The Kitchen

What is Trauma, Really?


By Georgi Y. Johnson

Is trauma a delusional state, a sabotaging hell loop where we are caught in repeating patterns of panic and dread? Or is it a calling back toward a core experience where consciousness awakened in its unfiltered nakedness as the world fell apart?

Jullie was in Guam with her husband and six-year-old child for an assignment for his work. Somehow, she was getting thinner and thinner. She was hardly eating, and was constantly in anxiety. “We’re sitting on the beach, and she is, like, checking around her all the time as if someone or something is about to attack. She doesn’t ease off for a moment,” says her husband. The doctors prescribed antidepressants, and when these proved ineffective, she was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed bi-polar. There is no cure for this, the young couple were told. The only way through is a life-time of medication.

When I began talking to Jullie, I could immediately sense that curious blend of shock (in which time and space is suspended), and trauma (the atmospheric smoke of realities collapsing). I asked her if she can connect to that felt sense inside herself - how she feels when she is shocked. She is able to describe something of the sensations of being shocked, and soon associates it with an event. “I was a seven-year-old child in New York during 911,” she tells. “I was fine though. I saw bodies falling from the tower and stuff, and then that dust wave, but I came out of that just fine. That’s what makes it so crazy that I react like this to being a mother in Guam!”

Jullie was celebrated as one of those kids from the 911 attacks that just “got through it”, unlike her elder brother, who became an opiate addict. Jullie was cited as an example - a child who by being useful, expressing herself in church support groups, and sticking to her studies, showed tremendous resilience. She had learned to take pride in her ability to shake it off. She was a child hero, and if anything, the events of 911 made her special. But now, as her own daughter neared that same age, experiences of shock, dissociation, hypervigilance and panic were coming forward with a vengeance. After waiting over two decades, the processing work is just now beginning. During our session, she gets goosebumps as her bright mind recognizes the logic of it. For the first time in a long time, she begins to feel herself centered at the existential core of the whole of her experience. The diagnosis of bipolar is put aside and a healing journey begins.

Whose reality is it, anyway?

We often associate trauma with delusion, mental affliction, and a weak grip on reality. This is because we look at it from the outside, as if it was not a direct experience, but a label. We judge it from the outside according to the habitual norms that make up our consensual reality, rather than allowing the confrontation with the greater existential mystery of reality itself. 

An early cause of trauma is a dynamic in which the direct experience of an individual is delegitimized and overpowered by the demand that they conform to a normative outer reality.

When suffering is intense external authorities In the name of care or protection, try to dictate a less painful internal experience. This is where we hear comments like “look at the bright side (you still have another child)”, or “time will heal it.” 

The first step toward healing trauma is when we are able to turn away from those pressures from the environment, turning our back on the demands of others, and looking again inside with the freshness and intimacy of our feeling awareness. We surrender our addiction to the outer world that dictates what we “should” feel and how we “ought” to be, and open up our heart again to our inner world, as if what we actually feel matters, as if we really matter, not yesterday, not later, but in this moment. How is it for you, right here, right now? 

When we open the feeling connection again toward the area around a traumatic memory, there can be a startling sense of reality about it. It cuts us to core, and in this, exposes a deeper truth of consciousness. The habitual sense of self exploded, patterns broke down, normality was shattered, the psyche itself fragmented, and yet we witnessed it all, and we are still here. 

There is a direct exposure of the deepest sense of reality - the perceiving, witnessing, conscious reality of our innermost presence- at the eye of the storm. We are no longer lost in the storm of events, but recall our experiential core, at the center of it all. 

The very way we perceive ourselves and the world inverts. We are no longer imperceptibly hidden behind the object of the self (our idea of who we are), inseparable from the predictable, normal, reality around us. We are no longer defined by the external environment. Rather, we find ourselves alive at the conscious center. Worlds come and worlds go, but we remain. 

We are not perceiving “reality”, rather, we find that we are the reality that is perceiving, sensing, experiencing. This awakening of the sense of reality out of this depth consciousness will forever change us. There is a possibility that we return to naturalness, living through direct experience - not outside-in - but inside-out. It’s a rude awakening of consciousness, but an awakening nonetheless. In the words of the nondual master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

“Reality is not the result of a process; it is an explosion.”

Yet in the psychic chaos that ensues around a traumatic event, the environment demands that we show that we are OK, or at least that we are “coping” in an appropriate way: i.e. an appropriate reaction, followed by an appropriate return to functionality. Appropriate here means to move with the collective habit of denying suffering.

