A Personal Healing Journey
When I was pregnant with my first child I felt the stirrings of the past burgeoning under the surface, calling for my attention. I could no longer ignore the pit of anxiety that I had carried in my stomach for as long as I could remember. As I listened, I discovered a family legacy that needed attention and healing that called me to turn towards my vulnerability as I prepared to become a first-time mother.
Looking back I reflect on stories of my grandfathers’ traumas from both world wars, my grandmothers fearful for their husband’s lives. I see the impact of the great depression. Looking further back, I see my ancestors who were forced to leave their homes in Eastern Europe due to the rise of anti-Semitism. These traumas translated into impaired attachments, deficiencies of touch and consistent care, between my grandparents and my parents. I feel the impact of these groundless, fearful moments in my being.
Turning towards the pain of traumas of my family history I breathe into the deeply familiar knot in my belly. I unwind the grief and anguish that has no name. Hot tears release down my face as I imagine my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents standing behind me. I feel them standing behind smiling, nodding. I feel that they have my back. They encourage me to be free and to let go. Attending to these legacies becomes an invitation to open my heart. What was once a ground of uncertainty has transformed into a fertile earth; a place for the rooting of potentiality, for my life and the lives of my children.
“Trauma can be transmitted across generations. However, our transgenerational wounds are not the essence of who we are. How do we transcend our identification with history? Healing involves knowing that you are not alone, trusting that there is a path to greater freedom, and a willingness to feel your relationship to the suffering of your family lineage. Releasing the burdens of trauma, our own or those of our family history, we often feel lighter, a greater sense of choice, and an increased experience belonging in the world.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Trauma across Generations
What one generation does not heal is likely to be passed onto the next generation. Research indicates that PTSD runs in families and children of trauma survivors with PTSD are more likely to develop PTSD. According to Scientific American Article on transgenerational fear memories, there is an “intergenerational transfer of risk,” a cycle that is hard to break. You can read more about the complex combination of in-utero influences, epigenetics, and environmental factors associated with the transmission of trauma in my previous post on the neurobiology of transgenerational trauma.
Secrets and silence within the family and at societal levels send powerful messages. For example, Hiroshima and transgenerational trauma and the inheritance of trauma in Japan, explains how the hibakusha, or “explosion-affected person” was considered to be a source of shame. She writes, “Even grandchildren have often feared telling romantic partners of their grandparents’ experience, worried that their genetic material would be perceived as spoiled goods.”
Not talking about the past is one form of wounding. In contrast, parents can inadvertently over-expose children with frequent retellings or re-enactments of traumas from the past. In such situations parents may give the message that the world is not a safe place or create role reversals in which children feel responsible for their parent’s pain.
Likely one of the strongest ways that the transgenerational transmission of trauma occurs is during early attachment. This is because early attachment communications are primarily non-verbal as parents and children connect through voice tone, facial expressions, and body language. Non-verbal communications are highly impacted by PTSD. Our earliest memory systems and are highly susceptible to exposure to facial expressions of anger or the unexpressive face that has shut down to cope with fear. You can read more about this in my previous post on transgenerational attachment legacies.
You Are Not Alone
There is a story about a woman who had lost her son. She visited the Buddha while deep in her grief and asked why this had happened to her. In response, the Buddha asked her to go and get a grain of rice from each house in the village in which no loss had occurred or tears had been shed. She went from house to house and after a week returned with an empty bowl. In realizing that she was not alone she was transformed. Her suffering which once caused her to feel isolated and hopeless now became the gateway to compassion and connection.
This anecdotal story reminds us that when we look honestly we can all find suffering in our personal and family histories. Perhaps within your family you have seen untimely deaths or the ravages of war. Maybe you find the pains of abuse, neglect, or addictions. Take the time to look back. What stories reside in your family history? What are the untold legacies hidden within the lives of your ancestors? Take a look around you. Each person you meet has a story under the surface. You are not alone.
Why Focus on the Past?
Last week our family was invited to dinner with friends visiting from Russia for a dinner commemorating VE day, the day of Victory in Europe for the ending of WWII. They shared with us the tradition of honoring those lost in the war; saying that in Russia everyone has lost someone, this is the day we tell their stories. We lifted our glasses in honor and said, “good memory”.
