The Trauma of Everyday Life


A Relational Home

Clear-eyed, compassionate, and awake, the Buddha was a realist. With no dust obscuring his vision, he was able to sum up the entire human predicament in a single word. “Dukkha!” he exclaimed in his First Noble Truth as he held to his vow to speak the beneficial truth even if it was disagreeable. Suffering! Its reality permeates our lives, shadowing the good times and insinuating itself into everything. Trauma is a basic fact of life, according to the Buddha. It is not just an occasional thing that happens only to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away. Although there are occasions when it is more pronounced and awful and occasions when it is actually horrific, trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of our biology. Churning, chaotic, and unpredictable, our lives are stretched across a tenuous canvas. Much of our energy goes into resisting this fragility, yet it is there nonetheless. The Buddha found it useful to put people in touch with their vulnerability, yet he had one important qualification to his dictum to always speak the constructive but distasteful truth. Only if he knew the time to say it would he confront people with their traumas. Only if the relationship could sustain it would he gentle them into themselves. In specifying this, the Buddha was making an important point, one not lost on today’s psychotherapists. Trauma becomes sufferable, even illuminating, when there is a relational home1 to hold it in. Without this, it is simply too much to bear.

The Buddha did not come to this understanding out of nowhere. His own personal journey involved coming to terms with the loss of a mother he, for all intents and purposes, never knew. As therapists who specialize in “developmental” or “relational” trauma have come to realize, the first few years of life are critical for one’s self-esteem and self-confidence. The healthy attachment of a baby to a “good-enough” parent facilitates a comfort with emotional experience that makes the challenges of adult life and adult intimacy less intimidating. When there is serious malattunement in early life, however, there is often a traumatic residue that manifests in surprising and disturbing ways. The Buddha, like many of us, acted out this residue. Abandoning his wife and child, debasing himself in the forest striving to liberate himself from his mind and body, his spiritual journey can be read, from one perspective at least, as an expression of primitive agony.

Primitive agonies exist in many of us. Originating in painful experiences that occurred before we had the cognitive capacities to know what was happening, they tend to blindside us, traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting a pain we do not understand. The Buddha’s story is a perfect motif for this. At the heart of his life was a trauma he would not have been able to remember: the loss of the mother who so delighted in him for the first week of his life. This loss lay hidden in his implicit memory, coloring his experience in ways he could feel but never know, encouraging a feeling of self-hatred and discontent. As one of today’s leading neuroscientists, Joseph LeDoux, has put it after studying the impact of stress on the brain, emotional memory may be forever.2 The Buddha, his emotional memory imprinted with profound loss, had to work with one of the most fundamental traumas of everyday life: the death of a loved one. And he had to do it by himself, without the interpersonal support he always gave to others.

The Buddha made it clear that the way out of suffering is by going through it. He taught the Four Noble Truths and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the means of doing just this. Beginning with the breath, expanding to the body, feelings, states of mind, and awareness itself, the progression of mindfulness teaches that trauma can be used to open the mind. When we are no longer dissociating critical aspects of our experience, setting ourselves up in opposition to elements we are trying to avoid, we can finally relax. The Buddha had a taste of this when he remembered his childhood joy under the rose-apple tree. Settling into himself without falling prey to his usual set of self-judgments, he had his first sense of the collaborative communication his mind was capable of. He became a vessel for feelings, reproducing the delight his mother had felt herself unable to contain, while also touching the fear that came to consume both mother and child. In the reconfiguration of his method that followed, the Buddha found that feelings did not have to frighten him. Even the unpleasant ones of primitive agony could be attended to with sufficient practice. Trauma could be known, not only as a personal tragedy but as an impersonal reflection of an underlying and universal reality. Suffering is part and parcel of human existence. It is in all of us, in one form or another. The choice we have is how to relate to it. We can try to avoid it or we can use it as grist for the mill.

