The Trauma of Everyday Life


Implicit Memory

Not long ago, while cleaning out my bookshelves, I came upon a videotape, a VHS cassette, that had slipped behind a layer of novels on an upper shelf. I wondered about it as soon as I found it; I had recently transferred all my home movies from minicassettes to DVDs, but this discovery was of a different size and make from the others. I ran quickly to watch the tape on my television, congratulating myself on not having thrown away my cassette player yet, and found myself face to face with a forgotten episode from my past. The scene was from 1986; it was recorded when my daughter was five weeks old by a friend of a friend whose house we were visiting in upstate New York. I had not given the tape a single thought since it was recorded—I’m sure I had just stuck the cassette on my bookshelf and never watched it—yet as soon as the images began to play it all became very familiar.

Or so I thought. The video, which I watched about twenty minutes of, ostensibly focused on my wife’s nursing and our care of our baby daughter. But it also caught me acting in a peculiar way I never would have remembered on my own. As the tape unfolded, I began to squirm as I watched my younger self in action. My own conduct, faithfully recorded by the camera, alarmed me. It was like being transported back in time and being simultaneously in my body and observing it from afar. I could see the 1986 version of myself confidently doing his thing, but I could also see much more. There, in vivid display, incontrovertibly, I could see myself acting out a destructive pattern of behavior that I was clearly unaware of. I was shocked to see myself acting in this way, taken aback by the level of discomfort I could sense in myself and by the discomfort I was inflicting on those around me. I was clearly anxious, or angry, or anxious and angry, but I was also, quite apparently, not in touch with whatever was going on inside me. Nothing about the scene felt familiar as I watched; it was like seeing an alternative version of myself in a parallel universe. If I could have, I would have refused to even recognize it as me.

But there was no mistaking the scene. My wife looked every bit herself, a lovely postpartum glow animating her as she nursed. And I was definitely me, although there was clearly something strange going on. Were it not for the videotape, I doubt I would have ever been able to own this particular aspect of myself. The video gave me access to something that my own defenses had kept out of my conscious mind. It let me witness the way my own trauma spilled out unbeknownst to me, the way it ran through and colored my young daughter’s early life while traumatizing my wife’s entry into motherhood.

After passing the baby back and forth, about five minutes into the recording, my wife took out a little toy that would later come to be an important element in our world. It was called a “wiggle worm,” an eight-inch-long, yellow, stuffed rattle with little green plastic triangles along the breadth of one side. Once, several years later, we left the wiggle worm in a taxi we had taken to the airport, and we had to track it down and retrieve it, an exhausting endeavor that spoke to the wiggle worm’s central importance in all of our lives. This tape marked its first recorded appearance.

I watched as, very tenderly, my wife held the wiggle worm aloft in the gaze of our baby daughter. She had just finished nursing, and her extemporaneous play was redolent of the mother-infant bond. She made the wiggle worm dance and sing, very gracefully, very adroitly, her voice very fine and light. She was incredibly attuned to the baby, who followed her movements carefully with rapt attention, the toy hovering just within her field of awareness. Then, in the next moment, inexplicably and out of the blue, I grabbed the wiggle worm and began shaking it loudly and clumsily in my daughter’s face. “Wiggle worm, wiggle worm!” I cried. Jumping around like a monster, I brandished the thing like a weapon. I was like a caricature of an adolescent big brother stepping on my sister’s precious dolls. In the movie, my daughter looked confused and then scared. What was I doing?

Observing myself on the television, I was aghast. I am often impressed, when I see photographs of myself or see myself on film, by how tense I look. I want to look away. This was a similar feeling, but much more intense. The violence in my actions was hard to take. While I had no recollection of these events, when watching them unfold on the tape, I had some sense of what must have been happening for me when I began to act out my dance. I was vaguely embarrassed by the delicacy of my wife’s treatment of the wiggle worm. She was making it too alive. It was mattering too much. I wanted to make my friends laugh, but I was also, not so subtly, making fun of my wife. Only in retrospect could I see how uncomfortable I must have been with her attention to my daughter, how jealous I might have been, how much I needed to run roughshod over her or claim the attention for myself. And only later could I make a connection between my actions and the nursing that was the ostensible subject of the tape. Seeing my behavior on the screen put me in mind of my anxious dreams on my retreat. In both situations it was as if I were being taken over by something outside my control. It was one thing to try to make sense of it coming up through my dreams and another thing to see it in such prominent and vivid display on film. I felt sorry for my wife and my daughter, both of whom seemed bewildered, and ashamed of myself. And I could see that I was, in the language of psychotherapy, enacting something that was completely outside my capacity for reflective self-awareness.

