Building Tolerance through Understanding

We have each experienced situations where someone seems to overact to what appears to be a minor stimulus – a sound, a sight, something said, or a gentle touch on the arm.   For example, I have seen people become hysterical while just observing a one-on-one facilitation process or hearing a very loud note sung close to them.  More than likely, we have each observed a disruptive person in a team meeting or training course, someone who is withdrawn and refuses to engage in conversation or someone who is overly aggressive.  Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey in their e-book, What Happened to You? maintain that understanding the impact of trauma on others helps us to build tolerance for what seems initially to be aberrant behaviour.  They argue that the foundation for that understanding is learning about how our brains operate.

Understanding how our brains work

Bruce illustrates the processes of the brain by showing an inverted triangle with the cortex at the top and the “lower brain” or reptilian brain at the bottom.  While the cortex enables us to think, create and plan and is conscious of time (past, present and future), the lower part of the brain has no sense of time but serves to regulate bodily functions.   The fundamental problem with our emotional and behavioural response to stimuli is that all sensory input (perceptions) are first processed in the lower part of the brain and interpreted there after matching with prior experiences (which are stored along with the emotional content).  This is why someone who shares a disturbing event with others can become quite emotional even when the event occurred many years before.

The associated problem is that sensory input (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) can stimulate recall of a traumatic experience – “a powerful, frightening or isolating sensory experience”.  Bruce discusses a case study of a veteran of the Korean war experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The sound of a motorcycle backfiring would generate an “extreme survival response” such as immediately lying prone on the ground behind some form of shelter.  David comments that what was originally an “adaptive protective memory” (for surviving in the trenches “where you had to keep your head down”), had become a maladaptive behavioural response.  The veteran’s life became “miserable” because he was frequently startled, always on the alert (scanning a room or the environment continuously) and often “jumpy”.

Maladaptive responses

Oprah pointed out that people like the veteran who have maladaptive responses to stimuli, often ask “What’s wrong with me?”  The book she has produced with David, changes the focus to “What happened to you”.  Understanding what people have experienced and the depth of the impact on their lives helps to build tolerance and empathy, and ideally, compassionate action.  David explained that for each of us “every moment builds upon all other moments that come before”.  The net result of our personal history shaping our brain’s development is that “each of our brains are unique” – our experiences, traumatic and otherwise, shape our perceptions of the world, what we feel and how we respond.

Oprah describes in detail her own traumatic experiences and maintains from her numerous interviews with people who have experienced trauma, that the result is often self-sabotage in the form of addiction, abuse, promiscuity or “the need-to-please”.  She argues that there is considerable work to be done by the individual and their therapist to identify the trauma-inducing event, the “evocative cues”,  and the related emotional and behavioral responses. 

Reflection

We can become more tolerant of other people if we acknowledge David’s findings (developed through neuroscience and clinical practice) that “each of us sees and understands the world in a unique way” – and this conclusion applies to us also!  Our view of the world is not the only view nor is it necessarily complete, accurate or uncontaminated by our life experiences.  We are challenged to recognise our own fallibility, especially if we too have had traumatic experiences that will have shaped our perceptions and responses.  We can build our tolerance of others too if we work to understand what trauma does to the brain and its impact on behavioural responses.  David suggests that we approach others with a degree of “curiosity”, wanting to understand what happened to them (not what’s wrong with them).  Frank Ostaseski, author of The Five Invitations,  encourages us to cultivate openness and curiosity – to replace criticism with understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, journalling, research and meditation, we can develop greater openness and curiosity, increase our self-awareness (including of the impacts of trauma on our own emotional and behavioural responses) and cultivate understanding, empathy and compassion.

