Reaching sustainable happiness through cultivating gratitude, to live in harmony with ourselves, with each other and with the planet.
Whenever we stage an event in our series "The Role of Mindfulness, Embodiment Transformation and Systems Leadership” we invite the session leader to write a blog about the experience - see the contribution from Gelong Thubten here.
In conversation with Staci K. Haines following her September session on The Power of Embodiment, we noticed the parallels between the grief and trauma associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and the grief and trauma that can arise from Climate Change threats. She told us the story of a social justice campaigner who was experiencing panic attacks and found that stopping and asking for help - rather than “buckling down”- was the best way to deal with the situation.
The practices to help deal with grief and trauma that Staci covered in her online session with us are featured in Staci's recent writings on Black Lives Matter. Drawing a parallel between the emotional challenges of the Black Lives Matter movement and the daily work of UNDP's practitioners and colleagues, Staci asked us to share this:
Dear UNDP colleagues,
I appreciated getting to spend time with so many UNDP people in our session together in the series on "The Role of Mindfulness, Embodiment Transformation and Systems Leadership". I want to pass along a piece I wrote recently for Yes! Magazine focused on trauma, resilience, and social change. I thought of you given the sustained ways you contend with climate change and climate disasters. Given your work, each of you, more than most people, must face and deal with the profound grief of species loss, the lack of political commitment to implement solutions, and the devastation on the world’s poorest. The impact of grappling with this so closely is now being named ecological crisis trauma, or ecological grief.
I work with a climate justice organization and its executive team here in the US. Regularly, almost quarterly, we need to integrate a process of facing, feeling, and grieving what they are working with day to day. Sometimes this looks like a nuanced and heartfelt conversation about grief, sometimes it is engaging collective resilience practices, sometimes it becomes a session of bad jokes and uproarious laughter. What is most important is that people have a way to somatically and emotionally process the pressure and loss they are contending with. Instead of this being captured into some other survival reaction like numbing, over thinking, and/or taking it out on each other, these colleagues can build more trust and alliance. They develop more resilience to take it on together.
I hope reading this offers you some ways to work with yourself and your colleagues, or a place to recognize your own experiences.
How to Nourish your Resilience in a Time of Trauma
Yes Magazine, Sept. 30, 2020
We are in a historic moment of trauma in the U.S.
Breonna Taylor, Riah Milton, Tony McDade, and George Floyd, are only a few of the names from these last months of police killings. Covid-19 deaths in the United States passed 193,000, disproportionately taking the lives of Black, LatinX and Indigenous peoples. Our immigration system is abusing people through leaving children, mothers, and cousins separated and in cages at the border, and turning away others in need of safe harbor from wars we’ve sponsored. Poor and working class peoples are being traumatically impacted by the economic devastation of this time, while the wealthy are getting wealthier. And, the entire West is on fire.
How do we face these things fully, let in the devastation, and then both heal and act? Can we navigate through this toward healing? Toward racial, economic, and gender justice? Can we use this moment to alter the trajectory of climate change toward sustainability?
Somatics, a mind/body approach, helps us to understand the impacts of trauma and oppression, and healing. When we are threatened we have automatic, psychobiological reactions that kick in. Fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociative reactions are part of our evolutionary inheritance, and they act quickly. These survival strategies bypass the more recently evolved “thinking” brain, and throw us into action, or stillness, whichever seems more likely to help us survive. These reactions are designed to get us away from danger, like running from a predator, and help us to reconnect with safety and the herd.
Somatics and neuroscience reveal that we have inherent needs as humans - safety, belonging and dignity. We have essential material needs too, like healthy food and clean water, education and housing. When these core needs are threatened, whether by more private experiences like child abuse or intimate partner violence, or by systemic oppression like racism or poverty and the abusive ways these are enforced, our automatic protective mechanisms engage. Our breath quickens, our muscles mobilize and contract, our heart rate increases, our attention peaks, tracking for danger. This can last for moments, or years.
