The Trauma of Everyday Life



When the old monk who led patācārā to the Buddha threw his cloak around her, he was making a vivid psychotherapeutic statement. And when the Buddha, upon hearing her story of trauma, told her that he was one who could serve as her shelter and refuge, he was putting into words what the old disciple had already tangibly displayed. Both men were suggesting that patācārā’s unbearable experience could be borne, if just barely. And both were addressing what is today recognized as the most common response to trauma: the tendency toward dissociation. In dissociation the personality wards off becoming fragmented. It does this by withdrawing from that which it cannot bear. The shocked self is sacrificed, sent to its room for an endless time-out. It is shunned, split off, shut away, or otherwise quieted. The unbearable nature of its ordeal is more than can be handled, more than can be processed, and certainly more than can be understood. In order to go on, the self cuts its losses and dissociates its alarm. This is a self-preserving strategy, called an “ego defense” in Western psychology, and it is one that has also been implicated in the development of posttraumatic stress. Its goal is to avoid falling apart, and it is usually marginally effective. The problem is that the dissociated aspects of the self do not go away completely. They lurk in the background, unexplored and undigested, and the ego must expend enormous energy keeping them at bay.

When the Buddha suggested that he could serve as patācārā’s shelter and refuge, he was speaking from experience. He had already worked through his own developmental traumas. He knew firsthand that the defense of dissociation did not have to be the last word, that it is possible to be whole even after a series of traumas. He instructed patācārā in his method of mindfulness and, in so doing, gave her the antidote to dissociation. In teaching her how to release herself into her forbidden feelings, he also showed her how to emerge from them. Her reclamation of her dissociated parts can be seen not just in the image of the cloak around her shoulders but also in her connection with the physical landscape in which she was immersed. No longer needing to hold her losses at arm’s length, she was able to use the waters flowing around her to connect to her own inner state. After learning to be mindfully aware, she found she did not need to sacrifice her emotional body in the pursuit of stability but could open to what Kabat-Zinn1 has called “the full catastrophe” of her life.

Given that tales like patācārā’s are so central to Buddhist culture, it is surprising how little attention has been paid to the early death of the Buddha’s mother. One would think that her death would figure prominently in his story because of the way it speaks to his core teachings of impermanence, indeterminacy, and suffering, but there is very little overt mention of her passing. It took me years of immersion in Buddhist thought to even become conscious of it. She is there at the beginning of the Buddha’s life, exits discreetly, and is barely acknowledged thereafter. This rather curious neglect is a sign, I believe, of the traumatic underpinnings of the Buddha’s biography. Even in a culture steeped in the truth of impermanence, the need to dissociate from distress is very strong. People are so eager to get on with the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment that they rush right past the trauma at the heart of his early experience.

In developing the theme of an undercurrent of trauma running through the center of the Buddha’s story, it is clear to me that not all Buddhists may agree. Many people are drawn to contemplative practices as a means of rising above, or distancing themselves from, their most difficult emotions. They see meditation as a way of becoming calm and clear, of removing themselves from the tumult and chaos of daily life. They are not interested in awakening their primitive agonies or being reminded of their buried losses. They see the Buddha as one who has conquered emotion, not as someone who has come to terms with it. Even the Buddha, right up until his final awakening, meditated to escape from himself. He subscribed to the dominant philosophical view of his time that the desires of the flesh bound him to an unsatisfactory existence and that liberation meant separating his consciousness from worldly preoccupations. That he eventually rejected this view is something that even devout Buddhists often do not recognize, although it was the foundation of his awakening.

From my perspective, these two phenomena—the failure of Buddhist culture to take seriously the loss at the heart of the Buddha’s story and his own attempts to escape from himself—are linked. They both reflect the defense of dissociation, the very defense that the Buddha’s teachings are designed to counter. In dissociation, that which is unbearable is closed off and isolated from the rest of the self. The person has to go on, but to do so he or she must turn away from trauma, compartmentalizing it in a way that keeps it out of view. In dissociation there is no self-reflection—in order to survive trauma the devastated self is immobilized and hidden out of view. The emotional impact has nowhere to go, however. It becomes stuck, in a frozen state, inaccessible to the person’s usual waking consciousness. It is never digested, never symbolized or imagined, never processed by thought or language, and never really felt. As the psychologist Harvey L. Schwartz put it in a 1994 article, the mind flees its own subjectivity2 in order to “evacuate” its pain.

