This paper is a heartfelt offering based on my own experience of trauma and my clinical relationship to others around their trauma. It is not intended to be instructional, scholarly, or comprehensive in regard to the vast topic of trauma. In writing, I used a storytelling—almost dreamlike—approach to the topic in order to highlight my curiosity about trauma as a story we tell ourselves. Just like a dream, memories of trauma and its ongoing effect on us is not solid and cannot be pinned down. In recounting a dream, we can notice subtle and not so subtle shifts in our interpretation. In the same way, we have an opportunity work with our trauma in such a way that we can discover options and opportunities to manifest our story in the direction of healing…
I hope you will consider your own story in the way you approach trauma in your life. As described in the following paper, no one has a claim when it comes to trauma; trauma is a prevalent occurrence in all of our lives as sentient beings. There are ways to deepen and evolve, even after experiencing significant trauma in one’s lifetime.
Please join me in this personal exploration and journey of integration. I hope you find inspiration here to think about and explore trauma in fresh ways.
Happy reading and may it be of benefit,
Polly Banerjee Gallagher
Integrating Trauma with the Help of Basic Goodness
Polly Banerjee Gallagher
March 1, 2018
Basic goodness is a gift from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It is within all sentient beings naturally but often becomes overshadowed or hidden as a result of trauma. He did not manufacture or conjure basic goodness up; his gift was his reminder to us to look inward in order to become aware of its presence. When we begin to understand and open up to this potential, we see that we are all born with basic goodness. Our task is connecting to it. This is easier said than done due to the strong tendency we have to forget and to give allegiance to our habitual thinking about ourselves as being basically bad.
Trungpa Rinpoche states in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (1984), “Basic goodness is good because it is so basic, so fundamental. It is natural and it works, therefore it is good, rather than being good as opposed to bad” (p. 20).
In Buddhism, there is an understanding that because all beings long to be happy, there is constant preoccupation and movement toward this potential happiness and a momentum of aversion away from suffering. We can see this play out in humans but also in animals, insects, and essentially all sentient beings. The non-stop fixation and grasping for the objects of perceived happiness are also basic ways to survive: searching for food, physical comfort, and a mate. This longing for happiness signals the presence of basic goodness within all of us. The recognition that we share a fundamental inclination to be happy allows us to relate to and empathize with all beings. Similarly, all beings want to avoid suffering at all cost. Yet the way animals and humans approach life events, especially traumatic ones, varies.
In Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (1997), Peter Levine says,
I believe that the key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they shake out and pass through the immobility response and become fully mobile and functional again. Unlike wild animals, when threatened, we humans have never found it easy to resolve the dilemma of whether to fight or flee (p. 18) … Animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms. We humans are not adept in this arena. (p. 20)
Animals have the instinct to physically shake off their trauma in order to stay engaged in the basic functioning that addresses their daily needs. Humans are more complicated; our habitual judgments take over the interpretation of trauma. We possess the capacity to utilize trauma as a way to grow emotionally or spiritually, but when our reactions to trauma are left unexamined we become entrenched in the storyline, which magnifies the pain. This intensifies the experience of trauma by translating it to mean there must be something intrinsically wrong with us, further solidifying the belief in negative storylines rather than looking directly at ourselves. This habit has the tendency to steal us away from our birthright. This habit is the thief of basic goodness.
The storylines can often confuse us and keep the trauma from being integrated into the rest of our lives. We develop distorted perceptions about ourselves based on how we interpret trauma. These perceptions can lead us to involuntarily acquiring major mental health labels, or at the very least, to disruptions that impact our daily lives. When left unexamined, we allow our interpretations to rule our world without awareness of the influence trauma may be having on us.
In the conventional mental health community, trauma is often seen as a way to assign a diagnosis and create a plan of treatment that includes a timeline, not only to satisfy insurance company requirements, but also to stay in step with our quick-fix, results-oriented culture. Often there is no luxury of time to develop a trusting relationship between therapist and client. As a result, there is a heavy reliance on numerous techniques with which to relate to trauma. Many of these techniques do serve a purpose and can be effective in relating to the initial trauma response.
However, the question is whether techniques alone can help individuals gain long-term understanding of their trauma. Can they integrate the experience of trauma into the rest of their lives in order to not only regain a basic level of functioning, but also expand into further growth? For instance, EMDR can offer immediate relief to an individual who has experienced a major traumatic event, but in order for the same individual to continue to thrive in life they will need the insight that comes from connecting to their basic goodness.
The DSM-5 (American Psychological Association, 2013) offers a significant section titled “Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders.” Within that is a subsection called “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” which offers a detailed description of the diagnostic criteria and defining features of trauma. The first diagnostic criteria is:
Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways:
- Direct experience
- Witnessing an event in person
- Learning that the traumatic event occurred to family or friends
- Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic events.
This edition of the DSM-5 (American Psychological Association, 2013) expands the definition of trauma to include a variety of causes and conditions seen in human experience. Thus, this is an improvement over past manuals, where trauma was defined as “an event outside the range of normal human experience,” yet it still neglects to honor the individual, dynamic nature of human encounters, and our capacity to interpret them based on countless factors, both seen and unseen. Trauma, in my personal experience and in working with clients, is an everyday occurrence that is part of all sentient beings’ lives.
From the moment we are born to the time we find ourselves on our deathbed, there are numerous events and experiences that we might interpret as traumatic. For instance, the experience of transitioning from being in the environment of our mother’s womb to joining this world of sights, sounds, and animation is our initial life event. Each of us enter this world in a unique way, under myriad circumstances, that leave a lasting imprint. There are further opportunities for trauma to imprint during the relentless aging process that drives us toward our impending end. It is our interpretation that will reveal whether this ubiquitous occurrence of being born, growing old, experiencing sickness, and eventually death, will reverberate as traumatic responses throughout our lives.
According to Mark Epstein, “Trauma is an indivisible part of human existence. It takes many forms but spares no one” (2013, p. 15). He goes on to say, “Trauma is not a failure or a mistake. It is not something to be ashamed of, not a sign of weakness, and not a reflection of inner failing. It is simply a fact of life” (p. 15).
This paper explores how we might coexist with various traumatic events that are a “fact of life” so that we might utilize these experiences in order to connect with our own basic goodness. I do not pretend to be an expert in trauma and have respect for the time and effort exerted by others into developing methods to address this topic. I am using my own life experiences as research to delve into my trauma in order to see firsthand how this applies to the human experience. The questions to keep in mind in this inquiry are: Is the goal to get rid of our experience of trauma altogether? How do we make friends with all aspects of our life experiences? Is it possible to integrate trauma into our lives? How do the stories we tell ourselves and others impact how trauma is digested?
Personally, I think it would be a loss to negate trauma without integration with the assistance of basic goodness. Depending on a variety of factors in our lives, we have the potential to interpret any life circumstance as traumatic. This can be compounded by our past undigested experiences, which further substantiates the position of our negative projection of ourselves and the world. We have responses and reactions to events on a regular basis that influence our lives in major and minor ways.
Our unique story based on our past experiences and karma is key to how trauma manifests in our lives. What one individual experiences as traumatic and has a hard time getting over, another may be able to go beyond without much difficulty at all. Karma can seem mysterious this way because we cannot directly see how the cause and effect of our actions influence the unfolding of events for the rest of our lives. However, karma is not a life sentence that is static or unchangeable; it is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. Connecting with our basic goodness is a way to interrupt the momentum, for us to assert our own agency. At the same time, we can respect the unfolding of our own karma by relaxing our control of what happens in life.
The wind of my karma brought me from Myanmar to India en route to the United States in the span of one year. I turned ten years old in Louisiana. Before I set foot in my elementary school, I did not realize that my skin color would define my place among the other students. There was a demand for me to identify myself as being either black or white—as if it was up to me. It was a most isolating feeling to realize that I did not fit into either category. I had never been so acutely aware of my loneliness as when I was in fifth grade grappling to learn English and the customs of my new culture.
Looking back, I see how my vulnerability made me a target for ridicule and harassment from the most popular guy in school, the only individual who inspired the gathering of kids to enthusiastically chant his name in unison when he came up to bat at a school baseball game. I, on the other hand, was the sole brown person in a black and white situation, so I solicited fear from my classmates because they were unfamiliar with my kind. I didn’t speak up or defend myself. I was frozen in my response to being bullied so I shut down and created a storyline to make sense of my predicament: that I am basically bad, there is something intrinsically wrong with me, that I am alone in this dilemma.
