatic injuries.

 A brief description of the spiritual journey that victims of trauma are called to walk now follows.

Deconstruction

 Trauma has both a horizontal and vertical impact.  Horizontally, trauma deconstructs any map of external reality, belief system or mythic structure that is used to organize Reality.  This includes images of self, God and humanity, which can all be challenged or destroyed by a single traumatic event.  In essence, a victim’s version of reality, in the wake of a traumatic event, is typically under assault and/or is rapidly coming apart at the seams.  This horizontal process of de-construction can initiate 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 though it is usually taken to be so), undergoes a process of dis-integration.  Much of what has been considered an individual’s sense of self is in tatters.  This type of victim is forced to realize that intelligence, looks, money, degrees, racial privileges and religion (all of which are grounded in genetics and good fortune, and which make up most people’s sense of identity) have been unable to protect the individual from trauma’s deleterious effects.  

Many, during and in the wake of a traumatic event, are forced to confront their mortality, inherent vulnerability, personal limitations, dependency on others, lack of efficaciousness, powerlessness and the lack of substance that exists at the core of their being.  In many forms of abuse (i.e., human generated forms of trauma) victims are rendered to the status of a thing or object by another human being.  Being deprived of their subjectivity and basic humanity, as well as relegated to the status of a thing or an object, exposes these individuals to the precarious lack of internal substance and consistency that exists beneath what their egos have taken for granted and are able to identify with.  Fundamentally, trauma forces victims to confront the lack of epistemological and ontological foundation that underlies every facet of self and world.  

 Life is no longer experienced as certain or safe.  Personal insecurity (another effect of the vertical deconstruction mentioned above) is exposed. The “precariously established sense of personal unity”(Laing, 1961) that most humans depend upon has been disrupted and/or destroyed.  Personal integrity or unity often depends upon whether an individual has been recognized as a separate self at critical junctures in his/her psychosocial development, along with whether his/her posttraumatic in-sights into the nature of human identity, interpersonal relationships, social institutions and spiritual reality have been validated or not.  In essence, abuse (human generated trauma) is a terrible reminder that an individual’s felt sense of self relies upon how s/he has been and continues to be perceived, recognized and affirmed by others.  If the process of self consolidation, which is grounded in caring and consistent interactions with other human beings, has not occurred or not certain experiences of abuse and trauma have the capacity to undermine a part or all of the progress one has made in regard to generating a cohesive sense of self.   In essence, abuse has the power to reverse (especially at vulnerable times in personal development) the process of identity consolidation and, thus, return an individual to a state of collapse, fragmentation and nothingness.

The insubstantiality, existing at the core of individual’s being, is the place that every mystic tradition seeks.  In this space the ego has been stripped and repositioned in regard to the deeper Self.  Here the individual is forced to confront the ground of personal existence.  No victim of trauma is introduced to this space in a gradual fashion. In fact, some have never been allowed to develop an authentic or true sense of self with which they could stand in relation to the profound and groundless nature of individual consciousness and Reality.  The descent of a victim into this terrain is often sudden and brutal.  As a result, most stumble and many collapse.  Most find that they are lost and don’t know who or where they are.  

More tragically, many in the above predicament have great difficulty finding a healer who is familiar with the territory of the Self and who, thus, able to provide guidance and direction.  Rather than create a safe space in which a victim can walk around in the charred remains of his/her former ways or organizing self, world and God – s/he is encouraged to return to the functional demands of the ego and social world.  Opportunities for depth conversion and rebirth are often lost, in these instances, forever.

As a result many wander from healer to healer trying to articulate and give form to a profound movement that is taking place in the depth of their being that will not let them rest until it is have been obeyed and embraced.  Having “eaten from the fruit of knowledge” such individuals will not discover peace until permanent contact with the transpersonal dimensions of their being has been made.

Every attempt to get back into the collective box (social worldview), which comprised the “pretraumatized world,” usually leads to an increase in psychological and physical symptoms, as well as a great deal of spiritual distress.  Suffering is a continual reminder that an individual has experienced more of reality than was previously acknowledged.  In others words, suffering occurs when partial renditions of self and life collide with reality.

Many spiritual practices advocate a variety of techniques, such as wearing simple clothing, shaving one’s head and meditating for a long period at a time. All of these practices are done in the service of trying to dis-identify with the social persona or ego, while simultaneously calming the restless mind so as to make contact with the transcendental dimensions of self and consciousness.