Within the Buddhist literature of the past millennia, there are several references to the Buddha’s loss that reflect this tendency toward dissociation. The famous myth of the baby Buddha taking seven steps to the north immediately after his birth, for example, conveniently passes over the helpless years of his infancy. These years are dissociated, as if they never existed, as if he were never a baby at all. It is as if he is already at least two or three years old, if not totally grown up, walking and talking and thinking clearly, already conscious of the role he is to play in the world at the time of his birth. His need for a mother, in this version of the story, is minimal.

In this depiction of the Buddha’s infancy one can see a culture’s defense mechanism at work. Rather than addressing the impact of his looming loss, the story depicts the baby as already completely self-sufficient. As much as I love the image of the baby Buddha pointing his finger in the air and trumpeting his omnipotence with what would become known as his Lion’s Roar, I cannot help but wonder about the subtext of the story. It reminds me of how my own therapist (a teacher of Gestalt therapy named Isadore From) told me that he could often tell from the way his patients walked into the room who had been prodded by overeager parents into standing and walking before they were ready. The hip bones of infants are softer than those of adults and do not completely fuse for the first year of life. Parents who stand their babies up and make them imitate walking push them into an erect posture they are not physiologically ready for. The child wants to comply to please his doting parents, but such children are robbed of the satisfaction of lifting themselves to standing when their bodies are actually ready. Insecurity lurks within such a compliant personality. A sense of inner confidence is often lacking.

The Buddhist scriptures, while relatively silent on the Buddha’s mother, do not completely ignore her. But when they do address her death, they illuminate the defense of dissociation more than they speak to the possible impact of her demise. Reading the various renditions of the Buddha’s birth that have come down to us, one can feel that something is not being said. Everything is fine, these stories insist. Nothing to worry about. It didn’t matter at all! In the description of her death in the Lalitavistara Sutra, for example, a Mahayana scripture written in Sanskrit and preserved in Tibetan, the pressure that must have been applied to the young Buddha to deny the depth of his loss can still be felt:

O monks, seven days after the Boddhisattva’s birth, it came time for his mother, Māyādevī, to die. And upon her death, Māyādevī was reborn into the realm of the Thirty-three gods.

But monks, if you think that Māyādevī’s death was due to the birth of the Boddhisattva, you are wrong. That is truly not the way to see it. And why not? Because she had reached the end of her life. With Bodhisattvas of the past also, seven days after their final birth, their mothers have died. And why? Because if a Bodhisattva were to grow up, his faculties fully developed, at the moment he left home, his mother’s heart would break.3

This is the most common explanation for Queen Maya’s death, the one that is generally repeated in Buddhist circles when her name is brought up: This is what happens to all Buddhas’ mothers. In Buddhist cosmology, Buddhas arise in every age, just when the world has forgotten the last vestiges of the former one’s teachings. In every case, it is said, the mother dies after the child’s first week of life. Were she to live, the various commentaries assert, her heart would be broken when her son renounced his family and fled to the forest to pursue his spiritual quest. It’s better, it is said, for her to die early, to be spared the unbearable pain of abandonment. It would be too cruel to subject her to such anguish.4

With great compassion for the mother, the various commentaries gloss over the effects on the child. It is left to the Buddha to put the pieces together himself. There is no evidence that as an infant he suffered in any material way from his mother’s sudden death. Nor was there any hint of neglect or abuse on the part of the aunt toward her nephew. One can only imagine that the young child took her for his own mother and bonded with her as such. It is likely that the infant, while having lost the opportunity to feed from his own mother’s breast, would have been fed by well-practiced wet nurses and doted on by the extended family of the Sakya clan, and it is even possible, had his mother lived, that his feedings would have been the responsibility of the same relatives or servants. He was certainly not in the classic position of an orphaned baby left alone in a less-than-optimal institutional setting, nor was he like the son of the poet Sylvia Plath, one year old at the time of his mother’s suicide, whose father, Ted Hughes, perhaps anticipating the boy’s own suicide forty-six years later, wrote of how his eyes “became wet jewels/The hardest substance of the purest pain/As I fed him in his high white chair.”5

But the Buddha, we can infer from his own remembrances, did not escape entirely unaffected. “I was delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate,” he recounted, without saying, and without necessarily knowing, why. He was “shocked, humiliated and disgusted” when confronted with old age, sickness, and death, and he was under intense pressure from his family to keep all three at arm’s length throughout his first twenty-nine years of life. Unsettled by the forces that whisked away his mother, he and his family dealt with the trauma of her loss in the usual way. They dissociated the pain, allowing themselves to go on, but in a compromised state. The Buddha’s delicacy speaks to this compromise. Without language for illness and death, with the whole thing cut out of his experience, there was a fragility in him that reflects the effort involved in keeping such an intense event away from his consciousness. As he himself reported, when he was exposed, as if for the first time, to the instability underlying his life, he suddenly realized he was “not safe.”

