CW/TW: discussions around trauma, soul wounds, intrusive thoughts, personal demons, mental illness, healing journeys
I remember when a lilt in someone’s tone, a certain phrase, a touch on the “wrong” part of my skin would feel like the sky crashing down. Sometimes I would be hurtled backwards through time, images and sounds booming through my mind. Other times an agony would spread all across my body, causing me to shake or clench my fists, a howl trapped in my chest that would bring me to my knees. Then the voices would come: “You failure”, “You monster”, “You deserved it”, “You’re worthless”, “No! Make them suffer!”, “You’re in danger, get away from them!” And on and on it went, a tumult that would send me far away from the present moment, my limbs reacting, my speech responding, in ways that people could not understand, or frightened them.
Things changed for me, slowly. It took a lot of work, multiple types of work simultaneously and oftentimes rigorously, but it happened. In this article, I’d like to share some of the work with you, specifically the spiritual and non-Western forms of healing in regards to trauma and the cognitive distortions that come with complex and chronic trauma. During these times of collective pain and grief and fear, when a virus ravaging the land may itself be causing new wounds in our soul, new traumas to heal from, perhaps we can take this time to add more tools into our medicine cabinet. Or just rest, my dear ones. I’ve been doing plenty of that, and that also is a large portion of healing work.
For those curious and as rested as you’ll ever be, read on. I’ll briefly be describing some Western theories of trauma and non-Western understandings (indigenous and Tibetan Buddhist, mostly). I’ll go into descriptions of personal rituals that worked for me, though I highly encourage at least one witness to follow you on this journey, even if they’re just listening on the phone or through video chat.
I also want to name some of the teachers whose words directly influenced my understanding– to offer my gratitude and also in case you would like to do some reading or training as well. In regards to indigenous understandings, I owe my life to the works of Eduardo Duran (Healing the Soul Wound), Renee Linklater (Decolonizing Trauma Work), Francesca Mason Boring (Connecting to Our Ancestral Past), Malidoma Patrice Somé (Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community; Of Water and Spirit; The Healing Wisdom of Africa), Grace Nono (Song of the Babaylan), and being in the presence of communities of healing guided by Elder Harry Snowboy, Elder Juliana Snowboy, and Elder Blu Waters. My understanding of trauma from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective (Kagyu, Nyingma, and Shambhala lineages) is from the works of Machig Labdrön, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Lama Tsultrim Allione. In regards to Western theories of trauma, I learned from Staci Haines (The Politics of Trauma), Pete Walker (Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving), Judith Lewis Herman (Trauma and Recovery), the Somatics Experiencing Trauma Institute, and peer support training with the Psychiatric Survivors of Ottawa.
[The section on Western Views of Trauma was taken out for this excerpt.]
Non-Western Views of Trauma
Indigenous worldviews also talk about an external force. It’s not so much an event, as it is a spirit or force that severs your connection with your Self, your communities, and Creation. This severing is done in such a way that your attempts to heal yourself only keep hurting you, since you’ve lost the larger perspective that your communities, Ancestors, and memories would have given you to heal fully.
Soul wounds are not about biological vulnerability— it’s about how each person is unique and each wounding is unique based on how and what happened to them and their communities. The focus is also more on who and what has done the wounding, how they (whether it is the spirit of institutional oppression or racist strangers) can be stopped and healed. Some of the external forces also have a spiritual aspect that becomes internalized– these become personal demons that, when a soul wound is reopened, feed on the emotional energy coming out of that wound by ripping it further open through interpreting the original event as the person’s fault, and that they should harm themselves and others around them.
Healing the soul wound requires a journey of reconnection— to the love of and offered by Creation, to one’s safe and trusting communities (which also includes Ancestors, plants, animals, minerals, technology, etc), and to one’s Self (which includes the different parts of memories that have been severed— sensation, images, behaviours, emotions, and meaning). If there are personal demons feeding on the soul wounds, sometimes healing the soul wound also requires a journey of transformative/restorative justice and accountability for the ones who have done the wounding, as well as confronting the personal demons and transforming them. This healing journey is most effective in ritual or ceremony with trusted community members and healers.
In the Tibetan Buddhist views that I’m familiar with, trauma is part of the suffering of life due to a human being’s attachment that breeds false hope and constant fear, as well as the forgetfulness of remembering that we are all one existence– all part of Creation. The external forces that sever us from Creation can also be understood as manifestations of our own internal forces that can be met with compassion and love, as well as using skilful, realistic, practical action in our day-to-day lives.
For healing, meditation is the prime vehicle to work on staying present, while tantric practices like transmuting emotions into energy and Chöd (“cutting through the ego”) face the effects of the severing or confront the spiritual aspects of the external forces that caused the severing itself.
Spiritual Healing Practices for Soul Wounds & Personal Demons
I’m going to briefly present some spiritual healing practices that folks can do on their own or with a group of trusted people during an online gathering, over the phone, or in person. These are what I named some of the healing practices I want to share: 1) The Healing Altar, 2) Body Temple Work, and 3) Naming Soul Wounds and Naming Personal Demons.
The Healing Altar
- On a piece of paper, write your name in the middle and draw a circle around it.
- Then draw a larger circle. On the outside of the large circle, write or draw your concept of a loving power.
- Inside the large circle, draw/write your safe and trusting connections.
- Try to draw or write things that you could also get as a physical object to hold or wear.
- You can keep this paper and use it as part of your healing process.
- You can also use it as a rough draft and make a collage or more artistic version.
- You can also use it as a template and set up an altar in your room with all the objects. All you need is a shelf or table. Remember not to put anything else on that shelf or table except your healing objects, unless they’re also healing too! So no car keys, or mittens, or pictures of your ex.
