Friday, September 27, 2013

Live in Wonder ...

A couple of years ago, I walked down a long, sunny hillside outside Santa Barbara, California, beneath the spreading branches of some very tall deciduous trees whose name I never did discover.

The shaded air was warm from the sun beating on the canopy overhead - at least it was until I rounded a bend in the path to find a small stream meandering from a ravine above. I turned my face gratefully toward the cool air rising from the water and there, close to the ground beside the stream, saw two perfect wild irises, bright and sharp and iridescent as two stars against the deep green of the surrounding foliage. My breath caught at their random perfection and I stood in the coolness for a long time just gazing at their fragile beauty.

Moments like these are moments of wonder, unexpected gifts to be cherished and remembered again and again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this experience of wonder as:
A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. (Marvel, astonishment, amazement)
But I think wonder goes even deeper than that. Wonder is also a way of being in the world, a way of opening to the possibility of being surprised. It is the readiness of our hearts and minds and perceptions to encounter beauty and astonishment. When we become stressed and beaten down by providing care for others, our focus becomes narrowed and constricted and we can lose our sense of wonder because we no longer see the things that give rise to it. And when we lose our sense of wonder, we lose an important source of refreshment and renewal.

Wonder's broader lens reminds us that all is not toil and trouble. Entwined in the ordinary, and even in the difficult things and experiences of life, can be moments of sublime beauty, awe and amazement -  if only we have the eyes to see them. Think of yourself as a child or of your own children or neighbours. Wonder comes naturally to those so new to the world. They find sources of wonder all around them - in the diamond dewdrops on a spider's web, in the flight of a kite in the wind, in the experience of tying their shoes for the very first time, in the arc of a rainbow across the sky.

Being open to wonder means pulling ourselves out of our ruts and narrowed perceptions to notice all of life. It means becoming mindful so we can see the the full context of the world and relationships around us and the smaller things of life as well. As we open more and more to the possibility of wonder, we increase our potential for both emotional and spiritual renewal.

Wonder is known as a principal source of spirituality and of humanity's belief in the existence of an unseen order of life. Spirituality, in turn, is known as both a source and outcome of trauma and compassion fatigue healing. So, is it possible that by enhancing our openness to wonder, we can also enhance our compassion fatigue recovery and resilience? It seems quite likely.

Parker Palmer explores this idea of enhancing wonder in an excerpt from The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life:

Normally, when we are taken by surprise, there is a sudden narrowing of our visual periphery that exacerbates the fight or flight response - an intense, fearful, self-defensive focusing of the 'gimlet eye' that is associated with both physical and intellectual combat. But in the Japanese self-defense art of aikido, this visual narrowing is countered by a practice called 'soft eyes', in which one learns to widen one's periphery, to take in more of the world ...
Soft eyes, it seems to me, is an evocative image for what happens when we gaze on sacred reality. Now our eyes are open and receptive, able to take in the greatness of the world and the grace of great things. Eyes wide with wonder, we no longer need to resist or run when taken by surprise. Now we can open ourselves to the great mystery. 

May each of us find "soft eye" moments of wonder in the week ahead, and sweet memories of those still shining in the past.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Courage to Tell Our Stories ...

I want to release what's inside of me
- our fear, our anger, our pain. And I want 
Canada to know why we are the way we are today.
Melvin Good, Residential School Survivor 

Owning our own story and loving ourselves through
that process is the bravest thing we'll ever do.
Brene Brown,  The Gifts of Imperfection

This week, the week of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Vancouver, has broken my heart, outraged my sensibilities and lit within me a candle of hope. I've been humbled by the courage and dignity of the residential school survivors and their families as they've told their stories and my awareness has stretched and grown as I've recognized, at a much deeper level than ever before, the intergenerational impact of so many generations of wounded parenting following the removal of thousands of very young children from their homes and communities. How can a child torn from his or her family at 3 or 4 know how to parent the next generation, and they, in turn, the next...?

I've also been reminded that it is not only the indigenous peoples who need to heal from the legacy of the residential schools system. We, the children of the first colonizers and oppressors, must heal as well. This notion, a new thought to many non-indigenous, was clearly articulated by indigenous priest, The Rev Canon Martin Brokenleg, the Sunday before the TRC at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver:

Colonization has had a massive impact on Aboriginal people. It has had an equally destructive impact on non-Aboriginal people - and this is largely unknown, unconscious, and even ignored.
There are then tasks for non-Aboriginal Canadians who wish to heal from colonization. Here I defer to the work of Dr Paulette Regan who is the director for the TRC of Canada in her book, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. Dr Regan suggests 3 major tasks for non-Aboriginal people who want to heal from colonization:
1.  Reject the image of the Benevolent Peacemaker, since it allows one to deny the negative past by taking refuge in an image Aboriginal people did not experience, that of another people who were benevolent only. 
2.  Accept the violence in Canadian history, including the residential schools era. This requires the loss of any "innocent ignorance" which can be a denial of the past.
3.  Acknowledge the absolute equality of Aboriginal thoughts and practices with Euro-Canadian thoughts and practices. This means moving away from racism and ethnocentrism, which I believe most Canadians want to do. 

Having the courage to tell our truth through telling our own personal stories, bearing respectful witness to each others' pain, apologizing for what belongs to us and then acting together to make change is at the core of our healing and reconciliation, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike.

This kind of truth-telling can also be a component of healing for other groups of trauma survivors, including those experiencing Compassion Fatigue and Chronic Sorrow. (Which is part of the reason I am talking about the TRC in a blog post about personal and professional caregiving this morning. All week, the residential school survivors and their witnesses have modelled to us, and to all trauma survivors, the gifts in finding the courage to tell our stories.)

When we tell our stories in healthy ways, in a safe and supportive environment, we can own our truths, stop striving to be other than who we truly are and free up the life energy we've been using, often for years, to hide the fact that we have been wounded by our caring work. When we do this, we normalize the experiences of compassion fatigue and chronic sorrow and we make it possible for others to find the courage to share their experiences as well. Thus, having the courage to tell our truths not only leads to our own healing and wholeness but to the healing and wholeness of our fellow care-givers as well.

So, I want to acknowledge, honour and thank the TRC and the residential school survivors, this morning, for showing us all a way to healing and wholeness through the telling of our stories and the speaking of our truths.

If you are a helping professional who would like to share your compassion fatigue story in a limited way in a safe environment, (or not), you are welcome to join us for the next Caring On Empty Compassion Fatigue workshop on October 18th in North Burnaby, BC.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Don't We Exercise? ...

Hi everyone! I've just finished my morning workout and, as usual, it has left me feeling great - energetic, alert and ready to meet whatever the day brings. I love this feeling. But this being the case, I often wonder why I neglect to make space for exercising every day. 

There are so many benefits to regular exercise - all well known to me - that it's hard to understand why I wouldn't exercise daily. Regular physical activity helps control weight (and therefore how I'll look in last fall's jeans). It helps to prevent and manage a host of illnesses including stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, some types of cancer, arthritis and injuries from falls. It also improves mood, boosts energy, promotes better sleep, improves your libido and adds some fun and variety to your day.  So, why wouldn't it always get top priority in my day?

Many of us have "good reasons" for avoiding physical activity including:

1.  Believing that we and our self care come last after caring for others.
2.  Believing that time should be spent on more important things.
3.  Believing that the world will fall apart if we take time out to exercise and aren't present to hold things together.
4.  Believing that we aren't worth our own tender loving care.
5.  Believing that feeling stressed, exhausted and depressed is a normal facet of life that nothing will alter.
6.  Believing that exercise is an inherently stressful and potentially dangerous occupation, to be avoided whenever possible. 

It is this last belief that was - and occasionally continues to be - at the core of my reluctance to be regularly active. From the days of my childhood, given the choice between curling up with a good book and engaging in physical activity, the book won, hands down. I dreaded PE and team sports at school and I once earned myself a weekend's grounding by forging my mother's signature on a note excusing myself from gym class. (A sure sign of desperation in such a "good" kid.)  It took years to understand why I had this aversion to moving my body.

The penny finally dropped when I first read the writings of trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk. He described traumatized children as feeling uncomfortable, uncoordinated and awkward in their own bodies. He also noted that these kids can exhibit problems with muscle tone and demonstrate sensorimotor developmental issues. Both the physical discomfort and the development delays, (and the shame that can arise from them), can lead children to avoid situations where they might be forced to participate in physical activities. This was a description that fit me perfectly and made sense as a natural consequence of four years of medical trauma at the beginning of my life.