These survival reactions are built to take action. When we don’t get to act on our own behalf, when the threat is too overwhelming, or the system we are up against too dominating, this mobilization can freeze up or implode. Instead of helping us find safety, belonging and dignity, these protective energies get trapped in the psychobiology, with no clear way to express. Other symptoms then show up; sustained anxiety, isolation, generalized distrust, compartmentalization, emotional numbing, blaming and attacking, and more.
You can imagine the scale at which we are contending with this, now. Traumatizing conditions are not “over,” and there is no place to go for collective safety, belonging and dignity. And yet, we need to heal. We need to nourish resilience through multiple, long term threats. We need to act collectively to build a society and economy that offers safety, belonging and dignity for all peoples, and the planet.
I am not saying any of this is easy. It is simply necessary, and worth it.
A seasoned social justice organizer, who is queer and LatinX, has been struggling under U.S. immigration policies and the pandemic. Her favorite uncle was recently deported, and many of her family are essential workers and highly exposed. Over 40 people in the communities she organizes have died from Covid-19. She began to have panic attacks, and was unable to process the overwhelming feelings of grief, rage, and fear, while also leading a vital organization. It became clear to her that “buckling down” wasn’t going to work. She needed support and trauma healing to be able to show up, have hope, and continue to vision the world she wants.
Here are some things she took on to build resilience and work with the impacts of trauma. These are practices you can engage too.
First, in ways relevant to your community and culture, nourish resilience. What brings you more connection, life and a sense of hope? Practice this on purpose. Together. This can be music, art, imagining just futures, nature, connection. What can you do daily? Feel your sensations as you practice. This lets resilience register deeply in the nervous system, supporting right action instead of reaction.
Second, notice and work with your own and other’s automatic survival reactions. To change them we need to work through the body, using new practices and blending. Try this for yourself…find a place in your body (or emotions) that is often tense or upset. Put your attention there, feel it from the inside out. Then gently add more tension, in the direction it’s already going. Hold that for a few moments, then soften. Repeat. Often these patterned places of contraction or numbness are “storage bins” for our difficult experiences and survival reactions. We can open up more choice, and doorways to healing, by working with them, rather than trying to manage or deny them. Then, practice getting curious about another’s triggered reactions.
Third, we become what we practice, and we are always practicing something. Is what you are practicing aligned with healing and equity? 300 repetitions of a purposeful practice creates muscle memory, 3000 repetitions, embodiment. In other words, it become a new habit. Given what’s at stake, what do we need to embody? There are skills that trauma, oppression, and privilege, did not teach us that are vital now -- empathy, collective action, honest and difficult conversations, love in the face pain, accountability, and more.
Take on purposeful daily practices to embody your values in your actions. Engage your mind and body in the practice, including your purpose for doing it. This can be singing to open and include your voice, or eyes open meditation, cultivating presence to then take out to the streets. Practice can include risking difficult conversations while you both feel yourself and empathize with the other.
Last, but not least, join collective action. There are many local and national organizations working for social and environmental justice, for voting rights, and more. Collective action means more than donating or having conversations about our social issues. It means, spending time each week, each month, in action with others to build a life affirming society and economy. It means continuing to change our lives to align with the future we want for everyone. Look for the organizations led by the communities who are most impacted by the systems they are changing. There are some great organizations below to give you a starting place.
As these times reveal, we need to integrate a social analysis of power -- how the distribution of safety, belonging, dignity, and resources is organized along pre-determined lines that are not equitable -- to heal trauma and cultivate change. If our practices, be it mindfulness, dance, ceremony, or yoga, do not acknowledge the broader context of oppression and cultural appropriation, they can inadvertently repeat and perpetuate oppression. Transformation, and even healing, can end up supporting racial capitalism, thus perpetuating systemic harms, rather than inherently challenging and changing these.
It is essential to connect trauma healing and movements for social justice, they are interdependent. Together, they let us become whole and build a just and sustainable future.
This blog is written by Staci K. Haines, national leader in the field of Somatics, author of The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing and Social Justice (North Atlantic Press 2019) and senior teacher at Strozzi Institute of Embodied Leadership, where she also serves as the Director of Methodology.
What if we use what we have learned from the pandemic to find a way to live in a relationship with ourselves, each other and nature that is caring, nurturing and flourishing?