The Trauma of Everyday Life


Everything Is Burning

The Buddha did shine, of course, as his erstwhile friend Upaka could not help but notice. One of the names he was called in the ancient sutras was “Aṅgirasa”: he who shines brilliantly, while emitting multicolored flames, or rays of light, from his body.1 It might be hard to reconcile the Buddha’s shining countenance with what my friend learned in India about leaving his unpolished flaws alone, but the two are actually related. The Buddha shone because the fires of his own attachments blew out. He was not trying to shine: It happened when he stopped fighting with himself, when he became able to hold his anguish as tenderly as Dada held that old aluminum pot his guru had left for him.

The Buddha began to talk about this almost immediately after his enlightenment. Newly awakened and finding the voice that came to be called his “Lion’s Roar,” he began to put words on his breakthrough. He followed up his first sermon, the one on the Four Noble Truths given to his five former friends on the outskirts of Benares, with his next-most-famous teaching, known colloquially as the Fire Sermon. While the first teaching had been given almost privately to his five former companions, this one had an audience of a thousand matted-haired, fire-worshipping ascetics, drawn like moths to a flame.

News of the Buddha’s attainments had spread fast. Camps of wandering sadhus coalesced around him, curious to see what he was made of. The Buddha, as was his wont, engaged them by focusing on what they were most attached to and most interested in. In a rare exercise of his miraculous powers, he made it impossible for them to tend their sacred fires without his intervention. When they tried to split their logs according to the apocryphal story, they could not, until the Buddha said the magic word. When they tried to light their fires, they were similarly restrained, and when they tried to put their fires out, they could not do that either. The Buddha even materialized five hundred braziers for the ascetics to warm themselves with in the midst of the coldest winter night and then pushed back the floodwaters after a terrible storm so that he could walk on dry ground. The ancient sutras spell out these displays as if they were facts, but the miraculous feats were not the main point. The Buddha was speaking the fire worshippers’ language. He knew how to get their attention. Having roused their curiosity, he offered them a teaching. He then took their devotion to their sacred fires and turned it inside out. He had done the same thing in his first talk by giving new meaning to the word “noble,” which until that point had been used exclusively to demarcate the upper-caste Brahmins in ancient India’s stratified society. The noble person wasn’t noble by virtue of the caste he was born into, the Buddha suggested then; he was noble because he could see the truth. Nobility came from within, he insisted; it was not a product of one’s hereditary place in society.

In the case of the Fire Sermon, the Buddha did something similar. Whether or not he actually performed physical miracles, he did something miraculous with his language. He took the literal meaning of the word “fire” and turned it into a metaphor. The actual translation of the sutra’s Pali name, Āditta-pariyāya, is “The Way of Putting Things as Being on Fire,” which conveys the Buddha’s metaphorical intent.2The matted-haired ascetics, ritualistically tending their sacred fires, were missing the point. Rather than being so concrete about it, he suggested to the mass of bhikkhus, or mendicants (literally, ones who live by alms), arrayed before him, that they should see the flames all around them. Everyday life is a trauma, the Buddha proclaimed: It is as if everything is burning. He spoke of trauma as if it were a fire.

Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is all that is burning?

The eye is burning. Visible forms are burning. Eye-consciousness is burning. Eye-contact is burning. Also feeling, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion; it is burning with birth, ageing and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, I say.

The ear is burning. Sounds are burning….

The nose is burning. Odors are burning….

The tongue is burning. Flavors are burning….

The body is burning. Tangibles are burning….

The mind is burning. Mental objects are burning.3

With this single metaphor, the Buddha managed to consolidate the most important strands of his thought. He took the sacred fires of his listeners and not only put them out but stripped them of their idealized status. Rites and rituals will get you nowhere, he declared. And he used his metaphorical imagery to drive home his vision of the ubiquity of trauma. Everyday life is on fire not only because of how fleeting it is, which we know but don’t like to admit, but also because of how ardently we cling to our own greed, anger, and egocentric preoccupations. He called these the “three fires,” in another punning play on the three “sacrificial fires” a devout Brahmin householder was committed to tending daily.4 We don’t have to tend the fires purposively and obsessively, he told his listeners—we are constantly feeding the three egocentric fires unconsciously. Hundreds of years later, when the semantic origins of the “three fires” were long forgotten, greed, hatred, and delusion came to be known in the Buddhist world as the three “poisons,” but this was not a word that the Buddha actually used. His initial language, while strong, was more forgiving than that. Subliminally, the Buddha was saying, we are all tending these fires (of greed, hatred, and delusion), motivated as we are by our insecure place in the world, by the feeling, the dukkha, of not fitting in. The fires of greed, hatred, and delusion are defenses against acknowledging that everything is on fire, instinctive attempts at protecting ourselves from what feels like an impossible situation. The Buddha stressed the burning nature of the world in order to show his listeners what they were afraid of. By placing their spiritual aspirations outside themselves they were shoring up their egocentric defenses. Only by looking into the traumas they were made of could they find release.

