International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
International Humanistic Psychology Association

Some Emotions We Experience Are Not Ours: Western-European and Indigenous Forms of Transgenerational Theory and the Role of Sound

Presentation for
International Consortium for Research and Treatment of Transgenerational Trauma

Some emotions are not ours. From a Western-European psychological viewpoint this is ridiculous. Science, especially empiricism proves this, right? Based on Classical physics empiricism operates on the premise of locality and determinism: variables can be controlled and following that, outcomes can be predicted. This requires that only those variables that can be measured and replicated are valid. And there is a point to the efficiency of this. But not all agree.

Humanistic psychology was a break away from empiricism in the idea that not all things may be measured nor replicated. Qualitative research is a valid and necessary methodology for understanding human nature. It was a move away from the medical, pathology oriented model. No doubt replication is essential in terms of the hard sciences but as Quantum physicist Heisenberg “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Some Humanistic and Psychoanalytical theories have suggested that emotion operates on a transcendent realm and moves through us; it is separate from the mind/brain and body. Some emotion resonates with our actual experience but some does not as in the event of “emotional contagion.” The alarming rate at which Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] is escalating speaks to the power of emotion and its ability to evade verbalization yet result in action. Verbalization may be a part of PTSD yet the elusive aspect is the disconnect between intellectual understanding and emotional motivation to action. Think of what the world’s soldiers carry home with them that is unthinkable, unspeakable, or unvoiced that then becomes transformed into the secret. The same holds true for many forms of trauma such as natural disasters, intentional and unintentional abuse, or misguided ‘help,’ among others. Humans are perceptive beings and can sense that something isn’t quite right. Attempts to verbalize are unsuccessful and we flit from one event to another, or even to the actual event itself but something always seems to be missing. We can hear resolution but it’s just a passing cloud. Attempts to grasp it only splits it as it floats away to regroup later. Resolution and its combatants travel through the decades in their own specially designed little cars where everything is ok as long as they don’t leave the car. Of course the cars do leave their exhaust clouds which give us that feeling of knowing, that tip of the tongue sensation, the possibility that discernment is attainable if only we can put together the whiffs of cloud. Sometimes this results in a storm.

Here is where Transgenerational theory and praxis examines the unspeakable, the unthinkable, the unvoiced, and the secrets that have never been resolved, secrets that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Transgenerational Theory
Thomas Edye defines Transgenerational patterns as resulting from “the repetition over many generations and within the same family lineage of particular states of being, beliefs or attitudes.” Transgenerational patterns exert pressure on the level of the physical, the mental, the emotional, and what is left out of some other interpretations is spirit or for middle ground materialist, energetic. Reducing undesired emotional states allows the free flow of emotional information. Releasing dysfunctional Transgenerational patterns is one of the most effective ways to return to a balanced emotional state.

Bert Hellinger, a founder of Transgenerational theory, was willing to examine something he termed as the movement of the soul. He notes that participants often have a stunning ability to “know” things about the family system that reveal the core of an individual’s fears or symptoms. Sometimes that core trauma had actually occurred in generations prior to the client’s birth.

Transgenerational analysis is a form of expanded genealogical analysis largely grounded in Psychoanalytic theory and there is no denying that such analysis can be very helpful in the examination of the processing of trauma and its ability to survive decades beyond the initial experience. However, advances in technology have allowed deeper understandings of memory and conscious and unconscious information processing primarily based in materialism. Although advances in technology have taken main stage in the reinforcement of materialism in psychology, the fact remains that the idea of a ‘universal’ still provides a lively debate. Although populations of the Western world are largely immigrants and the worldviews and practices from indigenous populations have been for the most part marginalized it could be argued that the western view of ‘implicit memory’ might gain invigoration from an incorporation of the indigenous worldviews interpretation as ‘spirit.’

European Transgenerational psychologist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy notes Freud’s idea of the individual superego to include its transition within a long family lineage. Families carry a cadre of clouds whereby each individual holds shared and independent perceptions of the family system . Some of these stem from previous generations. “Invisible Loyalties” and the “Crypt and the Phantom” are two themes that emerge across generations and will be discussed here within the Transgenerational analysis.

Invisible Loyalties refer to relational bonds that take into account justice and fairness in the family: Parents are assumed to pass down ethics and morals to their children that are in line with or loyal to the grandparents’ family systems. On the surface some of these appear proactive such as working in the family business or farming or medicine. But some are not innocuous and hold loyalties to long-term traumatic experiences. Therapists can fall victim to “compassion fatigue” or “second-hand” trauma just from listening to the tales of traumatic events. In an effort to preclude the reoccurrence of traumatic events the stories of said events are kept alive through a type of hypervigilance. Schutzenberger describes a Crypt and Phantom case in which her client, a geology lover and butterfly collector, was quite unhappy with his life. A Transgenerational analysis revealed his secret maternal grandfather whom no one spoke about. Upon visiting with his grandfather’s family the client learned he had committed many crimes and was sentenced to forced labor in the form of breaking rocks. The grandfather was later executed in a gas chamber. The secret of the client’s mother had been revealed. The grandson, as part of his love of geology broke rocks and for his butterfly collection he gassed them in a can of cyanide. Somehow the grandson met enough of the cloud to unconsciously replicate pieces of the secret. The traumas of the grandfather and his daughter were lessened.

When we find secrets and providential revelations, a certain number of affects connected to a difficult experience, harmful repetitions and trauma disappear. From a Transgenerational perspective, a person who suffers from a ghost leaving the crypt suffers from a ‘family genealogical illness,’ from an unconscious loyalty, from the consequences of something unsaid that became secret.

Schutzenberger notes two types of family transition: a) Transgenerational transmissions that are not spoken about, often the hidden events that are unthinkable, unvoiced and hence, secret; and b) Intergenerational transmissions which are those that are thought about and spoken about among children, parents and grandparents. The latter may include a parallel unconscious Transgenerational transmission which provides an even deeper meaning to this form of trauma analysis, intervention and ideally, prevention.

Spiritual Transmission: Madness or Spirit?
In Saints and Madmen, Russell Shorto investigates psychiatry’s tradition that when one loses the ability to discern between imagination and reality one is deemed to be experiencing a psychotic episode many of which are grounded in hyper-religious ideation wherein one believes they are God or a spokesperson for God, angels, and other spiritual entities. The traditional intervention is to extinguish the delusional behavior with the introduction of everyday mundalities. Shorto however, questions the possibility that perhaps some psychotic episodes, some ecstatic states are actually spiritual encounters and in opposition to extinction, the client (and the practitioner), asks what might the outcome be if one were not to let go of the psychotic episodes? Laing made the distinction between madness and illness. The former refers to a dysfunctional, life-disrupting disorder but the latter suggests engagement in creative ideation. Like the creative, the person experiencing psychotic episodes may be entering an ecstatic state that in creativity theory is referred to as “flow.”

Flow is a part of the creative process whereby the person becomes completely absorbed in the creative act itself. It is the meeting point between challenge and skill. Too great a challenge and the individual experiences increased anxiety and quits; too little challenge and the individual becomes bored and quits. The perfect match results in the flow state in which satisfying novel ideas come easily and quickly. One’s self-esteem is strong, giving negative self-talk a rest. The self-report state of flow has been documented physiologically via changes in pulse, brain waves, galvanic skin response, and breath rate, among others. Flow is a tricky experience because once we become aware we are in flow, we are out of it.

Loss of Language
In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry outlines the ability of pain to obliterate language. For example, in the effort of the patient to describe to the doctor what and where the pain is often results in a stream of vague metaphors, neither of whom is easily satisfied. Those who have been tortured or otherwise traumatized face the daunting task of tying or untying the sentient and the material—the body conceived as parts or mechanisms; the body conceived as its capacities and needs, as something that is pumping or seeing or more to the point, desiring or fearing. The move is from the exterior to the interior of the felt experience of sentience. The effort to resolve the trauma through traditional “talking cure” forms of intervention face a formidable task. Superseding language, sound serves to aid the transfer of Transgenerational information, information that functions to heal not only the here and now but that from previous generations.

Emotion: Ours or Its?
With the above in mind, some emotions are not ours. Some emotions reflect information spiritually from our ancestors or even strangers. Of course some of that information is strength, love and courage, but sometimes it is trauma, illness or genocide that has been carried in some people for decades such as in the case of the Holocaust, and for some, even centuries as in the case of slavery.

According to Hillman, emotions are not made ours just because we experience them on the physical, inward levels. Hillman believes emotions are there to make us theirs.

Even if I never feel more me than when in the grip of an emotion, it is in its grip, not mine. Our cultural bias attaches a “me” to whatever happens. We own experiences before we even feel them through or know what they want. …Moving outside of Western-European practice we might ask: what does the emotion want? What are its features, its characteristics? How does it sound in my chest and throat? How does it move through my body, over my father’s death, my love for this old man now gone, etc… but what did it all want to do, say, and show?

Indigenous Transgenerational Perspective
Offered in some of the Indigenous Transgenerational approaches are methods that can heal such deeply embedded trauma thereby healing oneself and protecting future generations. For example, the working model of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying pathology is very different from that of Native traditional healing. In some indigenous traditions, illness and distress are more often identified as teachers, something that will help us learn along our life path. Distress or lack of ease may result from the living not being willing to release the deceased to complete their journey, or someone who had died not being at peace. As noted by Hillman, patience to understand the emotions we experience is necessary to determine if they are ours or perhaps stem from our ancestors. Examination of our genealogy may reveal if a similar or related event had occurred in our past and if so, how many times. Western-European interpretations might fall back on epigenetics, the transition of information genetically, but indigenous peoples propose an alternative, a spiritual mode of transmittal.

Cultural and Historical Trauma
Some Native Americans/American Indians/Alaska Natives [Native Americans] believe we can heal current trauma through healing ancestral trauma, sometimes spoken of as cultural and historical trauma. Such healing takes place through connections with Creator and one’s ancestral relations via ritual, ceremony and storytelling. A limitation of Western-European interventions is their failure to take into account the cultural context of the trauma. The idea of cultural trauma, the “notion that a society could be damaged by dramatic social changes” or “damages to a culture as a result of traumatic actions on the culture itself” was introduced as early as 1925. Cultures that are overwhelmed by trauma lose their ability to protect its members as a result of the stress-buffering properties that a culture provides.

Members of the collective do not need to directly experience the event to experience the dramatic loss of identity and meaning that the trauma brings about. Nor does the trauma have to be a sudden event; it can be a slow process working its way into the psyche of the collective. …Once the members of the wounded group recognize their traumatization, the claim can be broadened to the wider social community. This meaning-making process includes the nature of the pain, the nature of the victim m the relation of the trauma victim to the wider audience, and attribution of responsibility.

The distribution of power among institutions such as law, mass-media, and aesthetics, among others, is often uneven and how trauma is represented or not represented in a culture is affected. Reparation, reconstruction, and healing can occur once meaning is made from the traumatic experience and it is incorporated into the cultural identity.

Maria Yellow Brave Heart introduced the theory of historical trauma which refers to, “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the life span and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experience.” Transgenerational trauma can be witnessed in the population drop of 5+ million Native Americans to 250,000 between 1890-1900. The depopulation occurred from a variety of factors including colonization, disease, relocation, and war, among others. Transgenerational interventions might include the legitimatization of cultural, historical and contemporary suffering and the reestablishment of sacred places and traditional social relationships.

Storytelling has proven to be quite successful in community healing. Sharing stories helps to validate similar or shared experiences, removing the sting and effort engaged in trying to ignore the trauma. As practiced by the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, West Africa, healing happens only in community and this includes the Spirit of the Ancestors or of Nature who have been reborn in the trees, mountains, rivers and stones whose role is to guide and inspire the community.

The Kaluli tribe of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea, live so deep in the dense, tropical jungle that their world is literally vertical extending horizontally only about fifty feet. Where hearing is the dominant sensory mode as opposed to the more common visual mode, it is no surprise then that birds are of central importance. They help to demarcate social space and are viewed as the spirit reflections of deceased relatives and friends. Songs are bird sounds and their text is “bird sound words.” Song is communication from a bird’s point of view, communication of one who becomes a bird at a waterfall. Meaning is derived from the text of the song, the sounds of the voice, the instrumental pulse, and the bodily motion. The quantity and diversity of birds is astounding and although the ability for bird calls is an important part of performative events, rituals, and séances their calls are viewed as sacred and are carefully listened to and sung. It is not the name of the bird that is learned first but its call. The séance is the principal context in which Kaluli people gain knowledge about the unseen world and cosmological. Birds are considered sacred both for holding the spirit of a dead human and as well as place names. Becoming a bird is the passage from life to death and bird categories come to reflect human categories such as gender, age, and temperament. Women are provoked to weep like a fruit dove, one of the most prestigious birds, upon the presence of death, loss, or abandonment. Which bird the weeper becomes depends upon the person being channeled or the place being called up.

Shamanism: Spirit Healing: Self and Ancestors
Many indigenous cultures practice shamanism: someone who engages in an altered state of consciousness through a sound source, typically repetitive sounds such as drumming, chanting, or dancing. Shamanistic practice encompasses soul travel through three worlds, the lower world (below the earth), the middle world or everyday world, and the upper world that lies above the sky. Different spirits are met in these worlds and provide information helpful to the individual or community. Shamans are mediators between the ordinary world, the invisible world of the spirits, and of the Ancestors. Essential to this soul travel is one’s intention. Many practices believe healing happens only in community. Not all of these stem solely from indigenous cultures.

Universally, shamans work to restore balance and harmony to all life through their relationships with compassionate helping spirit allies. The shaman’s alliance with the spirits is expressed through ritual, ceremony, and prayer. Their gifts are seen as being a vehicle of the Spirits and nothing more.

Shamanic traditions see trans-generational trauma as causing soul loss and disconnection from self and from one’s place in the world. “Soul loss can be observed today as a psychological phenomenon in the everyday lives of the human beings around us. Loss of soul appears in the form of a sudden onset of apathy and listlessness; the joy has gone out of life, initiative is crippled, one feels empty, everything seems pointless.” (Marie Von Franz,,1980).

Yet to indigenous cultures loss of soul is not simply an individual matter for soul connects us to all life. Historical trauma is remembered in the land. The spirit of place is one tool in the shaman’s medicine bag. Place speaks to us in rhythm and vibration. When we are there, we are moved and stirred in a language without words. Our loss of soul begins with our disconnection from place and in our loss of this connection, indigenous people believe we cannot know who we are. Most shamanic cultures hold a belief that all healing begins with healing place. An example of this belief system are the Aboriginal people of Austrailia.

“Land has recuperative aspects that are essential to Aboriginal well-being. Our land also has an important role to play in healing. The land is a powerful healer. When your ancestors have walked these places for millennia, they hold an energy of timelessness that invokes serenity and the feeling that one is not alone, but in the presence of thse ancestors, who are able to communicate via the senses and convey the feelings and thoughts that are most conductive to healing. When we are able to sit on our land in contemplation and hear, feel or see the spirits of our old people, then we have been to a place within ourselves of great depth and connectedness. It is this place that we need to go to in order to truly heal ourselves.” (Clark and Fewquandie 1993:3).

These understandings extend themselves to a number of healing ceremonies within shamanic cultural traditions. Amongst Buryat (Siberian) traditions, it is understood that the unhealed ancestors in a place which may lead to conflict and disease among the people. A community Peace Tree ceremony is led by the local shamans to release the suffering ancestors (Sulha spirits) from the land so peace and healing may grow . Amongst the Dagara of Burkina Faso, grief ceremonies are conducted with the understanding that when we grieve we grieve not only for ourselves, but also for the Ancestors, for the spirits of the invisible world. The ritual is filled with drumming and singing as people go to the ancestral shrine to cry and wail thus releasing the pain and suffering. It may take several days to complete the community ritual and then the shrine is buried in a secret place. The Dagara understand that without this healing of personal, ancestral, and spiritual grief conflicts and war are possible. Amongst the Shona people in South Africa/Zimbabwe, prayer and immersion rituals are done with the water spirits to seek healing forgiveness for what has occurred at a place. The traditional healers view the water spirits as God’s angels and carry the messages of the people to God asking for forgiveness so the pain and suffering may be released. In these rituals, people would pray and sing and immerse themselves fully in the water in belief that these rituals may bring peace to the people of this place.

The Tuning Meditation Practice : An adaptation of a group practice
The Tuning Meditation was composed by composer Pauline Oliveros and is performed for aesthetic and spiritual healing purposes. For some there is no distinction between the two. With the intention to heal, the directions are as follows: Hold an intention of bringing healing to an unhealed ancestral trauma within the last 3-4 generations that is affecting you now.

Participants lay on their backs with their heads facing towards the center. Lying down allows one to inhale and exhale comfortably. Anyone starts by inhaling and in one breath exhale toning any pitch. On your own timing listen for a pitch you hear and tone that. Upon completed exhale, take an inhale, imagine a pitch you do not hear and tone that. Upon completed exhale take an inhale and tone a pitch you hear. The cycle continues until the group comes to a natural stop. The focus is on toning smoothly in the absence of rhythmic or verbal accent.

Upon completion it can be beneficial to discuss the group’s experience and what symbols or stories might have revealed themselves. Most importantly, see if anyone experienced emotions that were not theirs or recognize emotions in others’ that they share. Repetition of the Tuning Meditation can reveal the unthinkable, the unvoiced, the unspeakable, and the secret. Combined with genealogical research one may unearth and heal transgenerational trauma.


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Western Transgenerational analysis tends to be limited to four generations most likely due to our reliance on written primary sources. We have lost much of our oral traditions which are difficult to maintain in accuracy. In addition, as an immigrant population, cross-cultural relationships contribute to the quantity of information to be held.
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Personal permission


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