Many Buddhist practitioners who have experienced trauma seek relief, consciously or unconsciously, in their meditation practice. The range of traumatic experiences is broad and can include being the victim of or witness to violence, such as sexual or physical abuse, rape, assault, torture, or military combat. Trauma can also occur following a serious illness or accident. Victims of trauma may experience feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and self-blame. Trauma can also affect the ability to trust, form intimate relationships, and find motivation and meaning in life.

According to clinical psychiatrist Paul J. Fink, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys worldwide suffer significant trauma before the age of eighteen. The National Comorbidity Survey of 1992 found that 8 percent of all Americans will experience a traumatic incident at some point in their lives that will result in a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by significant distress and psychological impairment.

At first, symptoms may arise as prolonged feelings of panic while meditating. One practitioner recalls, “Initially, I felt an inexplicable terror. I would sit in the meditation hall, and all the hair would stand up on my body. I described it as ‘terror from another planet’ because there was no story, but it was still completely debilitating.” Following this, the practitioner experienced a series of kinesthetic flashbacks, including involuntary physical contortions related to acts of sexual abuse. Later, visual flashbacks surfaced. Family members eventually verified the traumatic experience that had spurred these flashbacks, and the meditator was able to heal significantly through therapy and meditation practice.

"Untitled, 1983" by Martin Disler, © Estate of Martin Disler. Courtesy  Swiss Institute for Art Research. Courtesy of Gallery Elisabeth Kaufmann, Zürich. Chalk and acrylic on paper.
“Untitled, 1983” by Martin Disler, © Estate of Martin Disler. Courtesy Swiss Institute for Art Research. Courtesy of Gallery Elisabeth Kaufmann, Zürich. Chalk and acrylic on paper.

When flashbacks of memories arise, they tend to occur spontaneously during periods of concentration. They can be experienced through any sensation, and are commonly visual or kinesthetic. For some, a whole scene is played out moment by moment, while others experience only broken images. When a meditator experiences a flashback, often the intrusion of these painful memories into conscious awareness can be an indication that the meditator needs to stop practice and address the trauma through psychotherapy; a teacher is usually the best person to make this determination.

Survivors need to consider the potential effects the silence of a retreat environment might have on the resurfacing of traumatic experiences. On the one hand, it can reenact the feeling of being isolated and silenced by the perpetrator, the family, or society. But a retreat can also provide a stable and safe space in which they can begin to relax—often for the first time. There is a predictable schedule, no intrusions from the outside world, and a communal agreement to follow basic ethical rules. One practitioner noted that a retreat was “the first time in my life I felt without fear.”

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