Trauma

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:

  • secure
  • dismissive-avoidant
  • anxious-ambivalent
  • disorganised

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.

John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), originators of attachment theory.

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.

References

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.

Ancestors

Samhain approaches, and thoughts turn to the dead. They have made their presence felt more strongly this year than ever before.

We meet the dead in the questions and demands they leave in us. More than this: they are those demands; this is their post-mortem existence. We live in a perpetual karmic embrace with the dead. They need us to help them die more fully and offer us a possibility of living more fully when we recognise our misperceptions in their questions and demands. (This is fully explored in Liber Pisces [Geur 2020]).

To do this work you must know your dead. Other people’s dead lack a strong enough connection to leave questions and demands. Some of our dead are ancestors; others are connected not by DNA but through their impact on our lives. Some may be cultural, spiritual, or intellectual figures we may never have known personally, but their works have shaped us. Others have an almost angelic status or may never actually have lived as individuals; Daniel Foor describes them as “a collective embodiment of ancestral consciousness” (2017: 40).

To connect better with my genetic ancestors, I signed up to a family history website. I dived towards the distant past, resisting the urge to trace siblings (apart from the most recent generations) but following directly the female bloodlines back through my grandmothers, and the male bloodlines through my grandfathers.

I discovered what I had dreaded: the history of my ancestors is merely a slow percolation of genetic material about the villages of the English midlands.

Along all four bloodlines the story is the same: generation after generation of the English, rural working class. They were mostly agricultural labourers and then, as industrialisation took hold, they mostly worked in shoe manufacturing – the main commercial activity of Northamptonshire, the county in which most of them lived and where I grew up. An exception was Alfred Vorley (1855-1917), on my paternal grandmother’s side, who clawed his way up from agricultural labouring, through iron mining, to owning a fish-frying business. But whatever spark of entrepreneurship he possessed, it had fizzled by the next generation.

As research brought my ancestors into view, I realised how much I hated them. I was sneering at them through my attitudes towards wealth, work, and class. Yet those attitudes do not emerge from nowhere. They, too, are the whispers of my dead: We are insignificant. We are contemptible. There is nothing for you to find here. Look away.

Through the cultural dramas of Enclosure in the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth, and the twentieth century’s two world wars, these were folk who hunkered down and endured. Their tactic for survival was to slip beneath the glare of history. “Along the cool sequestered vale of life / They kept the noiseless tenor of their way” (Gray 1751: 75-76). Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is all about my dead.

Great grandparents, Nathaniel Ward (1856-1924) and his wife Beatrice Bailey (1874-1940).

They followed the track laid down for them from field to factory, avoiding the horror of the workhouse that awaited those who faltered, a horror whose echoes persisted even into my grandparents’ generation. By being born at just the right times, my bloodline predecessors coasted through the world wars virtually unscathed. Luckily for them, passing unnoticed was an option. No one took them away in ships and sold them as slaves. No one singled them out for ethnic or religious persecution. So they stayed put and circulated their homogenous DNA quietly about the vicinity.

They may have weathered the brunt of history but did not escape the pain of human life, the dramas that define our lives yet leave few marks on the historical record. In what meagre records survive it is possible sometimes to catch faint echoes of suffering.

The 1841 census shows Susannah Palmer (1772 – 1845), wife of William Ward (1772 – 1853), my four-times-great-grandfather, no longer living at Kislingbury with her husband. Their marriage record in 1796 indicates she came from Hinton. Her death record states she died in Brackley, close to Hinton-in-the-Hedges. These bare facts suggest she returned to her birthplace, dying there in 1845, yet she was buried in Kislingbury. William seems to have had her body transported back across the twenty miles that separated them when she died. In the 1851 census he is listed as “widower”. There is probably no chance of ever finding out whether Susannah fled an abusive relationship or walked out on a marriage that did not suit her. Maybe some other obligation drew her back to Hinton. When William ferried her body back to Kislingbury, where the Ward family lived for many generations (Tutchener 2000: 143), was this because she was the love of his life, or was it a final exercise of control? Of ancient pain and trauma these questions are the faint ripples that remain.

Even before the work of cataloguing my forebears was properly underway, one morning whilst meditating I heard a man singing and striding in from the open countryside came Badger. Imagine a seventeenth century mendicant with a floppy hat and haversack. Badger is the village cunning man gone walkabout, with poached coneys dangling from his belt, and dog-eared pamphlets in his pockets prophesying the True Commonwealth of England. Taken aback I asked him: “Where have you come from?”. Matter-of-factly he replied: “1650”.

