The Trauma of Everyday Life


Primitive Agony

It took the Buddha six years of self-imposed exile to find his way out of suffering and some extra time after his awakening to organize his insights into the Four Noble Truths. At first, postenlightenment, he was a bit tongue-tied. It is said that in the immediate aftermath of his nirvana, he was convinced that no one would be able to understand him. “This world is anguished,” he affirmed to himself, “and even that which we call self is ill. No one will ever see what goes against the stream, is subtle, abstruse, deep and hard to see.”1 People were too entangled in their tangles to open in the way he now knew was possible. Trying to articulate his expansive vision in the face of their disbelief would be tiresome, he thought to himself; it would be wearying and troublesome. “I saw vexation in the telling,”2 the Buddha reminisced later, and he relented, it is said, only after the pleading of Brahma, highest of the gods, who implored him that there were a handful of people “with little dust on their eyes” who would be grateful for the chance to hear his teachings.

Still, the Buddha was not immediately successful in articulating himself. He scoured the universe with his divine eye after Brahma’s intervention, searching for the two major teachers of his preawakening years. They had shown him how to control his mind, although they had not been able to free him completely from his pain. They were wise, learned, and discerning, the Buddha thought. They had little dust on their eyes. They would be ones who could soon understand him. But, as if to accentuate the unpredictable nature of reality, the Buddha saw that both men had recently died. One had passed away the week before and one the previous evening. At a loss, the Buddha set out to find five old friends he had recently spent time with in the forest doing self-punishing spiritual practice. On the way, the first person he encountered was another acquaintance from his days as a forest ascetic, a wandering Ajivka named Upaka. Upaka was immediately impressed with the Buddha’s radiant complexion but was suspicious of his claims of enlightenment.

“Your faculties are serene, friend; the color of your skin is clear and bright! Who is your teacher?” the friend exclaimed. The Buddha responded with a long description of his accomplishments, proclaiming that he had no teacher, had freed himself by virtue of his own wisdom, and had peered deeply into the blissful nature of reality. He challenged Upaka’s ascetic worldview right from the start by affirming that nirvana was present in the here and now and not dependent on self-mortification.

“I am an All-transcender, an All-knower,” he explained. “In a blindfold world I go to beat the Deathless Drum.”3

Upaka would have none of it and shrugged the Buddha off, unimpressed with his poetry. Deeply immersed in the prevailing ideology of his time, Upaka believed that painful experiences needed to be accentuated in order to yield their purifying effects. Everyday life was not nearly traumatic enough for him; he was out for something much more punishing. He had known the Buddha when both of them were engaged in torturing themselves as a spiritual pursuit. By subjecting themselves to extremes of hunger, thirst, pain, and physical discomfort, ascetics of their time hoped to liberate their spirits from the prisons of their flesh. To see the Buddha looking so healthy was one big shock—to hear him describing the blissful nature of reality while proclaiming himself fully liberated was more than Upaka could bear. Concluding that the fresh-faced Buddha’s realization was only skin deep, he walked on by.

Upaka’s rejection of the newly liberated Buddha was instructive. It helped the Buddha to frame his teachings in the manner that we now associate with him. There was no point describing his liberating vision off the bat; it was better to begin with suffering. From that point on, this was the Buddha’s tactic. There is enough trauma in daily life to awaken the desire to be free, the Buddha taught. It is right here, already a part of us, already an underlying feeling in our lives. Painful experiences do not have to be cultivated specially—they do not have to be sought after or induced—there is already more than enough to go around. A willingness to face the feelings we already have is much more valuable than trying to escape from them (as the yoga practitioners of his time intended), exaggerate them (as the ascetics attempted), or minimize them altogether (as the materialists and lay-people tended to).