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Healing from Trauma in a Sustainable Way

Healing from trauma in a sustainable way requires three main conditions, (1) understanding the complexity of trauma, (2) adopting a holistic healing perspective and (3) providing social support.  Unfortunately, as trauma expert Dr. Jeffrey Rutstein points out, when we observe poor behaviours on the part of people who have experienced trauma, we assume they are thoughtlessness, ungrateful or carelessness and fail to see the person involved as a “profoundly wounded person”.  He maintains that people who have been traumatised need “tenderness or caring or empathy”(especially socially ostracized drug addicts).  Dr. Gabor Maté often adopts a process of “compassionate inquiry” which encapsulates these understanding and empathetic attitudes.  Jeffrey and Gabor are two of the presenters in The Healing Trauma Program provided by Sounds True.

Understanding the complexity of trauma

Dr. Elena Villanueva, drawing on neuroscience research, her work with hundreds of trauma sufferers and her own deep and prolonged trauma experience, asserts that when we are unable to process traumatic or heightened emotional experiences, “they get stuck in our cells, tissues and organs” and lead to debilitating conditions in our bodies.  Elena herself had a history of trauma extending from early childhood through adolescence to adulthood.  She was raped at ages 15 and 38, frequently isolated, kidnapped by her separated mother, constantly on the move in different houses and schools, and experienced financial stress and divorce.  Her resultant symptoms and conditions included loss of memory, panic attacks, inability to speak, and high blood pressure. She was depressed and extremely anxious resulting in suicide attempts on three occasions. 

Elena highlights the pervasive influence of trauma in terms of its distortion of our bioenergetic field.  She spoke of her own experience of being dissociated from her body until three years ago.  Elena found it exhilarating to “pop back into her body” and once again feel her muscles, the sun on her body and face and the in-out flow of her breath.

Jeffrey, a clinical psychologist, maintains that people experiencing trauma lose their sense of agency over their own body and their life – they feel at the mercy of their emotions, other people and their external environment.  Gabor states that emotional deregulation, that he himself still experiences, occurs when he recalls traumatic memories and related emotions.  He becomes another person who is perceived as “frightening” and “scary” – ironically, at a time when he feels “the weakest internally”.  Trauma-induced emotions take over and he loses both a sense of agency and emotional regulation.   Gabor argues that underpinning inappropriate behaviour is shame because “shame is the most dominant impact of trauma” and this leads people to try to deal with this unbearable burden by compensating through their divergent behaviour.  The related pain and unfulfilled needs often lead to addiction fuelled by negative self-talk.

The negative self-talk associated with trauma distorts our thoughts, emotions and biology as a result of the hijacking of our amygdala.  The lower level of our brain takes over control of how we respond to triggers – leading to fight/flight/freeze responses.  In the book, What Happened to You, Dr. Bruce D. Perry makes the point that the body stores emotional memories that can be activated by a song, the sound of a voice, the smell of food, or any other sensory experience or precipitating event.  He explains that these strong associations are “stored in neural networks” and even when the specific experience cannot be recalled, the negative association can impact any aspect of our life, including our capacity to achieve intimacy.   

Adopting a holistic healing perspective

If we understand the complexity of trauma, we can readily appreciate that a single modality will be inadequate to help people heal from trauma in a sustainable way.  For example, if the symptoms of physical ailments are removed but negative self-talk persists, recovery will not be sustained and traumatic memory will find another way to impact our physiology and bioenergetic field.  What is required is a holistic healing perspective and this realisation underpins the approach adopted by Dr. Villanueva in her Modern Holistic Health orientation and the recovery solutions incorporated in her Mind/Body/Energy Healing Program.

Numerous modalities have emerged for healing from trauma and aiding trauma recovery.  The following are some of the modalities that have been adopted around the world, often in different combinations:

Trauma is complex and its impacts are far-reaching and vary with each individual.  While individual variations occur in the pervasiveness, depth and intensity of trauma impacts, group activity (supported by individualised testing) can help people progress in terms of diagnosis and healing.

Providing social support

Social support has been shown to develop resilience in individuals in post-traumatic recovery.  This perceived support extends not only to their own social networks and frequency of supportive interactions but also to peer support, coaching and technical guidance through counselling and provision of resources.  Dr. V’s Mind/Body/Energy Healing Program  mentioned above employs multiple healing modalities in concert with group-based activities such as monthly healing sessions with qualified coaches supported by resources such as breath meditations, the 5-part Trauma Masterclass video recordings & transcripts and monthly Bioenergetic Tests.

