In the heart of the jungle in Columbia, the U’wa people live a simple existence mostly beyond the reaches of modern society, having had little contact at all with the outside world until a few decades ago. Their indigenous relationship to the earth sustains them in a collective role as caretakers of the earth and an equal facet of nature. Thus, when the prospect of international firms making plans to drill into their ancestral lands for oil in the late 1990s arose, they perceived the concept to be intolerable, apocalyptic even (“U’wa tribe’s suicide pact,” n.d.).
The tribe of 5,000 people made it known that even the act of searching for oil on their homelands would destroy their way of life, initiating the same kind of colonization, exploitation, destruction, and violence that has happened elsewhere. In fact, one hundred and sixty kilometers east of the village, the Caño Limon oilfield run by Shell and Oxy, earns Colombia hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The pollution, loss of wildlife, and changes to society as a result from drilling in the area are devastating—and that is only half the story. The increase in guerrilla terrorism, gun-running, and drug trafficking by those attempting to sabotage or commandeer the oil operations has taken a severe toll, spilling over into U’wa lands as violent machine gun battles waged between opposing bands and stray gunfire invaded the U’wa village (“U’wa tribe’s suicide pact,” n.d.).
On receiving the news that exploration, and ultimately drilling, would imminently occur on their lands, the leaders promptly announced that the entire tribe of some 5,000 men, women, and children would willingly step off a 1400-foot cliff rather than suffer the horrors sure to follow the drilling. In fact, this almost-unthinkable decision to commit mass ritual suicide has happened before. The nearby cliff is on sacred ground where everything is alive, land protected by ritual and dance, land that tribespeople refuse to enter for fear of violating their covenants with ancestors, spirits, and the earth. In another event centuries ago, faced with moving onto forbidden sacred grounds in retreat from the invading Spaniards, the greater part of the adults of the tribe threw the children over the cliff in clay pots, then stepped off into nothingness themselves. For the U’wa, oil is the blood of Mother Earth, and to invade it—above or below ground—causes imbalance and ultimately, death. “I sing the traditional songs to my children,” a tribeswoman mourns. “I teach them that everything is sacred and linked. How can I tell Shell and Oxy that to take the petrol is for us worse than killing your own mother? If you kill the earth, then no one will live. I do not want to die. Nobody does.” (U’wa tribe’s suicide pact, n.d., p. 8).
Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched (1996) uses the word trauma to mean any experience that causes unbearable psychic pain or anxiety. For an experience to be “unbearable” means that it overwhelms the usual defensive measures which protect us from perceiving horror and pain. The distinguishing feature of trauma of this magnitude is what Heinz Kohut called disintegration anxiety, an “unnameable dread associated with the threatened dissolution of a coherent self” (as cited in Kalsched, 1996, p. 1). This kind of anxiety portends the complete annihilation of the human personality. For the U’wa, the trauma created by the very concept of violating their living sacred land, the mother of them all for whom they are responsible, was “unbearable,” threatening to completely dissolve the way of life, the values, the worldview—indeed the very tribe itself.
Robert Stolorow (2007), a psychoanalyst with an expertise in trauma, employs insight from philosopher Martin Heidigger to explain how trauma initiates a sense of loss of security and of anxiety about the unpredictability of our world after trauma occurs. The anxiety involves the impression of uncanniness, or the feeling “not-being-at-home” in the world. Everyday meaning in life collapses as the world takes on a strange and alien tone, and the one who experiences trauma feels incongruent, isolated, and bizarre because he simply cannot see how anyone else could possibly experience the rupture and ensuing chaos in the same way (Stolorow, 2007). This feeling constitutes a complex of which the archetypal core is alienation and exile. Glen Albrecht, professor of philosophy and sustainability, introduced the term solastalgia to mean “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’” (in Smith, 2010, para. 5). From “solace” and the Greek root “algia” which means “pain,” solastagia is, as Albrecht insists, the kind of place pathology reported by Navajos, Aborigines, and other indigenous peoples forced to leave their land and relocate (Smith, 2010). When you separate people from their land Albrecht points out, “they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life” (Smith, 2010, para. 4).
