The Trauma of Everyday Life



The Buddha was very smart about the mind. Psychiatrists and brain scientists today are just catching up to him. He knew that the mind is not a monolithic entity, that it is not one thing, and that it is capable of incredible plasticity. He could see that it is adept at multiple perspectives, that it can think and be aware of its thinking at the same time. He also understood that the mind’s capacity for self-reflection is the key to finding its way out of trauma. Despite his reputed, but only occasionally manifested, psychic powers, he was not a faith healer and he could not free anyone through the laying on of his hands. But he was a teacher, and once he figured out his method he gave it away freely, adapting it to suit the needs of the individuals he came in contact with. When I taught the meditation on sound to the participants at my weekend workshop and had people open to the ringing of their cell phones, I was trying to introduce them to his method. By listening meditatively, we were changing the way we listen, pulling ourselves out of our usual orientation to the world based on our likes and dislikes. Rather than trying to figure out what was going on around us, resisting the unpleasant noises and gravitating toward the mellifluous ones, we were listening in a simpler and more open manner. We had to find and establish another point of reference to listen in this way, one that was outside the ego’s usual territory of control. You might say we were simply listening, but it was actually more complex than that. While listening, we were also aware of ourselves listening, and at the same time we were conscious of what the listening evoked within. Unhooked from our usual preoccupations, we were listening from a neutral place. For the young woman whose father had just died, this exercise, of listening in another way, turned out to be healing.

In the practice of mindfulness, the ego’s usual insistence on control and security is deliberately and progressively undermined. This is accomplished by steadily shifting one’s center of gravity from the thinking mind to a neutral object like the breath, or in the case of my workshop, the random sounds of the environment. As therapists who have worked with dissociation can testify, the self’s primary preoccupation in response to trauma is to protect itself from being overwhelmed or hurt. The effort to maintain cohesion, to avoid fragmentation and distress, is centered in the thinking mind. The ego takes charge, banishes that which is threatening, and carries on in a limited, reduced, or constrained state. The self we ordinarily identify with, the ego, is the caretaker trying to maintain control. Other aspects of the self, including the unbearable feelings evoked by one’s traumas, are relegated to the periphery, often outside conscious awareness. We think of this coping mechanism as a rational process—it certainly employs the machinery of rational thought—but therapists have come to agree with the Buddha that the overinsistence on self-control is severely limiting and ultimately irrational because of the way it excludes feeling.

In mindfulness meditation, the self that needs protection is put into neutral. The observing self slips into the space between the ego and the dissociated aspects of the personality and observes from there. The breath, or sound, becomes the central object of focus, as opposed to thought. Thinking becomes one more thing to observe in the field of awareness but is robbed of its preeminent position. Do not grasp after the pleasant or push away the unpleasant, but give equal attention to everything there is to observe, taught the Buddha. This is difficult at first but becomes remarkably easy once one gets the hang of it. One learns first to bring one’s attention to the neutral object and then to relax into a state of choiceless awareness rather than always trying to maintain control. As the ego’s position is weakened, waking life takes on aspects of dream life to the extent that new surprises keep unexpectedly emerging. In the cell-phone meditation, the surprise for the woman I have described was her father’s ringtone, redolent with personal meaning. But there are many other such surprises.

There is no single word for meditation in the original language of Buddhism. The closest is one that translates as “mental development.” Meditation, as taught by the Buddha, is a means of investigating the mind by bringing the entire range of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations into awareness. This not only makes what we would today call “the unconscious” conscious but also makes the conscious more conscious. There were already various forms of meditation widely practiced in the Buddha’s day, but they were all techniques that solely emphasized concentration. The Buddha, before his awakening, mastered each of them but still felt uneasy. It was fine to rest the mind on a single object: a sound (like a mantra), an image (like a candle flame), a feeling (like love or compassion), or an idea. This gave strength to the mind, a feeling of stability, of peace and tranquility, a sense of what Freud, knowing just a little about Eastern philosophy, came to call the “oceanic feeling.” While this could be relaxing, it did not free the mind from the traumas that had conditioned it. The Buddha was after something more.