Social support helps people to appreciate that they are not alone in experiencing trauma and its multifaceted impacts, provides encouragement to persist with the healing process, engenders vicarious learning and offers positive reinforcement of the possibility of recovery.  Social support generates a sense of belonging and connectedness so essential for positive mental health.

The GROW organisation is an example of mutual social support for the process of recovery from all forms of mental ill-health.  The peer to peer support process enables participants (Growers) to overcome mental ill-health issues and achieve personal development.  eGrow groups have emerged as an alternative to face-to-face meetings.  Testimonials of recovery by participants, in both face-to-face and online programs, provide the impetus for the sustainability of recovery for other participants.

Reflection

It is difficult to understand what impact trauma has had on our mind, body and emotions.  Trauma practitioners through their various modalities and group support help us gain insight into how trauma is affecting us, even late in life.  Mindfulness is consistently advocated by trauma experts as a way to help deal with the ongoing effects of trauma.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditations and other mindfulness practices including spending time in nature, we can gain self-awareness, build resilience, and access calmness and composure in difficult situations or when triggered by a sensation or an event.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Recovering from the Impacts of Trauma

Dr. Elena Villanueva, health influencer and international speaker and podcaster, provides a comprehensive insight into trauma and its health impacts in a 5-part Trauma Masterclass.  Elena adopts a unique approach to trauma recovery and healing by engaging a specialist team, adopting a holistic health perspective and employing multiple modalities (in excess of 24 tools/techniques).  She is the founder of Modern Holistic Health which adopts an evidence-based approach to holistic health, drawing on the latest scientific research.

In her Trauma Masterclass, Elena explains that trauma results not from an overwhelming event itself but our perception and interpretation of it, leading to “undesired responses” on the physical or mental level and the associated mistaken beliefs and thoughts and emotions that result from viewing the event as “dangerous, frightening, harmful, life threatening” or in any way negative.

Elena provides detailed illustrations of how trauma affects our physical and mental health, drawing on the latest neuroscience research and information.  She discusses the symptoms of trauma, including chronic pain, the impact of negative thoughts and the power of language to shape personal reality and physical/mental health.  Elena explains the potential impact of challenging emotions in hijacking the amygdala and resulting, over time,  in “atrophy of the frontal lobe”.

Of particular note, is the way Elena identifies the biogenetic changes that can be wrought by challenging thoughts and emotions resulting from trauma.  She states that one of the core issues is that trauma is experienced in the body and is easily triggered.  As Bessel Van Der Kolk illustrates in his book, The Body Keeps the Score, the impact of trauma extends to the mind, brain and body.  Elena elucidates the multiple impacts of trauma including distortion of energy, negative effects on heart health, biological changes and the lingering perception of powerlessness.  

Recovering from the impacts of trauma

Elena points to the power of neuroplasticity to aid the process of recovering from trauma – how the brain can adapt its structure, connections and functions to deal with various stimuli.  During the Masterclass she provided case studies of her patients who had made a considerable recovery from trauma in a relatively short period.  Elena explained that people who take out a monthly service subscription with Modern Holistic Health have ongoing access to the Masterclass videos and to members of her team who offer a wide range of healing modalities.

In the Masterclass, different team members offered diverse modalities that illustrated the effectiveness of Elena’s team approach.  For example, Rosita Alvarez led a process that involved “layered healing modalities” including sound and eye movement.  Karla Rodriguez facilitated a powerful process that involved an ever deepening identification of emotions underlying bodily pain such as grief, anger or resentment.  This mind-body-spirit process was identified as incredibly effective by many people in the online audience.