The condition of solastalgia, the threat of immediate violation and assault to the land they live on is just one of many factors that contribute to the trauma suffered by the U’wa people which blew apart their worldview with the very news of potential drilling. The horror at impending violation of the body of the earth which the U’wa consider their mother, the ghostly ancestral memory of a time before when this mass suicide, in fact, occurred, and the shattering of the traditional everyday way of life that has left the U’wa with a sense that their “normal” world no longer exists. It has upended their entire cosmos, replaced their daily routine and harmony with the impossible choice to intentionally end their physical existence on the land they have inhabited for centuries. In short, for the U’wa, suffering the drilling that would rupture their way of life is intolerable. It cannot be borne. Thus, what is at stake for the U’wa people is disruption, devastation, and the ultimate rupture: death.
Robert Stolorow (2010) believes trauma shatters absolutisms, leading to a “catastrophic loss of innocence” (p. 16), which drastically alters one’s experience of being in the world. One who is traumatized thus perceives new ways of being that are outside the formerly known and articulated world. The individual can no longer feel safe, comfortable, or at home. He conceives that he is no longer included in the still-safe world of others who s cannot possibly perceive the new parameters now seen by the trauma victim. Therefore, the trauma survivor is isolated and alone, alienated from the previously known world and all those who still inhabit it. His world and the world of others are incommensurable. He has been displaced, exiled to a new and frightening existence. Heidigger says “the sense of the loss of being is the loss of being”(p. 30); thus a sense of homelessness is the loss of home. Susan Brison (2002) also corroborates the fact that trauma profoundly affects one’s capacity to be at home in the world. This new feeling of alienation and isolation further contributes to the trauma, creating a vicious loop that is difficult to heal.
Navigating The “Age of Trauma”
For the U’wa, the concept that oil might be drilled on their land was intolerable. In my own life, I have, at times, felt that the world around me is intolerable, that I cannot bear the destruction, violence, and assault to the environment, to animals, and to our fellow humans, now broadcast almost incessantly in the news and through social media. Interconnected as we are, it is difficult not to feel psychologically assailed by the knowledge of the horrors we have wrought as a humanity on the earth and on each other. It leads to the perception that the ground we stand on is unsteady, also under assault. Though I live far away from the U’wa from a geographical standpoint, I, too, have undergone the violation of my home through their experiences and through my own connection with the earth and nature.
In his groundbreaking book, Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma, Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein (2005) observes that the gradual loss over millennia of our connection with nature and ourselves and the development of an over-specialized western ego has brought about a “great grief.” He cites an emerging intentional attempt by nature to reconnect in order to bring us back as a species from the brink of extinction. According to Bernstein, nature seems to cry out to and through certain individuals who are sensitive to the initial loss, who experience profound but irrational feelings that are extensions of what is going on in the world in which they live. This arena in which the attempted reconnection is taking place is what Bernstein calls the “Borderland.”
The grief, pain, disbelief, and depression of those “Borderlanders” who are on the forefront of the attempt to reconnect are not the result of individual pain and suffering but rather manifestations of the pain of the world itself. As Bernstein says, those experiencing Borderland phenomena don’t feel about the pain of ongoing events—they feel it, almost as if the collective unconscious has designated some human beings within the culture to be carriers of personal and collective mourning in response to the profound wounding visited upon the world we know.
Borderlanders develop symptoms that, though often classically categorized as pathological by American Psychological Association (APA) standards, are in fact sacred manifestations of something larger trying to come through and reconnect. Thus, they feel “abnormal” about a world that the majority consider “normal.” Over coming years, Bernstein insists, more and more people are going to be waking up to this extended attempt at reconnection. This means more and more people will be foregoing their previous or existing coping mechanisms of dissociation and percepticide—a term coined by trauma scholar Diana Taylor to describe a condition in which we essentially cut off our ability to regard a source of distress because it is too troubling to take in (Watkins & Shulman, 2008). Instead, we will begin to perceive the horror of the civilization we have created as a whole, waking up to the conditions of trauma in which we already exist and experiencing the trauma of our worldwide collective way of life firsthand. Like me, many will feel completely dislocated, knowing it is impossible to go backward to how they functioned before (in denial, distraction, or disconnect) but finding themselves unable to move forward in a world they increasingly perceive as intolerable, feeling alien, experiencing themselves profoundly earthwrecked on a planet that is increasingly violated and wrecked. This uprootedness—this dislocation—has left many of us ungrounded, disoriented even, struggling to find our place in the world.