Psychotherapists have long recognized that people color their experience through the prisms of their own particular minds. When this happens in therapy, it is called transference—it becomes the therapist’s job to help patients understand that the ways they are misperceiving the therapist contain clues about early traumas that are being reawakened in the therapeutic relationship. But it is not only in a therapeutic relationship that people are subject to transference; people act out unprocessed emotions all of the time: at work, with their loved ones, even when stuck in traffic or waiting on line at the store. Unresolved trauma waits at the gate of experience, looking for an opportunity to express itself. As I could see in the videotape of myself, however, there is a peculiar quality to this expression. It pours out unbeknownst to the person engaging in the behavior. It is enacted with remarkably little self-awareness. Even after the action is completed, one has little idea of what was being expressed. One of the fascinating things about reading the Buddhist scriptures is seeing how this tendency was described twenty-five hundred years ago. Not only did the Buddha act out his dissociated aggression in his ascetic pursuits but, once awakened, he became expert at recognizing and treating this tendency in others, in ways that anticipated the work of today’s most experienced trauma therapists. He became adept at interrupting the unconscious perpetration of trauma from one person to the next.

It is interesting that sati, the word the Buddha chose for mindfulness, means “to remember.” In his choice of this word, it is as if he already understood today’s most recent thinking about how trauma encodes itself in the mind and body. While the remembering aspect of mindfulness is usually taken to mean “remembering to be aware of whatever is happening in the moment,” there is another quality to it that relates more directly to the way trauma cleaves to our experience. Re-membering also connotes bringing that which is dissociated back into the self. It can mean rejoining, or becoming cognizant, in the sense of bringing something into consciousness that has been lurking outside awareness. In the case of trauma, this second meaning of remembering is especially relevant.

One of the distinguishing qualities of trauma is that it cannot be held in normal memory. Because the feelings associated with it are by definition unendurable, they never make it into the part of the brain that makes sense of emotional experience. Robert Stolorow describes it this way. Developmental traumas, he says, “derive their lasting significance from the establishment of invariant and relentless principles of organization that remain beyond the influence of reflective self-awareness or of subsequent experience.”1 The neural pathways on which these emotional currents run are based in the amygdala, deep in the brain, and they operate outside the influence of conscious thought. They can hijack the mind and blank out awareness, as my reaction to the wiggle worm made clear, so that it feels as if one is suddenly in the grip of something over which one has no control. Stolorow makes an interesting point about the impact of trauma, one that the Buddha’s psychology also supports. Trauma takes us out of time. There is no past or future when one is overtaken by it; it is as if it were happening now. “Experiences of trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped, or to which one is condemned to be perpetually returned through the portkeys supplied by life’s slings and arrows,”2 he says. The sense of one’s own continuity, of what he calls the “stretching along between past and future,”3 is collapsed by trauma. The traumatized individual lives outside time, in his or her own separate reality, unable to relate to the consensual reality of others. The remembering quality of mindfulness counters this tendency. It allows the experiences of trauma to come out of their frozen states and back into the warmth of time.

This is why the research on the parent-infant relationship is so relevant. In a good-enough setting, a parent helps her child metabolize feelings over time. She prevents them from becoming traumatic. Through her attention, with her subtle combination of mirroring and irony, she provides comfort and soothing and in the process helps a child know feelings from a place where they can be symbolized. She helps her baby give shape or texture to her emotions, helps make them safe, so that eventually the child can hold them for herself in her mind. In trauma, this process does not occur. Developmental trauma results when the primary caregiver cannot fulfill this function for a child. Other traumas result when a person, or his or her meaningful others, cannot do something similar. Brain scientists, in their efforts to understand memory, have illuminated the probable explanation.

There are at least two kinds of memory: implicit memory and explicit memory. Implicit memory is the kind we use when we learn to ride a bicycle or throw a ball. We do not have to consciously recall anything when we utilize it; it is just there in our bodies ready to be used. This kind of memory is handled in a deep part of the brain, away from the higher cortical centers that manage conceptual thought and conscious awareness. There is behavioral knowledge without conscious recall; the memory is called “procedural” or “sensorimotor.” It is as if it were lodged in the body, outside what we normally think of as the mind. Implicit memory develops naturally before verbally based memory comes into focus. It is the only memory available in the first eighteen months of life and is the foundation not just of motor skills but of learning how to do things with others.4 Much of what we think of as “relational knowing”—joking around, expressing affection, and making friends5 —is based in this kind of memory. We know how to do it without thinking about it. It does not require deliberate attention or verbal processing, yet it is intrinsic to who we are.

