Summary: In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., explains that traumatic experiences leave behind traces, large or small, on our minds, emotions, and bodies. Trauma, which is characterized by deep rupture, helplessness, and disconnection, produces actual physiological changes that infringe upon our capacity for joy and feeling alive in the present moment. Contrary to popular belief, willpower is not enough to process and untie the neurological knots formed by traumatic experiences. Trying to suppress unwanted thoughts, more often than not, backfires as the effort to rid ourselves of them can become even cumbersome and consuming, creating additional layers of guilt.
Instead, he suggests, we must learn, often with the help of a trained therapist, to revisit the trauma without becoming re-traumatized. By returning to the trauma in a safe way, we can learn how to integrate it into our awareness in a way that it does not unexpectedly grip our thoughts. It is possible to transform the memories of trauma from acute awareness to latent awareness, from the front burner to the back burner, so that it does not hijack our well-being.
The best way to rework the effects of trauma on our brains is a combination of three avenues: 1) top-down: by reconnecting with others, ourselves, our Creator and the natural world; 2) by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate physiological alarm systems; and 3) bottom-up: by allowing the body to have experiences that contradict the visceral rupture, collapse, and helplessness that characterize the trauma. Which one of these is best for any particular survivor at any given period requires trained expertise and some experimentation.
Why this is The BEST: There is an ancient parable that illustrates the capacity of trauma therapy to help people move on from a disturbing experience:
Two monks, one young and one old, were making a pilgrimage to a holy place. They were determined to stay silent throughout the four-day trek. On their journey they came to a river and saw a young woman drowning. The older man jumped in to rescue the woman, and carried her back to the shore. He continued walking without saying a word. Two days later, the younger man turned to the older man and broke the silence: “We are not permitted, according to our law, to make physical contact with a woman! Why, then, did you carry her?” The old monk looked at the young monk and said softly: “I set her down at the side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”
Many of us, rabbis especially, are recovering from a period of prolonged halakhic triage. As the pandemic shifts to the rear-view mirror, and I reflect on some of my experiences, this parable helps me work through some of the conflicting feelings that I have about relying on so many sha’at hadehak halackic positions in such a short period of time—from suspending tefilla be-tzibbur to answering my cell phone on Yom Tov. While I followed the general directives of our esteemed poskim, there is still some lingering unease about the myriad of difficult decisions that I was involved in. Did we make the right call in not allowing children into our shul? Could we have kept the community closer together by taking a slightly different path? I don’t know.
I feel a lot like the young monk, carrying a lot of residual trauma as I replay in my mind many moments and decisions marked by intense uncertainty, conflicting values, and very high stakes. I am trying to move towards the mindset of the older monk whose wisdom, self-awareness, and life experience gives him the tools to process the crises in the river and his unflinching response to it with confidence and calmness. He knows that he did the right thing in the moment—he saved a human life—and that was the will of the Creator for that particular circumstance. He understands that certain laws must be suspended for the sake of more important ones. With this disposition, he is able, at least in my interpretation of the parable, to will himself to just move on with equanimity and wholeness.
Setting down the drowning woman on the side of the riverbank, physically and mentally, did not mean that the older monk let go completely of the experience. Rather, in light of van der Kolk’s theory, I believe that he was able to process the discomforting sensations in his mind and body in such a way that disarmed them from clouding his thoughts. He was able, in a top-down fashion, to reconnect with himself, his companion (even in silence), and with his creator. In a bottom-up fashion he was able to drop into his body through the physical exertion and exercise of hiking, which enabled him to release some of the physical tension that was generated by the rescue mission.
I desperately want to push the moments of brokenness, insecurity, and helplessness out of my mind and to keep functioning as if nothing happened, but I cannot. I cannot use my willpower to just “set down,” the time I performed a burial by myself, with a shovel in one hand and a large grieving family watching on zoom through a phone in my other hand. Van der Kolk shows that willpower is not enough to process and untie the neurological knots formed by traumatic experiences. Instead, we need to both pay attention to our felt sense and allow our bodies to shed the stress and tension that we absorbed, and we also need to integrate the memories into the present in order to neutralize them. These techniques are especially useful in processing the kinds of experiences that we have recently endured.
As I continue to struggle to regain control over the residues of trauma from this tumultuous period, van der Kolk’s ideas help me heal and move towards more self-mastery and equanimity. May they help others, as well.
Noah Cheses is the Rabbi of Young Israel of Sharon, teaches at Maimonides School, and is pursuing a Masters degree in trauma counseling.
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