Writing about childhood adversity, often a depressing topic, appeals to me because I know recovery is possible. What’s more, I believe those of us from traumatic backgrounds are well positioned to approach what spiritual disciplines call enlightenment (or realization, awakening, etc). This may sound surprising, but I’ve seen evidence for it in myself and others.
My younger years felt poisoned with dissatisfaction, rage, and confusion. Looking back, it’s clear I struggled with many of the difficulties known to stem from adverse home life. Here is my breakdown of the common problems, derived from multiple sources and framed by personal experience: poor self-concept, emotional reactivity, social unease, feelings of emptiness, problems with focus, and stress-induced bodily symptoms.
During the years of my recovery, each of these qualities changed from feeling wholly negative to seeming at least partially positive. Taken together, in their new form they help me appreciate life’s majesty even in the face of pain, loss, and illness. To feel privileged to be alive regardless of circumstance is, I suspect, near to realization. There is room for much greater maturity, but most of the time I feel contented and unafraid. What more does a person require?
Here’s how each affliction can be retooled to favor spiritual growth:
Poor self-concept can transform into secure humility. Whereas the well-adjusted person feels solidly established as a personality, we who were mistreated when young grew up feeling fragmented and hollow. Thus, even after we gain confidence, we remember our vulnerability. All wisdom traditions place a premium on humility, and the wounded enjoy a head start.
Emotional reactivity, properly harnessed, fosters attunement to others. What I once saw as excessive sensitivity I now recognize as the foundation of empathy.
Social unease comes from fear of embarrassment and betrayal. Scratch its surface and you’ll find a demand for acceptance and trustworthiness. Interpersonal anxiety can be reconfigured into a barometer for authenticity.
Feelings of emptiness sound bad, but consider that “emptiness” is also a catchword in Eastern meditative traditions. The connotations are different, but related. The emptiness we feel when discouraged is tainted by meaninglessness. Life appears beset by hazard and doomed to death. But if we discover beauty in life’s uncertainty and transience, then that same emptiness feels, paradoxically, full. This deep concept, best approached through meditation, tells us emptiness is the flipside of plenitude. Post-traumatic despair might be closer to post-recovery bliss than we normally think.
Problems with focus are problems of dissociation. While suffering abuse as a child, I would escape to an alternate mental world that felt distant and safe. Detaching when stressed has caused problems in adulthood, but the ability to alter consciousness offers a surprising benefit: it facilitates entry into the heightened states valued by spiritual seekers. In the extreme, shifts of consciousness can impair reality testing, so they shouldn’t be pursued without responsible preparation and guidance. But while remaining mindful and grounded, I’ve been blessed to experience transcendent awareness with greater than average ease.
Finally, the somatic symptoms that follow stress and trauma can serve as guides to bodily state. Attending to them has helped me better inhabit my body. Embodiment, in turn, promotes mindfulness and relaxation.
Humility, empathy, authenticity, plenitude, transcendence, and embodiment: not a bad starting point for enlightened growth. Every limiting quality can thus be reshaped into something advantageous. In future posts I plan to describe some strategies that enable these transformations.
The road to wellness presents challenges; in particular, emotions may feel overwhelming at the outset. I hope knowing trauma’s legacy can be reborn as spiritual maturity will embolden those just starting out.
© 2013, Will Meecham, MD
Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where most of the pieces are already online. The CPTW site is new and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I am gradually posting portions of the series here.