How Did It Happen?

Understanding and Healing Abuse in Buddhist Communities

Why Buddhist Communities Need to Understand Trauma (And 7 Top Books on Trauma)

Understanding trauma in Buddhist communitiesWhen a spiritual teacher uses extreme teaching methods like hitting, slapping, and beating or seduces a student using coercion, trauma can occur.

Trauma is not voluntary.  It’s an automatic response to a sense of threat orchestrated by the body and brain.  Some people are more susceptible to trauma than others, as explained below.

Buddhist communities need to understand trauma so judgment does not come into play when someone makes allegations of abuse, and compassion arises instead.  Because judgment, denial, and aggression towards those who feel harmed, may worsen their trauma.

That’s not to say that every person who complains has been traumatized, but many have.  And trauma imprints and dysregulates the nervous system so trauma survivors can suffer symptoms for years to come.

In addition, trauma is far more common than you might imagine, both development trauma, which originates in childhood, and shock trauma, which occurs in response to an overwhelming event that happens at any time during your life. An individual may not even realize how the imprints of trauma silently direct their life because trauma sometimes remains hidden within their unconscious mind.

Many people who come to Buddhist centers carry a history of trauma, which can make them more susceptible to future trauma.

These statistics on abuse begin to illuminate the scope of the problem, and they do not include the emotional damage that occurs from development trauma, which can occur from not having your emotional needs meant during your early years.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence.  A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.

Let’s look at the difference between developmental trauma and shock trauma, so we can better understand our own emotional wounds, extend a hand to others who have been impacted by trauma, and create healthy Buddhist Centers that protect people from trauma.

Developmental Trauma and Shock Trauma: What’s the Difference?

You may associate trauma with catastrophic events, but a different form of trauma, developmental trauma, can occur early childhood.  Both types of trauma can effect your capacity for nervous system regulation.

Developmental trauma ranges from not getting your basic emotional needs met during specific stages of childhood development to full-on abuse or neglect, often called C-PTSD or Complex PTSD.  Complex PTSD may also involve misattunement and/or shock trauma as described below.

Many of the impacts of child abuse or neglect are likely to be obvious, unless the experience has been repressed.  Most individuals who survive abuse or neglect carry a heavy burden, until they enter into a healing modality that brings relief.

Developmental trauma occurs as a result of misattunement from caregivers during specific stages of childhood. Misattunement manifests in many different ways. To give you a feel for what it means, consider these two examples: a child who never feels fully nourished or soothed and a child who is constantly controlled when he’s attempting to exercise autonomy.

As we’re generally eager to adapt and avoid pain, the repeated experience of misattunement can lead to the development of a less than optimal emotional survival style, which a child will likely carry into adulthood.  For example, as an adult you may struggle in a specific way in relationships, find it difficult to establish your identity in the world, or manifest as a dynamic but authoritarian leader prone to anger.  You may never realize the link between your childhood experiences and your problematic behavior as an adult.  You may even minimize or deny the problems.

Shock trauma, which can but does not always lead to a formal diagnosis of PTSD, occurs at any time in life when your capacity to cope with threat is overwhelmed by an event such as torture, war, sexual abuse, a physical attack, a life-threatening accident, or natural disaster. Some people will also develop trauma symptoms in response to common life experiences like job loss, death of a partner, parent, or child, divorce, or betrayal.

Psychologists believe that in our earliest years – from conception to around five years of age – all trauma is both “shock” and “developmental” in nature because it effects neural development and a child’s capacity for self-regulation of the nervous system as well as identity formation.

Why Are Some People More Susceptible to Trauma?

Some people are more resilient to trauma than others.  If you bounce back from trauma easily, please don’t assume this to be the case for everyone. As Peter A. Levine, PhD explains:

When it comes to trauma, no two people are exactly alike.  What proves harmful over the long term to one person may be exhilarating to another.  There are many factors involved in the wide range of responses to threat.  These responses depend upon genetic make-up, an individual’s history of trauma, even his or her family dynamics.  It is vital that we appreciate these differences.  Simply knowing that certain kinds of early childhood experiences can severely diminish our ability to cope and be present in the world may elicit compassion and support rather than judgment, both for ourselves and others.