Meanwhile, what occurs to the individual is amplified onto the culture itself. Bernstein (2005) points out that when the Navajos were displaced, many of them simply disappeared. The disorientation initiated by loss of ancestors and memory, of being located in a larger web of meaning, is profound and irreversible. Estrangement from land results in uncanniness, the feeling of not being at home. Thus, to be without place translates to not existing at all. When viewed from this perspective then, perhaps the decision of the U’wa to consciously and intentionally end their existence rather than waiting out the trauma until life as they knew it ended for them is really not so strange.
Chellis Glendinning (1994), psychotherapist and political activist, corroborates the notion that our collective culture exhibits all the symptoms of one that has been traumatized, and that we, as humans, live pathological patterns of abuse and addiction due to the fact that we live in an “extreme and untenable situation” (p. 122) related to a sense of profound homelessness. She agrees that humans have lost that vital connection to nature which is our birthright and have suffered a violation that, in her words, ”forms the basis of original trauma” (p. 64) resulting in exile and psychic displacement. Thus modern humans exhibit pathological behaviors typical of trauma because we are aware at some level that “something unnatural has happened to us” (p. 63).
Stolorow (2010) goes as far as to designate the contemporary era an “Age of Trauma” because, according to him, the “tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides” (para. 2). He refers to ongoing and increasing global issues like global warming, terrorism, and economic collapse, all of which raise issues of existential vulnerability and threaten to annihilate the core framework by which we make sense of our existence. To this list by Stolorow, I would add the pace and intensity by which we are fed information by mass media which assaults us with information like a firehose, inundating us at every moment with horrific news about violence, crime, disease, loss, death, and destruction, allowing no time for us to integrate or “hold” the news in a lifestyle which provides no container in which we can witness it.
Activist and author, Joanna Macy (1979) points to a general apathy in our culture which she defines as a state that derives from dread. She claims that we live in fear of confronting the despair we all carry that lives just under the surface. For Macy, despair is “the loss of the assumption that our species will inevitably pull through” (p. 1, column 3). More and more, we are bombarded by data that questions, perhaps for the first time, whether or not our culture, our species, or even our planet will survive. Growing numbers of people are tuning in to this horror across a broad spectrum of the global population. Worse, Macy points out, feeling despair in and about a cultural context can be isolating, further amplifying the dilemma. She believes there is a psychic dissonance between our felt sense of impending apocalypse and the increasingly desperate mechanisms to maintain “normalcy” as our society requires us to become adept at sweeping our fear and pain under the rug in order to avoid the taboo around directly addressing despair. “Our dread of what is happening to our future is banished to the fringes of awareness, too deep for most of us to name, too fearsome to face” (Macy, 1979, p. 64). As well, individuals who tap into the unnamed dread often conclude it is them and not society that is insane.
The Western notion of individuality maintains that we are separate individuals experiencing something unique to each of us and others are disconnected from our experience. However, it is likely that in many cases, we have simply bracketed out the “outside,”—the collective memory of traumatic events that has accumulated over generations. Presumably, others with whom we have relationships are also experiencing the same trauma but it is unconscious, marginalized, silenced, and therefore invisible.
