I put people in boxes. I’m one of those. I like personality typing (Myers-Briggs and Enneagram), astrology, sociology and psychology. I want to understand why people think the way they do, behave the way they do. I don’t use these boxes to define people as much as to understand them. They don’t provide definitions, for no one can be defined by any one measurement, but they do offer clues as to how an individual’s reality is formed, either passively or actively and where their core values are centered (externally or internally).
If you know me at all, if you’ve been following me for any time, you’ll know that I study trauma, I teach it in my yoga classes, and I’m actively looking at and pursuing ways to heal it, in myself and in others. Unresolved trauma is a public health emergency in the United States and has been linked to every social ill from crime to addiction, from violence to obesity, to emotional and psychological woes, even to physical ailments such as asthma, diabetes, auto-immune disorders, and cancer.
You see, trauma isn’t something you just get over. It changes you. And I don’t mean to say it changes your moods or the way you look at the world. It literally, physiologically, and biologically changes your brain. Among other things, it inhibits proper development of the pre-frontal cortex and can even cause a disconnection between that part of the brain and the limbic system, or that which controls our survival responses. These changes, in turn, causes other changes in our behaviors (how we eat, how we breathe) and even physically, allowing disease (read dis-ease) to take root, because, believe it or not, there is no one part of us that acts or responds on its own. Everything his connected. Every action, every reaction, is born in the brain, whether it’s the decision to run a mile or jump a hurdle or to eat too much or to drink to much or to inject that drug … even though we know it may kill us. Our bodies work as a single unit, not as a series of isolated parts, that’s why a back ache turns into neck pain that turns into a headache, or why poor foot support can lead to knee and hip and back issues.
Our brains are powerful. We know our thoughts can have a direct effect on our function and even on our health. Several prominent researchers on the issue, including Bessel van der Kalk and David Hawkins, have even suggested that the way we speak to ourselves or think about ourselves may influence the ills we contend with. If we despise ourselves, we may find we struggle with auto-immune diseases. People with back and neck problems often thing of themselves as carrying an unfair load, or they feel that others are “a pain in the neck.” People who struggle with asthma often feel overwhelmed by their life circumstances, like they are “drowning”.
I mention this simply as a forward to say … have we all not just survived a collective trauma with this pandemic? Perhaps “survived” is not the right word. We are not quite through it, after all. But for all we have suffered together (which is not just a world health crisis, but a financial one and a political one and a racial one, all at once) why are we still so slow to recognize the experiential pain in others?
I don’t know about you, but my first and tentative steps back into society after this last year has been … disappointing, to say the least. The world has changed, certainly (though not enough, by far) and likely will continue to change for some time. I have definitely changed. I have found that I am less tolerant of lying, of bullying, of exclusion, of intolerance, of closed-mindedness, of smallness, of meanness, of cruelty … and the list goes on, I’m afraid. And it seems that, at the end of the day, the pandemic and all its tangential and consequential fallout, has revealed that there are two types of people. Ok. There are more than that, yes, but let’s imagine for a minute, that there are dichotomies. And these dichotomies have been revealed, at least to me, to include:
- Those who include v. those who exclude.
- Those who are open to the truth, even when they challenge collective belief systems, even when it’s inconvenient, even if it reveals faults in ourselves v. those who defend and even identify with false narratives.
- Those who understand that a society’s success in the developed world is determined by the poorest of its inhabitants v. those who fear that creating an equitable society means they will lose something, whether its money or privileged station.
The have/have-not mentality is antithetical to the principle of abundance. Where you create exclusion, you are actually creating limitation and smallness. What we wish for others is directly related to what we actually believe is due for ourselves. It’s projection. One cannot wish ill on others and welcome goodness for ourselves, not in the long run, at least. The law of karma is real (though it has nothing to do with universal revenge, as some seem to think).
The idea that if someone has something “they haven’t earned” then somehow I will have less, does not hold truth—not even in terms of taxation. It seems logical, but prosperity is not a pie. Abundance simply doesn’t work that way. Success is a shared experience, after all. When people are educated, for instance, society prospers. When people are healthy, everyone benefits. When people are financially stable, everyone reaps the reward. Everyone. Poverty, financial insecurity, food scarcity, housing insecurity, health issues and the inability to seek and get help, are all traumas in their own right, often caused by trauma which then is perpetuated as further trauma on the next generation and on the individual themselves, resulting in complex trauma. Do you see how deprivation grows exponentially? Abundance and prosperity work similarly but in the other direction.
