June 13, 2023

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk – The Cumulative Effects of Trauma

Thomas interviews world-renowned trauma expert and the author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. They discuss different approaches to healing trauma on individual and societal levels. Dr. Van der Kolk emphasizes the need for physical and relational safety in order to process trauma and the difficulty of healing in environments that tend towards disembodiment. He explains that trauma causes us to become numb, withdrawn, and full of shame, and that we experience these sensations physically. But through collective and creative experiences, practicing self-compassion, and deepening our relationship with our physical bodies and the sensations we feel, we can reconnect to ourselves, re-discover our spirituality, and define our own identities.

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“Our sense of aliveness is based on our body’s sensations”

- Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Guest Information

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk, MD is a psychiatrist, author, researcher, and educator based in Boston, United States. Since the 1970s, his research has been in the area of post-traumatic stress. He is the author of The New York Times best-seller, The Body Keeps the Score. Dr. Van der Kolk formerly served as president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and is a former co-director of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. He is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and president of the Trauma Research Foundation in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Learn more about Dr. van der Kolk and his work at besselvanderkolk.com

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • Healing is always collective, and it works by making you feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself
  • Bessel’s experience being raised by Holocaust survivors and how that legacy of trauma impacted his upbringing and life
  • The sensory nature of how we experience emotions, and the need to “wake up” our bodies in order to overcome trauma
  • How avenues for creative and emotional expression, like theatre, allow us to experience our bodies, and therefore our identities, differently
  • Acknowledging how fragile everything is, including ourselves, gives us greater compassion for others and for ourselves
  • Techniques for traumatized people to regain self-compassion and learn to utilize tools like mindfulness

Episode Transcript

Announcer: For our next interview we’re going to be talking with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who is a psychiatrist, author, educator, and President of the Trauma Research Foundation.

Dr. van der Kolk has spent his career studying how children and adults adapt to traumatic experiences and has translated emerging findings from neuroscience and attachment research to develop and study a range of potentially effective treatments for traumatic stress in children and adults.

Dr. van der Kolk has contributed significantly to the field of trauma treatment. In 1984, he set up one of the first clinical research centers in the U.S. dedicated to study and treatment of traumatic stress in civilian populations. This center has trained numerous researchers and clinicians specializing in the study and treatment of traumatic stress and has been continually funded to research impacts and interventions. He did the first studies on the effects of SSRIs on PTSD, was a member of the first neuroimaging team to investigate how trauma changes brain processes, and did the first research linking BPD and deliberate self injury to trauma and neglect in early childhood.

In addition to his work as a clinician, Dr. van der Kolk is a prolific researcher. He has studied the efficacy of using yoga for the treatment of PTSD, the underlying mechanisms of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and the use of neurofeedback in PTSD. He has written books and published over 150 articles on trauma. His book,The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Treatment of Trauma has been translated into over 20 languages.
Thomas: Hello, and welcome to this summit. I have the honor to sit here today with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. So, a very warm welcome to you. I’m so happy that you generously agreed to be part of our summit. So,
very welcome.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: Appreciate it, thank you.

Thomas: I would love to dive right in with you and so, the question that we ask every speaker is, why do you think—and you’re an expert, you’ve dedicated your whole life basically to exploring trauma, most probably already from very early on—so why do you think or know that trauma and maybe also, trauma and collective trauma, are important topics nowadays for us? And that to be trauma-informed to a certain degree, is something important for us?

Bessel: I think trauma has always been central to our lives. What’s intriguing to me is how the discussion of trauma wasn’t central before. And I was on some other webcasts and somebody said, “Dr. Van der Kolk, why do you think there’s so much more trauma today than there was before?” And I said, “Do you know anything about history? I think there’s less trauma today that there was before.” And when people start feeling somewhat safe, that they start being able to actually talk about it, the safety is not the ordinary condition. People have always lived in terror, and fear, and disasters.

What’s also interesting for me is that the countries that are some of the safest, most civilized countries in the world, are the countries that have done the most work on trauma. Places like Norway, where nobody kills
anybody ever. Or Australia, or Holland are places where people really know about trauma, because it’s so extraordinary. And in the American South, or in South Africa, or the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, people don’t talk about trauma because it is so part of the fabric of life.

But for me, it’s amazing that as I was growing up professionally as a psychiatrist, that nobody talks about child abuse, and nobody talks about rape, and nobody talks about family violence. It’s an unseen topic in the history of psychoanalysis, where people never talked about it. And how did people get to be so blind? Maybe because it was so ubiquitous. I think there was too much of it. And now that some people actually have good lives that we can say, ‘Huh, interesting. How do people get to be so crazy?’ that we actually start being able to look at it.

