In my recent post about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I wrote this:
I see one source in the dissociation of people from their “tools.” From everything they use, they are further and further removed. Things become “mere things.” We suddenly are no longer connected in a cycle of creation and destruction. We stand outside of it and look on…passersby, observers, voyeurs of our own self-destruction.
“Coincidentally” (if you believe in coincidence), I was reading a book today called “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,” by Peter Levine.
He describes the official definition of trauma as a stressful occurrence “that is outside the range of human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone” (pg. 24, which he takes from the DSM III).
He goes on to mention that trauma can include anything, from falls or accidents, to illnesses and sad events, to the “typical” things we consider traumatic such as rapes, drive-by shootings, war, disasters, etc.
I really really (yes, that’s right, I wrote it twice) like this book, and his approach, which is based around the evolutionary/physiological response to trauma, and an approach to treating it from that perspective. More on that in a second.
The author then describes how modern civilization and technology have taught us to ignore primary, instinctual, bodily-centered resources that once helped us to deal with traumatic events.
Previously in our history, we would encounter life-threatening events, which eventually resulted in finely-tuned responses to danger. I think this capacity is part of the “thrill-seeker’s” profile – they feel a need to experience this aspect of themselves more regularly than others.
As Levine says, “Modern life offers us few overt opportunities to use this powerfully evolved capacity. Today, our survival depends increasingly on our ability to think rather than being able to physically respond…The fundamental challenges we face today have come about relatively quickly, but our nervous systems have been much slower to change…When [the need for the successful facing of challenges] is not met, or when we are challenged and cannot triumph, we end up lacking vitality and are unable to fully engage in life” (pg. 43).
Later in the book, he even quotes Tom Brown, Jr. about the process of tracking. Clearly, he is describing a method of dealing with trauma that uses what I like to call “physiology tracking” in this book.
But it was the paragraph just before a section called “Dissociation” that really grabbed my attention. In it, he writes, “When constriction [as a response to a perceived threat or danger] fails to sufficiently focus the organism’s energy to defend itself, the nervous system evokes other mechanisms such as freezing and dissociation to contain the hyperarousal. Constriction, dissociation, and freezing form the full battery of responses that the nervous system uses to deal with the scenario in which we must defend ourselves, but cannot” (pg. 136).
Levine recommends, specifically, that one not try to avoid dissociation, but rather, to become aware of the feeling of that state in the body, so that one can, first, recognize it, and, later, be able to be in a state of dissociation while still cognizant and active in the world. This leads to the ability to discriminate between physiological events that lead to (or have lead to) trauma, and those that do not.
I resonate extremely strongly with this book, for many reasons. The author’s approach to dealing with one’s problems through a continuing and ongoing process of deepening self-awareness seems to be the type of powerful medicine that everyone can use in their lives. But he also recognizes that physiological responses are rhythmical, as well as the need for play and a playful attitude when confronting survived trauma (at a certain point in the process, of course).
To the last point, about play, the author talks about wild animals’ tendencies to “reenact” traumatic or dangerous events, where they will play the role of hunter and hunted, and either experiment with new strategies for evasion or survival, or repeat the tactic used in the recent event. The physical act of evasion or survival itself is immediate and therapeutic.
In humans, reenactment happens both internally and externally. Internally, it represents itself in states associated with trauma, such as hypervigilance, anxiety, psychosomatic issues, sleeplessness, or other problems. It can also represent itself through repeated thoughts about the traumatic event.
Externally, reenactment can happen either in the “acting out” of previous traumas, either by inflicting those traumas on others, or by creating ritual behaviors that reflect and temporarily mitigate those physiological upwellings; or, external reenactment can take place in the recurrence of traumatic events in relationships, where we seek out situations with others through which our trauma presents itself, again and again, the body searching for a path to resolve that old wound.
Unfortunately, usually, our initial response only repeats itself again and again. With our minds not realizing that we’re replaying these patterns for a specific reason, we succumb to habitual responses, sometimes watching before our very eyes as things crumble apart and wondering “how can this be happening again?”
More subtly still, external and internal reenactment, at some point, collide, and the victim of trauma acquires patterns of behavior that simultaneously save them from further experiences like the first, but also prohibit them from being able to confront that traumatic experience and move beyond it.