In their book The Empire of Trauma, Fassin and Rechtman (2009) refer to both cultural trauma, the collective memory of wounds that contribute to cultural identity of specific groups including the Holocaust, slavery, and 9/11, and to historical trauma, events located in time that include acts of colonization, the atom bombs dropped in Japan, and apartheid among others. Trauma embodies images of unacceptable suffering that are located in the body in order to ensure that these events never happen again. Social change in recent decades has redefined trauma survivors as “witness to the horrors of our age” (p. 22), embodying our common humanity. In fact, the Navajo called their land “the Great Self” (Casey, 2009). Any violation of the ecosystem in which they existed harmoniously was certainly perceived to be a violation of themselves. Thus, the symptomatic resistance and pain experienced by Bernstein’s Borderlanders in their bodies may be viewed as one end of a spectrum where they are witness to something that is acting to slow or halt the manifest trauma. On the other end of the spectrum, the horror felt by the U’wa as they contemplate the violation of their land, their bodies, their very selves seems to point to death as the only answer, absolutely ensuring the trauma can never happen again.
Feeling alien in an alien world, many of us have adopted a myriad of techniques, conscious or unconscious, to cope with the anguish. In current culture, dissociation is pervasive. Jerome Bernstein (2005) asserts that our culture is now so dissociated, “it communicates profound distress coupled with dire warnings about the future of our ecology and our way of life, indeed our very survival” (p. 78). Dissociation deepens the separation we have established between ourselves and what we see, and it intensifies our view that the outside world and everything in it is dead, justifying greater abuse and manipulation of the natural world, the earth, and each other.
Paul Shepherd compares dissociation to a fencing off of our psyche, a splitting, just as when we first fenced off plots of earth in order to manage them and accommodate our ongoing survival (Glendinning, 1994). These fenced off areas of our psyche, once cut off, freeze in place, holding the contents in original untouched form, as if freeze-drying them to preserve the host from contamination. Jung referred to these split-off parts as complexes (Kalsched, 1996).
While the choice of suicide as an answer to the impact of the trauma seems extreme to the contemporary western mind, it is actually explicable given a provocative theory by Kalsched (1996). Kalsched asserts that when one part of the self freezes or becomes split off when a complex is created, another part rises up in response to the shock taking on the role of a caretaker or protector as a second line of defense to prevent further traumatization. However, the drive to preserve and defend against recurring trauma is so strong that the protector becomes a perpetrator–at times going so far as to inflict further pain or suffering, perhaps even death–if it perceives it as a way to prevent additional harm from trauma.
Further, once the psychic defense against further trauma is initiated, revitalizing opportunities are scanned and interpreted as an invasive threat of re-traumatization and are therefore attacked. “What was intended to be a defense against further trauma becomes a major resistance to all unguarded spontaneous expressions of self in the world” (Kalsched, 1996, p. 4). Creative living becomes seemingly impossible, and in a final deadly blow, the archetypal defense system organized by the daimon, the protector spirit turned persecutor, drives toward death. In the case of the U’wa, they are clear about what their future and the future of their homeland will be at the hands of corporate oil giants. Thus, to prevent the horror, the intolerable, something leads them to lean into death as a way out instead.
Significantly, I am wary of applying Kalsched’s theory of the protector/perpetrator onto Bernstein’s Borderland theory, but find it safe to suggest that if all humans experienced the psychic and physical pain many Borderlanders exhibit in relation to the state of the world around them, perhaps we would, as a collective, rapidly and directly change our behavior toward the earth and each other. As Bernstein (2005) points out, Nature may be increasingly reaching out to people who are concurrently tuning in. Thus, the pain driving us toward the state of “never again” is effectively traumatizing those who experience the reconnect and turning us toward greater collective awareness at the same time.
Regardless, if left untreated, unhealed, and repressed, trauma leads to dissociation and abusive or pathological behaviors that tend to be passed on from generation to generation (Glendinning, 1994). To heal trauma, we must not only treat the individual symptoms and lives of those who suffer, but also address directly the cultural and psychic legacy we have inherited over time as the trauma was passed down through generations. In places where individuals can no longer contain the horror of the trauma that continues to live in the unconscious realm, it erupts into the collective culture as violence, terror, and abuse.
Even decades ago, Jung pointed out that our collective culture mirrors an individual who is suffering deeply from soul loss, manifesting in symptoms such as falling into conflict with himself, fragmenting into splinters in his pursuit of goals, interests, and occupations, and forgetting his own “origins and traditions…even losing all memory of his former self” (Jung, as cited in Sabini, 2005, p. 182). Disregard, numbing, or not wishing to see or feel the distress and negative effects that soul loss brings also moves us ever further away from deep connection an into a society where meaning is hard to find, compelling us try anything to fill up the gaping sense of emptiness that results, staving off the fear of annihilation that is core to the experience of trauma. Jung correctly diagnosed our compulsive, cultural tendency toward hyperactivity, saying, “we rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness” (as cited in Sabini, 2005, p. 141).
Philip Cushman (1995) perceives that the individual in modern culture is an “empty self” that is driven by its felt sense of hollowness to fill itself up through increasing consumption of goods, services, technology, peak experiences, entertainment, celebrity and even psychotherapy. To alleviate the anxiety, depression, isolation, and suffering, psychosomatic disorders, or addiction we turn to consumerism distracting ourselves, stuffing ourselves into individual silos no longer linked to a larger web of creation. As a whole, we are also in danger of disappearing. Like the Navajo, we have collectively begun to fade away, losing touch with what is real, with emotion, and with ourselves and others. We live increasingly meaningless lives not unlike zombies whose only reason to survive is to turn others into zombies as well.
The Collective Complex
Jung shrewdly observed the way in which an individual could fall into the grips of the collective complex at hand (Singer & Kimbles, 2004). Like individual complexes, group complexes carry an inviolate archetypal core. Complexes can unleash irrational forces, overcoming us with their emotional affect. Tom Singer and Samuel Kimbles note that the hallmark of group complexes is intense emotional affect that builds up over centuries of repetitive traumatic events. In the case of the U’wa, it may well be a group complex that explains the haste with which they were ready to commit mass suicide in the face of what they deemed intolerable oppression. Traumatic injury to a group such as the U’wa initiates or amplifies the fear of annihilation of the group spirit by a “foreign other” such as the rich, unfeeling corporate oil giants. This impending violation often results in the emergence of an avenging protector or persecutor to defend them, sometimes driving them to extremes like mass suicide. Therefore, group complexes threaten life the world over (Singer & Kimbles, 2004).
Notably, today’s youth seem particularly susceptible to the trauma of today’s fast-paced world. Like canaries in a coal mine, they are manifesting symptoms as a direct result of their inability to cope with the collective imbalance, including learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, defiance, rage, and even autism as a way of dealing with the virtually intolerable state of the world today (Beath, 2005). Michael Fordham suggested autism could be a sort of “second skin” creating a barrier between a child and his environment (Feldman, 2004).
Many affective states, especially anger and rage, seem to be unconscious assertions of entitlement displayed by youth in first world nations who aren’t getting what they want based on the idea that they want something that will feed their needs for identity, power, and privilege. These needs might otherwise be authentically fed with a deep connection to a place that feels like home, with what Casey (2009) calls emplacement into a landscape that provides context and narrative, engendering meaning. In the U.S and the rest of the modern world, our home as a sense of ourselves, our psyche, our place in the world is threatened; our sense of comfort has been and continues to be devastated on a regular basis by traumatic events in the culture we have created. Our narrative is one of loss and dislocation due to disregard and destruction, to not caring and not tending our place. The 2010 Deep Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is just one relevant example, though there are a multitude of current instances going on around us on a daily basis. As long as we see and understand that our “home”—whether it be defined as the coast of Louisiana or the borders of our nation—is endangered, devastated, or violated, we cannot feel safe.
Ostensibly, western culture is founded on displacement and disconnection from place, from land, from home. The New World is built on immigration, on people leaving home to make a new place for themselves in the world, and on colonization, the displacement of indigenous people for whom the new land was already home. Craig Chalquist (2009) points out that America is built on the archetype of the pioneer, always moving, conquering frontiers and the threats that accompany them—always designated as “the other”. Though sacred sites connected to earth and place along with the spirits and ancestors who dwell there have always deeply situated indigenous peoples, those of us whose living ancestors migrated to this place have no such history, no living landscapes. It is no wonder why we easily devastate ecosystems, deforest mountains, or destroy bodies of water. We are not, for the most part, deeply tied to home, nor to the holding context the landscape provides. We don’t know the myths nor do we engage with the spirits that live in the landscape. We don’t listen in through our dreams or our moods when in specific areas.
