The Trauma of Everyday Life
– by Mark Epstein MD
The full article appears on Watkins Mind Body Spirit Issue 39.
Trauma has long been thought of as something that happens only in extreme circumstances. Therapists diagnose it when certain critical conditions occur. A person must witness one or more events that involve “actual or threatened death or serious injury” or “a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.” In addition, their response must involve “intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” Those close to the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 or to the London subway bombings obviously qualify. Battlefield veterans and the journalists who cover them also do. Those who are caught up in sudden catastrophic natural events like earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes experience trauma, as do people in motor vehicle accidents.
There is another kind of trauma that also reverberates. Children, especially young children, have all kinds of intense emotions (like fear, helplessness and horror) before they have the language to describe or process them. Emotions develop before thought. Young children lack the capacity to understand what they are feeling; they are operating at an instinctual level not on an adult one. But they have a need for their feelings to be understood even if they are incapable of understanding them themselves. Young children are completely dependent on their parents or caregivers for this. While most parents work hard to protect their children from the inherent instability of life, it is impossible to completely avoid it. Even if we make it through childhood and adolescence in one piece, even if we are not subject to natural or manmade catastrophes, and even if we live a healthy life, we are inevitably going to have confrontations with death, serious injury and threats to our own, or our loved ones’, physical integrity. I like to say that we are not already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder we suffer from a pre-traumatic one. The threat of trauma runs through life like an underground river.
The Buddha was one of the world’s first great psychologists. Long before there was a special word for trauma, he articulated the concept. He encapsulated his insights in his famous Four Noble Truths and gave the first truth—his diagnosis of the human condition—in a single word: Dukkha. Dukkha is usually translated as suffering but a more accurate representation of its meaning might be something like the order of ‘pervasive unsatisfactoriness.’ Life is tinged with a sense of pervasive unsatisfactoriness because of how fleeting and unpredictable it is. We want to have control but, despite all of our efforts, we ultimately do not. The word dukkha actually means “hard to face.” There are aspects to life that are hard to face, taught the Buddha; we do our best not to look at them. In describing this process, the Buddha was describing our most common coping mechanisms. In an effort to protect the ego from disintegrating under the pressure of unbearable emotions, feelings are shunted to the side. We close down to avoid them, make ourselves rigid and tense, and soldier on—devoting ourselves to work and family if we are lucky or drowning ourselves in addiction if we are not. Psychologists call this defense against dukkha dissociation. The offending, and threatening, feelings are literally buried. But they are still there in the psyche and they grab at us when we are not looking.
When I was in my early twenties I traveled to a forest monastery in rural Thailand where a friend of mine had studied as a monk. My friend took me to meet his teacher, a meditation master named Ajahn Chah. I had one chance to ask him a question and the question was something like this. Why dukkha? Why is that the important thing? Isn’t it a little depressing? Doesn’t the emphasis on suffering give Buddhism a bad name? What can we possibly learn from it?
Ajahn Chah answered in the following way. “Do you see this glass?” he said, picking up the drinking glass by his side. “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds the water admirably. It reflects the light in beautiful ways. If I tap it, it has a lovely ring. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls and breaks, I say, ‘Of course.’ Yet when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
It was the last sentence that moved me the most. “When I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.” Facing the brokenness of life allows us to know its preciousness. Trauma is happening all around us. It is a fact of everyday life. It is always touching someone and it will eventually touch us all, if it hasn’t already. If we can face this matter-of-factly, as parents must face the battered feelings of their children, we can wake up our own capacities for empathy and compassion. “Empathy,” writes Leslie Jamison in her recent book The Empathy Exams, “means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries.” Empathy, she continues, “demands another kind of porousness in response.” The porousness she refers to is the same as the one of the broken glass. Trauma, if it doesn’t destroy us, can be our greatest teacher. It makes us more human, caring and wise. And it is available to everyone, part and parcel of everyday life.
Mark Epstein MD is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart and Psychotherapy without the Self. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University. www.markepsteinmd.com
Dr Mark Epstein
The Trauma of Everyday Life
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