We continued The Garrison Institute Forum with a conversation between Thomas Hübl, spiritual teacher and author, and Dr. Angel Acosta, contemplative scholar-practitioner, on collective trauma and healing in a fractured world.
Hübl acknowledged the challenge of discussing trauma when it is something that we are all steeped in. “There are major catastrophes that happen in society that leave a wounded tissue, and we all have been born into that wounded tissue,” he said. Understanding collective trauma begins with recognizing our inherent interconnection and embeddedness within society’s systems. “We have been born into a world that is completely integrated, so trauma is not just a personal experience; it’s part of humanity’s history, it’s a web,” Hübl explained.
“’Me’ is not just a separate particle. ‘Me’ coexists with ‘you’… Structural violence and collective trauma is not just happening ‘out there.’ Because ‘out there’ is in me, too.”
Hübl also touched on what happens in our bodies and nervous systems when we experience trauma, describing how we often shut down when there is too much for us to deal with. “There are some things we can only survive if we shut down a part of ourselves.” This trauma response is ultimately an intelligent process and a function that tries to save us and help us survive. “The fact that it rests in our unconscious means that I need or needed it,” Hübl shared. He emphasized that the unconscious is not a mistake or a weakness, but something we should get to know and be curious about.
Acosta drew our attention to the specific trauma of this moment, in which people are experiencing loss, sickness, unemployment, and other forms of insecurity. On top of the pandemic lies the additional collective trauma of our social and political brokenness. Regarding the U.S. context, he remarked that we are at a very interesting developmental stage in which our contradictions are growing ever-more glaring. “We’re at a point right now where there is a profound maturity that is required. We still struggle to integrate how this country was founded and many of the structures that have remained in place,” he shared.
“This is a very particular moment in human history where we have to reckon with collective trauma… this moment reveals the fundamental fault lines of our democracy and the very structures that have been put in place.”
“There are two kinds of death that unfold when it comes to a society that has incredible levels of trauma and structural violence,” he continued. “On one hand, there is a very vivid and clear death that we see when we a person like George Floyd dies in public, but there is this other notion of ‘slow death.’ Slow death comes from the legacy of structures that don’t allow particular communities to get access to adequate healthcare, education, or upward mobility. There is a slow death that comes from the remnants of a system that was built on the backs of enslaved labor, that was built on the land of dispossessed indigenous people.”
Amidst such trauma, Acosta and Hübl began to explore what conditions would allow people to heal, feel whole, and even thrive.
As a start, they identified the power of collective witnessing. Because the nature of trauma is separation and isolation, it is vital to be able to share our inner experiences with others in safe, brave spaces, “to allow suffering to speak and to be able to feel each other’s suffering… to be there to receive it,” Hübl said. “The deep healing work comes in two nervous systems being willing to share the same content. If we can participate together in pain, that’s opening our hearts. That makes us real human beings, wise human beings.”
“By being willing to become a full participant in someone else’s pain, what’s being spoken becomes a shared experience, and that is the healing grace. We both become the space for the grace of the Divine to descend through us into the pain.”
They also named commitment to inner work and maturation as key to the healing process. “Another invitation is to be tender with the self,” Acosta added. “What does it mean to be tender with me? With everything I’ve been through, in my subjective experience, in my immediate community, in my immediate country? That tenderness is healing.”
Acosta and Hübl framed healing as returning to right relation, as the paradigm of separation so often creates pain and trauma in the first place. Hübl understands right relation to concern our relationship with the past, the future, the inside, and the outside. He elaborated:
“My healing journey is not an obstacle that I need to overcome. It is setting my life in right relationship with the world and with humanity and with the whole ecosystem I am part of. Healing my wounds restores something crucial. Healing yourself is part of your purpose. Our wounds are not our obstacles… they are not in the way; they are the way.”
Acosta identified the specific trauma and wounding that results from being disconnected from nature. “We are not in right relationship with the planet,” he asserted. “We are causing all types of ecological disequilibrium,” whereas living in right relationship with nature leads to planetary health and collective flourishing.
“You can find the idea of right relation across many cultures,” Acosta explained. “I draw on the first peoples of North America, and particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, and this notion of the seventh generation. It is the idea that when you act, you act with the next seven generations in mind.”
“To be in right relationship is to be a steward of the world in terms of the past and the future; to be in right relationship is to be in harmony.”
Considering the U.S. context, Hübl reflected that “in many ways, the structures of society express relations that aren’t appropriate,” leading to pain and trauma. “Coming back into right relation is also a painful process because we need to unpack many things in order to open up to right relation, but that’s the only way.”
In this context, while navigating individual, collective, and historic traumas, Acosta identified the need to slow down.
“There is so much power in slowing down. For me, as a person of color, as a Black man, whiteness and white supremacy represent structural systems that cause pain,” he shared. “Because of the trauma, there is distrust that may be projected onto you. But being able to slow down enough, I can work with that, and in building a relationship to you, we build trust together. We need to be able to create more communities where across race, across class, across geographical distance, we can slow down enough to create trust and a generative field… because I’m still healing.”
In response, Hübl made the case that “the relationship can grow when we have both the part that trusts and the part that doesn’t. Trust is not the remedy for not trusting. The remedy for not-trusting is consciously not-trusting and finding out what’s the part that needed to be protected in order to not get hurt again.”
Acosta agreed that it’s important to create spaces where fragility can be dealt with and to develop relationships where one can honestly name the distrust that exists.
“What does it mean for us to develop the skillset to hold so many different perspectives, so many different wounds, and try to make the world anew?” Acosta asked. “That’s the challenge for me and the invitation.” Hübl shared the questions and invitations that guide him, too:
“What wants to be born through me in this life and how can I more fully participate in that process? And what wants to be born through you? How can we support each other in that?”
By bringing our lives back into right relationship with ourselves, others, and with nature, we can be agents of healing in this fractured world.
Dr. Angel Acosta has worked for the past decade to bridge the fields of leadership, social justice, and mindfulness, facilitating leadership trainings, creating pathways to higher education, designing dynamic learning experiences, and consulting with organizations such as the NYC Department of Education, UNICEF, and others. He recently designed the Contemplating 400 Years of Inequality Experience, based at the New School, and holds a doctorate degree in curriculum and teaching from Columbia University.
Thomas Hübl is a renowned teacher and international facilitator who has led courses and multi-day retreats with tens of thousands of people around the topics of collective trauma, personal development, relational competencies, and healing. He is the founder of the Academy of Inner Science and the non-profit the Pocket Project and the author of the forthcoming book, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.
Jonathan L. Wiesner is Chief Executive Officer of the Garrison Institute. As CEO, Jonathan leads the organization in growing and nurturing a network of thought leaders, scientists, teachers and others who are applying contemplative practices to address social, civic, and environmental concerns.
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