Badger is what Daniel Foor describes as an ancestral guide, one who “resides beyond remembered names and living memory, in the realm of the older, collective dead” (Foor 2017: 119). The oldest bloodline ancestor I can trace with certainty is William Barford (1699 – 1744). In a record of William’s baptism his parents are named as Lawrence and Frances, but that is the extent of all now known about them. Sure enough then, 1650 is the moment in my lineage when oblivion falls upon the preceding ancestors’ names.

Another ancestral guide appeared a few weeks later. She wore a veil and was richly dressed in a Tudor-era gown. She was a lady in waiting, secretly well-versed in witchcraft, perhaps the reason she did not give her name. She was young, dark-haired, possibly of Spanish descent. Embroiled in political and relational intrigues, she conveyed a strong impression of knowing how to stay safe.

These are both the kind of ancestors I am proud to have behind me. I understand them not as individuals who lived but as manifestations of a spiritual rather than genetic legacy. They appeared vibrant, energetic, and well – not bad for a couple of dead people. I would happily trust Badger as a guide, but the young witch I would need to understand better. Never rush to trust a spirit that will not give its name.

Ancestral guides “mirror back to us our own potential and responsibility to be exemplary human beings” (Foor 2017: 97), and “they can understand and treat dysfunctional family patterns at the source, no matter how far back in history the troubles are rooted” (Foor 2017: 98). The feelings I harbour towards my dead are a symptom of those dysfunctional patterns. I can sense but do not yet fully understand the trauma and pain lurking along my bloodlines.

My maternal grandmother was born outside of marriage. Her mother, my great-grandmother, Annie Dahlia Maycock (1881 – 1951), was an unconventional woman. My grandmother was one of three sisters so physically similar they were obviously born of the same father. As well as her own three girls, Annie provided a home to children who had no parents, bringing them up as part of her family. She was paid for doing this, yet it seems she provided them all with a loving environment. Some of my mother’s happiest memories are of time spent with Annie.

She raised her children with no husband in a time and place where this was socially unacceptable. The shame of it was so great that although my grandmother and her siblings knew who their father was, they took his identity with them to their graves. My mother and my uncle asked questions, of course, but grew used to being rebuffed or misdirected.

One of my great-aunts claimed that she and her sisters’ father was John Garforth (1889 – 1912). His surname is also rendered as Garfirth, Garforte, and Garfield. Although my ancestors made a good job of avoiding history, other families were not so lucky. In 1912 John Garforth had decided to emigrate to Canada with his friend George Patchett. They were due to set sail from Liverpool on 5 April aboard the Empress of Ireland, but had to abandon their plan when, due to a coal strike, their train was delayed and ran only as far as Manchester. They returned home disappointed, but revised their arrangements and embarked five days later from Southampton – on the Titanic.

The Garforth family photographed in 1912. John (1889-1912) is in the back row, fourth from left. Herbert (1885-1956) is in the front row, seated left.

At least one person on the genealogy website I was using has taken my great-aunt’s fable as truth and has cited John as the father of Annie’s girls. But in my view, weaving John’s tragic death into the Maycocks’ family history is a misdirection, a cunning use of the dazzle of history to hide a less glamorous truth in its shadow.

That said, I was surprised to discover the Maycocks and Garforths lived right next-door to each other on Hinwick Road in the village of Wollaston. Doing the maths, John would have been 16 when the first Maycock sister was born, whereas Annie was 24. Not impossible, but perhaps unlikely when it is considered how two more siblings appeared over the next several years.

John had an elder brother, Herbert, who was 20 at the birth of Annie’s first child. Maybe he is a more likely suspect, especially as the census shows he and Annie not only living next door but both of them working at home during the day. Of Herbert, little is known. He died unmarried, five years after Annie’s death. This contradicts other family rumours that the girls’ father was a married man with another family elsewhere.

The mystery endures, but so does its effects. My grandmother had rigid views on who was the right sort of person and who was not. Snobbery was her way of dealing with the shame inflicted upon her. My mother processed this in more indirect ways, and me – more indirect still, but maybe the impact is just as palpable. My contempt for my ancestors is the case in point.

What if there were a form of snobbery that just rolled on and on until no one on earth was good enough? Indeed, another way to avoid shame might be to renounce self altogether. The attempt to avoid being someone altogether is a trope I can recognise across various areas of my life.

The impact of the dead, the intergenerational aspect of the psychological baggage we all carry, should not be underestimated.

References

Encyclopedia Titanica (2020). Mr John Garfirth. https://tinyurl.com/yxbm92k8 (encyclopedia-titanica.org). Accessed October 2020.

Foor, Daniel (2017). Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company.

Geur, Frater (2020). Liber Pisces. Brighton: Heptarchia.

Gray, Thomas (1751). Elegy written in a country churchyard. https://tinyurl.com/jogz (thomasgray.org). Accessed October 2020.

Tutchener, J.V. (2000). Kislingbury: A Glimpse at Its Past. Kislingbury: Sunningdale.