The subject of Zen practice (aka zazen) for survivors of trauma has been much on my mind of late. I’ve tried several times to write something intelligent about it. But since I’m not a survivor of trauma myself — other than life’s usual traumas that we all have — I sometimes feel it’s not my place to say. I have known people who are both childhood sex abuse survivors and dedicated Zen practitioners. I hope one day one of them will write about this subject. But until then, I’ll take a shot. Much of what I want to say is based on what I’ve observed in them. But whether they involve childhood sexual abuse or not, traumas of all kinds are serious business and probably share much in common.
It’s a fact that zazen brings stuff up. No matter what kind of stuff you have locked away in your mind and body it’s going to come out during sitting. It’s also true that zazen is different from other forms of meditation (if zazen is even a form of meditation) in that it is not directed at any ideal condition. In zazen you allow whatever comes up to just come up as it will, rather than attempting to move the mind toward a specific desired state as most forms of meditation do. This means that trauma survivors may be more likely to face repressed memories and suchlike while doing zazen than while doing other forms of meditation.
I don’t think it’s truly dangerous for trauma survivors to do zazen. But they have to be careful. Of course, anyone should exercise caution while doing the practice. But survivors of trauma need to be possibly even more careful. A practice that’s very much focused on having an “Enlightenment experience” quickly is more likely to bring this stuff to the surface before you’re ready for it. This is yet another reason why crap like Big Mind® is so incredibly heinous and irresponsible. A pox upon them and their putrid ilk!
But here’s what a trauma survivor might expect to encounter in traditional Zen practice. Most of this is also applicable to anyone who practices zazen, trauma survivor or not. There’s not a single person in the world who doesn’t have some stuff they don’t acknowledge buried below the surface.
On the most superficial level zazen will bring up memories. At first these will be familiar memories. Meaning they won’t be particularly surprising, just stuff you haven’t thought of in a long time. For a trauma survivor, this can mean you start recalling things that are painful and that you have avoided thinking about, but which you are basically aware of. The reaction to this runs along the lines of the response you’d have to it even if you weren’t sitting zazen. But sitting tends to intensify emotions. You might start crying or having other similar responses. This can be a bit embarrassing in a crowded zendo. But you should know that you are not alone in having feelings like this.