Thursday, September 4, 2014

Summer Harvest: Or What I (Re)Learned On Summer Vacation ...

Hello, everyone!

I'm back from an unexpectedly busy summer and enjoying the quickening of heart and mind that always seems to accompany this time of year. As the days of summer shorten and I gear up for fall workshops, I find myself reflecting upon the things I've learned (or re-learned) this summer -  the fruits of my summer harvest.

1.  Remember to rest: 

This year's vacation began with two wonderful weeks at Kahshe Lake in northern Ontario. There, my body relaxed and I was reminded, once again, of the importance of rest and respite. Sitting on the deck, doing nothing, wrapped in the piney fragrance of sun-warmed trees is one of the most restorative things I can imagine and yet I can lose track of my need for this deep rest once I move into the busyness of the teaching season.

This year, I've decided to build rest days into the calendar in advance. On these days, I will stay at home by the fire, be silent, avoid screen and phone time, eat pre-prepared meals, perhaps read bits of poetry or fiction, and mostly, just rest. (I did learn this lesson more than ten years ago when my husband was ill but it seems that it takes intentionality and commitment to remember to use it during my busiest times.)

Perhaps you'd like to join me in honouring our universal need for rest and re-creation this fall? If your life won't accommodate a full rest day, perhaps a half day, or a couple of hours, or 30 minutes every morning or a 10 minute power nap in the afternoon would be a place to start ...? The important thing is to choose what works for you and then protect the time to do it.

2. Recommit to a spiritual practice:

As I've said elsewhere, most people believe that we have a spiritual life to tend as well as physical and psychological ones. After a very full late summer with considerable family caregiving and much writing, I found that I had lost the rhythm of two of my much-needed spiritual practices. I was falling asleep during (or sleeping right through) my early morning meditation/prayer time and I was skipping my treasured walks at the lake. (Not a good sign when fall's busyness hadn't yet begun!) Fortunately, I was able to get some rest, and with rest came the desire to refocus on this vital piece of self-care.

Research tells us that developing and maintaining a regular spiritual practice is important for our wellbeing if we want to work with people who are traumatized. Spiritual practice creates space - space for healing and transformation and space for building resilience. Whether you meditate, practice centering prayer, commune with nature, write a gratitude journal, read inspirational writings, dance or sing, or practice a nightly examen, consciously attending to your spiritual life can go a long way toward mitigating compassion fatigue.

If you have had a regular spiritual practice in the past but have let it slip away, why not consider beginning again this fall? First, take some time to consider why you are not practicing now. Has your life changed? Did you become bored with the practice? Was it not a good fit in the first instance?  Once you know why you stopped, begin again or do some exploring to discover new possibilities. Be sure to choose a practice congruent with both your personality and your current life circumstances.

As I re-learned when I returned to my regular practices last week, taking the time to deepen your spiritual life positively affects every other aspect of your being.

3.  Make heart connections with supportive people:

Isolation is both a source and consequence of compassion fatigue. When we hide painful emotional responses to our work, either in the name of strength and stoicism or because there's no energy left to connect with our support systems, we increase the likelihood of being traumatized. And when we become traumatized, we are likely to isolate and hide our trauma for all the same reasons. Isolation becomes entwined in the experience of compassion fatigue and healing involves connecting or reconnecting with loving, responsive supporters.

I felt a measure of this isolation recently, first as I supported an elderly friend for five weeks following emergency surgery and then, as I companioned extended family following a loved one's life-threatening post-transplant lung infection. In the days before I knew about compassion fatigue, I might have spiralled into a state of exhaustion and depletion. Fortunately, these days I can recognize when my early warning signs are saying, "Enough!"  One of those early warning signs is realizing that I haven't had contact with anyone on my KIT (Keeping In Touch) List.

My husband introduced me to the idea of keeping a KIT list. He kept a list of 6 or 8 good friends front-and-centre on his desk and committed to contacting each one at least once a month so that his important relationships could be regularly nourished. Sometimes, he wrote them "proper letters" with envelopes and stamps; sometimes they had coffee or lunch; sometimes they went for walks, hikes or a bike rides; and sometimes they just enjoyed short or protracted phone conversations. The point was that he was intentional about having regular heart-to-heart connection with people who mattered to him. It is this kind of connection that reduces stress and protects both our physical and emotional health. If the idea appeals to you, why not give it a try?

So, these are a few of the summer's lessons for me. What about you? What has been your summer harvest?

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