The meditation that the Buddha found most helpful was moment-to-moment awareness of what is actually happening at successive moments of perception. This did not mean resting the mind on a single object but meant observing the mind in action from a neutral place. Human beings have the peculiar ability to be self-reflective, to witness themselves even as they are in process. The Buddha’s method harnessed this ability and developed it. Tibetan Buddhists describe this kind of meditation as setting up a spy-consciousness in the corner of the mind, eavesdropping on whatever is going on. Freud described something similar when he invited psychoanalysts to “suspend judgment and give impartial attention to everything there is to observe.” People are surprised to find that the mind, when subjected to this kind of self-awareness, reveals all kinds of secrets. The Buddha called this form of mental development “mindfulness” and suggested the breath as a starting point. Watching the breath trains you to watch the mind, to observe the flow instead of reacting to it. It is the cloak that Buddha’s disciple threw over the devastated patācārā after the death of her entire family and it is the shelter the Buddha offered to everyone. Clinicians from many schools of psychotherapy have discovered mindfulness and have begun teaching it as a method of stress relief and as an adjunct to therapy. Brain scientists have shown that areas of the brain associated with self-awareness and compassion grow in response to it.

To experience a taste of this, try sitting quietly in an upright posture. It could be in a chair or on the sofa or cross-legged on the floor. Keep your back straight. Or lie down if you would rather. Let your eyes gently close. And just listen. Listen to the sounds and the silence that surround you. Let the sounds come and go as they may without choosing one over another. Try to listen to the entire sound, noticing when your mind identifies it as whatever it is: a car horn, the refrigerator, the heat coming on, children’s voices, the dog, or nothing. Don’t let your identification of the sound stop you from listening. Simply note the thought and return to the bare sounds, to the act of listening. If your mind wanders, as it will, bring your attention back to the sounds. It might be after a moment or two, or it might be after a whole cascade of thoughts; it doesn’t matter. At some point you will realize, “Oh, I’m not listening, I’m thinking,” and at that point you can return attention to the sounds. Treat your mind the way you would a young child who doesn’t know any better. Be gentle but firm. Meditation means bringing your mind back when you notice it has wandered; it’s not about keeping your mind from wandering in the first place. You will notice that you instinctively prefer some sounds over others—don’t let this influence your listening. Observe the liking or the not liking, but don’t let it control you. Listen to everything, the way you would listen to music.

After five minutes, or ten, or fifteen—it doesn’t matter—open your eyes and resume your day. For a moment or two things might seem more alive.

This is the first step, but it is not the whole meditative process. Mindfulness, in its fullest flowering, actually balances two distinct mental qualities: relaxation and investigation. In the above exercise, the relaxing aspect is in the lead and is creating the possibility for investigation. Settling into the sounds drops us into a space between our thinking mind and all that we are dissociated from. The self shifts into neutral, but we do not go blank. We are still there, more aligned with the breath or the sounds than with our discursive mind and able to observe from a new place. This “dropping back” or “settling in” is an accomplishment, and it often feels like a surprise. I always assumed that whoever it was that was doing the thinking inside my head was the real me. When I shifted my awareness in meditation, so that I was observing my thoughts instead of being run by them, it felt like a revelation.

When the Buddha compared mindfulness to both the impartiality of someone observing from on high and the penetration of a surgeon’s probe, he was highlighting its double-edged nature. It encourages both detachment andinvestigation; release into a neutral space and critical inquiry when one is there. It has both passive and active qualities. Mindfulness does not mean stewing in one’s own juices or merely accepting what is. A recently deceased American Zen master and navy veteran, John Daido Loori, used to say that those who think Buddhism is just about stillness end up sitting very silently up to their necks in their own shit. The active and investigative dimension of mindfulness opposes this tendency. It encourages one to examine the strangeness of one’s own internal landscape from a neutral perspective. No longer being exclusively identified with the ego’s need for structure and stability, no longer being driven by the “face” one puts on for the world (or for oneself), creates the possibility of releasing oneself from old habits that have become ingrained in the personality.

I was reminded of this not long ago while on my way to a week-long silent retreat in rural Massachusetts. The retreat is an opportunity to practice mindfulness uninterruptedly, to allow it to gather force when one is free from the distractions and responsibilities of ordinary life. It is a chance to dwell in the neutral space that mindfulness makes available for a prolonged period of time and to see what happens. I have been to a lot of these retreats, and I always look forward to them with a mix of hope and dread. The experience can be delightful, but it can also be tedious or excruciating, and it is often a challenging mix of all three. It is, above all else, entirely unpredictable.

