Back in the early days of 2020 I met up with a friend for coffee to talk about whether I might support him in some writing projects he was considering. As always these days I suggested consent as a starting point for thinking about writing. Did he really know that it was okay not to write? Could he allow that all other activities are also equally valid – whether or not they feel as productive, have such an obvious output, or follow the cultural script for what makes an individual successful?
Over the course of the conversation it emerged that he was going through a vital personal process at the moment. A fellow Buddhist and therapist, he described how he was spending much of his non-working time engaged in spiritual practices. Frequently what was coming up in these was excruciatingly painful, and deeply challenging, but he was being helped through by his teacher who reminded him that this is exactly the process described by most Buddhist – and other contemplative – practitioners as the path to awakening. By the end of our conversation he had decided that this process was what he wanted to focus on for the foreseeable future, rather than any writing project.
I walked away from this meeting in a bit of a daze. The process he had described was something very similar to what I was going through, myself, in the early days of what I have mostly been describing here as dealing with post-traumatic stress. We were both experiencing overwhelming emotions, intrusive troubling memories, and confrontation with the aspects of ourselves we most struggle with. I walked home feeling much lighter than I’d felt during my journey out to the cafe. This heavy trauma story I’d been telling could be reframed as something very different: a sacred process, the path of a spiritual warrior.
Holding multiple stories
Following that time I’ve sunk far deeper into my process, as regular readers will be aware because I’ve been documenting – here – what I’ve been learning along the way. Throughout this time I’ve found it useful to hold both those potential stories about what I’m going through: trauma and spiritual awakening. This is reflected in my reading, my practices, and my writing.
Nearly every day I read – or listen to – some Buddhist teachings (usually my main go-to, Pema Chödrön), and some trauma literature (the kinds of books and videos that I’ve been summarising here). I’ve also been weaving together practices that I’ve learnt from Buddhism with ones from the trauma literature, for example bringing bodily/environmental grounding into my sitting practice, using brief meditation as a form of consent check-in, and working with a Buddhist trauma-informed therapist. I hope that my writing reflects this synthesis. While writing about trauma I’ve endeavoured to hold onto the sense that there is a spectrum of traumatic experience, that we’re all impacted by historical and intergenerational trauma, and that the ideas about how to navigate triggering and reactivity are valuable for all of us.
It occurred to me that there are actually four different stories which I’m telling myself about my current experience:
- Shame story: The story from within my trauma is a shame-saturated one where I am a bad person who harms people with their habits. I need to retreat substantially from the world in order to address these habits and make myself safer for others in close relationships and in my work, if that’s even possible. This is the story I tell myself, each time trauma feelings hit, which any amount of intellectual knowing-otherwise struggles to shift.
- Trauma story: The trauma-informed story is that I’m a person who has gone through several periods of trauma in their life: for a year or two each decade following school bullying and family struggles in my teens; rejection by my university friends in my twenties; and workplace bullying, public shaming, and sexual assault in my thirties. I’m now understanding this as post-traumatic stress, and its roots in intergenerational and developmental trauma, and applying a trauma-informed perspective to this process in my forties, instead of withdrawing from the world and looking to a partner relationship to rescue me as I did those previous times. Hopefully this will mean that I heal or recover to some extent, or at least that the fifties version of me who goes through this again will be better resourced when they do so.
- Human story: The human story is that this is just what people go through. I’m neither especially bent or broken (as the shame and trauma stories might suggest), nor am I going through something particularly special or meaningful. I’m neither wholly the small fragile person I feel like when I’m in trauma, or the big strong person I feel like when I allow that I’m brave to be doing this work and to be sharing it this way. What I’m going through could be framed as the kind of existential crisis which most of us hit at some point when we’re forced to evaluate how we’ve been operating in the world. It’s the stuff of so much of the fiction I’m reading and watching because it’s so common. This story humbles me and connects me with others. How different am I really to the stereotypical ‘mid-life crisis’ guy who makes sudden life-changes and is completely thrown when everything crashes down around him? Perhaps I can find compassion, rather than criticism, for all of us caught up in these moments.
