Pioneering new pathways of healing for those abused within spiritual communities

Photo by Yoann Boyer (Unsplash.com)

A community member responded to our August community survey with deeply insightful and passionate remarks about healing from spiritual betrayal. I was so moved by what she wrote, I am dedicating my article this month to responding to her. She has given me permission to quote her for this article.

“Life is traumatic ! I am interested in what goes on in the brain when PTSD is triggered and how healing ,making new pathways can happen.If teachers are not trauma informed they can’t understand why people are not healing or making progress and often can do more harm than good.”

I am interested in the PTSD response too, and I have focused much of my study on what goes on in our heart space when PTSD is triggered. My studies have focused on relational trauma – traumas that occurred within relationship with another person or group of people (as opposed to other sources of trauma, such as a natural disaster). 

Here is what I have come to understand through my studies, working with clients, and over 30 years of my own healing journey: 

We form attachments with people, and when those attachments are suddenly severed through betrayal, it can can cause a rip in our heart. We can become psychologically fragmented after trauma. While this trauma remains unhealed, we can be easily triggered by experiences that cause fear or insecurity, and it can be challenging to form healthy relationships.

Furthermore, when betrayal happens in a spiritual context, the damage can be far more severe. Our spiritual life is perhaps the most intimate part of our experience. When a betrayal happens within a space of such internal tenderness, the traumatic impact can be far deeper.

I agree with your statement about spiritual teachers who are not trauma informed potentially causing more harm. Particularly in “high-demand” spiritual communities, those who have been previously traumatized will likely have their trauma ignored or even denied, and are encouraged to suppress their feelings in order to pursue the high-demand spiritual tradition. This adds layers of further trauma and adds further complexity to the healing process.

One leader in the trauma healing field, Dr. Sandra Bloom, discovered through her psychiatric practice that nearly all people in society have been traumatized – either through their personal experience of trauma or vicariously through connection with a loved one going through a traumatic experience. So we are living in a society of trauma survivors, most of whom do not acknowledge their trauma and act it out unconsciously in relationships with others, causing further harm and pain. This can include spiritual teachers. 

“I wonder what’s possible I’ve always had a feeling that healing is possible for all illness.Reconising and acknowledging seems to be the starting point.but deeper still I wonder how to heal unknown unremembered trauma. What happens to a young childs brain when trauma happens? Where does the life go ,it breaks off it departs ,what about the ego is it damaged at a young age? So much talk about dissolving ego but what if the ego was not properly formed in a young life?”

I like the idea you have envisioned of creating new pathways – whether in the brain or in the heart. With previous pathways disrupted from trauma, it provides an opportunity to develop new, healthier pathways as we take our journey of healing. Life can actually become more fulfilling and more joyous through the process of healing from betrayal trauma. This is a silver lining to experiencing trauma!

I love your insight and optimism! It seems to me, as well, that recognizing and acknowledge needs to be the starting point. If we accept Dr. Bloom’s statements about how many people are walking around with suppressed trauma, it’s mind boggling to think of how extensive this pattern is. Since so many have not yet reached a place of recognizing and acknowledging the trauma buried in their heart/brain/psyche, they remain trapped in limbo.

But once we do acknowledge the trauma, we can begin the process of healing. As I promote in the Heal Your Heart Through Meditation program, the key stages of healing are (1) safety, (2) remembrance and mourning, and (3) reconnecting with community. That first stage: feeling safe, is critical for doing healing. 

Safety includes feeling supported and often requires spaces that embody an atmosphere of gentleness ,kindness, and wisdom. I experience this presence in my connection with the Divine Feminine; it feels like wise grandmother energy to me. When I am within the presence of this energy, it helps me connect with whatever healing technique I am engaging. The healing techniques might feel hollow or ineffective otherwise, but within the soft gaze and warm embrace of the Divine Feminine, whatever self-care I am engaging goes more deeply.

When you talk about healing “unknown unremembered trauma”, I will first say that the heart has a remarkable ability to protect us from overload by placing a veil over memories we are not yet ready to deal with. I am a firm believer that as we establish greater safety, those forgotten memories can begin to surface for healing attention. Our psyche knows when we are ready.

When you talk about a child’s life and where it goes when a child has been put through trauma, it makes me think of what I learned when I did an apprenticeship with a Mi’kmaq shaman in Quebec in the early 2000’s. My shaman taught me that parts of us psychologically break away in response to severe trauma. They are lost to us from then on. This is why people can have an experience of lost parts. My shaman worked with me around  the practice of “soul retrieval”. Soul retrieval is a beautiful ritual for bringing back lost parts of us, making us whole again.

The questions you are asking are powerful and relevant to all spiritual traditions that tell us we need to let go of and dissolve our ego. In the mid-2000’s, I worked with an expert trauma therapist at Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Clinic, and she also happened to be an experienced meditator. Like you suggest, she said that if we never had the chance to form a healthy ego in childhood, then we do not have an ego to dissolve. The first step is to form a healthy ego.

“My body remembers ,that I know but I can’t grasp fully or can’t reconnect that which is broken long ago.

I’ve had a year doing reliving process, CBT ,which was the real start for me I let go off and unlearned so much, I literally felt my brain reordering itself.flasbacks stopped anxiety levels dropped and I complain less making life more enjoyable for myself and those around me.”

I am so happy to hear of your healing! Your dedication to yourself is very moving. There has been a lot of research into which modality of therapy is most effective, and the main finding is that the therapist-client relationship match is the single most important factor for healing in therapy. I believe this speaks to the importance of the first stage of trauma healing: safety. It is critical to find a safe relationship in which we can do healing. You didn’t say it, but I bet you had a safe relationship with your therapist to do such powerful healing work.

“What is it to fully connect I wonder? Continental connection.

Joy is a reference for me.If there is no joy,no juice,then there is no life.

I’m grappling in the dark as I investigate.”

I love how you are using joy as your reference! I have found joy to be a wonderful balm for my heart; feeling joy has allowed me to trust again after betrayals. 

Your reference to continental connection is quite expansive! It reminds me of the third stage of trauma healing: reconnecting with community. Dr. Bloom’s seminal text was entitled, “Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies.” In this book she advocates for creating community healing environments where trauma survivors can be responded to with kindness and sanity. Trauma can heal in these specially-created healing environments, and people can then engage life in the “normal” world with their hearts whole.

In all the community spaces I create, whether through my justice activism work with Buddhist Project Sunshine or through the Heal Your Heart Through Meditation service, I strive to create trauma-informed sanctuaries where people can connect with one another in sane and loving ways, enabling them to heal through community connection. I know this is key to healing, and I am passionate about it!

Your image of “grappling in the dark as I investigate” is lovely! It is pioneering – exploring new uncharted ground. No one has a map for this kind of healing. It is always a personal exploration to find our own unique path of healing. 

Although the journey is unique to each person, it can be incredibly helpful to be connected with other people doing the same work so we can learn from each other’s discoveries. I welcome readers’ comments in the space below. We create a greater understanding together through dialog.

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