Movement builders! Deal with trauma
Our trauma loads have reached unprecedented levels. Our collective ray of hope is that we can compost these traumas. We can and must fuel our movement with the “power of belonging”, grief work and by “cultivating relational soil”.
There is an elephant in the room inhabited by our movements for justice and climate sanity. We need to see and deal with this elephant. Please allow me to state some statistics on what adults in the U.S. have faced as a child:
— 1 in 5 was sexually molested
— 1 in 3 witnessed domestic violence
— 1 in 4 have close alcoholic relatives
— 1 in 4 beaten to the extent with marks on the body
— 1 in 8 have seen their primary caregiver (mother) beaten
Over 60% of adults have faced at least one of these experiences which the Center of Disease Control in the U.S. calls these Adverse Childhood Experiences.
I call these experiences small “T” traumas. These small “T” traumas might not cause nightmares and PTSD like big “T” traumas (e.g. war and violent rape) but they still impact us deeply. I note that I have not even recounted statistics on suicides or addictions which seriously harm our communities for long periods of time.
(Hi, is this triggering for you to read these statistics because you have gone through some or most of these experiences? I’m sorry. I send you a hug. Would you please allow yourself to take a deep breath?)
We are all traumatized ourselves and/or closely dealing with people who are traumatized. This is true without accounting for cultural or societal traumas that get lodged in our bodies due to systemic racial and economic injustices as well as violence directed at some of us because of our gender, religion or physical/mental abilities. In addition, we are experiencing increasing levels of ecological grief (also called climate grief, climate trauma or eco-anxiety by different healers).
(I imagine that everyone reading this article carries ecological trauma even if other traumas are not directly applicable to them. I understand. I surely do.)
Yes, there has been a lot of discussion in the past 4-5 years about the need to face climate grief within the climate movement. Buddhist eco-philosopher and an Ecodharma elder Joanna Macy has brilliantly taught me and many of my friends and colleagues how to come together as a community to address ecological or climate grief. Participating in “The Work That Reconnects” gatherings that Joanna formulated changed my life. She specifically leads a beautiful ritual called “Truth Mandala” (which is just one of many possible grief rituals and is performed in the context of a total of four stages of practices) where you speak your truth and your pain for this world. Joanna brilliantly melts down on the floor, embodying feelings of a river, an animal or a specific piece of land and makes clear the pain of the natural (more-than-human) world. During one such ritual, seeing her cry and embody the pain of a polluted river opened floodgates of ecological grief in me. Suddenly I could let the ‘ecological trauma’ of knowing what I know as a climate scientist be felt in my body and release itself as tears, shouts and moans. Facing and releasing my ecological grief helped me bring together two parts of my life that I had chosen to keep separate: My path as a Zen Buddhist practitioner-teacher and my path as a climate scientist-activist. Allowing pain of the climate crisis in my meditation would have required me to grieve. I sub-consciously and wrongly believed that good meditation practitioners who can access deep brilliant silence (called Mushin in Zen) or good scientists don’t cry. Joanna liberated me.
(Have you even teared up or grunted in anger in bathrooms/patios in the middle of personal and other gatherings because others seem oblivious of the dire state of the planet, our democracy or our (in)justice system? Yes? Then you are probably keeping emotions out of your work and family life as well. Do you have at least a few friends in whose presence you can be yourself ?)
While I am indebted to what I learnt from processing ecological grief, after years of leading grief circles for hundreds of people, my humble view is that ecological grief by itself is only the tip of the iceberg of stress/trauma that our bodies feel. When I participated in my first Truth Mandala led by Joanna Macy, I had already been meditating for 15 years and had used several healing modalities to face my individual level traumas/anxieties. Most people I meet have not had the privilege to have adequately done personal-level healing work. Individual traumas are present in every gathering or meeting (including ecological grief rituals) we will ever have on any topic. Moreover, we can’t isolate the impact of climate emergency from the impact of childhood abuse on the body. Body doesn’t know the difference between grief due to ecological destruction, racial trauma, lost or poorly paying job, lack of meaning or an abusive father. I think that we have to deal with all (personal, social and ecological) traumas head-on.
(When the body needs to pee, it must pee. It doesn’t matter if the fluid came into the body as water, soda, juice or soup. When the body is traumatized, it needs to release internal stress and access internal safety. It doesn’t matter if the trauma was caused by personal, societal or ecological causes.)
What does body need when stress/trauma builds up? When under stress, our body enters fight, flight, freeze and fawn (FFFF) states of nervous system. Evolution created these states of our nervous system to protect us from snakes/tigers.
— Fight and flight: When we see a large animal who can kill us, we have to be ready to fight it with all our might or flee away from it.
— Freeze and Fawn: When one can’t fight or flight, one can hide and freeze like a camouflaged chameleon in the expectation that the predator will not see us. Fawn or “excessive adulation/praise” is also a trauma response where instead of engaging/listening in an empowered way, we become excessively loyal people-pleasers who don’t have a sense of agency.
When met with secrecy or judgement, our traumas/stresses become shame. This shame combined with fear of uncertainty becomes an engine of “separation” that further traumatizes both all (white & non-white) bodies. This sense of cultural separation from each other and nature, as I have argued before, continues to be an engine of the climate crisis. So, yes. I’m saying that our traumas perpetuate the climate crisis. In more than one way.
Once we learn to sit with our own grief, we can sit with grief of others across racial, class or gender lines and be true allies as opposed to being stuck in performative solidarity.
So it is our personal as well as societal responsibility to compost the trauma as opposed to perpetuating it.
(If any of the ideas presented here are new or surprising, would you please take the time to let them sink in your bodies. Your mind is reading this article but is your body reading it as well? How is your body responding right now?)
Without active ways to release traumas stored in our body, humans can cycle between these FFFF states indefinitely. We can respond to everything as if we are under attack. Our “windows of tolerance” become shorter. Instead of reacting creatively to new challenges, our primal helplessness, anxiety, unproductive rage kicks in when we hear news around coronavirus rates, threats to our democracy, police violence, climate emergency or watch refugees undergo dehumanizing experiences. We feel this pain of being alive in the world is endless (it is not). We become increasingly anxious/sleepless and/or very depressed/dysfunctional.
(Does this describe how you feel? At least sometimes? It certainly describes me whenever I don’t have consistent access to what I call “power of belonging” and “grief work”).
Indeed, as a result of the times we are in, most of us regardless of previous personal level healing work, can easily get stuck in a cycle of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. And then we can’t enter grounded/energized or “tend and befriend” states of mind. When we can’t “tend and befriend” and can’t sustain relationships, we can’t offer collective skillful responses to crises in our social or political lives. We can’t reach decisions. We burnout. We become joyless. We can’t strategize. We can’t visualize a way out of the crises we are in. We can’t trust. The systems that are hurting us feel too big and too powerful to fail. And most crucially, we can’t stand in solidarity with others who have different set of stresses and traumas than us.
Trauma healing, especially when personal level trauma load is large, starts with being in a safe atmosphere and slowing down. First step is “See your trauma”. Second step is “Staying with trauma” and the third is “releasing the trauma”. In a truly empathic atmosphere, when we slow down (e.g., put distractions of work away, just “be” and meditate/breathe deep) to give our bodies a chance to face grief/anger/anxiety, often tears flow naturally.
(When do you feel safe? In general, one feels safe when one feels seen, held and heard. Can you recall people, animals and places which make you feel safe? Can you notice what thinking about them does to your body?)
My grief work mentor Beth Garrigus convenes extremely healing gatherings of 5-15 people that she calls “lodges”. Through singing, chanting, drumming and designing a well crafted intentional altar, she creates a magical, ancestral and trusting space in which she invites people to unburden their hearts without any pressure of time. When I did my first lodge that only had female-bodied people, I was blown away by the depth of personal trauma shared by people who barely knew each other a few days or hours ago. Everyone else who joined was blown away as well by the patterns of patriarchy and the common impacts they had left on many if not all participants. These lodges have helped me see the sheer power and importance of naming, acknowledging and unburdening our personal grief. After experiencing her lodges, I became clear that trying to unburden ecological grief without facing and unburdening personal traumas might not take us too far. Yes, personal, family, social & ecological traumas interact with and reinforce each other to throw us into FFFF stages of heart-mind. However, personal traumas run deep. They are primal. They offer a lot of potential compost.
(Are you longing for a space like the ones Beth creates? It is hard to access spaces like the ones she creates in these COVID times. I’ve been asking her to start doing them online. In the meanwhile, let us start where we are. Can we take small steps towards authentic and vulnerable relationships in our family and work places?).
So then how do we deal with personal, societal and ecological traumas at the same time? How do we bring what Joanna Macy and Beth Garrigus have taught me together? I’m not yet 100% sure. I have been taking guidance from research on trauma and neurobiology, discussing with my peers and experimenting with different options during the grief circles I lead. Let me lay out some basics of neurobiology first.
(Beginning of neurobiology section.)
When we are in FFFF states (regardless of the reasons for entering that state), left and right parts of our brains stop working together in an integrated and wholesome way. Extremely simplistically, the left brain thinks/executes whereas the right brain feels and connects. In these states of mind, our responses to any situation are not integrated. Rational strategic thinking (a left brain function) and/or basic need/impulse to connect with other beings (a right brain function) get compromised. We can’t hear others around us and/or execute appropriate strategic actions. Speaking in neurobiological terms, the way to integrate two parts of our brain and release our traumas is to relax and activate the relevant parts of our vagus nerve (also called “soul nerve”) which is the focus of abdominal (hara-centered) breathing during Zen Buddhist meditation.
Put another way, trauma healing research tells us that the way to shift the habits of our traumatized emotional brain away from FFFF states is to be aware of safety within our inner sensory experience (i.e., to be aware of safe and calming sensations within our bodies). Activation of the soul nerve is crucial for accessing this internal safety. Over time a sense of internal safety within our bodies can lead to feeling secure in the midst of external triggers. To begin this healing journey in a group which might include individuals with large personal trauma loads, however, external safety (i.e., presence of an empathic community and our sense that we will be “seen” and “heard”) is crucial because it helps us slow down, release trauma through grieving and notice internal safety.
(End of neurobiology section! Was there some “technical” stuff here that you are not familiar with? If yes, have you noticed that our bodies sometimes tighten up when we read things we don’t understand completely?)
My experience as a grief ritual teacher, a Zen Buddhist and someone who studies trauma research rigorously is that when a sense of external emotional safety is combined with ways to directly activate soul nerve, amazing unburdening of the heart-mind can occur, regardless of the personal, societal or ecological nature of our traumas. Soul nerve is activated by taking long breaths (especially exhalations) from our abdomen, making primal sounds together (including but not limited to singing), moving our bodies and eyes in ways that release stress and by somatically realizing that we are safe. I repeat that in addition to activating soul nerve, a sense of external safety is extremely important, especially for those who have a large load of unprocessed personal trauma.
Role of grief work is not to relive our traumas but to learn to release them…over and over again. As I have argued above, release starts happening when we experience a sense of safety (within our bodies and/or in the group). In a group, release of internalized trauma begins to happen in a group when one individual sees at least a few people present in the group as friends, complete with their vulnerabilities and inadequacies as opposed to seeing them as experts, heroes, saviors or competitors. And release happens more fully when we allow the energies of grief, rage, fear or confusion to move through our bodies more completely. While we don’t want to force emotions to artificially bubble up, when these emotions do bubble up, we want to do absolutely nothing to suppress them. We might even ceremoniously stoke these emotions a little and open up our bodies with deep breathing, sounds and movement (things that activate the soul nerve) to allow the release to happen while we are being compassionately witnessed.
