Trauma, The Tower, and The Shit Happens Factor

The causes of trauma and how to deal with it.

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!

Bundles of Sticks, Ajahn Brahm, and the Ten of Wands

Finding closure on experiences that don’t make any sense.

Should we carry our past with us or just throw it away?

The Ten of Wands shows a person plodding along, carrying a large bundle of sticks.  The, “sticks,” are wands, the suit of the Tarot that represents ideas, so he’s actually carrying a massive number of ideas.  

If we take a little closer look at the card we notice a few odd things about it.  First, he’s not at all carrying the sticks the way that we’d expect.  If we pick up a big old honker of a load of sticks, we’d throw them over our shoulder, right?  Instead,  he’s carrying them in front of himself, with his head pressed into the bundle. 

Second, the sticks are all crossed up at the bottom and going in different directions at the top.  If someone asked us to lug a large pile of sticks across the yard, we’d probably throw a rope around them and tie them together, not carry them in a loose, unwieldy mess.

Third, he’s definitely not watching where he’s going.  His head is tilted down, as if he’s watching each step he’s taking, rather than keeping his eyes on his destination.

So just by looking at the face of the card, we can deduce quite a few things about it.  This guy is probably an intellectual, or at least someone who thinks a great deal, because he has many, many ideas that he’s carrying around.  His ideas don’t really, “fit,” together, and they’ve become quite a burden for him.  In fact, he’s so involved with carrying his ideas that he really has no idea where he’s going.  He’s so lost in his ideas that he has no perspective on his life.

The Australian Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm, tells a funny story about sticks.  When he was a novice monk he was strolling through the forest with his teacher, the head monk at the monastery where he was studying.  The master suddenly picked up a stick from the forest floor and asked, “How heavy is this stick, Ajahn Brahm?”  And then he threw it away and asked, “How heavy is it now?”

The point, of course, is that something is, “heavy,” only when we hold on to it.  It’s the act of PICKING IT UP AND CARRYING IT that makes it heavy.  We don’t look at a stick on the ground and say, “Oh, crap, that’s heavy.”  We only say it when we try to pick it up.  It’s our act of grasping something that makes it seem heavy, not the thing itself.

Human beings are natural storytellers.  We all reflexively try to make sense out of our lives and weave the events we experience into a coherent, sensible narrative.  We have an innate drive to try to make sense out of what happens to us and so we’re constantly reviewing our pasts and rearranging the puzzle pieces of our lives into some sort of a rational structure.

We don’t just say, “Well, I lost my fucking mind and decided to quit my job, leave my husband, and move to Montana to grow dental floss.  Just for no particular reason.”  Instead, we say, “After several years of marriage I felt a yearning for solitude and spiritual growth that could only be satisfied by disconnecting from social obligations that had become increasingly mundane.”  

That feels ever so much better.

We need to feel that it all makes sense, somehow.

From a Buddhist perspective, constantly trying to make sense out of our pasts is tantamount to picking up that stick.  It only becomes heavy, it only becomes a burden, when we grasp it and carry it around with us.  In fact, Ajahn Brahm actually recommends writing, “this is my past,” on a stick and throwing it as far away as we can.  Just let it go.  When we’re not carrying it, it’s not heavy.

Now, modern psychology has a different take on it.  Therapists tell us that it IS important to try to make sense out of what’s happened to us and to strive for a sense of meaningfulness in our lives.  Bottom lining it, that’s why we go to therapists:  because our lives aren’t making any sense and we need someone to help us sort it all out.

I suspect that for most of us, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  If we wake up one morning and have no past, we may have suffered a psychotic break.  Or, in the case of people like Eckhart Tolle, perhaps we’ve had a massive revelation, a huge psychic shift that made us realize how absurd our previous thinking was.

For those of us who are neither psychotics nor enlightened spiritual masters, though, just tossing our pasts out the window isn’t an option.  It seems we can’t just NOT think about it.

Which brings us to that tired, but still valid, word:  closure.