The Buddha applied this logic to both pleasure and pain. It is as silly to reject pleasurable feelings as it is to cultivate painful ones, he taught, but equally foolish to mindlessly pursue unstable pleasures in an attempt to blot out the anguish inherent to life. In later years, in the Buddhist cultures that grew up in India and then in Tibet, the word that was used to describe the world we inhabit translated as “tolerable,” in the sense of being barely tolerable. The Buddha believed that this quality of “barely tolerable” was perfect for spiritual and psychological growth. The fragility of things is apparent to those who look, but if the mind can be taught to hold the instability with some measure of equanimity, a new kind of happiness reveals itself.

Because of his unvarying emphasis on dukkha, the Buddha’s teachings were often taken to be pessimistic, as if he were still a practicing ascetic. But he was not. As Upaka recognized but could not embrace, Buddha rejected the cultivation of painful states. But he always claimed that, like a doctor, he had to be realistic. One can of course deceive with false consolation, denying the illness; or one may exaggerate the malady and give up hope completely.4 But such a physician would be of little use. Buddha rejected these two extremes and continually applied the therapeutic middle. In a famous sutra, he compared himself to a surgeon pulling a poisonous arrow from a patient’s flesh.5 The tools he offered were powerful, but he admonished his listeners that even if the arrow were removed the patient could still die if he did not tend to the lesion himself. Even the best physician needs the cooperation of the patient, the Buddha affirmed. And every patient has to deal with his or her own wounds.

In today’s world there are still contemporary versions of the ancient ascetics, with world views that are remarkably similar. Some of them remain in the wilds of India, living much as they did thousands of years ago, cultivating hardship in order to release themselves from the prisons of their attachments. But others are right here in our own culture. Today’s examples include those who suffer from anorexia and starve themselves into an emaciated kind of invulnerability or those who hurt themselves, even cut themselves, to express and/or transcend inner wounds they are not entirely reconciled to. But there are many much less extreme but equally debilitating examples. People who are convinced of their own unworthiness, who cling, like my patient Monica, to the masts of their own insecurities, who are caught in one way or another by their negative feelings, bear close resemblance to the ascetics of the Buddha’s time. Like his old friend Upaka, they have a very hard time seeing past their ingrained versions of reality, driven as they are by self-condemnation. As the comedian Louis C.K. has put it, in a contemporary twist on the Buddha’s teachings, “Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

Therapists today, building on detailed observations of the infant-parent relationship, now have a way to explain this ascetic strain in the contemporary psyche. Their model, of “developmental trauma,” is based on the realization that “there is no such thing as an infant”6 ; there is only a mother-child relationship. Infants are too dependent to be called persons in their own right—they survive only because their parents give themselves over to their care. This “relational” paradigm sees unbearable emotion as the determining factor in trauma. Intense feelings are present in a baby from birth. They take many forms—an infant’s ruthless mix of appetite, need, and distress is well-known to any parent—and it is the parent’s gut response to engage these rudimentary emotions and try to make them bearable, or barely tolerable, for their child. When this does not happen adequately, when the painful emotions or unpleasant feelings are not picked up and handled by the parents, the infant, or child, is left with overwhelming feelings he or she is not equipped to deal with, feelings that often get turned into self-hate.

My favorite example of this kind of parent-child attunement comes from a children’s book one of my patients gave me after hearing me talk about this. The book is called What’s Wrong, Little Pookie?7 and in it a mother can be heard questioning her child about what is bothering him. She goes through a series of hypothetical questions (Are you hungry? Are you tired?) that become increasingly absurd (Did a very large hippo try to borrow your shoes?) until Little Pookie has completely forgotten why he was so upset in the first place. It is a humorous example of something parents do for their children all the time. They sense the emotional flavor of their child’s mind and endeavor to help the child make sense of it, lightening the child’s emotional load in the process.

“Painful or frightening affect becomes traumatic when the attunement that the child needs to assist in its tolerance, containment, and integration is profoundly absent,”8 writes Robert Stolorow, a philosopher, psychologist, and clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, in his book about trauma. “One consequence of developmental trauma, relationally conceived, is that affect states take on enduring, crushing meanings. From recurring experiences of malattunement, the child acquires the unconscious conviction that unmet developmental yearnings and reactive painful feeling states are manifestations of a loathsome defect or of an inherent inner badness.”