A hint of the Buddha’s dissociation comes in one of the verses of the first literary biography of the Buddha, the Buddhacarita, an epic Indian poem of the first century CE by Ashva·ghosha, whose title means “Life of the Buddha.” Written in Sanskrit by a learned scholar who had converted to Buddhism, Buddhacarita wove the facts of the Buddha’s life—his birth, awakening, philosophy, and death—into a lyrical celebration of his teachings directed at the cultural and literary establishment of the day, to whom the Buddha’s teachings, six hundred years after his death, were still something of a novelty. In this particular verse, the young Gotama exclaims in horror at his first glimpse of old age on his second trip outside the palace. Here he can be heard describing the ravaged soul he has just seen:

His belly swollen, his body heaves as he pants;

his arms and shoulders droop,

his limbs are thin and pale;

Leaning on someone, he cries “Mother!” piteously;

tell me, who is this man?

In some way, of course, at least metaphorically, the Buddha must have been peering at his own reflection. The old, sick man crying for his mother might just be a disguised version of his week-old self, weeping inconsolably for his suddenly departed mother. Belly swollen, body heaving, arms and shoulders drooping, limbs thin and pale; the description certainly fits a bereft child as much as it does a sickly old man. And Gotama’s puzzlement at the sight has all of the hallmarks of a contemporary therapy patient struggling to make sense of a split-off aspect of his own self. Teetering precariously at the edge of his seat, such a patient, estranged from his emotional self, is likely to feel a bit confused when his true feelings start to dawn.

“Tell me,” said Gotama while staring at this vision of himself, “who is this man?” That is the question that came to preoccupy him over the next six years. Having woken up to the reality of death, sorrow, and loss; having seen his delicate nature; having a beginning inkling of the dissociated remnant of primitive agony lurking within, Gotama was poised to confront the harsh truths of existence, truths that, for him, included the inexplicable absence at the heart of his early life.

We now use words like “estrangement” and “dissociation” to describe the coping mechanisms people use to deal with trauma. But in the Buddha’s time such concepts could only be inferred. And although it has not often been recognized or acknowledged, the psychological teachings of the Buddha do suggest this phenomenon. For in order to become a Buddha, Gotama had to remember what he had never entirely understood and reexperience what he had only temporarily known. His task was different from patācārā’s. Her losses occurred when she was an adult, and she could summon both her love and her grief when it became safe enough to do so. His loss occurred in an infantile and preverbal state. He had no way to remember his mother and no way to process his loss. And yet, before he could complete his journey, the trauma that configured his self had to be brought into awareness, experienced as if for the first time, and transfigured. The split that the young Gotama endured needed to be healed. The Buddha had to invent a therapy for himself and apply it. As one of today’s leading experts on developmental trauma, Philip Bromberg, has put it, “No matter how great the pain of being trapped within one’s internal object world, and no matter how desperate the wish to break free, it is humanly impossible to become fully alive in the present without facing and owning all of the hated, disavowed parts of the self that have shaped and been shaped by one’s earliest object attachments.”7

For some reason, therapists writing about early intimate relationships between infants and caregivers like to speak of “objects” instead of “people.” The idea, I believe, is that babies are incapable of relating to whole persons, that they relate, instead, to objects (like the breast) or functions (like feeding, holding, or soothing). They become attached to these objects or functions or traumatized by the lack of them. If they are hungry, for instance, they do not yet know they are hungry; they are moved by a physiological and biological urge to cry out. It is up to the parents, the “objects” of the baby’s subjective experience, to respond to the baby’s cry. When a therapist writes about being “trapped in one’s internal object world,” he is writing about being trapped by primitive agonies, about the constraints dissociated traumas put on the mind. While the Buddha’s story is traditionally related in metaphorical, not psychological, language, a careful examination of it reveals a similar psychological process underlying it. Just as described above, the Buddha could become “fully alive in the present” only by engaging with the “hated, disavowed parts of the self” that were configured by his earliest relationships. He found a method of dealing with dissociation before there was even a concept of it. In so doing, he not only awoke to his own Buddha nature but also came to understand it as a reflection of his lost mother.

