Trauma, Tender, Tending
You might agree that it feels like we have clicked over into another era. Covid still lingers in the background, supply chain problems pop up in surprising ways (no eggs in the supermarket recently!), and the trauma of Papa Tuanuku (Mother Earth) starts to bubble to the surface: in Auckland there have been massive floods, destroying homes and displacing many; some people have insurance, others don’t. In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb talks about how we need systems that get stronger when subjected to stress, change, and the disorder that comes about when things change, change being the only true constant in the universe. How might we embody this at a personal level? It seems like a really tall order! But my intuition says that the challenging and “high change” nature of this era will only deepen with time, before we reach some kind of new equilibrium.
In The Diamond that Cuts through Illusion, Hanh echos this sentiment, talking about the fragile and illusory nature of reality:
So according to Buddhism, if we can see through the illusion, and free ourselves of attachment to the erroneous perceptions of things like a self, preference for human to non-human, valuing living over non-living, and so on, we can live in a way that is more connected to, or even indivisible from everything around us. But what might be getting in the way of that at a personal, or psychological level?
I cottoned onto this “value proposition” of Buddhism at university, studying for my exams in a paper called “Japanese and Chinese Philosophy”. I began to pursue Buddhist practice and have been doing so for about twenty years now. But meditation and Buddhism aren’t a silver bullet or cureall for suffering; I found this out the hard way, failing as a primary school teacher at Mangere East School and quiting after six months. I felt genuinely bitter that all my practice in Buddhism, including seven day intensive retreats, hadn’t provided me some kind of “bullet proof vest” from suffering. But that’s not how it works is it?!?
I’ve been going through an intensely challenging period this last few months, but it’s interesting how intense challenge and suffering can create the most powerful change and development. It started so innocently, with a casual game of soccer for all the dads who were coaches of the local kids soccer league. Turns out it was a pretty full on game actually, and I collided with a big guy and got a concussion. I became unable to work and have been off work since October, just now returning to partial hours. The toughest part of this concussion was that it sent my nervous system into an extended state of “fight or flight”, meaning that simple issues and normal life tensions could trigger intense anxiety and emotional sensitivity; I’ve been discovering how I am a gifted, sensitive, and intense type, my base level of sensitivity is quite high in the first place, add to this extended fight or flight and you’ve got a recipe for a challenging time.
But there’s another important, kind of hidden ingredient here that I was able to explore and begin to transform with the excellent help of Imi Lo who specialises in working with people like me. In conversation with Imi, she helped me notice how part of the reason my reactions were so big was based on unresolved childhood trauma. When I was a kid, in many ways we had quite a privileged existence, but in other ways it was pretty tough: my brother died when I was three, and this was really tough on everyone. It took a toll on my parents, and they might not have had all the tools they needed to be emotionally attuned and supportive to a sensitive and intense child. The result was some unmet needs and trauma which has been making me kind of fragile ever since.
Just one conversation with Imi produced a massive response in me which surprised me. I’ve worked on this childhood stuff before and thought I had processed and overcome it, but here I was again. I was flattened for days with this enormous sense of grief and loss, and couldn’t really function normally. But then I read in Imi’s great book about some steps to take in the grieving and healing process:
And I wrote down, everything that I was grieving, that I was yearning for, that I wished I’d had but never did. And this really had a transformative effect. One thing I felt I missed out on was a sense of tenderness and nurturing, and this is what I’ve been growing inside of myself. Now when I’m meditating or just resting when tired, I often focus on this internal sense of tenderness that I am growing. It’s incredibly nourishing and replenishing when I’m tired. It helps me relax into meditation more easily without “trying to relax”. And because I am beginning to have that tenderness with myself, that is starting to cascade out into my interactions and relationships with my family and others. I’m learning to be a little less demanding and a little more empathetic. But one thing I’ve learnt is to never call the healing and growth “done”. I think we all have that impulse to declare that we are “happily ever after” now, but experience tells me there’s always a bit more.
It’s interesting how the words tender and tending are related. In Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, Hanh says how their simplest definition of love is “just being with” someone or something. Being there. Being present. Being with. No fixing, no advising, no saving. This feels like something called “tending”. How many of us are “walking wounded”, often due to inherited or multi-generational trauma? What impact does this have on us, our level of well being and how free (or not) we are from suffering, especially in this time that will only produce more challenges and change as the result of past human karma ripening? Healing and developing our capacity for tending takes time and energy, but what is the cost to ourselves, each other, and our planet of not doing it?