Somehow, in dealing with trauma, we must find a way to create a container for fear of the other. Narratives must create a bridge amidst our fragmentation to allow a vision of a common past and a common future, one that is safe. We need myths, symbols, and narratives to sustain us and provide context for our plight. However, currently, we only survive the pervasive chaos by desensitization to suffering. Our legacy, say Schaffer and Smith (2004), is crafting a culture in which “power and authority seem staggeringly out of balance, in which personal responsibility and helplessness seem crushing, and in which cultural meanings no longer seem to transcend death” (p. 13). In fact, the cultural meanings of the U’wa, who stood up for their beliefs and values, transcended the death of their culture through willingness to embrace actual physical death. As a people who are ecocentric (focused on the relationship to the environment) and cosmocentric (in relation to spirits, ancestors, and supernatural entities), this act speaks to the power of asserting responsibility, reclaiming meaning which enabled them to act authentically and with integrity intact.
Meanwhile, in the western world, our response is the unconscious echo of the conscious choice embraced by the U’wa. In the U.S., suicide is a devastating symptom of the situation we face as a culture. In 2005, the U.S. saw one suicide every 16 minutes on average. That same year, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death for all Americans, ranking second for college students and those aged 25-34, and third for those aged 15-24 (Suicide.org, 2005). In fact, among individuals in the military, those who are called upon to participate in and witness some of the worst horrors our culture has wrought, almost as many American troops committed suicide in 2010 as were killed in combat in Afghanistan (Tarabay, 2010). Tragically, it seems many of us are experiencing the world as intolerable, and are taking matters into our own hands much as the U’wa have done. The problem seems to be that, as mythologist Michael Meade (2008) explains, when consciousness is not present, the wrong sacrifices are made to the gods. Given our current way of existing, Bernstein (2005) suggests that humanity now stands at the edge of a suicidal precipice—perhaps similar to that of the U’wa.
Several recent investigations focused on collective Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. When entire societies suffer trauma, symptoms like alcoholism and domestic violence are ongoing, and healing while in the midst of trauma is nearly impossible (Heinberg, 2009). Kalsched states that the purpose of psyche is to convert anxiety of annihilation into a manageable fear (Singer & Kimbles, 2004), but, because we have such a cultural and historical relationship with annihilation, colonization, displacement, and extinction, collectively we still carry the knowledge of its reality. Thus, the potential for trauma to arise anew exists in every new moment. Each generation carries the knowledge of destruction and violation as both a postmemory, cautionary tales that literally reach into the future and remind potential victims of impending horror, and a prememory, one’s own future memory or anticipation of the past (Brison, 2002).
In the end, trauma is a transition that moves us to a threshold, what Casey (2009) refers to as spatial areas of transition. This threshold places us at the portal to a new way of being, a new home, even if for the time being. It locates us in a place of potentiality. In some indigenous rites of passage, as the initiate goes by, the villagers open their doors to witness the initiate and to symbolize the opening of the way. We are all in this together. We all belong to the earth. Whether it be the U’wa who locate their authentic selves and the very soul of their tribe in the face of the ultimate impossible choice to enter a great wide chasm that hosts death, or the Borderlanders who hold space with their pain while the rest of the world begins to wake up, memory, and narrative of that memory, can create a sense of sacred space, a place where everything belongs and has meaning. The memory, the narrative, the witnessing, all carry us to the open door, the edge of the very precipice where something new awaits, a homecoming to the place where the new skin made tender by trauma can be healed with our compassion and conscious attention.
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Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, a free online community, and of Depth Psychology List, a site to find or list depth psychology-oriented practitioners. She has trained extensively in the Enneagram, in Holotropic Breathwork, and completed a 2-year training with African elder Malidoma Somé. She is also a certified Archetypal Pattern Analyst™ via the Assisi Institute. Bonnie holds M.A. degrees in Psychology from Sonoma State University and in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA, where she is finalizing her PhD.