This went on for a couple of years until I went to junior high. I would stay quiet and unemotional in front of my tormenters then go home and cry alone in the bathroom, as I was too embarrassed to let my family know about my plight. In my young mind, they would blame me for being bullied. I did my best to keep it inside.
I remember the day I could no longer not keep it in; I spontaneously cried in front of the entire class as I was being harassed. It then dawned on some of them that I was a person with feelings and that my prior silence was not consent to continue their behavior, but that I was suffering. After I broke down, I had the sympathy of a few kids who came to comfort me and, immediately after that, they became my protectors, and the bullying stopped. Was that all it took for the bullying to stop—show my emotions, my humanity? Why did I suffer alone for so long?
That period of time had a strong influence on how I experience my life, even now as I watch my story evolve. I became a psychotherapist to help myself integrate this, and other experiences, and to understand how I suffer and what I can do with that suffering. I realized that, along with learning how to speak English, I could speak about my experience of the pain I felt. My habitual, self-denigrating belief that there was something intrinsically wrong with me was being challenged as I stopped blaming myself with the help of others. As I reflect back, I was discovering my basic goodness, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
I became curious to further explore my own mind, and how it works, so that I could help others who suffer in big and small ways. Exposure to Buddhism gave me a basis to look closely at my experience of suffering and how to work with it. I came across Trungpa Rinpoche and basic goodness when I started to work at Windhorse Community Services. I felt excited to read about our shared human experiences and descriptions of basic goodness as being “the natural situation we have inherited from birth onwards” (Trungpa Rinpoche, 1984, p. 19).
Trungpa Rinpoche says the first step in realizing basic goodness is to “appreciate what we have” (1984, p. 19). In this process of rediscovering, the most straightforward path is to be gentle with ourselves and relax our harsh views about ourselves.
When you don’t punish or condemn yourself, when you relax more and appreciate your body and mind, you begin to contact the fundamental notion of basic goodness in yourself. So it is extremely important to be willing to open yourself to yourself. Developing tenderness toward yourself allows you to see your problems and your potential accurately. You don’t feel that you have to ignore your problems or exaggerate your potential. (p. 19)
The journey I embarked on after enduring the prolonged bullying in grade school was to learn to appreciate myself, brown skin and all. I also developed an appreciation for the challenging experiences themselves. The suffering urged me forward, to look more deeply, to look beyond to realize that others are also in similar predicaments, often under much more difficult circumstances. The bullying stopped when my humanity was seen, when I could no longer be objectified as an unemotional plaything. We long to be seen as human, that we are basically good, and to see the humanity in others. We also all yearn to share our story and feel healing from another person’s genuine interest in what we have to share.
Awareness of our shared humanity gives us freedom and creativity to live our lives fully, with a level of cheerfulness, knowing that we are not alone in our longing for happiness and our desire to avoid suffering. In his foreword to The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling (1981), Trungpa Rinpoche refers to this way of being as warriorship; warriorship is our capacity to “realize the power, dignity, and wakefulness that is inherent in all of us as human beings. It is awakening our basic human confidence which allows us to cheer up, develop a sense of vision, and succeed in what we are doing” (p. 408). Warriorship is a direct path to our basic goodness.
In Recovering Sanity (2003), Ed Podvoll devotes a chapter to “Discovering Islands of Clarity.” These “islands” are glimpses into our basic goodness.
There is a moment in the midst of madness when things suddenly begin to make sense again. One feels one has come back into oneself. It is an island of clarity where one is suddenly freed from the fixed mind of delusion. Some people describe this as a feeling, almost a physical sensation, of “clicking in.” Sometimes the moment is fleeting, sometimes it endures—everyone who suffers with psychosis experiences them and reacts to them in different ways, but however brief, moments of recovery from psychosis are universal experiences. (p. 209)
The emphasis in the Windhorse approach is not only to pay attention to the history of challenges, but also to honor an individual’s history of sanity. Glimpses into the “islands of clarity” are seen as crucial to an individual’s recovery. In psychotherapy, recovery happens in the context of the client/therapist relationship, where these glimpses of sanity are brought into awareness, and cultivated. As a psychotherapist, I do not approach sessions with a predetermined plan or bag of tools with which to “fix” my clients. I enter the environment of therapy to join them where they are, as I offer my genuine presence to facilitate a possible connection with their own basic goodness. With the backdrop of a trusting relationship, the individual history of trauma has the freedom to be revealed. With the backdrop of basic goodness, there is further opportunity to meet the experience of trauma and deepen the individual’s understanding of what is genuinely taking place in the moment.
