This spiritual experience business is difficult. How to explain the relationship I see between trauma, specifically dissociation, and spiritual experience? It feels clumsy.
In March, I happened on a book by social activist Barbara Ehrenreich: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. It helped, and I’m going to lean on it because it is precisely what she’s missed that I want to talk about.
Ehrenreich was “trained as a scientist” (she has a PhD in cellular immunology). We know, consciously or not, what this means in our culture. It means she learned what she was supposed to learn in the way our society deems most valuable. We no longer look to religion or God for answers, but to science. Never mind that science is as easily corrupted and used to manipulate people as religion. I mean no disrespect to scientists. They know very well how little we know and how few answers we have.
Ehrenreich found she couldn’t resolve her “search for the truth about everything” through science. After she finished her PhD, she became a journalist with a fiercely rational, atheist bent. In Living with a Wild God, she tries to reconcile a mystical experience she had as a teen with her intensely rational world view:
It hadn’t been until I reached my forties that I discovered that what happened to me, or something very similar, has also happened to many other people, and that some of them had even found ways of talking about it, although usually in a vocabulary and framework foreign to me, if not actually repulsive. The conventional term is “mystical experience,” meaning something that by its very nature lies beyond the reach of language, except for some vague verbal hand-wavings about “mystery” and “transcendence.” As far as I was concerned—as a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training—this was the realm of gods and fairies and of no use to the great human project of trying to retain a foothold on the planet for future generations.
Or, as she says in a previous paragraph, it has little to do with how to reduce the amount of cruelty in the world.
[If you want page numbers, drop me a line. WP doesn’t footnote well. All quotes are from Living with a Wild God.]
The book is of special interest to me because her hyper-rationalist lens used to be my primary defense mechanism and is still very much at play in my psyche. This defense forecloses the ability to engage fully in life (as defenses tend to do) and to see the bigger picture. How, I’d ask Ehrenreich, are we to reduce cruelty in the world at large if we are not open to our own pain and emotions? She tries to speak of her younger self’s suffering empathetically, but it comes off as stilted by her rationality:
My mother’s first suicide attempt, in early September 1964, barely grazed me, which is to say that I successfully fended it off. I didn’t give much thought at this point to other people’s emotional states, except as a subject for theoretical exploration, and least of all hers, probably since I’d expended so much of my childhood energy trying to avoid being sucked into her personal vortex of anger and disappointment.
This is what we rationalists do. We make a story to justify why we cannot explore not only our mother’s pain, but our own. Or worse, to pretend that we have. While Ehrenreich may come off as rational and cool, her last sentence (and perhaps the entire book) suggests a wound she wants us to acknowledge. But how can we take it in when she can’t? To be fair, how does she process it, shaped by a culture that rewards concretism and rationality and punishes sensitivity and emotion? She makes clear that rationalism got her through life quite successfully and she respects that, holds on to it. But she also makes clear that an important part of her feels numb and not quite alive.
Ehrenreich details a chaotic, sometimes violent, sometimes loving childhood that she escaped by dissociation. In this case, by thinking:
The original lure of thinking was only in part as a tool for problem solving. The main thing was that it beat the alternatives—panic, for example, and terror…. When I must have been eight or younger, I had a rule: “Think in complete sentences.” No giving way to inner screams or sobs—just keep stringing out words in grammatical order. This was a way to keep from going under when the waters were rising, for example, on one of those pale winter Sunday afternoons that my father spent “resting” on the couch, drinking until the rest deepened into what we euphemized as sleep….
I get this. By age five I’d deduced there was no tooth fairy, no santa claus, and no God. They just did not make sense, practically. By thirteen, I was curious about Buddhism. The idea of spirituality without a God struck at something deep within me. By twenty, I was no longer an atheist, more agnostic, and that grew into a belief in something sacred and, largely, too ineffable to explain. Basically, I believe something sacred runs through all life. It encompasses good and bad, is neither and both.
This belief is symptomatic of a different sort of dissociation within me—a split. One part of me is stubbornly rational, and another spiritual and intuitive. Healing this split is something I work on here.
Dissociation has a few psychological meanings. It can refer to splitting, which is commonly explained as seeing people or things as all good or all bad, instead of holding both. But it can also be splitting parts of ourselves we can’t hold at once, as in my example above, or, say, our need for closeness and our need for space. Everyone uses the splitting defense at times. At its extremes, it shows up in multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative personality disorder).
Dissociation can also refer to a detachment from reality. It can be a mild sense of feeling disconnected from the world, which most people experience at some time in their lives. It can be more extreme, as in the disorienting experience of floating or fuzziness some trauma survivors have during and after a traumatic event, or Ehrenreich’s mystical experience of intense other-worldliness and bliss.
This was my first understanding of dissociation, this sense of floating up and away from my body and what’s going on in the here and now. It was explained to me as an intense escape from my physical and emotional experience, especially if something threatening nears consciousness. It is also a defense against intense, unfathomable emotional and/or physical pain. You’ve heard about people floating up out of their bodies and watching a traumatic event from above, as if they were looking down on someone else. This is also dissociation. It is associated with the “playing dead” or “freeze” response (see van der Kolk).
What you don’t hear about this kind of dissociation is that it can feel really good. The muscles, often overly rigid in a trauma survivor, go all soft, and the mind goes fuzzy and light. It can be blissful.
I’ll stop here, for an eye break. To be continued next week.
*Readings of Donald Kalsched have also influenced this piece. I’ll get to him later.