Western therapists have long recognized how urgently the self wishes to keep trauma from disturbing the peace. As Winnicott’s biographer, Adam Phillips, has written, “The ego in the Freudian story—ourselves as we prefer to be seen—is like a picture with a frame around it, and the function of the frame is to keep the picture intact.”3 That which is unacceptable to the self—the traumatic residue, for instance—is denied or extruded. Anything that might cause too much anxiety is taken out of the picture. In the Western view, the best one can hope for is an oscillation between honest self-examination and dissociation. “Only the dialectic, the see-saw, between recognition and misrecognition makes things bearable; were we to straightforwardly recognize the essential aspects of ourselves, it is suggested, we would not be able to bear the anxiety.”4

The Buddha saw another possibility. Slowly but surely, he found, it is possible to expand the frame. Beginning with the breath and gradually learning to include the entire panoply of human experience, it is possible to develop mindfulness to degrees not envisioned by most Western therapists. The key, taught the Buddha, lies in not taking trauma personally. When it is seen as a natural reflection of the chaotic universe of which we are a part, it loses its edge and can become a deeper object of mindfulness. In the famous stories of Kisagotami and patācārā, victims of what we would call unspeakable traumas, this was the Buddha’s first intervention. “You thought that you alone had lost a son. The law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence,” he told Kisagotami. “It is not only today that you have met with calamity and disaster,” he cautioned patācārā, “but throughout this beginningless round of existence, weeping over the loss of sons and others dear to you, you have shed more tears than the waters of the four oceans.” You think the suffering is your suffering, taught the Buddha, but all suffering is one. This does not mean that it stops being painful, but, like the splinter in his foot, it becomes an inevitable consequence of a human embodiment.

Not all traumas are inevitable consequences of human embodiments, however. Many of them involve willful choices made by conscious human beings to inflict pain on others. It is not the most helpful thing to say to a victim of torture or sexual abuse that their trauma is nothing personal. Yet the Buddha’s teachings offer something important in these cases too. A patient of mine put it very succinctly. After many years in therapy, he began to talk once again about times he was molested in his youth. He had told me the details when he first came into therapy but had not talked about it much since. “I’ve talked about the events,” he said, “but never about my feelings about them.” As the Buddha articulated, feelings matter. They are the bridge between the personal and whatever lies beyond. When my patient was able to talk about the profound disappointment he felt in the people he had most trusted, he was able to relate to his own experience much more compassionately. In the place of his chronic shame and self-criticism came a mourning and sadness for the boy he had once been. He began to see how one consequence of his abuse was the way he was keeping people who legitimately cared about him at bay. When feelings like my patient’s are not acknowledged, a protective cover is required. The frame of our ego boxes us in and our lives are foreshortened. We remain tied to the past, fearing something that has already happened but that we have never fully known.

Therapists of war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have found something similar. A particularly astute therapist, Dr. Russell Carr, has written about his work with these veterans in a way that parallels my patient’s insight. Inspired by Stolorow’s Trauma and Human Existence and using one particular soldier’s experience as a case study, Dr. Carr spelled out the path of recovery. “It is not the violence he witnessed in Afghanistan that haunts him; it is his feelings about the violence he inflicted. He often maintained that, given the circumstances again, he would kill the same people, but that doesn’t make it any more bearable.”5 Dr. Carr’s veteran needed a relational home for his feelings of guilt and anguish. Before working with his therapist, he had no such home and no way to make sense of his feelings, let alone admit to them. His only notion was that, as a soldier, he should be able to handle anything. The frame of his ego required that he be solid as a rock. Unable to be so, he drank. Dissociating from the troubling feelings, he remained haunted by them. Stuck in his implicit memory, they never could be acknowledged. He needed to talk with another person so that he could make some sense of things. Only then could he let down his guard and feel like a person again. As Dr. Carr put it, “In the absence of a sustaining relational home where feelings can be verbalized, understood, and held, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing.”6

Carr’s finding that the trauma lay not in the violence his patient witnessed but in the “feelings about the violence he inflicted” is instructive. Unbearable feelings become tolerable when the capacity for mindful knowing is strengthened. We don’t have to be war veterans to experience unbearable anguish, although this does not diminish the horror of what war veterans have gone through. But as the Buddha made clear, we all have to deal with something. Trauma is a fact of everyday life. Just staying with the issue of anger: We all have shame and anguish about the violence we have inflicted. Wishing that it were not so does not make it go away.

