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Trauma and the Four Noble Truths

One of the main elements in Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths:

  1. The truth of suffering (accepting that all life is impermanent and imperfect, and that it involves frustration, dissatisfaction, sadness, illness, disease and death)
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering (knowing that there are things in life that cause suffering, for example desire, which is the need for things to be a certain way rather than as it is)
  3. The truth of the end of suffering (understanding that suffering can be ended if we detach ourselves from craving and desire)
  4. The truth of the path to the end of suffering (knowing that there is a way to end suffering: the Noble Eightfold Path which is a guide to living ethically)

I want to say something about the word ‘suffering.’ This is a translation of the Pali word ‘dukkha’ but there is no single English word that captures what dukkha means. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used (“stress,” “unsatisfactoriness,” “suffering,” “unpleasantness” etc.). It can mean:

  • The physical and mental pain from the inevitable stresses of life like old age, sickness, and death.
  • The distress we feel because of impermanence and change, such as the pain of failing to get what we want and of losing what we hold dear.
  • Or a kind of existential suffering, the angst of being human.

Secular dharma looks at the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and the teachings and practices of Buddhism in the context of the global, modern world. Instead of treating the four noble truths as unquestionable doctrine, many secular Buddhists interpret the teaching as a recommendation that we see them as ‘tasks’:

First Task: See, expect, and accept unpleasantness. Unpleasantness is a part of life. Our challenge is to see where it arises, accept it as part of our experience, expect it as part of our daily life, and get to know intimately how it feels and how it works – to embrace it along with the pleasant stuff.

Second Task: Dismantle reactivity. When unpleasantness arises, so does the impulsive hunger for things to be pleasant. Our challenge is to dismantle the automatic reaction of scrambling for the pleasant things to last forever and the unpleasant things to go away.

Third Task: Fully experience non-reactivity. Notice, recognise, experience and understand intimately the state of non-reactivity and the truly wonderful experiences that flow from it.

Fourth Task: Walk the Eightfold Path. These eight important facets of life help us live a good life. The challenge is to pay attention to them, notice our choices and their consequences, genuinely explore the insights Gautama shared about certain choices, and choose wisely.

So, just some notes about the Eightfold Path. Firstly, it is not a set of commandments or rules, it is just a guide to living a better life. It’s not a set of criteria against which you are going to be judged. There are no ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’, ‘thou shalts’ or ‘have-tos’ here. Secondly, most of the elements (or ‘folds’) are addressed in therapy. For example most clients come to see the world and everything in it as it really is, not as they believe it to be or want it to be; what life really is and what life’s problems are composed of. Often talk revolves around work and career, relationships, sex, sexuality, drugs, alcohol and addictions. I nearly always discuss mindfulness at some point. These are just a few examples.

The ‘folds’ are usually pre-fixed with the word ‘right’ which is a translation from Pali. A better translation is perhaps the word ‘complete’ and some secular Buddhist do not use any pre-fix.

So, the teaching of the four noble truths or following the four tasks is not that life is destined to be nothing but suffering, but that the means of finding liberation from suffering is always available to us. In this sense Buddhism is not pessimistic, as many people assume, but optimistic. In a nutshell, life is full of trials and tribulations as well as joy and happiness and this is part of being human.

So, trauma, in any of its forms, is not a failure or a mistake. It is not something to be ashamed of, not a sign of weakness, and not a reflection of inner failing. It is simply a fact of life. trauma is all pervasive. It does not go away. It continues to reassert itself as life unfolds. The Buddha taught that a realistic view makes all the difference. If one can treat trauma as a fact and not as a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable unpleasant things that happen and the traumas of everyday life, if they do not destroy us, become bearable, even illuminating, when we learn to relate to them differently.

None of this is meant to minimise or trivialise trauma. I am not saying that we’re all traumatised so ‘get over it.’ Trauma is not because of any inherent weakness or failing, it is part of the human condition, it is always present, it never really goes away. Of course, not everyone who experiences trauma becomes traumatised, many seem to recover and get on with their lives. Many, however, do not.

The word “trauma” seems to be a bit of a buzz word in therapy circles these days so it’s important to differentiate between experiencing a traumatic event and being traumatised, as they are not the same thing. Experiencing a traumatic event refers to the occurrence of the event itself, such an accident, a natural disaster, or a violent assault – all the usual events. These are often referred to as ‘big T’ traumas. Clinicians and researchers have tried to provide some clarity by referring to life-threatening trauma as Big T trauma. There is also trauma that isn’t life-threatening such as ongoing childhood abuse and neglect or domestic abuse. Events that occur in someone’s life over a period of time and from which there is no escape. These are often called ‘little T traumas (although there is nothing ‘little’ about it). And sometimes ongoing abuse can be complicated by life-threatening abuse – a mix of big T and little T trauma. Also, some big T trauma is not always life-threatening – e.g., the death of a loved one, a life-changing illness or loss of a job.

“…suffering can be transformed and healed, we no longer need to be pushed and pulled by our reactions to past events. For those of us who have been traumatised, this can be a monumental leap of faith, but it is possible to recover from trauma.”

Being traumatised, refers to the psychological, emotional, and somatic responses to the event, which may include anxiety, depression, flashbacks, low self-worth, and/or dissociation. In short, trauma is about loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. Although the event has passed the effects are very much present. However, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will experience traumatisation. What proves harmful over the long term to one person may be exhilarating to another. The experience of trauma is unique to each individual and how much it impacts us afterwards can be influenced by many factors – genetics, previous experiences, coping mechanisms, support systems, what happens immediately after the event, and the severity and duration of the traumatic event.

So, what does all this mean? We must foster the courage to look deeply into our own suffering. We often believe that all our suffering stems from events in the past and whilst there is some truth in this, the reality is that our suffering is a result of how we deal with the effects of those past events or memories in the present. The third task says that suffering can be transformed and healed, we no longer need to be pushed and pulled by our reactions to past events. For those of us who have been traumatised, this can be a monumental leap of faith, but it is possible to recover from trauma. The fourth task states that, once you have identified the cause of your suffering, you should find an appropriate path and/or seek someone who can help and support you as you walk the path.