The Trauma of Everyday Life


The Rush to Normal

The Buddha did not always know that the world was on fire. Nor did he always have a feel for its bliss. He lived his first twenty-nine years in a kind of protective bubble, not looking too much beneath the surface of things. There was a deliberate agenda on the part of his family to keep him sheltered from the outside world, much as overprotective parents of our own time try to insulate their children from the pressures they fear will overtake them, but he was also compliant with their agenda, up to a point. He had a luxurious life, with all of his needs taken care of and only the vaguest hint of unease. It is generally accepted that, apart from his infantile experience of loss, the young Buddha-to-be made it to his twenty-ninth year without ever seeing death, sickness, or decrepitude. As the story is told, only when journeying outside the palace walls in an unusual expedition with his faithful groom did the Buddha catch glimpses of a corpse, a sickly person, a stooped and aged one, and a forest recluse. So startled was he said to be by these “Four Messengers” that he resolved to leave his privileged life to seek one of wandering austerity.

As safe and protected as he may have been throughout the first third of his life, the earliest days of his infancy were tumultuous. There was trouble from the start. Strange omens accompanied his birth, and the strangeness continued into his first week of life. His mother, Maya, said by legend to be a local queen, dreamed of being nuzzled by a white elephant on the night of his conception and delivered her baby from her side exactly ten months after her nocturnal vision. Standing in a fragrant grove of fruit-laden trees called Lumbini, a half day’s journey from the town of Kapilavatthu, where she lived, she steadied herself by grasping a low-hanging limb of a sala tree with her uplifted right arm and gazed at the sky as her child was drawn through her right side from her womb. According to legend, he was placed, standing on two feet, on the ground, where he precociously took seven steps to the north, lifted one arm, pointed his finger to the sky, and proclaimed something on the order of “I’m the one!”

One early collection of Buddhist stories, the Jataka, describes how the Buddha and his mother were honored in the immediate aftermath of his birth by two showers of water, one warm and one cool, descending from the sky onto their bodies. And shortly after this heavenly bath, a wise man named Asita, one of those mountain rishis, or recluses, who populate the Indian landscape, had a vision while in retreat that a great being had been born. He found his way to the family and, recognizing a series of signs and marks upon the infant’s body, prophesied to his parents that the child would become either a great monarch or a renowned spiritual leader. The joy he felt at discovering such a child was soon tempered by grief as he recognized that he, already old, would be dead before this great being would begin to teach or lead. As Asita began to weep uncontrollably at his realization, the young Buddha’s father became frightened.

“What’s wrong?” the father implored him. “Will something terrible come to pass?”

“No, no,” Asita reassured him, “there will be no misfortune. But a person of this caliber is unlikely to settle for the role of great monarch.” Tears streaming down his face, Asita took leave of the family, the birth of the infant already tarnished by thoughts of impending death.

Three days later, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, died. The newborn, after exclaiming that he was the one, now suddenly was. The only one. Half of a mother-infant dyad, surrounded by surrogates but cut off from the most important person in his young life.

How would he have coped? The rest of his family did not abandon him. They gathered round, gave him wet nurses to suckle on, an aunt to care for him, cousins to play with, and servants to attend to his needs. His father immediately entrusted the baby’s care to his wife’s sister, to whom he was already married, and she raised the infant lovingly as her own. But his father was unnerved by all that had happened in the space of the single week. The sudden and inexplicable loss of his beloved wife, on the heels of Asita’s uncanny weeping, had cast a pall over the entire birth. “A shadow of awe and uncertainty”1 settled over the Buddha’s father, and he resolved then and there to keep his son from abandoning him as his wife already had. He would give him every luxury, indulge his every whim. “If the prince found nothing more to wish for, the king thought, the notion of abandoning the palace would never occur to him.”2

