Engaged Buddhism – Healing Trauma in Community Settings

What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience …

– The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt

A few nights before I left for Xommunity, I was scrolling through an extended list of their collaborators: activists who participated and co-lead workshops from time to time along with the core members of the community. I was excited to see an “old” friend among them. H* is an irreverent, intensely creative woman I made friends with during my time working with Schumacher College in Devon three or four years ago. She made me a stew of rabbit she found as “fresh” roadkill, rode carnival rides with me and her dad, and educated me about epilating and lingerie as I alternated with Dostoyevskian philosophy. I spent several nights and many mealtimes with her laughing. 

“It made me more nervous to look through the collaborators.” I told her. “Maybe I’m not the kind of person they expect, or that they think could be useful to them. I’m afraid I’m too weird” I told her. “Also, I’m wearing nail polish and dating a politician — from the right” I played on the petty idiosyncrasy of the inquiry, but my concerns were honest. “Ha” she told me “I am sure they are weird in their ways. They are mostly introverts. They are Buddhist, I’m sure they welcome all sorts.” 

“Maybe the nail polish is a dealbreaker? I’ve been debating whether to remove it but I felt compelled to test their metta” I pressed the issue.  So did she:

“No! Keep them! [ . . . ] If we are to form inclusive communities, that means welcoming everyone, including people with snazzy talons. I used to get conscious of my (secondhand) Nikes, and I just don’t give a shit now”.

Our exchange was comical in its conjunction of the “spiritual” and “deep” with the frivolous, but  the humour highlighted skated-around-truths and fears. Would I be rejected based on what this community perceives in me as not aligning with grassroots activism or the spiritual values of Buddhism? I had painted my nails for a photoshoot. For the past two years, I’ve worked as a “luxury” escort and, although Covid has put work to a stop except for a few regulars, I needed new photos to throw a stalker off my tracks by changing my profile and name. If I spoke the above sentence to anyone in the community, I would probably alienate and confuse them. There isn’t always an effective way to ease into some subjects.  H* and I immediately saw and embraced the contradictions among us: they are Buddhists living away from society in the mountains, but I have been around enough spiritual communities (including Buddhist ones) to know that this does not necessarily signify anything more than my nail polish or work signifies about me. I have often experienced more judgement coming from spiritual or “woke” groups of people than from those who do not strongly identify with any spiritual teaching. 

I did not consider telling anyone in the community about my work until I was on the bus towards its rural, wild setting. I prefer not to lie, but it is too complicated to tell the truth, sometimes, and telling the truth to the wrong people has repercussions that outweigh the benefits of openness. My relationship with my work is “complicated.” I see it as a way of making a buck off of patriarchy, which runs off exploited (“free”) care, sexual labor, and sexualisation of women. It is also a harm reduction in light of capitalism not going away any time soon. And, in other ways, sex work for me has served as an exploration of the aura of the energy I have carried all along in my personal history: that of abjection, taboo and exile from community. 

Partly as a result of this aura and exploration, I find myself simultaneously attracted and repulsed by intentional communities, with a particular charge around those working with spiritual practices. Growing up an orphan among over a dozen families, my numerous and profound experiences with “madness,” the mystical, the abject, the “weird” and taboo, as well as my experiences living in very different cultures, have all created both fascination and intense hunger for authentic connection and regard for wild divergences and differences. Writing these notes as well, I feel a double-bind to “come from my experience, but not too much.” Trying not to be uncouth, overshare uncomfortable material, stay within the bounds of propriety in academia and save face to professors, and speak in a certain tone create feelings of further fracture. There is a lot of backstory and back-study that informs my experience; trying to suppress it paralyses my writing. As we arrive at Xommunity, I will share some of my impressions as a starting point.

 Arriving Xommunity

Xommunity is comprised of seven women, one man and one gender non-binary individual. Everyone is around my age, give or take five years, except for the founder, W, and everyone identifies as white and European. W. explained to me that several long-term members (who had been there several years) recently left; the community itself is in a transition, or “fallow year” as he described it, and its identity is up in the air. We spoke of how social life, and especially romantic and sexual life can suffer in small communities such as this; on top of the isolation, workshop leaders are not allowed to begin relationships with participants of workshops, which is the only realistic way to meet relatively like-minded people in a community so remote. 

