Integrated Transformation

Last week, i attended a meditation retreat that was unusual in two regards: It was not completely silent – in fact, we had some lively interactive discussions – and it was about engaged Buddhism. Initiated by Thich Nhat Hanh, engaged Buddhism integrates Buddhist ideas with more Western values of social justice and non-hierarchical organizations. Most Buddhists are not engaged, focusing on individual awakening as a means to change the world (or maybe just to live with less stress). David Loy, one of the teachers at this retreat, pointed out, though, that this is a limited reading of Buddhist teachings. If we embrace interconnection and non-separateness, none of us can fully awaken if any other being is suffering. You can listen to David’s argument and Donald Rothberg’s contributions to the retreat, which included some very practical tools for the path that integrates inner and outer transformation, here. In this post, i want to use my concept of cultural trauma to similarly call for an integrated transformation and draw on my own transition experience to bring these ideas to life.

Cultural trauma develops when we have internalized the messages of mainstream culture to be a certain way – they exert normative pressures, limiting – or completely eliminating – our choices. For example, we learn that relationships take a certain shape, often leading to marriage, preventing us from building fulfilling friendships. As i transition, i often struggle with the shame of not working because i have absorbed the message that i am a failure unless i am successfully professionally – and success is defined as the amount of money i am making. These cultural messages are traumatic because they wound us, they cause suffering.

A personal approach to that suffering would be to work with my internalized messages, possibly through some of the Buddhist tools. However, i have found that such work is limited. Over the past few years, i have learned a lot of inner healing tools – from nonviolent communication, via living energy of needs, to meditation and shame work. While all of this work has been tremendously helpful, even healing, seemingly innocent comments by others still wound me. The simple question of what i do these days retraumatizes me – because it suggests that i am not doing anything unless i work for pay. I have now tools to deal with this retraumatization and this constant work is exhausting and, actually, that’s what i am doing these days.

As i was developing the concept of cultural trauma, i began to wonder if we can really heal cultural trauma. I realized that we cannot. Just like we cannot fully awaken, which might be another way of saying fully healing, by ourselves, healing cultural trauma can only happen if the traumatizing culture changes. Inner and outer transformation require each other.

How would that look like for the transition i am undertaking right now? One way to support people in choosing how they want to spend their days would be to provide a basic income guarantee (BIG) to all adults. If the “doing” i want to do consists of learning, reading books, or working through healing processes, i could chose that because i would not have the worry of how i’d survive – the basic room & board expenses would be taken care of. If i really wanted that big screen TV (why i don’t), i could work for some additional income. Basically, the message would be “we’ll support you no matter what you do.”

In order to get there, we would transform the way we think about money and who deserves what. Additional inner work would help because when i am too stuck in shame because i don’t measure up to the cultural standards, i don’t have the energy to work for something like BIG. Inner and outer transformation work together.

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