We think of closure as having worked through a problem or a process in life until we’ve made sense of it, until it fits logically into our coherent narrative of what our lives mean.  If we go through a divorce, for instance, we may go to a therapist and try to figure out why it happened.  What was our role in the relationship breaking apart?  What was our spouses role?  What did we do wrong?  What did we do right?  What can we learn from it to make our future relationships better?  Eventually, when we’ve talked through all of those issues, we start to achieve closure and we’re ready to move on from it.  We haven’t necessarily thrown the stick away, but we’ve made it a hell of a lot lighter to carry.

There are other issues, though, that we can never seem to make any sense out of.

– If you were badly abused as a child, that doesn’t make any sense.  You didn’t do anything to deserve it and there’s no logical or emotional reason it should have happened to you.

-If you’re an open and loving person and you got chewed up and spit out by a malignant narcissist, that doesn’t make any sense.  You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t deserve it, and it shouldn’t have happened.

-If the new boss from hell fires you from your dream job because he’s a sexist or a sadist, that doesn’t make any sense.  You were a great employee, there’s no justice in it, and it shouldn’t have happened.

So there’s a kind of a subclass of experiences that we all have that we could call, “doesn’t make any sense,” experiences.  Those are the experiences that get really, “sticky.”  Those are the experiences that we pick up and carry with us.  We go over and over and over them, trying to figure them out, trying to make them somehow fit into our narratives, our story.  But they never do.

“Doesn’t make any sense,” experiences are the ones that are most likely to wound us spiritually and emotionally.  They keep us stuck.  They keep us wounded.  They keep us living in pain.

Oddly, though, they’re also the experiences that are easiest to let go of, if we think of them in the right way.  If we’ve honestly, sincerely, conscientiously tried to figure them out and we can’t do it, we can just say, “Well, fuck it.  This doesn’t make any sense.”  And then we can put that experience in a nice, “doesn’t make any sense,” box, tie a brightly colored, “doesn’t make any sense,” ribbon around it, and toss it in the nearest river.

Maybe we’re not enlightened or smart enough to throw all of our, “sticks,” away, but we can throw some of them away.  We can consciously choose which parts are valuable and which parts are worthless.  We can drop some of the burden and make it a little easier to move forward in our lives.  

And that’s a good start.

The Ten of Swords, the Death Card, Child Abuse and Forgiveness

It’s hard to put an exact figure on it because child abuse tends to operate in the darkness, but most statistics indicate that about one in five people were abused as children. That abuse can, of course, be a broad spectrum of behaviors from physical abuse to emotional and social abuse to sexual abuse, or a combination of all of those. And therapists will take different approaches in treating those abuses, depending upon the type and severity.

We can simplify that by just lumping it all under one word: trauma. Victims of child abuse suffered severe trauma at a point in their lives when they were totally ill-equipped to process it intellectually or psychologically. Child abuse is normally committed by those who are closest to us – our parents, siblings, uncles, teachers, priests, pastors – and so it involves a deep betrayal of the most basic sense of trust. It leaves its victims with an enduring, often unconscious, feeling that the world is NOT a safe place and that we can never feel secure or at peace, even in our own homes. To use a current phrase, we suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, just like people who have been in combat for extended periods of time.

Eventually, that lack of trust in life, that basic inability to ever really relax into safety, will cause us to build impenetrable walls that destroy the quality of life. We are so wounded that we just can’t let other people all the way into our lives because they might hurt us, too. Very much like the figure in the Ten of Swords, the battle is over and we lost. And how could we not? We were just children when the battle took place.

We may seek help through therapy or spiritual resources in an attempt to remove the toxins, to tear down the walls of distrust and fear. If we’re blessed with a really good therapist or a wonderful teacher, we may actually make progress with our issues and begin to engage in life in a more open, loving way. We still feel wounded, though, pierced with countless swords of pain when we recall what happened to us as children.

And then an odd thing happens somewhere along the journey: our abusers die. Abusers, like everyone else, are ultimately mortal and they age and die like everyone else.

