Friday, December 29, 2023

Accepting Life and Suffering as Opposed to Giving Up and Standing Still

Pathway next to Lagoon with Golden Light in the Sky
One of the few branches of modern cognitive therapy that actually excites me (for a change) is that of radical acceptance. I think that acceptance is an important characteristic and quality in our lives. Without acceptance, we would either blame ourselves for things that we have no say and control over or ignore and disregard our share of responsibilities in certain outcomes and results, postpone and delay the processing of feelings, or worse, unnecessarily draw out and propagate negative states and feelings.

Although I usually wince at the term radical and shun it like the plague (my motto in life is based on the Buddhist adage of everything in moderation including moderation), I am somewhat intrigued by its use in this specific context and may even understand the reason behind viewing and terming it as such. That said, I still disagree with it because of its extreme and hence limited view. The problem is that it all depends on the context and the circumstances, but in a way, I would not be too opposed to a somewhat radical mode of moderation, in the sense of fully involving oneself and getting involved with the item in question while still moderating it to a certain extent.

The other reason is that acceptance is hard enough on its own, but it is often limited or conditional. In the same way, I would not necessarily disagree with the concept of unconditional love, I find that it is hard if not impossible to follow through with it. I was myself rather relieved to read and find out that the person who coined this term he himself confessed that he did not always live up to this lofty idealistic concept. It is perhaps the line between humanity and sainthood and although we aspire towards the latter, we are often pulled back to the former regardless of will and intention but out of necessity of being human and living a human life.

Yet, first things first. Why is acceptance so important and what is it that we ought to accept in the first place? I think we can set the stage with the simple basic assumption that we are not angels; we are human and with it comes all the beauty and aspirations but also all the shortcomings and weaknesses associated and connected with this fact. A human life, starting with birth, is a seed that can germinate and blossom into a range of potential states of existence and can fluctuate on the dimensions of two extreme poles, the demonic and the eudemonic or angelic side of our nature.

Since a fully lived and experienced life is not a matter of either/or nor of neither/nor, we find ourselves on a spectrum of sorts. And this is one of the most important tenets, we ought to keep in mind from the onset. We must accept that it is not clear-cut and simple but messy, gray, and complex, or what I prefer to call colorful.

Buddhism has a more pessimistic outlook or premise, namely that life is suffering. I am not denying this and accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life. It is enmeshed with it, the same way, you cannot have life without its counterpoint death or a body without a head. Each side not only defines the other but keeps it in balance where hubris would be calibrated and grounded with memento mori. 

In the same way, doing good becomes useless without the existence of evil - and might I add the freedom and choice to do evil - there can be no life without death. A book that opens on the first page requires its final page for its completion, that is, to close off the story. As Aristotle would say and Shakespeare would not disagree with this, our life is like a play with a beginning, middle, and end. Each section has its own function and purpose.

To believe that we can cheat or escape death or remain young and youthful throughout our whole lives is a delusion and demonstrates a lack of acceptance if not a deficiency of reason. And yet many of us lie to ourselves and others about our age and we assume that we are immortal in this human shell of ours when we know if not consciously then unconsciously that this is far from the truth. (Please note that whether the soul can exist in the afterlife is another matter and not within the range and scope of this post, but may I direct you to a different post where the afterlife is the main topic of discussion.)

Consequently, the first pair of tenets of acceptance is that we are mortal and that life will bring with it suffering. Part of this suffering will be from external sources and part of it will be internally contingent. Some of them will be related to the facts of existence and others to the fact of being human. Some of them are just there and for everyone to see while some of them are created by ourselves and for ourselves.

In a sense, and keeping our analogies in perspective, we are moving now to stoicism. The stoic knows that they will have to face significant life events and turbulent times, but they train themselves not to be affected by them. At the heart of this approach and training lies acceptance. This diminishes and decreases levels and states of neuroticism. It is not within our reach to avoid certain facts of life. We do not linger or harbor upon how we could have done otherwise or circumvented it, but we know that it is what it is. We are not divine beings and do not have those types of superpowers (we may have other kinds though).

The serenity prayer may come to mind, and it is a life-long juggle to be able to distinguish between what we can and what we cannot control, and more importantly, knowing the intricate and inherent differences between the two. This does not mean that we are powerless in the face of life’s struggles. Au contraire, it helps us summon the strength and power to face them with magnanimity. Those aspects that we can potentially change, we have some power over, and those that we cannot, we have the power to face them stoically without feeling guilty, complaining about them, or blaming others for it all.

The stoic takes everything as it comes and does not discriminate. This is one of the superpowers we have in life, our reactions to it. Our outreach is often limited and out of reach but how we react is generally and predominantly within our reach and power. Acceptance is the first step and the step to avoid at all costs is giving up. Once you give up, you fold on life, and it is akin to death.

But as long as you are breathing, as long as the spirit moves, bounces, and rumbles within you and your body, as long as there is a spark or fire in your belly, you are alive and you can make choices, if not how to act, then how to re-act to life itself. This is the freedom no one can take away from any of us.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Exploring Trauma in Three Phases from Acceptance to Integration and Assimilation

A few dark clouds but with light shining through by the water
It is rather comforting and reassuring that the topic and discussion of trauma has come more to the forefront and that nowadays it is not being regarded, designated, nor limited to only unusual, exceptional, and major events in a person’s life. Trauma is not unlike feelings of anxiety and depression and is often connected and linked to the fact that we are alive and facing, trying to grasp and to come terms with life with all its ups and downs and the onslaught of pain and suffering that must accompany conscious living.

This is not to minimize it for those who have experienced more serious life-changing trauma with a capital T in their lives, but it is to democratize it and make clear that no one is immune from it in whatever way and measure we may experience it in our lives. Trauma like many other aspects of life, including morality itself, exists on a spectrum and can be designated in various shades and forms from minor to major.

In fact, as visionary psychoanalyst Otto Rank in his landmark book The Trauma of Birth has shown us the birth of trauma, our collective primal trauma commences the moment we enter this life and existence by leaving or rather being forcefully evicted and extracted from the ultimate primordial comfort zone, the warm home and abode of the womb in which we were held and nourished for what has seemed and felt like an eternity and where we did not have a single care in the world but rather passed and spent our days in bliss and peace. To exchange this promised land without being given any apparent rhyme and reason for an unknown alien world that seems cold and distant is a traumatic event that all of us humans share and have in common.

This is the first experience of intense stress and anxiety, and it is so much more impactful and long-lasting since it took place in a preverbal state of our lifetime, a time where we had no previous knowledge and experience whatsoever, a tabula rasa of experience of sorts, and suddenly we are separated from the person whom we felt one and whole with and are “thrown into this world” forced to live on our own, to borrow existentialist terms and thinking.

This feeling of anxiety was so strong and overwhelming that whenever we experience immense stress, we revert and return to that state by finding ourselves in the fetal position again and with difficulty breathing just as we uttered the first piercing cry to announce our arrival and existence in this new shiny but also loud, overstimulated, and very strange world of ours.

Although there are shades and variations of trauma and various resources for dealing with it, it is a misnomer to assume that anyone can be effectively and essentially immune from it regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, status, or wealth. Trauma is connected to the other common denominator that everyone must face sooner or later and of which there is no escape, our impending mortality.

Instead of harboring differences and accentuating and comparing traumas, it is best to deal with it in whatever shape and form it presents itself to us and that starts off with the simple but difficult acceptance that trauma is a necessary part of existence. It was this common cycle of existential suffering of all sentient beings that the Buddha tried to address and find a solution for, while Jesus tried to alleviate our sense of suffering by raising awareness and building a bridge between the natural and the supernatural or spiritual.

There are still those who deny the existence of trauma and the residues of anxiety that remain and stick with it and those people are not only mistaken and misguided in their perception but they are also deluded and deluding themselves. This obtuse blindness and lack of willingness to accept let alone embrace one’s vulnerabilities, which stem and emanate from the simple fact of being human is then often the cause of suffering, which is then projected, acted out, and passed upon other fellow human beings. Trauma left undiagnosed, untreated, or unprocessed is a gaping wound, which often unconsciously aims at wounding others to reach a certain kind of psychic equilibrium.