A recent patient of mine described a version of this perfectly. From as far back as she could remember, she had been convinced there was something wrong with her. This manifested in her preadolescent years as a conviction that her body was flawed. Her parents had their own problems, and she hid her feelings from them as best she could. But one consequence of this was that she not only felt that something was wrong with her but also blamed herself for feeling that way. She tried everything to get away from these uncomfortable feelings: ignoring them, rising above them, insulating herself from them, and pretending they were not there. None of these approaches worked too well—or, rather, they all worked a little. My patient grew to become an accomplished woman with a career and a family. But in private she was still troubled by self-negating feelings not entirely different from those she experienced as an adolescent. She could put up a good front now, but under the surface she was less than sanguine. Her body still bothered her. One day, when her college-aged children were home for the holidays, she was driving home feeling how quickly her life was passing her by. One moment her children were little and the next they were adults. Somehow, she let herself feel sad—an uncomfortable feeling she would not usually allow with such ease—and she sat in her driveway crying unabashedly before entering her home. When she told me about it some days later, she remarked upon how much worse the avoidance of the feelings was than the actual experience of them. She was touched in particular by how much love there was in her sadness.

One of the unintended consequences of this kind of story, and of the recent focus on developmental trauma in general, has been to encourage the fantasy that relief can come through identifying where, or with whom, one’s trauma occurred. My patient and I both had the tendency to assign fault, if not to her then at least to her parents for having failed her. Although proponents of the relational perspective are quick to point out that “the possibility of emotional trauma is built into the basic constitution of human existence,”9 it is still very tempting, when dealing with pain of this nature, to look for someone to blame. Disappointment is compounded when one discovers that tuning in to the lack of attunement does not, by itself, bring relief. The hope remains that by uncovering a single primal memory, or hearing a single insightful therapeutic interpretation, one will be healed.

One reason why I think the Buddha’s loss of his mother makes sense as an organizing principle is that his loss occurred at such a young age. It would be impossible for him to remember it, and yet it is difficult to believe that it could have had no impact. While few of us suffer from this exact loss, many of us share the feelings of my patient, convinced that we are somehow flawed or defective. The psychotherapeutic model implies that it might have been possible for our families of origin to get it totally right: that if our parents had only been perfectly attuned to us we would feel okay. The quest for healing then takes off in a backward direction: toward the inevitable deprivations and deficiencies of the past. The Buddha did not imply that such deprivations did not matter—in fact his own experience suggests how central they can be—but he counseled a therapeutic approach that stayed relentlessly in the present. And he affirmed, in his First Noble Truth, that some residual feelings of deficiency are inevitable, no matter how good the parenting.

There is a beautiful example of what I take to be the Buddha’s approach in a recent book about the poet Allen Ginsberg’s first journey to India in 1961. Called A Blue Hand, Deborah Baker’s work chronicles Ginsberg’s early explorations of spiritual India, undertaken when he was in his early thirties. Ginsberg and several friends, including his longtime companion, Peter Orlovsky, spent their time in the company of whatever yogis, lamas, sadhus, charlatans, and saints they could find. In many ways, they were intent on uncovering what was left of the wild spiritual wilderness in which the Buddha wandered before his awakening. In one particularly poignant vignette toward the end of his odyssey, after a bitter fight with Orlovsky, Ginsberg had an encounter with a holy man named Devraha Baba in Benares, not far from where the Buddha gave his first teachings of the Four Noble Truths. A matted-haired, Shiva-worshipping ascetic whose only possessions were a deerskin rug, a wooden pot, a jute mat, and wooden sandals, Devraha Baba was famous for his irascibility. For example, when Indira Gandhi, the future prime minister of India, came to see him, sitting on a platform in the water on the far side of the Ganges River, he pointed the bottoms of his feet at her in the Indian gesture of contempt and refused to talk with her. But Ginsberg was given darshan, a chance to sit and talk with the Baba, although the exchange was interrupted when Devraha Baba, spotting Orlovsky in the distance, asked for him to come join their conversation. When Orlovsky refused, Devraha dismissed Ginsberg, telling him to come back when his friend was ready to join him. Ginsberg stayed put, however, and after some time of reflection in which he admitted to himself, perhaps for the first time, how he and Orlovsky had grown apart, he confessed his loneliness to Devraha Baba. Baker completes the story as follows:

