Systems Sensing: Attending to Collective Trauma
“One of the most pandemic trauma symptoms in the world, besides de numbness and hyperactivity, is the fragmentation of my mind, my emotions, and my body. The three elements are not communicating the same thing.” Thomas Huebl
Otto Scharmer welcomed Thomas Huebl. Thank you, Thomas, for joining our conversation. You are the founder of the Academy of Inner Sciences, and of The Pocket Project. I would like to invite you to share a little bit of how was it in your own journey and the evolution of your own work that made you focus on this topic, (collective trauma) so many years ago, that now surfaces on so many places. What is it in your own life that made you work with collective trauma for so many years, having held large group gatherings around that subject?
What is it? So we can learn from you. What practice could you lead us into that may allow us as a community to engage in that dimension of your work more fully?
Thank you, Otto, for having me here, it is very generous. I really enjoyed the process that you offered before, I took some notes here, “You can’t change consciousness unless you make the system see and sense itself.” Eighteen years ago, when I facilitated workshops to a lot of groups around the world. Many of them were in Europe and Germany. Very soon I saw that collective eruptions on my groups started to happen. After I left my medical studies I went to a four years meditation retreat, and I am sure that what I am showing now is connected to my inner journey, should I say to my Presencing side.
There were collective eruptions of 50–60 people at the same time starting to cry because they had seen horrible images from WWII and the Holocaust. It happened the first time and then it happened again and again. After some time I realized that I was learning something about it and I started to study it. I have gone deeper and deeper for the last eighteen years. We ran such groups many times around the world. There are a few things that I learned.
A Pocket of the Past
Trauma is a process where I experience something in my present being. It is so overwhelming that I can’t process it. I split off that part of myself with the tremendous overwhelm, like with a lot of stress, and I numb it. That part becomes the past. I often say that an integrated history is Present, and an unintegrated history is the past. That pocket of the past creates a mirror in the future that is not the real future.
It is not the future that you create by going deep into the “U” and harvest within the source, your future inspiration. No, it creates the future that is needed to integrate that past. A lot of our humanity’s past has been created with a lot of transgressions made while living with each other. A lot of pain has been inflicted, like when millions of people were put on concentration camps. That is a lot of pain, a lot of dissociation, a lot of atrocities. So, once that past has been created, it needs to integrate with its future mirror bubble, for healing, reintegration, and resurrection, in order to form a vertical alignment. That is why I love your work with Vertical Literacy.
We Make Trauma Normal
The vertical alignment is only possible when you restore life. That bubble of the past comes empty, with an absence of seeing, and an absence of sense. It is very amazing because we believe that we see the world and that we sense the world. But then we find out that the absent parts of our social and individual life, are basically parts that you don’t see and that you don’t feel. I think that it is very powerful that in order to come back to sensing and seeing you will have to attend to what has been excluded.
For instance, this traumatic event is like a crazy thing that you watch on your TV, and then it gets so loud that you take the remote control and mute it. Immediately you take the TV set and throw it into the ocean. It slowly sinks into the ocean while still playing the movie. In our collective ocean, there are many of those TV sets that are still playing the scenes that have been muted back in time. They are prisoners of time.
I realized, wow! All those TVs, all those dissociated, split bubbles, they are still playing those scenes, affecting generation after generation. We have been born into the fragmentation of our former generations, so we don’t know a world without trauma. Which means that we make trauma normal. It doesn’t show up as evident trauma. You meet people at the university, at the workplace, our life partners. We only find out over time the symptoms of the trauma history that we biographically have, but we have hidden our ancestral and collective past.
I learned that not only was the individual trauma important, but it is super important to bring it into a much larger context. Trauma is not a stand-alone thing. I love the quote of Goethe, that “Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception within us us”. It opens up the tremendous capacity of hosting the world in us, but trauma is hunkered down, and when the traumas of the world appear on us, our perception is way smaller than the world we live in, and we create many more side effects by not sensing and not being.
Closing the Organ of Perception
Otto. Let me point out just two things to underline. The first thing that resonated with me is that when you gave these workshops 50–60 people had those profound reactions. I know many of us had these experiences. What you are pointing at is something very important, and many of us can feel that. We breathe collectively like we do here in GAIA or any kind of group, and what happens is manifesting to your own experience is not just your own experiences of the past, but your own experiences are a microcosmos of the collective. So, something is manifesting that isn’t just me, but is coming through me, and shows up on my experience. There is an individual and also a collective dimension of it.
Number two. Trauma is really a survival reaction, it is a built-in intelligence that has to do with this letting off and disintegration, which really is when it shows up on my experience, is not seeing, used this gesture, and the not feeling, not sensing, the numbing thing.
Which is precisely the opposite of what Goethe is talking about, right? “Every object well contemplated opens up a new organ of perception.” Every trauma that is moving into the not seeing and not sensing is not opening the organ of perception, but it is closing it.
In the chat, I saw somebody writing that “we are kidnapped by that process”. In the sculptures that we saw a while ago, sculpture one; those were only in part personal stuff, right? But it is also informed by the collective situation here. If this is so, reintegrating, have you seen that? What is it? How does that work?
Three Aspects of Collective Trauma
Thomas. Yes, I have seen it, many times. There are three very important things.
The Field Lives in us
First, we are all shareholders of this collectively traumatized field. It lives in us. One of the main fundamental symptoms of trauma is isolation and separation. There is numbness, hyper-reactivity, and all the scalations that come from it. But deep down, induced, because we have been born into it, is the feeling that we are separate. Exactly what you said. In an interconnected whole, everyone lives in everyone, already. That is very important.
The second thing is that the world that you have been born in is fragmented. We are used to broken glass. We photoshop the incongruencies of the fragmentation trying to erase the parts that I see. But the parts that I don´t see, I don´t ask about, because they don´t arise in me. I try to integrate what I kind of see or that disturbs me. When someone talks to me and I get very angry, I see a symptom. There is fragmentation that became social agreements and many social structures. Social absence is the process behind the trauma fragmentation, the symptom of it. The trauma fragmentation is intelligent because it keeps us surviving.
The one way to realign the intelligence of the process of splitting is to be willing to feel uncomfortable. We have to be willing to feel the discomfort of that which we excluded in the past.
The third thing and that is where many attempts fail, is that we are hypnotized to look for a better world. For instance, “I want a world where everybody is equal”. Well, why don´t we have that? “I want companies where everybody can seek his or her wellbeing. Well, why don´t we have that?
We are the bricks in the house of humanity. We are not outside of the house of humanity. That is where the paradigm of science comes into place, because one of the most pandemic trauma symptoms in the world, besides de numbness and hyperactivity, is the fragmentation of my mind, my emotions, and my body. The three elements are not communicating the same thing.
It is pandemic and normal because my parents have the same thing, my grandparents, and my neighbors. I grew up and my nervous system is programmed by the split. So fragmentation seems to be part of life. The reason that I am saying that is that the scientific paradigm that is so strongly living in our mental and cognitive capacity, might actually become an ally of the fragmentation. If that is the case, it prevents the fragmentation from integrating again and will find amazingly good arguments for doing that because it has been incorporated within the collective defense system.
Integrating is not about arriving, it is about making the next step with high competence. The world is changing and then I will make the next step, and again, and again. Like the beautiful sentence of Lao-Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath my feet.” The next step is very important because I don´t see the invisible canyon that I have to go through, but it seems to me that I can get to the other side easily. So Presence is the most fundamental capacity for the journey.
Otto. Wow!. “We are the bricks on the house of humanity.” How can we exchange science in a way that it is not amplifying the separation between the three domains that you mentioned? But becomes a vehicle for the reintegration. What you are saying resonates so much with our own experience, so we all seat here with the same answer. How? What you said really resonated with my mind, but I am also longing for an experience to reintegrate on the individual but also on the collective level. Is it possible that you can lead us to practice?
Attuning the Collective Coherence
Thomas. Yes. I will go through a few framing words and then to the practice because I agree with you that it is the only way to integrate.
I believe that we are overwhelmed very often without fully noticing the design. Let’s say somebody goes into a school and shoots around. It is a very traumatizing experience. Ten minutes later I get a CNN newsfeed on my phone. Now, being a contemporary witness means that I will read it in between my work tasks. I read the information but not the information within the information. The information within the information is tremendous, given the newsfeed. Being contemporary citizens, that newsfeed will keep us busy for the rest of the day. But, to mentally, emotionally, physically understand what it really means, it is mostly overwhelming. When I practice presence, at least I can become aware, where my emotional and physical experience probably get numbed in order for me to process the mental information. But once that happens, that’s a collective trauma in me in relation to the collective event. So, the collective event is never separated from the inability to perceive it. It is very powerful because it means that the event “shooting in the school” is entirely connected to everybody who cannot feel it. They are interdependent. The reason I am saying this is that I am going to lead you into a practice where we can see whether my mind, my emotions, my body, my awareness, tune-up. Because it is kind of an instrument that I tune to building coherence. Then we will look at two or three aspects of the collective culture that are symptoms of collective trauma.
There is an aspect in collective trauma that I want to relate to a powerful saying on the Bible when the Jewish people were meeting on mount Sinai and God spoke to all of them, and everyone said: “God spoke to me personally”. When you did the sculptures, every individual held a piece of the information code for the whole. Once they become attuned, that is when Presence really happens. The collective presence is a strong resource, so, we are going to attune the collective coherence.
He then guided the Gaia attendants into a deep mindfulness exercise where he made us consciously aware of the miracle that our body is, a biocomputer developed and refined over millions of years. He asked us to sense and feel the many generations of life going through difficulties, the memory of our ancestors on our bodies that has led us to our lives today, and that has helped us during thousands of years of preparation for this moment. We were guided to expand our awareness to the parts of our bodies that felt more stressed, tensed, and tight because the body is the cup that holds the flow of our emotions. We were guided to expand our awareness to the global community of people who were sharing this experience with us, inviting us to plugin into our collective intelligence. He then asked us to be aware of the polarizing issues in our respective social environments and to connect with the collective dimension of the polarizing issues affecting them. Thomas guided us to make a connection to a hidden part of our beings, a part that needed to reintegrate with the rest of us to make us coherent human beings.
Antoinette thanked Thomas for the beautiful experience that one thousand people attending the session had gone through. She invited some voices from the field who with teary eyes and a broken voice gave testimonies about love, tenderness, sadness, and relief.
Otto invited Olaf Baldini to show his scribing of the session and to comment on it. He could not articulate a word about it, he just signaled his artwork. It shows darkness, sadness, pain, a fragmented being, collective trauma, on the right-hand side. However, it also shows a way out of all that suffering that conducts to what seems to be a sea of light. Otto invited us to let the image sink in with our attention in our minds and hearts, to notice what we see, sense, and feel when we see the image.
Antoinette read some of the sentences shared on the chat. I see the gap. I see the illumination. I feel hope. I see a blank page on the other side of the trauma. I felt trapped. I see the light rising through the window. I see a deep sadness that connects us all. I sense an opening. I feel shivers of truth. I see a whole new perception. I see amazing revelations in our collective process. I see a fragile opening.
To Change the World, we Need to be Changed Too
Thomas closed the session thanking Otto and his team for all the precious work that they are doing and spoke to the attendants. “This is exactly the kind of learning that you need, offering all the kind of learnings that you display here because it is holistic learning. The information that forms life needs the whole being in us, all of our capacities, and I think that you have beautiful elements that are speaking to the whole being of the human being, thank you for that.
I want to point out the kind of power that lies in gatherings such as this one, where we go to deeper resonance fields and deeper coherence fields. Then we take our journey seriously because we need to do the practices required to be part of such a team.
Like a soccer player, you train capacities to be part of the team. It has the power of dedication and awareness and real participation. That is the way that you can change the world, but we need to be changed too in order to be informed by life.
This is a beautiful work that you are doing here, and thank you for your work.”
Collective Trauma is Personal
I did not consider myself a victim of trauma because I am an optimist person by nature and by formation. My work is to be a catalyzer for change in individual people and organizations, which is a very rewarding job from a life purpose standpoint. Additionally, I have a happy marriage of 36 years with my beautiful wife Ileana, and I have three wonderful sons. This GAIA session was especially relevant for me because I had not noticed that I had been carrying with me that pocket of the past that Thomas spoke about.
