Searching for nirvana

The Middle Way © 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


The word conjures a state of perfect peace. It is the endpoint of the spiritual path and marks the attainment of enlightenment, where there is no more suffering or desire.

I’m reading about nirvana for the book I am writing. I am interested in parallels between spiritual paths and the “healing journey” from trauma, as it is sometimes called.

While reading Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, I came across the following quote from Steven Collins’ Nirvana, where he wrote about the Buddhist journey to nirvana this way:

“The Path to salvation is … a journey through time from the city of the transient body to the city of timeless and deathless nirvana: the city without fear, as one of the earliest texts to use the image calls it.”

The “image” referred to here is of a fire going out —  fear being extinguished.

Could it be the desires we create and the pain we suffer are all responses to fear? When I read the above quote, I thought: Maybe nirvana is like being in the optimal physiological state of arousal, the Window of Tolerance, and the path to nirvana is avoiding the physiological states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal — our ingrained reactions to fear.

Could enlightenment really be that straightforward? It certainly would explain why mindfulness meditations are so useful for overcoming traumatic stress.

Perhaps like me, you have heard there are two basic emotions: love and fear. From sensorimotor psychotherapy, I learned to elaborate on this fundamental distinction with the action tendencies of defense and daily living. We all have to be able to defend ourselves against threat. And we all have to feed ourselves, exercise, work, play, take care of each other, fall in love, reproduce, sleep, and so on. We thus have to react to our fears and nurture what we love. And perhaps the less we fear, the more we are able to love. And the Window of Tolerance is that optimal level of arousal within ourselves where we can maximize our connection to the people and things we love.

Collins also writes the following about nirvana:

“Nirvana is the full stop (period) in the Buddhist story, the point at which narrative imagination must cease.”

When I read that, I thought, Yeah, if you can just drop the storyline and all the ‘what if’ scenarios, and just be with what is, then it’s easier to extinguish the fear.

We talk a lot about dropping the storyline in the treatment of trauma. To heal trauma, you have to learn to drop the underlying story told through defenses — that story the body unconsciously tells every time it gets triggered by old traumatic reminders.  So it’s not just the stories we tell about ourselves — those conscious narratives about what we want to avoid as much as who we aspire to become (that old divide between fear and love showing up here too). It’s also the body’s continual and unconscious scanning for the possibility of danger — what Stephen Porges calls neuroception — that keeps us reproducing fear and imagining danger.

It’s nearly impossible to live without fear, since fear plays such an integral role in keeping us alive. Which is why nirvana is so profound and rare (and requires so much meditation to reach) — it’s the point at which there is no more action tendency towards defense, no more natural, unconscious impetus towards protecting oneself from the inevitability of death and suffering. It’s a bit like no longer being human.

I don’t think I’m ready yet.

But I do like thinking of nirvana as like the Window of Tolerance, an optimal zone within us that lacks the physiological reactions of fear. In trauma recovery, it’s the idea of reaching a point where the trauma narrative eventually sloughs off like an outgrown skin, because you no longer need to remind yourself there’s something dangerous in your past that the moment you’re off guard will return to haunt you in some new rendition. Because dropping that fear — and knowing you will never pick it up again — also sounds a lot like nirvana to me.

I once heard the story of an old enlightened Buddhist monk who was envied by the government officials in the country where he lived. The government officials worried the monk’s peacefulness might spread to the people, ruining the peoples’ attachment to fear. And without their fear, the government had no control over the people. So one night, the government officials sent some low level soldiers to kill the monk.

The soldiers broke into the monk’s small house. They began stabbing him. Although in pain, the monk saw the holes in the soldiers’ shoes, and their bony half-starved frames. Wincing from the wounds, he began to tell the soldiers where they could find a few coins to buy themselves a meal, maybe even repair their shoes. Overwhelmed by the monk’s compassion, the soldiers began to cry, and fled without murdering him.

I tell this tale not to give you ideas should paranoid government officials send soldiers to kill you. But rather to imagine the kind of compassion humans are capable of when they no longer feel fear.

That’s Nirvana.


Bellah, Robert N. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Collins, Steven. 2010. Nirvana: Concept, Imagery, Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


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