On his tiny platform suspended over the rushing waters of the Ganges, Devraha Baba looked at Allen. He tilted his head from side to side and sucked his teeth.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. And with a tenderness that struck deep at Allen’s heart, he said softly: “How wounded, how wounded.”10

Devraha’s intervention, subtle though it was, captures the essence of the Buddha’s approach to developmental trauma. In his gentle, caring, but unsparing and unsentimental way, the Baba’s retort helped bring Ginsberg’s self-identification as a wounded soul into awareness. He focused all of his light on Ginsberg’s darkest spot. The wounded nature of Ginsberg’s self, originating perhaps in the childhood loss of his mother to psychosis but fed by the lability of his relationship with Orlovsky, may have been fundamental to Ginsberg’s identity, but it was not something he had yet completely admitted to. Of note is the Baba’s refusal to try to do anything about Ginsberg’s plight. He did not counsel Ginsberg about his true nature, he did not urge him to meditate the feelings away, nor did he try to fill the emptiness of Ginsberg’s soul. He simply noted the truth compassionately. To progress on the spiritual path, Ginsberg, who some years later embraced Buddhism, had to start where he was.

The observational posture that Buddhist psychology counsels is sometimes called bare attention. Its nakedness refers to the absence of reactivity in its response, to its pure and unadorned relatedness. Bare attention has been defined as the “clear and single-minded awareness of what happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception.”11 In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this is sometimes evoked through the setting up of what is called a spy consciousness in the corner of the mind, watching or feeling everything that unfolds in the theater of the mind and body. Sometimes called mindfulness, it is described using metaphors ranging from climbing a tall water tower to look down from above to acting like a surgeon’s probe, going deep into the afflicted area. This combination of detachment and engagement is characteristic of the attentional stance that is recommended. Bare attention also has a quality of renunciation to it. It asks us to defer our usual reactions in the service of something less egocentric; the instructions are not to cling to what is pleasant and not to reject what is unpleasant—to simply be with things as they are. If reactions occur (which they inevitably do), they too become grist for the mill, but they are never privileged. The idea is to let them settle down so that things can be known simply for what they are. This quality of renunciation is critical to the Buddha’s method; it is what he learned from his six years of ascetic practices in the forest.

One of the central paradoxes of Buddhism is that the bare attention of the meditative mind changes the psyche by not trying to change anything at all. The steady application of the meditative posture, like the steadiness of an attuned parent, allows something inherent in the mind’s potential to emerge, and it emerges naturally if left alone properly in a good enough way. When the Dalai Lama summarized his scholarly teachings on Buddhist thought with the paradoxical injunction “Transform your thoughts but remain as you are,” he was pointing to this phenomenon. The thoughts he was after are rooted in the way we seek relief by finding someone or something to blame. The trauma within prompts us to search for a culprit, and we all too often attack ourselves or our loved ones in an attempt to eradicate the problem. This splitting of the self against itself or against its world only perpetuates suffering. The Buddha’s method was to do something out of the ordinary, to make his mind like that of a mother: the most taken-for-granted person in our world but the missing ingredient in his. Adopting this stance creates room for a transformation that is waiting to happen, one that cannot occur unless one’s inner environment is recalibrated in a specific way.

This understanding is not entirely outside the range of contemporary psychotherapy. It was articulated with great care by one of the first therapists to actually observe mothers interacting with their infants in a clinical setting. D. W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and child analyst, wrote a lot about the quality of attunement he saw in “good-enough” mothers, a quality he called a mother’s primary preoccupation:

In this state mothers become able to put themselves into the infant’s shoes, so to speak. That is to say, they develop an amazing capacity for identification with the baby, and this makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach….

