15 thoughts on “How Childhood Trauma Fuels Enlightenment

  • September 25, 2013 at 11:58 am

    As someone who has been researching and writing about the traumatic origins of great poets of the 19th and 20th century for nearly 20 years, I applaud Will’s candid and appropriate connection between early trauma and later creativity, which, if taken to the ultimate extreme, can foster enlightment . . . especially with new framing perspectives, such as those outlined here. Wonderful piece, Will!

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  • January 17, 2014 at 12:32 am

    I relate to this and it pretty much describes my own experience. However my conclusion is somewhat different, and I would say rather that childhood trauma can certainly fuel the DESIRE for enlightenment, and can, if it leads to a lifetime of self-exploration, allow for a particular sort of vulnerability, openness and sensitivity. But trauma affects the body, and the way we deal with it is via leads to dissociation, which certainly isn’t a substitute for enlightenment, IMO (tho it may pass for it in New Age circles and with and for many “gurus”).

    In fact there is a little recognized trend in psychology and spiritual/shamanic/new age writing now that is subtly promoting the idea that trauma accelerates human evolution/can lead to enlightenment. I have done some research and writing about it, if you are interested, here: http://crucialfictions.com

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    • January 17, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      Jasun–

      Psychologist Richard Miller, who developed the iRest system of yoga nidra, uses the phrase “degraded wisdom” to refer to tendencies we acquire in the course of a lifetime that don’t serve us but which, with proper attention, can become assets on the path toward stability and deep connection.

      Certainly trauma affects the body and leads to many unhealthy behavior patterns. My point isn’t that trauma causes enlightenment, only that it sets the stage for it by summoning tendencies that can lead to greater levels of maturity, and eventually to full human expression. Thus, dissociation by itself is unhealthy and may promote delusion. But the young child who learns dissociation as a coping mechanism knows instinctively that a higher truth exists, one that takes one outside oneself. This quality of moving beyond ordinary consciousness to something larger can, with careful training, promote the same altered states that mystical traditions prize.

      Yes, the desire for spiritual training is also one of the frequent outcomes of a difficult past. Nothing motivates growth like pain, and those or us who endured childhood mistreatment often suffer terribly. So once we see a chance at relief, we may head for it with grater zeal than those who have had easier trajectories.

      Like you, I object to simplistic spiritualism that minimizes the very real hardship many people face. But I also believe we can find great sources of strength once we repair our degraded wisdom, that legacy of the traumatic past.

      Thanks for the comment,

      –Will

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      • January 18, 2014 at 3:39 pm

        Thanks for the response. If I can sum up my feeling, it’s this: to the same extent that trauma may fuel a drive towards enlightenment, it can also lead to a person creating surrogate versions OF it. If a child through trauma learns to dissociate, that ability can then be taken into adulthood and, while it may allow for “mystical states,” that’s not necessarily the same as getting close to enlightenment (mystical states and enlightenment aren’t the same thing).

        My feeling is that many people teaching enlightenment today (gurus, et al) are in such dissociated states, hence the popular misconception that enlightenment is similar to dissociation.

        The one person I have met whom I might consider enlightened is very far from such a state, and my impression is also that he had a significantly LESS traumatic childhood than myself, perhaps even than most people (at least among spiritual seekers, who do tend to be heavily traumatized types). From this I can’t help but think there’s a connection.

        The other point I wanted to make is that there is a growing “meme” promoting the idea that trauma can lead to enlightenment, and it seems predicated partly on the misconception that psychism (and mystical states) are equivalent, or in any way related to, enlightenment.

        Yet in the Hindu tradition, and most others too, the opposite is the case: “siddhis” are seen as snares or deviations preventing a person from reaching freedom.

        I really should look at your others essays however, as perhaps you cover this?

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      • January 18, 2014 at 6:25 pm

        Jasun–

        A lot of this has to do with semantics. I used the word ‘enlightenment” when the post was penned nearly a year ago (it was posted much more recently). Since then I’ve grown disaffected with the term, partly because of a Wired Magazine piece about meditation at Silicon Valley corporations. The author indicated that some tech guys claim enlightenment. What bothers me isn’t that it sounds preposterous, though it does, but that it’s just more of the same: human beings claiming accomplishments in order to feel better about their personalities. More delusion, in other words.

        Setting egoic lunacy aside, I suspect there are different kinds of enlightenment, and that in most cases the condition waxes and wanes. I’ve had some experiences lately that have revealed perceptions and gnosis that seem enlightened, but I would never claim transcendence as a stable trait, only as a transient state. From what I’ve heard, even the verifiably enlightened (whatever that means) retain their human quirks and flaws. That, to me, sounds like a transformation of part of the self, but not the entire self. See this post if you’re interested in my recent experiences and how I interpret them: Nirvana, Now and Then.

        Altered states of consciousness, whether dissociative or not, are instructive but do not equate to permanent enlightenment. They are tastes of a larger perspective. They serve the careful soul in its quest for stability and maturity, but they are also fraught with dangers–they can easily inflate the ego. Which I’m sure is why both Eastern and Western traditions view them with suspicion. Traumatic upbringings may make these states more accessible, which increases the potential for both benefit and harm.

        I imagine that most great spiritual leaders do not come from highly traumatic backgrounds. These charismatic souls seem able to radiate deep love and profound acceptance to others, and they do so in a stable way, which is the key issue. Stability is almost never characteristic of those of us who were traumatized when young. Though we may become mystics, poets, and artists, true spiritual leadership requires more. This isn’t to say something like enlightenment can’t be contacted, but the true saviors of the world probably mostly come from homes that offered early love.

