I ended my last piece on trauma by saying that it’s never too late to untangle us from ancient, twisted, karmic knots that exist in our body/mind. Psychologists suggest that we all need adequate nurturing, protecting, initiating, and empowering, to do this successfully. If we didn’t get this as kids, we can create or move into an environment in which we can get this now.
Nurturing And Protecting
Did one or both of our parents celebrate our birth and support us and nurture us when we were growing up? If not, we may have not developed a sense of self-worth, which includes the capacity to experience joy in our selves and others. But its never too late to see through the superficiality of whatever story we are telling ourselves about being stuck or permanently damaged by our past. The first treasure in Buddhist teaching is Buddha, and by Buddha we don’t mean some perfect being, we mean a spiritual friend/teacher who will both nurture us and protect us. He or she does this by being available to listen to us and support us as we engage in serious meditation practice.
Although my own teacher did not generally offer to hear my problems, I sensed that he was continually in the background cheering me on and offering me protection from my own worst impulses. When he noticed that I was being seduced by another teacher who was offering me all kinds of promises of ego death and enlightenment, he merely said, “you have a great treasure. Someone may try to take it from you. Don’t let anyone take it from you.” He was reminding me of my own still, quiescent Buddha nature, which is the ultimate protector of a Zen practitioner, whether she knows it or not! Regardless of what happened to us as kids, through our meditation we can tap into a feeling of intrinsic safeness, referred to in Buddhist teaching as Trust in Heart/Mind.
In your meditation a memory of some traumatic event or environment, may surface at any time. That’s fine. All you need to do is note the feelings, the thoughts swirling around them, and keep returning to you breathing and other bodily sensations until the former fall away- and they will.
There’s no magic bullet here. We just open up to whatever comes up (sometimes nothing at all) until our obsessive feelings and thoughts lose their intensity. And if the inner tyrant starts taking over by trashing us, then a few repetitions of, “May I be safe, may I be protected, may I feel love…” can help turning this negativity around.
Initiating is a process of leaving home. A key component is realizing that we each are a valuable and welcome member of a larger community that includes both the human and natural world. If things go well, a mother does this with her daughter by welcoming her into womanhood and a father does this with his son.
Initation may include a formal ritual or it may just involve behavioral role modeling. But when it doesn’t happen, we generally remain enmeshed in our own family or cut off from them completely. Or we may substitute a false initiation, like joining a gang, doing drugs, or embracing fundamentalism. When choosing a spiritual teacher, we may want to ask whether she creates an impression that she has superior understanding and we should surrender to her. We should ask ourselves whether a specific initiation inhibits or enhances our ability to move on to genuine self-empowerment.
Indigenous communities all had initiation rituals. I have been initiating folks into Zen Buddhism for many years. A key component of this is “home leaving”, a metaphor for breaking out of the confines of your own protective shell to commit to opening to genuine self-empowerment. Two main components of this are sewing a mini-version of a Buddhist robe and being given a name by your teacher.
As we begin to feel nurtured by a spiritual friend and if we are fortunate, have been through a positive process of initiation, we begin to feel more empowered.
Our mother or father may or may not have empowered us. A good teacher will, however. She will applaud us when we make effort in our meditation, and fully accept us regardless of how many times we screw up. She will even be happy when her student equals or passes her in their “enlightened” activity. I call this “turtle practice” because the process of dis-identifying with internal negativity is very gradual. But sooner or later each of us can settle into a happiness that is not dependent on conditions.
Wisdom comes from having to cope with difficulty. Rather than viewing our trauma negatively, it can give us the motivation to stretch our heart/mind and we realize that deep happiness is not dependent on the external conditions of present, past, or future. Each of us has the capacity to embrace whatever wound we have so it becomes a doorway to great awakening.
I want to discuss how to understand and work with our inadequacies. Dogen says, “A greatly enlightened person is nevertheless deluded. To understand that is the quintessence of practice.”
This reminds me of an experience I had with my acting teacher in college. I told him that I was frustrated playing the despicable character parts he was giving me. He said, “Tim, I thought you were a spiritual seeker. Don’t you realize that you can never really achieve liberation until you have explored the deepest and darkest recesses of your being?”