One of the community members, N* recently injured her knee and was unable to walk. It was the third semi-serious leg injury in the community in the past year, and several members expressed their creeping concerns about their longevity at Xommunity. E*, a local from a nearby town, told me “It makes me see that this is not somewhere I could grow old. Because of the layout and being so remote, it is really a bad place to be sick or injured, or just old. I mean, of course, people are very kind and help you, but I would feel like a burden.” It is a place for activists to organise, I thought.  Along with being from only one generation and almost entirely women, Xommunity is also all-white and has not attracted a more diverse continuous membership in its 12 years of existence. None of these factors make it inherently bad or “not a community,” but I was curious about what was happening within it.

When I arrived, W. led me into the office to meet several of the community members. It was a low-ceilinged, stone building, freezing, with several bodies in dark hoodies or coats typing alone on a laptop, full of books upon books, with one small window looking out upon the mountains. I let out an involuntary laugh, because it evoked an image of remote hackers or organisers doing illicit deeds from a bunker. As I got to know everyone, the energy of that scene softened in my mind, but what I sensed here indeed expressed itself in other ways. The community seems largely without the fierce support and love they offer to their activist beneficiaries and workshops attendees, both in its inability to grow (which is an inherent part of its structure and ability to support individuals at the moment), and in my feeling (and others’ stated feelings) of missing vitality, diversity, and more dynamic support. Why is there a gap between community and activism in such a community with such a thoughtful mission based on intersectionality and interdependence?

This bleeding of vital community resources to the “outside” is the legacy of capitalist outsourcing and “cheapening” of labor. In Xommunity, rather than exploiting others to get ahead, they are reaching outside their community to offer support to activists. Yet, without addressing the loss of spiritual and community technology (the legacy of colonisation of diverse and community centred peoples and worldviews), any instinct of rebellion is tainted with the residue of its oppressor.  The wounds to community are not healed, but replicated in insidious ways. 

Any organisation that structures itself as a community must consciously deconstruct and rebuild aspects of the default “community” that recreate the isolation and oppression of the economic, nuclear family in particular. This is very difficult when everyone comes from this mainstream community. The family is itself a construct (the very centre, in fact) of patriarchal capitalism. It is an “economic construct determining our behaviour by stealth, in particular governing gender roles in relation to public and private life [ . . . ] The vision of the nuclear home as a tranquil respite from labour is in fact a patriarchal fantasy, reliant upon the subordination of women” (Harper, 2019).  “Decolonising” it is not a straightforward task. While over half of the members identified as queer and all taught courses in decolonisation, we are all saturated in coloniality, and oppressive-normative ways of being become the foreground of our community building.  

This is especially so in the supposed safety of life in a “highly developed” country in Europe, where collective care for individual vulnerabilities can appear less urgent. Unlike some more rugged and capable creatures built to survive harsh conditions, the survival of individual humans is indistinguishable from community’s survival. With hyper-industrialisation, this is less obvious, but no less true. Pperhaps, due to its particular creation stories of disconnection, “Western” (colonial) civilisation couldn’t help but focus on the wrong aspects of “community.”  Community is conflated with the philosophy or charge of an organisation, rather than a collection of dyadic, individual relationships within a group.  

Community exists for the people in a community; not for any philosophy or ideal.  In the cracking of neoliberalism exacerbated by Covid 19 and other natural and socio-political traumas, the cultural mainstream is looking beyond this necrophilic (Paulo Frieire’s word for death-seeking, suicidal and traumatic culture) worldview towards an antidote for it.  A worldview oriented towards healing is clearly integral toward surviving current (and impeding ecological) trauma without inordinate dissociation.  But changing worldview, changing culture is organic, fluid and very tricky to do purposefully.   But perhaps, after testing the limits of virtuality and hyper-individualism, as a global culture, we are more willing to swing towards deeper forms of relationality.  

True Community, the Dharma and Trauma

In my past experience in several intentional communities, I have been painfully aware of the difficulties in cultivating what Scott Peck calls “true community”. In his classic work on community building, “The Different Drum,” he differentiates four stages of community-in-the-making, the last of which is true. Pseudo-community, he says, is the stage where members display a false unity, displaying only their agreeableness to each other and avoiding all conflict. In Chaos, members recognise differences, but spend all their energy trying to “obliterate them” (Peck, 1987, p 92). If a group reaches the next stage of Emptiness “expectations, preconceptions, prejudices, ideology, theology, solutions, the need to heal, convert, fix, control, etc” are relinquished; with True Community, a collective peace capable of dialoguing in difference emerges. Most often, Chaos and Emptiness prove too difficult, and the group falls back into Pseudo-Community. It is painful to withstand the energies of Chaos and Emptiness, and without the absolute necessity, and under the inauspiciousness of capitalist values, those who cannot tolerate difference or pseudo-community leave and the rest retreat back to the precarious “safety” of false unity. 

In this quest to control our surroundings, a legacy of patriarchy, industry, colonialism, and now neoliberalism, we treat the earth and whatever is deemed “other” as a soulless, inanimate object.  Even in a community teaching reanimation and spiritual learning through connection with the Earth (“eco-dharma,” where dharma is any teaching serving awakening), many structures and attitudes of necrophilic capitalism remain embedded within. Even activism, Buddhist practice, and living on beautiful wild land are not “sticky” enough to bind people together; these practices and ways of seeing don’t automatically create community. What then, does? When tragedy strikes, what prevents the dispersion of community, or its floundering? What are community-centric values? 

In my own search to understand community and feel included in my personal weirdness, I have crashed again and again into the ground-zero of cosmology, and the need to see below it, through it, and beyond it. This is a liminal place beyond cohesive worldview where one encounters a pregnant emptiness or no-thingness which can be seen from various perspectives and coloured with different flavours. Indigenous, non-Western, and global artistic traditions colour it with ideas of liminality, madness, the taboo, the abject, the exiled; it is also Scott Peck’s stage of Emptiness in community, the transcendent and the mystical. In Buddhist terminology, sunyata is the emptiness from which all things arise. This empty space, aligned with so much shadow material, is vital to reflect upon in terms of individual and community, as only from this charnel ground, so often feared, can one make a solid base for identity aligned with natural law and truth.

While still relevant today, we might ask how our understanding of sunyata might meet the particular urgency of our times.  Buddhism is based on deep perceptions of interdependence, yet its legacy is full of epithets to aloneness: “I have lost my taste for crowds to gain my freedom in solitude have given up bother to be happy in loneliness” Milarepa sings (Gross, 1992, p. 260).  Though outwardly people here spoke of community reverentially, this essence of aloneness permeated my feeling residing at Xommunity. Nonverbal languages like gesture, architecture, attention to communal space, attention to the arts and beauty, planning and followthrough of playful events that serve to bind people, and minute, micro gestures from the soma that serve to invite others into dialogue were all things I noted in my journaling as lacking. How can a community full of different “bubble-like” cosmologies weave new values together, especially if people often don’t even see their outlook as a worldview at all? As Mary Watkins argues, “Only the process of becoming conscious of this cultural self-structuring places us in a position to begin to choose how the self – each of ourselves – is to be defined and experienced” (Watkins, 1991, p. 54). Only in this consciousness can we hope to “meet” an Other. Loneliness is more than a psychological epidemic, it is a political and cultural symptom and signal. Yet “though everyone takes refuge in the sangha as well [along with the Buddha and the dharma], very little attention is devoted to exploring the meaning of this refuge. Rarely does one find explicit statements interpreting the sangha as the matrix necessary for the accomplishment of Buddhist concerns, especially freedom. What one does find instead are encomiums to aloneness, from early texts to the present day” (Gross, 1995, p. 259). 

Rita Gross argues that for Buddhism to be relevant and useful in the world today, it needs a much stronger practical application of inter-relationality, as well as far more public discourse regarding the integration of feminist values. I quote her at length, because her ideas speak to the heart of the integration of spiritual practice, community, and social justice, as well as re-membering abject parts and reclaiming taboo (which in Buddhism, still pertains largely to the feminine and in some schools, softness, warmth and care).

Relationality and other “women’s values and concerns are, and always have been, essential to the well-being and survival of the species. Because they are so healthy and normative for humanity, one of the greatest needs of our time is for these values to enter the realms of public discourse rather-than to be privatized and minimized. Stereotypical ”feminine values” need to become the basis of public life and community; otherwise the rate of acceleration towards oblivion will only increase,” (Gross, 1995, p. 265). 

[Many teachers and practitioners] seem to fear that, if Buddhists really worked to make their sangha a community of support that sustained people emotionally and provided a matrix of psychological comfort, then somehow the environment would not be tough enough, that we would be trying to circumvent the first noble truth of all-pervasive suffering. I would suggest again the fine distinction [. . . ] between suffering that is constitutive of existence, and suffering that is really quite superfluous. The suffering born of inadequate communal support systems is of the latter, not the former variety. Furthermore, it detracts seriously from one’s spiritual development, to the point that it becomes difficult to deal appropriately with the former kind of suffering [. . .] The essence of psychological comfort is, in my experience, communication: direct, straightforward, open, intense, and regular, ongoing communication. Such communication includes and demands attention to emotions and willingness to communicate emotionally as well as intellectually. Interpersonal warmth is one of the most important ingredients that leads to fearlessness and psychological comfort. Physical, as well as verbal, contact is often an important element in such communication. When such communication is stable and ongoing, psychological trauma and disorientation readily give way to some level of sanity. 

Without it, a crisis is prolonged and intensified, and everyday loneliness prevents one from being as effective or as insightful as one could be. It is important to acknowledge that such communication is not to be confused with some magic potion that would make suffering, anxiety, or depression disappear, to be replaced by bliss. The bittersweet edge of ultimate aloneness cannot be cut. Rather, communication makes the inevitable stresses and traumas bearable (Gross, 1992, p. 257).

A spiritual practice grown from earthly practices of interdependence has a better chance of dialoguing successfully with the complexities of interrelated social and ecological justice movements. Gross calls for deep inquiry into the nature of spiritual practice itself. If practice does not serve life, and it does not serve to create social justice, what then, is it good for? 

The Orphan Stone: Alchemy of the Abject with Community

My experiences as an orphan inform my perspective on intentional community building, and my childhood in foster care gives me a unique perspective on this question. At the least, it’s something I have thought about a lot: family is an invisible default for most people who have not experienced severe abuse; it is the basis for their understanding of community, which is largely taken for granted. Growing up outside this default system which binds people, all groupings of people, beyond other oppressive systems has put me close to the archetypal energies of the abject. These energies have haunted me my whole life, reappearing in many forms: in madness, taboo, exile, in hypersensitivity to oppressive forces in relationships, recently, in my job . . . reminding me of my place “outside.” The archetype is relatable and present among plenty of adults from good homes: even in a stable and loving family, the taxes and wreckage of the isolated nuclear setup is enormous. Raising a child can feel more like a battle than a joy, with outside pressures and lack of community support. The parents themselves may feel “orphaned” from community and disenfranchised from a government that clearly cares more for business’ values than human ones. Disorientation in a collapsing global empire leaves many people cosmological orphans.

In a literal orphan, the formation of the psyche in extreme vulnerability and persecutory social circumstances creates very particular cosmological and psychic orientations and acquaints one with the energies of the abject in its most basic form: fellow humanity, relationship. It also, paradoxically (and as a saving grace), acquaints one with a multitude of humanity and intimacy with the “other,” not possible for those with a secure origin story or sense of “place” in the world. The multiplicity of object relations and lack of any singular or stable object of transference (even if abusive) – in other words, the perforation of worldview by trauma – can serve as a sort of “Zen Boot Camp,” which either speeds up the sense of non-attachment, or destroys a person (or a bit of both). 

The perception of profound interdependence, as well as of emptiness or sunyata, is a traumatic, narcissistic wound to ego’s sense of individual, familial, and in-group centrality. In a healing-centred cosmology (i.e. Indigenous), trauma is not worshipped (nor that which produces it), but those who allow it to crack them open are acknowledged for the wisdom they embody through such trials.  In such healing-centred traditions, trauma and the marginalised are honoured and attended to via relationship and dialogue; cosmology is woven through stories of relationship.

Whether we take the first precept literally (“life is suffering”) or not, it’s clear that trauma plays a generous role in our landscape as humans, regardless of the political or community structure of a society. Our current socio-political structure of neoliberal values, which seep into individuals and small communities, devastatingly exacerbates this trauma. In cosmologies that align with the cyclical nature of reality to harmonise and minimise suffering, trauma is neither sought nor ignored. It is seen and contextually met. Following this philosophy of care, a true community has no orphans. 

On another level, community and natural world serve as a container for what psychoanalytic traditions term transference (the projections and ‘working out’ of feelings onto and with the analyst). As these projections are more diffuse and behave differently in this container, clinical psychoanalytic understanding and theory can be used as a lens to explore healing within communities. I learned this in Southern Africa while researching how people experiencing altered states, which might be diagnosed as “schizophrenia” in conventional psychiatry, formed part of a healing matrix wherein their own healing through community served to make them into healers. In dialogues with traditional healers and Jungian analysts, I developed a fascination for learning how each could add vital links to the other’s practice to radically enhance both traditions’ relevance. I reflected on Xommunity through this lens, specifically, the work of my mentor and informal psychoanalyst, Nathan Schwartz Salant (who, I learned, died the eve before Xommunity was to have a day of silent practice). In one of his works, “The Mystery of Human Relationship: Alchemy and Transformation of the Self,” he used the image of the Klein bottle to illustrate how a therapeutic container could hold opposite states of fusion and distance when both contain and are contained by a greater “field,” while also penetrating the field / container itself: 

“If one were to imagine walking along the inside of the bottle, eventually one would find oneself on its outside . . . [We] could be in it, together, and then on its surface, looking at forms of our mental connection. When we were in the field, we were its objects, experiencing a sense of Oneness that gave rise to perceptions that appeared like epiphanies,” (Schwartz-Salant 2007, loc 435 in Kindle).

Salant is speaking of his journey with an analysand with whom he had difficulty connecting. Employing somatic, embodied perception he describes as “aperspectival awareness . . . seeing through my eyes, rather than with them, like an epiphany — not trying to see anything, but being penetrated by the field,” (loc 423) he perceives the true container of the analysis like the mystical Klein bottle, where opposites and contradictions are contained and held in a sort of fourth dimensional perception that psychologist and philosopher Steve Rosen (loc 440, Kindle) posits is human subjectivity itself. That is, humans are able to experience this embodied yet aperspectival awareness through a shift in consciousness, where perceiving is both an active and receptive act. 

I was instantly fascinated with the interactive field when I first read Salant’s work over 15 years ago as It seemed to describe my own focus in perspective where “two parties are embedded in an imaginary perceived whole situation” (Spiegleman, 1996 p. 186). Because of my experiences of exile from human communities as a child, I had a sense of being raised by this field, where “the unconscious or archetypes are both ‘around’ and ‘between’ them, as well as ‘within’ them — an encompassing, infusing, and mutually interactive field” (Spiegelman, p. 186). It could as well be my innate way of thinking, variously diagnosed as stemming from epilepsy (which I have), autism (some strain of Asperger’s, supposedly), and ancestral legacy (“schizophrenia” or other “mystical madness,” ancestral trauma, particularly of Russian Jewish side); either way, the source is trauma-based, or experienced as such. 

Trauma, by nature, cracks cosmological containers, “othering” the traumatised, particularly in a society that disassociates from trauma, death, sickness, and anything not propelling the endless growth of neoliberal, hyper-masculine and homogenising ideals. Any kind of trauma may have the effect of exiling and fracturing worldview, making most of us existential orphans to a smaller or larger degree. The less human community is available, the more the perception of this Klein-bottle containing-realm (the interactive field) is necessary to find cohesion: we all need connection, and sometimes the most “real” and intimate realm is the “fourth dimension” of the imaginal. Perceiving this field is a healing gift to human communities as it connects polarities, taboos, and amputated exiles without compromising the integrity of differences and separateness. This wholeness does not forsake the gifts of fracture and disassociation; here fractures serve as tools to work with the poetry of life without reducing a simile into an instruction manual.

Not coincidentally, aperspectival awareness necessarily drops the typical therapeutic stances of egocentricity and anthropocentrism (without denying the places they occupy in our consciousness). The more-than-human world is as much a part of the interactive field (IF) as humans, as is the world of spirit. In other words, perceiving the IF is a technology that hones our somatic, living perception of interdependence. This beckons a profound work of community-building and activism. In a community setting, I have experienced the power of the IF in Arnold Mindell’s Process Work (as a dreambody), in Council Practice, from Buddhist sangha and practice from Trungpa’s tradition, in the experience of community (particularly music, dance, ritual and divination) in indigenous traditions in Southern Africa, Central Asia, Central and South America, and many times “accidentally” in any old setting, through synchronicity and a certain devotional or trance state (often involving the arts and/or more-than-human world, though not always). In The Way of Council, Zimmerman and Coyle describe the IF as “the dynamic interweaving of all the people in the circle, together with an ineffable presence that seems to guide the circle toward meaningful interaction.” Zimmerman and Coyle limit the term to Council Practice, but there are multiple ways of achieving and practicing this type of perception. 

The orphan has a key role to play in this practice. Living in the perception of being raised by the sort of spatial expression of mythopoesis simultaneously isolated me from and connected me with everyone — there is no “central object” but rather a diffuse, egalitarian attention to any “relevant” other. The orphan is archetypal, and they saturate fiction and mythology. Working with archetypes, Carl Jung devoted his later life to how alchemy can be seen and used as a mythopoetic guide through various processes of separation and union intra and inter-personally. The alchemical container is itself a type of Klein-bottle, an aperspectival way of containing opposites and making whole while honouring separateness. On a stone outside his tower in Bollinger, he carved upon its surface:

“I am an orphan, alone: nevertheless I am found everywhere. I am one, but opposed to myself. I am youth and old man at one and the same time. I have known neither father nor mother, because I have had to be fetched out of the deep like a fish, or fell like a white stone from heaven. In woods and mountains I roam, but I am hidden in the innermost soul of man. I am mortal for everyone, yet I am not touched by the cycle of aeons,” (Jung, Jaffe, Winston &Winston, 2019, p.  227).

He commented to ethnologist Maud Oakes after finishing his Orphan Stone, “I need not have written any books; it is all on the stone,” (Jung Currents, 2018). As Jung exalts the orphan, he reclaims the abject. In a circuitous way, one that must be, I think, a journey itself, I am relating the redemption of orphans, madness, taboo, the abject, the amputated parts of our psyche and society, with the deconstruction and recreation of cosmology, community and eco-socio-political healing. I also align this orientation with (positive) mysticism, immanence (which has lain in exile of spiritual populism’s “transcendence”), and authentic wisdom, and spirituality that defy spiritual materialism. 

We are indeed all, in part, orphans, and it is through the suffering of this archetypal fact of abandonment (and abandoning) that we can join together in community . . . our mutual aloneness and suffering is a . . . a return to the world with a recognition that the world is all we have, and that maybe it is ‘good enough,’” writes Patricia Berry-Hillman (Anne, 2017). “From a perspective mixing the archetypal Orphan with the socio-political, real-life orphan and other disenfranchised points of view, what longings and new visions emerge? How does this archetype (and her real life avatar) interact with mainstream views and practices of community?” I wondered in my journal. In my temporary role as a community member at Xommunity, these tangled and interdependent thoughts all appeared in front of my face in continuous flashes and fragments.

The mission statement of Xommunity, as posted on its website, states, in part: “It is clear that a meaningful human response to our times must address both the transformation of society and of individuals. Our personal and social liberation are bound closely together. One without the other cannot do justice to either our times or ourselves. By working simultaneously with both we can develop a truly radical response.” I don’t doubt these intentions, but I wonder if the shortest path, or even successfully quantified results is in supporting strategies, potentialising movements, and preventing burnout are really where the most nuclear, powerful transformative technologies lie. I wonder if it is more foundational than that.

When I questioned several community members about community dynamic, I got the distilled impression that “community forms itself around our activities, our cause.” While there were plenty of meetings, they were “busy;” the devotional and reverential field necessary to witness and dialogue with the IF seemed missing. The voiced yearnings from members affirmed that, although they were more or less content (or didn’t want to complain), true community was still somewhere in the distance. Despite teaching burnout, the members were constantly extending themselves to others, and canceled several planned attempts to play and refresh in lieu of more work. I don’t doubt that depthful community organically formed around survival activities in times of subsistence living, but in a high-capitalist climate, whose values are governed by all the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM IV, we cannot take for granted that community would form in a sane way. Capitalist slogans and ideologies which are unconsciously embedded in any organisation and community, cannot be deconstructed and reformed without work. Worldviews which do not align with the near-endlessly adaptable permutations of capitalist individualism are very often unconsciously colonised.

Desire for community came through in informal conversation. My own interest in community seemed to open a channel that wasn’t often evoked. For example, F* and I shared an evening together chatting in her room, where at first she was hesitant to speak her questions and doubts she had about Xommunity. When I shared my own experiences and research interests in-depth, however, she became extremely engaged and related challenges that mirrored mine, stating she indeed wished community could be more a focus. She also had germane comments and experiences relating to stigmatisation. Several members told stories of loved ones or their own battles with “mental illness” and expressed desires to learn different ways of understanding and supporting them. Altered states were prominent in the IF of everyday life: whether in phone calls to a disturbed relative, intimate confessions and yearnings to make sense of oneself in the context of diagnosis and the effect of “mental illness,” or the altered state of meditation, silent days, a ritualised dance session, and walks in the mountains. 

Each Monday was designated as a day of silence, with optional group meditation in the yurt of up to eight hours. I spent six hours meditating with others, (missing the early morning session, which was cancelled). It wasn’t since I lived in a community in Thailand, over 5 years ago, that I had enjoyed a day of silence in community. In silence, the IF became more apparent; it seems to invite the parts of our psyches which are bigger than our personal consciousnesses to dialogue with us. 

Later that day, there was a teaching on Buddhist imagery that served as a sharing circle, and would break the silence. I was looking forward to it, not only as a learning experience, but especially for the opportunity of coming together in a more relaxed, non-focused and empathic type of sharing that everyone had yet been too busy to do altogether. As I walked up to the office where it would be held, I heard talking from within, and realised it had already started. I was late. I wasn’t sure why I had the time wrong in my mind. I opened the door quietly to catch the eye of someone: since it was a teaching, I thought it may still be early enough to join. Though there were people next to the door, and some facing toward it, no one looked at me, so I quietly closed the door and went down to the common area, the kitchen below. At first I felt ashamed and sad for missing it, but also felt it was strange that no one made eye-contact with me, even as they registered my presence. Then, I supposed that it was a cultural thing: in the Global South, where I’ve lived most of the past decade, people in the communities I’ve been involved in tend to be more relationally-focused, rather than activity-focused, as they are in Europe and North America. I’m still not used to it, I thought. 

However, there was an emotion underlying it that wouldn’t let me let it go: I felt exiled, rejected, invisible, abject, taboo, even. I recognised I was amplifying the meaning of the event, but it felt important to follow it, in that higher charged field that the day of group silence produced. In both my accidental lateness (which I felt was a subconscious synchronicity) and my emotional reaction, I had recreated my own marginalisation. I brought this up to one of the community members as she caught up with me afterwards, and then again in the morning meeting, where sharing is invited from everyone present. I spoke of it as my individual burden, this “energy of the abject” that lingers around me, but after the meeting my thoughts became more solidly attuned to the reality that although the consciousness and focused embodiment of the abject falls on me, in reality the energy is not wholly mine. It is also part of the community. Along with the stories of other members of the group in relation to their experience with both systemic and “individual” trauma, my own experience of relative positionality sparked more inquiries about what it would mean to work with trauma and the interactive field in a group setting. It did not provide, nor have I found, any neat answers. Some desires and questions revealed themselves, by participating in this community for a brief time. Because of my own trauma, I am attuned to see it in others, and it attracts me as a research inquiry.

Collective trauma and complex trauma intertwine now more than ever, caused by, as well as exacerbating, broken cosmologies within the globalised world. From a socio-political perspective, dialogue with the abject (in any “out” group of class, race, disability, age, gender, sexuality, or literal “orphan”) will be necessary to create community in the midst of so much polarisation and collapse. We will need to become more comfortable honouring and learning from the taboo and the liminal. Our identity as a global community is yet to be born, and, in the wisdom of ubuntu (a Zulu / Xhosa word and philosophy, meaning roughly “I am because you are”), our individual identities are contingent on each other. Defaulted norms of the nuclear family, conventional psychology, capitalism, patriarchy, prevent us from seeing the sustained effects of complex trauma, and even more, prevent us in imagining ways of healing. These same defaulted norms (hegemonies) limit our practical imaginations of activism, by bleeding potential power into institutions rather than sustaining communities.  They also limit our ability to hear and value people dealing with trauma when they tell us what they need. 

