I was talking to a dear friend today, and she asked me how it is that I or anyone can go through pain like we sometimes do in life. Not just fears and sadness, but deep heartbreak, grief, and loss. How do we turn trauma into Joy?
I answered that I wasn’t sure that we can turn Trauma into Joy per se, but that:
The very first step in the mechanism of transmutation, is to create a space between the thing that happened & yourself, and where you stand today.
We must start by separating ourselves from the moment of trauma itself, and then from the feelings of blame and judgments that we have held around the moment. Any sense of “Why ME?”, or “It’s not fair!” must be understood as part of the grip that holds us by the throat. The posture of blame, while understandable, is a position we often hold when confronted with devastation. It must have originated from elsewhere for it to feel as traumatizing as it so clearly is. We ourselves would never court such devastation on our own, therefore, it must be the fault of another outside force – God, a kinsman, an evil stranger. And yet this position actually keeps us so closely tied to our trauma, that we have no room to let it go. We clutch it to our breast and wail over the loss, again and again, further deepening our commitment to its painful hold upon our heart.
When hit with a devastating blow, as we reel, we point fingers in a confusing spiral. We look to the “other” as the cause of our suffering and generate a maelstrom of judgment. We generate rage, which deepens the fears we already hold. This sense of righteous indignation is actually a huge contribution to trauma. Long after the incident has passed, we are the ones who still carry this wound, and we seem to spark at it with flint and tinder to rekindle our belief that we have been wronged. We become consumed in the conflagration that follows, again and again, scorching everything in sight along the way. This first step in creating this allowance of separation from the event itself and what we have made it mean, which for some is a radical proposal, is actually the first part of the allowance for healing to begin. Healing starts from the cleared ground, not scorched earth, and must be given oxygen to breathe, rather than fueling more flames.
When we release blame for the “other” that was involved in the past moment when we first felt the pain, and ourself in the present now, this creates a clearing space that lets us see that we are responsible as the one who has carried this pain forward into now. We have continued to nurture this wound long after the incident had passed.
However, if instead you were to create a little gap between what happened (to you), and who it happened to (you), and the story that you have told around it, in that gap is the beginning of a tiny little space that ushers in the possibility for forgiveness, the second step.
To be clear, forgiveness is always for ourselves. Forgiveness flows like a balm around the idea of what happened, as much as for the characters and actors involved in the happenstance. We begin to notice that when we forgive the circumstance, it lends to a sense of even more space, a little bit more release, a little bit more openness. Clearing all the way to openness is where we will discover peace. We must cultivate our own ground for peace to grow. We are the only ones who can feel what this peace truly feels like at a very deep level around something that used to cause us pain.
The 3rd step after that, allows you to turn towards even the smallest degree of gratitude.
Not gratitude for what happened necessarily, but gratitude for what was learned as a result of the experience – what you grew into or left behind as a result of your experience within the trauma. In that gratitude, you begin to understand that the tormentor truly is your mentor.
“But how can this be?” Most would decry the idea of such harsh tutelage. “How can it be that I should forgive my tormentor? They deserve to burn!” This belief has been instilled in us for centuries and millennia: the face of a vengeful God, the heart of a scorned woman, the teeth of the awakening Dragon. We owe it to ourselves to never again feel such pain, and we cannot allow this Other to go unpunished for the devastation that was wrought!
So ask yourself- if that person were dead, would it change how you felt now? For most, the answer is actually no. Because when you come to think about it, the situation is often already long dead and long gone that you are still strumming tunelessly in your heart. If the Other involved were on the Moon, your heart might still bleed. To arrest the hemorrhaging and to staunch, the flow is upon the one who is bleeding. Our forgiveness of the other and even our understanding of the tormentor as our mentor gives us the relief that we most desire. To then be able to look upon the facts and smile, is quite another thing indeed. It is big, it is wise, it is honest, and it allows us the freedom to move ahead, unhindered by this pain of the past, and unwilling to re-create this circumstance in the future. Understanding of the situation gives perspective only gained by flying very high above it, and by looking down into the heart of the matter, which we cannot do when we are strangling our very heart on our own.
Understanding that is gained by perspective, offers recognition and a sense of completion.
After completion takes root, you can then find the fourth step- new stability of joy within yourself that flows forward towards other things in your life. New relationships or circumstances you couldn’t notice before when you were clouded by grief and sadness, now become enlightened and possible.
I do not think that we will necessarily feel joy about the thing that caused us trauma, but we can feel joy within ourselves on the other shore of the clearing, by healing that gulf within. Clearing and cleansing our trauma can take time, but it also requires diligence. We don’t get to a level and then that’s it, The End forever. Trauma builds roots and carries echoes and resonances that can travel deep into the foundation of our being. It takes commitment to unravel these roots that have swirled around so many other things that we didn’t even notice were connected, couldn’t feel as related until we began to dig.
When I look back at the traumas in my life, it feels like a book that I read somewhere. It has no more physical sting or relationship to me at this point in my life. I do not identify with it as Me or Mine. This is so clear to me, that whenever I do feel the sting of a name or the thought of a circumstance from my long-dead past that makes me squirm today, I know that I am the one who must heal. I am the one who is nurturing this shard of glass. That is what cuts me from the inside, and needs liberation.
Looking back on certain relationships of my own past recently, I noticed that sting, an uneasiness in relationship to some people that I hadn’t considered. And so yet again, there is still more for me to clear that I am unwittingly holding onto, a circumstance that may or may not have anything to do with any other human being. It is purely my own projection or my own feelings of sickness or incompletion that I’ve been harboring somewhere deep within.
Only when we choose to look and truly become honest with ourselves around these feelings, do we get the opportunity to exorcize them. It is in the allowance of letting ourselves suffer, that we keep closing closets and doors and hiding things under rugs. We begin to feel traumatized everywhere, because everywhere we look is trauma that we have stored, hidden, out of sight, waiting to spill out on to the floor. We think we hide it from the world. We think we hide it from ourselves. But in the end, we are hiding it from no one. We’re actually causing it to become pressurized, waiting to leap out and strangle us, or trip us up, or visit us in our beds late at night. Our trauma becomes the ghost of everything left uncleaned, uncleared, unsaid, and unfinished. It is only when we begin to sit and create that gap between what happened and what we say about what happened, do we begin to be able to fill that gap with something else. It’s almost like we have stopped time, and kept a loop of our pain playing over and over again, like a specter trapped between worlds. When we do the practice of ushering awareness that allows gaps to become present, we stop that loop. A new timeline of our present Now is begun. A Now where we can become the motivators of a new practice of understanding of why we have villainized ourselves and others, rather than moved on.
We first must step outside of the wheel that we have kept turning, like Sisyphus with his rock, and the never-ending struggle. We roll that rock. We create the hill, and we still struggle like it’s all real. Until we decide to put it down, and face that we have been generating our own trauma and flogging ourselves with it like a badge of honor, only then do we start to understand how to turn the bed of nails upside down. We must will ourselves to heal the scabs that we have been scratching and tearing up again, and again, and again.
Trauma is a dirty mistress. Sometimes, trauma becomes our only friend, and that’s a dangerous trajectory to allow because she is jealous and will ruin all relationships and all endeavors until you are left alone and away from everything else, deep in her grip of solitude. To step outside of trauma is like stepping outside of an addiction, and it may feel at first like cheating on an unfaithful spouse.
One often needs help. One often needs support to create this new space. One often needs encouragement to keep creating this new space, and not get mired in judgments about doing it “right”. It takes commitment to build a new habit for a new relationship within ones’ self with a past that is better left in the past, and one no longer created daily for the future.
Trauma is easy to find. It is lying about on the ground zero of everywhere. Peace and joy are mined from deep within, which is why they are considered so valuable. They are uncovered in exchange for the effort of their discovery. They shine with an inner light that keeps us going, long after the trauma has ended. This light can then become a beacon for others still trapped in the darkness of their own thoughts and traumas, projections and beliefs.
Then the way through becomes clear. There is no going back to the event to ever change it. There is only going through to the other shore.
photo by Kristen Eykel