In my new book Zen in the Age of Anxiety, I talk a little about both post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth. I refer to research that suggests that some people not only bounce back from tragedy but actually bounce back to a higher level of functioning than before. I explain that this is not a technique or avoidance strategy but a natural phenomenon, which grows out of a consistent meditation practice. We have the ability to cross the threshold of our painful emotions again and again, and allow a natural healing to take place. But this can only happen through patience, persistence, and self-compassion. And self-compassion is difficult for many practitioners.
As we grow up, we develop an internal parent who reminds us not give into our impulses and lead responsible, self-regulated lives. That’s healthy. What’s not so healthy is that this internal parent often morphs into an internal critic and this internal critic may morph into a judgmental tyrant, who continually puts us down, orders us around, and undercuts any feelings of self-compassion we may have through messages like, “I don’t deserve it” or “I’m not good enough” or some other statement about our fundamental unworthiness.
The reason it is hard for so many people to grow from and through their traumatic memories is this self-compassion block. If we experience difficulty sending positive vibes to ourselves we can try an experiment in our meditation: sending them to a person or animal who we have deep affection, imagining that person/animal in our lap and when the time feels right bringing that loved one all the way into the center of our being. Then our compassion for them is no longer separate from our feeling toward ourselves. The self-compassion we develop by doing this patiently and persistently, can, in and of itself, change PTSD into Post Traumatic Growth. It’s that simple.
Ernest Hemingway seems to have understood this when he wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Post traumatic growth points to those places that may become strong through both practicing bare awareness in our meditation combined with the support from a spiritual mentor and/or close friend. It may not be a painless process, but if we stick with it, we create a deeper sense of love and connection with the world around us… and all life.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher