Three days into a meditation retreat in 2015 I was screaming and retching over the toilet bowl, overwhelmed with panic and convinced I was about to die.
With the help of friends, somehow I recovered and completed the retreat with some positive gains. But things were never the same.
Occasionally, the panic would return. The trigger was usually an emotionally demanding situation I could not avoid. With basic mindfulness it would usually pass without too much difficulty.
But my next retreat in 2018 was even worse. Again, three or four days in, things turned dark. I was floored by despair and pointlessness and felt I could not go on. Once more, wise and compassionate companions buoyed me up. But I was so badly side-swiped that there was not enough retreat time left to make up the lost ground.
2015 seemed to have been about unresolved grief. In 2018 it was violent self-disgust. On my next retreat in 2019, again, it surfaced after three or four days. This time I was lying in wait. Beneath the grief and self-disgust I grasped a hellish sensation of abandonment and helplessness. It felt like a kink or flaw; not a mental state as such, certainly not a stage of insight, but something in my sense of self that was leaving me wide open and vulnerable to certain states and stages.
Unwanted, unexpected, nevertheless there it was, and it did not seem to be going anywhere. “If we would just go into finely discerned sensate reality”, writes Daniel Ingram, “and try to see the three characteristics of each sensation that makes up experience, we might begin to understand reality at a level that makes the difference” (Ingram 2018: 112). This had always been my guiding principle in meditation: focus on the nature of experience without getting side-tracked into its contents, all those clamouring personal issues and mind noise. What I had come up against was precisely that. But the sense was growing that this needed to be understood and addressed before it seemed likely my experience would change.
Other factors were steering me in this direction. A friend attained the Knowledge and Communication of the Holy Guardian Angel with relatively little meditative work, but with maximum emphasis on personal psychological transformation. This produced some of the most jaw-dropping synchronicities I have ever witnessed before his realisation of the angel during a trauma-processing session.
Before this, I would have doubted that psychotherapy could bring about awakening, even though (reading between the lines) this is specifically what Jung promised. As Marie-Louise von Franz succinctly described it:
Before one is integrated and individuated, one’s own complexes tend to come through. But if one has really worked to solve one’s own problems and the complexes are integrated, then one can connect with the collective unconscious and its wisdom can flow through one. At the end point of development (the end stage of the individuation process), the Zen masters are in such a state of harmony with the collective unconscious […] they are together in the unus mundus, so to speak. (von Franz 1979: 115)
In other words: resolve your stuff, experience synchronicities, and awaken. Exactly what had occurred with my friend.
Simultaneously, a close relationship had started to provoke some intense reactions in me, feelings very like those I had encountered on retreat. To work out how these were being triggered, I did some reading on attachment styles.
Attachment theory is a typology of human relationships, developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It postulates that our experience of caregivers in infancy establishes basic patterns of relating that persist into later life. The four basic attachment styles are:
Because my childhood was loving and stable, and I am happy in my own company, I always supposed my attachment style was “secure”. But then I stumbled across an uncannily exact description of the relationship dynamics I was experiencing and discovered the role I occupied in these was not one of “secure” attachment at all, but “anxious-ambivalent”.
This form of relating can arise where caregivers are perceived as unreliable or unresponsive. People with this attachment style are needy yet will probably have learned to express this subtly, so that others will stay close and enable them to feel safe. To maintain this, it is also important not to be seen to be comforted, for in that case the other person might assume we are okay and then go away. This is where the “ambivalent” aspect originates: indifference is used as a means to keep the other person engaged, and to prevent them from feeling over-depended-upon, but also to protect oneself against abandonment in case they do decide to disconnect. I realised how this pretence at independence and self-containment was what I had mistaken in myself for secure attachment. In truth, I was ceaselessly denying an unappeasable longing for connection. This discovery completely unseated my view of myself, but at least now the hellish sensations of abandonment and helplessness were starting to make sense.
It is not all negative, of course. People with anxious-ambivalent attachment are often loving and caring because that is how they need to be treated by others. “They are also very good at detecting when others are not interested or unhappy”, writes Helen Dent, “and they are willing to face this head on, even if it involves disagreement or conflict” (2019: 62). However, in relationships people with this attachment style tend to project onto others or things the independence and self-reliance they cannot own (Power 2019: 48). This reminded me of a recurring pattern in my spiritual practice: striving to embrace exotic states of consciousness, but once I feel my connection to reality shift then feeling threatened, shrinking back in terror, and repeating this pattern over again with too much terror ever to quite let go.
I had been in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for several years but, apart from highlighting the dynamics, this never seemed to take me directly into what I was experiencing. In the meantime, I had discovered Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM), a recently developed therapy for the treatment of psychological trauma. CRM is not currently well-known, yet a training course was conveniently offered at a venue within five miles of my home. After the first day of training I was woken in the night by a surge of those hellish feelings of neglect and abandonment, and a tiny skull that screamed: “These parents are not safe!”
