The Trauma of Everyday Life


Dreams of the Buddha

Once, when asked, “Who are you?” by a bedazzled admirer, the Buddha replied simply, “I am awake.” This famous statement is often misinterpreted. While it speaks of his uncovering of the Four Noble Truths—of suffering, its cause, its relief, and the path to its release—it can make it seem as if the Buddha never slept, as if he never dreamed, as if perpetual alertness was his main attribute. The Buddha was certainly awake, but he was not on guard. He was attentive to all who came his way, alert to their traumas and to their reluctance to admit to their traumas, and he was equally attuned to himself. In awakening to his true nature, the Buddha did not neglect the reality of those around him. A concern for others defined his attention.

One of the most important steps in the Buddha’s awakening came in his sleep. Right after remembering his childhood joy under the rose-apple tree, after taking his meal of rice pudding and being abandoned by his five former friends, after throwing his begging bowl into the river and watching it float upstream, he had a series of dreams. They are recorded in one of the original collections of Buddhist sutras* but have been given scant attention over the years. The dreams were catalytic for the Buddha’s growth and development. Not only did they reveal much about his own history of trauma, about who he was before his enlightenment and what he had to recover to get there, but they helped open him to a dormant capacity of his mind, one that he was then able to use to help others with their suffering. In dreaming himself into wakefulness, the Buddha remembered, and took possession of, a quality of human relatedness he had all but ignored previously. It was this recovery that made his enlightenment possible.

Dreams are dissociative by definition. They occur when the rest of the mind is shut down, and they allow difficult feelings to be expressed in symbolic form. In most cases, they are forgotten upon awakening or remembered only in bits and pieces, the forces of dissociation keeping the feelings disguised and away from waking consciousness. This was not the case for the Buddha at this crucial time in his life. In the process of turning his mind around, he became ready to face something he had been estranged from, and he needed his dreams to help him.

The Buddha remembered his five dreams and recorded them for posterity; he may even have been aware of them as he slept. The dreams put something to rest in the Buddha while also waking something up. They took away his need to enact his dissociated feelings, as he had done in his years of ascetic self-abasement, and they lucidly revealed something about himself he had been ignoring. Simply speaking, they showed him that he could be kind. In his years of spiritual searching he had perfected all kinds of esoteric talents. He could take his mind into spheres of nothingness, go for days and weeks without eating, and rend his flesh with the best of them, but he was still operating with barely disguised contempt, not benevolence, toward himself and his world. When the enlightened Buddha told his admirer that he was awake, it was this basic kindness he was pointing to. With the help of his dreams, he had awakened to his true nature, and his true nature, to his utter surprise, was a relational one.

The passage in the sutras that portrays the Buddha’s dreams is an interesting one. It begins by describing him as “not yet wholly awakened” but as a “being awakening” to whom there came “five great dreams.”1 The idea that there was a period in the Buddha’s life when he was in the process of awakening is special in itself. It is not universally accepted in Buddhist circles that such an intermediate period existed. There are whole schools of thought that have grown up around the idea of “sudden enlightenment” and others that defend a “gradual” one. But here is a clear reference to something in between. A special time in the Buddha’s life when he was awakening and one in which his struggle to awaken occurred while he was dreaming. The relationship of this to the movement from implicit to narrative memory is interesting. The Buddha’s awakening rested on his dream life, on a creative transformation of that which was lurking in his unconscious memory, on his ability to bring something unknown into awareness, to give it a narrative structure that could allow him to hold it in conscious self-reflection. This happened after his childhood memory, in which the Buddha began to take feelings seriously. Feelings led him to dreaming. And dreaming showed him how to relate.

The five dreams are all of a piece. They begin with one that immediately equates the awakening Buddha with an infant lying on his mother’s body, and they proceed to paint a developmental picture of the emergence of an interactive self. While the dreams are traditionally thought to foretell the future, they quite specifically evoke the Buddha’s dissociated past. In narrative form they link the Buddha’s solitary enlightenment, won by virtue of his own individual effort and intelligence, to a recovery of the interpersonal foundations upon which his emergent self depended. The dreams make clear that awakening was possible only when the Buddha’s inherent capacity for interpersonal relatedness could suffuse the entirety of his mental life.