It's taken me years of trying different exercise programs, in fits and starts, to finally create one that works for me. (ie that allows me to exercise without anxiety and to enjoy the sensation of movement and strength). These days, it's easier to create such programs because some trainers and instructors are  becoming aware of the impact of trauma and are learning to create safety so trauma survivors (including those with compassion fatigue) can learn feel secure in their bodies.

One gentle accessible program is described in a great new-ish book called, Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, (with foreward by Peter Levine, PhD and introduction by Bessel van der Kolk, MD). This beautifully written book provides brief, clear explanations of traumatic stress, yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga practices and then offers survivors, therapists and yoga teachers information about how to integrate trauma-sensitive yoga in their practices. Survivors learn how to develop an at-home yoga practice, clinicians learn how to integrate yoga-based practices in their therapy sessions and yoga teachers learn how to build trauma-sensitive yoga classes. Throughout the book, there is continuing emphasis on choice and empowerment plus gentle encouragement for practitioners to listen to their own intuitions. The authors model the safety they teach.

This yoga program, in combination with a 20 minute aerobic exercise DVD or aquafit class and/or walks at the lake are the core of my fitness practice now. If I'm stressed or triggered, my avoidance might still come to the fore but now I know that I have a safe core practice "to come home to" when I'm ready. What are you finding works for you to keep you exercising reasonably regularly? Might a trauma-sensitive yoga practice be a good addition to your routine or even a new beginning ...?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Language of Hope ...

To hope means to be ready
at every moment
for that which is not yet born.

Erich Fromm

Last night, I had dinner with a friend who is 96 years old, functionally blind and grieving the recent death of her dear husband and primary carepartner. As we sat together, I wondered what on earth I could say that would provide even a little comfort. I didn't want to minimize or try to "fix" her grief but I did want to offer a ray of hope in the darkness of her shock and despair.

Knowing from my own experience that listening can be a better gift than speaking, I held her hand and just sat, witness and companion, as she talked about the shock of her husband's diagnosis and death. Tears filled her opaque eyes and she whispered about not wanting to live to be 100. She spoke about not being able to believe that her husband is gone. "I don't think about it for a while and then it hits me all over again." After a while, she stopped talking, squeezed my fingers and thanked me. "It helped." 

I went home having said very little other than to reflect back her experience and to gently offer my belief that, with time, some light would slip back into her inner darkness. It was this comment that made her tears spill over. Why? I think it was because I had inadvertently offered her the best of gifts - the gift of hope.

While hope is defined in different ways, seen as both belief and emotion, and valued or dismissed by various faith traditions and philosophies, I think of it as a life-raft in the stormy seas of sorrow and despair. Each of us has the ability to learn the language of hope so we can support our grieving families, friends and acquaintances as they struggle amongst the waves of chronic sorrow or bereavement.

The language of hope is subtle and gentle. It speaks obliquely of light in the darkness, easing of pain and finding strength to continue. If used sparingly (careful listening is still most important) and with sensitivity, it can whisper of possibilities of something new, a phoenix rising, eventually, from the ashes. 

So, how do we learn this language of hope? Well, first by becoming aware - noticing what falls flat and what sparks a positive response when we attempt to offer hope to others or when others offer it to us. Secondly, we can read about the nature of hope and try using some hope responses similar to those listed below:

About the present:
Let's just get through this crisis.
Let's take one thing at a time.
Let's do this and call it an act of hope.  
Language of yet:
You can't figure out what you want just yet, but you will.
We don't know what to do about this yet, but we're working on it.
You're not ready to do it yet, but the time will come. 
About the future:
It will look clearer when you've had some sleep.
I will find someone who can help you.
This problem is solvable.
Language of when:
When the sadness eases ...
When you're sleeping better ...
When you feel better ...
When we figure out what to do about this ...
Language of I believe (confidence backed by experience):
I know others who have made it through this so I know you can too.
Give it time. I believe you'll feel stronger as time goes on. 
Finding hope in the past:
Tell me about a time when things worked out better than you expected.
Tell me about a time when you thought something was impossible and it worked out.
Tell me about a time when you weren't in control and things turned out well anyway. 
These hope responses are based on the work of Wendy Edey, MEd, a hope researcher at the University of Alberta. Her handouts and the University's Hope Studies Central database can be found here