The Dharma of Trauma

The Dharma of Trauma


Buddhist minister, activist, and yoga instructor Lama Rod Owens shares his thoughts on the importance of remembering Black history and honoring lineage and how a benefactor practice can begin the process of liberation within the body.

We’re connected to a lineage of ancestry. For Black folks, one of the things that keeps us oppressed and marginalized is the belief that we don’t belong anywhere or to anything. There has never really been a place for us in this country and nor have we ever been told we have a right to agency over our bodies. We start believing these things, and we start teaching our children, and before long, we are collectively passing it on to the next generation of young people. That’s one of the reasons I started working with youth; I felt like they were being told to forget who they were and where they came from.

To remember the ancestors, to remember their history, is a deeply basic way that we begin to interrogate oppression. All the elders, the prophets—especially our contemporary prophets and elders—keep telling us the same thing over and over again: “Remember. Remember who you are.” What does that mean for you? What does it mean when I say, “Who are you?” What are you and what do you stand for?

We’re afraid to remember who we are because we’ve been told it’s not our right to do. There’s another part of that too. Not only are we being told to forget but we’re also being told that we don’t have a right to be in our bodies, to own our bodies, have agency over our bodies. You see that over and over again.

Once we begin to remember our history in this social context of this country, we see that our lack of agency, our lack of being at home in our bodies, has produced so much violence and despair. When our ancestors were abducted and brought to this land, what was happening in that transatlantic slave trade was not just a transportation but also a breaking of the relationship to our own bodies. It was a violent enactment of the message that we were no longer ourselves. That’s what they told us, and then we believed it.

The Dharma of Gospel or the Truth About the Good News

I remember the sorrow songs. “Sorrow song”—when I first heard this phrase, a sadness came over me, and I began to shiver. It was something I couldn’t articulate. On occasion, the slave ship’s crew would bring groups of the captured Africans above deck to wash them. They were chained together in small groups. These small groups were often from the same village, so they shared the same language and could communicate with each other, and sometimes they would decide to jump overboard into the ocean. The song was one of mourning, the sorrow song. I think about that often. I think about what I would do if I were faced with being enslaved for the rest of my life. How would I choose to be free? There’s no judgment there; it’s not a moral issue. There is just a simple question: what can I allow myself to endure before I choose freedom, whatever freedom is?

So much of what I understand to be liberatory is really about remembering my body and remembering that my body is the result of many people, decisions, and acts that have come before me. My body is not only the result of love and celebration, but also despair. How do we connect to that as people? Not just brown people, but white people, Asian people, whomever? How can we connect to our histories, our lineages, and not connect necessarily to the violence or the despair but to that liberatory joy within the body? To do that means we have to negotiate the compounded and collective trauma in our own bodies—and that’s the work. That’s the work when we leave home, and we come back, and we see our home is all messed up. We come back home into our bodies, we begin to do the work, and that’s really where I come from.

I believe dharma is very similar to the word gospel that we use in biblical studies. Gospel means the good news and dharma means teachings of the Buddha, the law, or any law teaching the truth. I understand dharma also to be gospel—the good news, the good news of being freed, of being liberated. Turning that attention back into ourselves, into our own minds, into our own despair, and liberating ourselves from the chains of despair.

Instructions for Benefactor Practice

I want to invite you into a short practice with me. Draw your attention into your body. Where is your attention being drawn to in the body? Just look. As you’re looking, and if you are able to, take one hand and place it just on the chest, on your heart center, around the heart. Just notice the hand on your chest. I want you to feel what it’s like to touch your own body.

Feel each finger on your chest, that individual feeling, sensation, and pressure of each finger against the chest. Feel the palm of the hand. This is your body. It’s not my body, it’s not the police’s body, it’s not the government’s body. It’s your body. As you connect to the sense of your body, look at some of the more uncomfortable things that come up for you. Look at some of the discomforts, some of the unpleasant emotions, feelings, sensations that come up. You’re not doing anything about it, but just looking. You’re acknowledging. So much of our liberation is really about accepting. You can’t liberate yourself from something you can’t accept.

As you’re connecting to your body, I want you to ask yourself a question: What do I need right now? As you ask this question, see what comes up. I’ll challenge you as you ask this question not to actually answer it—at least not with your mind. Allow your body, your spirit, to answer the question. Allow the spirit to arise. Allow the body to answer and notice.

Just let your spirit, let your body answer that. Just be with whatever comes. Try not to sit there and think, “Oh, this is what I need.” As you are listening for what’s coming, what’s being offered to you, imagine and maybe visualize in front of you, in any way that you choose, a being, a spirit, or God. Anything, any being that is a source of compassion and love for you.

Be it your understanding of God, be it your understanding of Christ, or the Buddha, or an ancestor, or someone you’ve loved very much—a mother, a father, a sister or brother, any deity. Any being or divine presence that is nothing but love and compassion for you. Imagine, somehow, that you are in the presence of this being. I want you to feel that. I want you to lean into this energy of love from what we are calling, now, the benefactor, your benefactor.

Can you feel that? Can you sense it? What is it like for you to be loved? What is it like for you to be seen? As you lean into this love from the benefactor, imagine that you’re asking your benefactor right now to offer to you, to give to you, what you most need right now. Simply allow that benefactor to offer what you need at this very moment, in whatever form that takes. Not thinking about it, not conceptualizing, but allowing the benefactor to offer you what you need.

Now, let go of holding the presence of the benefactor with you, allowing the benefactor to dissolve into, perhaps, white light, and allowing that light to be absorbed through your hands, right into your own heart. The benefactor will continue to offer you what you need. As you continue to receive what you need, I invite you to offer a prayer right now, praying that all people right now, all beings in the world—all animals, all humans, all spirits, all divine creatures— somehow receive what they most need right now. If you’re interested in being a saint or bodhisattva, make an extra prayer, and pray that you become what those around you need when they need it.



I dedicate this chapter to my ancestors. I also remember Anansi, known to me as Anisée, who sang to the children and loved them in the darkness. May we all be free.

Adapted from Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, & Freedom edited by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles © 2020 by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Listen to S&H's Essential Conversations podcast with guest Lama Rod Owens.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.