Category: Somatic Psychology

The wisdom of the body

Healing Embedded Cultural Trauma

[my article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly, 08 April 2011]

Healing the Trauma that ‘Dared not Speak its Name’

– The ongoing effects of the Sasam trauma

Creative performances based on the April 3rd Massacre constitute a great part of Noripae Hallasan Theatre Company’s repertoire. Photo courtesy Noripae Hallasan Theatre Company

Trauma comes in three forms: for those who experience it directly, those who are witnesses, and those who hear the stories repeatedly – such as family members, healthcare providers, researchers, activists, and humanitarian aid workers.

The effects of trauma can last a very long time.

Some say that “Sasam,” or the massacre 63 years ago, is an event best forgotten. For the young its name holds little meaning beyond a school history lesson. For more than 50 years, until the year 2000, this was also the official and legal stance in Korea.

It was the trauma that dared not speak its name.

One common method for dealing with trauma is to minimize its effects and relegate it to the far recesses of the mind – a phenomenon typically referred to as ‘repression’.

A typical outcome of the repression of trauma, however, is somatization – the expression of the emotional trauma in physical symptoms, according to Dr. Kwak Young Sook, psychiatrist and dean of Jeju National University’s School of Medicine.

Jeju also exhibits stress in notably high degrees of alcoholism and domestic violence and the highest suicide rate in Korea, a country which already holds the 2nd-highest rate globally [2009 statistics].

If and when the veil is finally removed, if a time comes when a person – or a culture – can finally “speak the name” of the trauma and attempt to examine it directly, it becomes almost as real as if it happened yesterday.

This is what’s still occurring in Jeju today.

There have been earlier attempts at healing. According to social critic Kim Yu Jeong, secret shamanic ceremony and Confucian ancestral rites have been kept all along by those who survived the 1948 massacre and the subsequent 6-year period of violence. Buddhist and Christian equivalent rites have also been maintained for both victims and survivors.

The need for secrecy, however, coupled with a high degree of confusion, distrust, and shame brought upon families by false accusations of ‘communism’ now legally discharged, precluded the full expression of mourning.

Mourning, in its complete experience, can only now take place. Since the year 2000, when speaking about this tragedy was finally decriminalized, numerous public rituals of mourning and events of remembrance have been held all over Jeju Island every year at this time.

There have been many subtler ways of mourning – and, ultimately, of healing – which have occurred during the past 2 decades.

As discussed more fully in part 1 of this series (‘Sasam Art’: The artists’ way), artists of Jeju have taken the lead in providing venues for Jeju’s people to experience and express a full range of emotions concerning the events of Sasam.

Hyun Ki Young published the first novel on Sasam themes in 1979, though more than a decade would pass before other such literature was to emerge, notably Han Rimhwa’s 3-volume novel on the topic in 1991.

Kang Yo Bae and Park Gyung Hoon held provocative Sasam art exhibits in the early 1990s, with Koh Gill Chun and others joining in soon thereafter.

Perhaps one of the most obvious uses of art for healing the minds of the Jeju people can be seen in the Noribae Hallasan performance group.

In existence since 1987 and performing from village to village, the troupe presents on politically charged themes including the 1948 massacre and encourages audience response. Thus, in a safe environment of “fiction,” audience members have been able to give voice to their emotions surrounding this trauma.

Jeju has indigenous ways to heal,” according to longtime Noribae Hallasan member Yoon Miran.

The traditional religion of Jeju, typically referred to as ‘shamanism’ but known locally as ‘mu’, has also provided rituals for comfort and mourning. In this context, rites are performed to exorcise spirits which are either ‘evil’ or not at rest due to traumatic or unresolved death.

In psychological terms, this type of exorcism ritual allows participants not only to give expression to their emotions but also to safeguard their own psyches from further harm by providing a protective element and recreating a sense of security.

The deliberate healing function of ‘mu’ is no longer in use on Jeju, however, according to Yoon, who would like to see it revived. Presumably, this is deemed to be in conflict with the dominant medical system.