Before checking in to the retreat, I stopped by to visit with Joseph Goldstein, who lives nearby. Joseph is the Buddhist teacher whom I have studied with for the longest time. He founded the retreat center where I was going to meditate, and he is a real expert on the ins and outs of intensive meditation. I have known him since I was twenty years old and first became drawn to meditation, and I consider him to be a kind of mentor.

“Everyone’s asking me if I’m excited to be going on retreat,” I told him. “ ‘Excited’ doesn’t seem like the best word,” I added, thinking of the countless hours of silent sitting and walking I had in front of me, “but I couldn’t quite come up with the right adjective. ‘Relieved’ didn’t seem quite right, either.”

“How about ‘curious’?” Joseph responded.

I was struck by his reply. Despite years of experience with these retreats, ‘curious’ would not have been a word I would have come up with on my own. Like many people drawn to the Buddhist world, I am probably too attached to the relaxation that meditation sometimes offers and driven to these retreats by an underlying hope for a transcendental experience. When the retreats turn out to be more of a struggle, I sometimes feel cheated or defeated, as if the only real point of them were to vacation in a heaven realm. I was glad to have had this brief conversation with Joseph before this particular retreat. It helped prepare me for what I was about to encounter.

On the second night of the retreat, I awoke suddenly at three thirty in the morning with a burst of anxiety. I remember being upset with myself that I wasn’t sleeping through the night. I don’t know what woke me up—some kind of tension in my sleep, probably, a dream I could not recall—but suddenly, there I was. Awake. After a day or two of meditation I was expecting to be calmed down and sleeping through the night, not waking up and feeling stressed out, but there was nothing to do about it. Taking Ambien on a meditation retreat didn’t make any sense. I resigned myself to being up and dragged myself to a sitting position. Wide eyed in the middle of the cold February night, I wrapped myself in a blanket and positioned myself on my cushion. I did my best to remain mindful. When I lay back down after about an hour, I dreamed the following dream.

I was driving home with my wife in a car that was filled with stuff: a new computer or iPad, bunches of suitcases, a stroller, and boxes of art supplies. My wife got out of the car, fell, got up, and walked away in the direction of home. I pulled over, began to unpack the car, took out the stroller, pulled my sweater off over my head, looked back, and saw that the car was gone. A familiar phrase ran through my head as I scanned the horizon for my automobile: “unable to find what I was formerly sure was there.” I remember chuckling to myself in my dream, almost as if I were aware I was dreaming, even while I was filled with trepidation at the loss of my car and all my belongings. That phrase is a Buddhist phrase. It refers to the experience in meditation when the self that one was formerly sure was there becomes impossible to locate. The feeling of not being able to find the presumed self is said to be a vertiginous one, and the feeling in the dream bore this out. It was a confusing sensation. I called my wife, got no answer, and then called the police. They put me on hold and I walked home, scared to tell my wife what I had lost. “Prepare yourself,” I told her. But she was not upset. Relieved, I walked with her across an athletic field. People were playing boules on the lawn. One ball came flying toward my head; I ducked to avoid it and woke up with my heart racing. Once again. Now it was six in the morning.

I remembered my conversation with Joseph when I woke from my dream, my heart pounding from my most recent narrow escape. This was not what I had had in mind when I signed up for the retreat. I had wanted a good night’s sleep, at the very least. And I was still hoping, in my heart of hearts, for a quick infusion of relaxation from all this meditation. I felt chagrined at the level of distress I was subject to, and I had to struggle to bring Joseph’s words back to my mind. But as I continued to have more and more active dreams throughout the week, each of which I remembered vividly upon awakening, the wisdom of his comment became clear. Mindfulness was making it possible for me to observe my dreaming self in a manner not ordinarily available to me. In my regular life, I might be having similar dreams—filled with dissociative elements—but I would forget them immediately upon awakening in my return to everyday life. In the retreat, with so little going on in my outside world, there was tremendous opportunity to explore my inner world. While my days became relatively calm and peaceful, at night, in my sleep, I was racing through a European countryside in a car with no brakes, making 180 degree screeching turns at sixty miles an hour to bring myself to a halt. Whatever else I thought I was doing on my meditation retreat, in my unconscious I was definitely grappling with my anxiety.