But we do wish. A patient came in to my office recently and asked me for a favor. He wanted to know if I could give his wife a mantra to help her manage her pain and stress. She was used to working very hard but was getting older and was being nudged, ever so surely, out of her privileged position at work. She didn’t know what to do with herself and was becoming increasingly anxious. She knew that her husband was getting something out of working with me and hoped I could work some magic for her. I wished I had a mantra for her. But I recognized this as another example of someone resisting the trauma of everyday life. If only there was a formula that could make it disappear! I told my patient that one of the traditional functions of mantra in the East was to open a space of longing. Imploring God, through the repetition of his name, to help us accept the traumas that have befallen us and take responsibility for those we have caused, is very different from asking Him to restore us to perfect harmony. My patient’s wife did not believe in God, but he thought she would grasp the point. Trying to blot out trauma leaves us vulnerable to enacting its residue. He thought she might be able to devise her own mantra, one that made room for imperfection and disappointment but also connected her to the tenderness he knew she harbored.

The Buddha’s most fundamental discovery was that the human mind is, in itself, the relational home that is needed to process trauma. While we all tend to think of ourselves as isolated individuals adrift in a hostile universe, the Buddha ultimately saw this way of thinking as delusional. It may feel as if you are all alone, he taught, but that is not the whole picture. We are relational creatures, our minds reflecting the organizational patterns of our earliest interactions. If you go into aloneness without the customary fear, you may be surprised at the sense of unknown boundless presence you will find. The implicit relational knowing of the mother is hardwired into each of our minds. Obscured by our habits of thought, by our egocentric self-preoccupations, and by the primitive agonies that hold us in their grip, this illimitable awareness is already there for the asking. It is a renewable resource, ever present, accessible to those willing to go through the traumas of everyday life to find it. Good therapists make this palpable in the interpersonal environment. They replicate the holding environment of Winnicott’s mother-infant dynamic and create a context in which difficult feelings can be known as they never could before. But the Buddha’s insight took this one important step further.

The Buddha’s story illustrates that a relational home can ultimately be found within. This does not mean there is no place for psychotherapy, no role for therapists like Winnicott or Carr, only that the function of such interventions will ultimately be to point the way toward this truth. In losing his mother at such an early age, the Buddha affirmed the underlying and inescapable anguish at the heart of existence. While it is compelling to read his journey toward enlightenment as a process of coming to terms with this trauma, I believe it is much more. Not only did he find a way of awakening to and releasing his own pain, he figured out something that applies across the board. As the Buddha made clear, suffering is a universal truth. While the things that bother us cannot always be eliminated, we can change the way we relate to them. In uncovering the inherent relational capacity of the mind, which finds its natural expression in a mother’s concern for her baby, he found the transformative medicine he was looking for. Trauma, if it doesn’t destroy us, wakes us up both to our own relational capacities and to the suffering of others. Not only does it make us hurt, it makes us more human, caring, and wise.

