12/29/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 28, 2012

Turning Ghosts Into Ancestors

Spirituality and the Road Home: Part Three

Lest the idea of unconditional love as central in the transformation of trauma seem too warm and fuzzy for some readers, I heartily recommend Greg Fricchione's new book, Compassion and Medicine in Healing and Society. His integrative tour de force presents "scientific proof of what we intuitively know to be true: personal connections make us feel better." Dr. Fricchione demonstrates that we all "benefit from genuine expressions of selfless love," as noted in a review by former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Moreover, he convincingly shows that our very evolution as a species depends on it. The voluminous research on the power of social supports in healing confirms this, as does the direct experience of millions of mothers, fathers and caregivers throughout history.

Still doubt the healing power of interpersonal connection? Hardheaded types and friends of the "show me" state (like yours truly) might also want to check out an independent evaluation of Coming Home™ retreats.

The five elements that comprise the retreats are not a new quick fix, but rather are rooted in how humans have, since time immemorial, worked to transform overwhelming trauma. They include sharing stories in a safe environment (healing dialogue), resilience exercises (spiritual practice), expressive arts, being active in beautiful places (the healing power of nature), and secular ritual (adapted from reverent religious experience). A theme that emerges from five years of working with post-9/11 veterans, families and providers is this: most of us do not want our suffering and the suffering of those we love to have been in vain. We want it to mean something. "What have we got to show for it?" one service member asked about a campaign he fought in. He'd make any sacrifice, including the ultimate one, for a mission that to him made sense. Driven by the reparative instinct and the need for meaning, many endeavor to "make something" of war-related trauma, to "redeem" it. (See Larry Dewey's powerful book, War and Redemption.)

To do so we need to process it in a relational field bigger than ourselves, in the presence of other hearts, minds and bodies that are breathing and listening, witnessing and sharing our humanity with us. Transforming trauma asks that we recreate and author it, rather than experiencing it as lodged within, a kind of foreign invasive element, inflicted on us, inscribed and burned into our neural and relational circuitry by the profound helplessness to change it. Without working it over and making it our own, overwhelming trauma remains a ghost, an "inner demon."

A ghost gradually becomes an ancestor, and traumatic experiences become memories, by a most human alchemy. The beloved community provides the inspiration, the spirit of support, so we can stop holding our breaths in traumatic reaction and anticipation, and finally exhale. So we can hold ourselves less tightly-wrapped and come to trust that we are supported. As this trust deepens, we allow ourselves to come home, to this moment, to body, breath, peers and family, community and our surroundings. The beloved community provides the buoyancy that lifts all boats. A military chaplain serving Iraq and Afghanistan service members round the clock in an emergency hospital said that spending five days at a Coming Home™ retreat was the first time he had relaxed in three years. In an unconditionally accepting and loving environment we begin to feel that we belong, we feel understood, and so we become more open. Practices that reconnect us to our inner resources can then take root and become internalized. Optimal environments for connecting and healing are also optimal for learning and relearning. "Relational" and "informational" depend on each other. A glut of content causes informational indigestion.

When the environmental conditions are right, we feel safe enough to represent our experience. In Coming Home™ retreats this happens spontaneously among peers and family members, in small support groups, and through expressive arts. The fear of shame, humiliation and other crushing reactions is disconfirmed and replaced by a loving response. Buoyed, we can choose to venture in and share more, according to our own rhythm. The content and pacing of what is revealed is at the direction of the participant, modulated according to his or her degree of felt safety so that rarely, if ever, does it re-traumatize. We are supported, as we are ready, to re-experience our anguish in a new key.

Not only is this a huge relief, but repeated instances of this benevolent cycle re-grow our capacity to encounter and integrate our ghosts. The power of the community's support, and the resilience skills learned and practiced in this optimal relational setting, work in concert to animate and bolster us through this process. Gradually the fear of being re-traumatized abates and the traumatic shards reintegrate and take their place as memories. Our sense of meaning becomes renewed. My theory is that traumatic experiences thus represented and re-experienced, gradually become re-encoded into a transformed, healing worldview. Although painful, they are now memories rather than haunting ghosts.

They trigger us less because they've become more integrated, and when they do rear their heads, the loving community and our resilience practices are available to meet the surging tides of powerful emotion. We accept ourselves and our broken elements more, we breathe into the contraction, lean into, rather than react to, the pain, and tame and regulate it better. Not perfectly -- the wounds of war do not disappear -- but we go forward with reduced anguish, increased hope, aliveness, emotional stability and connectedness.