Trauma & Healing

Blog by Valerie Cloud Clearer

As some of you know, I have been writing a book (or it’s being written through/with me may be more accurate language ), so I have felt less inclined to blog. Today I thought I’d adapt a chapter from the book into a blog, since I haven’t written directly about the Indigenous science of trauma in blog form before. It was my PhD topic (and much of my lived experience), so it has taken many years to be able to succinctly express some of the ideas. I hope it resonates with you.

forgiveyourselfTrauma’s meaning, causes and methods of healing differ by culture and cosmology. In Western science, trauma is typically defined as profound wounding that damages a person’s ability to trust in life and self, resulting in existential crises[1]. Trauma is encoded in brain pathways rooted in fear/terror and disgust/ aversion. Feeling fear is intended to protect us from life-threatening danger, so our nervous systems rev up and prepare for crisis. Trauma causes our nervous systems to activate stress hormones when danger isn’t present, creating flashbacks, emotional volatility, strained relationships, re-traumatising experiences, and severe stress[2]. Primary trauma occurs for a person who directly experienced it, and secondary trauma for family and friends. There’s also intergenerational trauma. A typical Western healing approach is individual counselling, with some alternative approaches including other family members, or integrating art therapy, body work, or EMDR[3]. The underlying idea is that by surviving trauma, we can become more resilient individuals.

In Indigenous science, all disease including trauma is indicative of “disruption in the natural order of humans’ interactions with the spirit world,” such as failure to honour the spiritual realm, failure to honour one’s ancestors, neglecting cultural rituals or religious ceremonies, or losing faith in the Creator[4]. Where Western scientists seek cures of diseases and treatments for trauma, Indigenous scientists view trauma and diseases as potential gifts of healing that can offer important insights about how to live well and bring new wise leadership into a community. Where Western science views a personality or ego as the centre of an individual being, an Indigenous medicine person or ‘shaman’ views a person’s eternal spirit as the centre of being. That is why the heart is at the centre of a medicine wheel, to remind us that we are connected to ourselves, each other, and all of Creation.

In Indigenous science, to try to make trauma ‘go away’ through suppression, denial, or taking drugs (legal or illegal) is denying an important spiritual initiation needed by an individual and their community[5]. Experiencing and healing trauma includes all our relations, human and non-human. Through my Ph.D. studies on Indigenous scientific approaches to healing trauma (which included Indigenous healing ceremonies and apprenticeships as well as Western scientific research), I found four underlying causes of trauma in Indigenous science:

  • Disconnection from the Earth;
  • Unhealed ancestral trauma;
  • Soul loss; and
  • Shaman’s illness.

hardtimeReconnecting to the Earth, healing ancestral trauma, and Shaman’s illness have been covered in previous blogs, so let’s discuss soul loss. In Indigenous science, traumatic experiences propel us into terror and dissociation, creating “soul loss,” meaning that we are no longer fully present in ordinary reality because parts of our spirit have split off, fled, or gotten lost. “Soul” is understood to mean ‘consciousness’.[6] To live with soul loss means we are not consciously whole in the moment, that parts of us are frozen in an unresolved past, causing us to lose energy and feel disorientated, weak, anxious and depressed, and to exhibit signs of mental and emotional illness. We may have internalised punishment or protectively hidden parts of ourselves that were unsafe to express, or internalised poisonous emotions like anger, bitterness, envy, fear, greed, hate, intolerance, pride, rage, resentment and vanity that need to be released [7].

findingyourselfOur task as healers is to allow alchemy to occur so that sh*t we are carrying in our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits can instead turn into fertiliser for ourselves and others. By consciously choosing to move into terror and aversion/disgust when we are in a safe space, we can reconnect with lost soul parts. In doing so, we gain knowledge that expands our individual and collective understanding of ourselves and our world. This is seen as the sacred calling underlying a ‘shaman’s illness’. Trauma is seen as a spiritual offering of a huge amount of energy that can redirect us into a new identity like a phoenix rising out of ashes. Indigenous healers are called ‘medicine people’ or ‘shamans’ because through healing trauma we embody medicine by living in a wiser way and offering support to others who are struggling through similar wounds.

We heal by consciously going into our traumatic states in a safe space. We are born being able to express few sounds, and similarly much of the traumatic energy of re-birthing ourselves is preverbal. Indigenous traumatic healing requires us to access profound, primal energies, to re-member ourselves by moving through layers of pain, being with and expressing chaotic, violent, pre-conscious and unconscious energies through visions, bodily sensations and movements, and dream-like states of consciousness outside of a Western cosmology.[8] Trauma gives us the ability to enter into altered states of consciousness, and by transforming that gift from sh*tty triggered experiences of traumatic dissociation into a skilful powerful method of connecting with the ethereal, spiritual, sub- and un-conscious realms, we gain access to profound wisdom and aspects of life that others do not experience.

Exercise: Reflect on a traumatic experience you have had. How did it change your understanding of yourself? Your place in the world? Of life itself? See if you can reflect on a deeper level of consciousness through relaxing into a drum journey.

[1] See e.g. Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[2] See e.g. Kirmayer, L., Lemelson, R., & Barad, M. (Eds.). (2007). Understanding trauma: Integrating biological, clinical, and cultural perspectives, pp. 118-141. Cambridge University Press.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_movement_desensitization_and_reprocessing

[4] Monteiro, N. & Wall, D. (2011). African dance as healing modality throughout the diaspora: the use of ritual and movement to work through trauma. Journal of Pan African Studies4(6), 234-52.

[5] See e.g. Kopacz, D. & Rael, J. (2016). Walking the medicine wheel: Healing PTSD. Tulsa, OK: Millchap Books.

[6] See e.g. Cervantes, J. & McNeill, B. (Eds.) Latina/o healing practices: Mestizo and indigenous perspectives, pp. 139-174. New York, NY: Routledge.

[7] Nuñez, S. (2008). Brazil’s ultimate healing resource: The power of spirit. In Cervantes, J. & McNeill, B. (Eds.) Latina/o healing practices: Mestizo and indigenous perspectives, pp. 139-174. New York, NY: Routledge.

[8] See e.g. Culbertson, R. (1995). Embodied memory, transcendence, and telling: Recounting trauma, re-establishing the self. New Literary History, 26(1), 169-195.

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