Chapter 2. How Trauma Transforms Us (selected excerpts)
"Pain that is not transformed is transmitted" - Richard Rohr
"Three highways into the heart are silence, love and grief" - Matthew Fox
“Until we can feel gratitude for our pain, we cannot truly begin to heal” - A channeled message
Trauma, grief and loss can completely dismantle one's beliefs about good and evil, security, the nature of God and one's place in the universe. To live in that dismantled state is painful and disorienting, and to remain in that state indefinitely could even be considered a form of psychosis. In many of my lectures and presentations, I talk about the ways in which human experience can be compared to the turning of a kaleidoscope. All the pieces appear to be separate, but with every turn, we can see that they are linked in a way that allows them to de-constitute and re-constitute in a pattern of perfection that unites them in oneness and continues to exist in an endless possibility of forms. The kaleidoscope imagery can be seen in many faith traditions, such as the Buddhist wheel of life, the Celtic sacred circle or the Native American sacred hoop, all of them expressing the cyclical nature of the soul's journey. It is an ongoing, eternal process of shifting, changing, expanding and contracting that forms a perfect order, which, when understood, can bring us to a state of unity with the divine. In this state, change can be embraced rather than feared.
But most people in the modern Western world have a preconceived idea of what that perfect order should look like. For many, it looks like a biological family unit with a comfortable house, a peaceful home life, a stable income and 2.5 thriving children. But when we scratch the surface of that picture, especially as professionals involved in grief or hospice work, we see that the kaleidoscope shifts whether we want it to or not, and frequently that scene unravels in one way or another. Mom might have an affair or lose her job, dad might get disfigured in a tragic accident, one of the kids might overdose on drugs or get killed in a war, and the expected (preferred) order gets turned on its ear. Some would see this as chaos, when in fact it's really nothing more than a new order, just like what happens to the pieces in the kaleidoscope. If everything in the universe is organic, moving and evolving, then everything IS order, in one form or another.
With every turn of the kaleidoscope, our rigid beliefs, established traditions and secure settings are shaken up irreparably. This shake-up is at the core of every traumatic event, and it results in a loss of faith and a loss of our sense of safety, order and continuity in life. When we no longer have that safe place to reside, we are exposed to the elements with no protective armor, no belief system, and no rules, morals or formulas to protect us. It is a terrifying, dark, powerless place. But it is also a place from which a new way of seeing the world can emerge. If we walk naked and trusting into that place, we are met with superb opportunities to experience the world in a new way. Our beliefs and realities come into question, but if we're willing to re-evaluate those beliefs and realities, we can find a key to tremendous personal growth, both psychologically and spiritually.
I recently came across the work of a woman named Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), a spiritual pioneer who talked about the "Five Mystical Stages of Development." These stages follow a mystic's journey from identifying solely with the physical world and the desires of the ego to an ultimate realization of oneness with the divine… a journey that is frequently triggered by trauma. As I studied this, I saw in these stages the potential for them to replace – or work alongside -- the five stages of grief as defined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). I've taken the liberty of assigning my interpretations to Underhill's stages as they might apply to turning the corner on Grief Street.
1. Awakening or Conversion
This is where the transition to a spiritual rather than a material understanding of experience can begin. It is commonly activated by a dramatic or tragic event, which could be a specific grief event, such as the death of a loved one or perhaps a divorce, job loss or an extreme personal violation of some kind, such as rape or other violent encounter. We can no longer live in a bubble. We can no longer be oblivious. We are no longer separate from the "other." Our sense of safety is shattered, and we become aware of our vulnerability and the fact that we cannot be protected from harm, despite what our beliefs and ideals may tell us. As an example, we believe our children are safe at school until a madman bursts in with an automatic weapon.
2. Purification – or Purging of the Self
Extreme disillusionment. Ordinary reality is turned inside out, our familiar identities are stripped away, and we are completely exposed with nothing to cling to. There is nothing to rely on but our own inner wisdom, but at this stage, our wisdom is on trial. We don't know what to believe anymore. The ego is no longer in control, and eventually we will have the choice to either cling desperately to it or allow it to dissolve and render us formless and empty. But for now, we are a blank page. Using the example of the school shooting, we are numb and in shock. It is surreal. We are decomposing… in purge-a-tory.