There is a beautiful example of this in the annals of Tibetan Buddhism. An eighteenth-century Mongolian monk, Jankya Rolway Dorje, wrote a poem in the immediate aftermath of his awakening that spoke of his personal agony while clearly laying out the role of trauma in waking up the mind. In so doing, he even anticipated the fundamental rule of Freudian psychoanalysis. “I will speak spontaneously whatever comes to mind!” he began, sounding for all the world like a patient on an analytic couch. He was, in a real sense, writing his own mantra. “I was like a mad child, long lost his old mother. Never could find her, though she was with him always!” Rolway Dorje’s poem literally equated the smiling face of the mother with the implicit relational knowing of the enlightened mind. In his day-to-day reality, as he explained in his verse, he was struggling with feelings of abandonment. While he was already an accomplished lama with a bevy of intellectual and spiritual attainments, in his heart of hearts he was still a crazed and lonely child. No longer pretending otherwise, Rolway Dorje was able, as a prelude to his awakening, to acknowledge and articulate his personal version of dukkha. His trauma was no longer dissociated, no longer stuck in his implicit memory; it was available to his conscious mind and able to be used as an object of mindfulness. Dropping the more accomplished and self-protective aspects of his identity, expanding the frame of his ego, he stopped pushing away the mad feelings he was most ashamed of. Able to experience himself without the usual filters of self-judgment, Rolway Dorje had a breakthrough. The mother he was seeking in concrete physical form showed herself within. “But now it seems I’m about to find that kind old Mother,” his poem continued, “Since relationality hints where she hides. I think, ‘Yes, yes!’—then ‘No, no!’—then, ‘Could it be, really!’ These various subjects and objects are my Mother’s smiling face! These births, deaths, and changes are my Mother’s lying words! My undeceiving Mother has deceived me!”7 His own relational awareness, the very essence of the mother he was seeking, came to the fore. The home he was in search of was already present within. Knowing was there, and it was with him always.

Rolway Dorje’s verse was called “The Song of the View.” This title referred back to the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, to his menu for awakening, which consisted of Realistic View, Motivation, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. The Buddha explained it for the first time in his teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The Eightfold Path was the Fourth Noble Truth: the way out of suffering. One of the interesting things about the Eightfold Path is the importance the Buddha gave to Realistic View. It came first. Meditation, in the form of Mindfulness and Concentration, came last. Realistic View was concerned with the attitude one takes toward one’s existence and one’s suffering: toward the traumas of everyday life. Before meditation could be of much use, the Eightfold Path made clear, one had to educate the thinking mind. Realistic View was the means of explaining how people could reorient themselves. When that happened successfully, as the Mongolian lama’s poem described, real transformation was possible.

The usual inclination, the one Rolway Dorje quite probably was subject to prior to his breakthrough, was to hunt for some kind of “absolute” escape from the world of suffering. In the spiritual traditions of South Asia, long present before the time of the Buddha, this vision of escape was well established. The Buddha was subject to it too, as his attempts to wipe suffering away during his time in the forest made clear. The Buddha was radical, even in his own time, for eventually proposing another approach. While it may not have been such a revelatory proclamation to say that suffering was an inescapable fact of life, the conclusion the Buddha came to ran counter to most people’s desires.

The most important thing we can do about suffering is to acknowledge it. Simply acknowledging it, while seeming like a minor adjustment, is actually huge. A friend of mine told me how, when his mother died when he was five years old, his father told him one morning that she was gone and would not be coming back and then never talked about her again. While extreme, this response is emblematic of our natural instincts. We would like to pretend that everything is okay, that death does not touch us, that we are not possessed by primitive agonies whose origins are murky at best, that we are somehow immune from the unbearable embeddedness of existance. But trauma is part of our definition as human beings. It is inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives. No one can escape it. Acknowledging it, as Realistic View encourages us to do, brings us closer to the incomprehensible reality of our own deaths. And as far as death is concerned, the way out is most definitely through.

As a therapist, I have found this approach to be enormously helpful, even for people with no relationship to Buddhism and no interest in meditation. If it is a truth, I long ago decided, it must be true no matter what religion one does or does not believe in. Many people, in the aftermath of an acute trauma like the loss of a loved one, for instance, believe they should be able to “get over it” within a discrete period of time. There are five stages of grief, they remind me, quoting the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They should be able to go through them in a year or two, they believe. I am cautious in my response. The Buddha took a different approach, one that seems more realistic. There need be no end to grief, he would say. While it is never static—it is not a single (or even a five-stage) thing—there is no reason to believe it will disappear for good and no need to judge oneself if it does not. Grief turns over and over. It is vibrant, surprising and alive, just as we are.