Karla also led a process called “resonance repatterning” which involved making affirmations that expressed positive intent and resonated strongly with the individual involved, e.g. “I reclaim the power to say, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, & to be heard”.  The exercise illustrated the power of language to shape our future and manifest our desired reality.  To this end, Elena suggested that statements such as “I want a loving relationship” should be replaced with “I desire a loving relationship”.  She emphasised that we have to unlearn bad habits that reduce our sense of what is possible.  Dr. V. offers a podcast series to assist people with understanding trauma and moving towards unlearning and recovery.

In the book, What Happened to You?, Oprah Winfrey describes her own adverse childhood experiences which occurred even when she was  as young as three years old.  In particular, she discusses receiving continuous “whuppings” from her grandmother which were administered as severe forms of punishment for even the slightest mistakes – often resulting in welts and, occasionally, bleeding.  The “switch” chosen was a branch (or a number of branches “braided together”).  Her grandmother had the mistaken belief in the philosophy of “don’t spare the rod” – today, her actions would be viewed as criminal. 

Oprah, like Elena, maintains that learning how the brain and body react to trauma helps us to understand “how what happened to us in the past shapes who we are, how we behave, and why we do the things that we do”.  Oprah is a firm believer in the “unique adaptability of our miraculous brain” – and she is living proof of this.  Because of her own early life experiences, she has dedicated herself to helping people of all ages, especially young  children, overcome trauma and its impacts. Her tireless work in this area was reflected in the drafting of the National Child Protection Act that, when it became law, was known as the “Oprah Bill”.

The book represents a series of conversations between Oprah and Dr. Bruce D. Perry on the topic of “trauma, resilience, and healing” – conversations carried out over more than thirty years.  Bruce explains in the book that the title, “What Happened to You”, reflects a conscious choice to take the focus away from “What’s Wrong with You” in order to change the narrative and facilitate the process of recovery from trauma.  As Dr. Gabor Maté explains, we need to understand the pain lying beneath trauma and its precipitation of addictive behaviour

Reflection

There are many modalities that can be employed in healing trauma such as “compassionate inquiry” used by Dr. Gabor Maté.  Dr. Elena Villanueva and her team offer diverse modalities that are used at different stages of healing from the multiple impacts of trauma.  The team approach of Modern Holistic Health adds a special dimension as patients can move between coaches to utilise different modalities as part of their overall case management. People can work with Dr. Elena Villanueva and her Modern Health team by joining the Mind/Body/Energy Program.

Trauma is a complex area with often hidden impacts on mind, body and spirit resulting in lingering mental and physical health problems.   Many of us have had “adverse childhood experiences” resulting in trauma.  As we grow in mindfulness through mantra meditations, other mindfulness practices and related healing modalities, we can achieve peace and calm and improved health outcomes.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Writing for Authenticity

Jeff Brown, author and self-transformation expert, places considerable emphasis on authenticity in his writing, his public speaking and his personal life.  He regularly identifies ways to develop authenticity and, in particular, explains why he values writing as a pathway to authenticity.  He notes that through writing, he came to identify his life’s purpose and realise his goal of using writing for authentic expression of who he is and how he is evolving.

Jeff suggests that one of the greatest challenges to authenticity is to be able to savour the wins of others, especially in a competitive environment.  I still find this challenging when playing social tennis although I attempt to approach the game in an authentic way – being conscious of my intent in playing, managing my emotional response to expectations (my own and that of others), exploring my blindspots and managing my mistakes and related responses.

Authenticity can impact every aspect of our lives including our work effectiveness, our relationships and our mental wellbeing.  Jeff strongly advocates writing as a way to achieve authentic self-expression and provides his Writing Your Way Home Course as a means to assist people to find their authentic selves.   He suggests that not only does writing develop our own wellbeing but impacts the reader in a positive way.  By being open to who we really are and expressing that honestly in writing we can enable others to achieve personal insight and growth.

Writing authentically

Jeff’s online writing course is very much about how to write authentically.  He argues, for example, that we cannot find our authentic voice by slavishly following a formula for writing that entails only rules and related structure.  He suggests that to write from the heart and access the heart’s intelligence, we need to go beyond our thinking and rational design processes to access our deeper selves.  In particular, he argues for bringing our bodies into the writing process.

