Meeting on monthly video calls, several people sit together, close their eyes, and after several minutes of silence, turn their attention to Brexit. On another day, the topic may be the Syrian civil war, climate change, North Korean nuclear capabilities, or migrants at the US border. The meditators are engaging in a practice called “global social witnessing” (GSW), and their aim is to become more present to the pain of these events.
The idea is that we have unprecedented access to information about tragedies occurring around the world, but rather than become more informed, we allow the data to overwhelm us. We experience compassion fatigue, end up feeling numb or depressed, and retreat into indifference. The danger is not only inaction. By turning away from the world’s traumas, GSW proponents argue, we also perpetuate, albeit unconsciously, painful cultural shadows that underlie global trauma. Collective and historical trauma, they believe, lies at the heart of many of the atrocities and conflicts in the world today. Global social witnessing practice groups create and experiment with a kind of “relational space,” in which participants can cultivate a greater depth of understanding about their own responses to traumatic experiences of other communities.
The idea for GSW came out of the Pocket Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to support the healing of collective trauma through education, training, and other programs. In a recent weeklong training session, participants divided into triads each afternoon to unpack and digest together some of the emotionally taxing issues reverberating in our global culture today: oppression, sexual abuse, colonialism, slavery, racism, and genocide.
“Collective trauma is not an idea; it’s a tremendous amount of energy that hasn’t been processed yet but influences our daily thinking and feeling, and our relationships,” said author, spiritual teacher, and Pocket Project founder Thomas Hübl during one of the training sessions, which was part of a part of a yearlong program. “It has created shadow structures in society that we assume are normal. The only way to address this is to create conscious structures that will support resourcing and awareness processes.”
Trauma, Hübl believes, has effects similar to karma. When two people argue, then move on without a resolution, this unconscious material becomes “carry-on baggage” they transfer from one moment to the next. But while the consequences of a single argument may be relatively minor, a mass atrocity can lead to emotional scars that are passed from generation to generation. And it’s this large-scale historical trauma that we have all been born into no matter where we live.
Related: Healing Trauma with Meditation
In an article on collective trauma for the journal Spanda, Hübl wrote, “We must be willing to consistently and consciously resolve those energies that have been left stored and undigested. In essence, we must open the carry-on baggage of our world, sort its contents, unpack.”
One of the training participants was Flavia Valguisti, a former defender and judge in the juvenile court system of Buenos Aires. For her, framing this process in the context of karma and Buddhist practices clicked.
“When we talk about karma, it’s not just personal, we’re all part of it,” she said. “In healing collective trauma, we move from karma to dharma. Dharma is the path.”
The Pocket Project is based in Oldenburg, Germany and aims to heal collective and intergenerational trauma. The organization is led by Hübl, who completed nearly four years of medical school during the 1990s in his native Austria, when he felt a calling to drop out and dedicate himself almost entirely to meditation during what became a four-year independent retreat in Czechoslovakia. His retreats and online courses, many of which he teaches in collaboration with academics, center around both science and what he refers to as mystical principles, derived from wisdom traditions including Taoism, Buddhism, and the Kabbalah. He launched the Pocket Project in 2017, and since then, similar initiatives have formed in the US, Israel, and Argentina to explore country- and regional-specific trauma.
Many of these groups emerged during the yearlong Pocket Project training on collective trauma from June 2017 to May 2018. Most of the training was conducted via video conference except for two in-person modules that bookended the course. In the modules, trainees participated in five days of mindfulness-based meditation, movement, group discussions, and vocal-toning sessions, a sound-based group activity inspired by religious chanting. (The course fee for the year was €1,900.00 [around $2,130.00]. Several scholarships were made available.)
While trauma was familiar territory for the psychologists, scientists, and physicians in attendance, few had studied collective trauma. This isn’t surprising, considering that a recent PubMed search for literature on collective trauma yielded just over a thousand results, compared with a search for publications on post-traumatic stress disorder, which generated more than 13,000.
When he returned from his meditation retreat in 2000, Hübl taught meditation in Germany and found that symptoms of trauma would arise in the group, which he believed could be traced back to historical and intergenerational trauma around the Holocaust and the horrific legacy of World War II.
Over the next couple of years, Hübl began inviting Israelis and Germans—often up to a thousand people—to meditate together and work through their respective histories. The idea of cultivating “pockets” of clarity throughout the world inspired Hübl and his wife, the Israeli artist Yehudit Sasportas, to choose the name “The Pocket Project.” Students from his early training courses launched the offshoot initiative Witnessing in Empathy, which hosts meditation retreats at the former Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camp sites.
And in the US, monthly practice groups meet to discuss the roots of trauma in America’s history which manifest as “symptoms” such as violence, racism, and political divisiveness. In July, Dr. Christina Bethell, a board member of the Pocket Project and a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, provided testimony on science and policy around childhood trauma during a House Committee hearing on this topic.
Global social witnessing groups create and experiment with a kind of “relational space,” in which participants can cultivate empathy for the traumatic experiences of other communities. The role of relationships in integrating trauma was a central theme of the Pocket Project training sessions.
Voices of those who work in war-ravaged communities expressed their pain and fears. Others explored their buried hurt, rage, and guilt as soldiers who harmed and injured others on behalf of the US, South Africa, and Israel. And those from countries that have perpetrated genocide explored the shame and culpability woven into their culture’s psyche. Emerging from a space of deep compassion, genuine apologies were conveyed by citizens of countries that had inflicted war onto those of others.
As facilitator, Hübl encouraged people to open up about the emotions behind their words. This is a key feature of the method he employs to both encourage individual healing and to strengthen the witnessing capacity of the larger group. A key lesson from the training was the importance of translating spirituality into action.
Participant Mukara Meredith, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism as part of the Nyingma lineage since 1984 and a leadership consultant based in Colorado, said the training reflected the three refuge vows: Buddha, sangha, and dharma.
“I love the principle of integrating the temple with the marketplace. We do live in culture, not in caves, and we need practices to help us digest our experience of culture to truly live in an interconnected way.”
Meredith, who participated in the training with the blessings of her teachers, is currently developing a trauma program for women in China, and Valguisti has started a “pocket” group in Buenos Aires.
For each individual, trauma can become a roadblock, a shadow that prevents the expression of future possibilities. The same applies to our global culture: In witnessing our own blocks, we embrace our collective responsibility to work toward restoration and healing. Participants in global social witnessing and other Pocket Project initiatives see it as the tool we need to keep moving forward.