In a similar way, the primitive agonies of our childhoods live on into adulthood. Many of my patients, conditioned by Western psychology, feel that once they have some understanding of where their feelings come from, they should be finished with them. But we are not built that way. Primitive feelings continue to be stirred up throughout adult life. Understanding them does not turn them off. They are our history, our emotional memories; part of the people we have become. A patient of mine whose mother killed herself when my patient was four years old became unusually anxious when she was engaged to be married recently. She knew why, of course. What if her new husband were to disappear as precipitously as her mother did? But knowing why was not what the Buddha meant by Realistic View. He meant something much more direct. Realistic View means examining feelings rather than running away from them, acknowledging trauma rather than pretending all is normal. My patient’s betrothal gave her another chance to face emotions that had been too overwhelming to face at the time of her mother’s death. She was being given a window into herself, into her history and into her pain. In taking possession of those traumatic feelings, she was also being freed from the grip of them. Rather than enacting her panic and fleeing from her new husband, she could settle in to her present-day relationship with a newfound compassion for the bereft girl still soldiering on inside herself. Like a mad child long lost her old mother, my patient came to see that the maternal energy she needed was actually present within. Changing her attitude, changing the way she related to her panicky feelings, gave her access to that all-important energy and allowed her to go forward in her life.

In the Zen tradition of China, the wisdom of the Buddha’s awakening has been preserved in a collection of one hundred koans called the Blue Cliff Record. These koans, dating from the eleventh-century Sung Dynasty, dare students to move beyond their conventional ways of thinking and to align their minds with the perfection of wisdom implicit in their true natures. They pose paradoxical questions that are meant to confuse the thinking mind and open access to an alternative channel of communication. Working with them is a means of cultivating Realistic View. The koans challenge the mind just as trauma does, asking us to make sense of the inconceivable and to explain the unexplainable. Many of the koans play on the notion of suffering and its release, pointing the way toward the Buddha’s own transformative vision. The memory of his childhood joy under the rose-apple tree can be seen as an early example of a koan. It confounded the Buddha at first but eventually transformed the way he oriented himself in the world.

The koans in the Blue Cliff Record do their best to introduce people to their true natures. One of them (number 27 out of 100) quotes a monk asking the master Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?” There are many ways to interpret the question, of course. On one level, it is an allusion to old age, death or the loss of a loved one. The tree withers and the leaves fall just as the body shrivels and the life runs out. On another level, the koan speaks of the more fundamental question of trauma. What is it like when our defenses wither, when we stop believing in the absolutisms of everyday life? What happens when we surrender the reassuring myths we use to prop ourselves up, when the stable and predictable world is revealed as fluid, chaotic, and tumultuous, when the isolated self recognizes its own embeddedness of being? Therapists who study trauma know what happens in such cases. As Stolorow has written, a “deep chasm” opens “in which an anguished sense of estrangement and solitude takes form.”8 Yet the Blue Cliff Record, fueled by the Buddha’s discoveries, comes to a different conclusion.

The classical answer, the one given by Yun Men, a master so irascible that he forbade his disciples to record any of his notoriously abstruse sayings (forcing them to surreptitiously write them down on a paper robe) was: “Body exposed in the golden wind.”9 Even before I tried to grapple with what Yun Men was saying, I loved his response. Something about it made me happy, this body exposed in a golden wind. I imagined myself on a beach, the sun-drenched air gusting off the water, feeling safe, warm, and connected even while I lay there alone. With the leaves falling, without the usual array of comforts and consolations, in the depths of my solitude, was an unknown boundless presence: a golden wind enveloping my uncovered form.