I became aware of the fact that my family and I have both, societal trauma and the trauma of separation. All my brothers but Andrés live abroad, Nelson in Houston, Alberto in Belgium, Alvaro in Spain, and my little sister Chiqui in Ecuador. So what? Everyone has siblings living abroad. Nevertheless, when your 90 years old mother has to migrate with her little sister to an alien country because she is not safe in her own, that is wide-open trauma. That knife-like trauma cuts through her heart and the heart of her children. Every time that I speak with her on a video call, something inside me tells me that it might have been the last time (*). That trauma increases when her only caretaker, my sister, is a physician working on the COVID-19 ICU in a hospital in that country.
My eldest son, Helio Daniel, is a resident of Montreal, Canada. When we applied for a tourist visa to Canada three years ago, the Canadian government refused it. We had to meet in Cancun, and a year later in New York. Tears come to our eyes every time that we remember our farewell dinner and our last subway ride to the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Last Sunday, mother’s day, was one of those times when the separation was more present than ever.
I live in Caracas, Venezuela, with my other two sons, Miguel and Ignacio. My second son, Miguel, is an engineer who works for Medecins Sans Frontiers refurbishing and building field hospitals in the Venezuelan COVID-19 task force. Every time that he is on the field, which is all the time, my wife can’t sleep. Furthermore, from a societal standpoint, Venezuela is one of the hottest spots on the planet because of the extreme polarizing issues affecting us. More than 20 years of continuous political confrontation have brought about the destruction of the economy, the disintegration of the society, a totalitarian regime, thousands of deaths, millions of emigrants, and widespread suffering. On top of that, Covid-19.
Integrating my Fragmentation
I had been carrying that weight in my pocket of the past without even realizing it. But, while I was listening to Thomas, I felt a cascade of repressed emotions running free, and as I am writing this article, I feel the same. Now I know that reintegrating trauma is not a matter of switching it ON. It is a process of being PRESENT so I can face it with my heart wide open, feeling that oppressing sensation on my chest and doing nothing to repress the tears coming out of my eyes. Trauma is an experience that you most live because it lives in you, whether you know it or not. The more you live it, the more the pain is released, and eventually, it will go away. Eventually.
I have been feeling like that since the GAIA Journey event last Friday. Today is Tuesday, and I feel fortunate about having had the opportunity to face my personal trauma. Somehow, now I feel different; I have a wider perspective of things. Nevertheless, with reintegration comes new responsibilities. Now I know that I need to hold the space to help the members of my family to cope with it, by listening to them. Now I know that when I face a person who has a different political point of view, I do not need to react because he or she might be suffering a trauma probably much worse than mine. Now I know that the coherence that I need to be PRESENT, comes from an integrated inner source, not a fragmented one. Now I know that every time that I am PRESENT, I am going to relive my personal-collective trauma. If that’s the way it should be, so be it. I am willing to feel the discomfort of what I have excluded in the past. I want to be a member of the team and I want to change the world, but as Thomas said, I need to change first.
Do you Have a Pocket of the Past?
If you feel that for whatever reason you might have one of those pockets of the past with you, I strongly recommend that you watch the recording of the GAIA Journey session featuring Thomas Huebl embedded above, at the beginning of the article. Additionally, you can access Thomas Huebl’s guided meditation in section 1:14:00 of that recording.
(*) Hello Shiliu, on the collective trauma post (https://medium.com/presencing-institute-blog/systems-sensing-attending-to-collective-trauma-7e6f5025a2ab) could you add a postscript with a reference in this part?: That knife-like trauma cuts through her heart and the heart of her children. Every time that I speak with her on a video call, something inside me tells me that it might have been the last time (1). That trauma increases when her only caretaker, my sister, is a physician working on the COVID-19 ICU in a hospital in that country.
(*) On June 11th at exactly 11.00 o´clock, I received a call from my brother Andrés. The moment that I saw his name on the phone screen I sensed what he was calling about. He said to me that my mother had just passed away. I immediately called my sister and she said that she had died in peace. On a later call, she explained to us in detail that she had passed with a smile on her face and listening to La Traviata. Somehow, that news brought some peace not only to me but for all my brothers living in different parts of the world.
This is the second of two articles chronicling the Inhale session #4 of the GAIA Journey, “Systems Sensing: Attending to Collective Trauma”. Read the first part here, “Awareness Based Systems Change: Deep Resonance”