Jeff maintains that “our emotions, feelings, memories” live within our body – a point that is reinforced recently by research on trauma, its bodily impacts and effective healing processes.   He argues that if we are “disconnected from our body”, our writing will be “stagnant” and “fragmented”, reflecting our lack of integration with our bodies – our storehouse of emotions.

Embodiment in writing, for Jeff, involves among other things movement (walking, riding, jogging) and modalities that release stored tension in our body such as yoga, Tai Chi and massage.  He suggests that trying different massage modalities can help us to identify what works for us and gives us the greatest, unimpeded access to our creativity and authentic self-expression.  He found that yoga classes helped his writing, especially where he was free to write notes as ideas, memories and emotions surfaced. 

I have found that singing in a group is a great way to release stored emotions and I have often observed participants in Chris James’ workshops on Discover Your Natural Voice spontaneously outpouring their repressed emotions.  Chris, like Jeff, is a strong advocate for authenticity in expression and works to help people find their natural speaking and singing voice that is a “unique and true expression of themselves”.

Reflection

I enrolled in Jeff’s writing course following his presentation on The Power of Authenticity at the 2022 Surrender Summit.   My goal is to write a memoir as a means of self-exploration and to acknowledge the contribution of many people in my life who have helped shape who I am and what I have been able to achieve.  In line with Jeff’s recommendations, I have been using walking, tennis, meditation and Tai Chi as ways to release tension and stimulate creativity and authenticity.  I’m finding that memories are flooding in and I have adopted another practice that Jeff recommends – have a notebook handy to capture recollections. I have also been engaging in some “brain dumps” to organise my thoughts and recollections.  I can relate to Maggie’s comments in Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, “It’s all very telescoped in my memory”, even though at the time it seemed “interminable”.   For example, I can recall that I lived in five houses in Taringa, Brisbane (all within four blocks of each other) and yet I can only bring three into visual focus at this time.

Stephanie Domet, creator of the Mindful Writing Course, suggests that if you become too focused on the outcome of writing (e.g. a novel or memoir), you can experience writer’s block and be unable to unleash your creativity, develop deep insight or be in-the-flow when writing.  She places a lot of emphasis on the process of writing and the related experience of joy and “calm presence”.   For her, the real outcome is the change in the writer themselves as a result of “showing up for your writing”.  Stephanie maintains that focused writing can be a pathway to mindfulness and offers a series of exercises to get in touch with your body through your senses.

Another source of writer’s block is the expectation of producing something very special in the eyes of others.  To address this issue, Jeff quotes a poem by Susan Frybort, Empathy, which is part of a collection of poems called, Hope is a Traveler.  In the poem, Susan emphasises her “ordinariness” and stresses that “truthful writing” enables others to get in touch with “shared human experience” – the experience of pain and hurt.  She maintains that what is good enough for her in terms of outcomes of her writing is that she can “extend and touch another soul with all that is in me now”.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful writing, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can gain increased self-awareness, insight, creativity and the courage to be truthful in our writing.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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The Final Stages of the Hero’s Journey for the Frontline Midwife

In a previous post, I discussed the story of Anna Kent as a midwife volunteering in South Sudan in terms of the first 8 stages of the Hero’s Journey.  What I will discuss now is her Sudan story expressed in terms of the final stages of the hero’s journey (Stage 9-12).  I’ll be drawing again on her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe, in which she tells her story in graphic detail.

The final four stages of the hero’s journey – stages 9 to 12

The final four stages of her hero’s journey in South Sudan were deeply formative and life-changing and enabled Anna to develop a new perspective, skills and determination to help others in need wherever they were in the world:

9. Reward – there is no doubt that Anna emerged a stronger person as a result of overcoming personal challenges, including self-doubts and questioning of her obsession with volunteering.  The reward, too, that she experienced involved saving the lives of mothers, children and babies.  However, she had to deal with the sense of guilt she felt for the death of baby Mariam.  James tried to reassure her that she was not responsible for the death of the baby – in his words, “it was everyone in the world’s fault”.  She accepted intellectually that “every aid worker has a patient they carry in their conscience”.   Emotionally, though it was a continuous challenge to overcome the sense of guilt which pervaded her nightmares as she relived the traumatic event.  Unfortunately, our brains carry a negative bias – we see the negative much more strongly than the positive.  For a time, Anna found that her negative thoughts overwhelmed her rewarding thoughts – her personal satisfaction that she had saved many lives who otherwise would have died without her skilled and brave intervention.

