Trauma as a Pathway to Spiritual Surrender

By Shawn Radcliffe

Trauma and spirituality share a profound connection, according to psychologist Peter Levine. And by learning how to work with trauma properly, it can become a portal to transformation.

Levine’s work focuses on helping people heal from the trauma in their lives. Part of his method involves teaching them to surrender safely and at the right time. However, unlike the popular connotation of the term ’surrender,’ it has nothing to do with giving up.

“Surrender really means being able to experience whatever we’re experiencing without judgment,” said Levine in this video on spirituality and trauma:


This type of surrender is an important part of many Buddhist and Taoist traditions, specifically as a pathway to transformation. Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön talks about this when she describes how Milarepa reacted when he came home to find his cave filled with demons.

First Milarepa tried reasoning with the demons. But they ignored him. Then he became angry and attacked them. They laughed at him. So he sat down on the floor of his cave and surrendered to them. They all left. Demons only leave when you let go of your resistance.

In the video, Levine lists four portals in Buddhist and Taoist traditions that can lead to profound surrender—ecstatic sex, long-time meditation, the experience of death and trauma.

In his practice, Levine has developed specific exercises to help people deal with trauma in their lives. Many people who work through these experience sensations of flow and warmth, similar to what is described in certain spiritual practices.

However, the danger of these types of trauma practices—which is similar to the pitfalls of meditation—is that people become attached to the feelings generated by the exercises.

“The idea is not to have some big remembering of a trauma. The idea here is not that we have some major, all-of-a-sudden out-of-body spiritual experience,” said Levine, “but that spirituality becomes embodied, it becomes part of our existence. So that we experience this sense of aliveness, of goodness in our bodies and in our whole organisms. And that we want to share that.”

In turn, this desire to share with others what we love and enjoy can bring us greater joy and contentment. And sometimes the simplest actions can provide the deepest experience, as expressed in the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Or, as Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich said: “Love, work, and understanding should be the wellsprings of our life. They should also govern it.”

Levine says that it is the wellsprings of our lives that lead us to love, and also toward ways of expressing that love through our relationships and work.

“When the resistance is gone, so are the demons. It’s like a koan that we can work with by learning how to be more gentle, how to relax, and how to surrender to the situations and people in our lives.”
― Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

Related Content