Trauma and Spirituality
“When a man has learned within his heart
what fear and trembling mean,
he is safeguarded against any terror
produced by outside influences.”
-I Ching, Hexagram 51
“For in my flesh I shall see God.”
-Book of Job
Perhaps the best work done on the connection between trauma and spirituality comes from the chapter in Peter Levine’s book In an Unspoken Voice called “Trauma and Spirituality”. I’ve seen a few other people make this connection, including El Collie in her book Branded by the Spirit especially the chapter called “Cracking Up”, but mostly in passing and not nearly as direct as what Peter Levine does. Peter does say that he hopes to write a whole book on the subject since there is so much to write about. I hope he does. Here are a few tidbits from this chapter along with other pieces from a variety of sources which describe in more detail the connection between trauma and spirituality or the Kundalini awakening process.
Peter Levine starts by saying,
“Reestablishing these enlivening affects (the raw physical sensations, life energy-my insertion) is a central core of effective trauma treatment. Interestingly, it is also found in ancient healing practices, such as meditation, shamanism and yoga.”
As one dives deeper into the unconscious to reach one’s God Self, one often must pass through the layers of trauma that lie within, as Joan Harrigan shows in her graphic the Lake of Mind. Of course, one can bypass this layer along with bypassing the layer of one’s mythology and one’s shadow. Much has been written about the spiritual bypass but suffice to say it is a way to avoid dealing with the more difficult issues within.
Bypassing the darkness in the cave to get to the heavenly feelings of love and bliss is a short term solution. It is often noticeable in those who do, with signs such as passive aggressiveness, teeth grinding, a smile that doesn’t seem grounded, taking of medications to suppress symptoms, etc. We have all seen these in others and perhaps even ourselves. After facing these demons, I have great respect for the courage and community support it takes to make it through and for those who don’t have the ability or the resources to do so, the bypass may be the best option for the time being.
Shaking and trembling seem to be a common element between trauma and spirituality. The I Ching speaks about trauma and shock in this way,
“The fear and trembling engendered by shock comes to an individual at first in such a way that he sees himself placed at a disadvantage…this is only transitory. When the ordeal is over, he experiences relief, and thus the very terror he had to endure at the outset brings good fortune in the long run.”
Shaking and trembling happens when we are cold, anxious, angry or fearful. It happens when we make love and experience orgasm. And, it happens when we touch in to the divine as the energy courses through our bodies, hearts, and minds. Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz notes, “The divine psychic core of the soul, the elf, is activated in cases of extreme danger.”
Peter Levine continues and says,
“Trauma sufferers, in their healing journeys, learn to dissolve their rigid defenses. In this surrender, they move from frozen fixity to gently thawing and, finally, free flow. In healing the divided self from its habitual mode of dissociation, they move from fragmentation to wholeness. In becoming embodied they return from their long exile. They come home to their bodies and now embodied life, as though for the first time. While trauma is hell on earth, its resolution may be a gift from the gods.”
There is indeed a connection between terror and presence. In entering the field of trauma, the “rich portal of death”, one can reveal the treasure below the trauma. Peter Levine states,
“The ‘awe-full’ states of horror and terror appear to be connected to the transformative states such as awe, presence, timelessness and ecstasy. They share essential psychophysiological and phenomenological roots.”
Suffering becomes a doorway to awakening.
Through titrated body sensing one can open up to feelings of heightened focus, ecstasy and bliss. Again, Peter Levine says,
“In the East, the awakening of Kundalini at the first (or survival) chakra center has long been known to be a vehicle for initiating ecstatic transformation. In trauma, a similar activation is provoked, but with such intensity and rapidity that it overwhelms the organism. If we can gradually access and reintegrate this energy into our nervous system and psychic structures, then the survival response embedded within trauma can also catalyze authentic spiritual transformation.”
Christina Grof spoke about the “double edged experience” of spiritual emergence, which can veer between “madness and bliss, terror and divine presence”. If there is any one thing I’ve learned about how to manage these intense feelings it is having the ability to stay on the razor’s edge, maintaining just the right balance between terror and bliss. Too much terror and we lose; too much bliss when there is still terror and we become numb and ungrounded, for bliss can also be overwhelming. Just the right amount and one can experience a gentle but very powerful experience of full body-mind, physical-emotional-spiritual release of energy that courses through one’s being like a warm, tingling presence.
The symptoms frequently described in Kundalini awakenings share many with the symptoms of trauma: involuntary and spasmodic body movements, pain, tickling, itching, vibrations, trembling, alternations of hot and cold, changed breathing patterns, temporary paralysis, crushing pressure, insomnia, hypersensitivity to light and sound, etc.
What is interesting is that Peter Levine believes one can, through titrated body sensations, gradually feel these “oceanic” feelings without being overwhelmed whereas he says, “Kundalini awakenings are often more forceful and explosive than those I observed with my clients.” My own belief is that both Kundalini awakenings and trauma therapy can be done either gently or crudely. When one forces either or tries to go too deep too soon, one will experience more violent consequences. This has been true of my own trauma therapy and spiritual awakening.
Joan Harrigan says,
“For those with responsibilities in the world, the way of moderation is best. A sincere seeker who lives sensibly is not going to be pushed to the brink. In the interest of advancement, one would do well to support an efficient unloading process. Being a mere corporeal frame, there are only so many years that the body is going to be able to support the spiritual pursuit. So the sooner a person gets to advanced spiritual life, the more years of being an everyday saint they can enjoy. Therefore, if one can, one does well to keep as close to the edge as their reasonable capacity and duties in the world will allow.”
“Supporting a Kundalini process is a divine trust. It is a sacred responsibility in which the individual dedicates his or her life to the spiritual endeavor.”
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p.176
 I Ching, Hexagram 51, The Arousing (Shock, Thunder), Wilhelm and Baynes.
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p.16
 The Golden Ass of Apuleius: The Liberation of the Feminine in Man, von Franz
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p.356
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p.350
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p.350-351
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p.351
 Kundalini Vidya, Joan Harrigan, p. 151
 Kundalini Vidya, Joan Harrigan, p. 167