We spoke in our weekly sangha gathering of mindfulness and difficult emotions. While we shared experiences on how to address feelings we remember – it left me wondering how and what can we do about emotions we cannot feel, see, or know.
Mark Epstein, in The Trauma of Everyday Life, references a psychologist’s work that describes “primitive agony” – essentially traumas that are pre-verbal.
While Epstein presents an analysis of the Buddha’s “primitive agony” (“developmental trauma”) caused by his mother’s death when he was seven days old, much of the book examines how we are affected by suppressed preverbal trauma. He describes this “dissociation” as a “survival mechanism” – “the personality withdrawing or suppressing what it cannot bear.”
Epstein notes that many people are mistakenly drawn to meditation…
…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 of everyday life. They are not interested in awakening their primitive agonies or being reminded of their buried losses.
His recommendations to use mindfulness to address these unseeable trauma are forthright:
It is not as important to find the cause of our traumatized feelings as it is to learn how to relate to them.
…the instructions are not to cling to what is pleasant and not to reject what is unpleasant—to simply be with things as they are.
And, referring to the Buddha’s own approach:
He did not have to transform himself in the way he imagined: He just had to learn to be kind to himself.
The freedom the Buddha envisioned does not come from jettisoning imprisoning thoughts and feelings or from abandoning the suffering self; it comes from learning how to hold it all differently, juggling them rather than cleaving to their ultimate realities.
Trauma is the way into the self, and the way out.
I came to this exploration from conversations this past year with my mother who now recounts what must have been psychologically traumatic events in her childhood – events I never knew of until these primitive agonies were able to find a way out as she paradoxically becomes aware – or at least more verbal – with the onset of dementia.
Epstein references work by another doctor (D.W. Winnicott) who wrote about a mother’s quality of attunement (much as our teacher recounted this week during our sangha discussion). He described “good enough” mothers who, by their mindful presence, instinctively “develop a capacity for identification with the baby that makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach…”
My challenge now is to be a good-enough son.
Mark Epstein: The Trauma of Everyday Life <http://markepsteinmd.com/?p=56>
Cartoon by Neal Crosbie <http://www.tricycle.com/sites/default/files/images/issues/v18n4/009lettersCrosbie.jpg>