He continued to use this imagery when describing his awakening. “Nirvāna” (nibbāna in Pali) means “going out.” The word is derived from the Sanskrit root , meaning “to blow,” and the prefix nir, meaning “cease to burn” or “go out” (like a flame).5 But the verb is intransitive and—this is important—it means that there is no agent doing the blowing, no one who causes the flame to go out. “Nirvāna” means “going out”: It just happens when conditions are right; no one makes it happen. The fires of trauma—of greed, hatred, and delusion and of birth, aging, and death—are self-liberating. They blow out when conditions in the mind are right. The first step, as the Buddha described in the Fire Sermon, is to deal with the fear we harbor about the traumatic nature of things. This fear leads us either to ignore the flames we are made of or to hope that, through some magic, it might be possible to get rid of them altogether. But the flames can go out only when we stop pretending they are not there.

As moving as this aspect of the Fire Sermon may be, this is not the end of the Buddha’s use of the metaphor. It is the so-called negative view of nirvana but not the only way of describing it. The positive view points to the underlying nature of reality. It tends to imply, erroneously, that nirvana is a place or a state to be achieved, something apart from the everyday world. Nevertheless, at times the Buddha leaned toward this description. He used a different word, one that sounded similar but came from different roots and carried a vastly different meaning (nirvrti in Sanskrit or nibbuti in Pali). Nịrvṛti means “bliss,”6and there is a related word meaning “blissful” that describes how the world appears when the wisdom eye is opened. “When the fires of passion, hatred and delusion die out within one,” writes Richard Gombrich, one of Oxford’s foremost scholars of the Buddha’s thought, “one experiences bliss.” 7 Everything is burning, then, not only with impermanence and pain but also with bliss. The vision of one leads to the knowledge of the other.

In spelling out the connection between acknowledging trauma and experiencing its release, the Buddha was describing something that today’s psychotherapists have also found. I had a serendipitous discussion with a friend of mine recently that encapsulates the connection. My wife and I were having brunch with another couple and talking about what we were all working on. I was trying to describe this particular Buddhist concept, the one I am writing about here: that the blissful nature of reality is part and parcel of the fact that everything is burning. I used the shorthand phrase, common in Buddhist circles but unfamiliar to my friends, “nirvana is samsara, samsara is nirvana” to describe it. “Saṃsāra” is the Sanskrit word for the cycle of rebirth. It means “keeping going”8 and connotes the everyday world of conventional suffering driven by egocentric preoccupation. The idea is that nirvana is not a separate place that we can get to when we eliminate what we don’t like about ourselves but is already here, hidden behind our likes and dislikes, in the everyday.

My friend, unfamiliar with my Buddhist lingo, thought I said, “Nirvana is some sorrow, some sorrow is nirvana.” She had a flash of insight and thought she understood what I meant. She had recently started group therapy and discovered that, in her tendency to try to make everything okay for everyone, she was avoiding her own anger. Acknowledging her anger in therapy had opened up a feeling of sadness, a willingness to own the feelings of disappointment or betrayal she sometimes felt, and felt ashamed of. Like my patient who had cried and cried in her car when feeling the fleeting nature of her life but had been moved by the love her sorrow contained, my friend at brunch understood that acknowledging her sorrow opened her in a deeper way than was possible by always trying to be “nice.” There was a freedom in “some sorrow” that gave her a brief hint of nirvana.

Trauma experts report something similar. “It cannot be overemphasized that injurious childhood experiences in and of themselves need not be traumatic (or at least not lastingly so) or pathogenic provided that they occur within a responsive milieu. Pain is not pathology. It is the absence of adequate attunement and responsiveness to the child’s painful emotional reactions that renders them unendurable and thus a source of traumatic states and psychopathology.”9 The Buddha was after something similar in his Fire Sermon. The burning, fleeting nature of reality is not pathological, he was saying: It just is. If you create an atmosphere of attunement and responsiveness within yourself, one that mimics the mental and emotional state of an attentive parent, this pain and sorrow becomes not only endurable but self-liberating. It releases, and in the process, we can also be released.