10. The Road Back – this is both a physical journey and a metaphorical one.  On the physical level, it involves returning to her “ordinary world” – life with her boyfriend Jack in their comfy home in Nottingham.  The metaphorical aspect relates to being comfortable with her new self in an environment that is starkly different on every dimension to the one she was leaving in South Sudan.  It also meant dealing with the grief of leaving her mentor, James, her colleagues and the Sudanese people who she grew to love and admire for their courage, gentleness and stoicism.  Her short recreation spells during her volunteering in South Sudan forewarned her of the pending difficulty of the “road back”.  She found on her brief recreation trips that she could not share with Jack the horrors and traumas she had experienced and realised that she was totally lacking in libido.  Friends would ask about the exciting bits of her story but all she could share were her stories about snakes, not the reality of the poverty, harshness, and deprivation of the basic rights of women in South Sudan.  She found that she and Jack had so little to talk about, and their time together involved lots of silence as Anna tried to come to grips with crossing the threshold back into her former life. 

11. Resurrection – on her return home Anna broke off her relationship with Jack and moved to her parent’s home.  This created significant stress for her as she was unable to talk to her parents about her Sudan experiences or her reasons for breaking up with Jack – both these topics were too raw and traumatic.  In speaking with James her mentor, she shared her angst and he informed her that he had experienced similar dislocation and disorientation on his return from volunteering abroad.  James suggested that he made the mistake of “trying to be the person I once was when that person has gone”.  Anna recognised that everything changes with overseas service in a different culture and land where deprivation is rife – your values and perspectives change and you see “luxuries” and waste with new, intolerant eyes.  The way home for her involved a dying to the old person she once was and becoming a new, stronger, values-driven person. 

12. Return with the Elixir – another phase in Anna’s transition to her new persona began with entering a share house with two other nurses.  What she found was the ability to party together and share their experiences in a way that was cathartic.  Out of this period came a very strong resolution by Anna to build on her newly acquired midwife capabilities.  She enrolled in a midwifery degree at Nottingham University and had a very rewarding and enlightening work experience in Ethiopia as a student midwife.  She felt stronger and better prepared for subsequent volunteering missions involving Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 and Bangladesh working with Rohingya refugees – and these experiences entailed different journeys with new challenges and companions (as discussed in her book). 

Reflection

Throughout her hero’s journey in Sudan and beyond, Anna had to face her traumas which had “many heads” and in the process develop her resilience.  An experienced volunteer nurse, Anita, had told her “you’re gonna have to work out how to sit with these painful feelings without reacting to them”.  Like James, Anita suggested that meditation would be helpful as well as focusing on what has been achieved, not what her inner critic perceived as a “failure”.  James even suggested that Anna meditate for “an hour every day” and often encouraged her to be in the moment and experience what was before her – e.g., children playing with kites made from sticks, and the earth glowing from the setting sun. 

Anna demonstrated that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation (no matter how difficult we find it) and other mindfulness practices such as being in the moment, we can learn to regulate our emotions, deepen our self-awareness and develop resilience.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness on the Path of a Hero’s Journey

Anna Kent has provided a thought-provoking memoir in her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe.  The “frontline” theme of her memoir enriches our understanding of this concept.  Anna’s story recounts how she undertook nine months service with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) in South Sudan – where the population had suffered civil war for fifty years, with ongoing outbreaks of conflict despite a peace settlement.

