Growing up, my family was Roman Catholic. However, my grandparents were not as religious as the rest of my grandfather’s devote siblings. I tried finding answers regarding my traumatic childhood in my faith, but that seemed to leave me with more questions than answers.
Much later in my life, when a therapist told me I had “too many crises of faith,” I read other spiritual advisors’ words. Some of the best advice I ever received on how to deal with trauma and life came from the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama is a title given to the foremost spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. The name is derived from a combination of Mongolic and Tibetan words. Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning “ocean” or “big.” The Tibetan word, བླ་མ, pronounced bla-ma, which means master or guru. Ocean Master. I feel like we can all learn a little from someone who can comprehend the mysteries and vastness of the seas.
1. Understand the law of impermanence
Some of the most impactful words I read from the Dalai Lama are:
“Awareness of impermanence and appreciation of our human potential will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment.” – Dalai Lama
The law of impermanence states that “sensations are arising, and passing away, arising, and passing away.” All of them, every emotion or situation we find ourselves in, is fleeting. When I was a teenager trying to figure out why neither my mother nor father loved me enough to stay in my life, I did not understand the law of impermanence.
While living with my grandma, who was emotionally and physically abusive, wondering why she didn’t love me either, I did not understand this law. I felt life would always be unfair, and destiny had condemned me to be unloved and unwanted forever. I couldn’t see past the situation I had been living in for my entire life. When you have experienced trauma from the first moment you can remember, it’s impossible to realize that it is not permanent.
When I would cry and sob to my grandfather, he would solemnly shake his head and put his head in his hands. He would take a few deep breaths and shudderingly say, “You will be eighteen soon and then you can leave and live however you want.”
I would get so angry when he would say this because I couldn’t see any other way to live. My grandma convinced me I would always need her because she used money as a tool to keep you beholden to her. She is an expert at guilt and manipulation. Now, my teenage self would dream of leaving, but never saw a way out.
Yet, there is, because nothing is permanent. Somethings might go on for a long time. Other things might appear to be, but we all eventually die. Death taught me a lot about the law of impermanence. I finally, at the age of 18, found my mother and moved in with her. She died less than six months later in a car crash. My 20-year-old brother in law died a few years later. Then my father a couple of years after that, followed by grandfather.
These deaths shattered me in different ways taking pieces of me with them. I began to understand that death is a fact of life, not much different than births. To live, you must be born, and if you are born, then your time here on this earth is not permanent. Some of us have years; others have decades and decades, while still others are only alive for moments or days.
The Dalai Lama talks about the sense of urgency that comes from this realization and the idea that it will give us a sense of urgency to use every precious moment. This teaching taught me to accept that suffering and pain are as fleeting as joy and contentment.
I do not believe that this is a license to live life with no regard for the consequences that our decisions will bring, because you might have to deal with those, but instead to try and make sure that I did one thing every day that furthered a dream or a goal. To use those precious moments in ways that help me heal or help others find a way through.
2. Concentration brings you closer to the truth
What is the “truth?” I am not enlightened enough to begin to touch that question, but I can share some truths that I have learned. Our thoughts hold power, as the brain will believe the things we tell it. It accepts the good stuff (positive affirmations), and it assumes the bad things (negative self-talk).
When I was twelve, I remember watching an after school special about the statistical likelihood that children from divorced homes would get divorced; how it was more likely that kids with parents in prison end up in jail themselves. Since both my parents struggled with drug addiction, I would likely not escape that fate either.
Everything the show named, I had experienced. I can remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday, watching this show and getting angry. I was twelve, and I have never been more determined than I was at that moment. I would not become my mother, and I would not let myself be another statistic.
I told my brain that my story would not end that way. Then I went about making a series of calculated decisions that enabled me to graduate from college at 17 (with an AA) before I had completed high school.
These decisions and behaviors, though, led to a problem with perfection and expectations. I used to think the trade-off was worth it. I was ok being a perfectionist whose self-critic was loud and uncomforting because I was not any of the other things. Yet, I got a Masters degree that I didn’t want because I needed to prove I could to myself, and “everyone” else, that I was more than what I should have been.
The Buddhists have a term for these thoughts that we latch on to and struggle to let go of, called Monkey Brain. This term refers to feelings of confusion, restlessness, and anxiety tied to our thoughts. Diana Raab, PhD., says that we can combat this by taking a few simple steps, “The first step in doing so is to become grounded and calm the mind—that is, remember to be in the here and now. Being present in this way is called mindfulness.”
This type of concentration, and being aware of “the now,” will help you be more in tune with your body and mind. Practicing mindfulness might help you get closer to the truths that you seek. Maybe, the truth is that we spend far too much time worrying about things that we can not control, instead of meditating on the things that we can.
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” – Dalai Lama
3. Be kind and generous
To be kind and generous is my favorite lesson from the Dalai Lama. Coincidentally, it is my favorite lesson from Christianity. Everyone can be helpful and unselfish if they let go of their ego and other things that do not matter. The reward from opening up your heart is worth more than whatever the cost of your generosity might be.
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – Dalai Lama
According to Karen Hall, PhD., “Science has now shown that devoting resources to others, rather than having more and more for yourself, brings about lasting well-being.” For many childhood trauma survivors, lasting well-being is might as well be a unicorn. However, maybe the way to find it is easier than we ever thought possible.
How can you be kind to others? There are a couple of ways: give when you see some in need of a helping hand, be openly happy for others when they succeed at something, and being honest yet gentle. It is also important to be kind to yourself. Take good care of your mind and body.
When humanity makes a point to be kinder to one another, we will all start seeing a different world—a world where maybe fewer children will experience childhood trauma.
Envisioning a better future
Writing about my trauma and reading how it inspires or speaks to others has been a significant factor in my healing process. I no longer try to hide from the things that happened to me under a cloud of normalcy.
I wanted no part of the things I didn’t choose and spent the better part of 30 years trying to overcome them so no one would ever guess I struggled. All that accomplished was feeding the monkey in my brain. It clutched at thoughts and emotions because that was what fueled me.
Now, I am fueled by the knowledge that I deserve to make every moment I have on earth meaningful. I can accept the things that happened and move on because they not permanent and only live in my mind now. And I can be kind. I can be kind to myself, and the lost little girl, “no one loved.” I can love me, and if my words help one other person find love for themselves or heal, I have made the most of each day. And that is enough.