In our experience trauma is both the most essential and challenging gateway to our inner experience.
What is trauma?
Experiences which feel too overwhelming, either physically or emotionally, to process in a healthy way, are dealt with in the mind and body through a process called trauma. Something of these states then remains frozen in rigid patterns of physical and emotional reaction.
These experiences are not stored in memory in the same way as other things, but are kept in the unconscious and the body as patterns which are triggered when something happens that reminds us of the initial experience.
Because this triggering usually happens in a split second, and usually completely unconsciously, it’s very common that the frightened, angry or desolate little one - the one who first experienced the trauma and a fragment of whose consciousness is now an inherent part of these patterns - takes over for however long we’re experiencing the trigger, plunging us into a state which subjectively now has very little to do with what’s going on in the present moment.
Trauma as undigested emotion
Trauma then is basically undigested emotion that has got stuck in our body and unconscious. This undigested emotion builds up and creates an ever growing 'pain body'. It is this pain body that gets triggered when something new happens to evoke emotion in us. And unless we have developed the ability to process this emotion in healthy and generative ways, we just keep adding to our pain body.
Paradoxically then, the bigger our pain body gets, the more intense our emotions become - and the more challenging it becomes to be able to process these emotions in healthy and generative ways.
What this means is that trauma is far more ubiquitous than we have been lead to beleive. The truth is as children very few of us had parents, caretakers or teachers who were able to support us to relate with our emotions in healthy ways that felt safe and generative. We therefore developed an impressive array of 'survival strategies' to avoid feelings all together.
It is this avoidance and repression of our feelings that creates our pain bodies, which in turn lead us to repress our emotions even more. What's more it is this emotional repression that lies at the heart of our culture's disconnection - and represents the signature piece of the unhealthy culture we need to transform away from.
It is vital to cultivate compassion around all this rather than criticise ourselves and others for it. It is this compassion and the love that it unleashes, that holds the keys to healing and transforming trauma.
These frozen patterns of trauma are stuck fragments of our natural, healthy wholeness. Some of the most difficult and rewarding work we can do as adults is to explore how to release these patterns and integrate the energy and experience locked in them into a greater sense of wholeness.
This makes trauma the most essential and challenging gateway to our inner experience - and lies at the heart of resistance to the inner-led change that holds the key to transforming trauma.
Cultural somatics and transforming trauma
Trauma often looks like a personal issue - something to deal with in therapy or in our close relationships. And in part it is. But the trauma we experience is way more than just personal - and it will take deep cultural shifts as well as personal growth to deal with it.
"The most damaging patterns of our society are the hardest ones to name. This is because we have absorbed them into our bones, into our tissues, into our very neurophysiology. They shape the way we sense and feel the world at such a fundamental level, we’ve accepted them as “normal.” And yet, I believe that the profound disconnection many of us experience – the unnameable, pervasive pain of our times – and the social structures and systems we build from this place are far from normal.
I passionately believe in the transformational power of our body’s intelligence. We each have the potential to develop a way of relating to our body’s signals that generates interconnection in our personal and group cultures.
I define somatic safety as having the inner conditions required to integrate our full range of brain/body experience, to practice self-awareness and choice, and to stay in relationship with others at the same time. It has nothing to do with “protecting” ourselves from unpleasant experiences; in fact, having somatic safety improves our ability to relate with unpleasant —as well as pleasant —experiences.
This practice helps us to find our way back to somatic safety whenever we notice we’ve disconnected from ourselves or from others. Most commonly this occurs because our autonomic nervous system has become activated, or because we have been seduced by a judgment, evaluation or interpretation.”
Madelanne Rust D'Eye, a dear friend and collaborator, is a trauma therapist, cultural somatics practitioner, group facilitator and founder of Body-Informed Leadership an organisation providing a range of programmes that support us to come back into healthy relationship with the inherent wisdom and power of our body’s intelligence.
We highly recommend checking out Madelanne's work if you are interested in getting support for yourself and your group around body-informed leadership, cultural somatics and transforming trauma.
Trauma as life's evolutionary intent
In recent years trauma has been revealing itself more and more within our groups and community spaces. This often occurs in the absence of the understanding, skill and experience needed to hold and meet this in healthy ways that enable its transformative power to unfold.
This is happening at a great cost to both individual and collective wellbeing. What’s more, it is significantly undermining the effectiveness of our social and ecological change groups and movements, as well as our education, health and judiciary systems. As a result our ability to cultivate the regenerative cultures our collective future rests on is being seriously compromised.
Paradoxically this means trauma holds the key to precisely the transfomation that is most needed right now for us as a species to heal the destructive power-over culture that lies at the heart of the intergenerational cycle of trauma.
Increasing evidence demonstrates the epigenetic nature of trauma such that it is passed on across generations and held in our bodies at both the individual and collective level. In light of this we believe trauma exists in everyone - and that it makes itself visible when someone is ready to heal it.
This is why it is less common for those generations directly experiencing significant trauma, like war or genocide, to be the ones to heal their own trauma. It tends to be subsequent generations who are ready to do the healing work needed to transform trauma.
At the core of our approach to change lies a belief that this collective trauma underpins our current crises - as well as holding the keys to the deep cultural transformation this demands. In other words - we believe collective trauma represents life's evolutionary intent for us humans as a species. By life's evolutionary intent we mean the process by which life provides precisely the ingredients that are needed for this particular stage of our evolution as a species.
Perhaps one of the juiciest and most existential questions of our time is how and when did this collective trauma begin? Whilst this is not the place to go into that vast question, suffice to say that arguably the process of birth itself seems to represent our species’ original trauma which has given rise to our ubiquitous core wounding that seems to reside at the heart of our individual and collective trauma. And historically it is useful, albeit partial, to recognise the role that power-over ‘Coloniser' culture has played in creating our current collective trauma.
The vital role of inner-led change
To transform trauma we need to re-member how to turn towards and relate with our emotions in healthy and generative ways. Growing this emotional ground requires us to cultivate enough of a sense of safety within our nervous systems for emotions to be able to move through us rather than getting stuck in our pain body.
There are myriad ways to grow our emotional ground. And whilst this is not easy work, it is only through this inner work that we get to unleash our true transformative potential and all the power, creativity and joy that brings with it.
This is why it is so vital that support for inner-led change becomes widely available for all - and especially to those most marginalised, and therefore traumatized, by our mainstream culture.