The paradigm of the wounded healer has made good sense to me for years. This is a time in our history when many, many people are uncovering and becoming aware of hidden trauma. And we all have karma knots from our past that we can release.
Through our meditation practice we can gradually experience an unwinding that allows whatever difficult experience we have to complete itself. We don’t know exactly how this post-traumatic growth happens. And we don’t need to know. All we have to do is trust the process of non-judgmental awareness within our meditation.
None of us had perfect parents. They may have been absent or overbearing or inappropriate in some other kind of way. My mother doted on me, but I realize that I experienced secondary trauma, as I watched helplessly as she punished my sisters. (What was called “corporal punishment” many years ago would often be called abuse in our modern vernacular).
Childhood trauma leaves a scar or weakness in our body or emotions. If you don’t acknowledge and make peace with it we may stay caught forever. But during our meditation it’s possible to open up to any and all thoughts and feelings about an injury from our past. We can develop a new relationship with it and find inspiration from the unwinding of the knot that holds it in place.
In both daily and extended meditation, you may learn to notice those times you find yourself caught in clinging to certain constellations of thoughts and/or pushing others away. If we can be with this urge to push or pull with openness and compassion, our heart softens, we are able to open to deeper levels of awareness and the healing process happens quite naturally. And little by little we become less reactive and more flexible.
When a trauma first presents itself, your feelings may not be at all clear. But luckily all emotions are felt in the body, so if you stay with your sensations, not your old stories or your interpretation of how your childhood was supposed to be, the knots from the past begin to untangle.
Opening up to the pain of our wounds hurts, but its completely necessary if we want to make more than superficial progress in our meditation practice.
The dharma teacher Phillip Moffitt suggests that there a three factors which impact our effectiveness in dealing with trauma: first, its severity; second, the context of the wound; third, whether the trauma leads to strength and wholeness is entirely dependent on how it is handled.
You might even ask yourself whether the wounds of your friends make them any less attractive? I am inspired any time a student or friend handles theirs courageously. Its such a simple process making them the object of our bare awareness process, throwing in a little of loving kindness when we begin to come down on ourselves for the toxic thoughts and feelings which come up and stick around. But it’s never too late to untangle ourselves from ancient, twisted, karmic knots which exist in our body/mind.
Teachers in the Buddhist Yogacara tradition explain that there is a storehouse consciousness, the 8th level of consciousness, which is a repository of all our memories. Like the Western unconscious, this is a subjective phenomenon that colors everything we do. If ten people look at a cloud, they will likely see entirely different formations- a head, a sword, a cup, or whatever.
This storehouse consciousness is the deepest level of consciousness. The level just above it is ego-consciousness. “This is me. This is mine. This is not mine.” This is belief in a self, which is distinguished from others. Ego consciousness keeps a tight grip on the storehouse, not letting into awareness anything that might be threatening. It stores seeds from previous experience within in it.
Whenever we have an emotionally charged experience, that experience produces a perfume that coagulates into a seed. If an older sibling terrorized you when you were a kid, many years later you may have an encounter with someone who reminds you of him in some way. The seed, which has been in your storehouse all these years, causes this projection. Yogacara teachers suggest that our lives are often nothing more than a rushing waterfall of experience, perfume, seeds, experience, perfume, seeds, ad infinitum. When this happens, we experience very little satisfaction in our lives, since we are driven by these projections. Fortunately, in addition to unwholesome seeds per above, our storehouse also contains wholesome seeds based on positive experiences from the past.
There are two complementary practices which Yogacara teaching focuses on to liberate us from these negative projections.
First, we can introduce more wholesome seeds into our storehouse, through positive intentions and actions. The practice of the paramitas that I talked about in recent posts is an excellent way to do this. We have opportunities every day to practice the first three paramitas of patience, generosity, and morality. In my last piece I talked about a woman who set me off because she had certain similarities to my mother. I had an opportunity to practice generosity each time, noticing when I was being triggered and reminding myself, “Kay is not my mother and she is having a hard time.”
Second, though our meditative awareness, we begin to see through the false self or limited ego and get glimpses of our still nature (or Buddha nature), which is at the base of the storehouse. As these glimpses grow, the rushing waterfall of experience, perfume, seeds begin to quiet down.
