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Transform Trauma, Shift the World

[Trigger warning: mention of rape, discussions of trauma.]

I am needing some healing wisdom today.

The past six weeks have been too much. A new website and a new campaign launch at work. Travel with family. Friends who are going through challenging transitions. Navigating the weird world of online dating.

My body has officially launched a protest. It started with a rash. Then I got the sniffles. I started to get worried when I lost my voice. When it came back, I spent the next two weeks with a hacking cough. Lots of green stuff coming out my nose. I tried to fix the cough with some cough drops that instead gave me hives. On top of the rash that I still have.

It’s not the first time my body has thrown up all the warning signals that I’m trying to do too much in unsustainable ways.

Re-entering the activist world, I can feel how my solo Buddhist practice sustains me. But it’s also not enough to sustain me in the overwhelming tide of forces in activism that encourage us to work ourselves until we break open. I need the support of sangha, of a collective practice of care.

I was overjoyed when Laura van Dernoot Lipsky & Isaak Brown agreed to get together for an interview about Laura’s work with Trauma Stewardship in social justice communities. She’s found a way to bring the ideas of collective practice (for her, grounded in Buddhist teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh) to activist communities.  She reminds us to question the value of a constant adrenaline save-the-world pace.  To care for ourselves as part of caring for others with integrity.  I’m so thankful for these reminders, today and every day.

—Dawn Haney
Co-Director, Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Isaak Brown: So recently Turning Wheel Media has been talking about the intersection of healing, social justice and spiritual practice. You’ve written about spiritual practices in your book Trauma Stewardship and the impacts of trauma in social justice communities. To start, could you talk a little bit about your work with Trauma Stewardship?

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky: Yeah, sure. What we talk about with Trauma Stewardship is the cumulative toll on anyone who is doing work or living their life in such a way that they’re trying to help repair the world. That can be through their work and their profession or that can be through how they’re living their lives. So we look at their exposure to suffering, trauma, crisis in humans, other living beings or the planet itself.  We examine what that cumulative toll is and we look at it individually, organizationally, systemically, institutionally and also collectively. So for example, when we talk about a Trauma Exposure Response, we want to look at how that impact happens both individually and collectively. And at the Trauma Stewardship Institute we look at how one reconciles that toll. How do we figure out how to sustain — and really go beyond sustaining to hopefully transform the trauma we are experiencing and bearing witness to.

IB: Absolutely. I think a question I have is on your perspective on the role of spiritual practice in that transformation and in the aim of going beyond sustenance?

LvDL: We talk a lot about this idea of a daily practice. We try to cast a very, very wide net there because we want it to be as accessible to as many people as possible. Spiritual practice is certainly one element. What we do find for some people, for many people I would say, is that as their exposure to suffering and hardship and overwhelm and trauma happens, their faith, whether it’s religious or spiritual, but their belief in something greater, diminishes. That’s not true for everybody — some people actually go the other way and build a strong faith, but for a lot of people it diminishes.

One of the things that’s really challenging is the lack of control when we feel trauma, whether in a primary way or a secondary way.  Faith and spirituality, those things require trust, some sense of trust in something. A lot of times when we feel such a lack of control as a result of what we’re going through, we can get pretty controlling. And that idea of being controlling, whether it’s how you vacuum your carpets, how clean you keep your car, or whether you want Thai food or Japanese food on any given night, just that element of becoming more controlling because of how out-of-control the rest of your life is … that usually doesn’t coexist very well with spirituality and faith.

And another piece is that in the United States, we have a lot of organizations and institutions, many of which are faith-based, but a lot of them are not and feel very hesitant to talk about anything spiritual.  They focus on just the things that they need to do to get by.  Plus, spirituality gets so collapsed with New Age practices, and — at least in my experience — I rarely hear folks talk about New Age practices in a positive light. So people are very, very hesitant – you know, it usually comes with a tone and attitude and people are air-quoting and all of that. Usually if anyone is practicing anything – Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, anything – they keep it on the down-low because they don’t want to deal with people air-quoting or “wow you’re so New Age,” which of course is a misnomer since many of these have been practiced for millenia.

IB: Bringing it specifically back to Buddhism, one of the  things I hear consistently is that people are attracted to Buddhism because it doesn’t require the dogmatic belief or blind faith that many people were raised with or immersed in, in U.S. culture. In your book you referenced ancient and modern Buddhist teachers in the Vipassana and Tibetan communities. I’m curious how you see Buddhism specifically overlapping in the work you do in supporting people’s ability to live and stay engaged in their work.

LvDL: Great question. You know part of what happened with me is that having the near psychotic break that I had, I came literally crawling back from that very open, in a way that I hadn’t before, to anything that could be helpful. I had the great privilege to study with a medicine man and medicine woman in Utah and I found other different people to work with, had a Qi Gong teacher and was really open to anything that I could possibly experience that could help me in any way.

One of the things I really appreciated about Buddhism, and I trust is in many other traditions as well, but in Buddhism is where I most distinctly heard those teachings, was the ability my Buddhist teachers had to start from a place of acknowledging and honoring that there is endless suffering in the world. And I think that for me was so important because, as you know, part of what really destroys people around trauma is people’s isolation.

I think so often people are challenged,  “If you’re committed to the cause,  if you’re down with the cause, if you’re passionate, committed, and you care — you’re just gonna suck it up.” So I think part of what happens with that is a lot of people feel the pressure to reduce their distress, to “turn your frown upside down, man up, soldier on,” whatever expression you want to use. I think for me to connect these teachers I had in Buddhism who were able to start with, “Oh, there is endless suffering in the world and in this lifetime.” That alone made me feel like I could cry… the relief of that could allow me to cry for months and months and months. And as you know, they’re quick to follow up with, “And there’s endless beauty and there’s endless gorgeousness and there’s endless miracles.” And for me, I can really get the gratitude, and it’s very hard to do that if someone isn’t able to create a space where those can coexist, the brutality and beauty can coexist. That breaking of isolation in the community is one of the most meaningful things that got me on the path.

Ranch Night. Creative Commons License by daita

Also for me, I really took away so much from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s early teachings when I was studying with him. He talks about suffering and that attachment is the root of all suffering, and I see that over and over and over again. And of course I think that it’s really deep, we’re attached to those we serve and those who are our loved ones being well.  If your mom has Alzheimer’s and you’re the primary caretaker, if you’re attached to how she was five years ago and how your life was five years ago, you’re going to be in hell, obviously.

And of course we want to trust that people can be in intimate relationships and not abuse each other, and so we’ve got to adapt and evolve.  Admit that a heartbreaking reality is unfolding. So it’s not that you don’t have a sharp critique and you don’t advocate for better working conditions and that we don’t work every day to stop interpersonal violence and everything, but I think we can go through every day and ask, “Okay, what part of this am I attached to and what pain is that causing me?” I’d say especially when we are grappling with wishing our place of work would change or our boss, coworkers, clients or something outside of us would change.

I think that’s very helpful, particularly with my clients who are social justice workers.  For the most part their overwhelm is not so much from the pure heartbreak of what they’re bearing witness to. The majority of people I talk with, their struggle is with their organization, their supervisor, their coworkers, their institutions and communities. Social justice workers aren’t usually saying, “Ah, my clients are bugging me,” they’re usually saying, “Oh my boss – I can’t take another minute.” So if you’re attached to having some dreamy boss and your boss isn’t dreamy, and you’re attached to having some board of directors who have any idea of what you actually do …

IB: Yeah, it’s easier to have love and compassion for the people we convince ourselves we’re meant to do this for, and then when it comes to some really annoying, entitled “dude,” we might say, “Oh, no, that isn’t a place where I’m meant to have compassion and understanding.”

That brings me to something I wrote down in the first part of your response, about people visibly committed to their spiritual practices not necessarily being in the same circles as people visibly committed to the anti-violence movement for example, and then the reverse being true in the broader social justice movement. I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit.

“What a rush!” photo by Just Add Light

LvDL: I think the sense of urgency is huge, and can act as a barrier to spiritual practice. Right now in a room with 3,000 people, I bet lots of folks would volunteer for four days straight if there were (goodness forbid) a natural disaster, but if I offered them a free Vipassana meditation retreat, maybe two people might go. And I think to be honest, many of us do the work we do because it’s so manic, full throttle and has an adrenaline pace to it. The Mennonites I work with once said to me, “When you slow down that’s when you feel and that’s when you reflect.” And most of us are not trying to feel or reflect.  The adrenaline pace works for us. When you sit down to meditation you might have to feel.

I think part of what gets so challenging for folks is that countless people doing ecological or prison-industrial-complex work, people processing papers and defending cases and working in hospital and being journalists…countless of these people have a sense of urgency when we do this kind of work that is so off the charts. So part of what I talk with people about is, “Well, we don’t have anything to talk about if you’re not alive.” The number of people I know who have actively killed themselves by committing suicide or are passively killing themselves through not tending to their health – it’s astounding. So, let’s just talk about keeping you alive. Let’s just go there – let’s keep you alive for awhile.

If you take it to even that level, you know people can be very very resistant to going to the gym five days a week. Getting pap smears and breast exams. But we need to do that stuff. I bump up against a huge amount of resistance, even with that. “You don’t understand – people in my community are hungry. I can’t go to the gym!” And we’re talking about people’s lives. There are people dying in our field in large numbers. So if you take it to someone who doesn’t believe in meditation, or hasn’t bought in to meditation or bought in to mindfulness – you know, “Really? Are you kidding me? I have time to sit on a cushion? No, I don’t have time to sit on a cushion. When I sit on a cushion, eight people get raped!” I know entire organizations who don’t go pee during the day. So there’s not a chance that they’re going to slow down and breathe and all of that …

Creative Commons License photo credit Arjan Richter

I tell the story – in fact I’m embarrassing myself across the nation – by telling this story where I show a picture of myself and my kids at retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and we are doing walking meditation. I tell the story of how we do this walking meditation every day and literally the amount of anxiety that I felt, these waves crashing through me, thinking, “Oh my God! We are moving so slowly! Walk faster!!” That’s what I kept grappling with — and you know, what, we’re rushing to the vegan lunch buffet? To say nothing of the fact that somehow I’m unconsciously questioning Thich Nhat Hanh’s choice to move slowly. It gave me such a window into my ongoing struggle. But I think that’s in some of our DNA— it can be excruciating to move slowly. So I had to learn to let go of “walk faster,” and keep trying to come back to the present moment.