So, the study of trauma comes out of complex social-political factors, but it certainly did not start with understanding children and women, which of course, are the main trauma populations. But it came out of studying soldiers. Which is not a curious thing. Now, everybody still talks about soldiers as the big trauma population, but of course, that’s not true. The big trauma population is abused children, women in domestic violence situations, and those people don’t get a lot of attention. The fact that right now, children are separated from their parents on the southern border of the United States and horribly traumatized, is just a stunning thing to happen, that this is possible.

Thomas: Yeah, I agree totally. And that’s maybe something, maybe we can come back to, like what allows that in the first place. But you said something that I want to underline, that this safety—when we feel safe. I know one of the core elements of your work is relational safety, and can you maybe explain a little bit more why relational safety is such an important issue, not only in the trauma healing but forming healthy societies, basically.

Bessel: Well, you know, we are primates. I learned from monkeys in the zoo. We are monkeys, and our brains are monkey brains, and we live with other people. We have brains in order to do what you and I are doing, talking to each other, comparing notes, explaining things to each other, and that gives us pleasure and meaning. If you or I go to spend a month by ourselves not talking to anybody, we can do it, we’ll be sort of heroic if we do it, but that’s not our nature. Our nature is to yak and hang out with people, and to do things together. That’s what we have brains for. Now, when you see little kids, I happen to have some tiny babies in my life these days, and they are by themselves, and they just need to be taken care of. But as you see kids develop, become more of a member of a troop, and learns how to talk, and interacts, and adjusts itself. But we are troop people.

See, what trauma does is it separates you from your group. And it becomes a godforsaken experience. The response to trauma is, ‘I’m all by myself.’ And the healing of trauma is indeed about feeling you’re a member of a group. Maybe a 12-step program, or a survivor’s program, or a terrorist gang. But some sort of way in which you can reconnect with other people, where you feel like, ‘I’m a part of something larger than myself.’ The trauma experience is the opposite of that. It’s an, ‘I’m all by myself.’

Thomas: Yeah. So, would you say then that the large degree of separation that many people experience in our societies, is already an underlying trauma symptom that we are grappling with? And that maybe, jeopardizes a lot of whatever family, institutional, and global collaboration? When we look that it’s actually an underlying trauma symptom that we are often dealing with consciously or unconsciously?

Bessel: Well, I’m not a sociologist. And what I’m always impressed with is how little I know about other people. So, I don’t know how lonely other people are. I don’t know how much time people spend … For example, to answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t know how many people wake up and turn on the television in the morning. And for me, the idea that you turn on the television in the morning and have your space blared by alien people is inconceivable. But I think a lot of people turn on their TV and drown out their sense of self, and that gives them their virtual connection to the world. But these virtual connections are very dangerous, I think. You don’t own it, you don’t live it. It doesn’t become part of your body.

Thomas: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so, when you … In our brief conversation we talked already a little about this, that one reason for me to set up this summit was my experience with the work with the second World War, and the Holocaust and it’s ripple effects into the world. And you’re coming from Holland, so you’re close in the center of the second World War. Maybe, you can tell us a little bit how that affected you and how you look at the collective dimension of trauma.

Bessel: Indeed. Look, it started off like this, I think I may have mentioned mybook, my father was in a German camp. And I was actually born when my father came home. My father was helped to escape by a guard actually, whom he became friendly with. My father came home, and he called me ‘Barnabas, son of consolation.’ And my father was in the camp because he was very, sort of actively anti-Nazi. And then my father oftentimes behaved like a Nazi, when I was growing up. And as a three-year old, I probably started to say to my dad,”’Dad you’re behaving like a Nazi, and at the same time you were almost killed for being a Nazi, how is that possible?” So, these were the questions that very early on started to preoccupy me. Is that, people say one thing and they do another thing.

And so very early on, as a Dutch kid you grow up with German music, Beethoven and Bach and all those things, and Goethe, you go like, “How can the people who created the most gorgeous music in the world, the most gorgeous literature, turn around and become beasts?” These horrendous sorts of people, and lose all their sense of humanity? From very early on, it was like, how do people do this? How does this happen?’ And then, what I just talked with you about also, is that, in Holland, which was sort of a small and mildly insignificant country for a long time, I grew up with people in Holland always puffing themselves up with, “Look what the Germans did to us, and we were these heroic people who fought against the Germans.” And it’s largely a myth. The Dutch weren’t heroic, they were just trying to survive. But they really puffed themselves up in their victimhood.

