November 25, 2009

Trauma Revisited / Eliza Man-yee Lau

The vision of a world in peace is not only possible, but that it begins here, begins now, with each one of us, looking deeply within, and honoring our limitless potential.
──Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
A wound can be either physical or psychological. And as far as healing is concerned, psychological wounds are far more complex and difficult to deal with. Medical science has enabled man to assess the extent of damage to the body and to prescribe appropriate measures of cure accurately and in sophisticated ways. However, with regard to psychological traumas, scientists and psychiatric practitioners are still struggling with how such traumas could be properly understood, let alone prescribing appropriate treatment measures or remedy. In the book Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth wrote:
Psychic trauma involves intense person suffering, but it also involves the recognition of realities that most of us have not begun to face.
Many people have recognized the urgency of learning more about the traumatic reaction to violent events and about the means of helping to alleviate suffering.
But the study and treatment of trauma continue to face a crucial problem at the heart of this unique and difficult phenomenon: the problem of how to help relieve suffering, and how to understand the nature of suffering, without eliminating the force and truth of the reality that trauma survivors face and quite often try to transmit to us.[1]
The gist of the issue lies very much within the last sentence quoted above: how to understand the nature of suffering, without eliminating the force and truth of the reality that trauma survivors face and quite often try to transmit to us. Indeed, the ‘truth of the reality that trauma survivors face’ is also the same truth that all human beings have to face: man’s vulnerability (the predicaments of existence itself) and that he is not fully in control of things in life – in fact – far from it. This is the truth that man tries to forget since the attainment of a functioning ‘self-consciousness’, but unfortunately (and unavoidably), he is brought into face to face with it in a traumatic experience. In fact, it is precisely because of this that such an experience is described as “traumatic”: it is traumatic to the human psyche as the experience leaves no choice for man but to come face to face with things he has always been turning away from.

Figure 1: Cover of Trauma: Explorations in Memory

Interestingly though (and despite the amount of suffering it causes), it has been observed that trauma survivors are one way or another unable to ‘let go’ of the experience. In describing the pathology of psychological traumas, Caruth describes the phenomenon as a kind of ‘possession’:
To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.[2]
In his study of Post World War I traumas, Freud noticed this striking phenomenon of the returning traumatic dream. He explained it as the ‘literal return of the event against the will of the one it inhabits’.[3]

I find this phenomenon very interesting: it is as if there is something within the traumatic experience that is of great importance to the bearer of the experience despite its very unpleasantness to the human psyche. In fact, examples of literary work springing from such a ‘peculiar’ source of energy can be abundantly found. Paul Celan (Paul Ancel), a Holocaust survivor and poet, evoked concentration camp experience in his poems in which he wrestled continuously with a deep confusion between attachment and revulsion of the German language and cultural heritage. The experience of being a political prisoner in a penitentiary in Siberia was a haunting shadow that strangely became ‘fuel’ for Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead and Notes from the Underground written two years later. The writings are powerfully endowed with the very contradiction between a respect for life and malice in human nature. Modern Chinese writers like Han Shaogong, Wan Anyi, and Jia Pingwa whose works in the 1980s and early 90s have been collectively described as ‘Root-searching Literature’ drew heavily from their experience during the Cultural Revolution. Moving on from ‘Scar Literature’ of the preceding era which concerned mainly with exposing the wounds of the experience, ‘Root-searching’ writers sought understanding of it – via a laborious endeavor of revision and negotiation right at the very roots of Chinese cultural heritage.

Figure 2: Cover of Notes from the House of the Dead

Figure 3: Cover of Notes from the Underground

Despite differences in historical and geographical contexts between the works mentioned above, they were works ‘inspired’ by a juncture of confusion: an inherent contradiction in the very existence of life itself being brought to the fore as a result of traumatic experiences. They oscillate violently between the extreme poles of on the one hand a yearning for a cultural enclave of beauty and perfection, and that of spite, mistrust and hatred for humanity on the other. As Caruth puts it:
The traumatized (the victims), we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess.[4]
No doubt, these writings have been deeply influential in their own ways, and despite differences in cultural background, readers will find them powerful, poignant, and quite often imbued with the beauty of intoxication. It is not surprising either for readers to find them close to the heart, as they are brought right into the core of the very ‘unsatisfactoriness’ of human existence shared by all. For some time, I was also very much attracted to such works and was pretty convinced that it was the furthest we could go in terms of understanding and coming to terms with the fundamental predicaments of existence itself. However, when I encountered the works of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh[5], my perspectives were given completely new dimensions.

