By Jonathan H Ellerby PhD
When I first became interested in the connection between spirituality and trauma recovery, I found that many people in mainstream health and healing programs felt that spirituality was a bit too much for someone “just trying to get by.” In other cases, there was an assumption that spirituality and religion are the same, and that religion was really not a necessary element of treatment. These were encounters of a healing model that placed spirituality at the end of the line, and certainly not at the beginning.
The philosophy behind the resistance to spirituality was: look after the “basics” first, then progress toward more complex issues. While this is the natural tendency for many people in daily life, it is rarely the best approach to any kind of growth. As a trained counselor, chaplain, and practitioner of a number of complimentary therapies, it has been my consistent experience that spirituality is best placed as a starting point for most people dealing with trauma. Spirituality can be the foundation of healing, and more and more programs today accept and embrace this reality.
Over the last 14 years I have been honored to have worked with many great healers, teachers, therapists, and trauma survivors to witness the power of spirituality in healing. My first experience of the critical role of spirituality in healing came while I was being mentored by a Native American therapist, who was also a community spiritual leader. I recall the day I watched and listened as he ran an on-reservation training program for a group of Native American trauma counselors.
After a day together, it was clear that most of the trauma workers were survivors themselves: witnesses of violent deaths; survivors of abuses, accidents and injuries of all kind; and losses of multiple family members. The wise healer talked about the importance of remembering the essence of what it means to be human, the essence of what it means to be a unique person. He reminded us that within each person there is a spirit, a spark of life, an essential self, so independent of the world’s biases, attacks, and influences, that nothing can ever hurt or destroy it.
There is more to each one of us than the things that have happened to us. When we are hurt we can identify with the pain or the trauma - but a healthy spiritual practice or perspective teaches us, that we are something greater. The essence of the spiritual life is to stay connected to the sacred place within that holds the memory of wholeness, peace and balance for us, no matter how far our hearts or minds may be pulled.
A spiritual philosophy or practice can provide us with a bigger context for our experiences. Having a clear context of meaning allows us to draw strength from beyond us when we cannot feel it within us. A deep spirituality gives hope and a way to make sense of the unexplainable – even if it simply asks us to honor the mystery of life. A living spirituality is not about explaining right and wrong, or why bad things happen to good people, it is about giving us the tools to make the most of the choices we have. It is about connecting us consciously to peace and power.
As people take on a spiritual practice, it helps them to develop a sense of identity and greater purpose. Most spiritual practices also connect people with a sense of community and support. These both are essential elements in the face of trauma and loss. When we build community around our spirituality, we have a place to bring our hurt, where together we give each other permission to be vulnerable, and we challenge each other to learn and grow.
When we share a common intent to support each other and to stay connected to the possibility of a greater power in life, something extraordinary begins to emerge. We encounter the raw spirit of love and healing inthe world: we find a spirituality that doesn’t try to deny our pain; instead it helps us to transform it. In these moments we become healers for one another; we find Spirit at work in the world, in the hearts and minds of those who help.
The spiritual journey helps us to shifts our perspective from “why me” to “what can I do about;” we learn shift our attention from “what is wrong” to “what can I be grateful for?” This experience of empowerment connects us to the awareness that every one of us has the ability to help – everyone is a healer. Over time we learn that through our suffering we can learn, and learn to help others: we find the healer within, and realize that is always the person we were meant to be. We become grateful for the opportunity to awaken to that truth and to make the most of this fragile and amazing life.
Jonathan H. Ellerby PhD