Michael Eigen, a psychoanalyst whose work I have already quoted several times, is an expert on dreams. His reflections, which I read months after my retreat, helped me understand what was happening as mindfulness gained strength and my defenses relaxed. “The Talmud says every dream is an unopened letter from God,”1 he writes. “We don’t open, or are unable to open, too many of these letters. But sometimes a letter haunts us.” Dreams are a way of revealing and deepening emotional experience, he conjectures, a means of emotional digestion. “The core of the dream is not the manifest content but the emotional experience.” Dreams show us things about ourselves we wish to forget and at the same time help us to forget the things we can’t help but remember. They are a means of holding, and sometimes processing or even resolving, traumatic experiences. As Eigen writes,

Most dreams are aborted. Aborted experience. Something happens to frustrate the dream. An arc of experience falls short, is broken off before completion. Perhaps the dream is attempting to portray something broken, interrupted, incomplete, fragmented. Perhaps the very experience of incompletion and interruption is being dramatized and fed to us. As if the feeling of something being aborted is part of our insides. An intimation of aborted lives or aborted feelings. Something happens that doesn’t go all the way, doesn’t reach absolute fulfillment. A dream breaks off and we have a sense of aborted experiencing. Broken dreams, expressing broken aspects of our beings.2

This idea, of broken dreams expressing broken aspects of our beings, seems very apropos. It is another way of talking about the trauma of everyday life, about the bits and pieces of catastrophe we dissociate from but still carry with us. These traumatic experiences are left hanging just outside awareness. They peek out from our dreams or nag at us in the privacy of our aloneness, a lurking sense of sorrow or disquiet that underlies our attempts to be “normal,” but it is rare that we feel secure enough to let them fully speak. While I might have preferred to have my retreat be filled with pleasant feeling, this was not the path the Buddha had in mind when he laid out his teachings. My work in the retreat was, in the spirit of curiosity, to make room for the entire range of my emotional experience, to allow the dreams to be dreamed, the feelings to be felt, and my pride to be wounded.

Michael Eigen, in his discussion of broken dreams, maintains that these unwanted aspects of ourselves are in what he calls “constant conjunction” with the acceptable, that the “angry God” and the “benevolent God” are both active in us. Relief comes, in part, when we stop fending off the unpleasant and allow it to be an equal part of our experience. “Our job with our patients and with ourselves is to help make room for this sequence, for this inner rhythm, for different transformations of this constant conjunction. Not to get rid of it. We cannot get rid of it. We’d be getting rid of ourselves. Even in nirvana, you will not get rid of it. One has to learn to live with it, have a larger frame of reference, open the playing field, make more room.”3 While I thought I knew this already, both theoretically and experientially, I was, nevertheless, taken aback by the intensity of the anxiety in my retreat dreams. “No rest for the weary,” I told myself after the third or fourth anxious night, when I woke suddenly after being unable, in the latest version of my dream, to find my shoes.

My first dream, in its summoning of the Buddhist phrase “unable to find what I was formerly sure was there,” spoke to a specific discovery of the Buddha, one that emerged from his own curiosity and helped him resolve his own trauma. In the Buddhist approach, the ultimate target of mindfulness meditation is the sense of self. The active side of meditation takes it as a challenge to locate the self we intrinsically believe in and uses emotional experience as an opportunity to exercise this investigation. When one is upset or anxious or frustrated or angry, one tries to find “who” is feeling these things at the same time as one explores the feelings. The search is for what is sometimes called the “intrinsic identity habit” or the “intrinsic identity instinct,” the way we unconsciously take ourselves to be “absolutely” real, as if we are really here, absolutely; fixed, enduring and all alone; intensely real and separate; in what is often called, in Buddhist psychology, “the cage of self-absolutization.” Robert Thurman, a professor of religion at Columbia, quotes his old Mongolian Buddhist lama, whom he met in suburban New Jersey in the early 1960s, as explaining to him, “It’s not that you’re not real. We all think we’re real, and that’s not wrong. You are real. But you think you’re really real, you exaggerate it.” The picture we present to ourselves of who we think we ought to be obscures who we really are.

