NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Trauma of Everyday Life: The Buddha's Early Loss of His Mother

I just finished reading Dr. Mark Epstein's book, The Trauma of Everyday Life.

Mark Epstein is a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist in private practice in NYC.  He is also a practicing Buddhist.

Statue of Buddha Under the Bodhi Tree

The theme of The Trauma of Everyday Life is that, "dukkha" or suffering, isn't just something that happens to an unlucky few.  It's a basic part of life.  It affects all of us at some point in our lives, whether it's the death of a loved one, experiencing a shocking event, our own serious health issues or the natural decline of old age and anticipation of death.  No one is exempt from experiencing trauma.

One of the themes of the book is Buddha's early loss of his mother.

Before we discuss this early loss further, it's important to understand how memory works and the difference between implicit and explicit memory.

Implicit vs Explicit Memory and Trauma
Many people mistakenly assume that children have no memories of their experiences before the age of two.  If this were true, then babies wouldn't have any memories of traumatic losses that occurred to them.  They would also have no good memories of being held, cared for and loved.  However, we now know that infants are capable of storing memories from birth, including happy as well as traumatic memories.

To understand how this is possible, we need to know the difference between implicit memory and explicit memory.

Implicit memory is what we use when we walk, dance, throw a ball or engage in similar activities.  So, for instance, when we walk, we don't have to be conscious of taking a step one foot and then the left foot or how to balance ourselves.  We just do it.  Implicit memory is unconscious.

Implicit memory is what we all have before we have verbally based memories, which are explicit memories.  Until about 18 months, implicit memory is the only memory that we have.

"Relational knowing," which includes expressing affection and the ability to form friendships and relationships, is based on implicit memory.

On the other hand, explicit memory is what we normally think of when we talk about memory.  Explicit memory allows for conscious recollection.

Explicit memory is also called "narrative" or "declarative" memory.  It involves conscious thoughts and language that enables us to symbolize and make sense of what's happening to ourselves and the world around us.

We now know that traumatic experiences, including early loss for infants, are held in implicit memory.  These memories exist in the body at an unconscious level.

Early traumatic memories, although not explicitly remembered, are dissociated and remain unprocessed until they are either emotionally triggered or worked on in therapy.

The Buddha's Early Loss of His Mother
According to Mark Epstein, the Buddha lost his mother when he was only seven days old.

Statue of Queen Maya of Sakya, Buddha's Mother, at the Temple of Swayabhuncth

As a psychotherapist, who has a psychoanalytic background, I'm very aware of how this type of traumatic early loss can affect a person as a child and later on as an adult.

The early days of bonding between a mother and an infant are very important for the infant's development as well as the quality of interpersonal relationships that he and she can have later on (see my article:  How the Early Attachment Bond Affects Adult Relationships).

Based on stories of his life, after his mother's death, the Buddha was well cared for by his aunt and his father, and every effort was made during his early days to keep him from explicitly knowing about the traumas of everyday life, including sickness and death.

But, according to Mark Epstein, even though Buddha was surrounded by joy and wealth, as well as a caring family, as a young man, Buddha felt that "something was missing."

We don't know if Buddha's feelings of estrangement or alienation stemmed from his confrontation as a young man with the realities of sickness and death or if it stemmed from the early loss of his mother, which would have been an unconscious feeling for him.

But we do know that the Buddha was able to create for himself an inner emotional attunement to process his feelings.  He did this, according to Mark Epstein, through the practice of mindfulness.  Rather than trying to escape his suffering, he acknowledged it, accepted that trauma is a part of everyday life, and he taught himself to balance and contain his suffering through mindfulness.

Working Through Early Trauma in Mind-Body Oriented Psychotherapy
As a psychotherapist, who specializes in working with trauma, I've worked with many clients who lost their mothers at an early age.  Even though they had no explicit memories of their mothers, they all had an inexplicable sense of loss that was hard for them to define.

Many people who have lost their mothers at an early age feel ashamed of their traumatic feelings.  Since they have no explicit memories of their mothers or of the loss, their implicit feelings feel amorphous and illogical.  And for those who were told by people, who don't know about implicit memories, that they couldn't possibly feel this loss, their shame feels even worse.

For many therapy clients, who have tried to work through early trauma in regular talk therapy, their experience is often that they have an intellectual understanding of their experience, especially once they learn about implicit memory and how they're carrying around the trauma on an unconscious level.

But having an intellectual understanding isn't the same as healing.

Mind-Body oriented psychotherapy, like clinical hypnosis, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing can help clients to access the unconscious experiences so that they can be worked through on an emotional level, and not just on an intellectual level (see my article:  Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious).

Getting Help
Unresolved trauma often takes a toll on the person with the trauma as well as his or her loved ones.  If you are suffering with unresolved trauma, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help.

When choosing a therapist, make sure that he or she is a licensed mental health practitioner in the state where you live.  I've included links below for directories of therapists who use either EMDR, Somatic Experiencing or clinical hypnosis.

About Me:
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.