Transforming Trauma Episode 011: Spirituality in the Healing of Complex Trauma with Dr. Laurence Heller, Creator of NARM
A podcast brought to you by the NARM® Training Institute
In this episode of Transforming Trauma, Dr. Laurence Heller, the Creator of the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM), is joined by our host, Sarah to answer a very common question about the role spirituality plays in the healing of trauma. How can spirituality serve reconnection to oneself in the aftermath of complex and developmental trauma? What are the ways that religious and spiritual practice might support trauma healing? What role does spirituality play in post-traumatic growth, and specifically in the NeuroAffective Relational Model for resolving Complex Trauma?
Sarah begins this exploration by asking Dr. Heller how he defines spirituality. He says that it is very hard to define, and that spirituality is more than just a cognitive understanding. He says it is “an embodied understanding that there’s something more to us than what we take to be our personal identity.” Dr. Heller says that he could not have just learned this through books or cognitive learning, and shares a glimpse into his experiences with many different spiritual practices over the years that helped him refine his own embodied understanding of spirituality. Dr. Heller recounts the “peak experiences” he experienced first-hand that came about through spiritual practice, as well as psychological work and even physical exercise. These peak experiences led Dr. Heller to moments of transcending his identity and experiencing a deep level of interconnectedness. In those moments, he realized that we’re never truly disconnected from our larger sense of connection.
Dr. Heller states that trauma ultimately does not create disconnection; it leads to the loss of awareness of connection, which feels to individuals like profound disconnection and disorientation. Dr. Heller shares his personal belief that “we can never truly be disconnected.”
While Dr. Heller did not explicitly build a spiritual approach to healing trauma, it is implicit in the model he created. Training in the NeuroAffective Relational Model does not involve any specific spiritual teaching or practice. What is supported is a process by which every individual learns how to better listen to themselves, to their own experiences, and from that place they get more connected to the deepest elements of self. This happens as a by-product of healing complex trauma. As people experience more secure connection to themselves, free from the psychobiological patterns of trauma, they develop a deeper sense of “Heartfulness”.
Spirituality reconnects a person to their heart. Heartfulness is an important quality of the NARM approach, specifically the heartfulness of the therapist. Dr. Heller reminds listeners that clients pick up on their therapist's internal state — meaning clients also pick up on the spiritual foundation of their therapist. When a client senses a strong spiritual foundation of their therapist, the client often feels a stronger sense of safety. This can lead to the client feeling more capacity to be curious about their own experiences.
Sarah and Dr. Heller also discuss a spectrum of spiritual trauma, from those who’ve been abused by others exploiting spirituality for their own gain, to those who, as Sarah puts it, are “addicted to spirituality”. They talk about what is referred to as “spiritual bypass”, which is when spiritual beliefs or practices are used to disconnect, generally in the face of uncertainty, for example in minimizing emotions and pushing for forgiveness. This can happen for individuals without an embodied spiritual foundation. “Real spirituality just gives us additional resources to tolerate uncertainty and be in the moment and helps us to distinguish between our objective response vs what is subjective having to do with old survival mechanisms.”
Before this episode concludes, Sarah and Dr. Heller reflect together on the role spirituality is playing now in the midst of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Instead of using spirituality as a way to “make meaning of the situation”, Dr. Heller sees spirituality as providing the capacity to hold the possibility of not knowing what’s going on in the world, and finding acceptance and calm in the face of collective trauma. Embodied spirituality provides more resources for people to be in the moment, even in the face of ongoing threat. When describing spirituality, Dr. Heller uses the word abiding, meaning being able to be with the not knowing.
When we experience trauma, it exposes the cracks in our perceived identity. For people who are curious about exploring these cracks in their identity, oftentimes beautiful growth and even a stronger spiritual foundation can develop when faced with trauma. The concept of cracks in our identity reminds Sarah of Kintsugi, a Japanese artform where breaks or cracks in pottery are seen as a part of the object’s history and celebrated by filling them in with gold, and reminds Dr. Heller of Leonard Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in”.
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