Therapists today have a language for trauma’s impact on the mind. They recognize that the mind’s primary defense against agony is dissociation and that the primary motivation for dissociation is stability. Especially in situations in which unbearable emotions are stirred up, the self’s only choice is to wall itself off from whatever is threatening it, to remove itself from what it cannot regulate. My friend whose parents were both alcoholics with violent tempers became a person who was always most eager to please. Her parents used to have terrible arguments, smashing furniture while she cowered with her siblings under the bed. Yet she showed not a trace of her anger or fear to anyone as she moved into her adulthood. She was ultracapable but suffered, in her thirties, from what seemed to her to be irrational bouts of intense anxiety about her children’s safety and well-being. This capacity for dissociation is a survival mechanism. It allows us to go forward with our lives but in a compromised condition. The shock of trauma sits outside awareness like a coiled spring. The emotions aroused—which by their very “unbearable” nature cannot be imagined—are left unexplored. The self that moves forward is restricted by its failure to integrate the traumatic impact, by its failure to process its unbearable feelings. In its attempts to “ensure that what has already happened is unlikely ever to be repeated in the same way,”8 the defense of dissociation splits the self into a fiefdom of incompatible states. “The price for this protection,” says Bromberg, “is to plunder future personality development of its resiliency and render it into a fiercely protected constellation of relatively unbridgeable self-states, each rigidly holding its own truth and its own reality ‘on call,’ ready to come ‘on stage’ as needed, but immune to the potentially valuable input from other aspects of self.”9 One of the consequences of this defense is that the self is depleted of emotional depth and fluidity. “Dissociation shows its signature not by disavowing aspects of mental contentsper se, but through the patient’s alienation from aspects of self that are inconsistent with his experience of ‘me’ at a given moment. It functions because conflict is unbearable to the mind, not because it is unpleasant.10

In the second chapter of Ashva·ghosha’s Buddhacarita there is a single verse about the demise of the future Buddha’s mother that speaks directly to the defense of dissociation. Written in Sanskrit, the verse was recently translated as follows:

But when queen Maya saw the immense might

of her son, like that of a seer divine,

she could not bear the delight it caused her;

so she departed to dwell in heaven.11

I was startled when I first came upon this verse. “The immense might” of the infant! His mother’s inability to “bear the delight it caused her”! The verse seemed to support Winnicott’s descriptions of the merciless way an infant loves his mother, the way he beats her like a drum with a mix of what we in hindsight would call need, hunger, love, aggression, and entitlement but that in an infant comes all in one package, undifferentiated, like a force of nature. As Winnicott explained in an early paper, “The normal child enjoys a ruthless relation to his mother, mostly showing in play, and he needs his mother because only she can be expected to tolerate his ruthless relation to her even in play, because this really hurts her and wears her out. Without this play with her he can only hide a ruthless self and give it life in a state of dissociation.”12

The translation of the Buddhist verse hints at a very similar psychodynamic. What kind of message did the infant Buddha receive from Maya when she died? Did he need to hide his ruthless self in deference to his mother’s reaction? Was this what his father covertly demanded of him by structuring his subsequent life to have no reference to old age, illness, or death? Is this what made him feel so delicate? If Winnicott’s musings apply, in what later state of dissociation would he have been able to give life back to his ruthless self? As we shall see, there is evidence to suggest that his six years in the forest after leaving home provided him ample opportunity to dwell within just the sort of dissociated state Winnicott envisioned.

I was moved, however, not only by the thought of the infant Buddha without his mother to absorb his love but also by the image of a mother unable to bear her delight. Having fathered two children myself, I felt a vague sympathy for Maya. In psychoanalysis these days, the emphasis is so often on the psychic state of the infant that the intensity of adult experience is commonly shortchanged. And it seems easier for psychoanalysts to talk about negative feelings—aggression and its derivatives—than about ordinary ecstatic ones that evoke fear as well as pleasure. The delight of the parent seems a wonderful thing to highlight.

Ashva·ghosha’s biography actually makes another reference to the Buddha’s parents’ delight, in its first chapter, when describing their reactions to his birth. Both parents can be seen trying to contain a mix of hope and dread, as if anticipating Maya’s capitulation a week later.