When people in our Buddhist communities feel harmed, we need to reach out to them with empathy and understanding, instead of assaulting them with anger and blame, or attempts to discredit them.  Understanding trauma will help us do so.

Best Books on Healing from Trauma

In the last decade, there’s been a revolution in the understanding and treatment of trauma.  I would like to share with you the books that have helped me understand trauma and how it can be healed.  Many of them are written by the new pioneers in the field of trauma, who have brought mindfulness, compassion, and the neurobiology of science together to form highly effective treatment modalities.

I hope they help you understand how trauma can come into play when extreme teachings methods are used by Buddhist teachers.

If you feel highly traumatized, you may find it difficult to read books about trauma.  Trust yourself.  Safety is the first rule in trauma therapy.  Don’t push yourself to do anything or read anything that activates your nervous system or triggers flashbacks.

But if you want to know more and feel ready, these are the books I recommend.  Some focus on shock trauma and others on developmental trauma.  Some are self-help guides and others are more scholarly.  If the first title doesn’t feel like the right fit, read on and consider the others.

As you explore this information about trauma, remember each person’s journey is individual and unique.  An approach one person finds healing may disrupt your nervous system.  You might find the therapist your friend recommends an insensitive beast.  Trust yourself.  Always remember, your safety is more important than going along with anything or anyone that doesn’t feel right to you.

1. Healing from Trauma:  A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life by Jasmin Lee Cori

Jasmin Lee Cori is a psychotherapist and trauma survivor herself.  A kind, understanding, gentle voice permeates Healing from Trauma.  I recommend it highly for that reason alone. Healing from Trauma is primarily oriented toward C-PTSD and Shock Trauma.  It doesn’t mention a few of the important therapies that have been developed in subsequent years, like Organic Intelligence and the Neuro-Effective Relational Model.  But it’s still highly relevant and a comprehensive guide written especially for trauma survivors.  Each chapter contains a synopsis and exercises for understand and healing.

Book description from Amazon:

Healing From Trauma book“While there are many different approaches to healing trauma, few offer a wide range of perspectives and options. With innovative insight into trauma-related difficulties, Jasmin Lee Cori helps you: Understand trauma and its devastating impacts Identify symptoms of trauma (dissociation, numbing, etc.) and common mental health problems that stem from trauma Manage traumatic reactions and memories Create a more balanced life that supports your recovery Choose appropriate interventions (therapies, self-help groups, medications and alternatives) Recognize how far you’ve come in your healing and what you need to keep growing Complete with exercises, healing stories, points to remember, and resources, this is a perfect companion for anyone seeking to reclaim their life from the devastating impacts of trauma.”

You will also find many helpful articles on healing trauma at Jasmin Lee Cori’s blog

2. Healing Developmental Trauma, How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller, PhD and Aline Lapierre, PsyD.

This book and the next provide brilliant adaptations and modernizations of the Five Character Structures originally formulated by Wilhelm Reich, a prominent student of Freud.  The personality style or patterns presented in these works represent automatic, body-based reactions —conditioned responses from childhood — which you employ to protect yourself from distress when you feel overwhelmed.  Instead of revealing who you are, they hide who you are.  Unlike static identifiers, these style or patterns can be healed, allowing you to embrace your unique gifts and live in wholeness.

While still highly accessible to everyday people like you and me, this book provides more specific context for clinicians than the next one.

Healing Developmental Trauma bookBook description from Amazon:

“Written for those working to heal developmental trauma and seeking new tools for self-awareness and growth, this book focuses on conflicts surrounding the capacity for connection. Explaining that an impaired capacity for connection to self and to others and the ensuing diminished aliveness are the hidden dimensions that underlie most psychological and many physiological problems, clinicians Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre introduce the NeuroAffective Relational Model® (NARM), a unified approach to developmental, attachment, and shock trauma that, while not ignoring a person’s past, emphasizes working in the present moment. NARM is a somatically based psychotherapy that helps bring into awareness the parts of self that are disorganized and dysfunctional without making the regressed, dysfunctional elements the primary theme of the therapy. It emphasizes a person’s strengths, capacities, resources, and resiliency and is a powerful tool for working with both nervous system regulation and distortions of identity such as low self-esteem, shame, and chronic self-judgment.”

