What is the true nature of trauma work?

There are certainly many technical, clinical skills that one needs to acquire to work with traumatized individuals, but I think the most important skill--one which is very difficult to teach--is the ability, willingness, and courage to stand emotionally naked but steady in front of another human being and bear witness to that which is unbearable. To allow oneself to be fully moved by the devastating horror that trauma represents without being overwhelmed by it. 

Trauma is the greatest violation of our integrity in every sense. It certainly threatens our bodily integrity, but more importantly it often robs us of our basic human dignity. It can leave us ashamed of ourselves, disgusted, self-blaming. It can leave us feeling worthless or somehow deserving of having been raped, beaten, punished, abused, or neglected. "You don't love me because I am basically an unlovable creature."

When we actually see this horror with eyes wide open. It undeniably threatens us too. We can't help but imagine ourselves in those situations. Or, we feel that this threat is too much. We distance ourselves. "It couldn't happen to me." "I would have stopped him." "She shouldn't have worn that outfit." We move into gated communities. We want to put guns into the hands of janitors in our elementary schools. We even deny the basic humanity of the person who was traumatized. "They're all animals."

Trauma also threatens our assumption that we have control over our lives and what happens to us. If this could happen to you, what's to say that it can't happen to me? The fear of losing this sense of control is one of the primary fears I see people struggle with in my clinical practice. I find that many people, especially those operating from western philosophical traditions, spend much of their time emphatically asserting as much control over their lives as possible, hoping that they can somehow avoid pain, suffering, and death. Losing control is one of the scariest things that we all wrestle with. I think the task for us all is to realize how little control we have in our lives, while also working hard to recognize and exercise the small moments of control we do have. One of my mentors once said, "the only thing we have control over is what we decide to do in this very moment."

I find that Buddhism has much wisdom when it comes to trauma work. It's philosophy starts with the premise that life is full of suffering. Suffering in the buddhist sense is much more complex than just the suffering of trauma, because it also has to do with the suffering that arises from wanting, longing, and losing and other suffering that comes from an assumption of an individual, disconnected ego. However, much of the Buddhist solutions to suffering apply to trauma work: staying in the moment; being mindful, aware, and awake; regulating (or not responding to) one's rising and falling emotions and reactions; embracing community and shared humanity. 

I've also found that the concept of beauty helps me survive as a trauma worker. Truth with a capital T leaves me staring starkly at the reality that evil exists in our world and that humans are capable of the darkest deeds. Beauty on the other hand leaves me feeling a transcendent, vibrant immediacy. As Nietzsche said (paraphrasing), the world is filled with amoral power; all we can do is create pockets of beauty in this broken world. When I see a beautiful sunset, eat amazing food, witness charity and love, or play joyfully I am transported away from any thoughts or sensations of Self as separate. I feel like a formless receiver of that which is beautiful right in front of me. When I am deeply touched or moved by another person, the boundary between Self and Other becomes porous. I resonate and connect with the other, and somehow this experience is healing. It softens the boundary between Self and Other, but when our Egos reconstitute, they are somehow more whole... And thus we return full circle to the importance (and beauty) of bearing witness to another's suffering naked, raw, open, egoless, but reconstituted.