March 26, 2023
Mastay: Healing From Trauma Is A Reorganization of Your Soul
There is order to all of Creation. Think of a human body. It starts from two cells, an egg and a sperm. They come together in a single moment and then begin to organize and multiply into an array of highly differentiated cells signaling back and forth to each other, creating a complex being pulsing with life. These cells multiply and replace themselves many times through a lifetime, renewing themselves to keep the organism healthy and vibrant. This intricate ordering can be disrupted, however, and a new one can unfold. A missing, damaged, or extra chromosome, for example, can cause a mutation that results in a different form or structure. Creation is an endless process of ordering and reordering. But not all form is viable or healthy. Creation just creates. Take cancer, for example. We know that metastatic cell proliferation usually occurs in response to a stressor. The resulting mutations drive cells into reproducing themselves without check. A new order ensues but not a healthy one.
Just as overactive cell reproduction can reorganize the body into tumors that spread throughout the body crippling it, our response to trauma can also reorganize our psyches and nervous systems into dysfunction. When we are faced with an overwhelming physical and emotional challenge, which is what trauma is, our brain sets off a stress response. If we have the necessary tools and resources to move through it and process the trauma, in the moment, this may just be a singular experience. But if the trauma is too big to process, if it reoccurs, if the pain and emotions are too overwhelming and we have no support, our brain steps in and takes charge. We must survive this! So it restructures itself. The limbic lobe, or emotional center recalibrates itself and goes into hyper alert.
The amygdala, in particular, is the part of the brain that anticipates danger. When the amygdala fires, the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory, sends a message to a structure located in the middle of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sets off the stress response, distributing high levels of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream readying the body for attack. We are then positioned to fight or flee. If the situation is too big for us to face or run from, however, all those hormones will lock us down into a form of paralysis, the third stress state called freeze. The hippocampus then feeds back to the amygdala and says "Hey!!! Remember this event, anticipate it could happen again, be ready!!” These structures in the brain then feedback to each other and rewire to be more sensitive, more alert… more trigger happy. Now we are hypervigilant. It’s a structural reordering that kicks in preparing us for any possible and subsequent event. Unfortunately living with hypervigilance means living with anxiety, panic attacks, and emotional overwhelm as the amygdala now sets off a stress response at the drop of a hat.
It is not just our brain that changes due to trauma. Our beliefs about the world shift too, it is not a safe place. We create strategies based on these beliefs to cope. In fact, if the trauma was especially challenging, we may even have to change our personality so we can ensure our survival. Our basic sense of self changes. We may go from being confident and curious to being reserved, compliant or even combative. Fawning, for example, is a coping strategy used by people who go into freeze. To avoid locking up they minimize conflict and stress by pleasing and oversharing. They develop the personality structure of a “Good Person,” the one who can always turn the other cheek but loses their will to set boundaries in the process. The People Pleaser. Or perhaps we become the Bully (the fighter), the best defense is a good offense, or we may just turn tail and run (the Runner). Our innocence and wonder may turn into cynicism and irreverence as the Over Thinker is born. Usually the personality structures we put in place after trauma are suboptimal. These debilitated aspects of our psyche then attract other people with wounded personalities, creating a long struggle with toxic relationships.
In the Andean healing arts “mastay” is the word for reordering or restructuring. Every healing is a mastay. Someone suffering from cancer needs to have their cell signaling reordered. The unhealthy cells must be curtailed so they don’t kill off the body. A broken bone must be reset. Sometimes even re-broken and reset. Healing from trauma is no different, it is just more complex. It requires a massive overhaul and restructuring of the person’s nervous system, their belief systems, coping strategies, and a reshaping of their dysfunctional personality structures. That’s all! Healing from trauma is a complete reordering of our sense of self. In the Andean healing arts we would say it is a mastay of the soul.
Healing is the breakdown of who we have been into who we are becoming. In a way each healing is a small death. If we are facing cancer treatment we need the cells that are running rampant to either return to normal or die off. Our current way of treating cancer is to poison and radiate these cells until they release their agenda for overly proliferating. In terms of trauma we have to die to who we have been in order to become healthy. Our ego, however, is not at all interested in death. It is programmed not to die. It would prefer to create new coping strategies and new personality structures to deal with danger. But these are all fear based so while practical in the short run they create debilitation in the long run. How, then, do we heal from trauma when the ego has locked us down into dysfunction to ensure our survival? This is not something we can simply “let go” of or talk ourselves out of. We have to go deeper and break through these personality structures on the surface to see what lies beneath them. It is our subconscious mind and unconscious nervous system that are running the show.
In the West we think our ego, the collection personality structures we have created to deal with the world, are definitively who we are. The ego is simply our operating system for interfacing with the exterior world, how we identify ourselves to be. Letting go of our trauma based personality structures is incredibly difficult. We have designed ourselves to be safe. Survival trumps functional. The ego is tasked with ensuring our survival. To dismantle and reset it is to lose who we think we are, our identity. It activates our hypervigilance to even think about abandoning who it is that keeps us safe. It challenges our sense of sanity and pulls up an existential fear of death. The ego, however, is actually quite capable of modifying itself from an unhealthy self identity to a healthier one. To do so, however, it needs to be taken offline so it isn’t trying to run its survival programs over the effort, keeping the dysfunction in place and preventing us from healing.
To heal from trauma is to ask ourselves to die to who we have been. It takes an incredible amount of trust to know we will be ok if we take our personality off line. If it were our heart that needed repair the surgeons would hook us up to a machine to pump our blood through our body and keep it alive while they worked on our heart. But who will take the helm of this body if we take the captain of the ship off board? It takes an incredible amount of trust and faith to heal. For this reason healing from trauma often becomes a spiritual process. We have to trust in something much bigger than ourselves, something safe outside ourselves, to let go and surrender the ego.
Shamanic traditions have long known this. Many shamanic methods work at the subconscious and unconscious levels. By taking someone out of their conscious mind and letting them sit in a suspended liminal place, the dark cave of their unconscious, where they meet their whole self instead of the limits imposed on it by their ego, they can let go of the personality structures running their hypervigilance and controlling their body. In this sense this liminal space is analogous to the quantum realm. In the quantum subatomic realm the world is indeterminant, meaning it does not exist in certainty until it is measured. Einstein didn’t like this uncertainty and railed against an indeterminant universe, but when we are healing trauma, a probabilistic universe gives us promise that we can create something new, that our wounding is not forever cast in bronze. It gives us options for a reset. In healing we are essentially un-measuring reality as we have defined it and recreated it to be. This is a mastay. Think of it as a weaving. We unravel the old form, save the yarn, and from it weave another. Our belief systems can then be revised, perhaps the world is not so unsafe, that was just a dangerous situation. The body, brain and nervous system release and recalibrate. The self explores new ways to engage and puts more effective ego structures in place. Our frozen traumatized self thaws and we find a more resilient functional sense of self. Healing is a death. And it’s a rebirth. Nothing short of it. A complete and utter mastay of the soul.
© All rights reserved. Christian Allen, 2023.