By normalizing trauma, it becomes easier to accept it and the cure from it can be more accessible as a result. This first step and phase is the most crucial. As long as one ignores, denies, or rejects its relevance and its outreach, this trauma remains and remains unprocessed and ends up spreading and propagating itself. Although acceptance can be hard and harder for some than others, it is the necessary first step to take.

Then, we need to find ways of dealing with it and of processing the trauma. This trauma has of course accumulated over a lifetime and there is additional stress and anxiety and painful experiences and suffering piled upon it, ranging from simple seemingly innocuous comments and actions in our past and present to more profound experiences of hurt and suffering that eventually become lodged in our psyche and body; this stagnant reservoir or pressure cooker affects our overall health and wellness in the form of inflammation and different types of often chronic dis-ease.

However, as one manages to address the root causes of this malaise and refrains from barricading oneself from life via escaping to and seeking supposed refuge in a sterile and lifeless world of comfort, the proverbial comfort zone that we often enshrine ourselves in, then we go beyond simply accepting but also embracing and integrating our trauma. Once squarely and wholeheartedly faced, the anxious feelings tend to diminish and even dissipate completely. At that point, we start from a clean slate, and new traumatic experiences find it harder to stick to us as long as we remain aware and mindful of their impact.

In many ways, the so-called traumatic experiences now lose their sting and like phobias that used to haunt us but do not affect us anymore, we grow significantly and do not see them as threatening but rather see them from a distance, from a vantage point of emotional safety and security where it cannot faze or harm us no longer. From this point of safety, we also notice and sense a rather surprising element of curiosity. This does not mean that we will never be traumatized again, nor does it mean that we will not experience feelings of sadness and hurt, in some cases, we will feel them even more strongly than before, but we do not linger and harbor on them, and more importantly, we do not feel scared or overwhelmed by them anymore.

Like stress, it becomes a part of life that comes and goes because, at this point, we have learned how to effectively deal with them and not to see them as a threat to our existence. Again, there are life-shattering events that we will still have to face now and then but it works as a type of armor protecting us and making us more resilient, not necessarily meaning that we will not experience the heartache or pain but that we shall bounce back much more quickly from those experiences and setbacks. And in a sense, like stress, we need those feelings as reminders of our mortality and that of others like the phrase memento mori, which we may hear as whispers at times while at other times, it may be a cry from the depth of our souls. And yet, once integrated in its entirety, we can move to the final phase, that of assimilation.

At this stage, we have assimilated the trauma of birth and death, and we cannot be surprised or caught off-guard by it because it is part and parcel of the very fabric of our very existence. The armor that we wear meshes with our body and mind and is the recourse and immunization against intense and debilitating suffering. Death, where is your sting is how the Scriptures would refer to this stance and sentiment, and in a similar vein, the suffering loses its power over our existence. At the very least, we are not constantly traumatized by suddenly being taken unawares by bad news, rather we enjoy our life of tranquility until the events occur and then we deal with them on a case-by-case basis and head-on without feeling scared, panicked, or overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, there are two observations and potential obstacles I would like to mention here. First off, trauma is not easy to talk about. Ensure that you do so whenever you are reasonably ready to discuss it and approach it slowly. Also, one of the difficulties of trauma is that others may not wish to hear about it as it makes them uncomfortable due to the very fact that it may trigger feelings of pain and suffering and even awaken seeming impotence within them, not to mention that they would prefer their state of slumber and their quasi-existence of automatic zombie life. Put differently, some trauma can be too intense for oneself and others, and it would be best addressed by and with a mental health professional.

And then there is the issue of how and ways that trauma may protect us. We do not wish to eliminate and dissolve all types and sources of anxiety. Fear is something that is there for a reason, namely one of survival, and anxiety in its more productive form may help keep us safe. They are part of life for a reason, and we still need them as signposts and guidance in our lives.

Also, in a way, the trauma we experienced has shaped and molded us, and perhaps without it, we would be a rather different person. I do not mean that we should hold onto it, but we should keep in mind that it also has certain positive aspects because we may be and act a certain way and see it as an extension of our personality of who we are and what we have overcome. In other words, we do not want to wipe our lives completely clean from trauma as we are not factory-setting our lives. We should still acknowledge our traumatic experiences but not be driven, haunted, and paralyzed by them and give them and ourselves the necessary space and room not only to grow but more importantly to embrace and live life fully.