Even the most caring friend cannot contain what they refuse to feel within themselves. Meaning well, they try to pull you out of the traumatic atmosphere (even if it leaves part of you behind), and to force you away from the sensations of shock (even if this can lead to psychic fragmentation). In this they are relating to the individual in crisis through false confidence and deep insecurity. The support offered is a form of denial (here, drink this whiskey), and the treatment offered is cosmetic (you can be shocked, but appear to function as if everything is fine.) 

These are old collective trauma responses to trauma. They are triggered just by the scent of trauma or the vibration of shock and in this they are largely unconscious.

The collective field responds to traumatic  breakage by trying to reinstall the pre-traumatic normal as fast as possible, as if we could forget that this so-called reality just shattered. In this, the individual is coerced into denying their direct experience. We have a collective tendency to pull people away from the traumatic core as if it’s dangerous to come there; as if in coming there, we would be stuck forever. This is aptly expressed by the British idiom: “If we start crying, we will never stop.”

This movement generates a belief that sensations of overwhelm and the unbearable are facts: that the individual is simply not able to contain or bear the experience. Where there could be support or affirmation, there is actually an undermining of the existential strength of the individual. There is now a nervous alarm system strung around the experience, loaded with the energies of overwhelm and "unbearability."

The Psychic Split 

This splits the consciousness in two. There is a division between the conscious, existential inner  core which has already endured the experience, and the conscious mind that is looking toward the outer environment for affirmation, connection and regulation. The subliminal message is that the individual is welcome back into the world, but they should leave their “trauma” behind. They are praised for putting a brave face on it. They are shut down when they dwell on it too much. They are demanded to forgive, forget, make peace, or at least be quiet about it. 

This demand increases, the more time passes, and the more time passes, the more the individual appears irrational, crazy, weak, or even selfish, in harping on about it. 

You’ll notice this in the clinic, when a client speaks about this catastrophic thing that happened very quickly, taking no time for it, and dismissing it as old news with an irreverent flip of the hand. The processing ability, and the restorative power of the wholeness of the system is denied, most obtusely, by the ignorance of the environment in the art of suffering. 

This is where Nondual Therapy can offer a paradigm shift in the healing of trauma. In Nondual Therapy, we meet people in the authenticity of their direct feeling experience, here and now. Where the person has been trained to put thoughts, stories, and acquired beliefs where the feelings capacity used to be, we slowly but surely restore their capacity to feel whatever it is that they are feeling in the here and now. In this we are speaking directly to that original core - that existential consciousness that underlies and continues at the core of the self beyond belief, identification, feeling, and sensation.

For this, what we offer - and what is often sorely missing in therapeutic contexts - is a sensory awareness of the energetic field. Rather than trying to create meaning, or make the experience “make sense”, we let the energy unfold according to its own sensory intelligence. We affirm this sensory capacity again and again, which builds confidence in the capacity to feel and contain experience.

Fields of Sensation

For example, when an individual meets a sense of overwhelm, we let them directly experience what overwhelm feels like - for them. We don’t run from the sensation, but rather allow it. Each of us physically, emotionally and mentally experience “overwhelm” in a unique way. This uniqueness of the experience matters. When the sensations of overwhelm are allowed to be felt, we can then also examine what else is felt. Is there anywhere in or around the body that feels relaxed? How does the individual process the sensations of boundless space? Perhaps they have a memory of it, like being relaxed on a desert beach, or star-gazing with friends. What does that sense of boundless space feel like? How does the body respond? Then we bring them back again to the sensations of overwhelm. We take time and space to feel what that’s like.

Do you notice how all this affirms the centerpoint of the individual and the individual’s capacity to contain and process experience? Trauma involves both shock and intense suffering. The one that contains that shock and pain is the individual. There can be no therapeutic bypass. Rather they need the support in remembering that they are able to contain it, and relate to it not as detestable anathema but as the life-changing experience that it was. It matters, because they matter.

Jullie’s attitude to life has totally changed now. She is fascinated by her feeling capacity, and delights in the unfiltered emotions of her young daughter. She switched from secretarial duties serving others to pursuing her love to paint. This artistic talent was there before 911, but somehow had gone up in smoke. Above all, she has a real strength about her now, the strength and alignment that happens when deep rage is allowed to move through the system, authentically protecting what matters, and awake to the needs of the whole. The lion’s share of the work was that simple recognition in that first session, that what we were meeting was not a personality disorder and a life-sentence, but rather a life-challenge, of opening up again - beyond denial, and beyond social concern -  to the freedom and authenticity of her direct experience.

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