This phenomenon plays out in the realm of the everyday as well. No matter how hard we try to make a world that is rational, predictable, and under our control, things still go wrong. Traumas, big and small, are constantly interfering with our lives. If they are not befalling us, they are happening to our neighbors, and we have a choice in how we react. We can pretend they are not happening or we can meet them with attunement and responsiveness. A friend of mine was flying to Europe recently from New York. He got to Kennedy airport two hours ahead of his flight’s scheduled departure and waited for a good forty-five minutes in a huge line to check in. The clerk took one look at his ticket and told him, unceremoniously, that his flight was leaving from Newark, not from JFK. He had just enough time to race there by taxi to make his flight. Otherwise he would have to buy a new ticket.

Berating himself and fueled with adrenaline, he ran to the front of the long taxi queue and pleaded his case with the woman at the head of the line. “Could I please step in front of you?” he asked her, his voice cracking. “I went to the wrong airport and I might be able to make it to Newark in time for my flight if I leave right now.” His trauma was in vivid display but the woman responded coldly. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting here?” she scolded. “You may not cut in front of me. You should wait your turn.” The taxi dispatcher overheard my friend’s plea, however, and called out to him. Pointing to a cab that someone was just getting into, he waved my friend over. “Hurry up,” he said. “That person is going to Newark Airport, too. Get in.” My friend made it there just in time, his trauma ameliorated by the kindness of a stranger.

This kind of trauma is happening all of the time, all around us. When the Buddha taught the Fire Sermon he was pointing this out. When we resist the underlying traumatic nature of things, we cut ourselves off from ourselves and from others. We become like the woman at the head of the line, jealously guarding our positions and impervious to the struggles of others. But when we accept the presence of some sorrow, we can embody the bliss of the taxi dispatcher, spontaneously responding to those truly in need.

One of the most famous stories in the Buddhist literature also speaks to the ubiquity of trauma and weaves in the lesson of the Fire Sermon while playing on the notion of the Buddha as a physician. The tale is of a mother, Kisagotami, whose infant son had suddenly died of illness. Kisagotami’s predicament was all too vivid. Her son had died but she refused to put down his body. Bereft and on the edge of madness, she wandered through her village clutching the dead child to her breast, a stunning manifestation of grief and trauma. She begged every person she met to find her a doctor, someone to bring her baby back to life. The villagers were frightened of her and turned away. She became more and more desperate, more and more agitated, more and more distressed. Finally, one man took pity on her and told her that he had heard of someone with medicine for this kind of thing. She went to the Buddha, told her story, and listened to his response.

“Yes,” he said, “I have medicine for this. But first bring me some mustard seed from a house where no one has died.”

Kisagotami went back to the village and knocked on door after door. “The living are few but the dead are many,” she was told. She could not find a house that had not known death, and she returned to the Buddha without any mustard seed to seek further advice, having put her baby down in the forest before returning. It is notable both what the Buddha said and what he did not say. He did not tell Kisagotami that this was her karma and that she must accept it. He did not tell her that she must have done something terrible in a past life to deserve such a fate. In a famous sutra, preserved in the collection called Saṃyutta Nikāya, he explicitly rejected such a naive view of karma. In that sutra, when asked directly whether all of the painful things that happen to a person are a result of karma, he answered in the negative. “That would be overshooting,” he said. “Only one in eight such things are due to karma.”

“You know the feeling of too much bile?” he asked his interlocutor. That feeling is due to a physical imbalance, not to a negative intention or an unwholesome thought or an unethical action. There are other such imbalances that cause disease and these, too, are outside our control. Similarly, he went on, there are unfortunate things that can occur because of the weather. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, and so on happen according to their own laws—it is not right to suggest that victims of them are in any way responsible or that they somehow created their fate. Other adversities are similarly random. Even acts of violence are not the result of karma, he continued. We often fall prey to them inadvertently, not because of anything we have said or done but simply because we are in the wrong place at the wrong time.10

The Buddha said a simple thing to Kisagotami when she returned to him. “You thought that you alone had lost a son. The law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”11 He was not lecturing Kisagotami at this point. She was already transformed. Her engagement with the people of the village had developed her empathy. Instead of relating to them solely from a place of her own suffering, she had been inquiring after their own experiences of life and death. In seeing that she was not the only one to undergo such pain, she became more able to see the impermanent nature of everything. The Buddha was acknowledging the reality she had already glimpsed. He did not try to tell her the “truth” before she was ready.