3. The Five Personality Patterns, Your Guide to Understanding Yourself and Others and Developing Emotional Maturity by Steven Kessler

This is another remarkable adaptation of Reich’s Five Character Structures expressly written for everyday people rather than clinicians.  This book focuses on the kinds of developmental trauma experienced by the vast majority of adults.  Some are affected to a lesser degree and others find their life dominated by unhelpful survival responses.

The 5 Personality Patters bookBook description from Amazon:

This book marks a major advance in the psychology of personality. Suddenly, you can see what’s going on inside people: you can see what motivates and matters to them and how to influence and communicate with them successfully. Finally, you have a simple, clear, true-to-life map of personality that gives you the key to understanding people and interacting with them successfully. The 5 Personality Patterns is a book that can change your life.

Much of our human suffering is not necessary. It is created by old safety strategies that helped us survive our childhood traumas, but then got stuck in our bodies. Reinforced by the power of habit, they continue to shape our actions and personality even today. They have become an invisible prison. We live our lives trapped in that prison, repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

As we attempt to understand the psychology of success and become successful ourselves, studying the habits of successful people is not enough. To create real self transformation, we must dissolve the obstacles to success buried within us. To reclaim our power and regain control of our lives, we must uncover the old safety strategies and patterns that still run our lives so that we can heal and transform them.

Often, these patterns have shaped us so deeply that we think that’s who we are. But in fact, they cover up our true self and prevent it from shining out into the world. Finally, we have a map of these patterns, a map that will help you:

  • Discover how you got stuck and how to get free
  • Heal your core wounds
  • Learn the skills you missed
  • Communicate effectively with others
  • Develop emotional maturity”

Read my synopsis of The 5 Personality Patterns in this post:  How to Heal Your Unhappy Personality Patterns

4. In An Unspoken Voice:  How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter A. Levine, PhD

Peter A. Levine changed the world of trauma treatment with his first book called Waking the Tiger.  He’s the  originator of Somatic Experiencing, a body-based trauma therapy.  Levine’s work helps people listen to the unspoken voice of their own bodies and release blocked energies trapped within the body at the time of trauma.

In An Unspoken Voice bookBook Description from Amazon:

“In this culmination of his life’s work, Peter A. Levine draws on his broad experience as a clinician, a student of comparative brain research, a stress scientist and a keen observer of the naturalistic animal world to explain the nature and transformation of trauma in the body, brain and psyche. In an Unspoken Voice is based on the idea that trauma is neither a disease nor a disorder, but rather an injury caused by fright, helplessness and loss that can be healed by engaging our innate capacity to self-regulate high states of arousal and intense emotions. Enriched with a coherent theoretical framework and compelling case examples, the book elegantly blends the latest findings in biology, neuroscience and body-oriented psychotherapy to show that when we bring together animal instinct and reason, we can become more whole human beings.”

5. Healing Trauma, A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body by Peter A. Levine, PhD

This book shares Levine’s Twelve-Phase Healing Trauma Program.  It’s a small book, 90 pages in length, that guides you step-by-step through healing exercises like finding your body’s boundaries, grounding, centering and others.  A CD of the exercises comes along with the physical book.

Healing Trauma bookBook Description from Amazon:

“Researchers have shown that survivors of accidents, disaster, and childhood trauma often en endure lifelong symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to unexplained physical pain, fatigue, illness, and harmful “acting out” behaviors. Today, professionals and clients in both the bodywork and the psychotherapeutic fields nationwide are turning to Peter A. Levine’s breakthrough Somatic Experiencing® methods to actively overcome these challenges. In Healing Trauma, Dr. Levine gives you the personal how-to guide for using the theory he first introduced in his highly acclaimed work Waking the Tiger. Join him to discover: how to develop body awareness to ‘renegotiate’ and heal traumas by ‘revisiting’ them rather than reliving them; emergency ‘first-aid’ measures for times of distress; and nature’s lessons for uncovering the physiological roots of your emotions.’Trauma is a fact of life,’ teaches Peter Levine, ‘but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.’ Now, with one fully integrated self-healing tool, he shares his essential methods to address unexplained symptoms of trauma at their source—the body—to return us to the natural state in which we are meant to live.”