When he saw the wondrous birth of his son,

the king, although steadfast, was much perturbed;

and from his love two streams of tears surged forth,

rising from apprehension and delight.

The queen was overcome with fear and joy,

like a mixed stream of water, hot and cold;

both because her son’s power was other than human,

and because of a mother’s natural weakness.13

The idea of the Buddha’s parents having a hard time with the feelings evoked by their baby moved me because it hinted at a truth I never could have articulated but that fit with my experience. Love enlivens but also frightens, not only when it falters or when it is unrequited but also when it is unleashed, dissolving us in the heat of its expression. It takes stamina and faith to maintain oneself in the midst of such passion. Maya was not the first, nor the last, to retreat from it, to question her ability to survive its intensity.

Within the psychoanalytic tradition, it was Winnicott who first paid attention to this dimension of the mother-infant relationship. He looked at it through the lens of breast-feeding, which at the time was under assault by the medicalization and mechanization of child-rearing. It took Winnicott to remind therapists—and parents—how meaningful nursing can be for a mother. With care to avoid presuming that it was right for everyone or every situation, and with barely concealed horror at those who would “make” mothers breast-feed, Winnicott nevertheless took care to repeatedly affirm its primal power at a time (in the early 1960s) when the medical establishment was counseling just the opposite.

Alongside the observation of the baby’s experiences which are richer when the breast is being used than with a bottle, one has to put all that the mother herself feels and experiences. I prefer to leave it to your imagination, but it is important to draw attention to the fact that although the feeding of a baby can be very satisfactory, however it is done, the satisfaction is of a different order altogether for the woman who is able to use part of her own body in this way. The satisfaction links up with her own experiences when she was a baby, and the whole thing goes back to the beginning of time when human beings had scarcely moved from the position of mammalian animal life.14

There is something in the nursing experience that connects a woman not only to her infant but to her selfless self. The Sanskrit verse says much the same thing. Maya felt the vast luster of her connection with her child but did not think she could sustain the thrill of bliss it brought her. The feelings evoked, although positive, were unbearable, and her only solution was to dissociate herself from them. She left her physical body behind and retreated to the only place that felt safe enough to sustain the thrill of bliss she could not otherwise process: a heaven realm where, according to Buddhist cosmology, beings have bodies of bliss rather than flesh and blood. Her son, meanwhile, was left to work things out for himself.

From a trauma perspective, Queen Maya’s death had to impact her child, even if the care he received from her surrogates turned out to be loving and tender. There could be no way to entirely paper over the cut. At the beginning of life, as Winnicott once put it, it “seems impossible to talk about the individual without talking about the mother.”15 While an infant already has the potential for separateness, he is in a state of absolute dependency such that the mother’s relating cannot be discriminated from the baby’s own self. “How the mother behaves is really part of the infant,” Winnicott surmised. “I think the difficulty is that there’s a paradox. The paradox is that the environment is part of the infant and at the same time it isn’t. The infant has to accept this eventually in order to become a grown-up at all.”16

If how the mother behaves is really part of the infant, then the young boy who was to become the Buddha had to make sense out of something quite confusing. At the very beginning of his life, a tremendous disruption took place, a disruption for which there could have been no words. And if the silence about Queen Maya’s death that has come to characterize Asian culture was present in the Buddha’s day as well, it is likely that there were never words about it, even as the child matured. Having been let down, the young Buddha was given a very early, if momentary, taste of aloneness. His mother’s disappearance would have become part of him, and while it would be premature to assume that he took her abandonment personally (since there was very little of a person present yet to take it that way), it is fair to wonder whether his personality would have been conditioned by his mother’s sudden absence. Her inability to sustain the thrill of bliss he brought her would have stayed with him, in one form or another.

Maya’s predicament mirrored one that the Buddha would confront over and over again in his adult years. People could not believe in their own Buddha nature. Even Gotama himself, in his preenlightenment years, could not believe in his inherent perfection. He thought he had to extinguish himself to find transcendence. His mother acted out of a similar belief. Unable to stay with the thrill in her human embodiment, unable to believe that her physical body could bear her joy, Maya was forced to take refuge in her celestial bliss body, the only one that could hold the feelings evoked by her child. In so doing, the Buddha’s mother acted out an inadequacy that many a mother—like many a lover—is vulnerable to, an inadequacy fed by thoughts of doubt and fear that erode confidence and corrode connection. Doubting the capacity of her physical form to sustain the thrill of her motherhood, Maya was compelled to seek a self-state that split her off from her child. Like an infant forced to disconnect from his ruthless self when his mother fails to receive it, Maya could endure only by dissociating. Forsaking her body and her child, she survived by departing her physical form.