While in most ways the storehouse seems identical to the western unconscious, in this way it is radically different. Yogacara teachers point to an undivided wholeness that we realize when ego consciousness is completely still. This is referred to as “mirror mind.” As the Chinese Zen teacher Shen Hui said, Those who see into the Storehouse have their senses cleansed of defilements, and open to Buddha-wisdom.
Yogacara teachers have suggested practice of the paramitas (patience, generosity, morality, persistent effort, meditation, and wisdom) may create positive seeds to add to our storehouse. Recently I supported someone in doing this. Over the course of several months, he developed the ability to plant seeds of patience and generosity each time his negative thoughts/feelings came up.
Now let me turn to the process of de-activating our seeds. Let’s say I have a craving for something sweet during my meditation. That craving is by its very nature unwholesome because I lose attention, get distracted, and wish I was sucking on a piece of chocolate instead of staring at a blank wall. All I need to do is: 1.) recognize the craving; 2.) accept/embrace both the craving and my distraction; 3). transform the craving by tuning into my bodily sensations including my breath. As I do this, both the craving and whatever distractions I have been engaging in naturally dissipate. I may even fall into a deep calmness, referred to in the Buddhist literature as mirror mind or beginner’s mind.
Through a steady, daily meditation practice, coupled with longer periods of meditation in retreat settings, this process of recognizing, embracing, and transforming happens quite naturally. We find that we are relaxing our grip on our fixations and are able to enjoy our lives from moment to moment in a deeply satisfying way. This change may occur incrementally or through a huge release of all our fixated thoughts referred to as “enlightenment.” My teacher did not put much emphasis on this huge release. But when he was asked directly to talk about an enlightenment experience he had had while a student, he shared the following:
While engaged in a retreat of several days, he did his best to follow the teacher’s instructions to bring his mind back to “no thing” but continually failed. But this only heightened his determination. Then it was time for him to see the retreat teacher one to one in dokusan. The teacher’s nickname was Tanker, because he was both huge and muscular, built like a sumo wrestler. He took up most of the space in the tiny room he met with people one to one. Suzuki himself was less than five feet tall and very slim. He entered the room, looked at the teacher and saw that, “I am Tanker” and was immediately released all his worries and fears. His sense of a limited, separate self vanished and he felt embraced by all life.
Whether we have this kind of experience or not, through our meditation we gradually let go of our identification with the emotional residue which has coagulated into seeds within our storehouse. But as Suzuki said, “Enlightenment is an activity, not an experience.” Stored negative emotions continue to come up as long as we live, which, if we act from, create new negative seeds.
If I watch Fox news, for instance, even for a few minutes, I feel anger, which is undoubtedly a combined activation of seeds from the past and sprouting of new seeds as a reaction to something the commentator has said.
In any case, in our meditation we have the opportunity to access our negative thoughts and emotions just by paying attention to them. We can let them pass through by merely observing them with no commentary. In retreats as in extended therapy, we may notice forgotten scenes from childhood and jumbled scenes of unknown people or be disconcerted by feelings of rage or grief that appear from nowhere. When this happens, we are allowing negative seeds from our storehouse to come into full consciousness. All we need to do is to open to them without entertaining them and those seeds may shrivel up and die.
We can start with awareness of any area of suffering and follow it down into the storehouse. What are the feelings, images, or thoughts that come up? Next we may notice where the emotional coagulation that has risen from the storehouse is felt most strongly in your body. You simply pay attention to these sensations as they grow more acute, dense, or change temperature. In my one to ones with people, I often support them in bypassing the thoughts and emotions, so they can experience a genuine release within their sensate body, where the residue has been lodged.
Unlike much therapy, our focus is not on understanding our past conditioning by untangling harmful family patterns. Instead, we merely cultivate awareness of emotion that is arising on this moment. Instead, of passing on negative patterns from generation to generation we can stop hurting others and ourselves.
By not trying to suppress or control, we can realize that our individual consciousness is universal consciousness. The energy that creates and perpetuates seeds of illusion is the same energy that is pulsating through all of life. As we tap into the storehouse, we tap into the hidden heart of possibility. Zen Buddhism is considered a self-power or jiriki, form of Buddhism. When we allow deep unconscious parts of our minds and hearts to percolate upward into consciousness, we can tap into a power that we didn’t realize we had.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher