Trauma Healing: You are a Primate. This is a Wound.
Updated: Dec 25, 2021
You are a primate. You are the kind of primate that lives on or nearby trees, sees green all around and eats colorful fruit and tender leaves, with the occasional bug. Your primate physiology is optimized for this.
You are the kind of primate that lives in close-knit social groups, whose safety is closely tied to belonging and connection with others. When danger strikes, the group is your refuge. Your primate nervous system is built for this.
You are the kind of primate that expresses its sexuality openly, sometimes resulting in procreation, sometimes in the strengthening of social bonds, conflict resolution, or much more. Your primate body is built for this.
This is the kind of primate you have been for eighty-five million years, and continue to be today. This is the dào 道 of the human primate, its nature before it was complicated by the superstructures of the mind.
Recently, for reasons of necessity and choice, you descended from your home in the trees and ventured into new environments; you had to figure out what kinds of food to eat, how to procure it and how to survive collectively. This is the fall from the Garden of Eden, and it is a wound.
Your physiology wasn’t built for the new environments. You had to adapt to surviving on the flesh of other animals, and using their skin to keep yourself warm. The only way to do so was by severing the compassion primates naturally feel for other sentient beings. This is a wound.
The social groups you belonged to had to adapt to the hardships of a life that wasn’t in alignment with their nature; they did so by creating new hierarchies that prioritized collective efficacy over fairness. This is a wound.
In order for these groups to act collectively in an efficacious way, they created stories to foster cohesion. These stories elevated some primates and suppressed others. Severing your compassion for other primates was the price to pay to belong to the group. This is a wound.
Some group members were left behind, silenced or erased by these stories. You have believed and internalized these stories to the point of forgetting who you are. This is a wound.
Disconnected from your own nature and vulnerable to environments you weren’t built for, you used the left hemisphere of your brain to analyze, categorize and attempt to control your reality. The price to pay was a disconnection from the aspects of your intellect that can have a direct experience of the world without the need to subjugate it. This is a wound.
Over the years, this left-brained system produced remarkable progress in some aspects of the material life of the human primate. As some of these conditions improved, our distance from our natural, original environment increased. This is a wound.
The stories that kept this system going became more and more entrenched, and the superstructures hiding our true nature became larger and larger. This is a wound.
As your ability to protect yourself from many dangers increased thanks to advances in knowledge, your ability to find safety and regulation in the group decreased because of the ever-thickening layer of stories separating primates into categories. This is a wound.
As the stories keeping groups together became increasingly complicated, the price for your belonging became higher and higher, requiring you to compartmentalize and suppress more and more of your primate-nature. This is a wound.
As the collective ability to control the environment grew, so did the damage caused to it. This is a wound.
This malaise of civilization is the starting point upon which we layer the traumas that form an inseparable part of life on earth: natural disasters, harm from other humans, injury etc.
The place we first look for healing is the standard Western medical system. It provides so much help in some respects, however fails to produce the wholeness we yearn for. In fact, it continues to inflict untold amounts of suffering through its left-brained, hierarchy-driven, control-thirsty bias,
The wholeness we yearn for is a coherence with our true nature. This wholeness exists at the level of flesh and bones, the level of reality in which you and I and all of them exist as individuals, as separate selves.
We cannot, however, find it by inhabiting this relative level of reality; as long as we believe the illusion of separate selves, we cannot achieve wholeness. This is because our sense of self is inextricably tied to and propped up by the stories and categories we have collectively produced over millennia. We cannot analyze, categorize, ‘left-brain’ our way out of that mess.
Paradoxically, the only way to pursue wholeness within our existence as flesh-and-bones primates is through the spiritual path. We need to realize the emptiness of categories, subjects, objects, hierarchies, directions and so forth, and inhabit pure awareness, unbound by the superstructures of the mind; only then, can we shine the light of that awareness back on the phenomenon of our existence as primates on planet earth, to the primate we each call “I”.
Only then can we truly reclaim our agency and begin to create change that is in line with what is, rather than reinforcing this or that story or system of power.
The challenge is integrating the insight from the absolute level of reality into the relative one, so that we can inhabit it fully, without casting any part of us aside. It is not pleasant work; it exemplifies the yogic concept of tapas, the friction created by going against the grain through effortful work.
The first item on the agenda of the spiritual primate is healing wounds, τραύμα, trauma. Being in touch with our true nature on the relative and absolute planes at once (as primates and as an inseparable part of what is, respectively) allows us to provide ourselves with (1) the conditions and (2) inputs we need to allow our primate system to heal.
Trauma healing is based on the recognition of the reality of neuroplasticity: our brains adapt and shape themselves around our wounds in order to help us survive; that same mechanism makes it possible for us to learn new, functional inputs. Just as our brain learns to react with panic to a trigger that resembles a past danger, it can learn to find safety and sever that association if it is no longer relevant.
Creating the conditions required for trauma healing entails aligning our environment with the natural environment we have evolved to expect; nurturing authentic connections with others; and feeding ourselves the foods that our physiology craves.
We then need to provide new, functional inputs for our brain to learn and adapt around. The basic messages in trauma healing are simple, yet incredibly transformative:
You are a human primate, here is how your nervous system regulates;
You are physically whole, and your body belongs to you;
You are safe in this moment, even as your brain reacts to past danger;
You belong in the world and in the human family.
Beyond these, the hard work consists in finding the inputs, messages and conditions that have been missing in our lives, especially our formative years. Attachment, food, physical safety, validation, social support, and much more. It behooves us to look within the darkest corners of ourselves and find what’s been neglected. We then explore the generational and epigenetic trauma that has left a mark in us.
Once we have been in touch with the oneness of reality, the infinite compassionate awareness that is our true nature in the absolute level, we know we have an infinite pool of compassion from which to draw in order to provide our primate brain the missing inputs, messages and experiences it needs.
By doing so, we begin to even out any lopsided development that might have occurred: if our aggressive muscle is too developed because of a history of physical abuse, we can provide the inputs of safety in the present and begin to use it less frequently. If our authenticity is stunted because of cultural repression, we can again offer the cues of safety to our primate brain that make it O.K. to explore self-expression.
Likewise, if an accident, illness or medical negligence has caused our nervous system to avoid, underuse or forget a part of the body and overuse another one, we can provide the proprioceptive and mechanoreceptive inputs needed for our primate brain to reintegrate the forgotten parts of us into the whole and let go of the overused ones. This is the essence of neuroplasticity-based recovery for dystonia, dysautonomia and dyskinesia and other nervous system disorders.
Trauma healing work is an attempt to get us to awaken from our civilization-induced stupor and allow our primate body to realign with its true nature, permitting healing to take place and finding wholeness again.
It is hard, grueling work, but it is work we must do if we are to act and participate in the world in a way that reduces suffering rather than increasing it. As we heal trauma, we become increasingly able to respond to what is rather than react to the perception of reality created by our wounds. This, of course, doesn’t mean we won’t ever cause harm, as no-one has control over the impact of their actions and words, but we will know our intent is increasingly aligned with what is.
You are a primate, and this is a wound. You are also boundless compassion, and infinite potential for healing. Will you get to work?
Much love, from this primate to you.