Explicit memory, on the other hand, allows for conscious recollection. It is also called “narrative” or “declarative” memory, and is what we normally think of when we talk about remembering something. It is mediated by thought of one kind or another and has a quality of reorganization. Raw experience is sorted out and reformulated and given coherence by the mind. A process of symbolization, of which language is a tool, is employed. When a parent helps a child regulate her anxiety by reflecting back what is happening and making it more tolerable, she is setting the stage for this kind of second-order symbolization, for a flow between the implicit and the narrative. Explicit memory functions through reflective self-awareness—when we have this kind of memory, we know that we are aware. It is accessed through thought, not directly through the body.

Traumatic experiences, it is now understood, are held only in implicit memory. Therapists who work with posttraumatic stress disorder see versions of this all the time. The emotional reactions of fight or flight associated with a specific trauma live on in the bodies of traumatized individuals as if in an eternal present. The traumatic reactions are locked into place, ready for a threat the individual has already seen but not explicitly known. The defense of dissociation cements the memories in place in the part of the brain that normally stores behavioral knowledge. The trauma is never processed by the higher centers of the brain. It leaks out when reminders surface or when one’s guard is down, and it is only accessible through the traces it leaves in the body or in unconscious memory. As Philip Bromberg has written, “What a patient is able to hold and symbolize cognitively versus what he must hold without symbolic processing and must thereby enact is the key issue. What is there is going to be registered in some form or other, and some unprocessed aspect of it will be enacted.”6

When I saw myself on the videotape twenty-five years after the fact, I could see that I was enacting some kind of unprocessed aspect of myself. Held in my implicit memory, it was being pulled out of me by something in that particular situation that was bypassing conscious thought. Seeing it all these years later, I could, with some reflection, grasp what might have been going on. My wife’s play with the wiggle worm, in the context of breast-feeding my daughter in the first weeks of her life, was making me uncomfortable. It was hitting me in a place I could not tolerate and making me act out aggressively. Why? Winnicott, with his exquisitely sensitive descriptions of the dynamics of the mother-infant relationship, had an idea. Reading him, I could sense how much my wife’s play with the wiggle worm embodied something I ostensibly valued but was also made anxious by. She was manifesting just that quality of mind that helps a baby navigate emotional experience without becoming traumatized. In witnessing her demonstration of it, my own trauma resurfaced and I enacted it once again.

“The mother (or part of mother) is in a ‘to and fro’ between being that which the baby has a capacity to find and (alternatively) being herself waiting to be found,”7 Winnicott wrote, in a description of how a parent stops her child’s feelings from becoming stuck in implicit memory. She is both a separate self (waiting to be found) and a potential space in which her self is suspended, making room for the baby to find her. In letting herself be that which the baby has a capacity to find, she puts herself into relief. The baby then has the admittedly illusory experience (although not illusory to the baby) of discovering her, an experience that is inherently creative. “In the state of confidence that grows up when a mother can do this difficult thing well (not if she is unable to do it), the baby begins to enjoy experiences…. Confidence in the mother makes an intermediate playground here, where the idea of magic originates, since the baby does to some extent experience omnipotence.”8 This is what my wife was facilitating for my daughter. She was showing how the wiggle worm could become a transitional object and she was beginning to endow it with the qualities of the breast. She was making a playground in which the wiggle worm, and by extension herself, was both already there and waiting to be found. In sensing her intentions, something in me must have rebelled. My reactive behavior manifested exactly the opposite approach, one that Winnicott warned against. As is often the case with trauma, I began to act out what I must have, in some way, experienced. My implicit memories were going straight to my actions. Only this time I was engendering more trauma, passing it along to those I loved most in the world in an endless cycle the Buddha called samsara.

Winnicott used the language of gender to illustrate two possible approaches a parent can take with a child. “The male element does while the female element (in males and females) is,”9 wrote Winnicott. Two mothers, both breast-feeding, can look identical, but the experience of their infants can be radically different. In one, the baby can find the breast for herself and have the feeling of creating it; in the other, the breast finds the baby and the infant has to comply. In the first scenario, the good-enough one, the baby, while feeding or being held, actually becomes the breast for a time. In the other scenario, the breast is given at the behest of the mother and the baby has to adapt. Instead of space being created in which the baby can find the breast, the baby is given no agency and no choice. When it is time to eat, it is time to eat. “Either the mother has a breast that is, so that the baby can also be when the baby and mother are not yet separated out in the infant’s rudimentary mind; or else the mother is incapable of making this contribution, in which case the baby has to develop without the capacity to be, or with a crippled capacity to be.”10