And then one of my closest friends growing up was the son of an SS general, and he never talked about war. You couldn’t talk about war. And then finally, I was very intrigued by how the Germans lived a few miles away from where I grew up and never talked about what happened to them. And that the Dutch always talked about what happened. So, the Dutch’s identity are of victims, which is a tricky identity to have.

And that the Germans, who didn’t talk about war, it was also intriguing, because in psychiatry we always say, if you don’t talk about your trauma you’re bound to repeat it. But the Germans didn’t talk about their trauma, and the Germans became an extraordinarily humane and soulful society. So, what we say about these things may not necessarily be true. The Germans had already served a toll for many things, I think. And worked very hard to build Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, and get enough wealth to become civilized again before they started to talk about what happened. Which I thought was intriguing, that they didn’t get stuck on look what we did, and look what’s done to us, but they completely ignored it. And only after they become one of the wealthiest countries in the world again, were they able to begin to reflectupon themselves.

Another thing that really intrigued me, is that because I had these German friends, and because we were bombed as kids, I knew the Germans were also bombed as kids, and Germans never talked about what happened to them. They talked about what happened to the poor Jews. They didn’t quite talk about, “Hey, look what we did to you.” But it got some sense of affiliation and something. But they never talked about how hundreds of thousands of German women got raped, and that probably a million people died in firestorms, and millions of people died in battlefields. That issue completely disappeared in Germany. Very intriguing to me.

Thomas: Yeah, so much of my experience in this work, like also the phase of silence, and also tremendous traumatization. And also that it hasn’t been talked about, which really has been inflicted. So, all the things that you mentioned, they were also deeply present in the work that I experience, too. I wanted to ask you because you said something that I want to come back to because it’s very interesting.

You grew up as a boy asking yourself this question, “So, how on the one side, Beethoven and all the philosophers and high-level culture so to speak, and on the other side, to be able to do some of the most gruesome things you can do?” So, throughout your life, and also, throughout your life working with probably thousands of people, how did you walk this question up to today? What’s your take on it today?

Bessel: I don’t think you will like it. I continue to be astounded. Blind people we are. Like what is happening in America right now at the border. It’s just unspeakable that we know what happens to kids who get separated from their parents, we know that these kids will become severely traumatized, and we know that these kids probably, are going to grow up to do to other people what has been done to them. Duh! Like the whole issue in politics about how you can not provide an education to poor people; to leave people living in horrendous circumstances. We know what the effects of that are. And somehow we keep ignoring all this obvious data.

There’s this thing in America where American schoolchildren take more and more tests because they find that kids in Finland and Korea score so much better than American kids. And what they don’t know is that in Finland and Korea, kids actually sing, and they play, and they have recesses, and they do what kids are supposed to do. And our response in America is to do less and less and play, to do less and less singing, to do less and less stuff, and to tell these kids who are all frozen because they watch too much television, and sees too much violence at home, to have them sit still, and to take tests to compete with kids who actually don’t have homework, but who are naturally curious because they feel safe. How can you not see that?

Thomas: Powerful. Because they feel safe, that’s a very powerful sentence. It sounds so simple, but it’s actually so powerful what you said now.

Bessel: But it’s so weird that … Anybody that hangs out with kids, when kids feel safe, they play and they explore, and they do stuff with each other, and you don’t have to worry, “Is my kid going to learn something?”, because we are naturally curious human beings. Most people enjoy learning stuff. I never needed them to be like, “Do your homework!” I was a curious kid!

Thomas: Fantastic, fantastic. Yeah. I’m totally with you here. So, this brings us to another question that I know that you are very passionate about, and I am, too, the question of embodiment. Because I think what you said right now, to feel safe as a child, creates a natural synchronization, and kind of awareness of our body, and of our physical nature, and maybe trauma does the opposite. You talk about a big degree of disembodiment in our culture. Maybe tell us a little bit, what’s your research, what’s
your experience?

Bessel: That’s something that, unlike some of the other big questions, I really understand on a deep level now. I understand our sense of aliveness is based on our body sensations. And that, to one degree, you get turned on like, my window that you can’t see, and it’s looking out over mountains and the valley out here, and I see that and it’s almost fall here, and I get that it’s beautiful, and I feel tingling all over my body looking at that beautiful scene out the window. But when you’re traumatized, your sensations also run the world. And that’s surprising to me, again, how that’s not front and center when people talk about trauma, that being traumatized means that you have heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations in your body.