In the context of CRM, the skull was a wounded ego-state. These are somatic and emotional sensations arising from past distress that was so overwhelming it has triggered our basic neurophysiological survival responses: fight, flight, or freeze. CRM therapists help the client connect with wounded ego-states and then provide resources for the wounded parts to re-experience the original distress – but this time in a resourced, bearable way – the same distress that triggered the reflexes that originally created the ego-state.
CRM places neurological science front and centre to inform its approach, but it also has a spiritual dimension. Among the resources that help the client to confront distress are power animals, sacred geometry, but also “Core Self”, which (although materialistic perspectives are not excluded) is described in non-dualistic terms: “largely non-intentional, having as its object only the very ground of its awareness” (Schwarz et al 2018: 156).
In CRM, an ego-state is to Core Self as a complex is to the Self in Jungian analysis: ego-states and complexes are both what we can become aware of within experience, whereas the Jungian Self and Core Self in CRM are both empty, the underlying awareness in which contents of experience arise. The aim of Jungian analysis is individuation: integration of complexes into an expanded awareness of the Self. It seems that CRM also harbours an overarching aim:
it is important to remember that trauma release is not the ultimate goal of CRM work. The goal is to access and embody Core Self, for those who choose to do this, but often this is only possible after the trauma work is well under way. (Schwarz et al 2018: 135)
So I began working with a CRM therapist. After a while, he wondered if I were dealing with something that had origins in past-life or intergenerational trauma. Yet another strand of investigations was ongoing at this time, which I have discussed elsewhere: a strong sense of the presence of the dead, and my reception of a magickal text, Liber Pisces, concerning relationships between the dead and the living. CRM, too, has protocols and techniques for working with this kind of material.
Consciously, I had no memories of childhood trauma. What was troubling me had either originated from a very early period of my life, or could it be the effect of something that had not happened to me at all? I could not understand how trauma in ancestors’ experiences could somehow show up in mine. But it is funny, how – having now done some work in that area – presently I can barely see it in any other terms. When I turn attention to human suffering in all its current forms – violent struggles, government corruption, the bellowing hurt and rage of social media, and just that nagging background sensation of despair – I feel ancestral wounds smarting. Our pain, aggression, dissociation, numbness: these are reactions to inherited trauma, everywhere in plain view.
Thomas Hübl writes:
our shadows cannot simply be buried and forgotten; they will haunt us until we return them to life. And if we never do, they will haunt our children and our children’s children, passing each to the next in an endless repetition of karma and time. (Hübl 2020: 225)
Trauma is karma. Trauma freezes and stores the horrors of the past. The notion of the parents’ sins being visited upon the children is very Old Testament (eg. Numbers 14: 18), and it seems cruel, but in how it preserves the past the symptomatology of trauma offers a possibility of growth. We do not merely feel our ancestors’ pain, but through our reactions to it we re-live it, and so there is the possibility of living it differently.
Hübl’s book describes a theory and a practice for achieving this. In a recent podcast interview he commented:
Becoming aware of collective trauma structures is a level of awakening, basically because its nature is that it is split-off and unconscious. So even if I have deeper states of meditation I am not necessarily becoming aware of those fragmented trauma structures, because they are pushed into the unconscious. So I can have very high meditation states and still be in the same way unconscious, because I am not aware that I am unconscious. (Taft 2021: 23’51”)
The implication here is that although we might voyage deeply into refined and highly realised states of awareness, this may accrue a kind of karmic debt. We may become guilty of “spiritual bypassing” without ever being aware of it.
Rather than envisaging the alternative to engagement with our practice as indulgence of mental contents, personal psychological issues, or random mind-noise, it might be helpful to examine in what sense these are really “ours”.
Ultimately, there is no personal, separate self. From this ultimate perspective there is only karma, and when some of this remains unrecognised as ancestral or cultural trauma then we only have the option of re-living it, without ever growing beyond.
Dent, Helen (2019). Why Don’t I Feel Good Enough? Using Attachment Theory to Find a Solution. Abingdon: Routledge.
von Franz, Marie-Louise (1979). Alchemical Active Imagination. Irving, TX: Spring Publications.
Hübl, Thomas (2020). Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds, Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.
Power, Anne (2019). Avoidant people in relationships: why would they bother? How do partners fare? In: Linda Cundy, ed., Attachment and the Defence Against Intimacy: Understanding and Working with Avoidant Attachment, Self-Hatred, and Shame. Abingdon: Routledge.
Schwarz, Lisa, Frank Corrigan, Alastair Hull, and Rajiv Raju (2018). The Comprehensive Resource Model: Effective Therapeutic Techniques for the Healing of Complex Trauma. Abingdon: Routledge.
Taft, Michael (2021). Deconstructing Yourself: meditation and healing trauma with Thomas Hübl, https://tinyurl.com/27uppkdk (podcasts.google.com). Accessed April, 2021.