Transforming Ancestral Trauma

Episode 10 June 30, 2023 00:41:27
Transforming Ancestral Trauma
Pathways to Heart
Transforming Ancestral Trauma

Jun 30 2023 | 00:41:27


Hosted By

John Elfers, Ph.D. Tara Pipia Adam Neal, M.A. Sofia University

Show Notes

This podcast is a discussion with Dr. Yon Walls on the importance of recognizing ancestral trauma. Current research into trauma is beginning to identify the transgenerational impact of trauma. These go under the names collective, historical, generational, and ancestral trauma. Dr. Walls is a Somatic and Expressive Arts Psychotherapist, Trauma Specialist and Certified Mindfulness Practitioner in the Japanese Way of Tea. She is also a published poet and novelist. She is a contributor to the upcoming book; Seasons of Grief: Creative Interventions to Support Bereaved People. In addition, her Indie Novella; Seeing Colette (2014) will soon be re-released. Her research in the area of Ancestral Trauma speaks not only to trauma as a human condition of suffering, but also its potential for transformation. She is interviewed by Dr. John Elfers.

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Episode Transcript

John Elfers (00:03): So, welcome Dr. Walls, and thank you for sharing on this topic of ancestral trauma with our listeners. I do want to begin by asking you to reflect on what was it that drew you to this work of ancestral trauma? Yon Walls (00:18): Well, first Dr. Elfers, I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to have this discussion today related to ancestral trauma. And I think you asked a very important question in terms of this topic. I started with Covid in 2020 when questions begin to emerge for me about ancestral trauma and specifically historical trauma at that juncture, you know, what had previously occurred in our nation and other parts of the world in terms of epidemics, in germs that powerfully impacted the population. But I think all along there was a percolation for me in early childhood and later adolescence in terms of this question of collective trauma, when I was exposed for the first time to images on Life magazine of massacred bodies of My Lai of the Vietnam War. Yon Walls (01:25): I remember as a child, I was so impacted for weeks and weeks and weeks. I couldn't speak about it. I was so moved by what I saw. Also, during that later period of time, early adolescence, I was exposed to images of victims of Hiroshima, Japan, the bombing of and in 1945. And I was just speechless by what I saw. And also, you know being born and raised in an idyllic a small town in the state of Kentucky. A beautiful community, so racked with racism and the experience of segregation and that town being the last town in the United States that legally you could hang someone. And wow. Yon Walls (02:30): <Affirmative> occurred in that town where people from all over the state, came and picnicked and purchased souvenirs while there was a young man hung in the center of town. So that story is there as well. You know, in terms of my exposure and thinking about collective trauma, even before I knew what a name was for it, though those experiences were there. So, all of that sort of coalesced around my work and the study that I began to pursue and it led me essentially to ancestral trauma. John Elfers (03:16): Yeah. Well, let's talk just for a moment. I want you to kind of enlighten us on the distinction. There's a lot of terms out there for this classification of trauma. We have historical, collective trauma, generational trauma. How do you distinguish among those? Do you or, is there some point of distinction we can make? Yon Walls (03:40): There is. I mean it's an umbrella or family of experience, but specifically, for example, historical trauma. It's trauma usually of people born within a particular period of time, a collective or a mass group of people that experienced trauma. For example in the 1940s and 50s there was the epidemic of syphilis and everyone that lived during that period of time as a generational group, as a collective group was impacted by that period of time directly or indirectly. Collective trauma generally is a synoptic term or often synoptic term for historical trauma. Ancestral trauma, which is specific to transmitted experiences epigenetically through ancestry or one's bloodline. And then there's generational trauma specific to individuals living now, for example, autism, we can look at autism and the incredible experience of parents with autistic children. And why is that so prominent now? I mean, the rate of children being born with autism. So that's a specific developmental kind of trauma that we can see. So, I think it's important for people to just allow themselves to play around with those terms when they come across them and realize it's an interrelated family of terms, that often will overlap, just in terms of context or experience. Yeah. John Elfers (05:40): Yeah. So you've touched on this briefly. I really want to talk about the transmission of trauma. So you recently did some research in New Mexico, and you were