If we allow ourselves to accept and experience the "decomposition" of stage two, we may begin to allow our definitions of self, belief, habits, relationships, God and the universe to slowly shift. In this allowing, illumination can begin. We may be receiving messages, guidance and visions in dreams. This is also when many bereaved people start to explore alternative spiritual views by reading books about near-death experiences and questioning traditional notions of heaven vs. hell, or total annihilation vs. the presence of a soul that lives on after death.
4. Surrender Even while the light of illumination beckons, a dark night of the soul is necessary. We have been stripped of all that is familiar, but now what? Former realities, relationships and structures no longer serve us. Friendships, marriages, physical health, financial resources and communities begin to shift and/or disappear, and despite our attempts at control, we cannot stop it, because the momentum is too strong. The door has been opened to another way of looking at the journey.
What does union with the divine look like? Because words cannot even begin to describe it, it is easier to describe what divine union is not. It is not a state of absolute non-conflict or ease. There will be still be conflict and pain, and life will go on. You'll still need to earn a living, manage relationships and clean the bathroom. But you'll do it differently. It is a state of grace in which we seek balance rather than control. We accept loss and tragedy as part of that balance rather than seeing it as random, meaningless or punitive. Everything is seen with a mystical, spiritual view rather than a material view. We forgive everything, always, without exception. Now, instead of being concerned about or afraid of the "other," we realize that there IS no other.
You will see many examples of where people are in this process as you read the comments in the following chapters. Some have moved into union, while others are traversing the path at various stages and various speeds. Some appear to be stuck at one stage or another, similar to what can happen with Kubler-Ross' stages of grieving, but in spiritual time, we can never be stuck, because the journey of the soul is endless, and time is not linear. The journey of the soul is a circle, not a line or ladder, and we all move at our own pace according to a curriculum that is perfectly suited to our own unique growth plan.
Chapter 7. Oneness vs. Twoness (selected excerpts)
"Mysticism… is an encounter of such immensity that everything else shifts in position. Mystics have no need to exclude or eliminate others precisely because they have experienced radical inclusivity of themselves into something much bigger. They do not need to define themselves as enlightened or superior, whereas a mere transfer of religious assertions often makes people even more elitist and more exclusionary. True mystics are glad to be common, ordinary, servants of all, and 'just like everybody else,' because any need for specialness has been met once and for all" - Richard Rohr
What kind of "specialness" is Rohr talking about here? To me, the idea of specialness is usually a cosmic joke that endlessly loops back on itself, because once we become aware of oneness, we realize that as part of the boundless cosmic soup, there is no specialness anywhere in the universe. At the same time, when we realize that we are not separate from the divine or from each other, we walk around with a secret smile; an inner knowing that confirms without a doubt that everything is occurring exactly as it should. While that kind of knowingness can certain feel special, the joke is that it actually strips us of our illusion of specialness.
Understanding oneness vs. twoness (also known as duality vs. non-duality), can dramatically shift the way we experience grief and loss. If we understand that we are not separate from anything else in the universe, from the tiniest adamantine particle to entire solar systems, it changes the way we look at our relationships. In oneness, mother and son, husband and wife, perpetrator and victim no longer exist as identifiers of what we are to one another.In fact, at this level of understanding, there are no others. There is no "them vs. us." There is only us. Nothing is separate from anything else. So how does this relate to grief and loss?