The question asked of Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?” also refers back to all of the trees that were so important in the life history of the Buddha, trees that offered him shelter and support as he confronted the world of suffering. His mother grasped the low-hanging limb of a sala tree as she gave birth to him from her side. He sat under the shade of a rose-apple tree as a youth and felt an inexplicable joy arise in the midst of his aloneness, the memory of which reoriented him on his path to enlightenment. And he found the exact spot for his awakening under a fig tree by the sparkling Neranjara River; a tree, now known as the bodhi tree, a descendant of which still flourishes on that spot in the North Indian village of Bodh Gaya. The koan asks us to imagine what it would be like if even those trees were to wither and die. It refers back to the death of the Buddha’s mother, for whom the trees, in his biography, serve as a kind of stand-in. And the answer, in the form of the golden wind, comes through loud and clear. The Buddha’s relational home was not dependent on any external thing: not on any of the trees and not even on the continuing presence of his biological mother. Even when he was completely exposed, it was there with him. As important as the trees may have been as placeholders along the way, his liberation came, purely and simply, from within.

In Yun Men’s time, there was a famous saying that attempted to capture this important truth. Buddha, the saying inferred, was able to open himself “fearlessly and calmly to the tumult of the sublime.”10 “The Buddhas of past, present, and future turn the Great Wheel of Dharma upon flames of fire,” this saying read, making reference to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, to his well-known teaching that everything is burning. Yun Men turned even this version around.

“The flames of fire expound the Dharma,” he is reputed to have said. “The Buddhas of past, present, and future stand there and listen.”11

The koan of the tree withering and its leaves falling also unwittingly ties into the work of Winnicott on developmental trauma. When he was sixty-seven years old, Winnicott, uncharacteristically, wrote a very personal poem about his own mother. The poem, which is called “The Tree,” seemed to have emerged rather unexpectedly. It conjured up the favorite tree in his family’s garden that Winnicott climbed to do his homework in when he was a boy. Winnicott sent the poem to his brother-in-law with the following note: “Do you mind seeing this that hurt coming out of me. I think it had some thorns sticking out somehow. It’s not happened to me before & I hope it doesn’t again.”

The key lines of the poem are the following:

Mother below is weeping



Thus I knew her

Once, stretched out on her lap

as now on dead tree

I learned to make her smile

to stem her tears

to undo her guilt

to cure her inward death

To enliven her was my living.12

Knowing Winnicott’s work, one can read all kinds of things into the poem, including the fact that his mother’s maiden name was Woods. But even without knowing much about his work, the basic theme is evident. His mother’s smiling face did not make itself spontaneously available to him—young Donald had to work for it. To Winnicott’s way of thinking, this was a form of trauma. A child whose mother was either intrusive or abandoning has to prematurely mobilize a self in order to manage the less than adequate parental environment. This prematurely mobilized self is a life-saving adaptation that eventually squeezes out life. It comes at the expense of the kind of play a more secure child can engage in and results in a self whose rigidity and inflexibility ultimately creates fear or deadness. As a vehicle for connecting with the much beloved parent, such a “caretaker self” has extra staying power, extra value, and extra investment. It is etched deeply into the brain; wired, through a combination of love and necessity, into the fabric of one’s personality. But as a vehicle for connecting more deeply with life, the caretaker self is flawed. Based on an insecure attachment, its stance is inherently mistrustful.

“To enliven her was my living,” Winnicott wrote, with a play on the word “living.” It was his job, and it was also his life: All that he could focus on. This was the classic scenario for Winnicott, the one he described over and over again, in which something critical in the child is sacrificed in order to cope with a less than adequate emotional environment. Winnicott was writing his own version of the koan here. He was describing the trauma that happens when the tree (or mother) withers and her leaves fall. But Winnicott was also demonstrating, in a very personal way, what the Buddha found. The way out of trauma is by going through it. In acknowledging, without rancor, the deadness of his maternal environment, Winnicott was able to turn himself into the relational home he had lacked. He did this for countless patients and he did it for himself.

The golden wind refers back to the implicit relational knowing of the mother, latent in all of us. When our traumas are exposed, when the efforts to resist, deny, overcome or even indulge them are dropped, something unexpected happens. Connection analogous to that of the infant-mother couple naturally arises. A golden wind appears. While it frightened the Buddha when he first remembered it blowing through him under the rose-apple tree, he was curious enough to explore it unabashedly from that moment on. Eventually he found it to be a breeze.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!