An infant who is held well enough is quite a different thing from one who has not been held well enough…. The reason why this special property of infant care must be mentioned, even in this brief statement, is that in the early stages of emotional development, before the senses have been organised, before there is something that could be called an autonomous ego, very severe anxieties are experienced. In fact, the word “anxiety” is of no use, the order of infant distress at this stage being of the same order as that which lies behind panic, and panic is already a defence against the agony that makes people commit suicide rather than remember. I have meant to use strong language here. You see two infants; one has been held (in my extended sense of the word) well enough, and there is nothing to prevent a rapid emotional growth, according to inborn tendencies. The other has not had the experience of being held well and growth has had to be distorted and delayed, and some degree of primitive agony has to be carried on into life and living. Let it be said that in the common experience of good-enough holding the mother has been able to supply an auxiliary ego-function, so that the infant has had an ego from an early start, a very feeble, personal ego, but one boosted by the sensitive adaptation of the mother and by her ability to identify with her infant in relation to basic needs. The infant who has not had this experience has either needed to develop premature ego functioning, or else there has developed a muddle.12

Primitive agony was one of Winnicott’s most important concepts; it was the aspect of the Buddha’s dukkha that he was most attuned to. In describing how a mother helps her child get to know feelings through her holding of him, Winnicott also painted the picture of how it must feel for an infant to be deprived of such holding. He spoke of an order of distress behind panic and deliberately conjured suicide as an expression of the inexpressible agony an infant faces if left too much in the dark. While he stressed that most parents protect their children as best they can from such feelings, he also implied that such anxieties were always lurking. Like the relational therapists who followed in his wake, he was attuned to the “enduring, crushing meanings” unbearable affect states could evoke. His insights help explain a hidden and powerful aspect of the therapy the Buddha devised. Whether or not the historical Buddha actually suffered from the kind of primitive agonies Winnicott expounded upon, the meditations he taught in the aftermath of his awakening “hold” the mind just as Winnicott described a mother “holding” an infant. In making the observational posture of mindfulness central to his technique, the Buddha established another version of “an auxiliary ego-function” in the psyches of his followers, one that enabled them, to go back to his metaphor of pulling out an arrow, to tend to their own wounds with both their minds and their hearts. Far from eliminating the ego, as I naively believed I should when I first began to practice meditation, the Buddha encouraged a strengthening of the ego so that it could learn to hold primitive agonies without collapse.

A friend of mine who spent years in India with a great teacher from the ancient forest tradition tells a moving story that, to my mind, makes the same point. Years after his beloved teacher had died, he was back in India staying at the home of his guru’s most devoted Indian disciple.

“I must show you something,” the disciple said to my friend one day. “This is what he left for me.” My friend was excited, of course. Any trace of his teacher was nectar to him. He watched as the elderly man opened the creaking doors of an ancient wooden wardrobe and took something from the back of the bottom shelf. It was wrapped in an old, dirty cloth.

“Do you see?” he asked my friend.

“No. See what?”

The disciple unwrapped the object, revealing an old, beat-up aluminum pot, the kind of ordinary pot one sees in every Indian kitchen. Looking deeply into my friend’s eyes, he told him, “He left this for me when he went away. Do you see? Do you see?”

“No, Dada,” he replied. “I don’t see.”

According to my friend, Dada looked at him even more intensely, this time with a mad glint in his eyes.

“You don’t have to shine,” he said. “You don’t have to shine.”13 He rewrapped the pot and put it back on the bottom shelf of the wardrobe.

My friend had received the most important teaching, one that had its origins in the Buddha’s revolutionary approach. He did not have to transform himself in the way he imagined: He just had to learn to be kind to himself. If he could hold himself with the care Dada showed while clutching the old pot, it would be enough. His ordinary self, wrapped in all of its primitive agony, was precious too.

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