work working with some indigenous people for whom there in New Mexico, there's 500 years of a history of colonialism, and in our country, what, we have 275 years of slavery and all of the racism. And, and so how is that transmitted? Because I think the wisdom is that, well, it would have to be transmitted only through an environment or something that it's not necessarily in our genes or in our system, but maybe there's more evidence now, that things can be transmitted epigenetically, but even just psychologically, like how is trauma conveyed from one generation to the next? Yon Walls (06:38): Well, the good news is that there's so much emerging very rapidly on this topic related to this question. And often when we talk about epigenetics most people will think, well, oh so this is in my DNA, not exactly. So we can imagine the DNA system is a kind of skeletal system. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, but epigenetics is actually environmental or experience, human experience that changes can change the expression of a gene within that architecture mm-hmm. if that makes sense. John Elfers (07:14): Yeah. Right. Yon Walls (07:15): So environment and behavior can impact or change expression of epigenetics. And that's how you know, ancestral trauma, historical collective can be transmitted. For example, parenting styles, you know, if you've got a child that's born into the world and they have parental experiences like those of previous ancestors that maybe didn't work so well and traumatized a child or impacted development. Well, it's the same thing that child being born into the world, most parents will, usually, how they learn parenting is through a former parent. So they, they bring that, and that works for some children. But some children will be traumatized by that way of parenting. So that is an epigenetic imprint or expression that happens for the child. And there we have collective trauma. Also, I think it's important to talk a little bit about primary and secondary expressions of epigenetics. So we've got the prime poverty Yon Walls (08:30): High stress levels or environments, right? And in these environments, we can get disease processes that develop as a result, right? Heart disease, alcoholism, high blood pressure. And that was something I was able to experience firsthand working with participants in this study that that I facilitated in New Mexico with the indigenous family group, is that alcoholism had been a four or five generation struggle for these natives living on their home reservations that they were very proud of and very functional in many ways, and in other ways. The, you know, again, alcoholism, exposures to certain criminal elements, , all of that continues to emerge epigenetically through their experience. So yeah, we've got a lot more information now. We know a lot more about that. We can see it, we can track it for what we can't see with the naked eye. There are ways that we can see across brain imaging and just through tracking human behavior we can see that epigenetic expression for ancestral trauma. John Elfers (10:01): Yeah. It would seem important to acknowledge, like, let's say I'm in a 12-step group and someone comes in and they're working on their alcoholism, right? So, I can look at that person and I can see maybe the circumstances of their life, but maybe what's invisible is the fact that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents lived under tremendously stressful circumstances, poverty, oppression, you know, what you might think of from many sources. And somehow those coping patterns being transmitted, like maybe that interferes with their ability to parent. And so you have a child now with issues around attachment and other kinds of trauma. And so their coping style is one of alcohol too, because they're learning that. And it just is that sort of the way it snowballs and kind of moves into the future. Am I on the right track there, or what? Yon Walls (11:11): You’re right on. You're right on about that. That's how it works. And you know, I like to think that the focus of this work is really about bringing a broader interpretive lens to people in community and other contexts so that they can then have a better understanding about well, why is it that three generations that I can think of, you know, have confronted this problem of alcoholism or addiction, right? Yeah. So, you know, ultimately is a lighter footprint for future generations, you know, in terms of their choices and, and making choices about quality of life. Yeah. So, yeah. John Elfers (11:57): You know, I'm really wondering about the importance for all of us maybe to reach into our past and acknowledge some of those dysfunctional patterns that may have flown through that are influencing us even today. And I'm wondering is let's say you are a therapist, so if I come in and I'm struggling with some issues, are you going be asking me about my ancestry? Like, how would you begin to sift out some of these ancestral patterns? Like, what would you do? Yon Walls (12:33): Yeah. You know, I think to begin, of course, you know, getting to, know a little bit about, a client or individual that's coming to work therapeutically and inviting that exploration and you know, exploring why exploring, you know, traumatic experience on an individual as well as a collective level can be so insightful in helping to look at the issue for making choices about healing. You know, what that is, what that may look like. Yeah, I think it's, but I think that, you know, just an initial assessment. And I also think practitioners, clinicians should be prepared with mostly, some somatic and tools and body-based tools for working with clients that aligns with the more recent brain information. Yon Walls (13:37): And knowing that we have generally, and of course there are a lot of ways and a lot of interventions in terms of how therapy can happen. But based on my experience and the work that I did with my group, I found that the somatic and mindfulness-based approaches were most gentle and not so intrusive and really allowed for and unfolding to happen with people as they were able to slowly move into ancestral trauma memory. And even if they didn't have a precise memory, it was just a strong, to have that strong sense validated in terms of, “I've always felt this, why have I always felt this?” Or why has this experience always triggered this feeling that I have inside? And it doesn't seem to be connected to anything. So then we've got an opening then for working with someone, how would these, would these kinds of tools specific to collective and, and our ancestral trauma. Yeah. John Elfers (14:50): Yeah. I appreciate your focus on the somatics. Is it fair to say that trauma lives in the body, like, that's where it can be accessed. Is it important to access it there in terms of healing? Yon Walls (15:07): Yeah, and I think by this point, I think maybe it's a sort of a cliche in the culture, you know, the body remembers John Elfers (15:16): <Laugh>, right? <Laugh>, the body keeps the score Yon Walls (15:19): <Laugh>. Yeah. definitely that bottom up approach for working with people and trauma has proved to have a lot of efficacy. I mean, in terms of working with people. And I and my own work have witnessed it firsthand that when you work with the body initially then the rest will follow. And it also gives people some choices in terms of being able to identify their own experiences. You know, we as therapists who were there to hold their hands and to guide and provide certain skills and to help facilitate, but ultimately it's really going to be about their person reclaiming their bodies, whatever happened, whatever they're sensing for them to be able to recognize that for themselves. And there's some ways somatically and also through mindfulness practices that we can make that happen. John Elfers (16:19): Yeah. I've noticed these days it seems like there's a lot of opportunities and interest for people to really explore their heritage. I mean, so much of us came from somewhere else, Africa, Europe, ultimately, if we go back a few generations, and now with Ancestry, DNA, and you can have your you know, your DNA analyzed on <laugh> the internet, you can search records. There seems to really be this interest in really people identifying their heritage. What is therapeutic about that? And, the corollary of that question is, there's obviously good and bad back there. I find out some dark family secrets that may be explained, like, oh my gosh, that explains a lot. Is that an important pattern? What do you, what do you think? Yon Walls (17:13): Yeah. I really appreciate that you're bringing this to the forefront because this is what most interests me in a lot of clinicians. I believe at this juncture, in terms of what we know about trauma, we want to know about trauma and its impact, but we want to know what we can do with it. What is it with that experience. And yes, people are very interested in their ancestral past and what I was able to witness as individuals that once they were able to do some of that processing, they were so grateful. There was so much gratitude and compassion. That came from that. And then of course, this idea of ancestral wisdom, like what is it that my past can offer me now for my future? Yes. So, it's connecting the past, the present, and the future, from this experience, from this pain, from this suffering and suffering. I would say because pain is an evolutionary experience. I mean, that's a part of the human evolution and who we are, but suffering, that's our response to it. So if we can reduce suffering through this ancestral work, then it leaves a lot for the next generations. Yeah. John Elfers (18:33): You know, it does have bring up this issue of can the healing work backwards, <laugh>. So, if I am the inheritor of this pattern of alcoholism or some dysfunction or something, and now I do the healing work, am I in a sense sort of healing the past? Am I certainly, I think it's important to maybe stop so I'm not transmitting it to the next generation? Yeah. But this whole, is it in a sense I'm the