- The purpose of the Healing Altar is to create intentions for your healing work, and also to visually/physically represent your sources of strength, your support network, and also how you are rooted in Creation even when you feel severed from it. You are loved. You are held.
Body Temple Work
- Try and draw out your own body on a piece of paper. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and you use a metaphor, like a tree, or a house, or a spaceship. What are the limbs? What is the torso? What is the head? What are the insides?
- If you feel comfortable with being inside your body, I encourage you to quietly do a body scan. Bring your attention from your feet to the top of your head. Start with your front, then your back, and then your insides.
- Now I want you to think about plants. Plants take in our carbon dioxide and they breathe out oxygen for us. Our connection to them is mutually beneficial and helpful.
- It’s the same with how our energy flows back and forth with our connections. Our anger, our grief, our terror– they can also be taken and we receive something back that can be peace and joy. Trees I find especially caring like this.
- For your Body Temple, I invite you to imagine how energy flows in and out of it.
- If it’s a house, do you sweep out the energy you don’t need, and open your windows to the energy you do need? If you are a tree, do you let the toxins out through your roots and draw up energy from the sun?
- If you did not draw anything but did a body scan, use your in-breath as drawing in peaceful energy and your out-breath as exhaling out energy you don’t need.
- For those of you who drew a picture, draw how you would protect your body temple. Is there a force field around your star ship? Is there a fence or alarm system on your house? Is there a fence and/or animals that guard your tree?
- What do you want to keep out of your body and what do you want in?
- How would you program the protectors to know what to let into your body and what to keep out?
- For those who did not draw anything, visualize a force field around your body, that you can change the way you change your clothes. Maybe choose a colour or texture, such as “red” or “metal” for wanting to block out people’s unjustified anger towards you, or “yellow” or “wood” for blocking out fear. Make sure that you still tell yourself you want to be open to other energies, just not the specific ones you shield against.
- How does this exercise translate to the kinds of people we want in our life? The kinds of social interactions? How do we verbally communicate and physically move to protect ourselves?
- How does this exercise translate to the kinds of food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicines and products we use in and on our bodies?
Naming Soul Wounds & Personal Demons
- Once you’ve created a Healing Altar for yourself and practiced Body Temple Work, you can sit down with a trusted person or with your Healing Altar, and begin to reflect on the patterns of your triggers.
- Sometimes it helps to start a journal, or ask people what they’ve noticed in regards to when you become triggered– i.e. the moment you begin reacting to a situation where you’re responding to a threat that isn’t there.
- Here’s how this process might look like, or how it looked like for me: First, I started to notice that I felt pain, like I was about to die, when I received any kind of criticism from a loved one or made a mistake with a loved one. After some careful work with journaling, counselors, and memory retrieving rituals, I found specific memories of chronic child abuse that wounded my soul around believing I should have been born and that I was inherently bad. I called this wound “the Monster”. I also noticed that I would have a “fight response”, or feel angry and do controlling, harmful behaviours towards loved ones when they couldn’t “be there” for me, even when it was reasonable boundaries they were setting. I went through the same process of journaling/counseling/ritual, and found other memories of child abuse and intimate partner violence that wounded my soul into believing that I always had to be the one taking care of others and then being abandoned, and that I was “entitled” to unconditional constant care. I called this wound “the Orphan”.
- Naming your personal demons is a similar process, but they are looking at the behaviours that you do from the wounds. For example, when something triggered the Monster wound for me, I had a behaviour where I immediately wanted to hide away from everyone and stop talking. I soon realized that was my personal demon of self-isolation. I had another behaviour where I would take lots of drugs, alcohol, or binge eat certain types of food. I named that personal demon addiction. When something triggered my Orphan wound, I had a behaviour where I would try to punish the person I perceived was abandoning me, a personal demon that I described as “make them suffer the way you suffered”.
- Naming our soul wounds and personal demons can be a slow, painful, vulnerable process, but it lays the groundwork for healing your wounds closed and transforming those demons into allies.
- When you start recognizing the wound, you can begin the process of noticing when it’s being ripped open by accident or on purpose. Then you can also start recognizing which personal demons flock to you when your wound is reopened. Through this naming process, you can be more clear about your boundaries and needs around your healing work while also taking responsibility for the impact you have on others when you are reacting to your personal demons.
What happens next after these three practices? Well, there are many more types of practices one can learn. Meditation is an amazing practice and skill, first to learn to notice and observe what’s going on inside your body, your emotions, how to react, and then for staying present in a situation instead of immediately reacting to a soul wound or listening to a personal demon. There are rituals you can do with healers where they can retrieve the piece of your soul that went missing, go back to the original memories with you, and “complete” or restore the soul piece, find the resolution that had been needed, help you create a lesson from it that doesn’t make you into the Monster or the Orphan. There are ceremonies you can do in regards to facing your personal demons, realizing what they really need to be fed, and feeding them so that they have the chance to transform into allies. There are ceremonies around accountability and forgiveness.
This process is lifelong, especially when there are continuous ways our soul gets wounded from the ongoing larger spirit of oppression that makes our personal demons look like dollhouses compared to the monolithic haunted house of, say, colonization. That’s why I really encourage collective healing and communal ceremony paired with direct action in conjunction with these healing practices (inspiration for the next article, perhaps?). We are all part of Creation– when Creation is wounded, so are we; when we are wounded, so i s Creation. Liberation and transformation happens together.
Want to read the full article and chat with me about this article during my livestream chat tomorrow, Tuesday March 31st, 5pm EST? Become a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/month to support my Elders and healing work among my communities.