While the main Buddhist commentaries emphasize Maya’s altruism in bearing the infant Gotama and then fulfilling her preordained role as a future Buddha’s mother by dying when she was supposed to, this other dynamic deepens her connection to the Buddha’s awakening. Many years later, after a six-year struggle and one of the world’s great self-analyses, the Buddha attained his enlightenment. Although he has become known for his proclamation of the universality of suffering, the Buddha’s most radical statement was not about suffering at all; it was about joy. The actual nature of life is bliss, the Buddha said, but this bliss is too often obscured by our habitual misperceptions. It is the egocentric life that is suffering, the Buddha realized, the life conditioned by conceit that needs a self to be built up and protected and separated out, in its own version of dissociation, from the rest of the universe. The Buddha’s discovery was not of suffering but of freedom. He did not need to discover suffering: Its existence was already obvious to everyone. What the Buddha found was that suffering was not irredeemable, that it is dependent, not only on the way things are but on the way we think and react. In uncovering the defense of dissociation, the Buddha spoke to his own mother’s dilemma, to the conundrum or conflict that his birth had forced on her but that she was unable to process. The thrill of bliss can be sustained in a human body, he proclaimed, once this bliss is understood as an expression of the compassionate connection that binds us all the way a mother is naturally connected to her baby.

No one doubts, as today’s therapists like to remind people, that mothers suffer. But mothers (and fathers, too), through their identifications with their babies, do not ordinarily let their suffering be the last word. Love lifts them out of self-preoccupation and connects them to a joy greater than that obtainable through the satisfaction of egocentric desires. The Buddha’s mother glimpsed this truth but, to fulfill her function as the mother of a future Buddha, she worried about her ability to sustain it. The Buddha, in his awakening, saw the potential for boundless compassion inherent in everyone and realized that it need not make us afraid. Early in his teaching career, during the three-month period of the Indian summer monsoon, the Buddha, according to legend, traveled to the heaven realm where his mother had taken refuge to acknowledge the truth of the bliss she had felt when he was born. He taught her the basics of his psychology, as if to enlighten her about her own true nature. He had an obligation to the mother who had borne him and a rupture to repair. Having discovered his own bliss body, he needed to reassure his mother that he had not forgotten hers.

I was thinking about this not long ago when teaching a weekend workshop on Buddhism and psychotherapy in New York City, where I live. It was a workshop in which I tried to balance talk with silent meditation so people could get a glimpse of how mindfulness actually works to counter the defense of dissociation. I led off the morning session with a meditation on sound. I asked everyone to take out their cell phones and turn them on, preferably with a favorite ringtone, so that the phones would make noise when they went off. My idea was to counter the usual notions of meditation as demanding silence and to encourage an attitude of openness to all experience, even that which can feel unbearable. I was trying to show how meditation can be therapeutic, how it teaches a nonjudgmental way of attending to thoughts and feelings, and how listening to sounds can be practice for listening to feelings.

I liked the idea of the cell phones going off randomly in the midst of our group meditation as people got calls, voice messages, e-mails, and texts. I saw the resulting cacophony as a metaphor not only for the traumas of daily life but also for its emotional impact as well: unpredictable, chaotic, inconvenient, and emerging in its own way and on its own schedule. Many people have the idea that meditation means shutting down thought or shutting off emotions the way we are often asked to shut down our phones before a movie or a talk. I wanted to use the ubiquitous presence of sound as an object of meditation rather than seeing it as an unwanted disturbance. By inference I was suggesting that emotional life could be part of the meditative experience, not something reserved for one’s diary, one’s partner, or one’s therapy and not something to be ashamed of or to squelch in the hopes of a more “spiritual” experience. I enjoyed seeing people’s surprise when I first suggested the exercise. Their nervous laughter gladdened my therapist heart.