The first person who I know really talked about that, aside from Shakespeare, is Charles Darwin, who wrote a book about it. You feel it in your body. Your emotions are sensory experiences, and if you feel terrible, and most of us have felt terrible in our life, so you know that if you feel it in your chest, and you feel it in your abdomen, and it’s unbearable. So, as an adult, if we have heartbreak in our experience, we tend to quickly solve it by taking a drug, taking a Prozac, taking your alcohol, doing something to make those feelings go away, which is quite troublesome actually. But as a kid, if you have continuous heartbreak and gut-wrenching sensations, you learn to shut down your own body, and to ignore, to push away those feelings that are very much in the insular and the parietal brain, and we understand these circuits in the brain quite well these days. And when you shut that down, you stop feeling.

And when you stop feeling, you start feeling dead. And when you start feeling dead, your life has no longer any meaning. And you have no self-compassion, and you certainly have no compassion for other people. You feel nothing. If you feel nothing, then maybe, playing violent computer games may give you a little sense of pleasure. Or hating people who look different from the way you do, gives you a sense of aliveness, because you cannot get it from growing flowers in your garden, or playing your piano, because that’s too mild a sensory stimulus.

To go back again to what happened in Germany and Japan, I don’t know what’s happened in Cambodia, and I don’t know what’s happening in India right now, but Germany was a very traumatized country between the two World Wars, and people were scared to death. They were desperate, and they shut things down, and they listened to this nut Adolph Hitler. You look at these videos like, this guy is crazy! Not unlike some of the politicians today, actually. Like, how can anybody like a person like this? But these angry, hateful people make you feel alive, and help you to no longer feel the same sense of helplessness and
deadness inside.

To overcome trauma, you need to wake up your body again, where you can really take pleasure in the small things of life. And that’s very much what you do in that workshop, to really help people to just notice your feelings in your body. A lot of people find it very scary actually. One of the hallmarks of traumatized people is that the television is always blaring, there’s always things sitting in their ear, and they put things in because they feel so dead inside. Unless they put a lot of stuff into their sensory system, they shut down and feel like nobody.

Thomas: Yeah, right.

Bessel: And the whole word ‘nobody’ and ‘somebody’ is fascinating. How did English evolve that way, that somebody is different from some body? But of course you are somebody, you have a body, you are a person with a body, and if you’re a person with a body, you are somebody. If you’re a person that doesn’t have a body, you are nobody.

Thomas: That’s right. So you started already sharing a little how to heal it, because I think that’s an interesting. What’s the path if I don’t feel myself, or if I shut down bigger parts of myself, what changes do I have? What can I do as an interested person, to say, yes, I recognize that in me. so that’s one thing that I personally recognized in me. But let’s say that happened already, so what can I do? What are you doing in your workshops? How do you support people coming more back in tune or in touch with themselves?
Bessel: Let me tell you a little bit about my own trajectory here. I was part of the generation where a large number of kids were starved to death, and so, I was a very fragile, barely surviving little child, and asthma, and eczema, and my parents were pretty harsh people. And I grew up a little bit like an uptight kid, very cerebral, but like that. So of course, then you start studying this, because all research is me-search at the end. You’re always exonerating yourself. You don’t know that, but you do. One of the first things that was extraordinarily helpful for me was getting Rolfed.

It’s an old German thing, and Rolfing is actually a very harsh procedure, actually. Like somebody really opens up your muscles and bodywork, and for me it was incredibly helpful. I had always had this sort of frozen body, and after I got Rolfed, I could open my body. I could stand straight and my breathing became deeper, and my heart rate variability changed. And I became a calmer person because I was no longer living in an uptight body. So, it’s interesting, with all the psychoanalysis and talking, and talk therapy, which was all completely useless, but at the end, to my mind, having a body that actually felt open to new experience was the most helpful thing.

Another really very significant time was for me, when I was an advisor to the Truth Commission in South Africa, and how that happened, and I saw Bishop Tutu at work. It was a horrendously traumatized population and the reason why the Truth Commission came into existence is because Mandela and Tutu and the other people who came to power realized that if we don’t do something to help people with their trauma, there will be a massive bloodbath and South Africa will be conceived in slaughter like India was. And in India, you see the long-term effects many years later.

They had this deliberate process which they called the Truth and Reconciliation Process, but in fact, it was a process to keep black people from killing white people. Which was … you know, nobody said that, but that’s what they were doing. And how did Tutu do it? He had these town hall meetings, and he went from township to township, and he had people talk about what happened, and he would listen, and they would sing together, and they would dance together, and they would
move together.

