Recognizing and Working with Trauma in a Meditative Setting

Ego – defined as the “small self”, or the individual that perceives him or herself as solid, real, and separate from other people, animals, plants, and rocks – creates the foundation for Zen practice.  Without ego, there is no Enlightenment.  There is no falling away of the boundaries between self and other.  There is no experience or feeling of the intimacy and deep caring of all phenomena.  Acknowledging and recognizing the central role of ego is an important first step to Zen practice.

Recently I have begun training in teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga.  Understanding trauma has been especially useful when I teach yoga and meditation to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, and I feel the understanding and recognition of trauma is sadly often over-looked by many Buddhist teachers including myself[1].  This diminished awareness of the widespread occurrence of trauma in people who come to either a Zen center or a more secularly oriented space, makes it difficult for those teachers to see the hurdles many people face in taking the first step – knowing the ego[2] –  to Zen practice (or any meditative practice).

According to one article[3] complex trauma – emotional, sexual and physical abuse, neglect, the witnessing of domestic violence, or war – has both immediate and long-term effects.  Some of the symptoms of complex trauma found in adult survivors include substance abuse, difficulty communicating wishes and needs, dissociation, autoimmune disorders, anxiety and depression just to name a few.  Most concerning is the often (not always) confusion of complex trauma with ADHD, because they have such similar symptoms.  Yet the treatment of a pill for someone with complex trauma does not touch the roots of the problem.

When any person comes to a Zen center or a meditation center for the first time, they may or may not have a diagnosis of complex trauma.  Given the interdependence of our world, however, I think it’s safe to assume that if a person has not been directly traumatized, they know someone personally who has.

Many experienced Zen or meditation teachers are eager to share meditation techniques with those who come through their doors.  Most have seen first-hand how meditation has had a profound effect on their mind, perhaps helping them to regulate their emotions or some other benefit.[4]  They also know – if they are well trained – that these benefits are not the aim of practice, but a doorway.

How would a teacher share meditation with someone who has complex trauma?  If they have some understanding of what that person has been through, then they may see that this person before them has most likely not had the opportunity to make effective decisions for themselves in the past.  Learning to make effective decisions has been denied to someone with trauma.  Trauma happens because of the inability to make a decision.  For example, a young girl cannot choose to kick her father out of her room at night.

Trauma – caused by a lack of choice – produces developmental challenges that persist into adulthood.  The person’s ego has not fully formed, and they are not at that first step of practice mentioned above.  They cannot study the self because their self is not fully developed.[5]

How would a teacher who understands the dynamics of trauma work with a new student (or even a more seasoned student)?  According to Trauma Sensitive Yoga theory, the teacher would do well to provide choices to the student.  What this actually looks like in practice is more than I wish to write about here.  Suffice it to say that a student who is given permission to make their own choices with regards to yoga or meditation practice is given the opportunity to indirectly address an unmet need that goes back to early childhood.  A student who is given an opportunity to make a choice – to direct themselves as opposed to being directed – is given the opportunity to take a foundational step on the path of their own awakening.


[1] It took me several months of teaching Zazen at a Drug and Alcohol In-patient Rehab in central Pennsylvania to realize that lack of discipline was not the issue.  For the clients I was working with, more than 90% of them had suffered from childhood trauma in the form of sexual or physical abuse.  For more information on causes of addiction see, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Mate.

[2] Zen Master Dogen says in Genjo Koan, “To study the Way is to study the self.”  Whether this is correct or not, my interpretation of “self” here is ego or small self.  If my interpretation is correct, then it’s interesting to note that Dogen, in the 13th century, places self at the foundation for his famous four-part statement:  “To study the Way is to study the self.  To study the self is to forget the self.  To forget the self is to be one with the myriad things.  To be one with the myriad things is to realize no-barrier between self and other.”

[3] “Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents,” Alexandra Cook, PhD, et. al.  In Psychiatric Annals, May 2005.

[4] It should be noted that it is problematic to do meditation for the sake of gain or the many documented benefits of it.  It’s not that there are no benefits, but that when meditation is approached for this sake, it undercuts the dynamic process of meditation.

[5] In working with addicts I noticed a mismatch between physical maturity and psychological maturity.  It often felt like I was working with a 13-year old in the body of a 30-year old.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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