Reposted from Ecopsychology Now
“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 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? 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 phenomena. It happens at the individual level when the trust we have placed in someone with power over us is fundamentally ruptured. 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 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. And the longer it goes unaddressed, the more trouble it causes – just like a troubled child who demands attention.
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.
Where to start?
As I started at the outset, we must create safe space or sacred ground to begin the healing process. 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 to heal our traumas, we must bring awareness and intention to facing these difficult truths. 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 become whole. We need to examine our own patterns of relating to, or thinking about, ourselves. We know the patterned behaviors that have caused so much trouble in our lives. In order to change them, we must bring heightened awareness to them. 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. 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 into our close relationships. We need to open up and share our healing process with others, because that will give them the permission to reciprocate in kind, and we will gain more perspective on our own healing process by virtue of their shared insights and expressions of their own personal traumas.
This kind of shared intimacy can be quite difficult, and calls on 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 with loving tenderness. And that becomes the great compensation for our efforts – 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 love and ever-deepening understanding.
This first step of being honest with ourselves and our close others then opens our journey up into what ecopsychologist Andy Fisher calls ‘ever-widening spheres’ of meaning and participation. From such a place of self-empowerment, we are freed to participate more meaningfully in our communities, reaching out to others to form support groups that lend further support to our own healing journey, and 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. It is imperative that we being with our own healing process, which removes the obstacles to our effective participation in the planet’s healing process. 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 a new dialogue about what it means to be human in an era when humanity is shaping the future of all life on Earth.
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 human nature. The strength of our spiritual container depends upon our faith in human nature. 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, and reflected in the physical space I carve out of my home for contemplation. Your process will undoubtedly look quite different than mine from without, but should mirror it from within – because we all share human nature, and it is ultimately the rupture of our own true nature that needs to be healed for us to come into appropriate relationship with the natural world.
So yes, the world is broken. We have fallen from the Garden. But this is just a reflection of our own broken relations. Instead of obsessing over the fallen state of the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to take universal responsibility by 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….