There was not a dry eye in the house, because it was so moving, because they were so amazing in terms of helping people to speak their truth. And for people to be seen, but mostly for people to feel a sense of pleasure, harmony, and joy by moving together and signing together. All around the world, except in America and Europe, do people sing and move and dance in response to trauma. It reestablishes a sense of synchrony, harmony, and that’s really part of our core part of our brain. And that’s what little babies learn, is to be in sync and harmony with the people that take care of them. And that needs to be the instinct.

Thomas: So, what I hear is, music, dancing, bodywork, like everything that helps us to start sensing, and feeling, and enjoying our body again.

Bessel: And of course, to be still, allowing yourself to realize all that stuff that’s happening inside of you. You ignore the world of things, where you sit, and you say, “I feel restless, I want to look at my iPhone or whatever.” I go, “No, just take a breath.” Notice what happens, how uptight you are. Notice what happens to your body. And then you need to know that, what happens if you take a breath? What happens if you put your shoulders back? What happens if you straighten your spine? What happens if you just notice what happens when you pay attention to yourself?

I think it’s terribly important, learning to safely pay attention to yourself, and to start looking after yourself as a creature. Your internal creature. And say, this is a very uptight, scared creature that I’m dealing with. How can I help this creature to feel that?

Thomas: It’s beautiful just listening to you, it’s kind of this soothing feeling that comes across when you talk about it. It’s beautiful. Yeah, I think it’s super important and I’m fully with you. I want to underline the importance of what you said right now. I think it’s super important and I know that there is one tool that you also use in your work is psychodrama. Maybe you can tell us first what your …

Bessel: There’s a thing that comes before that, and that I became increasingly aware of, and it sort of gets larger and larger, is how you get traumatized. You get stuck in certain habits. And the habit is really, “I’m done for, I’m screwed, I’m helpless.” And so, you become a helpless creature and you live in a helpless body, or you live in an angry body, and you see the world in a particular way. Being traumatized means you become very inflexible. You see the world in your way and that’s the only way. So, you get narrower and narrower.

The first person who I know who really said that very well is Pierre Janet, back in the 1880’s, who talked about the narrowing of consciousness. As you get more and more focused on those people out there, and how killing those people out there, and I’m in danger and I’m screwed, blah blah blah. And you get into this habit of not seeing other perspectives, often becoming narrow minded, narrow body, et cetera, et cetera.

So, the question is, how do you open up new possibilities? Singing, dancing, and moving is one way of doing this. As you see, in the book also, one of my kids was a very oddly wired kid, who more and more had an identity of “I’m weird,” etcetera. And he got involved in theater. And my frozen son gets to play Rocco in the West Side Story, and he sings, “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re down on our knees.” And suddenly, I see my son sort of developing a new body, a new identity. And in his next role, he’s The Fonz in Happy Days, he sings, and moves, and dances. And I see my son evolve into another creature, because he was playing in a play that allowed him to experience his body differently from his identity experience.

So, I got very intrigued with, how do people develop new identities by living in a body that has a new identity? And so, we set up a program called, Trauma Drama, and my wife and I took advanced Shakespeare and acting courses, and you got to really see what it feels like to be somebody else. To be a frozen person, and then play Lady Macbeth, who despises her husband for not being willing to kill his king, and she says, “If he had not so resembled my father, I would have done the deed myself!” And to embody this evil queen, you go like, “Oh, that’s what it feels like to be a powerful evil person, how interesting!”

And the next play you play something else. You say, “Oh, now I’m somebody else. Oh that’s what it feels like to be like that.” And so, to thematically experience a variety of different possibilities is extremely powerful. And again, throughout the history of the world, people have used theater in order to deal with trauma. Plays still … they got it in 500- 375 BC, they just nailed it everything. And in their place, you see all the tragedies of human beings being played out. And even watching it, let alone playing it yourself, you get to feel, “Oh that’s what it’s like. Oh that’s what these people go through.” And it’s a thematic experience.

I think theater is extremely … actually, I was in some school plays as a kid also, myself. I remember them as being a very profound experience of playing a role that was as different from the roles that I was getting more and more locked into. All of us started playing roles. And so, I think theater is very, very useful. And then the psychodrama is even more interesting and complete.

I studied with a guy by the name of Albert Pesso. Who unfortunately, called his message after himself, which is always a bad idea. But he was a former dancer, and he showed me how, if you put things into space, you get a very different consciousness. And I do these workshops all the time. I’m doing one next week again, and every time we do it, I am blown away that if I say to you, person in the group, and I say to you, “Well, would you like to have somebody role play your dad.” And you choose somebody, say, “Where would you like to put him? We’ll put your dad somewhere over there.” And you’ll know exactly where he goes. “No, no, not there. There.”