For some bereaved individuals, losses are inextricably tied to anger and blame. In their view of how the universe operates, there has to be someone or something at fault, whether it's the drunk driver who caused the accident, the doctor who misdiagnosed the disease, or the God that didn't live up to its imagined promise of safety and protection. Within this structure we find what A Course in Miracles calls "special relationships," a form of attachment and identification that keeps us from seeing ourselves as equal with every other piece in the kaleidoscope, and makes loss more difficult to understand and accept. If you aren't familiar with A Course in Miracles, a bit of interpretation may be in order. When they refer to "Holy Spirit," they are speaking of the conduit that connects us directly to divine source, which is our natural state of awareness. It can also be interpreted as our willingness to trust the flow, to listen to our inner voice and to relinquish our notions of how things "should" be. With that in mind, consider the following Course in Miracles teaching about special relationships:
"The special relationships of the world are destructive, selfish, and childishly egocentric.
Yet, if given to the Holy Spirit, these relationships can become the holiest things on earth —
the miracles that point the way to the return to Heaven. The world uses its special relationships
as a final weapon of exclusion and a demonstration of separateness.
The Holy Spirit transforms them into perfect lessons in forgiveness and in awakening from the dream.
Each one is an opportunity to let perceptions be healed and errors corrected. Each one is
another chance to forgive oneself by forgiving the other. And each one becomes still another invitation to
the Holy Spirit and to the remembrance of God… Forgiveness is the means by which we will remember.
Through forgiveness the thinking of the world is reversed. The forgiven world becomes the gate of
Heaven, because by its mercy we can at last forgive ourselves. Holding no one prisoner to guilt, we become free."
Imagine applying this wisdom to a grief experience! No one is held prisoner to guilt, not even ourselves. All is accepted, forgiven and released. We realize that we're all on the wheel together, united by a common intention to become saturated by love as we come to recognize our role as divine sparks on a shared journey. All those we blame – the doctor, the drunk driver or the punitive god – are teachers, partners and journey-sharers.
That is Oneness.
"It occurred to me today that some bereaved individuals are so attached to their pain that they can't open up to other ways of perceiving their losses. They are immobilized at a fixed location on “Grief Street," even though there are fascinating new neighborhoods of consciousness, new languages and new vantage points all around them. They could peek around the corner and see what’s on the next block, ride an elevator to the top of a skyscraper and see the view from the roof, or go down into a subway station to look at what's hidden below in the subconscious. But instead, they feel paralyzed and unable to move beyond anger, guilt, blame and victimhood. Grief gives us the opportunity to look into these previously untapped corners of our psyches. It's the hidden gift of grief... the extraordinary opportunity for growth that only a traumatic event can trigger. These events don't happen for no reason. They are not random, and they are certainly not punishments from a judgmental God. They are gifts of growth, if we are awake enough to see them that way."
Terri Daniel, December, 2011
Selected Excerpts from
Turning the Corner on Grief Street:
Loss and Bereavement as a Journey of Awakening
On a snowy winter morning in 2011, I "received" the words quoted above in a meditation. I was so moved by this message that I shared it with the Afterlife Awareness and After-Death Communication group that I moderate on Facebook. It was a remarkable metaphor that beautifully expressed the nature of the work I do in teaching a metaphysical approach to death, trauma, loss and forgiveness. I knew that not every one of the group members would understand it, but I never expected the flurry of angry responses that erupted when the message went viral and spread to some of the grief support groups on Facebook.
While the vast majority of the people in my group are comfortable with out-of-the-box metaphysical thinking about birth, death and beyond, the group also attracts its share of skeptics, and also a good number of people who are struggling with the recent loss of a loved one. The skeptics are easy… they usually throw in a few comments challenging scientific evidence about near-death experiences and call it a day. But the newly bereaved -- and especially the angry bereaved -- are a different group entirely. For them, the pain of their losses seems insurmountable, and they are hemorrhaging from their wounds. Many have experienced terrible tragedies, such as the murder or suicide of a child, and most have not had the benefit of professional grief counseling or appropriate spiritual care.
Many also struggle with a crisis of faith. If they were raised with traditional Western religious doctrines, they might believe that God is supposed to protect good people from harm, and now that the worst imaginable harm has befallen them, they cannot make sense of how such a thing could happen in a universe ruled by a compassionate creator. Judeo-Christian theology asks us to see cause-and-effect as something over which we have no control, because in that way of thinking, cause is created by an external force that exists somewhere "out there," and we are the hapless victims of a remotely-located God that randomly dispenses sorrow, joy, reward and punishment. In this view, effect is our response to the events forced upon us by this humanoid (and frequently sadistic) god, so naturally this scenario leaves us little opportunity to make sense of our losses.
