Article #2 (Dec. 2017)
A PURPOSE FOR SUFFERING AND ITS TREATMENT
In this series of monthly Blogs, I and my colleagues at AIT will be writing about things that explain AIT and some of its workings and philosophy, aspects of it that seem of particular interest, or that might be useful to you. Many of these blogs will not be scientific discussions although there may be pieces of science imbedded within them. As I will explain in a later blog, I’m not at all sure that science can successfully study the human mind—though it can certainly study the human brain. But more of that later.
Today I want to talk about suffering. There isn’t much agreement about it or about how we should deal with it. The approach to it is probably different to some degree in every culture. In some cultures, suffering is seen as punishment for having made others suffer. In others, they believe that suffering is random and meaningless and has no message for anyone. In many, they say that it can and should be wiped off the face of the earth, and that human suffering shouldn’t exist. They create institutions like modern Western medicine— colossal edifices whose function– but not whose reality– is the removal of suffering. Yet others feel that the way to deal with suffering is for those who suffer to present a social facade that completely denies its existence. Still others prefer to look down on those who are obviously suffering because their suffering means they are somehow inferior. There are also a few cultures that understand suffering as meaningful, but what does it mean? Most people and cultures are probably in agreement with the idea that avoiding suffering is a good thing to do. After all, it really hurts! But how we define or value suffering probably doesn’t matter. Suffering itself is clearly universal, as is our need to define and understand it. But why does it exist in the first place and, more than that, is it or can it be made useful and positive in some way?
What does this have to do with AIT? It’s been clear from the morning that AIT began to emerge that its basic purpose was to remove the suffering that comes from trauma. Aside from the fact that, when we remove suffering we feel better—lighter, more buoyant, happier, more energetic, even blissful—why bother? Well, I think I’ve discovered a very good reason.
Trauma, as we define it in AIT, is
…any occurrence which, when we think back to it or when it is triggered by some present event, evokes difficult emotionsand/or physical symptoms or sensations, gives rise to negative beliefs, desires, fantasies, compulsions, obsessions, psychoses, addictions, personality disorders or dissociation, blocks the development of positive qualities and spiritual connection and fractures human wholeness (Clinton 1999).
From this perspective, trauma includes any kind of physical, psychological, or spiritual wounding that human beings suffer as we experience our lives, from burning a finger on a hot frypan, to barely surviving a tsunami, to having parents who don’t love us, or being sexually abused by a member of the clergy. It includes being the only survivor in your platoon in Afghanistan, which so traumatizes you that you lose your belief in God—so you’ve lost God too. That is what trauma is; but what is the VALUE of being wounded or traumatized?
In some spiritual and religious traditions it is understood that, for spiritual development to occur, the more deeply a person experiences and, afterwards, works through their own suffering, the greater their spiritual development has the potential if becoming. Here is how some people think it works: There are two important centers in the human psyche. The first, the ego, well-known to many of us, is the chief of the conscious mind. It not only decides what needs doing, but arranges for it to be done. If it is damaged by trauma, its capacity to make good choices, use power for the highest good, take action, and much more can become damaged enough that its leadership is no longer in the highest interest of the individual, like a boy who grows up so traumatized by the poverty and violence that he has experienced that he chooses to join a gang and shoot and rob others too.
The other director is what we, in AIT, call the center, and what Jung, the great master of the unconscious, called the self. It is the spark of divinity in every human being as well as the CEO of the unconscious mind. It seems seldom to be affected negatively by trauma, and offers the ego the best guidance and direction it can find.
In a psycho-spiritually healthy person, center and ego are connected, and the center guides the ego in ways that are in the person’s highest interest. Then comes trauma. It is capable of damaging the ego to the point that, if it makes its own decisions, they are likely not to be in anyone’s highest interest. Traumas are capable of disconnecting the ego from the center so that, no matter what the center might advise, the ego doesn’t receive the message and is on its own. And then there are the traumas and their cognitive, physical, and emotional aftereffects. In a person functioning with minimal trauma, it is as if life happens, the center offers advice about the ego’s actions and decisions, and the ego, for the most part, takes the center’s advice. It is as if ego and center live on either side of a bridge, and their communication goes back and forth across that bridge. But given the existence of enough trauma and enough traumatic aftereffects—insomnia, acting out, panic attacks, deep depression, and more– it is as if the bridge and the ego have both been bombed, littered with debris, and the bridge possibly even blown up. Of course highly traumatized people cannot function well. They exist in a war zone that just keeps on bombing, a war zone in which they are cut off from command, and in which danger is everywhere!
But when a person lives life deeply and consciously, and she not only experiences trauma, but also works to understand and heal it, one result is often a deeper development of empathy, love and compassion toward herself and others. Indeed, one of the occurrences that many people experience as they walk the spiritual path is the dark night of the soul; they descend, often unwillingly, into the full depths of their suffering, sometimes for years at a time. It is called a dark night because, as it is happening, it can feel permanent, unchanging, hopeless, and certainly crazy-making.
But the person who survives it consciously, sanity intact, has often come to know from profound personal experience how painful it can be to live a human life, to feel alone and isolated, lost, sullied by one’s own awful acts or those of others, shamed, devalued, dismembered, abandoned and more. They know what having hit bottom feels like. And because they have experienced this in a very personal way, they can stand in the shoes of others who are having such an experience without judging them because the dark night of the soul—or any experience of profound depression or hitting bottom– is the great equalizer. If we allow ourselves to experience it directly, it can teach us that we are all the same, all damaged and imperfect, all vulnerable to the worst that life can bring, and all worthy of compassion and love precisely because of our imperfection.
For me, all this means that the experience of suffering, i.e., of trauma and its aftereffects, may well be NECESSARY for real spiritual development to occur. Trauma that has not been contemplated, understood, digested and treated in some way is less likely to produce spiritual development; rather, it can hinder it by making it harder for the sufferer to identify with the rest of us. That kind of sufferer may become more armored instead of gentler, more distrustful instead of open. But no matter how we therapists choose to treat trauma, it is the insights our clients come to in treatment in combination with the removal of traumatic emotions, sensations, and cognitions that can permanently disperse the traumatic pain and the unconscious identification of the sufferer with the feelings, thoughts and sensations he is suffering. Such trauma treatment becomes a form of liberation.
The cathartic shift we often see when, after an AIT trauma treatment, a client says, “I feel SO MUCH LIGHTER,” can also be an open door to spiritual development. The traumatic emotions, sensations, cognitions and resulting behaviors that have been connected to a skeleton of factual memories—what actually happened that was experienced as a trauma– are gone like fog lifting and evaporating after rain until the air is crisp and clear, the sun is out and the heart sings. It is no accident that we remove traumatic damage in AIT by treating emotions, cognitions, and sensations and that, when people work on spiritual development, the major things that fall away as they walk their spiritual path are emotions, cognitions, and sensations, the experiences that shackle us, like slaves, to the pain and the cultural conceptions of the everyday world.
I used to think of trauma as something that can—and frequently does—ruin or distort a life: How would Jim’s life be if he hadn’t lost his legs in Iraq? What kind of a life would Monica have now if her father hadn’t raped her when she was 6? And what would Judy be like if her parents had supported and encouraged her attempts to make it to medical school instead of telling her almost daily that she was stupid and disorganized and only fit to be a wife and mother?
Each time I thought how better our lives would be without trauma, I was fantasizing a reality devoid of particularly awful traumas, my version of Beaver Cleaver’s life. What I was also unconsciously inventing was a second fantasy about how wonderful life would be without the presence of trauma and the suffering it brings. But now I see trauma not only as something that can positively redirect a life towards spiritual development, but also as a necessary prerequisite for such development. In other words, trauma produces spiritual development if we work with It consciously. Could we develop spiritually if there were no trauma? Your guess is as good as mine.
We can learn to accept the spiritual necessity of being wounded. Recently I attended a meditation retreat at a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico and walked the Stations of the Cross there. I was struck anew that Jesus went through the experience of crucifixion. Could there be a darker night or a more nightmarish traumatic experience? But He died on the cross and then rose again, transformed, Divine. This felt to me like one religious tradition’s symbolic statement that being crucified—metaphorically speaking, now– is perhaps necessary for spiritual growth, and that only when we have understood and healed trauma can we rise and walk towards illumination, enlightenment. Only then can we become as Christ in the imitatio dei; only then can we live our lives in natural, free-flowing love and compassion, and do our small, very human version of dying so the sins of others are forgiven.
Because it treats trauma, AIT is a way of furthering the spiritual development of any human being in any—or no—religious or spiritual tradition. By removing the traumatic suffering that blocks development, and thus freeing people from suffering, it can help open that most sacred door.
Asha Clinton, MSW, PhD.
Advanced Integrative Therapy