The Buddha, some years after forsaking his wife, newborn son, father, palace, and extended family despite his father’s best-laid plans, thought back to what his childhood had been like. His recollection functions as a kind of screen memory, telegraphing meaning beyond its immediate associations. In his reflection, the Buddha described how fragile he had felt as a child, how protected he had been from the basic sufferings of old age, illness, and death, and how at some point the protective edifice around him began to crumble. It is a good description of what today’s child therapists might call the first cracks in his grandiosity or his childhood omnipotence, cracks that usually come around the age of two or three but that, in the story that grew up around the Buddha, seem to have been delayed. In his reflection, we can see him getting a glimmer of disillusionment, realizing in a preliminary way that the world, despite his father’s best intentions, did not revolve around him. The passage links his dawning self-awareness with a nascent capacity for empathy and reveals, from a Buddhist perspective, how each emboldens the other. It was one of the few times in which the Buddha spoke of his own state of mind while growing up, and it hints at the pressures gnawing at him in the midst of his otherwise privileged upbringing.

Here is how he described himself preserved in the Pali Canon, said by its adherents to contain the complete teachings of the Buddha, preserved in the language they were first written down in, several hundred years after a great council that followed his death. In this passage, recorded in the Anguttara Nikāya, the Buddha reflects on the life his father and aunt created for him and gives a hint of his burgeoning discontent.

I was delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate. Lily pools were made for me at my father’s house solely for my benefit. Blue lilies flowered in one, white lilies in another, red lilies in a third. I used no sandalwood that was not from Benares. My turban, tunic, lower garments and cloak were all made of Benares cloth. A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that no cold or heat or dust or grit or dew might inconvenience me.

I had three palaces; one for the winter, one for the summer and one for the rains. In the rains palace I was entertained by minstrels with no men among them. For the four months of the rains I never went down to the lower palace. Though meals of broken rice with lentil soup are given to the servants and retainers in other people’s houses, in my father’s house white rice and meat was given to them.3

It is startling to hear the Buddha speaking of his delicate nature. The images that we have of him—as prince, warrior, forest recluse, and awakened sage—do not correspond. Yet as he makes clear further along in his reflections, he is clearly pointing to something central to his preenlightenment personality. Not only was he spoiled, he was also vain and insecure. Protected from any knowledge of mortality, he was perched on a precarious foundation. Having been led to think of himself as virtually immortal, at his core he felt himself to be as delicate as his surroundings.

In the rest of this critical and revealing passage, right on the heels of describing his delicate nature, the Buddha remembered the moment when he first caught sight of his ego, struggling to maintain its hegemony. He described his first inklings of insight and the first cracks in what a psychoanalyst would call his “false self.” He also made clear the connection between these insights and the dawning of his ability to relate sympathetically to others.

Whilst I had such power and good fortune, yet I thought: “When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, sees another who is aged, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted; for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is aged.” When I considered this, the vanity of youth entirely left me.

I thought: “When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, sees another who is sick, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted; for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is sick.” When I considered this, the vanity of health entirely left me.

I thought: “When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to death, not safe from death, sees another who is dead, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted, for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to death, not safe from death, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is dead.” When I considered this, the vanity of life entirely left me.4

In later iterations, these reflections on the vanities of youth, health, and life were combined with other traditional stories to yield the more familiar tale of the future Buddha’s disillusionment with his overly protected world. In these later versions of his story, Gotama (the Buddha’s given name) was taken out beyond the palace walls by his charioteer Channa and on each occasion was confronted with aspects of life his protective father had prevented him from knowing. But it is interesting that this familiar story appears in the Pali Canon only in a legendary recounting of a past Buddha’s life story, never as part of the current Buddha’s history. Many scholars believe that the former Buddha’s story was recruited at a later time to explain the Buddha’s motivation for leaving home. But the above passage is the closest the traditional Canon comes to explaining his disillusionment with his protective upbringing, and it sheds a great deal of light on the Buddha’s inner predicament. There are obvious parallels between this passage and the traditional story of the Four Messengers, but the version in the Pali Canon points to the inner reflection the Buddha engaged in. He was clearly wrestling with himself and with the defensive shroud that had been thrown around him. He had been raised to think that trauma did not exist, that nothing out of the ordinary could ever happen to him, that he would always be maintained in his state of grace. But just beneath the surface was a trauma that had already taken place, one that his father was trying to forget and hoped the young child would never have to deal with. On one level, this is an unbelievable story, so gilded as to make it impossible to relate to. Who could reach the age of twenty-nine and never consider the possibility of old age, disease, or death? But on another level, the kind of denial that cloaked the Buddha is akin to that which we all use to live our lives without collapsing.