Likewise, and perhaps more importantly, when we refuse to acknowledge the pain that people are suffering and have suffered, we may be protecting ourselves, but we are doing no one a service. Nothing gets better. Nothing changes. But when we listen, really listen, and accept that what people feel is real, what they suffer is real an not deserved … we heal. If someone tells you they are hurting, is your response to demand they go and complain quietly (as in the case of the recent racial protests) or “just get over it” (as in the case of American racism and the aftermath of the Civil War and white supremacist legislation that followed.) There is no “getting over it” when some people are free and others are not. No one is asking anyone to turn over their life savings to the injured. It costs us nothing to listen to what we might do better in the future. So why are we still fighting this issue? (And this is just an extreme example of what I see as a social pandemic of ignorance and willful blindness). I think far too many of us are unwilling to admit we are in the wrong or that somehow, in our ignorance, that we can do more than we have done to reduce harm. I think too many of us are afraid of what we might lose if the world were truly equal. You are not more important for having someone beneath you. You are not wealthier if there are others who remained impoverished. Not individually, and not as a society. It just doesn’t work that way.
Going back to trauma, because, at the heart of it, I think that’s what we are dealing with, there is something called epigenetics. Remember when I said that trauma changes the body and the brain physiologically? Well, those changes happen at the genetic level, as well, in our DNA, which means that trauma gets passed down from generation to generation. Unresolved trauma becomes complex and compound. You can see how trauma behaviors are passed down in the way people parent and what they teach their children about the world. That is merely social, however. Real, embodied, genetic changes that affect (or limit) the way we process danger, the way we process connection and disconnection (read addiction), and the way we process the stressors around us, how we respond to the world and those in it, those are behaviors that are not only teachable, but genetically inheritable, as are the predilection for addiction, ADD, and even autism.
As a yoga instructor with training in teaching the traumatized, I’ve also trained a bit to teach the autistic. The methods and principles we teach by, the adaptations we make in a class for someone who has survived a traumatic event are precisely the same for someone who lives with autism. Sensory sensitivity, potential triggers for light and sound, difficulty being grounded and embodied (feeling what the body feels), are all the same. We adapt our music, the lighting, the clothes we wear, the tools we use, and even where we teach (always on the mat) and how we approach our students in a physical sense (never touching them without their permission). What if autism is merely the manifestation of inherited trauma? It is certainly a trauma of some kind. But is it an injury, or is it an epigenetic inheritance? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question.
Looking at the issue from a wider lens, what if those who are struggling with the pain of a past filled with oppression are not just mentally and emotionally holding onto those injustices, but are experiencing them in a bodily way? They cannot just get over it because it is still a part of their reality, socially, culturally, psychologically, and physiologically. There is no just getting over it until the injustices are addressed and the responses examined repatterned. And this isn’t an expensive fix, either. Programs are already in place to deal with these issues for veterans. It is just as easily applied to the public at large, and in very simple and grass-roots ways.
We’ve talked about the trauma that victims and former victims and the descendants of victims are still struggling with. What about the oppressors themselves, whether acting in full knowledge or quite ignorantly? Stay with me a minute.
Last summer when I was conducting some interviews with those actively continuing the battle for equal rights, one gentleman brought up the idea that it is not just former slaves and their descendants who are traumatized, but the slavers and their antecedents as well. Think about it. What does cruelty do to a person? And we can have the argument about whether or not slave owners were cruel to their slaves—but let’s not. If you had any part in keeping a human being from freedom, no matter the reason, if you can see another human being as property, that is a cruelty that no other kindness can make up for. And let’s be clear here, the Civil War was about slavery. It just was. This lie that it was not is just that—a lie. If it were not the case then the issue of slavery and the South’s right to maintain “that peculiar right” would not have shown up 80 times in the various papers of secession. The proof is in the words of the secessionists themselves. And so, if that is your background, if those were your people, perhaps something has trickled down in you, as well, that, for whatever reason, makes you feel invested in preserving that narrative. I do believe the white south suffered horrific trauma as well. Loss of fortune and home and the lives of loved ones is no small thing, but, the loss was not equal to that which they caused, so, in the end, what is left is this collective guilt and a resentment for the karma whose circle has not yet been closed.
It’s trying to close, though. What we have right now is a collective societal reckoning. Perhaps the history of the American South doesn’t figure into your own history. Again, I use this as merely an example. If you truly feel that by someone else having something you don’t think they have earned (and you really cannot know that, not really) then what is it you are struggling to protect? What is it you fear losing? Money? Power? Or are you simply afraid of being wrong? But if you couuld learn something, if you could grow and become better … isn’t that a good thing? As a Saggitarius rising, that is the thing I strive for, growth and change and betterment. I hope I’m not alone.
So what is it I want? What is the point of this post? I’m begging for some introspection here. There are lies, “scripts” we all believe in, whether it’s a political narrative or a religious one or some bit of history we are invested in defending, despite the proof to the contrary. The answers are always within. Always. What will it cost you to move in the world from a place of more kindness, more unity, more Christianity, more actual and authentic goodness? How do we let love and unity be our guide? What does it really cost us to admit that there are places in our lives where we can do better, where we can be heroes and advocates, where we can walk softly and do no harm. At least let us all make an effort to do less harm. I beg.