For Winnicott, if early experience goes well, it provides the foundation of a stable sense of confidence. “We find either that individuals live creatively and feel that life is worth living or else that they cannot live creatively and are doubtful about the value of living,”11 he wrote. “Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living.”12 The trust engendered by the “breast that is” carries over and makes emotional development possible. Even after the rise of the ego and the emergence of the self, this “capacity to be” is crucial. If it is there, it makes for a fluid ego, one that can dissolve into nourishing experiences, give way to the creative impulse, and spontaneously erupt in joy. If it is not there, the ego becomes more “male” in nature: There is a reliance on “doing,” a more rigid approach to everyday life, and a more uncomfortable relationship to the self. “The study of the pure distilled uncontaminated female element leads us to BEING, and this forms the only basis for self-discovery and a sense of existing (and then on to the capacity to develop an inside, to be a container, … ). At risk of being repetitious I wish to restate: when the girl element in the boy or girl baby or patient finds the breast it is the self that has been found.”13

When the Buddha taught mindfulness, he seemed to grasp much of what psychotherapists like Winnicott spelled out for us. In particular, in his treatment of unworldly or nonsensual feelings, the Buddha described how the traumas encoded in implicit memory could become objects of meditation, how they tend to surface when the female element of “being” is given preeminence in the mind. Mindfulness creates another version of the container Winnicott identified as the mother’s most important gift to her child. By moving the ego to a neutral place of observation, giving the “male element” something to do, and then focusing on raw experience, an internal environment is created that mimics the early infant-mother relationship. Under the spell of this kind of attention, implicit memories are given opportunities to reveal themselves. Like the videocassette I discovered in the back of my bookshelf, meditation asks us to reexperience aspects of ourselves we would rather forget. The re-membering aspect of mindfulness, like the writing process I engaged in after watching myself on the video, creates a bridge between implicit and narrative memory. One begins to give name and form to one’s inchoate feelings, to gather one’s dissociative elements back into the self. This can be a humbling experience, but it can also be a relief. The troubling aspects of the self are a lot less troubling when held in the forgiving arms of one’s own awareness.

I sensed a version of this happening through my own reflections on the wiggle worm. Meditating on my strange behavior while writing about it helped me see a distressed aspect of myself with less shame and more understanding. It also helped me take responsibility for similar actions in later family situations. In the events captured on the videocassette, I was acting out a traumatic residue. Confronted with my wife’s unself-conscious display of her own female element, I manifested a caricature of the male archetype, revealing something about my mind that I, and the people close to me, have had to deal with. In vivid display, I manifested what today’s researchers have also concluded. “The organization of mind comes to mirror, in part, the organization of earlier communicative processes.”14 The early parent-child environment, the balance between being and doing, lives on in the mind. Mindfulness offers an opportunity to see these patterns clearly. In seeing them, in bringing them into the domain of reflective self-awareness, there is a possibility of emerging from their constraints. Choice emerges where before there was only blind and conditioned behavior.

One woman who has come to a number of my lectures and workshops over the years, whom I will call Eva, confided in me recently how hearing me equate the work of Winnicott with the practice of mindfulness has helped her with her own trauma. She described how she would be “blindsided” over and over again by what she came to understand was primitive agony hiding in her implicit memory. Unexpectedly, and with no conscious control, events in her relational life—an unanticipated rejection, a minor disagreement or an unwanted demand from her husband—would provoke an outburst of fear or anxiety that would completely destabilize her. Drawn to the practice of meditation, Eva was able to describe how the progression of mindfulness—from the breath to the body to the feelings to the mind—helped her deal with her history. “It’s not like the trauma ever really goes away,” she told me. But by using the breath as a central, and neutral, object of mindfulness she was able to give herself enough room to sometimes face the “unendurable” feelings when they arose, instead of simply being at their mercy. For Eva, the word “sometimes” was crucial. “What meditation gave me was the choice to be with the feelings or not,” she told me recently. “When they get to be too much, I can come back to the breath and feel safe.”

Eva’s experience matched my own. She found that meditation, by providing auxiliary ego-support and a more neutral observing stance, opened up her memories and allowed conscious access to feelings she could only have previously enacted. But the ability to have a choice in the matter was critical. When those difficult feelings arose, which they would do sporadically and unpredictably both in and outside meditation, she could move back and forth between them and her breath as she saw fit. Over time, she could get to know her feelings bit by bit, but she had enough control to not be totally overwhelmed by them. This made her less vulnerable when her traumatized emotions were set off in daily life. They were not such a surprise, and her fear around them became more tolerable.