Therapists who specialize in the treatment of trauma spell this out clearly. They speak of how trauma robs its victims of the “absolutisms” of daily life: the myths we live by that allow us to go to sleep at night trusting we will still be there in the morning. In their use of the word “absolutism” these therapists reveal an important link between ancient Buddhist philosophy and today’s psychotherapies. The Buddha, after his awakening, emphasized over and over again the contingent nature of the universe: the transient, chaotic, and impersonal flux he summarized in the sutra entitled “The Way of Putting Things as Being on Fire.” But before his awakening, as revealed in the passages about his delicate nature, he was a living example of the perils and promises of one who subscribes to the absolutisms of daily life. We all need these absolutisms to survive, and yet they are inevitably challenged by the realities of life over which we have little control. Trauma lurks behind every corner. Even if we are closed up behind the walls of a palace, our own self-reflective thoughts eventually puncture the reassuring facade that surrounds us.

“When a person says to a friend, ‘I’ll see you later,’ or a parent says to a child at bedtime, ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ these are statements, like delusions, whose validity is not open to discussion. Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naïve realism and optimism that allows one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being-in-the-world.”5 Traumatized people are left with an experience of “singularity” that creates a divide between their experience and the consensual reality of others. Part of what makes it traumatic is the lack of communication that is possible about it. “The worlds of traumatized persons are fundamentally incommensurable with those of others,” Robert Stolorow writes. Trauma creates a “deep chasm in which an anguished sense of estrangement and solitude takes form.”6 I have seen this over and over again in patients of mine who have undergone direct trauma, those who have been in war zones, lost family members to accidents or disease, or become terminally ill. They are suddenly dropped into an alternate reality that feels as “singular” as Kisagotami’s did when she lost her infant son. After 9/11, for example, a middle-aged patient with a terminal illness, whom I had been seeing for about a year while he underwent various experimental treatments, felt suddenly vindicated. “Now everyone’s feeling what I’ve been feeling,” he said, smiling numbly. He lived in my neighborhood, several blocks from the World Trade Center, and he was absolutely fearless, in stark contrast to the rest of us, during the weeks and months after the tragedy.

In trauma, the reassuring absolutisms (albeit mythical ones) of daily life—that children do not die, that worlds do not move, and that parents always survive—are replaced by other, more pernicious convictions: the “enduring, crushing meanings” (of one’s aloneness, one’s badness, one’s taintedness, or the world’s meaninglessness) that precipitate out of unbearable affect. Trauma forces one into an experience of the impersonal, random, and contingent nature of reality, but it forces one violently and against one’s will. “The traumatized person cannot help but perceive aspects of existence that lie well outside the absolutized horizons of normal everydayness,”7 says Stolorow. Trauma exposes “the unbearable embeddedness of being,”8 in the sense that it shows us our powerlessness, our helplessness, and our inability to exist independently and absolutely in the way we might wish. Trauma is disillusioning, but not in the gentle way of the mother who has already given her child the illusion of omnipotence. It reveals truth, but in a manner so abrupt and disturbing that the mind jumps away. The old absolutisms no longer reassure, and the newly revealed reality feels crushing.

