No matter what images, sensations, thoughts or memories arise in our bodies and minds, we sit. Holding our gaze breath after breath, moment after moment, we eventually (we hope!) learn how to watch our shifting patterns of thought and emotion without getting stuck inside them. Instead, like breezes, they blow across the surface of our perception.
Whether we practice Shambhala meditation, the Zen practice of Thich Nhat Hanh or a Western mindfulness practice taught for relaxation and stress relief, the objectives are similar: to learn to hold the gaze and welcome the shifting breezes of thought and emotion.
What often isn’t mentioned in regard to practicing meditation—be it for stress relief, spirituality or one of the other reasons we turn to meditation in the rising “mindfulness” culture of North America—is its relationship to trauma.
We carry histories of pain in our bodies
I’ve practiced meditation for almost 10 years, and what I’ve learned is that holding my gaze means learning to look at my deepest wounds. These are the scars of my past—emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual—that for a long time, I did my best to ignore, in order to gain the peace of mind that meditation offers.
I’ve had to learn to be with my wounds. In order to see the present more clearly, I’ve had to be willing to look at the past. Given the type of household I grew up in, this isn’t something I ever planned to do. Learning to do it, however, has been one of the most healing journeys of my life.
I share this with you, because those of us who have experienced childhood trauma know a very deep spectrum of pain. We carry our histories of pain in our bodies, and therefore, sitting still in mediation can come with some risk. Depending on where we are in relationship to our trauma, meditation can trigger flashbacks that we may or may not be ready to experience.
My childhood of abuse
From around the time I began to speak until my early teens, sexual abuse was a constant in my life. It was always hidden from the outside world, silenced by caregivers’ threats and a society that teaches us that what goes on behind closed doors, in the privacy of family, has no business being shown in public.
The abuse was our dirty laundry and I learned quickly that it had no place being aired outside. From a young age, I learned how to block all knowledge of that “other” reality from my daily consciousness. I split myself between my abusive home and the image of normalcy I learned to project quite perfectly.
Never letting one identity interact with the other, I threw my “normal” self onto what society taught me was the road to “success.” My intellect and the privilege of a middle-class upbringing supported me as I moved through life without ever stopping to feel my pain. By age 27, I had a Ph.D., and by 30, a full-time position at a prestigious university.
What I saw terrified me
The parts of me with the strongest desire and need to be seen, held, comforted and reassured that I was loved were buried as I taught myself how to keep moving. Like so many others taught to silence their wounds, I perfected the art of numbing my pain with social accolades, from my girlhood on. Then
in a foreign country
from my family
to reduce stress
What I saw terrified me.
I’d spent my life running
yet after more than 20 years
here she was:
my wounded self
waiting to be seen.
My trauma still open
as if it were just yesterday
that the first slit
I often wondered if I’d chosen to look. The 30-year old me who was doing the looking would’ve screamed, “No!” No, I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to know her. I didn’t want to acknowledge that her story was also my story.
But “want” and “choice” are complicated terms. They reflect our mirrored and fractured selves, and we know it’s difficult to pin down the self. This makes it even more difficult to pin down the origin of choice or the first tastes of want. The complexity increases, because we like to categorize life into either/or situations in which we can ignore our fractured selves.
We learn to obscure the constant converging and diverging of all that we feel to create neat little pockets of fact: either I’m deserving or I’m not; either I love him or I don’t; either I chose to become a criminal or I didn’t. Society likes to leave out all the determining factors, all the stories, all the messes of intergenerational trauma that so often end up sneaking into our minds and bodies and unconsciously making decisions for us.
Poetry, my companion
In retrospect, though, the answer is yes, I did choose to look. One day, I was ready to stop running, to turn and look at my wound and learn how to hold a gaze that would eventually let the empty statue of the fearless and successful woman I’d spent my life constructing shatter into pieces.
