“Modern society is an extreme, pathological state of rupture from the reality of the natural world, as is indicated on a daily basis by the ecological crisis.”
~ Andy Fisher
I was privileged to participate in Carolyn Baker & Dean Walker’s month-long symposium on-line recently, and wanted to follow up on a question from one of the participants that came near the end, and deserves a more considered response. It was a simple question. “So, how do we heal our trauma?”
Of course, there are many ways to answer such a question, many of them clinical. But as an ecopsychologist who is focused on encouraging people of all stripes to acknowledge that we are living in an era of climate trauma, my answer is more contextual.
Trauma refers to experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing and that overwhelm our ability to cope, leaving us feeling powerless. Because of climate trauma’s continual assault on our shared biosphere, we now find ourselves in a brave new world that is unrelenting in its personal attacks on our psyches and central nervous systems. We can observe this on full display at all levels of life today. It seems that everyone is caught up in a vicious cycle of fight, fright and flight.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent confirmation hearing of Brent Kavanaugh, thanks to the bravery of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
If it is true that Climate Trauma is continually triggering all our traumas, creating a psychological milieu of perpetual powerlessness, what does healing our trauma look like in this toxic culture? The first step is the most obvious. What do we do in the natural world when a threatening storm is approaching? We find a place of refuge.
Trauma is a multi-valent phenomenon. It happens at the individual level when the trust we have placed in someone with power over us is fundamentally ruptured. When we lack the emotional tools to deal with such a violation, we ‘check out’ (dissociate) and end up storing the trauma in our bodies (so-called ‘somatic memory’). It happens at the epigenetic level, when the members of our tribe have been severely traumatized, or have perpetrated mass traumas, stunting the RNA passed onto us in our genes. It happens at the cultural level, when we bring to mind the shock of social upheavals like the attack on the World Trade Towers, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, or more recently the institutionalized separation and imprisonment of children from their families. In a very real sense, all the problems we face are the result of past traumas.
Trauma lives in memory and in our bodies, and perpetuates increasing dysfunction the longer it goes unresolved. When it is repressed, we recreate it in the dramas of our personal relationships, we perpetuate it in our family dysfunction, we institutionalize it in our social structures, and we encode it in our cultural memes. It is the troublemaker in our lives, revealing itself in cyclic patterns that get repeated over and over. And the longer it goes unaddressed, the more trouble it causes – just like a troubled child who demands attention. In fact, the stubborn persistence of trauma first revealed itself when researchers discovered, much to their surprise and puzzlement, that the offspring of survivors of the Holocaust were more traumatized then their parents. This phenomena, of course, comes as no surprise to Native Americans.
So Climate Trauma is calling on each of us individually, and all of us collectively, to face our traumas. Our natural psychological inclination is to turn away, because trauma is painful and raises fundamental identity issues. But we cannot turn away from Climate Trauma any longer. It poses an existential threat to the survival of all species, including the human species. The Earth is our Witness. She is calling on us to acknowledge some harsh truths about all our relations. Trauma is rooted in relationship, and thus can only be resolved through healing relationships. She demands reconciliation, and such a process begins with fully acknowledging difficult truths.
So where to start in addressing this overwhelming reality? This really is the question our times demand an answer to, and I am grateful for the simplicity with which it was posed to our panel of trauma “experts.”
As I stated at the outset, we must create safe space, or sacred ground, in order to begin the healing process. The basic problem posed by Climate Trauma is that it is very difficult to heal trauma if we are constantly being re-traumatized every time we read the news or surf social media. Taking refuge calls into question the strength of our spiritual container to hold the upset that results when we allow the truth to break us open. For healing to transpire, that container must serve as a kind of alchemical cauldron that allows our difficult emotions and grief to be held long enough for transmutation to take place.
While this sounds really difficult, it is in fact quite natural.
They say that the truth will set us free, but they don’t always say how!. To heal our traumas, we must bring awareness and intention to our confronting of these difficult truths. Awareness turns out to be the lodestone in the spiritual alchemy that transforms our trauma into strength and wisdom. The mere intention to heal, to become whole or, as Sandra Ingerman puts it, to “retrieve” those parts of our soul stolen by traumatic experiences, is itself quite powerful. Resolve – to re-solve our problematic patterns – is where we draw our strength from.
