Why is Everyone so Obsessed with Trauma?
Trauma is everyone's favorite buzzword these days. People have been using it to describe everything that's ever hurt them, individually and collectively. And there's been much debate about its definition and correct usage. One of the more useful definitions of trauma is "too much, too fast, too soon" for our bodies. It's a state of overwhelm followed by chronic disconnection. And when, for whatever reason, our bodies don't move out of survival physiology, our perceptions, sensations, thoughts, beliefs, physiology (and so on) are transformed. Given the contexts that we're in, and have been in for generations, there's no doubt that we hold trauma in our bodies and that it's had enormous influence on this planet.
Here's what I find so interesting: we're turning our obsession with our own minds into a preoccupation with our bodies. We are obsessed with trauma because it offers the shocking recognition that our brains do not function alone, that they are connected to our bodies, and that bodies are connected to other bodies. We are, as ever, captivated by that which is quantifiable, proven, and seen. "Look at the impacts of trauma on the physical structure of brains!", "Narcissism can be traced back to childhood trauma!", "Emotional abuse can change our physiology!" In other words, that which is not always visible is made visible through the impact on our bodies.
And obviously, I love thinking about bodies - I was genuinely amazed when I realized that my brain wasn't the only part of me that held memories and stories and beliefs and fears. I'm excited by the possibility that my joints, my diaphragms, my toes, my belly, my heart all have stories to tell that I've yet to uncover. So much of my own experience of the world became clear when I realized that my parents' bodies - not just their words or actions - had a direct effect on my developing body. I'm fascinated by how bodies are impacted by other bodies, the clashing and destruction and generation that dates back to the big bang. The field of somatics has changed my life and directed my career. But as we turn our attention from individual brains to individual bodies, we are yet again centering the individual process, and the human experience.
In a previous post, I mention that I am skeptical of therapy, and this is exactly why: therapy focuses on individuals processing their experiences in their own minds and bodies. Psychotherapy and somatics are a part of the "wellness" industry - an industry that is built on the idea that there is a "well" and an "unwell", a "normal" and a pathology, that we must spend money in order to alleviate our own suffering, that we must individually seek a completion of healing and health - and if we don't, we have failed. The wellness industry is monetized ableism. Even as therapeutic spaces have begun to shift their objectives from "reaching normalcy" (with the end goal being to fit into societal expectations), to "navigating life" as a messy human with needs, longings, and stories to tell, somatics and psychotherapy continue to posit that there's a baseline of comfort and relaxation that can be reached with enough treatment.
"Trauma does not belong to an individual. It is a web that includes someone. It is not an object that can be removed." - Sophie Strand, The Body is a Doorway
What if "safety" is inaccessible, and even inappropriate in our current circumstances? What if the physiological mark of trauma is a web that spans between all living beings, and cannot be decontextualized or held by just two bodies gathered together? What if the field of psychology is an insufficient framework on which to hang our longings for a different world?
I say all of this as someone that makes a living within this system, and I hold this complexity every day. Of course, I believe that feeling wider, more connected, and more alive is worth the effort. I have dedicated my life to it, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of my own reconnection with life. I feel more "filled into myself" than I ever thought possible. And I do believe that being a more spacious and present person has ripple effects for those around me. Therapy changes lives, and it is a valuable support for those that have access to it. It is highly effective for folks that hope to heal injuries within intimacy, it can remind our bodies that trust is possible, it can open us to different perspectives, it can challenge us to peek outside of our own heads. But in truth, I attribute much of my increased aliveness to a slowly expanding openness to spirit and animism (which, for me, would not have been possible without somatic therapy and mindfulness). I am beginning to believe and feel that we are each a strand in a massive web made of everything, human and more-than-human, the seen and the unseen.
Often, I attune to the plant beings in my bedroom. I feel the weight of the sedum morganianum, how he collapses out of his vessel, and leans into the support of the windowsill to wander towards sunlight, grazing the bowl of the asparagus setaceus as she gracefully stretches and brushes against the glass, thorns hidden by delicate cladodes. I feel the powerful trunk of the beaucarnea recurvata branching into flamboyant tufts of long, luxurious leaves. I stretch into the damp roots, and the powerful limbs and the drying tips yearning to be pruned. What if this attunement doesn't simply inspire and soothe me? What if it's reciprocal medicine?
During a recent meditation, my teacher suggested that we attune to a tree. This tree could be visible from where we were sitting, or not, a favorite tree, or simply a tree that we see regularly. It was suggested that we wait for an invitation. I was surprised to find that a very specific tree was calling to me, a tree that I'd passed almost every day but had barely given my attention. I spent about thirty minutes feeling this tree, how their roots were packed into a tiny city bed, but extended much farther than the eye could see, how they were gathering nutrients for the upcoming bloom. I could feel the pace of their life, much slower and more patient than my own. And as the meditation was wrapping up, I swear I could feel their gratitude - as though simply feeling my attention, from a block away, had offered them something.
Once upon a time, I would have rolled my eyes at all this. It could all be made up in my head, there's no "proof" that the tree felt me. But now, I allow space for mystery and possibility. And I ask questions that I used to ask when I was very little, before I learned to push them away: what is it like to be this stone, resting on my windowsill in the sunshine? What is it like to be that bird, soaring above the roofs of this city? What is it like to be the river that flows both ways? What might these beings show me? What might I be able to offer them in return?
We live in a world of paradoxes. Something can be unquantifiable and still be true and real. Psychology vernacular can accurately describe an experience that impacts us, and it cannot capture the whole picture. Facts are important and we won't ever know everything about this universe. The pain we feel so deeply in our individual bodies might not be ours alone to hold. We can feel pain and grief, and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Humans can be the cause of catastrophic changes to this planet and we can also be medicine for earth.
I believe that understanding trauma is important, because we live in these bodies and it is liberating to understand them better. I've seen how learning to navigate nervous systems can change someone's relationship with themself and their environment. But our obsession with trauma appears to be yet another paradigm that shifts us away from animism and towards anthropocentrism. What if the world we're living in currently is a direct response to rupture, to the breaking apart of humans from the web, and to the loss of animacy? The framework of trauma has helped some of us empathize with other humans. What if it's time to turn our empathy towards fungus and flowers, birds and bears, weeds and willows? What might they teach us?
So many of us have forgotten what it means to be in direct relationship with the forces of nature. We have forgotten what lies beneath the psychological and the material, the mysterious powers of ritual, trance, dance, song, devotion in community. We have forgotten what it means to seek wisdom outside of the human experience.
We have forgotten how to be possessed.
Note: This is inspired by The Emerald podcast and Sophie Strand's work.