We need traditions to honor those that lived before us, their accomplishments and their struggles. These traditions help us heal as individuals and as communities. Attending to your family stories enhances emotional health in both adults and children which you can read about in my post on how transgenerational awareness facilitates resilience.
Attending to wounds of the past can bring us into connection with what Joan Halifax calls the “collective wound.” In her book, The Fruitful Darkness, she writes, “We cannot eliminate the so-called negative forces of afflictive emotions. The only way to work with them is to encounter them directly, enter their world, and transform them. They then become manifestations of wisdom. Our weaknesses become our strengths, the source of our compassion for others, and the basis of our awakened nature.”
A Healing Path
In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner writes, “The question we should be asking is not, why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be, ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?’”
There are many routes to healing transgenerational trauma. Profound changes can occur during individual therapy, in group process, within ceremony, or in personal meditations. One model for healing comes from Bert Hellinger, a German psychologist, philosopher, and author, who developed a model for healing transgenerational wounds called Family Constellations. As a catholic missionary in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, his work was influenced by the Zulu People who called upon their ancestors within their indigenous healing traditions. Traditionally carried out in a group format, family constellations are considered a form of psychodrama and somatic psychology; a process of allowing the wisdom of your associations, sensations, and emotions to guide the healing journey.
Within individual psychotherapy, transgenerational healing involves reflecting upon your family lineage while mindfully attending to your body, mind, and emotions. We map out your family history and explore your place within your family tree. You can read more in this case study of transgenerational healing.
Many traditional cultures offer ceremonies to honor the ancestors recognizing that illness or disease can arise from unresolved patterns in our family histories. Rituals attend to the past to create freedom from the fates of our ancestors. No matter what approach to healing we take, releasing the burdens of traumas, our own or those of our family history, increases our experience of belonging in the world.
A Healing Meditation
Recently I offered a transgenerational healing meditation to my therapeutic yoga class. Participants shared powerful transformational experiences that inspired me to share this practice to you. This “Healing Ancestral Karma” meditation comes from the tradition of Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan and is intended as a blessing for the ancestors and a healing for your family lineage. This meditation involves a visualization, a mantra (chant), and a mudra (hand placement) that when combined provides a powerful intention regarding healing our family history:
- Visualization: Imagine your ancestors lined up behind you; your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents and so on. Then imagine lined up in front of you your children, your children’s children, and so on. If you do not have children then imagine the children of the world and the generations to come. Yogi Bhajan stated that we are affected and in turn we affect 7 generations back and 7 generations forward. See yourself as a bridge of transformation and healing.
- Mudra: Within yoga, a mudra refers to a specific posture and placement of the hands that represents or cultivates a particular state of mind. In this meditation the invitation is to sit in a comfortable position and place your right hand upon your heart, palm facing in. The left arm reaches around behind your back and the left hand rests upon the back side of your heart facing outward (or in a position behind you that you can comfortable maintain).
- Mantra: A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated to focuses our intention and energy often drawing upon a tradition or lineage. This meditation uses a mantra called Guru Ram Das, a chant that acts as a loving, healing, and protective prayer that can be sent to those we love, to the world, and to ourselves. The intention of this chant is to allow your mind to be guided by your heart and a felt experience of compassion. You can listen or sing along to Snatam Kaur’s version of this chant.
Typically this meditation is recommended to practice for 11 minutes a day for 40 days for maximum effect. However, discover what works for you. You can learn more about this meditation and receive guided instruction on the Spirit Voyage website. If you practice the meditation and would like to share in the comments below I’d love to hear about your experience.
Our transgenerational wounds are not the essence of who we are. Healing involves knowing that you are not alone, trusting that there is a path to greater freedom, and a willingness to feel your relationship to the suffering of your family lineage. Releasing the burdens of trauma we feel lighter and an increased experience belonging in the world. This is a gift we can pass on to the next generation.
- Learn more about somatic psychology
- Therapeutic Yoga with Dr. Arielle Schwartz
- What is Resilience Informed Psychotherapy?
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About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.