Beginning to understand … Trauma

By David Tresemer, PhD

Thousands of pages are written about trauma every year. Trauma has become a favorite subject in mainstream psychology. To begin to understand the phenomenon, let us build a picture of the human being:

To the receiving department of the soul’s kitchen, fresh cartloads of sensory impressions are brought—cartload after cartload, every moment. Just as one harvests a vegetable from the garden and removes the outer leaves and the stem as inedible, much of what comes into the receiving department is put to the side. From a cauliflower one might remove a third of its weight. From the cartloads of sensory impressions, one removes 99%, maybe more. Where do these go? The recycling department. We will come back to that.

The 1% is taken through the guarded doors to the preparation department of the soul’s kitchen. The many cooks evaluate what’s come in. They can use only what’s described in the cookbooks and recipes that they already have. The metaphor is straining, though still useful: the recipes are our pre-existing concepts about what we see and hear and perceive through all our senses. We build our recipes beginning from prenatal experiences (and perhaps before). Small variations of the known dishes are acceptable. A ragout can vary a bit, yet still be a ragout. Rarely something new is created. If there is no recipe or slight variation to accommodate the 1% from the receiving department, a portion of it—often a large portion—is sent away to the recycling department.

Rapidly, always rapidly, the cooks create mostly known dishes and send these to the dining area, through another set of guarded doors.

The dining room is where your consciousness sits down to consume what’s been sent in from the cooks. You recognize what’s been served. You consume it. This is what is meant by “food for thought.” You consume stimuli that have been prepared to look familiar. All the rest goes to that other place.

Some parts you photograph, the prepared object becoming catalogued as a two-dimensional memory. Some of these photographs find their way back to the recipe books, which change slowly over time. Some find their way to the important memory department, where some are hidden in the corners. Slowly over time most of them disappear.

Where does the waste go? What is the recycling department? Just outside the walls of the kitchen, close to the receiving department, there are furnaces where the raw materials (sensory impressions, as well as prepared packages that don’t coordinate with one’s consciousness this moment) are transformed into energy. Rudolf Steiner spoke of “a fury of destruction” beyond our conscious awareness. A life of calm, even to boredom, is accomplished by very active furnaces out of one’s awareness, burning up all but what is necessary to get one through the day.

A trauma occurs when some unusual power intrudes upon the sensory world, a Big-Wheels monster crunching over the cartloads of impressions as it rolls into the receiving department, and crashes right through the guards into the kitchen, and even past the second set of guards into the dining area where consciousness has been dining in peace. A trauma doesn’t have a recipe, at least not a familiar one. It can burst through the walls from the furnaces. It can overwhelm everything in its path. It can enter through thought (as in seeing something that feels desperately wrong) or through sheer sensory power (as via an explosion).

One of the most important points in an essay by Roberta Nelson and the late William Bento is that trauma can come either as one big event, a capital-T trauma, or it can build over time from an accumulation of little-t traumas.() The walls separating the flood of sensory stimuli from the furnaces of destruction, the formation of known items from previous recipes, and the storage in memory boxes—all of these fail.

I didn’t care for courses in perception and memory in college because I felt they weren’t asking the right questions. Very quickly, an instructor could demonstrate that human beings are a half-step away from being completely blind, deaf, insensate, and stupid, and thus prone to immense self-delusion. The instructors weren’t asking the right questions, one of which is “Why?”

Why does our perceptual system refuse and reject such a high portion of what comes our way? Why are our memories vague and fading? Why do we limit our present experiencing to old and familiar concepts and pictures? “Same old, same old” is how we live a great majority of the time. Why?

In anthroposophic psychology, we must ask this “why” question often. And here is an important hint on how to evaluate that repeated question: do not, as my university instructors did (and as many authors do), accept only answers that demean the human being. Open rather to the very good reasons that we are constructed in this way. You will begin to realize that each of us endures in the midst of an ongoing tsunami of intrusion (the receiving department) and destruction (the recycling department), every moment of every day. You can begin to probe past the edges (in my picture, beyond the walls and guards) and ask, “Who is running this system?” Another hint: chemicals and genes are but one level of workers; one can begin to sense the working of energies and beings beyond our normal perceptual capacities. And then, of course, ask “Why don’t I see these beings at work?” There are good reasons that this is so.

In relation to trauma, first evaluate your own traumatic experiences; and the hint is to look for who or what is right there at the bursting through of the walls that separate the psychic functions. Look not at the overwhelming stimuli themselves, the explosions and disruptions—you know those already. Rather orient around the edges to the presence directing the attack. What is the face, or the presence, attending the bursting through of the walls?

When you reflect closely on the scenes (which in this metaphor could be scanning the kept photographs of a traumatic incident), you might sense something recognizable; indeed, an angelic presence or a more advanced version of yourself. This is an advanced idea. It should not lead to “blame the victim,” not a whiff of that. It could, however, lead to questions such as, “What have you learned from your experience?” Or, “Who has guided you to dismantle the careful protections that you’ve had in your dining room, separated from the immense powers around you?”

This accords with the notion that one incarnates into this earthy realm not only to build a successfully walled system that rejects 99%-plus of all experience. One enters to tolerate and learn from experiences at the very edge of one’s tolerance. When experiences exceed one’s limits, what heals is the warmth that flows in caring relationships.

Even a hand outstretched in tenderness toward a client (or niece or nephew) suffering from after-effects of trauma can be misinterpreted as an attack, which is painful to everyone. One wants to find every way possible to assist sufferers to get their systems working again, even to doping drugs. However, anthroposophic psychology has much to add to this complex phenomenon. The fruit of this introduction is the question, “Why?” which will cause one to watch for the presences attending the breakdowns in our systems, and what their intended teaching might be. It is a beginning of understanding the phenomenon of trauma. In anthroposophic psychology, we have terminology and technicalities for all of this, but I felt it more important to approach trauma in a more picturesque manner.

End Note:
Nelson, Roberta, and William Bento (2015). “Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress,” in The Counselor…As if Soul and Spirit Matter, ed. David Tresemer. Great Barrington, MA: SteinerBooks.

David Tresemer, PhD, teaches in the certificate program in Anthroposophic Counseling Psychology in the US, a program for professional counselors, life coaches, social workers, and others, with a foundation in personal development.