And when that person sits there as a placeholder for your dad, all the feelings that you have toward your dad come alive.
That process blows my mind. And that’s the process of putting things in three-dimensional space. Because we are these yaky people, and yaky is very much our left brains. Right brain, which is where trauma sits, is non-linear, non-sequential, non-time about, spatial brain. Put your life out in space, remarkable things have … I’m just so blown away by it, because it’s not sort of in our culture and in our thinking that if you put your life out there in three-dimensional space, you have a very deep experience of where you have been, what you go through. And so you really have very deep feelings about the events of your life, and how your internal world can be portrayed out there. It’s a very emotional experience.

And then, you are so psychologically open, you can start inserting new possibilities. So, if you confront your dad and say, “Dad, you never approved of me, and you always were so harsh, but then I found that you had an affair with somebody else. You were a hypocrite about things.” All these feelings come up. Which is very different from telling someone else about it, because there he is, and you’re really confronting the reality of your life.

And then we can introduce, an ideal father. Who, “If I’d been your dad, I would have read you bedtime stories. If I’d been your dad, I would have celebrated the fact that you wanted to be an artist and not a biochemist, and I would have supported you.” And then that person holds you in a way, that you didn’t know you could be held, then an imprint comes into your body of, “Oh my God, that is what it would have felt like, of somebody who would have held me like that back then.” And it becomes a new imprint. Becomes a new reality in your sensory experience. And from that time on, you know on a very deep visceral level, of what it feels like to be a loved child. Or to be affirmed, not to be ignored, or neglected, or be the idea of somebody else, you get this very deep visceral experience of, “That’s what it feels like.” It brings about very
profound changes.

Thomas: Fantastic, fantastic. So lovely to listen to you, it’s beautiful. Yeah. I can feel your work while you are speaking and what I also hear, and please tell me if that’s correct, is also that there’s a deep relationality in the work of reprogramming this. Because, I see as one of the trauma symptoms that people want to do it themselves, alone.

Bessel: Well, see, the other piece is that therapists like to do it for their patients. But I cannot give you the experience by being nice to you; what it would have felt like if your dad had done that with you when you were three years old. Wrong time, wrong person, wrong place. So how do you kind of insert that feeling in somebody? It’s almost like a surgical implant.
Thomas: Beautiful, beautiful. Yeah, right. That’s beautiful. And also the importance of that relation that’s needed in order to do the healing. Because there are often these self-help books. You know, how do you heal yourself, and I think also you’re speaking to how do we heal together?

Bessel: It’s very collective. That’s how encounter groups used to be in the 60’s. And all the stuff that’s just all disappeared. Why has it disappeared? God knows. So it’s coming back suddenly, 40 years later. Why do cultures go like that, I don’t know. But it’s always a collective experience. So, in psychodrama groups people do things together, they dance together, they move together, sing together, do theater exercises, and then they feel collectively engaged with each other, and then they become
very generous. So, everybody is focused on, “Yeah! Let’s give you that experience that you really need.” The whole energy of the room is focused on making things happen to heal that person.

Thomas: Beautiful. So, you also see in your work that the power of the We is a deep healing resource, it’s just not … It’s a We space that weaves in a way, a resource for the trauma. Yeah.

Bessel: Very much so.

Thomas: I have two more questions that I’m interested in. One is a little bit like returning to the disembodiment. When you look at society today, what would you say are collective symptoms of our level of disembodiment, and I’m also asking this in the light of climate change, for example. Do you see a relation between many of us not being fully embodied, let’s call it that. and the lack of regulation, or care, or of feedback regulation of human beings within the ecosystem? So that the physical aspect of me, as you said, you are looking out your window and you see mountains, and forests, and nature, it gives you a visceral feeling. And that feeling gives you an impulse of care and love, and compassion, and connection. How is disembodiment and maybe epidemic disembodiment connected? Might this be connected to the way we are facing climate crisis, or the way we respond or not respond to the climate crisis quickly enough?

Bessel: Well, again I’m not a sociologist. So I don’t automatically think in those terms. But I think it’s indeed dissociation, cutting yourself off, not appreciating the sensory experience that you live in. And if you’re a sensate human being you get very grateful for what the Earth has to give to you. You get compassion for yourself, but you also get compassion for what’s around you. You know you’re being fed by Mother Earth, and that you’re a guest on this Earth, that’s allowed to be here. And if you get a sense of gratitude inside of yourself, because you have good experiences inside of yourself, I think that your expansion of that is to say, “No, I’m not going to drive non-reusable gas. I’m not going to contribute to climate change.”

And I think that really has to do with embodiment and knowing how fragile everything is, including how fragile you are, and how much care you need in order to function well. And it will expand itself to the people around you, and the Earth as well.

Thomas: Beautiful, beautiful. You said another lovely sentence, “You’re a guest on this Earth.” That’s a realization, it’s a beautiful realization to contemplate, I think.

Bessel: When you live in the city you don’t really say, “I am a guest in this apartment building.” But when I walk through nature, I think “Thank you for allowing me to be here. And there’s a bear over there, and that bear’s allowed to be here too.”
Thomas: Right, so beautiful a realization that we are guests here, and there’s a certain sense of entitlement that turns into humility. I think that’s a beautiful realization. And then maybe to transition to the other part, that I know you’re also researching, or at least looking at, is the … How does MDMA assist in trauma work? Do you think it’s something that’s growing that has a meaning? If it has a meaning, what is your experience with it?

Bessel: It fits in with everything we’re talking about. When you’re traumatized, you get stuck in this world of fear, and terror, and anger, and lack of self-love. You despise yourself for feeling as angry, and weak, and scared as you are. And then, so this movement sort of slowly happens of mindfulness, and how you cannot have a mind if don’t become mindful. And then, it turns out, for traumatized people, becoming mindful is extraordinarily difficult. Tania Singer in Germany, does this very wonderful research that shows that mindfulness only works if it’s accompanied by self-compassion.

And a deep sort of love for what you find inside of yourself. But when you’re a traumatized person and you go inside of yourself, what you find is pain, and hurt, and anger, and deprivation, and shame, and embarrassment. There’s no self-compassion. Remember, it’s the hallmark of being traumatized. So how do we help this self-compassion? MDMA is not the only way of getting there. I think a very good hypnotic experience, or a good psychodrama experience, some very deep experience where you really go into that, can do probably the same thing. We don’t know yet at this point. But what MDMA is about, and that’s why people have been taking MDMA, it’s a love drug. It gives you a sense of loving whatever comes up. The same thing seems to happen with Ayahuasca to some degree.

Something changes in the chemistry of your brain where you can sort of observe yourself and say, and it can be a quite painful experience to actually go inside, but you can tolerate things better than you could before. You may come into a scene of, “I haven’t been abused, I haven’t been beaten.” And you go like, “Oh that poor kid who was me. That nobody had a right to do that to this kid, this really was a precious kid.” And so, this issue of chemically enhancing that sense of self-compassion and loving yourself can be a very good help on the way to developing a sense of identity. “The kid didn’t deserve it.” And also a sense of, “This happened to this kid, but it happened a long time ago. And today I’m in beautiful surroundings, and I survived it.” That’s how you get that sense of perspective so that you get less of a chance to be locked in that habit of seeing yourself as a victim, and the world as being a dangerous, terrible place.

What I’m worried about is, our culture is so much into pills and easy solutions. Then people say, “Oh just take this MDMA and it will go away.” And that’s very much not what our study is about, and what the practice is about. It’s very much … The study is interesting, because we prepared people for a long time, and we have a whole day session of either placebo or MDMA, in which there’s two people who work with you in detail, and then you go through a lot. But what I’m impressed with is the placebo group also gets a lot, because very few people in our world get eight hours of complete attention. Right? And the placebo condition is very powerful as well. It’s a very powerful experience. All loving people being around you for eight hours.

Thomas: Oh, yeah, right. But you’ve seen the research, you see an increase of activity with the MDMA?

Bessel: We’re still collecting data. Part of being a scientist is that we don’t know what the data are until you’ve analyzed them. And so, we hope for the best. But in the two previous studies, indeed the MDMA group did better than the placebo group. I’m not sure that will happen this time. It’s very likely, but I think just having the experience of being seen for eight hours, and deeply going into yourself, always has a very profound effect also.

Thomas: Yeah, fantastic. Right. So, maybe one more question that came up while you talked about MDMA, was how do you see … You talked a little bit before about becoming still. You talk now about mindfulness, you talk about presence, and you talk also about presence in the sense of a spiritual connection; that connection to meaning and connection to being part of something bigger. How do you see the spiritual dimension of the human being as a resource for trauma healing, and what’s your experience with it?
Bessel: It’s a tricky one. Because I think trauma really leaves you in a godforsaken state. When you’re being traumatized, the sense that God is there for you, or that you’re part of a meaningful system, really goes. That whole meaning system gets blown away. So, the way I see it is that one should begin to reestablish that connection with yourself, then your spiritual world starts coming alive again. I don’t think you can impose a spiritual world on somebody, except people may become religious fanatics, and people often times do.