inheritor of this, and is it my responsibility to kind of really work to heal the family trauma or something? Yon Walls (19:15): Well, you know, over that issue or idea of responsibility, I mean, some <laugh> some folks can take it on that way, and others think, oh gosh, I just can't wait to be done with this. I just <laugh>. Yon Walls (19:26): Some relief. <Laugh> John Elfers (19:28): More pressure, <laugh>. Yeah. There's more pressure now you have to heal everyone else's trauma. Exactly. Not just your own. Right. Okay. Exactly. <laugh>. Yon Walls (19:38): But there is a reaching back, and I've witnessed that. I've seen that with people that, that, that they are so relieved to be able to do that. And I guess the best image that I can offer that I've created in terms of helping people understand how ancestral trauma works is like that of a loom, a weaving loom. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So we have the warp, which are the vertical threads mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and that's, that's our ancestral. And then we have the wharf, which is the horizontal, which is our present day. Ah. So that warp, that vertical, I are the threads on the loom that keep the tension happening mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and it's the horizontal threads that actually create the pattern. John Elfers (20:36): Okay. Yon Walls (20:36): There's that constant axis of tension between the ancestral and the present that we all have to work with. And being able to understand more about how that works can be a powerful resource for the present and, and the future. It's really exciting. Yeah. John Elfers (20:59): I love that image. And when you're talking about, you know, the vertical, the past, I had this sense of, if we think about let's, get very Darwinian in here for a second <laugh>, and just assume that say in issues of like, let's just pick colonialism. Right? So we have 500 years in New Mexico of starting with the Spanish in the 1500s. So the people that survived these 500 years were obviously people who were able to cope under very, very difficult circumstances. And so, along with the trauma there is, I think this is what you sifted out in your work, that there's a resilience and a coping that also gets transmitted. Yes. And you talk about ancestral wisdom. So we are also the inheritors of that. And I'm assuming that's going to be really important tapping into it. Because you talked about the compassion and gratitude. I'm wondering if that's related at all. I'm not sure what my question is here. Yon Walls (22:06): It is related that Udi the set of you know, human emotions and experience that, gratitude, that resilience, that compassion, it's all there and the potential for that. And yeah, and just looking at groups and how they've survived, how they've done that. And I think we're at the intersection though now. I think that everything that any group has known <laugh> in terms of their survival is perhaps being tested. And maybe that's why we are needing to look back to see what we can take forward with us, because we are definitely going to need that. And as you talk about the Spanish and colonialism, I also think about you know, the African slaves that were brought over and how many of them died coming over. But the ones that survived, despite dysentery, they survived. So, my African ancestry and that's a part of a primary part of who I am, they survived that. Yon Walls (23:26): They survived that. So of course the dark side of that is a sickle cell that came through. I mean, they survived the other diseases. But that sickle cell came with it and still continues predominantly in the black community today. And we know that that's linked to the slave trade. Yeah. John Elfers (23:51): Yeah. So we're inheritors of wisdom. We're inheritors of trauma. How did you see, what, Can you give some examples of like some of the compassion and gratitude? I think you were surprised at this coming out in the participants you worked with. What was that like and how did that manifest? Yon Walls (24:10): It was it was just really beautiful to witness, you know facilitating these trauma processing sessions of were, natives, for example, indigenous, the indigenous family was able to go back thousands of years in through the stories that they'd heard from their ancestors about the Spanish arriving and the massacres the protracted period of massacres and bloodletting. And at the same time for them to be able to say that you know, that their communities were beautiful and they continued to grow children and to grow their families, and that they were so grateful for their land now, right now to actually living on the same lands that their ancestors have lived on for over 11,000 years. That was a really important feature of their survival. And to be able to share that with the children and adolescent people coming of age in their group and to be able to instill that you are on your land. Yon Walls (25:29): This is your land here. After thousands of years we're still here. So that was just amazing to see. And there was another participant that I worked with, she tapped into the traumatic experiences of women in her family, biracial women. And she was just so grateful of what those women did that has contributed to her survival despite some of her struggles with her mother presently. But being able to reach back you know, from that and know that, she had her, that women before her, they had their struggles. So there was an incredible compassion and appreciation in the Celtic woman participant who said she was just nearly trembled at the resiliency and the survival of her Celtic family that she could trace back to England to the, about the 11th century. Yon Walls (26:41): And she talked about the experience of a grandparent during the Great Depression who had to work and would tie her children to her bed because she didn't have childcare, and how she suffered with some of the images through her ponytail. Wow. You know, that wearing a ponytail as a child, she'd get these images of being tied to a bed. Wow. So this was a generational connection. So it's a really interesting to experience people to have those struggles and understanding of what they're coping with now on an ancestral level and those implications while at the same time being so grateful and having so much compassion and resiliency you know, to move forward. Yeah. John Elfers (27:40): Yeah. Those are great examples. It's almost, do you think it's important then to maybe try to get back to the pre trauma era, you know, a maybe a little more idyllic or something? Or, in that pre trauma period, like going back 11,000 years and looking at the long view and the history and the fact that even some of the wisdom is coming through there and there's still this kind of continuity. I'm wondering if that continuity is really important to the healing of trauma. Yes. Yon Walls (28:20): And, clinicians, therapists can really work with that through somatic resourcing. And that's some of the work that I did with participants in the study. And that I do in my practice is to actually help structure visualizations that allow people to create a sense of continuity to that time before trauma. Right. Yeah. Because that's really where you want them landing in the end as they're going through this process. The safe way to do that is to work with creating an idyllic kind of visualization or environment of where they can have a touchstone to their ancestral past with some that's gentle and non-intrusive, that's not violent that there's nothing missing. That they are there with their ancestral connections and lineage with everything that they have to offer in terms of what they need to know. And they can work with that. That's very important. John Elfers (29:33): Yeah. I love the image that you gave us of the loom, you know, and those vertical really long, I can imagine those going back, you know, seeing back 11,000 years, but then I'm also looking down and I'm seeing into the future and the role that I have to play maybe in, you know, what I transmit then to my children or the impact I have on my community. And all that is kind of puts a nice frame around the whole thing. And I imagine that's healing too. Anything else you can say about maybe strategies for working or acknowledges or incorporating? I'm assuming maybe we wouldn't necessarily work directly, but look at all forms of trauma, current, past and everything as we're working with our clients. I mean, I know that, but any other ways of maybe tying in something related to the answer? I think you didn't you participate in some of the rituals and things that were in ceremonies that maybe were critical in that transmission? Yon Walls (30:42): I did. And it was just an incredibly integrative experience to witness the experiential, the ethnographic work that I did with the Natick group to actually go out to their land on a beautiful Sunland day and watch all of them come out onto this huge ancient plaza wearing feathers and bells the women being barefoot and the men and the boys with their feet covered. And to do a corn dance where it looked like they were pulling down the sky. It was just really quite amazing to see that process of yes, we were invaded we suffered trauma and we still survive. We have these values that link us that form community and that is important for us. And I've done my own work in that area a as well, you know, just looking back on this idyllic very racist community that I was reared in at the same time, despite all of that, there was just this nesting of family. Yon Walls (32:03): and a lot of love and work ethic and all of those parts that came together. And later on, I was able to discover that through my own personal experience. And I think maybe my work speaks to it, is that disintegrated part was for me to go out into the world and get a good education and to identify cross culturally all of that, although that that's the way our strategy has been a part of my healing. I think that of course things have a lot since you know, I was in that small town, but segregation still