We all come with a history, both psychotherapist and client. Ed Podvoll delves further into the history of sanity in Recovering Sanity (2003).
Understanding the landmark events of the history of sanity is something of a paradigm shift that changes fixation on the past (and present) suffering into an open view of basic goodness. In this view, the “instinct of sanity,” that which gives rise to all experiences of islands of clarity, is seen to be preeminent among the other instincts that drive our intentions and behavior, and is raised to its proper place in our ability to care for people. (p. 353)
Exploring the “history of sanity” opens up the experiences that have been healing in an individual’s life to counteract the strong habitual emphasis on the most negative aspects of trauma. Within the psychotherapeutic relationship, the psychotherapist serves as a reminder to clients to look inside and perhaps pass onto them the gift from Trungpa Rinpoche—a reminder of basic goodness.
I had a client a few years ago who was sexually assaulted by a peer while she was in college. She blamed herself for the incident and did not speak to anyone about it. After several sessions of building relationship, she expressed her desire to explore ways to heal from the original trauma as she frequently felt fearful throughout the day. She recounted one instance during our psychotherapy session where she heard what sounded to her like two dogs viciously fighting outside the window of her apartment. Her immediate response was to run into her closet, curl up into a ball, and do her best to close off her senses. She could not shut off her mind as the horrible images of what might be happening outside invaded her thoughts.
The images she described based on her fabrication were indeed frightening; perhaps more so than the event that was actually taking place outside her window. We explored the potential for her to engage, or lean into, her impulse to hide, or instead to face her emotions with some level of tolerance. We spent several more sessions exploring what integration through engagement meant to her personally by taking small steps towards staying open instead of shutting down in anticipation of trauma. In this case, the reminder of her basic goodness came in the form of her willingness to allow all experiences to be present—by talking openly with me and tolerating the intense emotions.
In that vignette, we can see the value of engaging by staying open. The following vignette explores the judgment we reserve for ourselves that can keep us from moving on after a trauma. In training analysis, my therapist/analyst described an intense incident in his life where he was brutally assaulted by a client. He worked on this trauma from various angles with success, yet he still carried remnants of the question as to what he could have done differently during the time of the actual assault. This came up spontaneously during one of our training analysis sessions where he openly recounted his experience in detail. It was obvious that he had worked actively, unflinchingly, and with great courage to relate to the trauma he had experienced and that he had integrated to a large degree.
Although I was the client, as is customary in training analysis, space was created for me to share my observation in the moment. I suggested that he consider the potential that he was still carrying the desynchronized notion of that he “could have, should have” known better and reacted differently during the assault. We talked about releasing that narrative by invoking a deep awareness that he did the best he could with what he knew at the time and by finding appreciation and discovery of a new friendship with the person who endured that traumatic event: himself. He was basically OK when the assault happened and he is basically OK now. He took a step away from blaming the victim by looking back at the incident through the lens of compassion that I felt for him. This helped him gain confidence that there was nothing further or different for him to do to alter the karma of the situation. This sense of letting be is powerful, but it takes tremendous discipline to accept who we are—humans with basic goodness.
Another tendency some of us develop after trauma is to anticipate and brace ourselves to protect from events that may resemble a past trauma. We live in our minds, replaying the original trauma so we can stay on guard for any sign that it might arise again. This leads to a strong pull towards avoidance that can curtail the beauty and spontaneity of life. The antidote to what might be termed “hyper vigilance” is to let go of the compelling story line and rest in the self-confidence of “I will do something.” We do not have to be pre-prepared for all of life circumstances. The key is to develop confidence that we have the capacity to respond, understand, and accept that our response does not have to be perfect.