In addition to questioning closely-held religious beliefs and socio-political values, many of the bereaved are also forced to re-evaluate their beliefs about fairness and justice. If a loved one was murdered or died in a car wreck at the hands of a drunk driver, the event is seen as one in which there is a victim and a perpetrator, so it is natural to assign blame, and some bereaved individuals spend decades in the court system trying to bring the perpetrator to justice. But even in the absence of an identified perpetrator, the need to focus fault on something or someone can keep people locked into a lifetime of rage and indignation aimed at a person, at God, at the medical establishment, at society, at perceived perpetrators, and at themselves.
In my attempt to introduce the Facebook group members to another possible way of looking at grief, I unleashed a torrent of protest from what amounted to something akin to an angry mob. Many felt that I was demeaning their grief journeys, several stated that they will never find peace until their dead loved ones are "returned to them," and some called me a charlatan. One woman accused me of trying to profit from other people's suffering and exploiting my own son's death (he died at age 16 in 2006), and another said that I have no right to work in hospice since I have no compassion for the bereaved. One woman actually went so far as to post libelous comments about my non-profit foundation and tried to characterize me as a corrupt agent of corporate America.
Their anger was very real. But it was also very displaced. For three weeks my words fueled a Facebook firestorm in which I became a target for projections of pain and outrage from people who did not want to hear that the metaphysical realities of death are not the same as the emotional realities, or that grief has hidden gifts that can lead to sparkling new vistas.
Western culture conditions us to believe in victimhood, revenge and retribution in a world where wealth vs. poverty, sickness vs. health and life vs. death are arbitrarily apportioned. To suggest that these conditions may not be random and that suffering may actually have a higher purpose is not something that many grieving people are able to hear. It is more familiar and more acceptable in mainstream society to see a tragic loss as a random or meaningless event. Looking at it any other way is foreign to our cultural and religious references, and without the comfort and protection of those references, we are left out in the cold. Many of the bereaved are taught – correctly -- that they will eventually heal; that help is available from support groups and grief counselors; and that they have a right to grieve in their own way for as long as they wish. But what they are not usually told is that they have a choice about how to perceive the traumatic loss experience.
Grief work is most effective when it strives to find meaning in the loss, and there is an enormous body of academic research that supports the idea that finding meaning creates a healthier adjustment. When the loss can be viewed with an open heart -- with tenderness rather than pain -- it can be seen as simply a change in the relationship with the lost person rather than the complete and total disappearance of the relationship. It is a redefinition of attachment rather than complete detachment. The relationship does not disappear. It just changes form. Learning to see death and loss this way requires a new understanding of forgiveness, a belief in the innate divinity of all things, the holiness of every encounter, a purpose to every experience, and a view of ourselves as more than just our physical bodies and the personal dramas that play out in each incarnation. For many people, this requires a complete theological overhaul.
There are hundreds of professional counselors out there who can gently and delicately guide the bereaved step-by-step through the grief journey. But I have come to a place where I want to focus on the next steps, and with those steps come many new questions. What happens when we don't want to suffer any more? What happens when we are ready to become different people and see the world in a new way? Who will guide the bereaved toward seeing their losses as part of a bigger system that works in harmony with the oneness of the universal mind?
If I just lost you with that last sentence, then this book may not be for you. But if the idea of looking at human relationships, attachments and experiences through a distinctive new lens appeals to you, then I invite you to join me here. I would never, ever ask anybody to dismiss or deny the very real pain of grief. But if you're truly interested in incorporating your pain into who you are becoming as a result of your loss, I ask that you consider creating a new vision of the universe with the added dimension given to you by the grief experience.
This book is all about that vision… the one we can see when we turn the corner on Grief Street.