To heal our relationships, we must begin by being honest with ourselves. The most fundamental level of our ruptured relationships is in relation to our own true nature. What is our human nature? If we have faith that human nature is fundamentally good, then the starting point on our healing journey is to bring awareness into refuge, and to get in touch with our deepest pain and suffering with a strong intention to process these difficult emotions in the safe space of sacred refuge. We need to examine our own patterns of relating to, or thinking about, ourselves. We know better than anyone those patterns in our behaviors and in our relationships that have caused so much trouble in our lives. In order to change them, we must bring heightened awareness to them with honesty and self-compassion. Thus, the practice of awareness (not mindfulness, though practicing mindfulness is a kind of spiritual container) is the healing salve we bring to our wounded selves.
Once we have begun that process, it will bring attention to a lot of the ways we impose our own pain and suffering on others – especially our closest others, our intimate others. Intimacy involves a kind of trust we develop with another person that allows us to be ourselves, to let our guard down. So just as we feel safe to share our wounded selves in relationship to our close others, once we begin the healing process in our own personal, sacred refuge, we need to bring that same spirit of resolve into our close relationships. By opening up and sharing our healing process with others, we give them permission to reciprocate in kind, and we gain more perspective on our own healing process by virtue of their bearing witness to our suffering, their sharing insights with us, and their expressing their own related, personal traumas. In some ways, this is the whole point of intimate relationships – we are drawn to those whose suffering is often very similar to our own.
This kind of shared intimacy can be quite difficult, and calls forth our innate compassion for ourselves and our others. But this is what it means to be human. Trauma demands that we face difficult truths. As one healer puts it, the cure is found next to the wound. We are asked to allow our hearts to break over and over, until we become accustomed to holding our broke-open hearts open, with loving tenderness, rather than contracting around our wound and covering it up with scar tissue. And that broke-open heartedness becomes the great compensation for our efforts, because once broken open in the sacred space of loving attention, our hearts never stop opening. We discover that we have this unlimited potential inside for meeting truth with expansive love and ever-deepening understanding. Our hearts can expand enough to contain the suffering of the world if we let them. If you don’t believe me, volunteer at one of your local hospices!
This first step of being honest with ourselves, and our close others, opens our journey up into what ecopsychologist Andy Fisher calls ‘ever-widening spheres’ of meaning and participation. From such a place of self-empowerment, confidence, and awe in the face of our own human potential, we are freed to participate more meaningfully in our communities, reaching out to others to form support groups that lend further support and strength to our own healing journey, and in social movements that are spontaneously arising from the brave actions of other self-empowered individuals – like #MeToo, BLM, Regeneration International, Water Protectors, Share The World’s Resources, etc.
Climate Trauma is asking us to heal all our relations. But we don’t begin with the overwhelm of the climate crisis itself. It is imperative that we each begin our own healing process, which removes the obstacles to our effective participation in our nation’s and in the planet’s healing processes, which have only just begun.
In her influential book “Trauma and Recovery,” Dr. Judith Herman points out that trauma “destroy[s] the sustaining bonds between individual and community,” and that solidarity is “the strongest antidote to traumatic experience.” In a similar vein, but in the context of the climate crisis, Pope Francis proclaims that “[w]e require a new and universal solidarity,” and appeals to all who hear the call to engage in fresh dialogue about what it means to be human in an era when humanity is shaping the future of all life on Earth. Whether we asked for it or not, that is an awesome responsibility. Believe it or not, we are up to the task.
The healing process begins with awareness, and is fueled by the intention to heal all our relations – with ourselves, with one another, in community, and with nature itself. It is grounded in our own human nature. The strength of our spiritual container depends upon our faith in that human nature, whatever we choose to call it. For me, as a Buddhist, human nature is our true nature, or “Buddha” (awakened) nature. So there is an inherent trust that I find when I sit on my cushion. The sacred space I need for refuge is found within the open spaciousness of my mind, and then reflected back to me in the physical space I carve out of my home for contemplation (which is forever shape-shifting). Your process will undoubtedly look quite different than mine from without, but should mirror it from within – because we all share the same basic human nature, we all have the same awesome potential, and it is ultimately the rupture of our own true nature that needs to be healed for us to come into appropriate relationship with one another, with our communities, and with the natural world.
So yes, the world is broken. We have fallen out of the Garden. But this is just a reflection of our own broken relations. Instead of obsessing over the fallen state of the world, and projecting our shadows out into it, it is incumbent upon each of us to take universal responsibility for the world’s suffering by humbly and honestly looking within. It is only from that internal place of healing and strength that we will find the cure for what ails the world. This is what Andy Fisher labeled “Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life” (2014, 2d Ed.).
So if you really want to save the world, if you want to participate in healing Climate Trauma….