“You’ll see,” I said encouragingly. “You’re not as popular as you might think. Who’s going to be calling you on a Saturday morning anyway? We’ll still have plenty of silence in the room.” I asked the participants to use the sounds that did come as reminders to pay attention, the way Zen meditators might use the striking of a stick on the shoulders as a means of staying alert. I asked everyone to make the exercise a meditation on hearing, and I quoted Freud giving recommendations to physicians practicing psychoanalysis. He had one important secret for therapists. “Simply listen,” Freud suggested, “and don’t bother about keeping anything in mind.” I told them how Freud’s daughter, Anna, had said that the therapist sits in the center of an equilateral triangle, equidistant from id, ego, and superego, consciously not aligning herself with any aspect of her patient’s psyche. In meditation, we similarly sit without judgment, equidistant from instinct, ego, and self-criticism.

The meditation proceeded without a hitch. There was an intermittent low swishing sound that seemed to come from the ventilation system, a whooshing noise that was gently soothing and easy to attend to. People shifted in their chairs and coughed occasionally while random noises filtered in from the street. And once in a while someone’s phone would go off, a sudden burst of fireworks: a bit of Motown, a flurry of salsa, little musical explosions piercing the room’s relative silence. The zings and zats of sound lent an electrical charge to the meditation, sparkling like slivers of stars in the stillness that settled over the group as we sat.

After the meditation there was time for questions. The third or fourth person to raise a hand was a young Hispanic woman who seemed reluctant to speak, even as she waited her turn. But when she began, she captured everyone’s attention. “My father died several months ago,” she began. Her voice quavered but grew stronger as she continued. “He was sick for about a year before he died. I helped to take care of him—I had a special ring in my phone for him so I would know when he was calling me. But since he died, I haven’t been able to look at certain things that remind me of him, or listen to things, like his voice on the answering machine. I put his ringtone away; I would never use it for anyone else, and I couldn’t bear to hear it anymore. But in this group, someone else had the same tone, the one I had saved for my father. And when it went off while we were sitting, it was like my father calling to me again—it brought him back. I felt so lucky to be hearing it now, for the first time after his death, in this room, with all of you. I was afraid to face it, but I felt as if everyone was supporting me while I listened. I was scared of what I would feel, but it was good.”

I have never seen this woman again but her response, or the spirit behind her response, has stayed with me. It was much more moving than I am capable of conveying on the page. Her love for her father came shining through for everyone to see. The meditation, in inadvertently summoning him, had reached deep inside her heart and released its sweetness. By chance, it had brought her father back, opening her once again to the sound of him.

I was struck by how readily our meditation had plucked a relational chord. I had wanted, by focusing on sound as the object of meditation, to help people see that meditation was not just about seeking inner peace, it was about being present with everything. To witness the release of a dissociative defense in the midst of the sound meditation was a very powerful experience. We could literally feel the young woman’s self open up as she brought back her love for her father. The flow of feeling, like the rivulets of water that patācārā saw as she washed her feet after meeting the Buddha, ran through the entire group of people in the room.

This was not an anomaly. There is support for it going all the way back to the Pali Canon. The collection of verses in which the Buddha tells the story of his mother’s death is called Udana, which means “cries” or “sighs” of the heart. The reference is to the throat chakra, or center, of classical Indian spiritual anatomy, which, when a person is overwhelmed with joy or rapture, fills to overflow and erupts with song. It is intriguing that the only classical reference to the Buddha’s early loss comes in this particular volume.

“Shortlived are the mothers of Bodhisattvas,” the Buddha is heard to remark, referring to himself as a Bodhisattva, or awakened being.

“When the Bodhisattvas are seven days born, their mothers make an end and are reborn in the company of the Tusita devas.”17 *

The Buddha then goes on to give a little inspiration. Everyone faces impermanence, he says. All that comes into being shall eventually depart. There is no absolute safety. Seeing this fact, wise people seek liberation. This is what we would expect him to say. But there is another layer of meaning in his verse as well, one that the young woman’s response to the cell-phone meditation also conveyed. When the dissociative reaction to trauma is relaxed and the self can open to what has previously seemed unbearable, a cry or sigh of release comes forth. By placing his only acknowledgment of his mother’s death in the chapter called Udana, the Buddha pointed to an important psychological truth. While dissociation offers immediate protection from the traumas of life, its relaxation connects us to ourselves in a way that brings forth relief from the heart. While the random ringing of the cell phone unexpectedly performed this function in my workshop, the Buddha would not have been surprised. The method he cultivated, of listening unapologetically to the sound of all things, was precisely calibrated to render the defense of dissociation mute. When this happens, the thrill of bliss that so paralyzed his mother can once again be felt.


* One of the highest god realms of the Buddhist cosmology.

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