What struck me most in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings is this moving away from the realm of indulgence (a characteristics shared by many of the writings mentioned in the preceding paragraphs) and a uplifting or elevation of oneself beyond the deadlock of the traumatic experience. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, despite the very unpleasantness of the experience itself, the bearer or victim often finds himself adhering strongly to such memories. One might look at the attachment as pathology of the mind, but it might also be viewed as an opportunity to go beyond the confines of our earlier assumptions and understanding of the conditions of human existence. In the following paragraphs, I shall introduce a short story "Peony Blossoms" by Thich Nhat Hanh and demonstrate how differently it deals with and makes use of traumatic experiences.

The story is collected in a book entitled The Stone Boy and Other Stories written by Thich Nhat Hanh between the 1960s and 1970s, a period when Vietnam was stricken by war political turmoil. In "Peony Blossoms", the story begins with a Vietnamese family (of Doan and Tuyet) that has successfully fled the country and now residing in France. After arriving in France, a baby boy Thi is born to the family, and the family finds itself safely settled in the lovely countryside of a town called Montpellier where Doan teaches physics at a local university. The family is later joined by another member from Vietnam, Tuyet’s brother Tanh, who successfully left the country under the ‘Family Reunification Programme’. Tanh is a painter and he becomes very close to his little nephew Thi. The story commences in a mood of love and harmony, and a new beginning for the family seems very much on its way.

Figure 4: Cover of The Stone Boy and Other Stories

However, harmony is soon disrupted by a sudden illness of Thi. The illness appears firstly as an ordinary flu but soon it turns out to be fatal as symptoms of a brain tumor and meningitis begin to appear. The critical illness of the boy not only brings about great worry and anxiety for the family, but it also ignites outbursts of memory attacks for both Doan the father and Tanh the uncle. It then occurs to both Doan and Tanh that the experience of the war in their minds has only been put away temporarily and kept under very thin layers of disguise. Those haunting memories were very much there and in their full power of disturbance. The eruption of such memories is the beginning of yet another series of nightmares which have been disturbing their minds ever since they witnessed the first atrocity during the war. Soon, they find themselves ‘returning’ to the trauma, revising and reliving every moments of it.

In fact, before the occurrence of Thi’s illness, Tanh has been undergoing a period of stagnancy in his work as a painter. There has been a period of time when he will not touch his brushes for he knows that ideas within him are not yet ripe. The reader later discovers that it was certain fear and anxiety in his heart that had been putting a halt to his artistic creativity. He can never forget the sight of the Vietnamese children who died in his hands while he was a member of the ambulance team of the Buddhist Youth Association:
Tanh could never forget holding the limp body of a four-year-old girl, her head twisted to one side, her hair matted with blood. He didn’t even have time to shed even a single tear for her, as hundreds of others were in great need, crying out for help from him and his comrades. He only had two or three seconds to look at that young girl, but they were seconds he could never forget. Tanh felt torn apart inside.[6]
On comparing his nephew Thi, a child born and raised in a country without war, and those children whose ‘bodies were mangled by bombs and bullets, and children who wandered about cold and hungry, lost in a world of hatred’, Tanh finds it almost impossible to settle in any one reality without confusion and innate fear. The onset of Thi’s illness triggers a night of nightmares for Tanh, and it then occurs to him that he had been fearing the lost of Thi ever since he was born: a fear that Thi will be gone just like all the other children he had seen dying in Vietnam.

