09/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

There Is Always Trauma In The Room

I was just at netroots nation, a convention bringing together progressive activists, bloggers and politicians. I went to a panel one afternoon called Organizing as a Healing Process: A fresh Perspective on PTSD. I've done a little bit of work with soldiers returning from Iraq and have worked with domestic violence shelter workers on issues of vicarious trauma. I've also found in teaching the diverse groups who come for meditation guidance that, as someone once said to me, "There is always trauma in the room."

A lot of the discussion reminded me of issues I first explored more intensely as I was writing Faith; Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. I defined faith not as belief or subscribing to dogma, but fundamentally as connection - to our own deepest capacities for love and awareness, to one another, and to a bigger picture of life. The sundering of that sense of connection, whether its fraying through the exigencies of time and life, or through the rupture of trauma, is the opposite of faith. It is despair.

And in tracing a path out of despair, I think of what poet Wendell Berry once said, "The smallest unit of health is a community." This evocation of connection and community was the recurrent, and very touching, theme of the panel. Panelists included Richard Smith who had enlisted in the US Army at the age of 18. In 2007, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division and served as a non-commissioned officer for 14 months. He talked about returning to the US, and in one hugely startling, abrupt day being out of the army and just one more guy looking for a job, and looking for himself.

Also Denise Ford, who is a practicing licensed clinical social worker and political strategist, treating PTSD/trauma spectrum disorders in military and civilian populations. Part of her presentation was the assertion that we should leave off the D of PTSD because it isn't a disorder but an array of symptoms, like hypervigilance, that make some sense in response to trauma. Those same symptoms over time though, held in isolation or depriving us of options, cause so much suffering.

Not everyone presenting was working with the military. Stories of parents whose children had been murdered, or campus killings and their survivors, were stark reminders of the brutality that can enter someone's life. Illness can be traumatic too, and so can economic dislocation, great fear, or hopelessness. There is always trauma in the room.

And in the room also there is the potential for healing - for ourselves, and with one another. Someone who has experienced trauma also has gifts to offer all of us - in their depth, their knowledge of our universal vulnerability, and their experience of the power of compassion.

As we work to reweave the strands of connection, we can be supported by the wisdom and lovingkindness of others. Returning vets and their families can check out organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project or The Coming Home Project. Affinity groups where we can find understanding of our particular situation can often be found, in our communities or online.

As Adam Lambert, who moderated the panel, read at the beginning, "PTSD is best known as a condition suffered by returning vets. Few realize that individual survivors of trauma or even entire communities can experience the altered state of consciousness known as PTSD. This state of consciousness can become an opportunity for new political and spiritual growth."