Engaging in grief work in community is powerful and necessary. Why? I have written elsewhere about how to access safety-grief-love when we are alone in dealing with FFFF states of mind. As opposed to unburdening one body at a time, group work can unburden all the members of a community at the same time. More importantly, when we release trauma in a community, it unlocks the community’s creative organizing potential over time. Individuals can not beat the systems that have brought us to the verge of planetary extinction. Only a system (well organized community) can beat another system. Grief and vulnerability work have a chicken and egg relationship with formation of a community. For many people, the prospect of letting our tears flow in a group may be stressful or even unthinkable. And yet, this vulnerability is what can glue us together and is what I call “power of belonging”.
Yes, the quality and depth of trust and willingness to be vulnerable can vary significantly from one group to another as well as one individual to another. What do we do when trust is low? My philosopher colleague Dr. Maria Talero says what we need is an entire framework that she calls “relational soil work,” where we deliberately and lovingly cultivate the “relational soil conditions” in a group to foster empathy, vulnerability and trust, making it easier to shed healing tears together.
Regardless of how much meditation or individual level healing work we have done, building a healthy relational soil in a community is absolutely necessary because this is what will become a ground for organizing ourselves, addressing difficult choices, transforming conflict and making creative strategizing possible. We desperately need bold creative actions to create Islands of sanity in a sea of chaos – and this will not happen if we exclusively keep following fossilized moderate worldviews promoted by existing mainstream organizations. To step into our collective and creative agency as a community, nothing works better than being vulnerable together even if there were not any large loads of personal traumas left in individual community members. Over and over again.
(Yes. I said “Over and over again”. We don’t brush our teeth once a year. Similarly grief work cannot be done once in a few years. If you have a place in your life where you pray or meditate, please set up a grief altar now. We will need to do grief work all of our lives. Alone. And with others.)
If we look at trauma statistics from around the world beyond the U.S., it can be even more depressing than the situation in the U.S. In India, my country of origin, over 50% of kids have experienced sexual abuse and up to 70% of all adults have experienced physical abuse as a child. India is the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, on track to overtake the U.S. as second-largest by 2040. How will my friends in India take on climate emergency, ongoing social and economic justice needs at any significant ongoing way without facing the trauma in and around them?
My point is that we are surrounded by a sea of trauma – including personal trauma which has not yet been adequately included in discussions of ecological trauma. This extent or depth of trauma didn’t exist at the time when Buddha, Christ or Mohammed offered their leadership and teachings to their followers. In some ways, this level of composite (personal + societal + ecological) trauma didn’t exist even in the times of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Yes, poor people and people of global majority (another name of black indigenous and other people of color) around the world have been experiencing deep racial trauma, they have traditionally had a strong sense of belonging to each other and/or amazing pathways to release their grief and surrender to mystery for guidance. Now, our collective trauma across the global population has reached unprecedented levels at the time when our sense of belonging has been eroded to unprecedented levels and the ecological and climate challenges we face as earthlings of this planet are also extremely scary.
(You and me. We are needed. There is no pool of non-traumatized people outside of us that is going to lead us out of any crisis. I have tremendous respect for psychotherapy AND one on one professional psychotherapy services aren’t ever going to be enough to heal the scale of trauma humanity is facing. So if we are going to lead ourselves out of any crisis , we will need to collectively deal with our trauma and grief.)
I submit that not just our climate movement but also our racial, gender or economic justice movements and our efforts to address human supremacy will not go too far
— unless we address our individual, social and collective traumas,
— unless we become authentic and vulnerable with our friends,
— unless we learn how to embrace grief, and
— unless we know how to build “relational soil”.
If we can vulnerably embrace and release trauma stuck in our bodies in safe spaces, however, we can begin to unearth connection, courage, creativity and resilience as a community! I highly recommend being embedded in a sane community based on the three pillars of sanity so that one can use this power of belonging to actualize powerful and strategic actions. Grief and vulnerability are not the only tools we need to build our movement but they are utterly indispensable.
— Kritee (Kanko),
A climate scientist working for Environmental Defense Fund and founding meditation teacher of Boundless in Motion.
First draft posted on September 29, 2020.