Anna whose background was as a nurse in a hospital Emergency Department (ED) in the UK found herself as an accidental midwife.  There was no one else available to do the task because there were no trained midwives in South Sudan at the time because of the civil war and its impacts.  As I read her “heart-wrenching tale”, I recalled Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey

Anna’s story is told with unassumed humility, raw emotion, and acknowledgement of her fears, frailties and vulnerability.  As nurses tend to do, she provides graphic descriptions of the medical challenges she confronts and provides a warning at the front of the book in terms of potential triggers for people who have experienced birth-related injuries, maternal death, loss of a baby or gender-based violence.

The first eight stages of the hero’s journey – a structured view

As  you read Anna’s memoir, you can begin to map Joseph Campbell’s twelve stages of the hero’s journey throughout her account.  I have attempted to link her story to the first eight stages in this blog post:

  1. Ordinary world – Before her journey, Anna enjoyed a comfortable life with her kind and musically talented boyfriend, Jack, and a home in Nottingham which included “an airy, high-ceilinged bedroom”.  Her normal professional world was that of a highly qualified ED nurse at the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham, where she coordinated a major trauma unit.  To prepare herself for her work in South Sudan, she undertook a number of voluntary shifts in the maternity unit while on leave, completed a diploma in tropical nursing and volunteered for a brief placement at a Zambian Hospital in a rural district.  Additionally, she completed a pre-departure course conducted in Germany by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
  2. Call to adventure: Ever since an early age in her childhood, Anna felt the call to do something about the suffering and pain she saw every day on TV and in the newspapers.   She felt a strong urge to help alleviate the overwhelming suffering she observed, especially that experienced by children like herself.  As an adult, she experienced “complicated reasons” for wanting to volunteer and help those in need of relief from pain and suffering.
  3. Refusal of the call:  As she was packing for her trip, Anna was almost overcome by her fears and uncertainty.  She felt ill-prepared for what lay ahead and concerned about leaving her boyfriend and all the comforts of her everyday existence.   She could acutely feel the tug to stay and not take the perilous journey involved in work in South Sudan.  She also wondered about her comfy life, “Why isn’t this enough for me?”
  4. Meeting the mentor: At Loki, in north-west Kenya, Anna underwent a week-long training that included how to survive a kidnapping, emergency evacuation, and working in isolation.  She was informed that there was no internet access because computers melted in the heat and was warned about landmines, poisonous snakes and scorpions.   She was told about her onsite mentor who she would meet on arrival in Tam, South Sudan.  All she knew about him was that he was over sixty years old and “eccentric”.
  5. Crossing the threshold: Anna crossed the threshold in more ways than one.  She flew to Tam in a rambling, old aid plane which was the main transport for people and supplies to this remote area of South Sudan.  The flight itself involved being thrown into the reality of war-torn Sudan with bandaged passengers and a woman covered in a bundle of rags lying on a stretcher on the floor of the plane.  She was dying and had an IV line connected to her arm and attached via string to the seat’s edge.  The French nurse attending to her indicated that the woman would be delivered to the MSF Hospital in Leer, the State’s capital.  Anna was very aware that back in the UK, this woman would have had the best of care including drips and monitors and would not have had to suffer the indignity of travelling on the floor’s plane.  She was informed that Tam itself suffers from a drastic shortage of pain relievers, antibiotics and other medical necessities.  After offloading the dying woman and other passengers in need of urgent medical attention, the plane flew onto Tam where Anna would be working.  Her plane eventually lands roughly on the mud landing strip that reflected the terrain – hot, barren and forbidding. 
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The heat and oppressive conditions are the enemy.  Anna meets her mentor, James, a very experienced nurse and she took an immediate dislike to him.  His joviality in the face of unmitigated horrors does not ring true and she can’t make him out.  This uncertain relationship with someone whom she will have to depend on, added to her discomfiture.  She identified an ally in another female nurse who supports her in the early days of her volunteer work in Tam.  However, she is horrified by her sleeping conditions – she is in a tent with James nearby in another tent, both located within the dirt compound that is also traversed by poisonous snakes and scorpions.   On top of this are the conditions for patients, many of whom walk many miles to attend the clinic even when seriously ill.   The waiting room is effectively the “Waiting Tree” where patients huddle under the limited protection provided by a tree within the dirt compound.  The stream of patients is endless (Anna and James treat 1,000 patients in a month) and the diversity and complexity of illnesses is scarry.   The makeshift wards are overrun with some patients having to lie on mattresses in the dirt compound.  There are continuous life and death decisions determining who will be airlifted to the hospital in Leer, given the restricted availability and limited capacity of the aid plane, and the resources at the hospital itself.  
  7. Approach to the inmost cave: The death of a young boy became a crisis point for Anna.  Her inner conflict intensified, doubts about her own capability in such trying conditions resurfaced, and she experienced emotional turmoil and overwhelm at the sight of unmitigated suffering, pain and death.  She was tense about what further trauma lay ahead.  Her salvation came in the form of lengthy, tent-to-tent conversations at night with James , her mentor.  Unburdening herself with him and talking through what she was experiencing in an open and honest way changed their relationship.  It helped her deal with her emotional crisis  These conversations  enabled her to reflect on her challenging experiences as they occurred and voice her worst fears.  He offered her reassurance and emotional support.  James introduced her to the power of mindfulness for dealing with turbulent emotions.  Anna came to value his advice, his philosophy of life and his positive psychology.
  8. Ordeal: The ultimate ordeal for Anna and the medical team arrived in the form a 16 year old pregnant girl who was in deep distress and agonising pain.  Anna played a major role in successfully delivering premature triplets and helping to save the young girl’s life as she was in acute danger of dying from excessive bleeding resulting from postpartum haemorrhage”.  This experience gave Anna the ultimate high so that she felt like a “hero” and suddenly understood why she had volunteered for such physically and emotionally draining work. She believed at the time that the high from this event would enable her to ride out the lows.  The image of the young mother walking home with her triplets in a basket on her head reminded Anna of what was possible in saving others and to value her own contribution.