As the sutra describes:

Just before the Perfect One, accomplished and fully enlightened, attained enlightenment, five momentous dreams appeared to him. What five? While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, the great earth was his couch; Himalaya, king of mountains, was his pillow; his left hand lay in the Eastern Ocean, his right hand lay in the Western Ocean, his feet lay in the Southern Ocean. This was the first dream that appeared to him, and it foretold his discovery of the supreme full enlightenment.

While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, a creeper grew up out of his navel and stood touching the clouds. That was the second dream that appeared to him, and it foretold his discovery of the Noble Eightfold Path.

While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, white grubs with black heads crawled from his feet to his knees and covered them. This was the third dream that appeared to him, and it foretold that many white-clothed laymen would go for refuge to the Perfect One during his life.

While he was only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, four birds of different colours came from the four quarters, and, as they alighted at his feet, they all became white. This was the fourth dream that appeared to him, and it foretold that the four castes … would realize the supreme deliverance when the Dhamma and the Discipline had been proclaimed by the Perfect One.

While he was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, he walked upon a huge mountain of dirt without being fouled by the dirt. This was the fifth dream that appeared to him, and it foretold that although the Perfect One would obtain the requisites of robes, alms food, abode, and medicine, yet he would use them without greed or delusion or clinging, perceiving their dangers and understanding their purpose.2

The dreams themselves are amazing, and the traditional interpretations neat, lyrical, and inspiring. But the emotional nature of the dream content is worth paying attention to as well. It does not seem as if the traditional interpretations, pointing toward the future, quite do justice to the dreamer’s emotional experience, linking him to his own personal history. In the first dream, for example, the sleeping Buddha is one with the universe. He is quite literally dreaming an oceanic feeling, with the mountains his pillow, the earth his couch, and his floating limbs supported by the water. He may well have been foretelling his enlightenment as the traditional commentaries suggest, but he was also telegraphing his recovery of the feminine, of his maternal aptitude. The earth as mother, the oceans as amniotic fluid, and the couch as her lap: These symbols would have evoked a maternal presence long before the advent of Freud. The Buddha’s dream was not just predicting the future; in its depiction of the redolence of the present moment it was also recalling the past. His memory of childhood joy had opened him to being, and it appeared to him in his dream in the symbolic form of the earth and its waters as mother.

As if to prove the point, the Buddha’s second dream literally grows from his navel. Vines creep to the sky, connecting him to the clouds and, by inference, to the heaven realm in which his mother took refuge after her death. If, as the traditional commentary suggests, the dream is predicting the discovery of the Noble Eightfold Path, it is doing so by revealing that the path to awakening does not involve withdrawal from the world but affirms a profound connection with it. The vines entwine the Buddha with the universe. They grow from his navel, reestablishing his original connection with his mother and reaffirming the primacy of his relational nature. The simultaneity of difference and connection, of separateness and unity, is painted by the image. The awakening Buddha is dreaming of the connectedness that emerges when one’s primitive agonies are resolved, of the relatedness that takes the place of self-pity, of the inherently engaged nature of the self. He is dreaming of selflessness while revealing that there is no self apart from the world.

The third dream is the most mysterious. White grubs with black heads crawling from his feet to his knees. To me, the grubs are like Winnicott’s primitive agonies or Eigen’s broken dreams: the leftover remnants of childhood experience that make our skin crawl. They make me think of the ascetics of the Buddha’s time, dedicated to self-mortification, and of the many people of our own time, tormented by self-hatred, who are as devoted to psychological self-mortification as those of the Buddha’s time were to the physical. The grubs are sinister, like maggots in the flesh of the ancient ascetics, but also redemptive, like cicadas, which in Japan represent rebirth, crawling as they do from the ground every summer to fill the air with their distinctive background song. In this imagery, the Buddha’s third dream aligns his awakening with therapists’ insights about aborted emotional experience. The dream suggests that agony, like the white grubs with black heads, can be a vehicle of awakening and that the broken aspects of our being have within themselves the template for wholeness. Each person who came to the Buddha brought his own individual anguish along, and each such person, in harnessing his capacity for remembering, let that anguish crawl upward.