The Buddha, in his embrace of mindfulness, found a middle path between indulgence and dissociation. Spurred on by his childhood memory, he took himself out of an eternal present in which he was endlessly acting out feelings of self-denigration and reestablished a link with his personal history. He made remembering the centerpiece of his therapeutic method. In his careful elucidation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, he established the means by which implicit memories can be converted to narrative ones. The process is analogous to that which occurs between mother and infant. The memories of feelings are sensed in the body and known by the mind. A second-order symbolization is made possible. A narrative, although not necessarily a verbal one, is created. A picture is made, a representation established, a felt sense known. Feelings are brought out of the body and into real time and space. The boundaries and fortifications around them are pulled down as the ego surrenders its supremacy to the auxiliary function of mindfulness.

Winnicott did not know of meditation; he knew of psychoanalysis. He felt that the therapeutic situation in many cases reproduced and mimicked the early child-parent relationship, providing a second chance for unexplored trauma to resurface in an environment in which it could be experienced as if for the first time.

There are moments, according to my experience, when a patient needs to be told that the breakdown, a fear of which destroys his or her life, has already been. It is a fact that is carried round hidden away in the unconscious…. In this special context the unconscious means that the ego integration is not able to encompass something. The ego is too immature to gather all the phenomena into the area of personal omnipotence.

It must be asked here: why does the patient go on being worried by this that belongs to the past? The answer must be that the original experience of primitive agony cannot get into the past tense unless the ego can first gather it into its own present time experience….

In other words the patient must go on looking for the past detail which is not yet experienced. This search takes the form of a looking for this detail in the future.15

The key to Winnicott’s thesis is his understanding that experience is healing and that certain pivotal events have, nevertheless, not yet been experienced or remembered. In the scenario that he outlined, the infant at first needs the mother to provide protective ego coverage so that difficult emotions or difficult experiences become tolerable. If the mother’s absence or preoccupation precludes this protective coverage, the infant has nowhere to go. The very help that he needs to deal with the lack he faces is unobtainable. Instead of learning about tolerable frustration, there is only intolerable, and unthinkable, anxiety. But the child cannot process this situation alone. It never gets dealt with. Often it is filed away but resurfaces later: a kind of prototypical posttraumatic stress disorder. The person becomes fearful or anxious or aggressive but does not know why. Winnicott believed these ghosts were actually ancestors and that awareness was the key to unlocking their influence. “The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the possibility that the breakdown has already happened, near the beginning of the individual’s life. The patient needs to ‘remember’ this but it is not possible to remember something that has not yet happened, and this thing of the past has not happened yet because the patient was not there for it to happen to. The only way to ‘remember’ in this case is for the patient to experience this past thing for the first time in the present, that is to say, in the transference. This past and future thing then becomes a matter of the here and now, and becomes experienced by the patient for the first time…. This is the equivalent of remembering.”16

A person in therapy uses the therapist in much the same way that an infant uses a parent, as a provider of protective ego coverage, so that feelings that would otherwise be too frightening can be slowly passed back and forth and made known. Meditation, as the story of the Buddha’s life makes clear, does something similar. It also creates a holding environment in which unknown and unexamined aspects of the past can be experienced for the first time in the here and now. My vision of myself on the videotape, like my dreams on retreat, gave me another opportunity to turn my implicit memories into narrative ones. Winnicott, who liked to frame things as “male” or “female,” would have seen my predicament as emblematic of too much “male” energy. For him, there needed to be a balance between doing—the male element—and being—the female element. In my fight against doing and being done to, I was locked into a dissociated aggressive response. In search of attunement and responsiveness, I was nevertheless vulnerable to my own aggression. In the face of my wife’s nursing of my daughter, I could not contain myself. Not only did I enact my own trauma, I created trouble for them.

The Buddha dramatized a version of this as he journeyed toward his enlightenment. The events that unfolded after the recovery of his childhood memory and the abandonment of his ascetic practices brought him face to face with the childhood trauma he had not yet fully experienced. In Winnicott’s formulation, it had not yet happened because he had not been there enough for it to happen to him. But with his mind rejuvenated by his childhood memory and his body replenished by the offering of the maiden Sujātā, Gotama was ready to make more room for himself. Emerging from between the rock and the hard place that had so constricted him, he was poised to remember that which he had no conscious recollection of. The first sign of this came in the form of five great dreams. While they are traditionally viewed as prophetic, these dreams seem as related to the past as they do to the future. They suggest that the Buddha, like the rest of us, needed to connect with his history. With no videotape to come to his aid, his implicit memory yielded up its treasures in the only way it could. His dreams, as Freud would later confirm, were the royal road to his unconscious.

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