- Sacred story: The sacred story frames what I’m going through as a spiritual emergency. I feel like the caterpillar who went into the chrysalis, became goo, and is slowly emerging, impossibly fragile, with damp wings which need to dry in the sun before they’re able to fly. There is no going back, and what emerges is radically different from what was there before. During the toughest times I thought of what I was going through as ‘goo-life’: everything fallen apart, everything being reconfigured at every level of my life from my neural pathways to my place in the world. On the other side of this I will be more awake to myself, to others, and to the world. I’ll be committed to a spiritual path as the main purpose and practice of my life. I’ll have far more to share with others, and I’ll be able to do so in more grounded, compassionate and containing ways. I’ll be able to welcome my death when it comes because I’ll finally know that I can accompany myself through anything.
Setting down these stories was reassuring because, in some ways, it doesn’t matter which one I tell. The answer is the same. Whether I’m a harmful person, a traumatised person, a messy regular human being, and/or a spiritual warrior, I need to retreat sufficiently to give myself enough space, I need to build enough support around me to hold me through this, I need to learn enough self-compassion to be able to take a clear, honest look at my habits and patterns, and I need to do the slow, steady, work of shifting those habits that can be harmful to me and/or others.
Holding multiple stories is also helpful for reminding me not to cling too tightly to any one of them. In the break-up chapter of Rewriting the Rules I explored how this sense of multiple stories can prevent us from falling into the polarised stories of good and bad, right and wrong, which so often circulate within us – and in the wider world – following a relationship ending.
Here, for example, the trauma story can remind me to go slowly and treat myself gently given what we know about how nervous systems respond to trauma. The human story can help me to feel more connected to everyone else around me, at a time when it is easy to feel isolated and alienated – like others couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through and like I should hide it for fear of troubling them. The sacred story can give me the courage I need to turn towards my demons instead of away from them, each time they arrive. The sacred story also helps me to weather the days spent desperately trying to welcome feelings I would so much rather avoid. Instead of a flailing mess, I can visualise myself as the warrior getting back up off the arena floor time and time again (Captain Marvel is my go-to image for this).
Even the shame story is helpful, if held lightly alongside the other potential stories. It reminds me that all of us have the capacity to hurt others with our actions, and that it is important to look at this honestly and openly, and to do something about it where we can. It also connects me with all others who are steeped in shame, perhaps those whose actions have been even more devastating in their impact than mine. If I can hold that they are redeemable – that nobody deserves to be endlessly punished and tortured for their mistakes – perhaps I can hold that for myself too.
I liked this exchange I recently read between a character and their therapist in the novel Cousins, by Salley Vickers. The character is beating themselves up for putting another character in danger with their actions. The therapist says:
You made a mistake… and the trick of life is to make the mistakes as fast as possible not try to avoid making them.
The character protests that the impact of their actions on the other person could have been really bad. The therapists replies:
It strikes me that the other person also made a mistake. You can’t nab all the mistakes for yourself.
Multiple stories, parallel tracks
As well as these being multiple stories that I can tell about my life, they also operate as different tracks which are constantly playing through my everyday experience. Different ones play louder at different times, but it is – perhaps – always possible to tune in to any of them.
I like this parallel tracks idea because it doesn’t have the ‘end point’ which might be present in the idea of a story. It’s easy to fall into the sense that the shame, trauma, human, or sacred stories have a linear narrative from beginning, to middle, to end. In the shame story I should eventually ‘become a better person’. In the trauma story I should eventually recover or heal myself. In the sacred story I will ‘awaken’ or reach some kind of enlightenment. I worry that holding out for such a ‘happily ever after’ will become another kind of grasping which will keep me struggling. I believe that the truth of human experience is much more like a spiral where we go round and round the same themes many times, perhaps reaching a slightly deeper understanding each time.
