Many folks that experience trauma during their developmental years turn towards spiritual practices and communities as part of their healing journey and this can be paramount for healing. Spiritual practices can broaden our perspective, help us learn to re-inhabit our bodies, let us experience secure relationships, and ignite a sense of purpose.
However, I often see folks who have entered into spiritual communities that end up immersed in problematic power-dynamics and harmful relationships by no fault of their own. The impacts of developmental trauma are complex and diverse; influencing our neurobiology, the way we engage in relationships, and our sense of self. Power-dynamics between spiritual leaders and spiritual communities can magnify or replicate these deep wounds. I believe it is the responsibility of the leaders of these communities to do their own work to ensure they are not replicating harm.
Sense of Self
Trauma though our developmental years can greatly impact our sense of self. Children commonly internalize the harm they experience as being with or within themselves. This makes sense when we understand that it’s extra threatening for a child to identify their caregiver or their environment as the problem. To do so would create a further sense of disempowerment - to be responsible is to feel more in control. Not only do these children have an insecure sense of self, they also typically have learnt to distrust their own thoughts and feelings.
With developmental trauma we often learn to bypass our own needs, emotions, and instincts while listening to and attuning to others. This wound can be replicated in relationships with spiritual leaders and practices that encourage bypassing.
Experimentation & Exploration
These deep rooted and faulty core beliefs can lead us to search for something or someone to accept us, create safety, and see us as worthy. This is where we may fall into the spiritual accumulation of leaders, gurus, systems, and practices. There is a very natural element to this type of experimentation and it is often something that children with developmental trauma didn’t get to do. Normally children and teens explore and experiment to see what personas, beliefs, and behaviours fit for them. For folks with developmental trauma this exploration was not safe because early on safety became equated with attuning to the caregiver and being whatever was needed. Self-exploration and self-expression are secondary priorities.
As adults if we haven’t had the privilege of experimenting from a place fueled by our own curiosity we are more likely to listen to an outside opinion over our own knowing. Taught to devalue our own worth and truth we unquestioningly attune to spiritual leaders and practices hoping they can teach us about ourselves.
With developmental trauma we often learn to bypass our own needs, emotions, and instincts while listening to and attuning to others. Another way this wound is replicated is in relationships with spiritual leaders and practices that unknowingly or knowingly encourage us to ignore or bypassing our pain. John Welwood, refers to this as spiritual bypassing, which is when spiritual practices are used as a way to avoid being with our wounds, pain, and developmental needs.
A personal experience
I recall a time when I shared with a Zen practitioner that I was struggling with a sudden somatic-memory recall of a sexual assault and that my body and mind were responding by sensing threat everywhere. Their response to me was “you are not your mind; you are not your body. Don’t pay attention to what they are telling you.” Luckily, at this point in my life and my healing journey I knew to ignore them.
Those words and that sentiment mirrored a childhood pattern of distrusting my own mind and body. Of believing others knew better and more about me than I knew about myself. It is blanket statements like these that are problematic and encourage spiritual bypassing and reinforce destructive patterns learnt in childhood.
Sure, I can appreciate the intention behind it and even admit there was a trickle of truth there; yes, my system (body and psyche) were reacting to a past experience as if it were occurring in the present moment but the resolution wasn’t found in disconnecting and ignoring my body’s innate warning system.
I found resolution in acknowledging my systems threat response, from being present to and honouring my felt sense and my fear. Resilience was regained from having a relationship with myself where I trusted that I needed to feel my feelings and sense my sensations while acknowledging that in this moment I was in fact safe (obviously I didn’t do this work with them because they were not safe).
The problem is that their words and teaching lacked nuance, it lacked the understanding of trauma, particularly developmental trauma, and it risked causing more harm than good. Luckily, being a trauma-educated therapist and someone who has been on my own healing journey for decades, I knew to listen to how my body pulled away and closed off with their opinion. Ironically, it was by listening to and not dismissing my body’s responses that I knew to disregard their words.
Later, I would find something written by John O’Donohue that helped explain how I approached this particular somatic-memory in a deeply intimate and spiritual way that incorporated being with my feelings and my body:
“A reverence of approach awakens depth and enables us to be truly present where we are. When we approach with reverence great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty of things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us.”
Being in reverence with ourselves is deepening our relationship with what it. It is the difference between being who we are versus being who we think we should be. It is leaning into our valid experiences, comfortable and uncomfortable, that allows us to make contact with something else. We can connect to the mystery of spiritual practices and inject them with a particular curiosity to what naturally unfolds instead of taking another’s words as our truth or learning to ignore our instincts. Reverence allows us to go with the natural order of things in the way that nature is chaotic, mysterious, beautiful, intricate, and full of possibilities. We learn that healing like trauma can be chaotic, messy, surprising, and complex.
We discover that healers are not authorities. That spiritual leaders are not all-knowing. They are not meant to shame us into being better at spirituality; rather, they're meant to help us connect to the wisdom, resilience, and capacity intrinsically within us.
We learn that reverence lies in opposition to materialism and comparison. That reverence is a state of being and a calling that comes from within and gets magnified outwardly the more we share it. Reverence is not learned, it is earned in remembering our wholeness - which has always existed.