Trauma throws victims onto a path that mystics, shamans, mythic heroes, and spiritual seekers have been walking for thousands of years. The difference is that victims of trauma must work this territory or be overcome by it. Non-traumatized seekers have the luxury of getting off the path at will….Victims are thrust into this realm against their will and with no preparation. Trauma forces victims to confront realms of Being existing outside of ego and collective consciousness (Grant, 1999, para. 11)
It is an unfortunate fact that by simply living as a human being, one is likely to suffer trauma, more than likely multiple traumas, or the type of complex and severe trauma that utterly changes belief structures, ways of being and living in the world, one’s body, one’s mind, and one’s spirit in ways that one never fully returns from. Post-trauma, life may change its meaning and focus, and what was once a source of stability no longer offers any comfort. Experiencing a traumatic event reminds one that as humans we are incredibly vulnerable, mortal, limited, and exposed. In circumstances like war, rape, or extreme violence, one is also reminded of the depths of depravity possible within the scope of human interaction.
The fracture of meaning within one’s reality may be so overwhelming as to cause permanent psychological and physical damage. Rather than facing that darkness, many people turn outwards seeking release through alcohol, drugs, sex, or other escape routes in order to dull the fear and pain and confrontation that trauma can produce. Others turn within and accept the challenge, coming out of traumatic situations with a newfound appreciation for life, with more disciplined spiritual practice, with better relationships, and with a tempered character made strong through the flames of suffering. What causes the difference is often a question of past psychological conditioning.
According to the American Psychological Association (2016), Trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” A traumatic experience causes a chaotic response between the self and the environment due to the breakdown of belief structures formed through interaction with the environment that no longer explain reality (Benyakar et al., 1989).
According to Decker (1993), traumatic events are overwhelming, sudden, and confrontational changes in our reality that no longer allow us to live in denial of the temporary and vulnerable nature of our existence. This shocking awakening causes a questioning of deeply rooted belief systems and meaning making that often leads to an existential dilemma if nothing new that can incorporate this new reality, including the traumatic event, is provided or found. “Trauma initiates a process of deep spiritual questioning and demands that victims take in more of reality….The Spirit demands expansion and is intolerant of partiality. The meaning of life is questioned. Old answers no longer suffice. Priorities are reordered” (Grant, 1999, para.9).
If one’s meaning making and belief structures have been primarily based upon a superficial, material, and external reality — financial abundance, social popularity, physical appearance, material wealth, romantic success — when that external reality is shattered by a traumatic event and all that has been grasped upon seems lost, one is likely to lose control of meaning altogether. However, according to Decker (1993), when one derives meaning from internally based realizations, such as insights during meditation and prayer, one connects with a deeper understanding and context that cannot be annihilated by external events. In this case, real transformation and stability comes from an ability to accommodate and adapt to the new reality, which includes the traumatic event, and to form a personal theory of the meaningfulness of the experience. This internal searching for new meaning that includes instead of suppresses or denies the traumatic event can serve to spark a new sense of self-awareness and a type of mystical rebirth.
Effects of trauma
Post-trauma refers to life after experiencing a traumatic event. There are many types of post-trauma effects on the whole person that can lead to a separation of the parts: mind, body, and spirit. According to (Kennedy et al, 2007), post-traumatic consequences on the social level could include loss of job or unemployability, homelessness, relationship breakdowns, charges for criminal violations, legal disputes, assault, promiscuity, or substance abuse, all of which may increase anger, anxiety, and/or depression. “The cognitive impairment is often more demoralizing and stigmatizing than an obvious physical disability” (p. 908). Post-trauma emotional consequences such as anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, despair, lack of appetite or conversely overeating, and anger are not considered to be especially pathological responses to trauma.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker (1974) theorized that in the face of one’s own mortality, such as during a traumatic event, these types of reactions surge up from the unconscious denial of death that is ingrained in normal human behavior. Human beings buffer our finite state within belief systems, culture, religion, spirituality, and immortal symbols such as country and state so as to make meaning out of an otherwise seemingly meaningless existence. “As a result of the existential crisis generated by this conflict…humans…deny their personal vulnerability to death by embracing that which cannot die. Specifically…social beliefs and standards that are imbued with value and that become symbolic representations of the self” (Cozzolino, Blackie, & Meyers, 2013).
When those meaning making systems that one previously had in place are destroyed by war, serious accidents, violence, or psychological/physical abuse, there is nothing left to hold onto in order to create meaning, and this dissonance causes a descending spiral into the darkness. In other words, according to Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist philosophy, we begin the process of grasping, aversion, and denial. This poison triangle causes fluctuations in the mind that express themselves in action as greed, hatred, delusion, and uncontrolled behavior, and physically as emotional instability or mental illness, ungrounded life force energy, and eventually disease.
The numbers are quite staggering. According to PTSD United (2013), about 70 percent of Americans have had at least one traumatic event in their lives and 20 percent of those go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, equaling approximately 44.7 million people. Roughly 8% of Americans — 24.4 million people, equal to the population of Texas — have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder at any given time. According to Horowitz (2013):
It has been estimated that up to 20 percent of the 2 million troops who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan may require treatment for PTSD. Approximately 27% of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq met criteria for substance abuse. About 14% of veterans have been diagnosed with major depression….[and] in 2012, the military suicide rate reached an all-time high, exceeding the number of combat deaths in Afghanistan (p. 133).
Considering that the United States of America is an especially war prone country, the likelihood that combat-related PTSD will increase is rather high. Even more troubling are the statistics concerning spouses and children of soldiers with PTSD, who are unfortunately likely to develop anxiety, depression, and PTSD-like symptoms as well (Herzog, Everson, & Whitworth, 2011). Over 20 percent of domestic violence incidences nationwide are attributable to combat vets, and the numbers show periods when returning veterans have killed more military family members and spouses than there have been troops killed in action (Bannerman, 2014).
It’s not as if PTSD or post-trauma reactions are being left untreated, or as if everyone is most definitely going to experience prolonged adverse reactions to a traumatic event. While some people do seem to fall apart, some people make miraculous changes and come out with incredible insights thanks to the experience of trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Kass & Trantham (2014) explain:
Growth in the behavioral, cognitive, social–emotional, and contemplative dimensions of self takes place interactively and synergistically. Through this integration, individuals develop a resilient worldview that enables them to confront life’s existential, interpersonal, and intergroup tensions with internal composure and the ability to derive maturational growth (As cited in Kass, 2015, p. 65).
Personal growth is actually the most common change post-trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996), and is well documented in the teachings of humanistic-existential psychology, transpersonal psychology, positive psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and religion: also known as transformational coping, adversarial growth, stress-related growth, benefit finding, and post-traumatic growth (Bray, 2010). Although the initial effects of a traumatic experience may be devastating, the subsequent exercise of processing the event to make sense and meaning out of it in the context of broken belief systems actually may cause expanded and new belief systems to form that are more inclusive of the harsh realities of life, resulting in a form of spiritual and personal growth (Smith, 2004).
Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006) present a model of the sequential process of personal growth post-trauma that begins with the individual pre-trauma, then being confronted by a traumatizing event that destroys his or her worldview, belief systems, and sense of self, which forces a state of cognitive dissonance, emotional distress, and loss of meaning. Here, the mind will begin a process of “rumination,” which begins spinning the event over and over in the mind, searching for some kind of answer as to why the traumatizing event happened. Often, during this period the individual will feel compelled to enlist the help of family, friends, or spiritual community or begin internal searching through creative measures in a period of self-disclosure. This branching outwards, speaking with others, engaging the creative self, and thinking things over reduces the initial stress and provides space to objectify the traumatic event enough to begin disengaging from it instead of being overwhelmed by it. Once able to differentiate the Self from experience, it is possible through the continued rumination to begin to piece together new personal narratives, new life meaning, and new beliefs. The struggle of recovery from the traumatic event may induce a fresh perspective, with a newfound wisdom through the experience that brings the individual closer together with family, friends, spiritual, community, and self.