6. The Body Keeps the Score:  Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Parts of this book are written in memoir style as Dr. van der Kolk recounts his three decades of experience treating survivors of shock trauma and the research he’s conduct on trauma over the years. He explains how your brain functions after trauma and shares a variety of healing modalities, including therapies and lifestyle changes like collective movement, music, and ritual.

The Body Keeps the Score bookBook Description from Amazon:
“Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments—from neurofeedback and meditation to sports, drama, and yoga—that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score exposes the tremendous power of our relationships both to hurt and to heal—and offers new hope for reclaiming lives.”

7. The Emotionally Absent Mother:  How to Recognize and Heal the Invisible Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC

Like Cori’s Healing from Trauma, this book is written in a caring, conversational tone.  It’s a self-help guide that examines what a child needs from a mother, explores what happens when mothering goes wrong, and provides an overview of the healing process, showing you how you can care for your own unmet needs.

Emotionally Absent Mother bookAmazon Book Description:
“Was your mother preoccupied, distant, or even demeaning? Have you struggled with relationships—or with your own self-worth? Often, the grown children of emotionally absent mothers can’t quite put a finger on what’s missing from their lives. The children of abusive mothers, by contrast, may recognize the abuse—but overlook its lasting, harmful effects.

Psychotherapist Jasmin Lee Cori has helped thousands of men and women heal the hidden wounds left by every kind of undermothering. In this second edition of her pioneering book, with compassion for mother and child alike, she explains:

  • Possible reasons your mother was distracted or hurtful—and what she was unable to give
  • The lasting impact of childhood emotional neglect and abuse
  • How to find the child inside you and fill the “mother gap” through reflections and exercises
  • How to secure a happier future for yourself (and perhaps for your children).”

There are many other books on healing trauma and different treatment modalities.  These however represent some of the most important books in the field of trauma and recovery.

If you have suffered or are suffering from any form of trauma, my heart is with you.  I hope something you read here will support and encourage you.

If you are skeptical of people who have reported abuse in Buddhist organizations, I hope this brief view of the dynamics of trauma will help you understand the harm that many victims experience.  Your experience may be radically different than theirs, but this should not invalidate their experience.

I deeply wish that everyone, and especially the leadership in Rigpa, could come to understand the experience of trauma so we collectively can move toward healing and move away from judgment and blame.

To further understand the dynamics of trauma, I recommend reading:  Why Didn’t They Leave?

This article was adapted from a post that originally appeared on Always Well Within.

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4 Comments

  1. Bernie Schreck

    Thank you Sandra for compiling this extensive resource!

    When I look back at my spiritual path what stands out for me is that I neglected to cultivate deep enough self-understanding, especially of baggage like traumas that I brought with me.

    This kind of understanding helps to foster a healthy and mature ego (sense of self) which I believe is necessary to be able to engage in the more advanced aspects of spiritual practice like service, surrender and faith and to reach a true realization of selflessness and non-duality and emptiness of inherent existence.

    Most people in the modern have unresolved traumas, and often they are repressed to the extent that it takes a lot of inner work to even see them. I feel that anyone truly interested in spiritual practice will benefit from looking at whether they carry unresolved traumas with them and, if they do, to try to understand and heal them.

    • This is such an important point, Bernie, the way that peoples’ traumas can be repressed. If we can understand and heal our traumas, it can make such a significant difference on our spiritual path so, really preparing us to move on to more advanced levels.

      • Thank you so much for this informative article Sandra. Sadly, I feel that those who are remaining in their protective shell of judgments, are too afraid to open up to any possibility that would challenge their perspective. However, there are those who will gain tremendous benefit from the wisdom in this article, and personal benefit from the suggested resources.

        • Thank you so much, Sam. It’s not easy to open up our protective shell. I understand. I’ve been there. By providing information like this, I’m hoping to make a little crack in those shells, however. And I hope someone who is in pain and confusion will indeed benefit.

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