on spirit and dissociation (part iii)

From last time, on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything: “But if Ehrenreich really does just chalk it up to physiology, why include the emotional precursors, without the influence they had on her biochemistry? Are we supposed to note them silently, empathize, and nod our heads in agreement with her biochemical rational, her “Then one day, apparently selected on the basis of incidental physiological factors,” as if it had nothing to do with the emotional events she just detailed? Maybe we are.

On her mystical experience:

The amazing thing about the world, it struck me then in my radically dissociated state, was that I could walk into it. And thanks to my history of dissociation, which had accustomed me to strange and scary places, I was not afraid to go right on into it, one foot in front of the other…. Nothing could contain it. Everywhere, “inside” and out, the only condition was overflow. “Ecstasy” would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

And after:

The mundane was back to its old business of turning out copies of itself—one pretty much like the one before it—but anyone could see that effort was hopeless, that the clunky old reality machine would never work the same way again. I knew that the heavens had opened and poured into me, and I into them, but there was no way to describe it, even to myself.

first there is a mountainThat’s it. This blissful, altered state that can kick in is experienced as, and in my opinion, can be, a spiritual state. This sort of dissociation is a spiritual state that protects the sufferer from being flooded by more pain than he can process. It can happen when memories or emotions are triggered, and it can happen during an actual event.

In January I reread Elizabeth Kadetsky’s First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance. I read it about a decade ago and wanted to read it again for the political stuff (e.g. Iyengar and the RSS) I only half recalled. It’s worth a read, though like everything, has its problems. When I finished, I googled Kadetsky to see what she’s been doing since. I came across this piece she wrote in 2009 for the NYT: “The Art of Defying Death.” It’s about how her yoga practice affected her experience of being followed into her apartment building and attacked. Just after she was knocked down she regained consciousness and screamed for her life:

What happened to me next in that lobby seemed no less numinous an experience than the single pointed mind-state described by the adepts as Samadhi. This is sometimes characterized as “pure awareness.” The thrill of it is said to be a manifestation of spiritual, mental and physical harmony — which may be why the medievals called yoga “the art of defying death.” Tennyson described Samadhi as “the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words.” I was in possession of no less miraculous a power than what stopped the elevator in that dream. The man paused, mid-punch. As if in reverse motion, he then coiled backwards, slowly, his center of gravity solid and low. Assured, with graceful footsteps, he loped back out that door, and then disappeared into the black night.

One person’s Samadhi is another’s dissociation. This wasn’t lost on Kadetsky:

Flashbacks, like the Samadhi described by Tennyson, exist outside the realm of language and cognition. This, say trauma therapists, explains why survivors often manifest unresolved memories of trauma in non-verbal ways — for instance as inexplicable pains in the body or through a dissociative escape reflex. Samadhi is mimicked in “moments of spiritual or material emergency,” wrote Geraldine Coster, an influential British yogi and psychotherapist, in 1944. Contemporary therapists have noted a tendency for survivors to enter that state of “pure awareness” so celebrated by the yogis during, and then repeatedly after, a trauma. This, they say, can become a bad habit. I learned this when, eventually, I did go in for counseling for P.T.S.D.This paradox has been acknowledged elsewhere. A “survivor who used dissociation to cope with terror” may eventually learn to use a “trance capability” towards otherwise enriching ends, allows Judith Herman, a pioneer psychologist in the study of trauma, in her seminal book Trauma and Recovery.

But taken as a survival mechanism, it’s not a paradox. When we are pushed past a space we can cope with rationally and emotionally into a space where we have no control over our own bodies, it seems quite a beautiful mechanism, this dissociative response. So Geraldine Coster was on to this over seventy years ago. (Oh look, in the 1940s she wrote a book called Psychoanalysis for Normal People, as well as Yoga and Western Psychology.)

For a young child who experiences this Samadhi-like ecstasy, who survives repeated trauma in its protective haze (I myself don’t experience this dissociation as “pure awareness”), remembered or not, there remains a longing for this blissful state. The mundane no longer suffices, especially if folded into a half-self of defensive protections and repressed emotions. Instead of meeting emotions, triggers and memories head on, we cling to a longing for spiritual bliss, for magic and otherworldliness. We seek it because we’ve been there, it held us, quite literally saved our lives, and we want it back. If you think it seems similar to falling into some cosmic oneness, you’d be right. But as Ehrenreich explains:  “You can never fully recapture it ever again.”

Because we’re here now. On earth, in real time, drifting in the mundane. If we want to engage in our lives fully, we need to set the longing aside and work on the difficult business of engaging in life, our emotions, our relationships, our potentials. We need to do the work. To do this requires a healthy ego, healthy separateness, and healthy attachments, which many traumatized children weren’t able to acquire developmentally, so they live a little too close to cosmic oneness to thrive in real time.

Next time, perhaps some thoughts on the slipperiness of non-attachment, non-separateness, and non-ego practices for trauma survivors, as well as a response to a comment on the last post asking how to not dissociate when it feels so good. Since writing these last three pieces, I’ve read a very helpful book on healing traumatized children that beautifully explains the dissociative response and the natural opioids that are released when it occurs. While he definitely wouldn’t call it spiritual, he does mention offhandedly that traumatized teens often seek the mystical. More on that to come.

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