I also put it out there, “If you don’t want to believe in spirituality, fine, but let’s talk about neurophysiology.” And most people I know, they’re not going to go up against neurosciences. It’s much easier for people to mock New Age or Buddhism, but most people — nobody’s challenging me on the latest neuroscience that’s coming out from wherever. So, for better or for worse that we come from a society where that kind of science is respected more than ancient teachers. I talk about it in terms of spirituality and I talk about it in terms of neurophysiology. I think people can wrap their minds around that.

IB: You’re talking about how to reframe this work, get buy-in from folks who actually have a lot of motivation not to slow down – they have to feel things they don’t want to feel, they don’t look good to their coworkers, they feel guilty. There’s a lot of reasons to not slow down. I’m curious how you approach reframing healing as an essential practice for the movement. You say in Trauma Stewardship that this is essential to the movement – not just self-care, but that this is actually necessary to make the changes you want. How do you impress that method and that belief into your work and to your audience who might have a hard time buying it?

LvDL: I tend to come at it with an angle of means-to-ends consistency. None of us want to come from a place of hypocrisy. If we believe in any way that oppression is contributing to the harm that we need to repair in the world, the way that we’re going to tend to and repair that is not by perpetuating harm in our workplaces and in our home life. If you want to dismantle oppression, you don’t get to exploit your workers. Even if you’re doing good work, you’re still exploiting your workers or exploiting yourself, or you’re colluding with being exploited. And that’s not contributing to dismantling the system.

Creative Commons License photo credit ZeePak

I talk with people a lot about hypocrisy. When I get to be with people in person or large groups of people, I say, “Tell me everything you ask the folks you serve to do in order to receive your services. Tell me what you ask of them.” And people will respond with, “Quit using heroin, shower every day, be on time for appointments, try to get a job after coming out of prison,” these very difficult things. And I show up, just some random lady and I say, “How about trying to go to the gym five days a week?” and people respond with this, “Whoa, step off! You’re out of line.” I think we can see that hypocrisy, and when we can see it from a place of hypocrisy, it’s like, right — we never want to do this work from a place of being hypocritical. You can’t go out and tell people to stop shooting up drugs but say you can’t find the time to work out a few days a week.

Clear Stars. Creative Commons License photo credit Darren Kirby

And I say to people, it’s because we feel so deeply. It’s because you desperately, desperately want to transform this trauma and shift the world. That is part of the reason that it is critical that you stay functional. That is part of the reason you have to do this because you desperately want to transform things. It’s not selfish, it’s not all those internalized messages that we get – it’s because you want to be in it for the long haul. Really, the least you can do if you are going to be of service is to do everything you can to be certain you are doing no harm in your immediate part of the web. I think we need to earn the right to be able to be of service.

IB: I think this is what makes you so effective in your work. You know what’s going to be the fire under the community. What you’re saying will motivate people in our community. In many communities the question, “Are you in integrity with what you believe?” would not be a big motivation. But in the social justice community, that is a very genuine desire.

LvDL: Yes, absolutely.  And it connects back to a big piece I learned from Buddhism: doing no harm. That’s a huge, huge premise that I work from — that at the very least, we can do no harm.

*     *     *

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute and author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, has worked directly with trauma survivors for 25 years.

At age 18, she regularly spent nights volunteering in a homeless shelter. From there, she went on to work with survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, acute trauma, and natural disasters. Simultaneously, she has been active in community organizing and movements for social and environmental justice and has taught on issues surrounding systematic oppression and liberation theory.

In addition to traveling near and far as part of her efforts to support others in practicing trauma stewardship, Laura continues to consult with organizations and institutions while also maintaining a counseling practice. She volunteers in the public schools and is the founder and director of Prescolar Alice Francis, a Spanish-language preschool that is guided by a curriculum in social and environmental justice. Conducted entirely in Spanish, it is the only one of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. Laura lives in Seattle, Washington, holds a master of social work degree, is an associate producer of the award-winning film A Lot Like You, and was given a Yo! Mama award in recognition of her work as a community-activist mother.

Isaak Brown is a writer, student and devoted practitioner to anything that offers more liberation for more people. Thoughts and comments are welcome at

[Top Photo: The Dark Half. Creative Commons License photo credit Darren Kirby]

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