I thought of this dream during a workshop I was teaching a little while ago. A handsome young man was sitting all the way in the rear of the room, twenty or thirty rows back. He was one of only a few African Americans in the workshop, a man of about thirty, confident in his bearings. He wore a knit cap on his head and commanded the attention of all as he spoke. “I’ve been struggling with something all day,” he began. “When I meditate now, I am filled with a feeling of loss. It has to do with my father, who left when I was young. There’s a lot of anger, and I can feel myself wondering if it was my fault, even though I know that’s ridiculous. But when I stay with it more, I just feel it turning into a kind of deadness: a lethargy, as if nothing matters. I feel myself sinking into the feeling and it feels dangerous, as if life has been stripped of meaning. What would you suggest?”

I was struck by his sincerity and his courage in speaking of something so personal in front of such a large group. I could feel him missing the father he hardly knew and turning that pain against himself, as if he were broken or cursed. I thought of the Buddha’s loss of his mother and of the process of recovery that his dreams signified. And I remembered how the Buddha, like this man, first sank into nothingness and then willed himself toward deadness. His third dream, in which there is some kind of creative emergence from the grubby ground, gave me the inspiration to respond.

“These feelings of rage and distress and despair that you talk about,” I said, circling something I knew I would have trouble articulating. “They only exist because of your original love for your father. They are like signposts back to that love. His leaving took that love with him, or appeared to, but you will see, if you stay with your meditation, that all of that love is still there in you. From the infant’s perspective, it’s directed at only one or two people, but even if they failed you, that capacity for love is still there in you. It’s too bad for your father that he didn’t get to know it—but there are plenty of people now who will be grateful for it. There’s a whole roomful right here.”

There was a danger of glibness in my response, but I think the gentleman in the workshop felt the intention of my words. While they were framed around notions of love, they were also drawn from our discussions of Buddhist and Western psychology. As long as he was locked into the self-image of being a fatherless child, cut off from the one whom he needed, this man was caught in his presumed identity. He was aware of his trauma, but he was using it to distance himself from life. He had a story about himself but no access to who he might have been before his trauma derailed him. I was trying to use his feelings of deprivation as a means of bringing him back in touch with a more fundamental truth about himself, to guide him back toward—or at least help him to visualize—the intrinsic relational foundation of his being. By not fighting with his internal wounds, by not insisting on making them go away, by not recruiting everyone in his intimate life to save him from his feelings of abandonment, by simply resting with them the way we do in meditation, he could learn, as the Buddha did, that he already was the love he thought he lacked.

The fourth dream, of the four birds coming together as one, speaks of the sense of internal cohesion that comes when the self is no longer held hostage by the traumas of childhood or the conflicts of adult life: When the self, in all of its multiplicity, is known as one. The four birds of different colors, reflective in the traditional accounts of the four castes in Indian society, are also suggestive of dissociation and estrangement. However it may be conceived, the traumatized self is fragmented, divided into parts, unable to hold the entire range of its history. Experience is constricted because the full range cannot be tolerated. The ground for holding it is not strong enough.

One association comes to mind in reference to this fourth dream of the Buddha. It has to do with a patient of mine who suffered a terrible loss of multiple members of her family in a tragic accident. Several years afterward, she began to write of the life she had lived. She wrote a series of remarkable pieces, each one redolent of one of her deceased family members or of an earlier time with them. The actual writing put her into an almost hypnotic reverie in which the reality of the lost time was more vivid than the one she was now living in. Each piece of writing was a bit of recovery that made her feel less lost herself. But after composing each piece, she was for a long time unable or unwilling to read any of them over. Each fragment of her life had its own reality, but the totality of her loss was too much to bear at any one time. The Buddha’s dream, of the four birds coming together as one, speaks to my patient’s predicament. It was a difficult thing to bring those fragments together. For a long time she could not.

The Buddha’s fifth dream evokes both the extraordinary and the ordinary nature of his achievement. He walks on a mountain of dirt and is not fouled by it. Note that the dirt is not transformed into gold or anything. It stays dirty. But the Buddha, astride his pile of dirt, is untouched by it. This is another version of the third dream, in which that which was seen as a barrier to awakening is now known as the foundation upon which it rests. Enlightenment does not mean getting rid of anything; it means changing one’s frame of reference so that all things become enlightening. The unity of the Buddha’s experience is emphasized in this dream; he is not dividing himself into worthy and unworthy pieces; he is one being, indivisible, immune from the tendency to double back and beat up on himself. He has seen the worst in himself and not been taken down.

All five of the Buddha’s dreams make this point. Rather than incompleteness or interruption, he is dreaming tolerance and wholeness. All of his previous efforts to eliminate the dirt from his being were overkill. What he found, instead, in his discovery of the Middle Path, was an incredible balancing capacity. He need not sleep on a bed of nails, nor walk on water; he could simply rest in his own skin without picking at it. That his dreams showed him this capacity in imagery steeped in the mother-infant bond speaks to the essential relational nature of his awakening. The same themes that Western therapists describe between mother and infant found their mature expression in the Buddha’s self-analysis.

Before his turnaround under the rose-apple tree, the Buddha was in rebellion against being. He was trying to extinguish it by any means possible, using all of his masculine energy to subdue, control, and conquer his body and soul. The ideology behind this effort was one of master and slave. Being was thought to obscure spirit. One could find God by squeezing out the life energy or by rising above it. This was the motivation behind virtually all of the Buddha’s preenlightenment efforts. After his memory, his whole approach changed. No longer driven by self-hatred and no longer exclusively identified with being the doer, the Buddha became able to give himself room. He opened the playing field and became curious about what was there. His dreams heralded the recovery of his female element, the emerging freedom of his creative capacities, and the reestablishment of the maternal holding environment from which he had become estranged. He could now reach inside and dream.

The Buddha, in summoning imagery of his long-forgotten mother, not only dreamed the origin of his trauma but also dreamed the means of its release. As I tried to explain to the gentleman in my workshop, the acknowledgment of personal agony sometimes connects a person to who they were before they were traumatized. This seems to have been the case for the Buddha. His five dreams, taken together, paint a picture of the recovery of what is today called “implicit relational knowing.”3 This is a form of “collaborative communication”4 with deep roots in early life that researchers have identified as the most important bulwark against developmental trauma.

In implicit relational knowing, there is a nonconscious flow of feelings between people that helps them know how to be with each other. This is the form of communication that infants and their parents rely upon before language. It is different from the reflective/verbal knowing that grows out of speech and it seems to be mediated by what brain scientists are now calling “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons are brain cells in the motor cortex that fire when one person sees another person do something. They mimic the observed 'font-size:10.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:blue'>5 writes one contemporary researcher. “How well the infant-caregiver relationship maintains positive engagement and regulates the infant’s fearful arousal will have escalating consequences.”6 Parents make use of implicit relational knowing to help their infants cope with difficult feelings. An attuned and responsive caregiver senses what a baby is experiencing and strives to make things tolerable. He does this not by thinking about it but by simply knowing and responding.

The Buddha’s dreams put him back in touch with his own capacity for knowing. After reconnecting to the joyful and creative element encapsulated by his childhood memory, he found a maternal energy infusing his imagination in his dreams. He moved from a position in which he was a lonely, isolated individual struggling to subdue his unruly self to one in which he was irrevocably aware of the intrinsic relational backdrop of his being. Despite the early loss of his biological mother, he now saw his rootedness in relationship as primary. As Michael Eigen, one of the few contemporary psychoanalysts who does not shy away from the mystical aspects of the field, has described it, “If you penetrate to the core of your aloneness you will not only find yourself, there will also be this unknown boundless presence. Is it you? Is it other than you? What is it? An unknown, boundless presence at the very core of your aloneness. No matter how deep you go, you’ll find it there.”7

The Buddha’s dreams, envisaged when he was awakening, reveal his version of this unknown, boundless support. Coming on the heels of his memory, they are evidence of his psyche in upheaval. No longer driven by an ideology of subjugation, the Buddha can be seen in the process of reconfiguring himself. What is most apparent in the dreams is the opening up of his self. It is as if all the doors and windows are thrown ajar. The sun and the wind and the waters and the earth and the birds and the plants and even the bugs and dirt come streaming in. The lonely, isolated individual struggling with the feelings of being an ill-fitting axle in the wheel of life suddenly finds himself supported by the very world that was heretofore felt to be threatening. And this happens through the depiction in narrative memory of the connection with his mother that he had previously been unable to acknowledge or articulate.

The Buddha’s mother, an enlivening presence stripped away before she could be really known, pervades his dreams and becomes the substrate of his enlightenment. She imbues his imagination and, in so doing, returns to him a capacity for relating in a maternal way. The Buddha’s genius lay in his ability to take this capacity, newly returned to his mind, and deploy it in his spiritual search. He took the hint from his dreams and used it to balance his striving. Out of his implicit memory he found the female element he needed to make a stable path for himself. A comment from the artist Marcel Duchamp makes clear that this opening of a channel from implicit to narrative memory can have just this quality of joyful recovery. “Art cannot be understood through the intellect,” wrote Duchamp, “but is felt through an emotion presenting some analogy with a religious faith or a sexual attraction—an aesthetic echo. The ‘victim’ of an aesthetic echo is in a position comparable to that of a man in love, or of a believer, who dismisses automatically his demanding ego and, helpless, submits to a pleasurable and mysterious constraint. While exercising his taste, he adopts a commanding attitude. When touched by the aesthetic revelation, the same man, in an almost ecstatic mood, becomes receptive and humble.”8

The Buddha, before his aesthetic echo, was in the classic position of a traumatized individual acting out dissociated feelings without knowing what was being expressed. In his renunciation of desire, as enacted first in his abandonment of his wife and child and then in his ascetic practices, he was expressing the same “loss of faith in human relatedness”9 that children with developmental trauma also show. Clinical studies of such children reveal that a preponderance of them have parents who have related to them in either a helpless and fearful way or a hostile and self-referential one. The children of helpless and fearful parents, in particular, have a very difficult time later in life. Their parents tend to be sweet and fragile, not hostile or aggressive, but they exhibit much more “apprehension, hesitation or withdrawal”10in response to their children’s overtures than other parents. While they give in to their infant’s entreaties eventually, they “often hesitated, moved away, or tried to deflect the infant’s requests for close contact before giving in.”11 The children of such parents, researchers have found, become increasingly disorganized and defeated as they grow. They feel invalidated, as if crucial aspects of their experience do not matter. They use dissociative strategies to cope with their difficult feelings rather than turning to their uncomfortable parents for help, and they often resort to one of two interpersonal coping strategies by the age of three to five. In the first, termed a controlling-caregiving strategy of attachment, they find some way of taking care of the parent in lieu of being taken care of themselves. In the second, termed a controlling-punitive strategy, they garner a parent’s attention by “entering into angry, coercive, or humiliating interactions with the parent.”12 The controlling nature of both of these strategies makes satisfying later relationships much more difficult to achieve.

If the tendency in Buddhist culture to diminish the import of the Buddha’s early loss of his mother can be taken as reflective of his own early experience, then we can assume a kind of invalidation at the heart of the Buddha’s being. While his family, like the culture in general, may have been eager to make it seem as if it did not matter that his mother had died, the young child may have been consistently given a message that his deepest feelings had no foundation in reality. This could account for his self-reported “delicate” nature. The family’s helpless and fearful attitude could have easily been internalized, obscuring the more complex mix of emotions that might be expected.

The Buddha’s dreams show him to be healing himself through the very dissociative defenses he must have once used to cope with his trauma. But instead of those defenses cutting him off from imponderable agonies, they are now used to return a sense of unknown boundless presence. In letting the imagery of the mother move from implicit to narrative memory, as the Buddha did in remembering his dreams, his own implicit relational capacities, locked up and dissociated by the early trauma, could be set free. In demonstrating this, the Buddha was making an important example for the ages. For almost no one is exempt from trauma. While some people have it in a much more pronounced way than others, the unpredictable and unstable nature of things makes life inherently traumatic. What the Buddha revealed through his dreams was that, true as this may be, the mind, by its very nature, is capable of holding trauma much the way a mother naturally relates to a baby. One does not have to be helpless and fearful, nor does one have to be hostile and self-referential. The mind knows intuitively how to find a middle path. Its implicit relational capacity is hardwired.

There is a passage in a Buddhist book by Jack Kornfield, written in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, that shows how useful this meditative version of implicit relational knowing can be in the treatment of trauma. The passage describes the experience of a Vietnam veteran at a meditation retreat who finds himself confronted by memories of atrocities he witnessed while a soldier. While it is specifically about the trauma of war, it can also be read as a metaphor for any kind of disruptive emotional experience.

The passage begins with the traumatized veteran reminiscing about his time as a field medical corpsman with the Marine Corps ground forces in the mountains on the border between North and South Vietnam. He saw many people, both soldiers and civilians, killed and injured. For years after his discharge he had recurring nightmares at least twice a week about being back in the war zone, “facing the same dangers, witnessing the same incalculable suffering, waking suddenly alert, sweating, scared.” 13

After eight years, he attended his first meditation retreat and found, to his horror, that in the silence of the sanctuary his nightmares came to fill his waking consciousness as well. The peaceful California redwood grove in which the retreat was held became the scene of multiple wartime flashbacks redolent of the hospital, morgue, and battlefield of the war. It was not what he was expecting nor was it what he wanted. But he came to understand that he was finally experiencing emotions he had been unprepared for when he entered the Marines. This gave him some courage to stay with the feelings longer than he really wanted to.

“I began to realize that my mind was gradually yielding up memories so terrifying, so life-denying, and so spiritually eroding that I had ceased to be consciously aware that I was still carrying them around. I was, in short, beginning to undergo a profound catharsis by openly facing that which I had most feared and therefore most strongly suppressed.”14

With encouragement from his meditation teachers, he also saw that he was afraid of what he was unleashing in himself. Having released the wartime images he was carrying in his unconscious, he became worried that he would now be at their mercy, plagued by them in day as well as by night. But what he found was just the opposite. While he did retrieve the horrible images, he rediscovered a lost innocence as well. The beauty of the jungle, the glistening white sands of the Vietnamese beaches, and the intense greens of the rice paddies at dawn all filtered back to him. Not only did he remember his trauma, he remembered himself before his trauma.

“What also arose at the retreat for the first time was a deep sense of compassion for my past and present self: compassion for the idealistic, young would-be physician forced to witness the unspeakable obscenities of which humankind is capable, and for the haunted veteran who could not let go of memories he could not acknowledge he carried.”15

This newfound kindness, toward himself and his history, stayed with him after the retreat. It became a touchstone in his mind that accompanied his troubling recollections, robbing them of their sting. While his memories persisted, his nightmares did not. The last of them occurred while he was fully awake, sitting in silence in the meditation hall, the watchful gaze of a Buddha holding him in its sight.

When I read this passage at a recent talk, a therapist in the audience raised her hand. She was moved by the account and reassured in a fundamental way in terms of her own work. Although she was a trauma therapist, she was anxious about bringing such material, partially submerged or partially repressed, into her patients’ awareness because of the fear of overwhelming them with their own feelings. She was a therapist burdened by all that she had heard, traumatized by trauma, dangerously close to burning out, who had a protective attitude toward her patients, for whom she clearly cared deeply. She was trying to protect them from themselves, however, and so was shouldering their traumas instead of helping them accept what had happened. She was missing, or had lost, the faith or confidence that something greater than trauma could emerge from the therapeutic process. And she was also, I thought, protecting herself from her clients’ pain. Listening to the passage quoted above gave her a vision of what was possible, a vision of the connection both she and her patients were capable of, even in the face of tremendous personal suffering. While the example may seem extreme, its lesson is basic. When we stop distancing ourselves from the pain in the world, our own or others’, we create the possibility of a new experience, one that often surprises because of how much joy, connection, or relief it yields. Destruction may continue, but humanity shines through.

A therapist colleague of mine, a professor at the New School for Social Research named Jeremy Safran, tells a personal story about an encounter with a Tibetan Buddhist lama that makes much the same point. In the epigraph of a book he edited about encounters between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, Safran describes an unexpected exchange with his accomplished teacher that puts me in mind of the Buddha’s dreams. As Safran remembers, his Tibetan teacher, Karma Thinley Rinpoche, once asked him, “in his broken, heavily accented English,” how Western psychology treats nervousness.

“Why do you ask?” Safran responded.

“Well,” he replied, “I’ve always been a nervous person. Even when I was a little boy I was nervous, and I still am. Especially when I have to talk to large groups of people or to people I don’t know, I get nervous.”

It is best to let the rest of the story come directly from Dr. Safran:

As was often the case with the questions that Karma Thinley asked me, I found myself drawing a complete blank. Part of it was the difficulty of trying to find the words to explain something to somebody whose grasp of English was limited, but there was another more important factor. On the face of it this was a simple question. But Karma Thinley was a highly respected lama, now in his sixties, who had spent years mastering the most sophisticated Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques. Those who knew Karma Thinley considered him to be an enlightened being. In the West psychotherapists are increasingly turning to Buddhist meditation as a valuable treatment for a variety of problems including anxiety. Who was I to tell him how to deal with anxiety? And how was it possible that Karma Thinley, with all of his experience meditating could still be troubled by such everyday concerns? How could an enlightened person be socially anxious? Was he really enlightened? What does it mean to be enlightened? My head swirled with all of these inchoate questions, and for a moment my mind stopped. I felt a sense of warmth coming from Karma Thinley and I felt warmly towards him. I felt young, soft, open and uncertain about everything I knew.16

When I first read this passage, I called Safran on the phone, even though we did not really know each other. I thought it was a beautiful description of the state of mind that Buddhism encourages. I liked the way the lama used his social anxiety to topple Safran’s expectations of him, and I appreciated the deeper message. Awakening does not mean an end to difficulty; it means a change in the way those difficulties are met. “Young, soft, open and uncertain about everything I knew.” There was a recovery inherent in the passage, a recovery of what Michael Eigen had called the unknown boundless presence at the core of aloneness, of what Duchamp christened the aesthetic echo, of what the Buddha found in his dreams. It is not only trauma that is lodged in implicit memory: The intrinsic relational knowing at the heart of the infant-caregiver bond is hidden there too. The Buddha, in his wakefulness, brought it out of the shadows and let it fill his being. As rejuvenating as this was, in some sense the Buddha was just rediscovering the wheel. Parents the world over have been clued in to their own version of the Buddha’s wisdom for ages. “It is an important part of what a mother does,” wrote Winnicott in a description of how she handles an infant’s rage at the discovery that she is not completely under his control, “to be the first person to take the baby through this first version of the many that will be encountered, of attack that is survived. This is the right moment in the child’s development, because of the child’s relative feebleness, so that destruction can fairly easily be survived.”17 Like the Buddha, Winnicott knew that trauma was inevitable, even for infants. A mother’s ability to help her baby through it with kindness and care is what the Buddha remembered.

Safran told me he was grateful for my call. His publisher, a Buddhist press, had urged him to leave this passage out of the book. Like the Buddha in the immediate aftermath of his awakening when he despaired of anyone understanding him, the publisher felt it would be too confusing for the readers.


* Aṅguttara Nikāya (Book of Gradual Sayings)

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