Traumatic experiences thrust victims into this space against their will.  As a result, they have to negotiate the territories exposed by their experiences of trauma or be overcome by them.  Without proper guidance their chances of surviving such encounters is severely limited. 

Trauma as an Experience of Conversion

Many have found the spiritual path as a result of traumatic experience.  Francis’s imprisonment, respiratory illness and sharing the fate of his disempowered colleagues (in a Perugian prison); De Chardin’s experiences as a stretcher bearer in World War I, Ignatius’s long convalescence in a military field station (as a result of having his knee-cap blown off in a military battle), John of God’s having been tortured in a mental hospital after undergoing a religious experience, John of the Cross’s kidnapping and imprisonment by his religious brothers, Theresa of Liseaux’s losing all of her maternal caregivers, having a father go insane and contracting tuberculoses  (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 poverty and disease, along with Mandala’s 27 years in prison are just a few examples of individuals, who as a result of being traumatized, were stripped of their egocentricity and naive approaches to life and, thus, allowed to make contact with the Self and the Spirit.  

The most predominant image of a trauma victim, in Western consciousness, is the life of Jesus Christ. He had a price on his head as a child, was a refugee for the first few years of his life, 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 way of the wound that every human is required to walk.   Traumatic experiences are not just bad luck!  Christ came to show humans the way through the ego to the Self to the Spirit.

Traumatic events have the power to 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 can be deprived of whatever that consider to be sacred or have used to build a semblance of self, order and world.  Traumatic events forces individuals to let go of everything they have used to insulate and protect themselves from the realization that nothing is stable or secure and that they are nothing unto themselves, ie., unless connected to the deeper Self, Spirit and all other forms of life.

This path of conversion has been lost to the contemporary healer.  S/he is no longer required, as a shamans once was to experience and endure his own dismemberment and rebirth.  As a result, many contemporary healers unwittingly encourage their clients or directees to return to styles of living in which the ego’s need for centrality and control continues to dominate.

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 negotiates a gauntlet of social cruelty, ignorance and isolation. These are just a few challenges that every victim of trauma has to meet.  The tormenting sense of anxiety and confusion that is experienced by most victims of trauma and abuse is typically the result of having been cracked opened by Life, exposed to the nothingness of Self and World and being unable to find any kind of help that could tell one how to proceed.

Conclusion

The path of healing, for most victims of trauma, will be long, fraught with danger and uncertain.   Spiritual directors must realise that something profound has shifted in the foundation of a traumatized consciousness.  Until such a shift has been understood and a map provided, one is doomed to wander from one form of treatment/spiritual direction and addiction to another in an attempt to silence a call that demands divesting oneself of anything that separates him/her from the Self and Spirit.

References

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry (DSM-IV), American Psychiatry Association, Washington, D.C., 1994

Grant, Robert    The Way of the Wound (A Spirituality of Trauma and

 Transformation), PO Box 504, Burlingame, California, 1998

Laing, R.D.  Self and Others, Pantheon Books, New York, 1961

 Robert Grant Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, consultant and trainer to business, religious, medical, military, relief and missionary organizations. He works at home and abroad in the areas of trauma, spirituality and cross-cultural issues.  

As a psychologist he has gone into war zones and natural disasters to support and treat victims, as well as, professionals (working on site with victims of trauma).  He has assessed/treated over 1000 victims of trauma over a twelve-year period and trained over 3000 professionals around the world to work with victims of trauma. 

He is author of Healing the Soul of the Church (Ministers Facing Their Histories of Abuse and Trauma) 1994, The Way of the Wound (A Spirituality of Trauma and Transformation) 1998, Living and Working in Environments of Violence (A Resource Manual for Humanitarian Workers) 2000, A Comprehensive and Integrative Approach to the Diagnosis and Treatment of Trauma (A Handbook for Therapists, Physicians and Pastoral Counselors) 2002, A Healing Response to Terrorism (A Handbook for Psychological and Spiritual First Responders 2004 and Vicarious Trauma (A Self-Care Handbook for Professionals Working with Victims of Trauma) 2006.  

He can be reached at P.O. Box 18723, Oakland, California 94619 or rw_grant@hotmail.com. He also has a blog at http://in-sighttherapy.blogspot.com/2013/06/trauma-and-spiritual-journey.html

 

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