When that happens it can be a very odd time in our lives. There may initially be a real feeling of catharsis, a sort of a joyful crying out into the world: “I’m still here and you’re not, you son of a bitch.” Or there may be a total numbness and lack of grief. After all, they taught us the value of learning to feel nothing again and again and again while they beat us. Later, if we go into therapy, there may be a deep regret: “Why didn’t I confront him when he was still alive? Why didn’t I ever ask her why she couldn’t love me?”

At the end of the day, though, they’re dead. As the coroner in Wizard of Oz put it, “She isn’t simply merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.”

Or is she?

The terrible truth of the matter is that, for most of us, they go on living in our own heads and hearts long, long after they’re physically dead. There are constant inner dialogues with them, sometimes dozens a day, that we carry on as if they were right there in the room with us, instead of lying in a grave. There are the critical, shaming voices that intrude on our every activity.

“That was stupid.”

“Can’t you do anything right?”

“Well, THAT was typical. You screwed up again.”

Many times these inner critics have become so natural to us, so much a part of our existences, that we don’t even realize that they aren’t us. They’re the disembodied voices of our dead abusers.

So how do we ever get rid of them? How do we ever get to a point where we can say, “You know what? You’re dead. Go away now?” The answer for me came in the form of forgiveness, but not forgiveness in the normal sense of the word. At least not the way I’d ever thought about it.

At first, the idea of forgiving your abusers feels grotesque, even outrageous. “Wait a minute . . . I was a little tiny, helpless kid and this person beat me (fucked me, fondled me, burned me, shamed me – fill in the blank with your particular form of abuse.) Why in hell should I forgive them? Just because they’re dead?”

Well, there are two reasons and, oddly, neither one of them has a thing to do with the abuser.

First of all, yes, they’re dead. Yes, in a physical sense, they really ARE most sincerely dead. Whatever they are now, they aren’t any longer the specific person who abused us.

And that means that, as Louise Hay pointed out, all that they are right now is thought constructs in our heads. That’s it: they are literally just our memories now and they have no existence beyond that. When that really hit me, when I finally GOT that, my first thought was, “Wow! I’m CHOOSING to live with my abusers. All they are is my thoughts and I’m in charge of my thoughts. This is a choice to continue the abuse.”

And once I got that, I realized that if I continued to keep those thought patterns alive, it was a CONSCIOUS choice to live with abuse.

That’s where forgiveness comes in. Louise Haye also pointed out that forgiveness is, ultimately, an act that takes place in our own minds. We don’t tend to think of it that way. We tend to think of it as always involving another person and it usually has a lot of drama attached. It goes something like this:

“I forgive you for the fact that – even though I was deeply in love with you, had your three children, and was a good and faithful wife who adored you with all of her heart – you just couldn’t keep your dick in your pants and you screwed my best friend. That slut.”

In other words, we’re SAYING that we’re forgiving the other person, but we’re really not. What we’re really doing is pointing out what a total piece of shit the other person is and saying that we’ll live with that, as long as they feel good and guilty about what they did wrong. It’s a power thing disguised as a kindness thing.

Real forgiveness, though, is truly letting it go, not choosing to live in it, and that’s why it’s so important in healing the wounds of abuse. It means recognizing that we’re keeping the abusers alive in our own minds, acknowledging what they did to us and honoring ourselves as survivors, and then just . . . letting them go . . . for once and for all . . . back into Universe. “If hating you means I’m keeping you alive, then I can let go of that hatred. I forgive you, I bless you, I release you.” And in doing that, we’re really blessing ourselves. We’re really releasing ourselves from the prisons they built in our minds.

You can invent your own rituals for doing that. I like to use Nick Ortner’s Meridian Tapping with three rounds of what they did to me and three rounds of letting them go. You might prefer to build a Day of the Dead Altar with their picture on it. Talk to the picture, tell them what they did and how it felt, and then throw the picture away.

Light a candle, meditate on the abuser and then release him or her as you blow out the flame.

Do a Buddhist Sur Ceremony and release them with love and compassion.

They don’t exist anymore. We’re free.