The Buddha managed to make trauma tolerable. He found a way of easing people into the burning nature of everything without driving them into the arms of negativity or nihilism or self-doubt or self-hate. He often used death, the very trauma that the absolutisms of daily life are designed to hold at bay, to nudge people out of their egocentric complacency.

Yet the Buddha was not into scaring people for its own sake. He suggested that most of the time, no matter how much we think about death, we can’t really understand it. The absolutizing tendency runs so deep that, unless death hits us over the head, we do not really appreciate its reality, even though we may mouth the words. His aim was to cut through the absolutisms of daily life, not to traumatize but to show people what he, the Buddha, had already learned. Even when he was ostensibly secure in his world of lily pools and sunshades and minstrels with no men among them and meals of rice and meat, he was delicate. Only when he was able to hold the realities of old age, illness, and death could he become strong. The effort required to ward off the possibility of trauma—the rush to normal that the absolutisms of daily life encourages—is itself traumatic.

The Buddha also used trauma to detraumatize people. Sometimes he deliberately evoked it, and sometimes he just used what people brought him. But whichever scenario he worked with, his message never varied. Facing the traumas we are made of, and the new ones that continually shape us, makes more sense than trying to avoid them, if the mind is in a balanced enough place to hold the truth. Trauma is unavoidable, despite our strong wishes to the contrary. Facing this truth, this disillusioning attack on our omnipotence, with an attitude of honesty and caring strips it of much of its threat. When we are constantly telling ourselves that things shouldn’t be this way, we reinforce the very dread we are trying to get away from. But feeling our way into the ruptures of our lives lets us become more real. We begin to appreciate the fragile web in which we are all enmeshed, and we may even reach out to offer a helping hand to those who are struggling more than we are.

I had a joint session recently with a patient and her twelve-year-old daughter that made me think about this. My patient had a fight with her daughter that morning and they were both too upset to let her go to school as she was supposed to, so my patient brought her to the session. I had met her daughter once before, when she was about two years old and her babysitter was sick. My patient had brought her to a session that time, too. I remembered how verbal she was, even at that age, and how attentive her mom was to her throughout the hour in my office. Yet, ever since she was about three months old, the daughter had been inexplicably anxious. She had been dealing with it well for the past few years, but her anxiety had been cresting again lately. When her mom was out walking the dog, for instance, if she was not home at the exact moment she had said she would be home, her daughter would become completely hysterical. While she was fine at school, or on overnights with friends, at home she could be hypervigilant to the point of making her well-intentioned mother claustrophobic. The absolutisms of daily life were not working for the young girl—if her mother was late it was as if her world had crumpled completely.

I wanted to help them and did not immediately know how. But I had the feeling that the daughter did not really understand what was happening inside of her. She was seeing a cognitive-behavioral therapist, who was helping her a lot, and she had all kinds of coping strategies laid out to help manage her anxiety. There was nothing in that vein that I could offer her—she already knew much more than I did about those kinds of treatment strategies. But I knew from my own experience how excruciating it could be to wait for someone I loved. Everyone was telling her that she was overdoing it, but, as the Buddha said when he enumerated his First Noble Truth, to be separated from the loved is suffering.

“You must really miss your mom,” I said. “Those are intense feelings to have.” To my surprise, the ice broke. Having framed her problem as an anxiety disorder, she had not really talked much about her feelings of longing. Her basic stance was that there was something the matter with her and she had better learn to shape up. She was very sophisticated psychologically though and she liked what I said to her. “What an interesting way to put it!” she exclaimed cheerfully, her eyes brightening. It is too early to tell if this one conversation will have any lasting effect, but we had a scintillating time talking about how she could make art during those times she was most missing her mom. She was already winning poetry prizes at school. It was possible, I thought, that she could learn to bear the trauma of separation with more clarity than she had been doing, and, therefore, with less distress.

