After sending out our last weekly reflection on healing, I heard an interview with Gabor Mate, that had a real resonance with me, a sense that he was speaking truthfully. Gabor is a physician, specializing in the treatment of addictions and is also an insightful author. He said that the word trauma is often used more superficially to apply simply to an upset. In its deeper sense it refers to a wound that reaches within us and is often rooted in childhood hurt. Addiction, he holds, is the result of some deep hurt and is the attempt to escape that hurt. It is not a character flaw but something unfree. The Latin word for wound is vulnus from which our word ‘vulnerable’ derives. It means literally able to be wounded. This fragility, he says, is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. At the same time, he maintains that no human being is ever beyond redemption, and the possibility of renewal exists as long as life exists.
The path toward healing, in his view, is compassionate self-inquiry. “Along with our ability to feel our own pain go our best hopes for healing, dignity, and love.” It is a matter of gradually becoming aware of the ebb and flow of emotions and thought patterns without reacting to them.
We have spoken of this approach before. The image I have is of quietly noticing our thoughts and feelings as they arise almost as if we notice a cloud passing by, without engaging or struggling with it, but just being aware of it. Our feelings appear to be layered, and as we allow ourselves to feel the immediate feeling it seems to give way and allow another feeling beneath it to emerge. For Mate, in this mindful process, we can become aware of the difference between feelings that arise in response to the immediate situation and those that arise from unconscious patterns rooted in previous pain and the fear it caused.
These comments recall the remarks of Morton Kelsey.
“Detachment from habitual, unthinking activity is part of the process of growing up. … Only in silence … does self-knowledge begin. … We are afraid of the pain that has been locked deep in our hearts. … Out of silence disturbing emotions often come to the surface which are difficult to control.. … In the silence one can allow the feelings to arise, disconnected from their ordinary targets in the outer world, and learn to deal with the depth of the psyche directly. … “As our feelings and personal responses to the world are taken down, examined, and brought into relationship with the rest of our being and the Centre of Meaning, we have a chance of directing our reactions.”
In my perspective, there is a difference between recognizing our feelings and unleashing them. Our feelings can tell us where we are at a particular moment, but not what to do with them. Our freedom lies not so much in the feelings that arise within us, but in how we respond to them. In a similar vein, out of his concentration camp experiences, psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl wrote that: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Frankl goes further to situate our freedom in our response to any life situation. “The last of the human freedoms is: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. “ He added that these choices would determine whether you would give in to forces that threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom, or maintain your inner freedom and dignity. In a statement I found striking, Frank has also written: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
In a talk given in Windsor some years ago, Mate said that from the beginning there are two forces within a person the drive to belonging and the drive to authenticity. Often the drive to belong, especially in childhood, can override the drive to authenticity, because of our dependency upon others for our safety, our basic needs and even our survival. Yet the drive to authenticity remains and it can reassert itself and be followed later on in a person’s life. I think that this need not be a dramatic and frightening decision, but a gradual dawning awareness that slowly shapes our thought and feeling, and then flows into decision and action. We can gradually, often with the help of others, grow into who we truly are, beyond who we might have been told we are.
I would add that this process of dawning self-awareness and freedom from fear-based compulsions rooted in the past, requires a safe place. That safe place can be in solitude in a physical place where we feel secure and undisturbed. It can also be in the caring presence of another with whom trust is possible.
Author Henri Nouwen maintains that vulnerability, in the sense of being able to be open, with all that we are, to another, is the basis of genuine relationship and community. These observations bring to mind our reflection on the two meanings of the breaking of our heart, that of deep hurt and that of opening up. They also suggest that sometimes the path to opening up can be the experience of hurt. But it may be a gradual unfolding process, in the safe place of our own heart or the heart of a respectfully caring other.
May any wounds you have undergone give way to a healing and wholeness that brings joy to your life, satisfaction to your relationships, and a little more meaning to our world.