Nevertheless, the shamanic rites of remembrance, the “lamentations of the dead” as termed by Seoul anthropologist Kim Seong-nae, serve to heal the minds of the living.

One of the significant characteristics of Jeju is found in the bonds of community. In psychology, community is an important element in resilience, or the ability to recover from major adversity.

However, while the ‘kwendang’ system of familial and village connection is still relevant and a powerful feature of Jeju’s society, it suffered massive disruption at the time of the 1948 massacres and following 6-year period of violence.

As neighbors and even family members were pitted against one another, Jeju’s traditional culture suffered a mortal wound, according to Oh Seung-kook of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park.

Before that time,” Oh explained, “Jeju had a bonded culture, based on overcoming adversity through communal effort. Afterward,” he continued, “those who survived lived in fear or fled Jeju, and the families of those deemed ‘guilty’ were also persecuted by the government and ostracized by the community.”

Communities of Jeju are still struggling to come to terms with and heal from the effects of this trauma of so long ago. According to London scholar Heonik Kwon, new communal ancestral shrines have been erected in many villages, shrines which include not only victims of the police and military aggression but members of the local police force and their families who died as well.

Villages across Jeju are working to repair community bonds. Researchers are making every effort to uncover the truth about the events of that time so long ago. Activists are determined to achieve justice. Shamans, or ‘simbang’, and other religious leaders are helping Jeju’s people to achieve peace of mind and heart.

Jeju is still struggling to heal from the trauma that dared not – until now – speak its name.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist with a background in trauma therapy.


Do we still have need of ritual? Or has that gone the way of superstition, folk medicine, and other traditional ways in most modern societies? Even more: does it have a potentially sinister aspect? Or does it belong within the religious context? And: what purpose does–or did–ritual serve?

In the course of my career I have worked a great deal with those who are afflicted by addictions. In a distorted and unhealthy way, our addictions can become highly ritualized and seem to fulfill a certain subconscious need. (They also temporarily ameliorate pain and bring some measure of peace and/or euphoria, and of course, after a point their primary function is to keep withdrawal symptoms–physical or psychological–from taking hold.) I have counseled people time and again, over the past 15 years, that they cannot merely remove the addiction itself and expect favorable results; they must also replace the aspect of ritual with a healthy one. We undertake a shared process of discovery in order to determine just such ritual of personal meaning.

Ritual, according to Malidoma Patrice Somé, fulfills a certain basic need in our lives to imbue acts or behaviors with significance. Akin to Jerome Bruner’s “meaning-making” of both the individual and the culture, ritual provides grounding for spiritual experiences. While ritualized behavior — repetitive and rigid, but without substance — can be a sign of pathology, rituals of personal and/or cultural significance connect to the archetypal imagery of the unconsciousness, according to Jungian psychology and explored in detail by Joseph Campbell.

We naturally have small rituals every day: ways in which we do things to give more meaning to the event. This is different from habit or routine in the significance attributed to it. For instance, while we may have a particular routine of personal hygiene, this is not ritual; however, the Hasidic Jews, for example, use ritual bathing for a number of religious purposes.

Many of the remaining traditions of each culture, as we rush to modernize by eliminating them, are still highly ritualized–that is, they are done in the same way every time for a meaningful purpose–but they have lost their original meaning and are now performed largely out of habit and to maintain cultural bonding. When asked about their significance, participants often shrug and say, “it’s just how we do things”–and much of the value of the ritual has disappeared.

Do we need ritual in this modern age? Is there any advantage to it for those who are not religious?

A common human condition is the need for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Religion gives this to many; for others, it is found in raising a family, working for social justice, contributing to a body of knowledge and educating the next generation, making a contribution to the business world or another aspect of society. One of the ways to acknowledge these sources of meaning can be found in ritual, whether that of a culture or religion, or of individual making with unique significance.

Here in largely Taoist Hong Kong, the personal shrine to one’s ancestors and to various deities is ubiquitous. In a majority of households and businesses, it provides a physical place where the simple lighting of incense, making offerings such as fruit, and saying prayers or honoring one’s ancestors can not only be a routine act but be fully integrated into daily life. Indeed, Hong Kong — Heung Gong — translates as “Fragrant Harbor”, and is attributed to the incense in the air. Whether to deity or to the acknowledgement of one’s ancestors and thus heritage–rootedness, a sense of continuity and place, and honoring of the wisdom that has gone before–it serves to deepen the experience of living.

Each morning I go to the beach at dawn for meditation. I allow the walk there to shift my consciousness, and once I arrive, I first face and greet each of the four cardinal directions, the rising sun and (when visible) setting moon that represent the yinyang of Taoism, the Eternal Blue Sky that is deity to Mongolians and Tibetans,  and the air, fire, water and earth of the cardinal elements. In so doing, my consciousness is further shifted into the light trance state conducive to meditation — and I have once again acknowledged and renewed my commitment to the natural world of which I am a part. This for me is personal ritual which enhances the meaning I ascribe to my life. And it enriches me.


“I can’t meditate! My head’s too crowded with thoughts!” “Meditation? Isn’t that a religious thing?” “Sure, meditation can help–but who has time?”

There’s a commonly held impression that meditation means sitting in lotus position and chanting while focusing on a mandala for the purpose of achieving enlightenment, and is a practice only for Buddhists or New Age believers. While this is in fact one interpretation…it is not the only one.

Meditation is also a practice of Islam, Christianity, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism, Baha’i faith, and Jainism (aka, Zoroastrianism). The Friends Society, often referred to as Quakers, a religious organization historically Christian but now humanistic, has made group meditation–“inviting Spirit”–their primary practice. Others practice regular meditation without any direct religious affiliation, whether for spiritual or health purposes. A Buddhist form called “Mindfulness” has been secularized and made popular in education, business, and therapeutic settings.

Scientific study has shown that meditative practice can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, strengthen memory and focus, and  decrease pain and stress response while also increasing immunity. Considering that the stress response and low immunity are considered primary causes of disease, this is not insignificant. As we now know that neural regeneration occurs through the lifetime, there is fair evidence that meditation can reorganize neural circuitry–that is, it can help to “rewire” our brains.

Non-Asian peoples often claim to find difficulty in the Asian forms of meditation which are receptive and include an “emptying of the mind”. In fact, non-Asian traditions of meditative practice are not receptive but contemplative, taking a specific focus rather than one of “the void”. One Asian practice, that of Zen Buddhism which focuses on a seeming paradox, or koan, is somewhat similar.

And there are many physical forms of meditation as well; it’s not all about sitting in lotus or zazen position! Tai Chi, Chi Gong, meditative forms of yoga are some alternate examples, as is the “zone” experienced by athletes, or the “flow” of an artist when creating. Japanese gardens have been designed for the purpose of moving meditation. Even Chinese Calligraphic Handwriting [CCH] can be a meditative act–and is also used to complement psychotherapy.

Dr Angeles Arrien is a cultural anthropologist who has conducted extensive field study in physical forms of meditation, and found four to be universal: sitting, reclining, standing, and moving. In her “Four-Fold Way”, she has further equated these, based on her cross-cultural studies as to their purposes. for learning / enlightenment (sitting), healing (reclining), inner strength / power / self-esteem (standing), and creativity / inspiration / innovation (moving). She further equates them with the Jungian archetypes of Teacher/Counselor (sitting), Healer/Caretaker (reclining), Warrior/Leader (standing), and Visionary/Creative Problem-solver (moving). Meditation, clearly, can be used for many purposes.

I have meditated almost daily for the past 25 years–typically out-of-doors, a majority of the time at water’s edge, always at sunrise. The meditation begins the moment I leave my home, as I walk along a wooded path, listening to the birds and to Spirit. I continue in meditation even as I say “good morning” to those I pass, stop to pat a dog, or pause to look at a butterfly or a flower and breathe deeply. At the beach, water lapping at my feet, sand beneath my toes, trees and small hills at my back, the sun newly rising to my left and the craggy rocks–sometimes with the moon still above them–to my right, I transition from moving to standing then to sitting and finally to lying forms of meditation. And once again, I am made whole.

Lately, I find myself occasionally feeling the stress of crowds, noise, busy-ness of those around me and of my own thought-stuffed head. And, almost as a chant, I continue on my way while saying “Peace” in my mind, in sets of three: “Peace…peace…peace” and then a slight pause, and another cycle. I find that, in this way, even the most potentially stressful times can become a form of meditation–as I simply find my way about the city.

In an elevator, a crowded train, anytime that I don’t need to pay attention, I can close my eyes for a moment or two and picture my morning beach, or the bay with its small fishing boats and egrets, or imagine I’m sitting in a tree as I did when a child. And for those few minutes, I am in serenity, and refreshed.

Meditation isn’t only something we do, although it may be one of the most important and useful practices we can follow; it is also a way to live, in peace, in wellness, and in harmony with the world.

BodyMind Connection – II

(continued from previous post)

The connection between mind and body is still very much in the early stages of our understanding. One of the most frequently cited examples, the placebo effect has been widely studied. It is estimated that the efficacy of more than 50% of all pharmaceuticals is of a placebo nature, as the mechanism of action cannot be determined. How the brain convinces the body to act in a certain way, based on often erroneous belief, remains a mystery. There have also been many cases of a person actually dying of “a broken heart”, or a deeply felt emotional loss. Biofeedback, meditation, and similar methods have been used to control bodily processes, such as lowering the heart rate and blood pressure or controlling brain waves or pain perception. Hypnosis has been used in childbirth and acupuncture in surgery, both in place of chemical anesthesia. Psychotherapy methods such as Experiential Focusing or Bioenergetics, use the physical body to identify and treat emotional or psychological content.

Stress is considered one of the most deadly aspects of modern life, and at the core of many illnesses and disease. It is a highly subjective response to external stimuli, one in which our emotions create a negative impact on our physical health, and science is only beginning to understand its effects on the physical body. One thing we know for certain: the reduction of stressful stimuli, and the management of our internal stress response, goes a very long way toward keeping us healthy.

How can we understand the wisdom of our bodies? Primarily, by listening to and respecting them. For example, an athlete’s goal of “working through the pain”, when pain is a signal that something is wrong, is counter-intuitive. Ignoring our body’s signals of hunger and thirst, or need for sleep – or worse yet, ignoring it so often that we actually lose our awareness of it – will lead to ill health and poor mental functioning. Sometimes, medicating our symptoms – thus, deadening our ability to listen to our body, and actually working against its homeostatic and defense mechanisms – may not be in our best interest. An example of this might be, taking cold medicine to reduce the mucus production in order to make ourselves more comfortable and less inconvenienced, when the mucus in this case is produced for eliminating dead viruses and leukocytes, or toxic waste. On the other hand, listening to symptoms rather than ignoring them is part of understanding the wisdom of the body and the messages that it is attempting to convey to the brain. Gaining additional knowledge about the general structure and function of the human body can be a very worthwhile pursuit – for indeed, we all possess such a glorious structure but few actually have much understanding of it.

There is an exercise for expanding our sense of self to include the body, and even beyond, rather than merely the cerebrum or frontal lobes of the brain. This also enhances our awareness of our physical body. Step by step, this involves putting oneself into a meditative or hypnotic-like state, and then first becoming aware of the “self” as identified with the conscious part of the brain; one must then allow for an expansion of this self-awareness to the entire brain, then to the brain and head, then to include the torso, followed by the entire body…and finally to extend beyond the individual body so that personal physical boundaries are no longer perceived. This sort of exercise has been practiced by mystics of every tradition around the world, and experienced spontaneously by average persons in a way often referred to as transcendent. It is a practice which can be learned, and refined.

For those of us who live in our heads – who tend to experience the world largely via our intellects – our ability to listen to our bodies, and trust in the wisdom found there, may be under-developed. Like any other, we must work at this skill in order to strengthen and enhance it. In the case of our body wisdom, our very life may depend on it.