There is a famous story in the Buddhist scriptures that it is at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of my patient and her daughter but that is nevertheless related. While the scenario in my office involved the imagined threat of death erupting in the first moments of an unexplained absence, the Buddhist tale describes a sequence of actual deaths that befell one young mother in a series of tragic accidents. Together, they show the range of trauma that lurks as a real possibility for all of us: whether imagined or real. In both situations, the absolutisms of daily life were upended and intolerable emotions took center stage. And in both situations a similar therapeutic intervention was needed to deal with the “singularity” of the event. Both my patient’s daughter and the heroine of the Buddhist fable felt split off from the consensual reality of other people. They were both anguished and alone and in need of a greater understanding.

The Buddhist story is of a young woman of the Buddha’s time named patācārā9 (pa-ta-char-a) whose losses approach the limits of the imagination. The beautiful daughter of a wealthy Sāvatthyῑ merchant,*patācārā was confined to the top floor of her seven-story home when she was sixteen to prevent her from getting involved with men. Despite this measure (or perhaps because of it), she fell in love with one of her family’s servants. When her parents decided to marry her off to a man of their choosing, she disguised herself as a servant girl and ran away with her lover to a faraway village, where her young husband farmed a small piece of land for them. Soon pregnant, patācārā begged her spouse to take her back to her parents’ home to give birth, explaining to him that her mother, seeing her with child, would forgive her and accept their union. When her husband refused, afraid that he would be arrested or killed, she set out by herself. He followed, they argued, she delivered her baby boy before she could reach her ancestral home, and, seeing no point in returning to her parents once she had given birth, she returned to her adopted village with her husband.

Some time later, the sequence repeated itself. Pregnant for a second time, patācārā set out for her parents’ home carrying her young son. Her husband followed, caught up to her about halfway there, and tried to convince her, to no avail, to return home with him. An unexpected storm arose suddenly, lashing them with rain and frightening them with thunder and lightning, and patācārā went into early labor. She asked her husband to find a place where she could give birth, and he went off to look for wood with which to build her a shelter. Chopping down some saplings, he was bitten by a poisonous snake hiding in an anthill and died. patācārā gave birth alone in the midst of the storm and set out in the morning with her two children to look for her husband, discovering his corpse as she turned a bend in the road. Blaming herself for his death, she proceeded on toward Sāvatth, and her parents’ house.

On her way she came to a river swollen from the recent storm. Its waters were waist high and there was a strong current. Unable to wade across with both children in her arms, she left the older boy on one bank and ferried her baby across first. Placing him on the far bank, she returned to get her older son. Halfway back to him, she saw a hawk swoop down from the sky and pluck her baby from his resting place on the far bank. Stuck in the middle of the river, patācārā could only scream as she watched the great bird fly off with the infant in its claws. Hearing her cry, her eldest son mistakenly thought she was calling for him, and he jumped into the river to try to come to her. The current was too strong for him and quickly swept him away.

But even this was not the end for patācārā. More suffering awaited her. Like Kisagotami having lost her infant baby, patācārā was, by now, completely traumatized. As she came to the outskirts of her parents’ town, she encountered a traveler coming in the other direction. She asked if he knew her family and he reacted with alarm. “Ask me about any other family but that one,” he said. The previous evening, in the sudden storm, the family’s house had collapsed, killing both the elderly couple and their remaining son. “There,” he said, pointing to a pale blue wisp of smoke in the distance. “If you look where I am pointing you can see the smoke from their funeral pyre.” patācārā’s collapse was complete. “Those who saw her called her a crazy fool, threw rubbish at her, and pelted her with clods of earth, but she continued on until she reached the outskirts of Sāvatth.”10

The Buddha, of course, was residing nearby, surrounded by a number of disciples. He recognized her as “one who was ripe for his message of deliverance” and, against the advice of those around him who cautioned him to keep his distance from the crazy woman, he beckoned her toward him. “Sister,” he cried. “Regain your mindfulness!” And, although it is not clear how she even knew what he was talking about (perhaps he said something more like “Regain your composure!”), she did. An old disciple threw his cloak around her, and she approached the Buddha to tell him of her losses.