The truth is we cannot know what we are entering into at any given time. I walked into a client’s room after he had shot himself in the head using a shotgun. Before I entered I was warned he was in distress and may need help, but nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed. I went into response mode—I walked out of his room, called 911, spoke with the operator without much emotion in my voice, and did what I needed to do to cooperate with the emergency responders. I remember hearing myself talking and wondered how am I staying calm? I didn’t break down until I saw my husband several hours later. I physically crumbled (perhaps similar to an animal shaking off trauma) and he picked me up and held me, repeating this process many more times for a few weeks. I functioned at work while the major reaction to the trauma surfaced when I was home, often in my bed, jerking me awake at times, from sleep.
In my heightened response, I did not notice the smell of blood just as I walked into his apartment. I retrieved this vivid memory during an EMDR session. I wonder how the conscious awareness of the smell of blood helped to integrate my initial trauma? Did EMDR provide a doorway to deepen my understanding? If I had identified this smell at the time, would I have done anything differently to brace myself, or protect myself in some way? I cannot say with certainty that I would have done anything differently. The main thing I remember is that there was a distress call and I responded without hesitation out of tenderness and care for my client.
A month after that tragic event, I went into an already-planned solitary retreat. It was at that time that I faced what this event meant and fully integrated it into my life. EMDR may have played a small part in facing the initial trauma, but my healing continued as a result of connecting to my basic goodness, which was revealed more and more through meditation practice and being open and receptive to my own story.
As I write this, I weep and my heart is wide open to the suffering of another human being who saw no escape other than to end his life in a brutal way. I am glad to be touched and that I can be right there without resistance. My goal is not to get rid of feeling. I do not want to shut off my connection to his suffering, I want to deepen my understanding of how to be present with what life offers. Simply being present is a gift similar to the one Trungpa Rinpoche reminded us about in relationship to our basic goodness.
The DSM–5 (American Psychological Association, 2013) states that the duration of trauma symptoms varies, “with complete recovery within 3 months occurring in approximately one-half of adults, while some individuals remain symptomatic for longer than 12 months and sometimes for more than 50 years” (p. 277). The incident above occurred over four years ago and I must be one of those individuals who will remain “symptomatic” for perhaps 50 years. I hope so. I would never want to escape being touched by what I experienced. I am not looking for a guarantee that I will never again witness or be involved in a tragic event that might leave a traumatic impression. On the contrary, as a therapist, I want to deepen my confidence in my capacity to stay open and respond fully in the moment to the potential suffering of my clients.
My journey with trauma began when trauma touched my own life after moving to the United States with my family. I then witnessed my clients’ efforts to work with it in themselves as well. I observed that no matter what the presenting issue, there was, at the root, a sense of holding on to some kind of event that was interpreted as trauma. I also observed this first hand in my own mind, which sparked a passion to share my observations. I see immense potential for growth for my clients and anyone who suffers in this way. The alternative is being mired in confusion by shutting down around our stories of trauma and letting them congeal and spin out of control. One antidote is to become open to all the causes and conditions that bring us to this place of shutting down so we do not feel responsible for events we have no control over in our lives.
We can allow the gift of basic goodness to unfold by using our own trauma’s story as an entry point. “Trauma need not be a life sentence. Of all the maladies that attack the human organism, trauma may ultimately be the one that is recognized as beneficial” (Levine, 1997, p. 12). As a Windhorse Therapist, I have had the privilege of joining the journey of healing by being curious and facilitating an environment where someone can explore their story. There are many tools, means, and practices to provide some relief in the face of trauma. Our healing rests on how we interpret and integrate any traumatic event by relying on our basic goodness that is a birthright and is consistently available to us.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
David-Neel, A. and Lama Yongden (1981). The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling. City: House.
Epstein, M. (2013). The Trauma of Everyday Life. New York: Penguin Press.
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Podvoll, E. (2003). Recovering Sanity. Boston: Shambhala.
Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boulder: Shambhala.
Polly has been a part of the WCS community since 1998 as a Housemate and Basic Attender, Team Leader, and Psychotherapist. Besides her clinical roles, Polly is also the Assistant Director of Admissions. Polly is a Team Supervisor and will soon be stepping into the role of Executive Director at Windhorse Community Services.
She holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a MA in Counseling from the University of Colorado. Polly comes from a multicultural background as she was born in Burma and has lived in India.