Actually, Simon Vincent wrote a book about it, that if that happens, people are likely to convert to fundamentalist religions because it gives them certainty, and clarity, and no complexity. That somebody out there is doing things for you. But of course, that’s the opposite of real spirituality, where you feel a connection with the living universe. And I think the spirituality emerges from good treatment, and not the other way around.

Thomas: Beautiful. Yeah, we see this also in our groups. That there is something also through the healing process, also the spiritual worlds open up more, and I think that that’s beautiful. Also, the combination of wisdom traditions and trauma work, and a deep understanding of both together, is very powerful.

Bessel: Of course, those traditions all come from trauma. We are a very traumatized species, and I see the meditative traditions, Chi gung, Tai chi, the martial arts traditions. I think they all are originally trauma treatments. They emerged out of desperate people, very traumatized people, who had to create something that reestablished a sense of agency and power.
Thomas: One question, is there anything, if listeners are inspired by this conversation, do you have something like a nugget or something, that they can take into their day as a practice? Something that you find is maybe easier to do and still has an effect that we can really implement in our life?

Bessel: Yeah. I think that the starting point is to sit on your butt. And to see what it’s like to not look at a screen, to not look at your iPhone, not to check what’s going on, not to listen to outside sounds. And to just spend a little time just listening to the sound of your body, and the feelings in your body. And notice your breath, and notice your chest. And notice your spine. And notice if your spine is bent over, or if you’re open. And experiment a little bit with just feeling your feet, and feeling your knees, and feeling the way your butt sits on the chair. And just spend about five or 10 minutes just noticing yourself. It’s a miraculous thing. You rarely do it.

Thomas: Right, right. When you just say it and then you follow it, it’s beautiful. It’s easy to do, fairly easy to do.

Bessel: I didn’t say it was easy to do, but you need to do it. And our frantic nature will say, “Oh that’s boring.”

Thomas: Right.

Bessel: Our job is to discover how un-boring it is to actually notice this creature, who you are.

Thomas: That’s right, yeah. Magnificent, right. Do you see—because you mentioned screens—so how do you see trauma and technology? There’s a huge technology, let’s call it explosion. And in my understanding, technology can be a blessing, but for the disembodied part of me, technology can be anything else but a blessing.

Bessel: I really enjoy talking with you, it’s interesting. Particularly your point of view, and particularly your energy, it’s interesting. But the poor people going to listen to this webcast, are going to sit passively, and they don’t play a role in our dialogue. So fundamentally, I think, turn off your goddamn screen! Don’t listen to us! You need to interact, and you need to be an agent in this interaction. And don’t spend your time with a bunch of people talking to you, because our brain is meant to be interactive. And as for the great worry about kids growing up on screens, it’s that kids are naturally interactive, but if you get virtual interaction with something you don’t affect, you don’t get a brain feeling that, “I make a difference.” So, it’s very paradoxical that we do this kind of a webcast. We’ll mix people up.

Thomas: Right. So, you should have mentioned that at the beginning. Right? And if you say that with our kids, is there anything that you recommend to parents? Given that it’s a challenge for every parent to find the right amount of exposing your kids to technology, and having them grow up in the contemporary world, but at the same time, finding a good regulation. So, how is that for you?

Bessel: I actually marvel at the young parents who are in my life, my intimate life. They all don’t do screens with their kids. They don’t have screens take the place of babysitters. They actually spend those times with their kids. And it’s a tiny fraction of a sample, but boy do I love the way that my kids and other young people I know are raising their kids, because they really pay attention to them. And they actually, in many ways, pay more attention to their kids than we did, because I think they know about the danger of screens somehow. But I think they’re a very small minority, probably.

Thomas: Yeah, probably. So that’s amazing. Oh wow, what a rich journey. I would love to talk with you much more. We have this time here together, and it’s very rich, I love everything you said. It’s so deep, and I’m happy that you’re doing this work, and you spend your life researching trauma in such a depth.

Bessel: You’re doing this work too, and if you interview other people as well as you interviewed me, I actually will go spend some time in front of the screen and listen to your other interviews.

Thomas: That’s lovely. Yeah, and some of your friends or colleagues, are in there, so you’re most invited. And I hope that everybody who listens in right now gets something inspirational out of this, and it’s beautiful. And I also love your transmission. So, when you speak and also when you guide your short guidances it’s to feel, I can participate in it well. Thank you so much. It was great talking to you. You were very inspiring. Thank you.