After listening carefully, the Buddha said the following: “patācārā, do not be troubled any more. You have come to one who is able to be your shelter and refuge. It is not only today that you have met with calamity and disaster, 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.”11

Calmed by the Buddha’s words, patācārā took refuge with the community of mendicants around him. Some time later, while sitting outside and washing her feet, she noticed water trickling down the slope of a hillside. Something about the scene matched her internal experience. “Some streams sank quickly into the ground, others flowed down a little farther, while others flowed all the way to the bottom of the slope,”12 she saw. Some were like her children, disappearing very quickly on their journey; some were like her husband, living into young adulthood; and some were like her parents, living into old age. But death was common to everyone. “Having washed my feet, I reflected upon the waters,” patācārā later wrote. “When I saw the foot water flow from the high ground down the slope, my mind became concentrated like an excellent thoroughbred steed.”13 Seeing her reality reflected in the natural environment awoke something in patācārā. With every reason in the world to feel sorry for herself, and with the pressures of grief compressing her heart, she managed to see deeply into the nature of reality and let go of being shocked, humiliated, and disgusted. She was still sad, still grief stricken, but seeing the streams of water flowing down the hill did for her what the image of the broken glass had done for Ajahn Chah. While of course her family was precious (as was his glass), she was no longer fighting with the nature of things. Her traumas had opened her up rather than closing her off.

In exploring his own discontent, in searching for the way out of the conundrum of old age, illness, and death, the Buddha stumbled upon a pivotal truth, one that he put into practice with those, like patācārā, who had suffered devastating losses, as well as with those who were doing their best to pretend that such losses could never afflict them. “You have come to one who is able to be your shelter and refuge,” he told patācārā. Something in their interaction, some way of relating to the tragedy with attunement and responsiveness, communicated itself to her and allowed her to hold her reality. Therapists today have come to similar conclusions. One of them, the New York psychoanalyst Michael Eigen, has described it like this: “If, for example, one’s emotional reality or truth is despair, what is most important is not thatone may be in despair, but one’s attitudes toward one’s despair. Through one’s basic attentiveness one’s despair can declare itself and tell its story. One enters profound dialogue with it. If one stays with this process, an evolution even in the quality of despair may begin to be perceived, since despair is never uniform.”14

It sounds like a platitude—despair is never uniform—and yet there is something profound in these words. patācārā was enlightened watching the rivulets of water running down the hill in front of her. Those rivulets might well have been her own tears, for all we know. Her trauma, severe as it was, was not outside the natural order of things. As the Buddha told her, trauma has been happening since the beginning of beginningless time. She may not have been able to believe in the absolutisms of daily life any longer, but her reflection on the waters freed her from the absolutism, the singularity, of her grief.

In regaining her mindfulness, as the Buddha had encouraged her to do, she found a way to relate to her pain without turning it into pathology. Entering into dialogue with it, feeling the way it ran through her, gave her a visceral feeling of the “unbearable embeddedness of being”15 of which both she and her family were a part. She stayed with this process, and an evolution in the quality of her despair took place.

While I am afraid this story has been used over the years to caution young women against running off impetuously with their lovers, it has, for me, a much deeper purpose. patācārā’s pain was so intense, her losses so grievous, it was amazing that she could go on at all. I can imagine that nothing else made sense to her than to give the Buddha’s counsel a chance. As patācārā realized in her reflection upon the waters, there may be nothing else to do with the traumas that befall us than to use them for our own awakenings.


* Sāvatthī, or Srāvastī, the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, ruled by King Pasenadi, was one of the six largest cities of India in the Buddha’s time; the Buddha spent a great deal of his monastic life there, primarily at the Jetavana monastery, whose ruins can still be found.

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