A friend of mine was recently giving a seminar to a group when a shooting occurred in the shop next door. A man was killed and bullets penetrated the wall between the two rooms. People were understandably frightened, and she did her best to maintain calm.
Since the incident she has experienced unexpected moments of anxiety along with emotional and physical shakiness. These trauma-induced sensations and feelings happen in a present moment free of any threat, a present moment that is profoundly impacted by something that happened in the past. Because she has considerable self-awareness she has been able to figure out what has triggered the anxiety (on one occasion she was driving toward the general area where the shooting took place.) Knowing this does not stop the involuntary response of her body and emotions, so she is going to get help from healers skilled at assisting others with releasing trauma from the body, mind, and heart.
I’ve been thinking about this friend as I regularly read posts on Facebook admonishing everyone to “let go” of the past and “move on.” (Two pieces of advice, which even when they may be well intended and not entirely inappropriate, are about as helpful as telling someone experiencing tension to “relax.”) Generally, we are not masochistic. If we are able to let go and move on, we do. If we haven’t it’s because something more than a snappy slogan or spiritual ideal is needed.
Being fully present helps us live fully and deeply, enables us to find, cultivate and co-create peace within ourselves and the world. The decision and desire not to be perpetually traumatized or limited by the past is an instinctual desire for expanded life and freedom. But there is a real risk in believing in or stating this as if a simple mental decision or spiritual aspiration to let something go will or should instantaneously banish the effect of past experience on our present inner condition. In fact, insisting that we or others can and should “just let go” can be a way to reject the present moment when something uncomfortable that is related to or an echo of our past is arising. That’s not being present with what is. That’s denying what the present moment holds and clinging to the ideal of emotional amnesia (even as we cloak it in more “spiritual” terms) in the understandable hope that we can avoid pain and suffering.
Sometimes, what arises in the here and now is being profoundly affected by an experience we had there and then. If we repress awareness of how a past experience is sparking a reaction in the present moment because we believe we “should” have let go and moved on by force of our will, we become an unwitting menace to ourselves and others. Free will choice is directly proportional to conscious awareness of what is.
When I was a young woman, I was raped. I can honestly say that the only thing that sends even a ripple of fear through my body about that past incident now is seeing the man who raped me (I was once in my car at a stop light when he walked across the intersection- he did not notice me) or seeing someone built like him (he is a distinctive six feet seven inches tall) when I am in a place that may be potentially unsafe (like walking home alone at night.) But even on the rare occasion when this happens, the healing work I have done with skilled practitioners around this part of my past enables me to breathe into and be with the fear that arises, evaluate any present danger and recognize a reaction that is influenced by the past. I am also, these many years later, able to welcome these minute flashbacks as opportunities to feel and release residual trauma that is still held in the deepest recesses of my body, mind or heart.
I am confident that my friend will be able to release the trauma of the shooting incident. She has the knowledge, resources and willingness to seek skilled help, and she is doing so shortly after the incident. When past trauma is more severe, (and this is both subjective and related to the relative power we did or did not have at the time) when it was repeated, chronic or in the distant past, bringing it to consciousness and releasing it from all levels of being can take some deep and extended excavation. And that requires skilled assistance and great courage.
Like all organisms in nature we are built for healing, designed for surviving and thriving. We are incredibly, astonishingly resilient. We really do have the capacity to be present with whatever is in this moment- even when what is present is a memory or feeling about something from the past. There is no need to qualify our commitment to being here and now- we can be with this moment completely, even when it is coloured by what happened there and then.
Oriah (c) 2012