Healing Complex PTSD via Buddhism – Part 1

Today I went to attend a conference called “Trauma, Neuroscience and the Evolving Therapy of Traumatised Children and Adults” by Dr Bessel van der Kolk.

In 2017, when I had left my job and was unemployed and suffering from what felt like PTSD from my last job, I wandered into a book store and picked up his book called The Body Keeps the Score. The mystic law works mystically indeed.

Over the next month, when I was on a detox in India. I read this book, almost studied it. It was as though someone captured my life experience and told me what was happening to me in my brain and body. I could let go of any guilt and shame of my life and take control of my life. I could assert my needs and ask for what I needed. I could stop blaming me for everything I did or did not do. I gave myself permission to look after myself.

I would describe it as a pivotal turning point in my whole life. In Mar’18, my doctor mentioned, his wife a yoga teacher attended Dr Kolk’s conference in Sydney. I felt like I missed an opportunity. I wanted to attend it. When the registrations opened in Oct 2018, I jumped at the opportunity.

It is truly my good fortune that I live in Australia and even have access to these opportunities. It is clearly meant for mental health professionals, but anyone can sign up and go to it. Could you imagine that kind of equality mirrored in society anywhere else? After my citizenship test study, it is particularly telling how equality manifests in many ways in Australia.

Last week, I started chanting with the determination to somehow be able to have a dialogue with Dr Kolk and tell him about my practice and how it has provided so many elements to healing that his research has uncovered. I also started chanting to expand kosen rufu and somehow connect the people present to the Buddhist practice and for their happiness.

Today was a fabulous day in this endeavour. I woke up early in the morning and chanted for an hour, dressed in a bright green, picked up breakfast and got to the conference. I further cemented my understanding of the content, my whole day full of “aha!” moments and notes of how my practice helps overcome c-PTSD.

In addition, I gathered the courage to talk to the person sitting next to me, a young psychologist who helps children and old people in the community deal with difficult circumstances and trauma. I gave her an old Indigo magazine I happened to be carrying with me, a print of The Winning Life that I managed to get from Officeworks next door in the lunch time.

I walked up to Dr Kolk twice, thanked him for his work and talked about how my Buddhist practice helps me. I gave him a print-out of The Winning Life too. He humbly accepted my material and promised to read it. He recognised that his work does not even begin to talk about how to deal with this problem when you’re not living the privileged life in Sydney for example but instead are in a village in India.

He is a brilliant man and a wonderful human being. He even recognised my accent as being from the state I come from in India. Nifty tricks up his sleeve, nobody has ever been able to tell that before! 😀

I still continue to fight my negativity. I berate myself that I should not have taken up too much of his time when he reminded me that he has a long queue and I wrapped up my conversation. I continue to battle my self-loathing and self-hatred. I realised that voice may not be going away for a while but I can create value in whatever way right now. I did my best based on prayer today and will do so again tomorrow.

Rinse and repeat.

After the conference, I met with a professional acquaintance who had been curious about the Buddhist practice. I was talking to her about work and struggling to talk about the practice. Suddenly out of nowhere, a Buddhist leader appeared and said hi to me. The same person who gave me guidance in January. I hugged him and my friend asked me who it was. I started to explain he was the leader from my Buddhist practice and how he helped me and went into my struggles for the last few years. This changed the tone of the whole conversation and led to me giving her a printed copy of The Winning Life too and inviting her to the meeting next month.

I feel like today I won in Kosen Rufu and in life.

The fight continues, and there is more and more joy everyday!

Here are some key learnings from the conference for me – warning, this is long, and I will write further sequels to these notes for reference!

PTSD patients say this, "I have become a monster. I blow up all the time." PTSD was earlier thought to be a memory diagnosis. However, Trauma changed my brain in a way that I could not be alive in the present moment. It is very hard for me to feel alive, engaged and connected in the present moment. Conventional psychotherapy and treatments is "stupid", people just get treated on the basis of beliefs rather than outcomes, it just does not work. The USA DSM put down diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses which were essentially clusters of symptoms grouped together into "conditions". It was put together for the purposes of figuring out which drugs to prescribe for what, with the caveat to never use it for forensic or insurance purposes. Of course, this was forgotten. Professionals became terrible diagnosticians, diagnosing based on how they would get paid.

Currently psychiatrists are not even allowed to use "Complex PTSD" in their terminology or diagnosis or they can't get the insurance claims or prescribe medications when needed. This is the limitation of the public health system in Australia and insurance system in the US.

In Nov 2018, the largest ever PTSD study costing $4 million found that the best drug performed the same as placebo. Nobody got better. It found that "PTSD is untreatable". What this means - do things that are not drugs, and are not talking on a couch
Help Define New Identity 
When people suffer from trauma, they define themselves by something that happened a long time ago. It becomes a central preoccupation. Healing involves helping people get a new identity. This could be as simple as "I live in Sydney and like to go for walks along the beach." Some other ways are doing theatre for example. Theatre enables you to feel how it would feel to be powerful.

In my life, I changed my identity by moving to a new country and trying to find a new life. However, the key change was becoming a SGI member, a Nichiren Buddhist practitioner. It is an identity that provides me with a strong sense of purpose and commitment. I now identify as being a Bodhisattva of the earth. In SGI, I feel powerful by being aligned to my mission, being able to take action to transform my life, create happiness for myself and others. I find myself playing the “role” of a Buddha – of bringing out and living from my greatest potential rather than my narrow, often negative, brain.

Restore synchrony and relationships
Dr Kolk further said, we are deeply interactive and relational creatures. Our brains are designed to be together and talk to each other. It is all about voices, faces, synchrony and harmony. Healing involves restoring or finding many of these aspects in a person's life

In my life and practice, SGI provides this. I establish synchrony by chanting with others, learning new rhythms of gongyo and daimoku. I build relationships and train myself in SGI which enables me to be better in my family, workplace and society leading to multiplying effects of good relationships, something I could never experience before.

Enable focus and filtering out of cognitive noise 
Trauma broke down the filteration mechanisms in my mind and took away my ability to focus. My mind was constantly filled with irrelevant stuff. I am competent but cannot focus. I lost the sense of pleasure and engagement with simple joys. Healing needs some way to enable people's minds to focus more clearly.

In my practice, as Nichiren says “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Continue chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo no matter what happens.”. This provides the consistency that my brain slowly gets trained to focus on. As I chant to the Gohonzon with determination to somehow chant for one hour, I keep bringing my brain back to the Gohonzon over and over. Slowly noise in my head calms down, sometimes for seconds, or minutes. Doing this helps me open up my day and tap into opportunities that I would not have noticed otherwise

Show them how to have power over their situation 
Trauma leads people's bodies to be trapped in fight or flight state. It comes from physical immobility, not having the ability to fight back or flee. Have to somehow show the person how to escape the trap inside of them. It is about empowering them to have agency over their body, minds, lives.

In my Buddhist practice, this is key too. President Ikeda says, when you have a problem, first take it to the Gohonzon and chant about it. This is in essence the first cause towards creating power in my life. Even when I feel like I can do nothing about my situation, I can still chant about it. This already takes me out of the paralysed fight or flight state and I can turn off my limbic system response and start to apply my creativity to tap into the universal potential that is revealed to me. Chanting with strong determination works even better!

Open people's minds and hearts to simple pleasures
The reward system of a person's brain determines their character. Trauma changes the reward system of your brain. You cannot be rewarded, you don't get turned on by things that give others pleasures. You can only tune into danger, fear, horror. The pleasure centre has changed. The question is how do you open people's minds and hearts to open up to simple pleasures such as smelling a flower or listening to music. Pain becomes pleasure and pleasure becomes pain. Usual sexual things don't give pleasure. They seek to be beaten and hit for pleasure and then have a lot of shame. The science doesn't know what to do about it

In my Buddhist practice, President Ikeda says that we must chant to our heart’s content. This means to chant to feel joy. Sometimes it may only be an instant. However, this is very powerful. I have had times where chanting led me to laughter as I connected within and was able to find the hilarious side to a very stressful situation. Other times it led me into tears, which came from realising how sad I felt but still led to joy of connecting to how I was feeling. Clearly Nichiren Daishonin and Shakyamuni Buddha were onto something!

Sync yourself
You do things automatically that scare other people, turn people off, embarrass you. You do things that are out of sync with everyone else and you feel alienated, disconnected and then have shame. You have to re-learn how to do simple things. You keep replaying the past in the present over and over again. You have the illness of not being fully alive in the present. With their behaviour, people manage to automatically recreate their past no matter where they go.

This has been a big problem for me. In the Buddhist practice, this has many dimensions. Many things have helped me. First, the concept of changing karma, i.e. changing my tendency. When I keep replaying the same thing, first through my prayer I become aware of it. Then I chant with determination to overcome it which enables me to challenge my tendency and change what I am doing, creating a new reality in the present moment. The other concept is the oneness of life and environment, expressing the connectedness of everything. When I chant with others and study the wealth of wisdom from President Ikeda and Nichiren Daishonin, I start to develop an understanding of the Mystic Law and wisdom on how to live life. President Ikeda’s writing simplifies everything practically, it guides my prayer and action and enables me to be in sync. Furthermore, I proceed with the faith of being able to create value from everything, changing poison into medicine and expressing my unique self in a way that leads to a unique contribution to my environment. I let go of the need to blend in but develop the wisdom to be harmonious with my surroundings.

After Trauma, you live in a different universe. When you are traumatised, it is a different world.

So true. And now I found the universal law that governs all life so I can drive my life to be in harmony with all the different realities across the 3,000 realms of the past, present and future! My determination in a single moment permeates 3,000 realms of existence.

Psychotherapy usually relies on self-report. The problem with self-report is that the verbal brain is as far removed from your centre of self-experience in your brain as possible. What people say cannot be trusted. Nobody is in touch with themselves

My practice works with whatever I can perceive about my present reality. It then leads me to a deeper reality as I overcome layers of trauma. I don’t need a language to change my experience, as I chant and study, it works no matter whether I can process my current situation correctly or not.

How can you help people think about what they feel
Traumatised people see things others don't see. They misinterpret reality. They feel helpless, they feel they can do nothing to affect the world around them. When you are traumatised, only what you feel is real. Your feelings are your reality and you don't have the ability to reflect upon how you feel. There is no sense in arguing with the emotional brain.

The Buddhist teaching says to chant no matter how you feel. Don’t let your mind master you. Polish the mirror of your life day and night by chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. The chanting establishes the connection and it elevates my existence. When I chant with the detemination to create value and expand my contribution for the sake of kosen rufu, I can tune into my greater self which involves my thinking and feeling brain. When I commit to my vow, I am handed the gift to zoom out of my narrow suffering and be able to use my creative potential.

(To be contd.)

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