Later, after having taken the robes of a bhikkuni, or female mendicant, Kisagotami was outside on a hillside at nightfall gazing at the village below. She saw the lights in the village dwellings flickering on and off and had a sudden realization, one that consolidated everything that had come before. “My state is like those lamps,” she thought, and the Buddha shot her a vision of himself at that moment to affirm her insight.

“All living beings resemble the flame of these lamps,” he told her, “one moment lighted, the next extinguished—those only who have arrived at Nirvana are at rest.”12 Just as he did in the Fire Sermon, the Buddha articulated his central message. The parallel between the Buddha’s approach and that of today’s trauma therapists is clear. Even in this most undeniably painful circumstance, when dealing with the loss of a child, pain is not pathology. By creating an inner environment of attunement and responsiveness, even this most unendurable and crushing reality became not only bearable but illuminating.

I was reminded of these connections recently by another patient, Alexa, an inspiring thirty-five-year-old writer who told me how upset she had been with herself for uncharacteristically losing her temper with her three-year-old son one busy weekday morning. Her story was not atypical for parents of toddlers: Her beloved child was beginning to wear her out. She was trying to get him dressed and fed and out of the house, and he was frustrating her at every turn, not wanting to put on his shoes, taking off pieces of clothing when she turned her back, asking her to play a favorite game with him, and altogether refusing to cooperate with her pleas. Having made it through his terrible twos, she was not yet prepared for how trying his threes could be. Exasperated, Alexa had unloaded on him.

“You think the world revolves around you, and it doesn’t,” she cried impatiently.

There was a brief pause in which he gazed at her wide-eyed.

“It moves, Momma?” he replied.

His earnest cry cut short her irritation, of course, and rekindled her delight in him. She still remembers the guilt she felt, though. Why would she want to say such a thing? How could she shatter his safe world view in an instant out of anger? His words functioned a little bit like a Zen master’s response, his innocent question stopping her in her tracks. “How does he even know that revolve means move?” she remembers asking herself.

Alexa had successfully created a world for her son of which he was the center—her exasperated comment only affirmed how productive she had been at fostering this illusion. Her son had what therapists call a healthy attachment to his mother; he was able to take her support entirely for granted; she had given him the attunement and responsiveness necessary to ward off most developmental trauma. She had wanted him to feel like he was the center of the world, and she had succeeded, and she was right to have done so. As today’s therapists conceive of it, her first major task as a mother was mostly done. The second task, of gradually easing her child into “disillusionment,” of failing him just enough that he could begin to know her as a separate person and relate to her empathically, could only be undertaken if and when the first mission was accomplished successfully.

Winnicott described this double mission of the mother with his usual poetic intensity:

The mother, at the beginning, by an almost 100 per cent adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant. It is, as it were, under the baby’s magical control. The same can be said in terms of infant care in general, in the quiet times between excitements. Omnipotence is nearly a fact of experience. The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion.13

It was my guess that the unexpected friction between Alexa and her son heralded the beginning of a disillusioning process that would likely proceed as smoothly as the first several years had gone. Her son’s unexpected reply, however, tapped into another kind of truth, one closer to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. The world, despite our mothers’ best attempts to shield us, does move: incessantly, unpredictably, and without regard for our feelings. As human beings, raised, if we are lucky, to be the centers of our own little worlds, we are continually taken aback by this reality, even if we have been successfully cared for by our good-enough parents. The Buddha, whose meditations resurrect the holding environment and auxiliary ego-function of the good-enough mother, also served as parent in this important way. As he made clear in the Fire Sermon, he did not shrink from disillusioning people who still harbored the impression that the world revolved around them.

It is in this way that the Buddha’s teachings speak directly to the trauma of everyday life. The quality of bare attention, the nonjudgmental and nonreactive observation that parallels the noninterfering attention of the good-enough mother, is just the first step of the Buddha’s approach. As everyone knows, the role of the mother changes as the child grows. While the basic stance persists, it also matures along with the child. At the right time, the good-enough mother cannot help but begin to disillusion her child. Like Alexa, she just can’t take it anymore. She becomes able to use her anger at her child, and her child’s aggression, to help her child grow. In a similar manner, the observational neutrality of the meditative mind is not neutral when it comes to the ego. Selfishness, conceit, pride, jealousy, and envy are observed without surprise, but they are not indulged. Instead, much as a mother might gently tease a child who is excessively demanding of his or her own way, the meditative mind delights in frustrating the clamoring ego’s insistent demands. This, too, is a therapeutic function, one the Buddha carefully cultivated in all of his teachings.

