“How can you live in the moment if you are too busy warding off what is? What is, is the suffering inherent to being a human being. You must accept the fact that your heart is breaking all the time.” ~Ram Dass
I was sleeping off a difficult night, several weeks ago. I fell on my left knee, hard, bruising it badly and scraping it badly enough that laying with it on the mattress was uncomfortable, so I’m wasn’t getting good sleep, and at 9 in the morning I seemed to want more of it. Dad walked past the bed, and I heard him close the apartment door. Then I heard the outer door to the building slam – a heavy door with an old hinge that slams loudly whenever someone lets it close on its own. And I had a memory:
It is my birthday. I am eight years old. Dad and I went out to the movies several hours ago and had some of my friends with us. It was a good day. Now I am home, and one of my pet guinea pigs has died in my absence. I was worrying about them for days, and now I am badly grieved. These guinea pigs may be the first creatures I’ve cared for, and now one of them is dead, and I feel an unarticulated sense of self-blame. I feel the senselessness of the death of this creature. I am starting to come apart in a way that will eventually become so familiar to me, but which right now is still new.
Dad needs to go. My birthday has fallen on a Friday, and that’s the day he goes out in the evening. It’s something he needs to do. I don’t attempt to understand why he needs to do this; I just accept it as a matter of course. I don’t think it odd that I am not inquisitive about this, but the dysfunctional family is known for a culture of secrecy, and mine has been no different. Dad tries not to play into that, explaining things to me all the time, so maybe I don’t feel I need to ask about anything and maybe anything that he doesn’t explain is just something I don’t need to know. All of this is left not verbalized, of course. So when Dad tells me that he needs to go, I understand, or think I do, that this is a necessity, and so while he offers to stay, I let him go.
He leaves, and in the middle of my bedroom, I fall apart. I sob and keen for a long time. I feel, for a moment, the full weight of my fear and sadness of death, and the abandonment that started a long time ago when I was only four or so and Dad left in the night to see his girlfriend. I cry as loudly as my body wants to – a full body experience. Eventually I cry so much that I am numb, drowning in my snot and in dire need of a handkerchief to clear me out so I can breathe again.
Later on in life, after a painful session in which I wanted so badly to somehow obtain nourishment from my therapist – a nourishment I could not even articulate, much less satisfy.
At 30 years old, I am distressed. I return home from a session in a darkening state of mind. The storm clouds are gathering in my head; I can feel the pressure within my forehead and the flushing of my cheeks. I start to cry before I make it halfway back to my home, and when I get home I sit and start to weep openly. I am sobbing here in my living room; crying out a fear that I have not been fully aware of in years. The pain fills me like a vessel and I overflow. The room might be filled with the thunderstorm, but it’s all me; all the rain flows from my own eyes. The fear that forms in my head can only form two statements: Mommy doesn’t love me. And, I’m going to die. I know this as a very young self from my past, an infant self that may have split off when I was only one or two years old.
Mark Epstein, a popular author who blends Buddhadharma with psychological insight gives a beautiful insight on trauma:
I once had the chance to speak with a renowned Thai forest master named Ajahn Chah directly about all this. […] We asked him to explain the Buddhist view. What had he learned from his years of contemplation and study? What could we bring back to share with the West? His answer touched my own sense of residual trauma, my own fear of everything burning. Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
The Trauma of Everyday Life
Impermanence runs through the core of our existence – a basic truth: the end, the break. To stand outside time is to see that all beings, ideas, and objects, in their unique brilliance, are as broken as the glass fallen on the floor – our existence is a non-dual whole with our nonexistence. As fundamentally aware beings, we must feel this. The untrained mind must be in a perpetual state of darkness just to function in the face of existential dread. This basic dread must exist in the body as a state of panic for our bodily existence: this is evident in other creatures – the more primitive the being, the easier it is for us to observe the primary state of hyper-vigilance. We scurry from stimulus to stimulus, rebounding from frightening stimuli and searching for and consuming pleasurable stimuli. Despite evolution and sophistication, we never quite lose this profound hyper-vigilance – we sublimate it, we split off from it, but the fear of destruction drives our continual search for pleasure and avoidance of pain – it also drives a fundamental rift in our consciousness: we don’t think of our death. And by ignoring our eventual death, we turn a blind eye to a fundamental truth of our existence.
If we are aware of our frailty then there is an awareness that holds that frailty. More profound than our fear is that awareness, that basic wisdom. Although we feel driven to flee from our fear, we have a duty to ourselves to settle into the body and face our fear. Our brilliance may even be inextricably tied to the finite nature of our existence. Like the changing patterns in a kaleidoscope, our beauty may be tied to our unique nature. There is something poignant, something that pulls at the center of our being, a pang in the heart, when we see a flower or the smile of our friend and contemplate the reality that this moment will never come again.