        I did not know there exists a circulating meme that views trauma as a portal to enlightenment. Obviously, I must have picked it up somewhere, but my impression was that the notion was coming from my own experience. It wasn’t something I’d read. Oh well.

        Thanks for the comment. I looked at your site, by the way. Very solid writing, though I had the impression that I’d missed much of the conversation. Will need to look at more.

        –Will

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      • March 16, 2019 at 10:26 am

        I found this short read very useful at one point “on the pathless path”. I have been a seeker for many many years. I had two early “glimpses” of Awareness or Presence or Oneness (whatever ;). They were not in a religious context. I am the product of a lot of early, mid and late childhood trauma (orphanages, foster homes then it went downhill form there.) I had all the predictable reactions, drugs, psych breakdowns, depressions but choose denial as a way out. Hmmmm that was naive. Anyway I found this writing (pdf) very useful – http://undividedjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/dark-night-undivided-final-edit-corrected.pdf

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  • January 17, 2014 at 1:09 am

    Wonderful article. I agree, I have also come from such a background. Interesting how not all of us that hail from such an environment, actually see this perceptive view. Many of them are instead dependent upon narcotics or alcohol, neither of which I use. My contentment came about when I was 27 – I am 36 now and am happier than I have ever been despite horrific circumstances. Really a great article, it gives ppl hope that they can be alright, its just a matter of perception. Very good. *Applaud*

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    • January 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      Geophysics–

      Many do indeed suffer from addiction. In the past, I did myself. But it is never too late to find a better path.

      It is to your credit that you found your way without succumbing to substance use.

      Luckily, in some cases addiction itself provides the impetus for change. It did in my case. Working to recover from addictive tendencies prompted the spiritual quest that has brought me to this point. I am not proud of my past, but it worked out in the end.

      I think the same can be true for anyone, once the decision is made to break free of the past. That’s when it makes sense to look for what personal assets might help the process. Surprisingly, it often seems that the very trauma that caused such confusion in the first place also led to the strengths of character that help us find our way.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

      –Will

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  • January 17, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I have found the same thing, having a background of trauma up until my early twenties and then taking the bounce; also having extreme sensitivity as a child and now. Now I can enjoy seemingly unbounded heights of happiness, and I know nothing is lost – the outlook highlighted in this article is crucial to remember that, so thanks for posting.

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    • January 17, 2014 at 9:21 pm

      Ellen–

      Thanks for sharing your story. It will help others to know that relief is possible.

      –Will

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  • January 18, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Will: yes it’s not too well-known the “trauma is good for you” meme, and I don’t mean to suggest that you are consciously contributing to it, only that it pays to be aware of such things. What I discovered through the “Prisoner of Infinity” research was that there are groups and individuals who are, either implicitly or overtly, not only condoning but promoting traumatization as a viable method for “outing” the ego/transcending the self!

    I’m glad you clarified your view as I think I can see now that it’s close to my own, which wasn’t so apparent from the short piece above.

    Which piece did you read? If you jumped in in the middle you might get the sense of missing something, but I hoped it was fairly straightforward if you begin with chapter 1 (tho admittedly the subject matter is quite challenging)?

    If you are interested in spiritual teachers, I’ve done my best to describe my experiences with one, non-tradition-based, and unorthodox I think in the best sense, here: http://daveoshana.com/articles/20-The-Disillusionist-What-Is-a-Spiritual-Teacher

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  • June 29, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Just wanted to give you a nod of appreciation for the article. I had googled “trauma and enlightenment” and your article published in HP in 2013 popped up. I have been “on the path” for quite a while and just now in my 60’s feel like there is some headway. 😉 I always believed that the emotional trauma of orphanages and foster homes over a 12 period would be a non starter for anyone seeking enlightenment. I have come a long way but still felt that the “scars” of the past were going to be a “brick wall”. Experience has shown me I was wrong about that. Nothing in the story can really get in the way cause it’s just a story. Anyway thanks for the work you have done and I assume you still do. Be well. I know this is years out and you may not be following this page at all. No matter, just wanted to express.

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    • June 29, 2019 at 9:52 am

      Thanks, William, for reaching out. I do still get notified of comments, and this particular post about trauma was always one of special importance to me. As I have continued to develop spiritually, I’ve noticed that many spiritual seekers (probably the majority) carry significant trauma burdens. So rather than being a non-starter, trauma is practically a prerequisite. Like you, I found the ‘just a story’ perspective useful, but I also found it important to honor the very real feelings of pain that went along with my story.

      As time has passed, and my system has gradually settled, I’ve gained ever-increasing clarity and contentment. So much so, I now feel a certain gratitude for what happened in the past. Without it, I would not have gotten to where I am today. But I must strongly emphasize that this gratitude does not in anyway make me think what happened was OK, or that trauma is a good thing. The gratitude is only possible because the pain of the trauma is no longer front and center in my life. Many people never get to this point, so it would be callous to think of childhood abuse and neglect as anything but the tragedies they are. I do not endorse the view that ‘everything happens for a reason’.

      But I have found that over time my past has forced me to do some deep learning and to work toward true maturity. And, of course, it has heightened my compassion for those who are currently suffering with trauma or dealing with its aftermath.

      I wish you well as you continue to heal, learn, and grow.

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