My first dream reminded me of this principle. Without my car, without the vehicle of my conveyance, without the self that needs to keep everything together, I began to come undone. But the stability offered by the meditation retreat, by mindfulness itself, made the dislodging of my ego’s preeminence interesting. Over the course of the retreat, I got to explore myself in a richer and deeper way. The broken, interrupted, and fragmented dreams had room to express themselves. And I, less attached to my need to be “really” real, could actually listen to them. What I discovered parallels the experience of the young woman in my workshop who heard her father’s ringtone out of the blue. More connected to lost and broken aspects of myself, I felt myself opening up.

My friend Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher and cofounder of the retreat center I was at, tells a story about her own intensive meditation experience that is similar. In her case, it involved not anxiety but sorrow. Sharon was meditating under the auspices of a very accomplished and strict Burmese meditation master. She had to go to him many times a day and report what she was experiencing in her meditations, giving him a virtual moment-to-moment rendition of what was unfolding in her mind. These meetings had an air of formality about them. They did not last long, although they were frequent, and the master could be gruff, reserved, and intimidating. On this retreat, she was crying quite a bit while she was meditating, but she was uncomfortable telling him the extent of her sadness and somewhat ashamed of the intensity of her feelings. They did not seem to fit with her expectations of herself or with what the practice was supposed to bring any more than the angst of my dreams fit with mine.

Sharon’s experience on her retreat presented her with a dilemma, one that was highlighted by the silence of the environment and her wish to have her teacher’s approval. The self she was attached to, the person she thought she should be, and the image she had of herself did not encompass losing control of her emotions in this way. She resisted her feelings and downplayed them in her interviews.

When asked repeatedly what was happening in her meditations, she finally indicated that there was a little crying going on. “Are you crying a lot?” the Burmese master questioned her. “Not so much,” she said, putting a brave face on. “When you cry in meditation,” he responded, suddenly addressing her very personally, “you should cry with your whole heart.”

The Burmese teacher’s conversation with Sharon goes to the heart of the Buddha’s understanding. The balance of mindfulness between relaxation and investigation allows us to enter into emotional experience in a full way while simultaneously offering us distance from it. This willingness to embrace disquiet, to “hold” it in meditative embrace, to give it life rather than abort it, is what turns out to be palliative. There is a secret agenda here, one that has its roots in the Buddha’s own life history and one that the Burmese master undoubtedly was aware of when he gave Sharon his advice. The ego can easily trump its own goals. The effort that goes into protecting ourselves from uncomfortable feelings can have untoward consequences. Shutting down one kind of feeling inevitably shuts down all of them. In protecting ourselves from the unbearable affect of trauma, we also close ourselves off from love, joy, and empathy. Our humanity resides in our feelings, and we reclaim our humanity when we direct our curiosity at that which we would prefer to avoid. This was something the Buddha unexpectedly discovered for himself six years after replicating his own trauma and abandoning his wife and newborn child in what has become known as his “going forth.”

When the Burmese master encouraged Sharon to cry with her whole heart, he was inviting her into her sadness, suggesting that she explore it with the curiosity that mindfulness fosters. In trying to keep it at bay, she was unknowingly giving it power over her, making it “really real” in the effort to diminish it and make it “really” unreal. Her teacher was trying to help her heal a split she had created: her ego on one side and her sorrow on the other. He understood that, in crying “with her whole heart,” Sharon could recover not just her emotional pain but her emotional presence. This was his secret agenda: to undermine the ego’s need to protect itself from painful affect and thereby restore its emotional foundation. Mindfulness dropped Sharon into the space between her ego and her unwanted emotion; it positioned her within the split she had made for herself and allowed her to look around. Her teacher, with the wisdom born of similar experience, gave her the key to rapprochement, the means to overcome her self-denigration, and the chance to be at one with herself. It wasn’t just self-observation, and it wasn’t only surrendering into the feeling. In asking her to bring those qualities together, to cry with her whole heart, the Burmese teacher was also showing her something she did not know about her mind. It could use her pain for its own development.

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