Trauma, Empathy, and Compassion

“In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet… who is this person?  It is the True Self.  As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart.  You will never lose the sense that something is lacking.  Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are.  This is the objective of Life.”  – Sekkei Harada, Zen Master

Our accepted sense of ourselves in the world is that we are separate objects in a world of separate objects.  This is what our senses tell us and this is what our culture reinforces.  This is a misperception that both the wisdom of the ancients and modern quantum physics and cosmology inform us must be corrected if we are to realize who we truly are and to find our place and purpose in the Universe.  We are individualized expressions of a complete unity that is the Universe as is every life-form and as is every material form.  We are systems of perfect harmony and balance at many levels of organization from the sub-atomic to the molecular to the cellular to the collection of sub-organisms and organ systems coexisting within the complete organism that is a single human being and beyond, reaching into vast cosmic levels, yet at the psychological, familial, social/cultural, national, trans-national and ecological levels, we fail to experience and express this unity and harmony.  Something is happening at the psychological level that amounts to a disconnecting trauma that must be understood and corrected.  To experience ourselves only at the level of the boundary contained within the skin and as this separate and striving person in our minds is to be lost in the vastness and complexity and to be exiled from the experience of the harmony and balance.

Every animal has this experience of skin-boundary separateness, yet this does not throw the organism out of its sense of harmony with its environment, with its own or other species, or with itself, except for humans with their far more complex psychological sense of identity (ego).  This problematic experience of separateness in humans is essentially a psychological state of isolation, and if we are to identify what trauma is, it has to be as degrees of solidification of this sense of psychological separateness and vulnerability that generate the emotion of fear, and fear causes contraction deeper into the separateness and isolation.  And so, a feedback loop of injury and fear causes increasing psychological isolation from our true essence of Beingness in connection with all that is.  Our “True Self” is unable to make contact with others and the world, and this is what Buddhism points to as “suffering” and why we feel insufficient and life as unsatisfactory.

Trauma therefore can be understood as injury in the development and functioning of the psychological ego-structure that causes a sense of separation, as broken connection from our True Self and the True World, which in turn causes the ego-structure to contract and solidify around a story of the injury and isolation which in turn intensifies the experience of broken connection to others and to Life itself.  This, of course, leads to great dysfunction and harmful relationship with self and others.  It can be seen, in fact, as the root of mental illness, and here I designate mental illness as not only the extreme manifestations our culture allows as such, but the cultures themselves and what the cultures consider the “normal,” yet terribly dysfunctional way we conduct our lives and run our societies.  What is mental illness, after all, if not a delusional state of separateness from this sense of security and connection that is the true core of every human, amplified by the story of separateness and competition that has been the story of human cultures from the dawn of civilization?

This “traumatization” begins in the slow and persistent process of acculturation and socialization of an infant and small child using their fear of separation to essentially hypnotize into the child stories about who they are in the world based in their vulnerable separateness, a process that continues throughout a person’s life.  We come to believe and experience the world as a dangerous place in which we must become skillful combatants and manipulators and that those who cannot be skillful combatants and manipulators will be victims.  We thus begin sorting out into who will be socially dominant and effective and who will be insufficient and ineffective.  Injuries begin to pile up, and for some the injuries are of such amplitude that they qualify for the identity of “victim with PTSD” and this identity is in itself a great injury, causing an even deeper sense of isolation.  Yet who, in all this is not a victim, and who does not suffer the trauma of the terrifying sense of separateness and vulnerability against which we engage so many ineffective and often destructive tactics to ameliorate?

Very powerfully and paradoxically, while trauma separates us, it can then also be a powerful force for connecting groups of people who SHARE a sense and story of their own traumatization, and we can see what is currently being identified as “tribalism” as the grouping together of individuals into shared victim identity and this can be a very dangerous phenomenon.  An individual who identifies as a victim can be a very dangerous person precisely because they have no sense of their own validity and strength that comes from feeling connected and in balance with larger systems than themselves.  They therefore believe that if they are to assert themselves they must summon powerful emotion and engage all the ego’s defense mechanisms including projection, rationalization, denial, and displacement in order to have even minimal effect, thus their “defenses” translate into offensive and dangerous behavior.

This is why those who are the perpetrators of so much trauma to others have in some fashion inevitably been victims themselves of the trauma of ego-damaging insecurity.  No person who is secure in their sense of inner harmony and connection with others is going to be so dangerous.  This is equally true with collectives who live within their own perceived story of victimization – even including those groups who actually hold power, for they perceive at some level the illegitimacy of their dominance and they project threat from those they dominate.  It is a truth that nearly every human being carries a story of their trauma and so too, every collective carries some story of the need to solidify around and defend their separateness from those perceived as threats – and, of course, perception becomes reality.  Trauma begets more trauma and the insanity spins on.

So here humanity is, in the beginning of the 21st century.  Individual mental illness is rampant, collectives within our American society and within the global community feel threatened by and hostile toward each other, our social institutions are dysfunctional, running on unquestioned momentum yet failing to support humanity while demanding that humanity support them.  Humanity’s broken connection with Nature is about to set loose a cataclysm of disaster upon the ecosystems that humanity and its fellow life-systems depend on and that support our societies, and we are set on a course of disaster that we do not seem able to alter.  Yet – we can.  For if the problem is broken connection, the solution has to be in reestablished connection, and for this we must look to the most precious of human capacities – empathy.

Empathy is the opening of the ego-boundary to encompass the subjective reality of another where there is no “me” separate from “you” or “it” – there is only this moment of Life in shared identification.  We all know what this moment is for we have all experienced it.  It usually happens quite by accident in the finding of commonality with another human – or even with an animal with which we invest common comfort such as our pets.  We see the sacred right to life and happiness, the right to not have suffering inflicted.  We feel what it would be to have that suffering inflicted, and so in that moment could not possibly bring harm.  Empathy is an opening of receptivity to the commonality of another in this terribly vulnerable experience that is Life, and from this resonance in the inner psychological field arises compassionate action so as to heal the rifts in the actual world.  And it is here in the recognition of our common fear-based functioning and the damage that it causes that we can find common cause and action, calling us to common compassion.  We must let down our guard to be actually present with each other in our common vulnerability to reassure each other we have nothing to fear when we have recognized our bonds of connection that need to be healed and strengthened.

Our task as evolving beings is to bring this capacity for empathy increasingly into our lives with every encounter – and with it, our capacity for compassion, the action that naturally arises from empathy.  We must come face-to face with the inauthentic egoic-self that has brought us to this historic and evolutionary crisis and restore it to its proper function and dimensionality as servant to us, rather than we as servant to it.  We must find our way to meeting our True Self – as individuals and as human collectives.  Can there be any doubt that in the vast Universe of harmony that humanity HAS to find and express itself as this same harmony?  Lost, however, in our unawareness, our unconsciousness, seeing only outer form, unaware of shared inner essence and interconnectedness, we spin on, caught in the inevitability of acting out the stories of our perceived threat from each other and from Nature, mechanistically acting out our own demise.  Humanity faces the very real possibility of social and economic collapse, possibly even serious mortal threat to entire populations in the coming century – unless we find the capacity to reinvent human society away from the violent competition that causes individual and collective traumatization, into social systems based in empathetic, compassionate and healing connection among human groups and with all of Nature.  We must find the courage and faith to reopen our ego-boundaries to allow the energy of Life to flow through us unimpeded as it does through every life-form, to open the false boundaries between human individuals, groups of humans, and humanity with Nature.   We must receive each other in empathic embrace, acknowledging the wounds we have inflicted upon each other, the trauma imposed and passed from generation to generation in individual defensiveness, in tribal hostility and suspicion, in violence of every imaginable magnitude from subtle interpersonal insult, to demeaning, threatening, exploiting and objectifying each other, to our institutions dehumanizing and exploiting us, to bitter tribal political and religious antipathy, to war, genocide and ecocide.  Compassion must mark the new era of human civilization.  Empathy must be employed universally to heal our trauma and set humanity on the course toward a new and flourishing era as expressions of True Self.  As Master Harada said “This is the objective of Life.”

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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