This would certainly make sense of my decade-ly return to these particular kinds of struggles, challenging my sense that each one is a ‘failure’ because I didn’t manage to ‘sort myself out’ once and for all.
While it is intense – and perhaps a bit self-punishing (hello, I’m MJ, have we met?!) – to imagine my fifties trauma/crisis before I’m even out of my forties one, maybe doing so is more hepful than hoping that this time I’m going to finally ‘do it’, whatever ‘it’ is.
I found it useful, in relation to these tracks, to think about the different Buddhist heaven and hell realms which I wrote about here. Pema Chödrön, suggests that these can usefully be seen as states that we move between on a daily basis, all of which are possible in any given moment.
- The shame track is like the hell realm. I’m in torment, believing myself to be bad and worthy of punishment. I’m totally inward facing, I can’t see anybody else through the fog of gaslight that surrounds me, telling me that I’m terrible, will harm/lose everyone, and should just give up.
- The trauma track is like the animal realm. I can’t live anything like regular everyday human life. I have to be supremely careful about what I take on, what I do, what contact I engage in, because anything can quickly overwhelm me. It’s just one day at a time, slowly, slowly, doing the work I know that I need to do. It’s still very inward facing and hard to be around anyone except very safe others, or to see other people and their stuff clearly.
- The human track – or realm – is like the gap in the clouds. I can see clearly again for a moment and it is wonderful. My nervous system is relaxed. I can feel excited about my projects again. I’m not mired in confusion and self doubt over every decision. I can contact easily what I want and don’t want to do. I can imagine a future. I can connect with other people. Turning outwards feels good.
- The sacred track – or heaven realm – feels utterly open and connected with myself and to others. I can even see clearly those who have hurt me and how it comes from these same places of shame and fear that I am grappling with myself. I can grieve for how we’re all caught up in these dynamics together – and the damage they cause – at the same time as seeing the strange tragic beauty of it all. I know that the very things that divide us could be points of deep connection. Kindness for myself and others isn’t something I have to work on, it’s just the obvious response.
Again, recognising all four possible tracks, or realms, and their simultaneous availability can help us not to become too stuck in one of them. It’s easy to desperately try to escape the hell and animal realms when there: to tune out the shame and trauma tracks. It’s also easy to want to turn up the human and sacred tracks when we can hear those: to grasp hold of the human and heaven realms.
Buddhism has this paradoxical idea that it’s important not to prefer Nirvana to Samsara. It’s not about transcending our human lives to reach some eternal enlightened state. Most of the great religious figures had a moment of choosing not to retreat into blissful solitude, but to return to the world with others, even though they knew how painful that would be and how they would be dragged back into messy human struggles, even be overwhelmed or destroyed by them.
If we can allow each of these tracks – or states – without trying to cling to them, or escape them, when they are present, perhaps we can flow through them more easily. There is as much – if not more – to be learnt from accompanying ourselves through shame and trauma as there is through our beautiful, complex everyday lives, or through our moments of transcendence.
Back to writing
Returning to the story I began this post with – about my friend who was considering writing – curiously, a number of the people I mentor with their writing have come to similar conclusions of late. They’ve begun with a parallel personal and creative process, and have eventually dropped the creative element entirely, or shifted it into something more private and unconventional, that may or may not ever see the light of day. For example many are exploring forms of doodling, collaging, crafting, zining, or small-scale playing with words and stories, rather than the more standard novels or memoirs that they began with in the hopes of getting published.
One of my own challenges – through this time – has been to let go of the sense that I should be working on some ‘big project’ – probably a book – as I’ve mainly been consistently doing for the last decade. My shame story about this sneaks back in occasionally, but what has actually felt right – during this time – has been to only write when it feels absolutely consensual, and to focus on these short (for me, if not for a blog post!) dispatches from my trauma recovery / spiritual awakening.
Another friend got in touch recently to ask how I was fairing through lockdown. She said that her romantic idea of me was that I was hunkered down working on my masterpiece. After a brief flicker of shame I laughed because I think that I very well might be.
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Plural tag: This post was written by Ara.