exists. Fundamentally. It can be a very powerful stopper for young minds if they can't get exposed to the outside world or other parts of the world for personal growth. So, yeah. And like I said, there's just some incredibly exciting ways that therapists and clinicians are beginning to work with individuals in groups specific to ancestral and collective trauma, and it's really, really exciting. Yeah. John Elfers (33:15): Yeah. Well, I'm curious then, let's kind of, you know, jump ahead in terms of your path, your career. What is coming up for you? How do you see your work continuing in this area? What do you see yourself doing now that you've done this research and really tapped into some dynamics here? Yon Walls (33:40): Well, I'm looking closely at some of some union work specific to sand play and integrating symbols and archetypes and working with ancestral trauma, actually bringing that to that modality. Also, continuing to work with people, somatically and through them a mindful perspective and teaching for certain, I think that that will be an important way to touch people and communicate this work public speaking perhaps you know, speaking to groups, talking about this and facilitating community groups. That's another platform that I think is just so important is that clinicians in, you know, clinical environments, but also clinicians and guides coming out into community environments or group, do this kinda work, I think will be important as well. And I'll also continue as an artist. I've been painting, I was inspired to do a lot of that during the research period with the doctorate work and then continuing with some poetry and writing some fiction and all of that which is so much a part of my healing process as well. John Elfers (34:59): And I can imagine, yeah. Art is as well. And I know that was part of your intervention also, and that maybe, artistic expression is part of maybe collective healing. I mean, we can do our individual work, but we also need to heal collectively. Would you not agree as a community? And I think part of it maybe is first of all, acknowledging the history you know, what has occurred and starting from that point and then, continuing to move forward. So, and I also think this is a new topic, so I think you have a lot of work, and hopefully our listeners can take up the torch of really starting to talk about ancestral trauma is sort of new on the horizon as far as I can see, but I think maybe more and more it will become more central. Yes. Does that make sense to you? Yeah, Yon Walls (35:58): It does. I mean, for example you know coaching with institutions specific to ancestral and collective trauma is now emerging, where practitioners are actually going into institutional settings and working with whole groups of people about the effects of trauma, ancestral and collective trauma, how it shows up, this sense of othering you know that's them, where really when you're in a group environment and when you're doing teamwork, you really need everyone to be able to come on board with the work or whatever the vision is. But when people have been historically traumatized, they've got a lot of often subconscious scripts and other ways that they have been impacted that they bring to group settings. So that's an area institutional work, working with institutions specific to collective trauma. Yeah. John Elfers (36:58): Yeah. So there's a lot of work to do. So, you know, is there anything else you'd like to add by way of closing? Any, any final thoughts? I think we've covered a lot of important territory here, but anything else you'd like to say? Yon Walls (37:15): Well, I think I would, there's a little passage from a book by Thich Nhat Hanh titled How to Love mm-hmm. And last year we lost this exceptional personality. Yes. And at the same time I think the word continues, of course, his word continues, and there's this little section in the book titled Body and Mind. And I think this just so simply and so concisely describes ancestral trauma. “Body and mind are not two separate entities. What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind in order to be alive, in order to be possible.” Thank you Thich Nhat Hanh. John Elfers (38:21): And thank you Dr. Walls for sharing that with us. I really appreciate it. I really wish you well. I know this is important work, and I'm just delighted that you're going to be out there doing that. And I think you've probably made a few converts along the way here with your sharing Yon Walls (38:37): <Laugh>. Oh, thank you so much, Dr. Elfers. I'm just so thrilled that I was invited, and as I start you know, this work moving forward, it'll be interesting to see how it all morphs <laugh>. Yes. Same time. This is a grounding topic for me, and I'm looking forward to doing the work continuing to do the work and proceeding with some good news. John Elfers (39:05): Is great. I'll forward to that. So there's more, more chapters to come. So thank you very much. Yon Walls (39:12): Thank you, <laugh>.

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