One of the reasons I like to give lectures is that I have no idea exactly what I’m going to say.
Sure, I’m prepared. I have outlines and notes, but I never read from them—it’s not my style, as I just can’t give the exact same talk twice. Plus I’ve learned that giving a lecture is often more about what seems to grab the audience’s attention than it is about sticking to the topic. It’s fun to stay open to what people are doing, especially when they ask questions.
Back in April of 2009, I was giving a talk at Boulder Integral, one of a number of institutes and centers based on Ken Wilber’s groundbreaking Integral Theory, which teaches how to view the world from lots of different perspectives. These perspectives can include a personal view about how things feel; a scientific view about what research reveals; a moral view about what seems right and wrong; a developmental view about how mature someone is in how they think, feel, or relate; a “states” view about what state of consciousness someone has (like happy, sad, drunk, in love, etc.); or a “types” view about what type of person someone is (like more masculine/feminine, or more introverted/extroverted), all combined and interconnected.
The Boulder audience was as usual a fun, appreciative, diverse group of individuals, couples, therapists, Buddhist monks, dance teachers, and relationship/sexuality enthusiasts. The subject of this talk was how masculine and feminine energies spark erotic polarities—arcs of energy between the masculine in one person and the feminine in another person. If you are a more feminine person and a masculine person’s interest catches your eye and you smile back, you two have likely sparked a tiny erotic polarity. You can feel the current of energy that seems to pass between you, even if it’s very tiny and only for a couple of seconds. These erotic polarities happen all the time and influence us in countless ways.
At the end of my talk, I was answering questions, and one man raised his hand and asked:
“How do you heal traumatic memory?”
I paused for a second, because this was a tough, important question. Traumatic memories can be programmed, unbidden, when some kind of extreme emotion sears feelings, thoughts, memories, and defensive reactions into our nervous system. I once had someone pull a gun out and stick in my face (it’s a long story), and for months after that terrifying incident, every time I got into an elevator with a stranger, I’d have a flash of fear and an image of a pistol coming out at me. This traumatic memory took a long time to fade. If cued by reminders of the event (for me it was seeing a stranger in an enclosed space) you can instantly flash back to the original trauma and panic. Memories, images, thoughts, and impulses—all those awful reminders you never wanted to have again might flood your senses.
The clinical term for traumatic memory is something you’ve probably heard before: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It happens to about 15 percent of those who’ve suffered through a horrific event. Some first responders to the World Trade Center on 9/11 have it. Some combat veterans have it (during World War I, it was called Shell Shock). Anyone who’s had a particularly terrifying or traumatic event in their lives (like a violent traffic accident, an assault, or a shock like seeing your beloved grandfather’s body at an open-casket funeral when you’re six) can develop PTSD—especially if your nervous system easily dissociates (spaces out) in response to shocking and scary experiences. PTSD disrupts your life, but it can be resolved with the right kind of attention, and that’s what I wanted to get across to my questioner.
So I told him: “Every time we recall something, we’re not exclusively remembering the original event, but instead are largely remembering the last time we had the memory. This means we alter memories each time we recall them.”
I paused for a moment to let this sink in, remembering how this new understanding of memory blew my mind when I first discovered it. I went on: “This can enormously help you if you let yourself reach for compassionate understanding when traumatic memories pop up. Let’s say your traumatic memory is about being physically beaten by an abusive parent—always accompanied by shame, rage, and your deep desire to make the memory go away. If, each time you remember the event, you reach for compassionate understanding of yourself and the people involved, even your out-of-control, raging father, over time the compassion will accumulate and the memory will be just that—a memory—but not a traumatic memory that paralyzes you with fear and horrific images.
“As you do this, memories keep having more compassion associated with them, which you can add to by always reaching for still deeper compassionate understanding. After a while, the memories gradually lose their power to upset you. You increasingly see them as parts of your unique life that have contributed to the wonderful person you are.”
I heard a murmuring in the audience, which often happens when I talk about how adding compassion can radically alter the emotional charge and meaning of memories. The idea that memory is an ongoing process—and that, over time, you can dramatically alter the meaning as well as the emotional charge of events—is a somewhat world-changing concept if you haven’t heard it before.
I went on:
“In other words, we don’t have to try to fit things together; we don’t have to have genius breakthroughs; and we don’t have to white-knuckle the original, horrible emotions—just ‘tough it out’ when we feel panicked—to heal our PTSD. Think about how liberating this concept is. It means that PTSD victims of violent disasters, sexual assaults, war, or abuse, who usually believe that they will be burdened for life due to horrible events that really happened and can’t be completely forgotten, can heal from them with the right kind of consistent attention.”
Seeing people nodding, I went on, “Those who suffer from PTSD often come to therapists, certain that they will never get better. The vivid, horrific images and the intensely painful feelings they flash back to are so intrusive and debilitating that people despair. ‘Help me get rid of these memories,’ someone might entreat me. ‘I don’t want to ever think about it again!’
Luckily, I can tell them that, though PTSD traumas are rarely completely forgotten, they can be integrated into our life stories so we don’t freak out each time we remember them. By reaching for compassionate understanding whenever a traumatic memory surfaces, slowly but surely, our brains and bodies will naturally integrate even the most horrible experiences into coherent parts of our personal life myths.”
Walking a little closer to the group, I added, “If we reach for compassion each time the memory surfaces, and relax and let our nervous systems take over, they’ll do the integrative work for us—all we need do is let it happen.”
Suddenly, I had one of those light-bulb moments, and stepped back to catch my breath.
“Of course!” I thought, “Compassion is like a key ingredient in a complicated dish, only you can’t add too much.Regularly adding compassion to our memories is the perfect recipe for integrating not only trauma, but our whole past, present, and future!”
I quickly turned toward the audience and said,
“Add compassion and let it happen. It’s the perfect recipe! No matter how nasty, bitter, intrusive, disgusting, infuriating, or terrifying a memory is, all we have to do is keep adding compassion when it shows up. Eventually it will taste just fine.”
Okay, so there was a lot of laughter at that point. It’s easier to learn and be open to new concepts if you’re relaxed and having a good time. In some ways the notion of making traumatic memories taste fine is a pretty out-there concept. But many people were also nodding their heads and smiling in understanding.
What all this means is that healing past traumas, even of events or experiences that have been excruciatingly difficult or painful, doesn’t have to be complex or confusing—or even a big deal. As Buddhism has taught for thousands of years, loving kindness, based in compassionate understanding of others and ourselves, is what activates healing and spiritual development.
Add compassion and let it happen—the perfect healing recipe.