Philosophers and religious leaders have long been fascinated with what we might call the, “shit happens,” factor in life. Perhaps it’s because of our human tendency toward binary thinking, but most creeds will fall into one of two categories: life is good and the universe is benevolent and loving; or life is hard and the universe is cold, capricious, and/or meaningless. The more spiritual religions tend toward the first view that life is good and the more primitive religions tend toward the view that life is hard.
If we look at it objectively, life is pretty good, pretty much most of the time. Unless we have the severe misfortune of living in a war zone or a climate disaster, most of us don’t have something terrible happening to us, right around 98% of the time. Most of us aren’t starving to death, suffering from a terrible disease, or in a constant series of car wrecks. To the extent that we’re unhappy or dissatisfied, it’s because of our own view of the world and not because something exterior is wrong.
It’s fairly easy, then, to build a case for the idea that life is good and the universe is benevolent and loving. Food is good, drink is good, sex is good, friends are good, creative fulfillment is good. Butterflies are good, birds are good, crystals and candles and incense and vibrators are good. There are a LOT of things about life that are good, and very few things that are bad.
Most of the time. But shit happens. Sometimes, really SERIOUS shit happens.
We can be walking along, singing a song, happy and free, when suddenly a speeding ice cream truck jumps the curb, runs over us and we’re in the hospital for months. And while we’re there, we lose our job, our house and car are repossessed, and our partner runs off to Tierra del Fuego with a tattoo artist.
That kind of an experience is exemplified in The Tower card. It’s the kind of an experience where everything in our lives is absolutely blasted into dust and we’re left standing there, psychically naked and bleeding, realizing that everything we believed in, everything we took to be solid and dependable, was nothing more than an illusion.
There’s a word for what happens to us internally when we go through that kind of experience: trauma. Gabor Mate’, who is one of the leading experts on trauma, says that trauma is a perfectly normal reaction to a completely abnormal event.
There are several components to trauma that have to be unpacked. First of all, it’s not a mild or everyday experience. We tend to overuse the word and talk about how a scary movie was traumatizing or it was traumatizing to spend Thanksgiving with relatives we don’t like. That’s not it. Trauma is caused by events that completely overwhelm the individual’s resources and leave her feeling absolutely powerless. These are things like rape, beatings, war, abandonment or abuse as a child, the death of a partner. These are HUGE events in a person’s life.
Another element in trauma is a sort of a psychic frozenness, a process where the person gets stuck in the traumatic experience. A very important point here is that deep suffering does not necessarily equal trauma. In the Tarot card, The Hanged Man, we see someone who has gone through very deep suffering but has come out on the other side with profound emotional and spiritual growth. He didn’t get stuck in the pain, he grew from it.
Put another way, he had the emotional and spiritual tools that were necessary to deal with the pain, therefore he wasn’t overwhelmed by it, therefore he wasn’t traumatized.
If we look at it on a purely physiological level, there’s a defined sequence of events that takes place in our brains when we’re confronted by a dangerous event.
1 – The amygdala (the so-called, “lizard brain”) starts the fight or flight reaction. We’re flooded with stress hormones, our hearts race, our hands shake. We either attack what’s threatening us or we run away from it. Either way, we resolve the danger.
2 – The amygdala shuts down the fight or flight reaction and our bodies and brains return to a normal state.
3 – The hippocampus, which is the part of our brains that controls memory, basically says, “Whew, glad that’s over,” and files it away as a completed event.
4 – Just in case that sequence doesn’t happen, the prefrontal cortex, which is like the CEO of our brains, says, “HEY! It’s over. Settle down, kids.”
We know from functional brain scans that this normal sequence doesn’t take place in trauma. The amygdala starts the fight or flight reaction but it never ends it. The hippocampus never properly files away the experience as being over and so we keep re-experiencing the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks and anxiety triggers. And the prefrontal cortex shows markedly diminished activity so it never says, “Hey, there’s nothing out there to threaten you.”
That’s why a combat veteran may end up cowering in a corner from hearing fireworks on the 4th of July. That’s why a rape victim may go into a full blown panic attack when she sees a harmless stranger in a parking garage. That’s why so many trauma victims become alcoholics and drug addicts in an attempt to numb what they’re feeling. Because, in a very real sense, it’s NOT over for them. They’re still living in active fight or flight mode, they’ve never been able to digest the event as a memory, and they’re not able to intervene rationally and say, “There’s no danger.”
So what can we do about all of that? What can we do to draw ourselves out of the disaster of The Tower card and into the spiritual wisdom of The Hanged Man?
First and foremost, a good therapist can be invaluable. Remember, the trauma happened because the person felt overwhelmed and didn’t have the resources to deal with it. A good therapist can start to fill up our emotional and spiritual tool boxes and give us those resources that we didn’t have when we were overwhelmed. We can learn to reframe the experience, to intervene with compulsive anxiety patterns, to stop in the middle of a panic attack and really tell ourselves, “There is NOTHING wrong. Breathe deeply. Relax.”
There are a couple of simple techniques we can use at home, as well. Harvard Medical School and Dr. Dawson Church have both demonstrated that EFT Tapping sessions can dramatically reduce the presence of the stress hormone cortisol and calm the activity of the amygdala. Tapping basically takes us out of the endless loop of the fight or flight reaction and begins to turn the traumatic event into a neutral memory. There are resources for tapping all over the internet but a good place to start is with Rick Ortner, who’s done so much to disseminate the technique.
Another simple technique is mindfulness meditation. Like tapping, mindfulness meditation reduces cortisol and calms the amygdala’s fight or flight response. Even more dramatically, though, after only 8 weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation, the amygdala actually shrinks and the prefrontal cortex grows. Literally, anxiety and fear are physically shrinking while rational thought is growing. Again, there are resources all over the internet for practicing mindfulness, but here’s a nice guided meditation from Great Meditations to get you started.
Most of us who are on a spiritual path prefer to think that life is basically good and that the universe has an underlying energy of love and creativity. Nonetheless, shit happens. To all of us, sooner or later. We don’t have to make it a continuing feature of our lives, though. We can move out of painful experiences stronger, wiser, and more evolved than when they occurred and get back to enjoying butterflies and birds, crystals and incense, good friends and vibrators. L’chaim!