It is not uncommon for this post-traumatic recovery struggle to initially cause an individual to question his or her religious or spiritual beliefs, largely because the previous relationship to a higher power contained the belief that through prayer and good behavior one would be rewarded with protection and blessings during difficulty and danger (Smith, 2004). Having experienced the trauma, this basic expectation was violated, causing the individual to question what type of benevolence his or her God really provides. In extreme cases, such as the death of a child or a brutally violent trauma, that questioning can go so deep as to obliterate an individual’s faith in God completely. This rupture of religious or spiritual belief systems can be especially difficult, since guilt, fear, shame, judgment, loss of community, and existential questions regarding the nature of death, good, and evil often accompany turning one’s back on one’s faith. Now stuck in a place without meaning and without answers, the individual must either go on a quest of growth and understanding to replace that lost pre-trauma existential truth, or allow the darkness to take over. This position, seemingly hopeless at first, opens a door for a catalyst towards post-traumatic growth and spiritual re-awakening that the individual can choose to walk through when ready.
Using the yogic system of Patanjali as a framework for post-traumatic growth
According to Kass & Lennox (2005):
Spiritual maturation can be conceptualized as an expression of “the formative tendency” through which “the human organism [moves] toward the more complete development of awareness . . . toward increased order and interrelated complexity . . . in the direction of wholeness, integration, and a unified life” (C. R. Rogers, 1980, pp. 124-128). Research in the psychology of religion and spirituality has identified five dimensions of self — behavioral, cognitive, social–emotional, contemplative, and an integrative (resilient worldview building) function — in which this maturational process can be observed (As cited in Kass, 2015, p.58).
The post-trauma fracturing of belief systems and the subsequent search for meaning leaves a door wide open for new meaning making systems to be put into place. During the spiritual re-awakening catalyst, an individual may be ripe for new answers, new life frameworks, and new spiritual structures to provide the existential answers that now must include the traumatic experience. Here is exactly where The yogic system of Patanjali may fit in for those that are open to it.
The spiritual discipline of yoga as we currently know it was first compiled, roughly around 200-500 BCE, within the Yoga Sutras by the sage Patanjali via several lineages of philosophy and practice that were available at the time. Previous to this time, yoga was strictly a lineage-based oral tradition (Iyengar, 1993). The discipline is an ethical, physical, meditational, and devotional path that brings together Kass’ (2015) five dimensions of self previously mentioned: behavioral, cognitive, social-emotional, contemplative, and integrative. Although cultivated within the cultural environment of Hinduism, yoga as detailed by Patanjali in his Ashtanga – eightfold path – system is easily modified to fit most religious belief systems (Sheveland, 2011). The first two limbs of the eightfold path are called the Yamas and Niyamas, and these approach the behavioral aspect of self. The ethical principals of the Yamas are: non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), not stealing (Asteya), energetic/sexual continence (Brahmacharya), and non-greed (Aparigraha). The principals of the Niyamas are: purity/cleanliness of the body, mind, and environment (Saucha), contentment (Santosha), austerities or the raising of the energy through exertions (Tapas), self-study and the study of the scriptures of any wisdom tradition (Svadhyaya) and devotional practice that includes prayer and contemplation of whatever one chooses as one’s representation of a higher power (Ishvara Pranidhana) (Iyengar, 1993).
Not only do the Yamas and Niyamas approach the behavioral aspect of the five dimensions of self, but they also incorporate the cognitive, social-emotional, contemplative, and integrative resilient worldview building. Through svadhyaya, an individual undergoes a type of psychotherapeutic process of studying the wisdom writings and then applying them to his or her life to see if there is alignment and truth in a process of contemplation and self-exploration. Yoga according to Patanjali does not expect the yogi to blindly accept that which is taught, but to explore the teachings through personal experience and come to one’s own conclusions. This process is a fertile ground for new meaning making, new ways of thinking, and new ways of belief that are not dependant upon outside sources that can be re-fractured by trauma.
By aligning one’s self to these ethical principals, one limits the amount of interpersonal and personal conflict that one causes and encounters, thereby relieving the fluctuations of emotional distress and stressful upsetting situations in the social-emotional dimension that often follows post-trauma. The practice of Tapas prepares the individual to face the hardships that are unavoidable in life with an air of determination and self-confidence. Santosha teaches one to be content with whatever may come in the sense that one understands changes are continuous and sometimes abrupt and sometimes traumatizing, yet one does not grasp or fear or deny whatever comes. Saucha practices teach one to be present with one’s thoughts, mindful of one’s space and physical body, and constantly motivated to improve these towards the positive (clean and pure in word, thought, and deed). This practice also includes diet, which should be totally clean and healthy, and taking care of the body and personal hygeine.
The alleviation of mental and emotional fluctuations prepares the individual to begin the physical practices within the Ashtanga: Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara. The practice of Asana (postures that are held for some time) makes the body fit, flexible, strong, and balanced. It is no secret that exercise is incredibly beneficial for the alleviation of many physical ailments, including anxiety and depression (Li, PharmD, & Goldsmith, 2012). The Asana also work on the metaphysical level by opening up energy channels called nadis, which according to yoga philosophy are said to release repressed and stored emotions that manifest in the physical body as tensions and blockages (Iyengar, 1993).
Pranayama is the practice of breath control. According the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Iyengar, 1993), the prana is the life-force energy existent in the universe and within all conscious beings. The yogi may raise his or her vital energies by practicing breathing exercises that fill the blood with oxygen, expand the lung capacity, and raise stamina and endurance levels. With pranayama, the mind focuses, the body floods with positive feeling, and the mind clears enough to begin the next phase in the practice, Pratyahara. This is the boundary between the physical and the spiritual worlds within the Ashtanga of Patanjali. In Pratyahara, the individual sits and draws the consciousness from a normally outward direction — from mind, to senses, to sense object — back inwards. Here is where the individual discontinues the search outward for meaning, and turns into him or herself to watch what is really going on. This is also where the psychological processes of re-embodiment, interoception, and introspection begin. This is an important part of the practice especially for people who are experiencing hyperarousal or dissociation, common to PTSD.
The spiritual practices of the Ashtanga of Patanjali include concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), and absorption (Samadhi). Once able to draw the senses back inward, the mind is then concentrated on one thing: a repeated affirmation or mantra, an object, a symbol, music, or whatever one may choose. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to positively affect PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and bring about a more expansive and positive understanding of self and other (Brisbon & Lowery, 2011). This practice stills the rumination or inner dialogue and focuses the mind in one direction. Once the mind is focused, one begins the process of meditation where one can really see what is going on in the deeper levels of the mind, the unconscious mind, the collective conscious mind, and the body. In this space, if one goes deep enough to achieve Samadhi, one may find a sense of total absorption with what seems like a unified consciousness. This sense of oneness totally changes one’s perception of the manifested universe to a more collective view, which may bring existential meaning and answers that were otherwise missing. The answers within Samadhi are for the Yogi to find him or herself, and because of their metaphysical nature, are subjective and difficult to understand if not personally experienced. But here is where the mystics for thousands of years have come together to collectively affirm the answers to life’s questions lie.
Although it is not a very acceptable statement to insinuate that tragedy happens for a reason, or that there is a silver lining on every dark cloud, experiencing a traumatizing event doesn’t have to be the end of the world. There is the possibility of coming through it with newfound appreciation for life, for friends, for family, for one’s life path, for one’s community, and for one’s God or Higher Self. It’s not a simple matter to go on a spiritual quest for existential truth. As Grant (1999) stated, usually only mad men and mystics embark on this level of soul searching, who choose to do it and have the ability to walk away at any time. After trauma, there is no escaping the new reality that must include life post-trauma. There is no going back to the pre-trauma days. After trauma, one is forced into a quest for meaning making and expansion of the soul; the only other choice is darkness and avoidance. Although there are many ways to come to meaning post-trauma through the many colorful and resonant spiritual and religious paths, the Yoga of Patanjali is a possible framework that can be applied to and used in conjunction with most religious belief systems. It serves to guide a person through ethics, cognitive, behavioral, emotional, interpersonal, contemplative, and meaning making functions towards personal and spiritual growth.
At the moment, there is not much research outside of indigenous Indian psychology that looks to the full practice of the eightfold path of Patanjali as an adjunct treatment for PTSD, but it seems a ripe area for exploration (Visceglia, 2015). Asana, Pranayama, and Meditation have already proven themselves to be positive additions to recovery. It seems only reasonable to include the entire practice of the Ashtanga, and not just its parts, in order to get the full effect as Patanjali outlined. In the fight against losing another soul to the darkness of existential despair, whatever tool we have on hand should be explored fully, with open minds and hearts.
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