By the time you reach your ’50s and ’60s, life has undoubtedly thrown you some psychic curves; they may even feel like fractures to the very core of your being. “No one is exempt from trauma,” says Dr. Mark Epstein, a New York psychiatrist, renowned Buddhist teacher and an assistant professor of psychology at New York University whose writings often explore the intersection of psychotherapy and Buddhism. “Trauma is a part of life, part of reality,” says Epstein, “If we deny the impact of these, we end up living in a false way. If we're living in a false way, we're not only denying our experience but denying the traumatic life everyone else is experiencing.” In his new book, “The Trauma of Everyday Life,” Epstein argues that trauma, although painful, can also guide us and foster growth and connection. Life Reimagined talked to Epstein about turning life's traumas into opportunities.
What are the symptoms of trauma?
Feeling numb, disconnected, false, empty and uncomfortably alone. Trauma makes one feel ‘singular,’ as if no one could understand you. Sometimes the uncomfortable, unbearable feelings shunted to the side by the traumatic incident resurface unexpectedly in dreams, even in intimate relationships, when they are triggered by reminders in the physical or emotional landscape. This can be quite frightening.
What are common traumas for those in mid-life?
People in their ’50s and ’60s are dealing with relationship trauma – that's when divorces often happen – the traumas of their children leaving home – not always easy – and financial stresses stemming from the Recession in this particular time and place. At this stage of life the body also starts to betray you and you get the first glimmer of the impermanence of the physical body. Then there is a whole turning of the wheel that happens. You've been launched into life, then you're middle age and doing okay and have your own children and all of a sudden here come your parents again. They are not the parents you remember. They're starting to stumble and need you. That's a huge thing, usually a long, arduous chronic trauma.
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How does the trauma of the “turning of the wheel” manifest in daily life?
One of the most common ways has to do with the how we experience our parents' old age, illness and death. If the relationship has been relatively stable, and if the ‘attachments’ between child and parent have been healthy, we navigate their deaths more easily. But if there has been underlying trauma in the relationship dating from childhood or adolescence, it is more likely to be difficult.
Many people have experienced financial setbacks over the last few years. How is this traumatic?
People carry not only their own expectations when it comes to their work life but also those of their parents, spouses and children. When there’s a Recession, [if] you lose your job, your house is threatened, suddenly your whole status in society changes. Not only are the objective facts hard to deal with, but the subjective facts are difficult to deal with. Instead of acknowledging what has happened, a lot of people pretend these things don’t exist and get into an incredibly defensive mode. They become angry and sad.
In your book you tell the story of Patarca and how trauma opens her up. How can people today use trauma as a means of growth and “opening up”?
The main thing is not to let trauma shut them down. There are so many things we have to go through as adults. Each thing is difficult, and we tend to respond to the traumatic aspect of them in a classic way of dissociating the feelings and soldiering on in what I call ‘the rush to normal.’ This leads us to feel more and more anxious, more and more frightened, more and more closed. When we acknowledge difficult feelings, we have a chance to stay real and therefore to grow, even if it is difficult. Helping others is one way to emerge from the ‘singularity’ of one's own difficulties to understand that everyone is going through something. This is one lesson the Buddha gives Patarca.
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As you say, the traumas that people experience often rear their heads (so to speak) at later, often unexpected, moments.
Traumas are woven into our implicit memories. They hang out there outside of reflective self-awareness, They are waiting in the wings, as it were, to be called into conscious awareness. Anything can trigger them – a reminder of the event, a smell, the way the light falls on the leaves, a scene in a TV show or a book. It’s completely unpredictable. That’s what is scary for a traumatized person. The feelings can come up in dreams. They rush into awareness on nerve fibers that are faster than thought so we are always playing catch-up with them. They take us over before we know what is happening, and then re-traumatize us or make us ‘act out.’
You say, “Feeling our way into the ruptures of our lives lets us become more real.” How can this process be especially useful or opportune for people in mid-life and beyond?
Feeling one’s way into the ruptures in our lives is another way of saying it’s okay to be vulnerable, to have humility – or even humor – about one’s situation. It’s an alternative to conceit and pride and displaying a strong face to the world and it is invaluable in our intimate relationships to be able to show a little pain. That’s where love comes from. So many couples stop showing this to each other and the affection between them fades proportionally. I’m suggesting that we don’t have to be victims to that. Even with the smaller traumas of our lives we can be more in control by acknowledging them as they happen. By experiencing the feelings we’re not so vulnerable to being pushed around by our histories.
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How can trauma be transformational?
The basic message is: it’s not what’s happening to you or what you’re experiencing that matters. It’s how you relate to it. We don’t have control over the traumatic aspect of life – what happens to our bodies, our spouses, our children, the financial climate. It’s how you relate to it that you do have control over.