Which takes me to his final point, his solution to this dilemma. Since we are confronted with traumas that we cannot resolve through physical means, and have developed habitual physiological patterns of response to situations in which we feel the same types of threat, we have only one tool by which to work with, on, and through those physical manifestations and feelings – awareness.
Through awareness of the traumatic event, awareness of our initial response to it, acceptance of ourselves and the fact that the event happened, and finally, a developed ability to pay attention and slow down when those feelings manifest themselves again, we have acquired tools to operate in a new dimension. Eventually, the nervous system will heal, the process will become second-nature, and life can be rich and fulfilling.
On a side-note, this process, of trauma, the formation of “protective” mechanisms which ultimately lead to further repetition of trauma reminds me strongly of the pain-spasm-ischemia cycle I was taught in massage school. In that process, damage occurs to muscle, the muscle “spasms” to protect itself from further damage, but in doing so, restricts blood flow to the area, preventing oxygenated blood (and white blood cells) from getting to the area to begin the healing process and remove restrictions. The “knot” gets bigger and bigger, till it causes overt pain and movement restriction…
Levine notes that our fast-paced culture doesn’t make this an easy task. Which brings me around to the final bit of my essay here (his book continues…if you’re interested, you should buy it and read it).
As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, it isn’t just the fast pace of our culture that “shields” us from slowing down and tracking our physiologies.
In fact, it seems that much of our culture has that exact effect.
Since reading Andrew Weil’s book “Eight Weeks to Optimal Health,” back in the 90′s sometime, I’ve engaged in what he calls a “news fast.” I don’t read or watch the news. Not at all. Haven’t in years, actually. And…nothing has happened to me because of it.
Weil recommends this practice because the news has a few qualities that cause human beings trouble, and for no good reason. First, the news is typically all bad. As Gary Gnu said, “No gnus is good gnus.” Second, the news is aggregated bad news from all over the world. So, not only are you getting a dose of bad news, but you’re getting a large dose of bad news composed of all of the bad news that happened today…anywhere. Needless to say, that news doesn’t really reflect the happenings in your habitat. Fourth, almost all of the news (because of its distant relation to your habitat) will make you feel completely helpless, frustrated, sad, or angry.
Learned helplessness, reinforced, twenty-four hours a day. Thank you?
But the news, or the way we “do” news, is just one symptom of a larger thang – of our approach to life…the philosophical underpinnings of our culture, expressed through or visible in the actions of our culture, and, of course, our selves.
a quick “thang” intermission:
I think one of the roots of that philosophy is a trauma-cycle, associated with something that happened to us culturally, maybe somewhere back in the mid-sixteenth century…in fact, when we were most susceptible to trauma, in our early-childhood…the Renaissance.
Not to be a conspiracy theorist here, but I hope Dan Brown is reading this blog and writes a nice book about this idea…and figures out what that event was, because I have no idea…hahaha.
However, it does seem that some “crisis” (which in Chinese is a character composed of the two characters for “danger” and “opportunity”) occurred, which we could not mitigate or win against, and have repeated ever since.
Hell, maybe it goes even further back than that.
But what stands out to me most is the point at which we dissociated from our tool-making.
We’ve been dissociated from our habitats for thousands of years. Human beings have lived in cities and such for around 8-10,000 years. Sure that could be a factor.
And life has been relatively “distracting” ever since we’ve been in cities. Fast pace, hustle and bustle, are nothing new.
But the loss of consciousness that we are using tools – that symbols are tools, machines are tools, that mathematics and language are tools – that seems more important.
When did that happen? And why? When did we lose sight of the fact that we make technologies to help us?
Because it was at that point that we committed ourselves to a path of recurrent trauma reenactment. It was at that point that we closed our eyes to a process within ourselves (as a culture).
It was at that point that it became “necessary” to pursue pain in order to deserve pleasure. This thing we see in cubicles and offices all over the world.
It was at this point that we begin to see scarcity as our ruling dictum, and fear as its messenger.
Maybe, like the Joker’s “SmyleX,” there is no single source, but the confluence of many things, contributing to our continued replaying of history.