One day, I was ready to awaken and begin seeing myself as I really was, wounded and afraid, though how I got to that point of looking isn’t cut and dry. Circumstance, luck, refusal to submit, grace, a connection with nature, an alcohol-soaked twenties, learning to live sober, discovering support in new friends and teachers, and many years spent studying poetry all combined to help me turn, look and learn to hold my gaze.
It was poetry, however, that offered me the truest companionship in my early adulthood. Poetry held me when no one else could.
Dante’s The Divine Comedy
Throughout my graduate career, I studied Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Exploring how its poetry resolved an unbridgeable gap between nature and free will was part of my dissertation.
In the 33rd canto, when Dante travels into the pits of hell, nearing his encounter with Lucifer who is encased in ice, frozen in his lack of faith, we receive the story of Ugolino. Ugolino represents one of the very worst sins for Dante: betrayal of family and loved ones. The story we read is one suggesting that when he and his children were imprisoned and starving to death, Ugolino abandoned his duty as father and saved himself, nourishing his physical and spiritual hunger with his children’s flesh, blood and spirit.
Throughout my nine-year relationship with Dante’s poem, which has 100 cantos of which Ugolino’s story is only one, I avoided the 33rd canto like the plague. If asked to write about it, I’d convince my professor that another canto was a better choice. If reading about it in a work of criticism, I skimmed ahead until a new topic came up.
I was conscious of my refusal to look at Ugolino. I was conscious of a strong body impulse and of the fire on my heart that directed me away from his story of betrayal. But I never questioned it. I never paused to ask where this fire of refusal to see or sit with this story came from.
Ugolino, the button-pusher
Pema Chodron (along with other spiritual and psychological teachers) teaches students that the people and characters we most struggle with in life, those who push our buttons to the utmost degree, are the ones who have the most to offer us when it comes to learning to look at parts of ourselves we don’t want to see.
Ugolino was this button-pusher for me, and Dante’s art was the medium through which my unconscious self both met him and pushed him away. It’s amazing how the pieces of life and art we reject are the very pieces that reflect the wounds we’re one day called to see!
A few months after my initial turn, while resting in savasana position at a Yoga class, a meditative consciousness allowed me to look directly at my wound for the first time. I was sitting in the office of my therapist, a Gestalt and Buddhist teacher whose practice was, without a doubt, partially responsible for teaching me to hold my gaze.
While talking about my father, I suddenly took a big breath in. Smiling, I exclaimed on an exhale, “It’s why I could never read Ugolino!” By this point in our relationship, my therapist was accustomed to my “Aha!” moments that involved a metaphorical connection to Dante. She waited for me to translate my revelation. “He was a father that betrayed his children, just like mine. If I’d acknowledged his story, I’d have had to acknowledge my own.”
I expended a lot of energy building a life that centred around not looking at the wound of my childhood trauma. I built strong walls that kept me safe from having to feel even an ounce of the pain that came from the abuse. These walls let me trudge ahead and craft new stories of success without ever stopping to feel much of anything, save a beautiful sunset or a delicate line of poetry—two things that were always able to break through the wall around my heart.
But the life I crafted and the successes I earned were only partially real, because I couldn’t share them with my whole self. The little girl I abandoned to the darkest corners of my being needed to come to the surface, and letting her emerge has been part of my path of waking up. Meditation has helped me greatly in this task.
Looking at the wound is a path to waking up
Looking at the wound is a path to what Chögyam Trungpa tells us is a first glimpse of the Great Eastern Sun, or what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches as the experience of loving our inner child. We confront what it is we fear in ourselves, what we’ve buried and carried so much shame for, which at first glance does seem terrifying indeed.
By turning to look at what’s been the source of such pain, we learn to hold our gaze and accept that old wounds carry much weight but are no longer present. We find a path that leads us home to the fractured selves we spent so long denying the existence of. We find moments of silence in which those selves fit seamlessly together, in which they aren’t separate from the world, as we were previously taught to believe.
In these moments, our personal wound isn’t separate from the wounds of the Earth or of the unknown woman who passes us on the street. We find new spaces for joy, new dimensions of connection and new expressions of compassion.
We also find pain.
And the feeling of grace
when we look at
and accept our pain
This work isn’t easy. Anyone who meditates knows this. For the survivor of trauma, however, it can be exceptionally difficult. There were certain mornings in meditation when my body began convulsing, as stagnant energy began to release itself. There were also mornings when flashbacks would surge, and I had to take them to therapy in order to look at them with someone who could support me.
There were many days when I had to stop myself from sitting for the “right” amount of time, because after releasing pain stored so deeply, or seeing again what I’d ignored for more than 20 years, to sit still inside the revelation was to risk retraumatizing myself. Self-compassion goes a long way when looking at our wounds, and I don’t think we can look at our stories of the past without it.
Moving beyond my own history
Eventually, we learn that the path isn’t about staying fixated on the stories that created the wound or the conditions that led to the trauma, though we may have to visit those stories from the past with a therapist or teacher in order to learn how to navigate the landscapes of trauma without getting stuck.
I spent five years in weekly one-on-one therapy, and often consider the education I received there more valuable than the various degrees I received from multiple universities. Our abandoned selves can offer us lessons that books can only ever theorize about. Mine taught me that by entering my wound, I was able to move beyond my history of pain into the intangible beauty of wholeness that pain so often directs me towards.
As long as I ignored my wound, I was forever divided from that wholeness. This is, as it turned out, another lesson I learned from Dante.
Dante couldn’t reach his moment of glimpsing God if he didn’t first pass through hell and purgatory. He couldn’t arrive at the moment of true awakening if he didn’t first confront the filth, mud and sickness of the society of which he was also a part. Eventually, he glimpsed God and many say that was when his journey began again—back through the mud, back on the path of learning how to see and how to hold the enlightened gaze.
Breath is one of the few things I can always access
The constant noise that I’d normalized within my state of being slowed to a bearable hum that, through meditation and Yoga, I eventually learned to listen to with a healing curiosity. The feeling that I couldn’t breathe, which I’d ignored for so long, began to slowly shift to an awareness that breath is one of the few things I can always access, and which can always teach me that what I fear is only shadow.
This doesn’t mean that new pain and suffering doesn’t come, nor does it mean that old memories don’t surface in the face of present reminders. It means that when they do, I’m able to meet them and be with them until they pass, rather than getting locked in the wake of their psychic and emotional destruction. It means that I’m less likely to distort new experiences through the gaze of a woman who fails to recognize the teeth marks of her own neglected past, whose relentless gnawing I ignored for so long. And it means that I’m more likely to build a life that’s meaningful and authentic, rather than a statue of a life glued together with other people’s values, expectations and validations.
Not all of us are adults living with childhood trauma, but so many of us are, and we live in a society that leaves us very little room to acknowledge the traumas that we, along with our loved ones, have lived through. To do so, we have to make our own room.
Meditation practice is one route to making space in which we can come to know the wounds we’ve tried so hard not to see, whatever their origins—be they the wounds in our bodies that we suffer alone or the wounds of this Earth that we all share—or be they the abuse or neglect we survived as children, the loss of a loved one or the betrayal of a country. Without space, we find it easier to turn away and pretend that he or she, the version of the self that suffers, doesn’t exist. We become so skilled at acting like we’re normal, successful and worthy.
A life exists within the heart
What I believe we discover when we look at our wound, when we spend a night, a year, a moment, an hour, an afternoon or a lifetime sitting with the wound, is that we’re already more normal, successful and worthy beings than we ever could’ve imagined.
We come to see, by following the path that looking at the wound opens for us, that a life we never dreamed possible exists within the heart. We enter the wound and transcend its depths, and, as Dante might say, we come to the place in which we hear the sun, even if just for a moment’s flash.