I experienced this lack of speaking up with several members of Xommunity, as well as having the feeling myself, grokked from the IF. Language is the architecture of thought, and perhaps the languages (and therefore, needs) of those suffering severe trauma sits outside mainstream consciousness, as their trauma exiled them from the human community, or “normalcy” The orientation towards action as opposed to being disperses energy and focus on the art, craft and science behind “being” in community. What many people with complex trauma wish for is this “being with”; it is also the idea behind Watkins’ mutual accompaniment. What’s more, mutually accompanying trauma helps us re-member our own psychic parts that have been exiled in the name of productive capitalism and other hegemonies. Like learning the history of one’s people or nation, by learning the content of those we live amongst is foundational to our own ability to act integrally. Reimagining community as a healing force, from aspects of sociality, to architecture and design on multiple levels, to the structure of activism, is a fundamental step towards improving not only “mental health” but activism itself and social and ecological justice. Perhaps we become inefficient for the time it takes us to mutually connect with the amputated parts, but these parts will doubtlessly make us stronger in the end. Weaving is the meaning of Tantra, which describes the dharma of interdependence. Healing also relies on this weaving, as does community. In a world increasingly described as “fragile”, I am interested in devoting more attention to this weaving that occurs through being, and not only doing. 

The activist mentality doesn’t always seem very compatible with mythopoetic ways of perceiving. W. did not see the point of the mythopoetic, calling it “a distraction from the truth,” a coddling device of people who are afraid to really see. In the power difference between us, as well as his single-mindedness alongside my own polyphonic thinking, I stumbled over my words as I tried to link the urgency of activism with this realm. Perhaps the urgency is, in part, forging links and dialogues between these realms. To be able to do so will take a Bohmian sense of dialogue and Peck’s “true community.” To be at home on this planet, to find cohesive worldviews, we’ll need to start by finding one another.


Anzaldua, G. (2015). Geographies of selves – Reimagining of identities. In Light in the dark/Luz en el oscuro: Rewriting identity, spirituality, reality (pp. 65-94). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Bernstein, J. S. (2006). Living in the borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. London: Routledge.

Bohm, D. (2014). On dialogue. London: Routledge.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fisher, A. (2019). Ecopsychology as decolonial praxis. Ecopsychology, 11(3), pp. 1-11.

Gallant, C. (2019). Fuck You, Pay Me. In 1041597745 796941396 A. M. Brown (Author), Pleasure activism: The politics of feeling good. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Gross, R. M. (1995). Buddhism after patriarchy: A feminist history, analysis, and reconstruction of Buddhism. Delhi: Sri Satguru publications.

Jung, C. G., Jaffe, A., Winston, C., & Winston, R. (2019). Memories, dreams, reflections. London: William Collins.

Jung Currents: Carl Jung: “I need not have written any books; it is all on the stone.” (2018, April 19). Retrieved November 09, 2020, from http://jungcurrents.com/carl-jung-i-need-not-have-written-any-books-it-is-all-on-the-stone

Juvenile Law Center 2018. What Is The Foster Care-to-Prison Pipeline? (n.d.). Retrieved November 09, 2020, from https://jlc.org/news/what-foster-care-prison-pipeline

Lasch, C. (1977). Haven in the heartless world: The family besieged. New York.

Lasch, C. (2018). The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Loy, D. (2019). EcoDharma: Buddhist teachings for the ecological crisis. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

McLean, A. & Leibing, A. (eds). (2007). The shadow side of fieldwork. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Rudnytsky, P. L. (1992).  Freud and Oedipus. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sagan, O. (2017). Narratives of loneliness and mental ill health in a time of neoliberalism. Narratives of Loneliness, 88-100. doi:10.4324/9781315645582-9

Sagan, O. (2017). The loneliness of personality disorder: A phenomenological study. Mental Health and Social Inclusion,21(4), 213-221. doi:10.1108/mhsi-04-2017-0020

Skilton, A. (2003). Concise history of buddhism. Place of publication not identified: Barnes & Noble.

Spiegelman, J. M. (1996). Psychotherapy as a mutual process. Tempe, AZ, U.S.A.: New Falcon Publications.

Watkins, M. (1992). From individualism to the interdependent self: Changing the paradigm of the self in psychotherapy. Psychological Perspectives 27I, 52-69.

Watkins, M. (2000). Seeding liberation: A dialogue between depth psychology and liberation psychology. In Depth psychology: Meditations in the field. D. Slattery & L. Corbett, Eds. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag.

Watkins, M. & Shulman, H. (2008). Toward psychologies of liberation. London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zimmerman, J. & Coyle, V. (2014). The way of council. Las Vegas, NV: Bramble Books.

Share this post

Other Publications