Doan on the other hand believes that he had left the country and his memory of it for good. He puts his career as a physicist in the first place and convinces himself that by doing so, he will continue to provide a stable and safe home for his wife and child. He seldom lets his mind wander into ‘idle’ premises of memories and petty emotions, for as far as his present situation in Montpellier is concerned, the world of physics is enough in providing him with a world of certainty and objectivity. However, this fortress of protection soon proves to be completely versatile as he finds himself on the verge of collapse during the critical illness of his son. It is also at this very critical moment that Doan realizes that the vulnerability of his son is no different from that of those refugees of Vietnam who escaped death once but only to find themselves in the hands of another mortal danger soon again:
Doan know about the dangers that refugees who escaped by sea had to face, including hunger, thirst, storms and pirates. Just last month, he had read that fewer than fifty percent of all those who leave Vietnam by boat survive. He thought of the homeless and the destitute, the victims of the war, and he thought of himself. He was living in his own home, a charming house surrounded by trees and flowers, a house of love and tranquility. And yet, for a moment, he could see clearly that he, too, was bobbing up and down on the ocean. All his peace and security had evaporated, and his own fate was as uncertain as that of the boat people.[7]
In two separate paths, the two men find themselves face to face with a reality that they had been running desperately away from. In the story, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the illness of the boy as a trigger to start off a mental journey for the two adults to re-visit the sites of trauma. The re-visitation has two functions: to show how unsettled the past traumas actually are in the mind of the bearer, and more importantly, to allow an opportunity for the bearer to look at the situation from new perspectives – an opportunity to redeem oneself from the torment of the experience and to gain insight into the nature of things in life. In the journey of re-visiting past traumas, the readers are shown how the concept of the ‘self’ has been limiting the two protagonists in understanding the world in its actuality. Their suffering is a result not so much of the calamity they witnessed in the trauma of war, but that of a misconception of existence as ‘individuals’ in possession of a spiritual entity called the ‘self’. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a method of looking deeply through meditation and the practice of undifferentiated friendliness (compassion), aiming to arrive at realization of what he calls a state of ‘interbeing’[8]: a state that transcends the boundaries of time, space and matter:
To exist means to live in the totality of time with no beginning and no end. If there is no past, then there is no present or future. If there is no future, there is no present or past. Birth and death are conventional expressions, but they obscure the vision of a total reality which has never been born and will never die.
To accept life wholeheartedly is to accept both sides of life’s reality. Tanh saw the little girl who had died in his arms, and she was smiling at him. What a miraculous smile! He saw that it was the same smile as Thi’s. Yes, it was Thi smiling! The little girl experiencing the most horrible suffering and Thi with all his comforts, were the same child.[9]
The break down of the delusion created by our consciousness is at the base of the elimination of boundaries created by our mind in time, space, and matter. Such profundity in thought is not confined to the Buddhist world view; in fact, very similar insights can be seen in Einstein’s comments on freeing oneself from the confines of a conceptual world created by our very consciousness and ‘widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures’:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe'; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.[10]
Trauma revisited in the way suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh is no indulgence in any sense, nor is it an enactment of incarceration or entrapment like some of the other examples of post-traumatic manifestations listed in the first half of this essay. Neither is it a demonstration of certain pathology of the mind, on the contrary, it can be regarded as the mind’s inherent ability to seek the truth/to free itself from the manacles created by its own workings. Revisiting the site of trauma in this way becomes a means, a vehicle through which one breaks away from the existing entanglement and reaches the beyond, thereby attaining redemption. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the practice of mindfulness, a way of looking deeply into the very nature of things. The ultimate cause of our suffering does not lie in the unfortunate circumstances of calamities in life, but is within the very nature of our perception of the world of experience. Hence, trauma revisited by looking deeply into the nature of existence is to free oneself from the nightmares of self-delusion and deception; it elevates us from the torments of fear and anger, and it allows us a possibility to look at the world of people and things as they truly are rather than being entrapped in a world of conceptual proliferation which is none other but the very cause of our suffering. In this sense, therefore, trauma revisited might be regarded as opportunities for awakening – to be awakened from nightmares which are ultimately our very own creation. 

[1] Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 3-4.
[2] Ibid, 5.
[3] Quoted in Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 5.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk and a leading peace activist. After attending the Paris peace talks in 1973 as a member of the Buddhist Peace Delegation, he was denied permission to return to Vietnam by the Vietnamese government. Since then, he is in exile in France and has founded a meditation centre and Buddhist school called Plum Village in France and other parts of the world.
[6] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Stone Boy and Other Stories, 198.
[7] Ibid., 205.
[8] Thich Nhat Hanh has elaborated on this idea of ‘interbeing’ in much fuller details in his other writings. See Understanding our Mind, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2006.
[9] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Stone Boy and Other Stories, 213.
[10] Ibid., 201.

Caruth, C. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Stone Boy and Other Stories. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1996.

Eliza Man-yee Lau has studied comparative literature in the 1990s and is now teaching at HKU SPACE Community College. Her interests are literature, Buddhism and drama.

No comments: