My father’s first heart attack was a rehearsal in loss. It’s August in New Jersey, the air an incense of mown grass and spent lilies, sunlight sizzling off the grille of our Ford. I’m nine, hot and tired from jumping rope. I saunter into the cool interior of our house. On the way to the fridge, I halt at my parents’ door. Why is my father sleeping mid-afternoon, his body skewed across the bed?
Once upon a time, middle-class Americans like us ate fried eggs, bacon, and buttered toast for breakfast, adults topping the meal with cream-thickened coffee and a cigarette. Malnutrition, not obesity, dominated public health concerns; polio, not diabetes, the public scourge. At fifty, my father’s arteries were filled with sludge, and on that day, his heart spasmed its distress. I shake his shoulders, shout his name. When there is no response, I’m frozen with dread.
Coming upon my father’s inert figure on the mattress that day has been a central trauma in my life. Since that time, I’ve learned that it’s not just the triggering traumatic event that can flatten us. Nor is it simply that the memory of the event causes anguish. Far more enduring is the exhausting hypervigilance and anxiety that becomes part of our nature. In The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Jungian analyst and renowned expert on trauma Donald Kalsched tells us that in traumatized moments our entire nervous system is flooded with stress hormones. Our bodies and emotions revert to a primitive state of fear, charged by the brain’s limbic system, while our higher cortical functions like rational thought become mute, unable to be accessed. A traumatic situation throws us into a time-stopped and tunnel-visioned moment in which we might freeze or flee in panic—the well-known fight or flight response. Trauma initiates us into an irretrievable loss of innocence: not only do we feel exposed and vulnerable, we can no longer anticipate feeling protected and safe.
Most of us will never experience the extreme traumas of war or genocide or the murderous rage of an enemy, but coping with smaller traumas are part of human life. Kalsched asks how is it possible to live an ensouled life after trauma, or put another way, how do we accept our suffering and also find joy? The question points to both a psychological and a spiritual answer.
Myoshin Kelley, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says there is a great movement within our hearts to be free from suffering. We may yearn that the hearts of all beings be open and free, but the wounds inflicted by trauma interfere—and persist. A first step in healing trauma is recognizing its presence within us. My own experience has led me to understand that trauma shapes us from below, from the unconscious, where the dissociated parts thrive in darkness. “After trauma,” writes Kalsched, “dissociative defenses are set up in the inner world and these defenses distort what we are able to see of ourselves and others.” These defenses protect us from feeling past and future traumas, and yet the defenses can cause their own problems. They create vacuums in which hope, creativity, and self-love cannot exist.
In her book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, analyst and professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary Ann Beldford Ulanov writes, “When we make an unconscious deal to cut off parts of ourselves, we swap aliveness for restriction in order to feel safer, avoid pain, survive some blow that seems to us unbearable, that would destroy us.” Dr. Ulanov suggests that whatever we are afraid of is asking for our attention. “We must go down into it, look around, not knowing if and how we will come out.” In this space of not-knowing, we assemble all the parts. “It is like collecting all our laundry, even the fugitive socks that seem to lead a life of adventure all their own.” Through this process of discovery, we compose a picture of our wholeness that is an ensemble of parts, a “completeness,” rather than “a seamless excellence.”
The thought of going into our darkness takes our breath away. It seems to require more than we can bear, and yet instinctively we know this is the path to healing. Acclaimed mindfulness author and teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us that “when we see our pain, whether mental or physical, as a single, solid, monolithic entity, unyielding and oppressive, it is almost impossible to bear. Fighting a consolidated enemy, we feel overcome, helpless, stuck. But when we can be mindful of exactly what is happening, we begin to see that everything we experience is composed of many ever-changing elements.” Our traumas are part of the rich texture of who we are, but they are not all of us. They are a summons to wholeness.
The power to make meaning of our experience, good and bad, lies within us. As my nine-year-old self stood in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, in the gap between blinks, I imagined I saw my father’s soul hovering above his body, a fragile blue shimmer similar to what orbiting astronauts report observing as a sort of halo around the Earth. Like the spacewalking Russian cosmonaut who was so awed by the universe he was unwilling to step back inside his cramped spacecraft, so too my father’s soul seemed to falter, trying to decide whether to reenter his flesh.
Years later, the memory still detonates strong feelings. We cannot willingly unremember. Nor could I have predicted how that moment would animate a lifelong investigation into the transforming power of fear. We all lose things — glasses, car keys, memories. Over a lifetime, we lose people we love. Loss and time pick us clean, which may well be why we like to accumulate things, pad our nests with stuff, even as time insists on revealing itself in natural cycles, bare branches slicked with ice later weighted with fruit, pencil marks on a wall behind a door to mark a child’s growth.
The Buddhists say to see the flower is to want to possess the flower. Be mindful, they warn: observe the desirous self and let go. My sorrow, I discover, matches the dilemma of all beings: we fear change and loss. But aren’t we deeply attached to our attachments?
What if becoming attached to things is our way of praising earthly life? The great poet Rilke on the windy cliffs near the Duino Castle wonders: Are we perhaps here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window, –at best: pillar, tower. Rilke reminds us of the reciprocity between things and the soul: when we imagine a beloved’s bathrobe on its hook, her worn slipper beside the bed, we see the essence of the person contained in the thing, each object a star in our private galaxy. Here then gone: everyone I love.
We have our shocks, our terrors. However, inside the damage are seeds of change. Childhood trauma forges our identity, lending us our tics and insomnia, our depressions and panic attacks, but emotionally charged experiences also drive the quest for spiritual maturity as we reconcile the controlling part that draws a protective circle around what we love and the surrendering part that recognizes our helplessness. Our heads understand we don’t control the universe, but our hearts pine for a stable, anguish-free life. Head and heart wrestle, but the heart is the queen, the high priestess, the beginning and end of the world.
I sit now and breathe into my heart. Even the troubling memories arrive dusted with the aura of the sacred. What is buried is not lost. The past lives in infinite dimensions. Either way—sorrow is inextricable from joy. Grief itself isn’t a solid fortress, it’s porous. Light shoots through the cracks.