One of the deepest threads I’ve been exploring on this site is the relationship between trauma and mystical or high strange encounters. The overarching piece in that thread is this one examining trauma in relationship to ontological flooding (what I call ontological immersion). That piece offers the theoretical framework which was then applied to some specific examples in subsequent essays, including these two pieces on the alien abduction phenomenon, this one on ascension symptoms, as well as explorations of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching of the embodiment of the Supermind.
Each of those pieces in their various ways explored how bringing somatic trauma practices to bear on the phenomenon in question would allow for a different form of assimilation and integration of those experiences. In each case the argument ran that much of what we may consider to be integral to those various phenomena (particularly the alien abduction and ascension process) may well be symptoms of traumatic overwhelm. And that if self-regulative practices from trauma work were brought to bear then the phenomena themselves may transform significantly as the person undergoing them would be in a more grounded, centered, cohesive state of being.
In this piece I want to extend this inquiry to another spiritual dimension: that of the self-contraction.
To understand what is the self-contraction we need to explore the work of the Christian theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (4th/5th century).
Augustine called the self incurvatus se—literally translated as “curved in on itself” or “curving in on itself.” For Augustine, the self was a serpentine-like being, coiling in upon itself. This "curving in on itself" self blocked deep communion with other humans, with life, with God, with one’s soul. The curved in on itself self then, for Augustine, was both the symptom of and the cause of sin. It was prideful rejection of alignment to the will of God.
Augustine’s insight around the self as curved in on itself revolutionized Christian spirituality and theology. Prior to Augustine orthodox Christian theology argued that there was the realm of nature and grace and human beings co-operated with divine grace in what was term a “synergistic” fashion. This view is still the basis of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Augustine’s realization of the self as “curving in on itself” raised a serious question about the nature of that mainstream Christian theology. If the self was curved in on itself then it couldn’t be trusted to work in synergistic relationship with Divine Grace. This insight, more than any other, led theologically to the split between the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christian churches.
Augustine understood that Christian theology prior to him had not sufficiently theorized or investigated the nature of the self. For Augustine the whole of Christian theology and practice had to be rethought in light of this point about this “curved in on itself" self.
Not only does Augustine’s insight hold true at the level of Christian theology but intriguingly also applies at the level of mystical praxis itself, across the world’s spiritual traditions. As I covered in my pieces on the psychic, subtle, causal, and non-dual paths of realization, each of those paths, in their various ways, begin with some notion of a self and then advocate some kind of practice (method/technique) to help bring forth one of those four worldspaces.
In the psychic for example one might commune with the spirits of the land or ingest mushrooms or practice shamanic drumming techniques to journey to the underworld.
In the subtle one follows the ascending currents of light or sound up the spine to The Source Light Above.
By contrast in the causal one does not descend or ascend but rather goes “within” unit there is a realization of the Ground of All Being.
And in traditional non-dual teachings one inquires into the present moment seeing the empty-full (shunyata) nature of the Casual not just as the Ground but also the Substrate or Essence of all arising reality.
Augustine’s connection with those causal and non-dual teachings comes through the great Neoplatonist Plotinus (whom I’ve written about previously here). In the brilliant book Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self, author Philip Cary argues that to truly grasp Augustine’s unique insight, one must first start with Plotinus’ spiritual admonition to go within. For Plotinus one begins by going within or “back” within oneself. The seeker continues to go “back” or deeper within until eventually there is no more “back” or “within” and one merges with the Ultimate. Plotinus therefore has his roots in the causal tradition of spirituality and then from the causal expands into the non-dual.
Augustine began the process of going within and “back” into his depths, just as Plotinus advocated. But for his orthodox Christian self Augustine could not allow himself to go “all the way” as it were, for to do so would merge the difference between Creator and created soul, whereas for Plotinus that is precisely what was meant to occur. Augustine went “back” but then placed the Divine “up” in consciousness as Cary shows. This “back and up” creates a space which Cary believes is the source of the modern inner Western subject. Augustine not only “invented” the modern conscious self, he also thereby “invented” the subconscious and unconscious more than fifteen hundred years prior to Sigmund Freud.
This process was crucial in the realization of the self as incurvatus se, as curved in on itself. Augustine therefore ended up arguing that grace alone (not grace and free will in synergistic relationship) could do the work of salvation because the curved in on itself self could not be tasked with the act of co-operating with grace. For Augustine essentially God had to do the work—grace had to transform the coiled self in order to open it.
Unfortunately because Augustine’s realization was, in essence, short circuited by his own theological belief system, it left the Western Christian tradition disconnected from much of its mysticism. Into that void came various religious systems of “external grace”: whether the magisterium and Papal authority in Roman Catholicism or biblical literalism in later Protestantism.
Plotinus was ultimately right in his realization of the nondual but Plotinus did not have an existential understanding of the curved-in on itself nature of the self. Plotinus’ teaching therefore suffers from starting with the assumed self-contraction, offering it a method (“go back”), and then seeks to change one’s state into a place of awakening.
On the other hand, Augustine has the advantage over Plotinus of recognizing concretely and existentially the self-contraction (“incurvatus se”). There’s a much deeper appreciation of the depths of such avoidance of relationship in Augustine than in Plotinus. Augustine recognizes that grace must come first in order to transform the self-contraction to align with the divine. This aspect of Augustine’s teaching is known as prevenient grace. Translated from the Latin prevenient literally means “comes before”, as in the grace of God must come before. In the synergistic model of the Greek Christian Church God's grace was offered to all and each individual had the free choice to accept or deny such grace. In Augustine's understanding, the curved in on itself self could never say yes of it's own free volition, therefor the grace had to "come before" and transform the self into a self that could say yes.
But the problem with Augustine is that such grace must take place through the work of God as understood in orthodox Christian theology via the church. Not just within the church but more broadly Augustine’s point holds—namely that spiritual traditions assumed this “curved in on itself” self and then advocate various practices to transform it but they never really inquire into the nature of said self-coiling.
What is the nature of that act of curving in on itself? Why does the self exist in that manner of contracting in on itself?
I would submit the answer to that question is trauma. What if there is a kind of arch or primal trauma? A trauma in existing? A trauma in incarnation itself?
Remember that the definition of trauma is any experience (or set of experiences) that happen too quickly and intensely to be processed at the time. These “undigested” experiences leave a kind of psychic residue of suffering and dis-ease. This ongoing dis-ease within the system causes the self to contract in on itself in order to try to protect itself, to shield itself from further bombardment outwardly and to try to repress/suppress the intensity of the feeling and emotion held internally due to this undigested experience rattling around within.
All traumas hold within them life-force. Once experiences can be properly “digested” (i.e. assimilated) then the life force flows properly. The way in which one can learn to properly “digest” such experience and bring on a cohesive, grounded state is through the practices of somatic self-regulation. I’ve covered these processes elsewhere but they involve things like pendulating, slowing down, resourcing, titrating, and the like.
The self as a curved-in-on-itself action is therefore a coping response to trauma. It’s not the inner subject of most Western (or idealist) traditions but it’s also not a series of the concatenations of various forces, impulses, and drives as in Theravadin Buddhism. The self is an action as Augustine understood but a very specific kind of action: self-protective defence from overwhelming experience.
If valid, the implications of this line of thought are pretty staggering.
It would suggest that the traditions of human spirituality—psychic, subtle, causal, even conventional nonduality—are based, at least in part, on bypassing this arch or ur-trauma. They do not, by and large, inquire into the nature of that self-contraction but rather either start with the curved in on itself self as then seek to “work it” into other states through various technologies OR they inquire into the nature of the self as a subject (“Who am I?”) without seeing the self as an action of curving in on itself. That’s not to say the realms it journeys to through such a contracted in on itself self are false but it does suggest that contracted energy must influence the way those realms (and any such entities in said realms) must appear. (The same could be argued for traditional psychotherapy as well since it too assumes the curved-in-on-in-itself self).
In the ascension symptoms piece I argued that if self-regulation practices were brought in a person could retain the essential element within those experiences without the traumatic overwhelm. In that example that would be experiences of cosmic connection and communion (“ascension”) minus the symptoms.
If self-regulation practices were brought to bear on the self-contraction itself what might those release? What would be the essential quality there that is retained free of the traumatic overwhelm?
Recall that my presupposition is that the self-contraction is a primal or ur-trauma in response to incarnation itself (or more metaphysically, a traumatic response to the initial differentiation of The Soul itself from The Godhead).
Consequently, if self-regulation practices were brought in at that level what would be retained would be a clearer thread of sovereign incarnation. Self-regulation practices show up as greater fluidity and coherency, smoothness, ease, and cohesion. Hence transmuting this particular trauma (incarnation itself) would ease the need for the self to be defined as a coping mechanism or response to said trauma.
Just as I argued in relationship to the alien abduction phenomenon that I’m not sure we really know what that phenomenon is or at least could be absent trauma, I don’t think humans yet know incarnation (or life itself) absent traumatic burden. Not just specific traumas—though it includes those—but existence itself as traumatic. The philosopher Jacques Lacan angled in a similar direction (“existence as traumatic”), but what he did not have was a deeper understanding of the physiology of trauma as well as the process of transmuting and healing trauma into self-regulation.
Prior to St. Augustine, Christian theology argued that humans were born into a fallen world, a world sliding into corruption, non-being, and disintegration. For that theology Christ came as the Redeemer to put the Cosmos back on a path towards ultimate integration (I’ve covered this in greater detail here exploring transhumanism’s surprising roots in orthodox Christianity).
Augustine, however, went one step further and argued for what he term original sin. Original sin wasn’t just some general human entrance at birth into a fallen world in need of redemption but an actual, psychophysical participation in the sin of Adam. Because every human being for Augustine was descended from the original ancestors (Adam & Eve) then all literally, at the level of biology, partook of Adam’s sin of disobedience. It’s a complicated argument that theologians have been debating for centuries since. But here we can offer a different window into what Augustine was potentially trying to get at—the psychological, indeed physiological nature of original sin is the curving-in-on-itself of each self. Each human self undergoes its own traumatic process of entry into existence and consequently forms its self as a protective mechanism from the very beginning. That is what original sin means from a trauma perspective.
Original sin, we might say, is epigenetic collective human traumatic memory. As I discussed in my review of the Men's Rights Activist and #metoo movements, social traumatologist Anngwyn St. Just speaks of trauma as a fractal. What if there is a kind of ur-fractal of trauma to the human condition? If so, that would be original sin.
Augustine’s insight about original sin similarly drove a significant wedge between Western and Eastern Christianity which has never been healed to this day. While Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies disagree with each other on various other points, they hold in common Augustine’s teaching on the self, original sin and prevenient grace in contrast to those of Eastern Orthodox churches which maintain the older (pre-Augustinian) model of synergetistic grace and free will (and The Fall rather than original sin).
The shadow side of Augustine’s theology, which has left a giant unhealed neurotic wound in the Western psyche ever since, is his moral condemnation of what is, a systematic coping mechanism to trauma. He made it about sin, thereby leaving the Western psyche haunted by an overwhelming amount of poisonous shame.
If instead we apply self-regulation practices to the curved-in-on-itself self then the toxic shame dissipates and a joy and well being in existence itself will emerge. That is the gift or the life force currently trapped inside the self-contractive trauma coping mechanism.
Coping mechanisms are meant to be temporary and short term. They are supposed to get us through some overwhelming (“too fast, too furious”) experience. The idea then is to be able to soothe them afterward the threat is over in order to bring back regulation. What happens in practice is the survival trauma energies/coping mechanisms tend to become chronic. When they become chronic they slowly sap vitality, meaning, coherence, happiness, fulfillment, health, well-being as they become more and more grim exercises in brute, joyless survival.
Long term, chronic coping mechanisms also lead to collapse and breakdown. In relationship to personal health see Dr. Gabor Mate’s excellent book When the Body Says No to see how that plays out on a personal level. On ancestral levels, see the work of Franz Ruppert, who argues that borderline, narcissistic personal disorder, psychosis and schizophrenia are in fact symptomatic expressions of inherited, multi-generational trauma. Or, as mentioned, Anngywn St. Just’s work on trauma as a fractal, which if left unhealed, replicates through space and time across cultures, nations, people-groups, places, and yes arguably humanity as a whole.
From such a vantage point, history becomes the long slog of seeing this chronic survival physiology playing itself out. Call that a psychospiritual trauma history of the human race, as audacious as that sounds. I’ve already examined how that overall frame plays out in relationship to the hidden elite/deep state, with them being “reptilian” (a la David Icke)—reptilian being the description of the traumatized survival physiology in the reptilian brainstem. The year 2020 played out of those failing coping mechanisms on a multitude of levels.
If the self is a coping mechanism to such arch trauma then it’s resolution through practices of self-regulation mixed with spiritual insight would be key to re-vitalizing human creative expression and generativity in alignment to Life.
The synthesis of arguing that the grace that must come first is ever-present and always already the case. One need not “go within” a la Plotinus but rather simply inquire into the nature of the self-contraction. Augustine recognized the self-contraction but did not really ever inquire into and notice that it could relax in certain ways thereby open into grace—except perhaps for Augustine in very rare ecstatic “glimpses of heaven."
Rather than going within or up or back or wherever, the key is to simply allow attention to rest in the Radiant Bliss of Spirit, which is always already and ever-presently the case. Once this becomes established then the path becomes one not attaining anything but rather allowing the Radiant Current of Divine Consciousness to shine through each and every aspect of the human being. All the various methods and processes and practices of the traditions—meditations, visualizations, mantras, inquiry, acts of service, surrender—all of them come back but in a narrow sense. One does not gain from these practices but rather they become helpful secondary means to assist in opening different aspects of the human being—from the mundane to the most esoteric—to the Divine Love Bliss.