I once had the chance to speak with a renowned Thai forest master named Ajahn Chah directly about all this. It was more than thirty years ago, but I remember his words as if it were yesterday. I was traveling in Asia with some of my first American Buddhist teachers and we had made our way to Ajahn Chah’s monastery on the Lao border of Thailand. Ajahn Chah met with us after we shared the monastery lunch. We asked him to explain the Buddhist view. What had he learned from his years of contemplation and study? What could we bring back to share with the West? His answer touched my own sense of residual trauma, my own fear of everything burning.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

This spontaneous bit of wisdom struck me deeply and has stayed with me over the years. I often refer to it when teaching. Ajahn Chah was capturing the Buddhist insight into the impermanence of things but not falling into the abyss of negating them utterly. He was giving another version of the Fire Sermon where everything is broken but everything is also dear. What was he referring to exactly? The glass, the body, this life, the self? The implication seemed clear enough: The self, like the glass, doesn’t exist in the way we imagine it—it doesn’t exist in the way we wish it did. But by acknowledging this reality up front, Ajahn Chah was modeling a different way of relating.

We could use, appreciate, value, and respect the glass without expecting it to last. In fact, we could use it more freely, with more abandon and more care, once we understood that it lacked what Buddhists call inherent existence. The glass, like the self, does not lose its value when we understand that it is on fire.

Speaking in the vernacular of his own time and place, and going completely against the norm, the Buddha systematically took apart all conventional notions of permanence. He insisted that there was no eternal essence in a human being, for example, no spirit that was one with God, no immortal soul that survives death, and no sacred fire that must be tended. Even consciousness cannot be shown to exist independently, he claimed. Nothing exists in its own right or under its own power. We emerge, as infants, from a relational matrix and then struggle to come to terms with the trauma of aloneness. While all things remain contingent, relative, and relational, our object-seeking instincts desire a security we assume is our birthright. As a patient of mine, Carl, once ruefully said, in describing how tenaciously he could cling to unavailable women who were turned off by his neediness, “I’m scared to lose what I don’t have.” The Buddha said much the same thing about the rest of us. We cling to a notion of permanence that, according to Buddha, never existed in the first place. We cling to a glass that is already broken.

Many people suffer because of failures in their infancies, failure to be made sufficiently secure in the illusion of their centrality, failure to have a taste of boundless support14 from their parental environments. Such people, when they dig down to their core, find feelings of absence, feelings of lack, feelings of impotence or rage where once there might have been omnipotence. Others suffer because of failures in the disillusioning process itself—as adults they clamor for attention from their loved ones, expecting these people to be as selfless as their mothers once were, and they become punitive when they do not get their way. They insist on always being the center of attention and find it difficult to connect empathically with others. Their perpetual feeling of disillusion is evidence of their failure to be disillusioned. Still others manage to weather the travails of early childhood, of illusion and disillusion. But many of these people, despite the relative ease of their childhoods, nevertheless come to feel like my patient Monica, nostalgic for the glow of her mother’s love while uncomfortably alone and adrift in what seems a hostile universe.

The incessant movement of the world does not have to intimidate us, the Buddha proclaimed in his Fire Sermon. We are all part of it, even if our notions of self-help suggest that we should be able to rise above it. Shinnying up the masts of our selves in order to escape from the pain all around us, we succeed only in reinforcing our not-so-secret feelings of dread. Alone at the top of the mast, we remain entangled in our tangles, burning with the three fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. The Buddha had something else in mind for us, something that Western therapists have also begun to figure out. Look closely at this world, he suggested. Examine it carefully. Probe your experience deeply, with attunement and responsiveness, and you may come to agree with me. Like the glass, this world is already broken. And yet when you drop your fear and open your heart, its preciousness is there too.

The implications for daily life are manifold. With broken selves in a world on fire, trauma is everywhere. Bob Dylan, on his weekly satellite radio show, once quoted Richard Gere quoting the Dalai Lama quoting the eighth-century Indian Buddhist Shantideva, author of the classic Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, on this point.

“If you want to be happy,” Dylan hissed, “practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” Only Dylan could manage to make the word compassion sound sinister, although I think he was channeling something of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon when he did. If everything is burning, the compassionate gaze of a parent is a natural response to the flames that engulf us. There is sorrow in samsara, indeed, but also bliss.

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