The work of healing trauma makes us tender and vulnerable as we touch our history of wounds, sometimes from childhood and sometimes from our ancestors.
But those who do Buddhist practice come from a tradition that does not shy away from our pain, anxiety, and despair. The Buddha, in his first noble truth, acknowledges the pervasive reality of suffering in this realm. This suffering can show up as small hurts or large, life-changing wounds, which we sometimes call trauma. For wounds small and large, the Buddha’s advice is the same: to be present to them and release them, so we can fully live our birthright of being in the moment, happy and free. Even 2,600 years ago, he did not pathologize our woundedness, but rather normalized it. In this way, we don’t fall into feeling that we’re bad or that we’ve been broken by our trauma.
In my trauma resolution practice, I have found that a powerful way to heal our trauma is to cultivate the four mind states known in Buddhism as the brahmaviharas, or “heavenly abodes.” These are loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. We can consciously practice these mind states as part of our meditation practice, and use them to help heal trauma.
The first brahmavihara, metta or loving-kindness, opens our heart to others and ourselves. This is the beginning of our healing process. To break the grip of trauma and restore our trust in relationships and in the people around us, loving-kindness is an essential medicine.
Our traumatic wounds may invoke the fight, flight, or freeze response, and close our heart. It is difficult to be openhearted when you’re raging with anger or trembling in fear. You may find the practices of loving-kindness unrealistic or unavailable if you are facing homelessness due to the current pandemic, or if you are an immigrant at risk of deportation, or if you’re a BIPOC facing microaggressions in our current socio-political environment. In these sorts of intense situations, Buddhism suggests that we come gently into the neighborhood of loving-kindness until it is more easily accessible to us.
In metta practice, we first invoke loving-kindness in our heart for our benefactor, our beloved, and a neutral person. Then we practice loving-kindness for an enemy or someone who has harmed us. If this is too traumatizing, it’s suggested we start with someone who has caused us only a minor harm as we build our loving-kindness muscle. Usually, after offering loving-kindness to an enemy, I offer good wishes to trees, animals, insects, and fishes, because my heart naturally cares for these beings. The suttas also offer instructions so we can radiate loving-kindness to people who have harmed us without specifically naming them.
The benefit of this practice is the sense of safety that love brings us. Then we can experience more moments of contentment and satisfaction. These moments, which interrupt our normal trauma response, are sufficient for the nervous system to relax and for our brain to rewire as it releases its traumatic knot.
The second brahmavihara is compassion. When trauma is severe, freezing or dissociation are normal. In these moments, compassion for ourselves for having suffered such extreme loss is the appropriate response. Once our heart is open with loving-kindness, our heart quivers with compassion when we meet our own suffering or the suffering of others.
For some people it is easy to feel compassion for others, but not for themselves. A client recently came to me to work with her angry wrists. A few months earlier, she’d woken up and her arms were hurting and since then she’d not been able to use her hands. She was alternating hot and ice treatments with little benefit, and her physical therapist was unable to determine the source of her pain.
I asked her about her relationship with her hands, and she said she had “angry wrists.” I gently asked how she would treat someone, maybe a little girl, who had injured her arms. In response, she gently stroked and kissed her wrists and forearms. Her heart melted with self-compassion and her body started to relax. She was then able to explore more options for movement. She hasn’t healed fully, but she now has a new and spacious relationship with her “angry wrists.”
3. Sympathetic Joy
The next brahmavihara is mudita or sympathetic joy. Finding joy in the good fortune of others is yet another healing mind state. When we are caught in the midst of the fight, flight, or freeze response, joy is the furthest feeling from our mind-heart. But even in the midst of our own pain, it is possible to find joy by celebrating the good fortune of others. The Dalai Lama speaks of mudita as a kind of “enlightened self-interest.” He says that if you can be happy when good things happen to other people, your opportunities for delight are increased by eight billion!
The fourth brahmavihara is equanimity. This is the balance between feeling your feelings and not getting carried away by them. This is essential when working with your trauma. The practice of balance helps you determine when to do some additional work on your trauma resolution and when to pull back and give it a rest.
Equanimity also helps us break out of identifying as a victim, which is not helpful. With equanimity, we don’t take our story personally and we see ourselves as bigger than our history. The wider perspective puts things in balance and allows us to rest in the coming and going of life events.
Boundless heart energy becomes available to us when we are released from our trauma. We saw this when an international team of trauma healers, led by Somatic Experiencing teacher Raja Selvam, went to southern India to work with people affected by the tsunami that devastated villages there in 2004. Though the team did not understand the language of the locals, their hearts were well versed in responding to the universal language of pain and suffering.
They worked with a small baby whose heart palpitations would not calm down despite the mother’s best attempts to soothe her child. With a fisherman who was now so afraid of water that he had panic attacks when he went close to the ocean and was unable to provide for his hungry family. With a grieving grandmother who lost all her children and was now caring for her grandchild. The team worked long hours in the heat of makeshift tents, and their hearts broke over and over again as they heard stories of grief, loss, and despair from the survivors. At the end of the day, they supported each other by offering healing sessions to each other.
When the team returned six months later, the baby with heart palpitations had normalized, the fishermen could fish again, and their wives didn’t have panic attacks while looking out at the ocean. While the team’s trauma resolution techniques had been helpful, all spoke about how resolution was mostly brought about by the community coming together with love and compassion. The neighbors supported and celebrated each other’s healing.
As you release trauma and more lifeforce and heart energy become available, you too may feel motivated to support others in small and large ways. The avenues for expressing an open heart are endless!!