Overcoming Childhood Trauma

(by Ninja) There is a lot of buzz among doctors and therapists across a broad range of the healing arts about childhood trauma and its persistent impact on our minds and bodies as adults. It is the central subject of a new documentary film by Gabor Maté, The Wisdom of Trauma, which investigates this subject with clarity, depth, and a style of filmmaking that is ultimately modern and thoroughly engaging. To paraphrase Dr. Maté’s definition, childhood trauma is not only the traumatic events that occurred in childhood – while those experiences were certainly painful and significant, childhood trauma is also what happened to us as a result of those experiences. In other words, childhood trauma is the outcome from the original traumatic event or events, the imprint that we carry with us into adulthood, and which shapes our current view of the world.

The imprints of childhood trauma are not trivial. Many people suffering from addiction, depression, uncontrollable rage, inability to connect meaningfully with others, and other painful conditions, have turned their lives around by recognizing and addressing these traumatic imprints.  One of the most common traumas experienced by children in Western society, and significantly less in traditional cultures, is some form of abandonment. How does a child deal with this loss of connection, a connection that is so critical for its very survival? The fear, terror, and sadness could be overwhelming to a young child who naturally assumes that they have done something terrible that caused the adult to abandon them. To cope mentally and emotionally, the child has to disconnect from these feelings, to disassociate. As an adult, this individual may avoid entering into deep emotional relationships that carry the risk of abandonment, or if they do enter into such relationships, may constantly be on the lookout for any false move their partner might make. Further, having spent so much time in childhood disconnected and disassociated, they might find it very difficult as an adult to stay focused on the task at hand. With therapy, happily, these limitations can be overcome and a more conscious, fulfilling, and successful life are the result.

Erasing the imprints of childhood trauma can certainly make us happier and more balanced, but how do we understand this from a spiritual perspective? In other words, how has imprinting affected our ability to meditate and reach for enlightenment?

Rama – Dr. Frederick Lenz – spoke many times about the powerful imprints we receive as children, how a specific way of perceiving the world is passed from generation to generation. This perceptual conditioning gradually transforms the newborn infant who sees reality more directly into a dualistic perceiver, able to differentiate ”boy” from “girl”, ”right” from “wrong”, and “my toys” from “your toys”. Once we are imprinted (or ”conditioned”, these terms are interchangeable), we discard our innate ability to perceive other planes and dimensions of reality, in exchange for the necessary dualism that allows us to communicate and share experiences with all the other people on this planet who carry the same or similar imprinting/conditioning. Rama explains that the most significant imprinting occurs between the ages of zero and four, when our psyche is extremely pliable, but that imprinting is ongoing throughout life – we are imprinted by those around us, by our society and world at large, and especially by those with whom we have close emotional relationships.

Rama says in his talk on Modular Mysticism in the Insights series lectures, “Conditioning is responsible for what our life is. The totality of your life at this time is dependent upon what’s happened to you. What’s happened to you is your awareness now. Your current awareness is a reflection of everything that has occurred to you since the time you were born…Your parents, in other words, treated you growing up as their parents treated them, as their parents treated them, and so on and so forth. So what we have are reflections of reflections of reflections. These images are literally programmed into us from the time we are born.” The problem is that, unless our parents were advanced in their spiritual practice, this awareness is so limited! If we don’t find a way to move beyond the limited awareness that was programmed into us and which we consider to be our fixed personality, we won’t be able to enter into higher planes of awareness, to access the broader and deeper experiences of the many dimensions of reality that exist. Rama goes on to say, “We see what we have been taught to see. We perceive what we have been taught to perceive. Nothing is as it appears to be at all, except that perception makes it so. Perception is conditioning…What I’m suggesting is that at an age when we really have no choice in the matter, we are given a description of the world that is much more potent and much deeper than you might realize.”

In a sense, the conditioning that robs us of our ability to see the world in all of its multi-dimensional splendor is the ultimate childhood trauma. It is an act of spiritual violence, perpetuated from generation to generation, in the service of making our minds compatible with the dominant and extremely limited description of the world embraced by almost all people on earth.

So, as spiritual seekers and meditators, how do we move beyond our childhood conditioning, which has shaped our perception of reality, given us a limited description of the world, and which ultimately prevents us from entering into advanced states of consciousness? How do we get back to our original authentic selves? It’s not easy! First, we have to recognize that there is something beyond our limited description of self worth seeking, higher dimensional planes of reality, and this recognition occurs most easily in the company of an advanced teacher, who can show us directly by helping us open our awareness while meditating with them. Second, we have to have a burning desire to enter into those higher dimensional planes and leave our current description behind. Nobody can give us this yearning! But other people’s journeys can inspire us and make us realize that it is possible for a person to truly change, evolve, and maybe even reach enlightenment in this lifetime. Third, we have to do the work, and again this usually involves finding an advanced teacher who can demonstrate and hold up these planes of awareness for us to feel, and who may give us instruction and empowerment to apply to our daily practice. Then, over the course of years, we gradually replace our childhood conditioning with the energy of enlightenment. And we become someone other, someone happier, someone healthier.

Rama describes this process in considerable detail in his talk on Power from the On the Road with Rama series. He explains that overcoming our conditioning requires a re-imprinting. “The first steps in the process are accomplished with the aid of our spiritual teacher. If you lived in a world of completely powerful enlightened beings, then obviously you would have a clean imprint. But we don’t. We live in a world filled with poverty, suffering, war and unhappiness and transitory joy. So naturally, we receive that imprint, and we have to fight our whole life against that imprinting. But we need a new imprinting. We need the imprinting of enlightenment, of freedom. And that comes through our association with a higher being. So classically what occurs, is one meets a teacher—one who has knowledge. And that being will teach you how to overcome your old imprinting by changing your way of life and by teaching you the ways of power—how to store it, collect it, amplify it, how to stop losing it. By bringing enough power into your life, you will gradually erase or actually overcome your imprinting.”

What options are there for a person who wants to move past childhood conditioning, and meditate more deeply, but has never made contact with an enlightened teacher? As Buddhists, and seekers of enlightenment, we are privileged to have the ability to share an abundance of powerful and illuminating resources for overcoming imprinting, for becoming someone new, someone happier, someone released from the confinements of childhood conditioning and its aftermaths: a veritable treasure trove of talks, music, meditations, and videos created by an enlightened teacher, Rama! Childhood imprinting disconnects us from our authentic self, causing us to acquiesce to a limited view of who we are and what we are capable of; in contrast, studying with an advanced teacher plugs us back in to the essence of who we are: the pure energy of enlightenment. The more we access this energy, the more we release the happy inner child within us, the freer we become, and the more willing we are to trust life itself. As we learn to meditate more deeply we gain control of our emotions, until eventually we let go and move beyond emotion, to a mind that is brighter, more pure, and free from oppressive negative thoughts. It’s not long before we are having a lot more fun with life; trusting more, laughing more, and just not taking ourselves so seriously!

For more background on Overcoming Childhood Trauma, see Addendum.