Radio interview on Sustainable Social Justice & Healing TraumaMarch 8, 2011
Wooing Yourself into New BehaviorsOctober 11, 2011
My dharma teacher, Anam Thubten, describes existence as a playful Primordial Awareness that creates and dissolves all things in a constant rhythm of contraction and expansion. At some point, so the metaphor goes, Awareness forgot that it was playing (maybe it was a really convincing pretend game), and became so startled by one of its creations that it forgot it was the creator, and contracted big time. This Primordial amnesia had a domino effect, contracting further into duality, suffering, and the dense material reality we humans live in. In fact, all of this is illusion. Awareness simply needs to stop taking it seriously, remember itself, and wake up to its creative power. We are all part of Awareness, and the purpose of Buddhism is to help us all wake up.
Humans work the same way as Primordial Awareness: we too are creators, even when we face trauma. Trauma stimulates us to contract our bodies and minds into self-protective shapes. As children, when we encounter danger (physical or emotional) or harm we find just the right body positions and behaviors that will help us get through our particular situation.
This is a creative act. Maybe we freeze and tighten our throats to stop from crying out—because we have learned that we will be safer. Maybe we get into the habit of constantly changing our position (physically or mentally), because we are less of a target that way. Some of us may even have (intelligently) chosen to use our creative power to take on a powerless identity, because that was the only way we could find to receive approval, or minimize abuse. We repeat these successful strategies until they become automatic, and this is good, because survival is crucial. Unfortunately, by the time the danger has passed, we have forgotten how and why we turned to these strategies in the first place. Like Primordial Awareness, we have amnesia.
Humans tend to continue our automatic behaviors, even when we are older and have more options; even when these behaviors no longer work and get in our way. Staying silent doesn’t work when we need to advocate for ourselves or others. Changing our location or mind all the time makes it difficult to complete projects or make commitments. Once we notice these side effects, we may try to change the old behaviors and stances, but it’s not easy. We may feel stuck, frustrated, at war with ourselves.
The good news is that any shape or identity we habituate to, even a “powerless” one, is actually an expression of our power. It means that at some point, in order to be safe or loved or both, our organism made a powerful choice to shape ourselves. Like the creative Primordial Awareness that has forgotten itself, we forget that we are using our own energy and power to maintain ourselves in a powerless position, behaving in powerless ways. We are so used to making this effort, we no longer notice it. Instead it feels like it is being done to us.
It is helpful to think of our habitual postures and behaviors as water that has become ice. Like water, our creative power is inherently fluid. But once it freezes into a solid habitual shape, it forgets its fluid nature. In other words, we forget that we contracted at some point, and are now automatically maintaining that contraction. We forget that, just as ice melts into water, we can soften, let go, and expand once more.
When we blame ourselves for this solidity, we reject our own energy. Struggling against ourselves to change ourselves doesn’t work. What works is remembering that we creatively adapted to specific traumatic situations in the past. What works is harnessing this same creative power to sculpt our current lives. How do we remember and reclaim this power? Through the body.
Trauma healing work that works with the body reconnects us to our original, intelligent survival choices. It allows us to directly experience–in our bodies, in our cells, and tissues and sensations–our original choices, and our inherent power to create something new now. It helps us appreciate and forgive our creative choices, begin to re-shape ourselves, and make new, powerful, creative choices. Like ice slowly melting, trauma contractions gradually soften in the body, freeing up energy to create what we want, to sculpt ourselves into new identities.
Somatic work (Generative Somatics, Somatic Experiencing, etc.), expressive arts (dance, song, art, writing, theater, etc.) and meditation practices–as long as they engage the body and incorporate both safety and gradual risk-taking– can support the trauma healing journey, and reconnect us to our innate creative power. I invite us all to tap into our playful awareness. To be audacious, curious, and hopeful. May all beings reclaim our creative power.