Reflection

Anna’s story lends itself to mindful reading which according to Mirabai Bush “moves the reader into a calm awareness, allowing for a profound experience and understanding”.  It requires full attention, avoidance of distractions and openness to thoughts and feelings as they emerge throughout the reading process.  This story is rich in self-disclosure, replete with expression of emotions and immersive in its description of the context and physical environment.  Anna encourages us to join her on her hero’s journey into the challenging unknown and land of profound suffering.

Her efforts to grow in mindfulness through micro-practices increased her self-awareness and emotional regulation and enabled her to deal more effectively with the challenges that she had to meet on a daily basis.

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Image by Eszter Hornyai from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Ways to Manage Ourself During Difficult Times

The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA offers weekly guided meditation podcasts on a wide range of topics and issues.  In one of the recent meditation podcasts Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC focused on “Practices in Difficult Times” – providing several mindfulness practices designed to help us achieve calmness, manage our challenging emotions and express compassion to ourselves and to others who are suffering.

Diana highlighted the fact that challenging events such as the mass shootings in America and the war in Ukraine can generate “emotional inflammation” in us – we can feel strong emotions of anger, grief, rage or sadness.  We might feel overwhelmed by others’ inconceivable pain and loss and our own emotional response.  We might be confused and continually ask ourselves, “Why the children?”, “Why Ukraine?” or “When will this emotional and physical devastation stop?”

Diana draws on mindfulness practices to help us deal with these challenging times and the emotions they elicit in us.  She reminds us that mindfulness involves placing our attention fully on the present moment while being open and curious and accepting what is in our present internal and external reality. 

Three mindfulness practices for difficult times

The three mindfulness practices offered by Diana are described, in turn, in the following discussion:

  1. Calming Practices: Here we are encouraged to tap into the body’s own capacity to generate calm and ease.  The primary aim is to achieve groundedness in a way that is conducive to our present needs.  We could start by taking a couple of deep breaths and releasing them slowly to let go of the tension within us.  There is the option to find a place of ease in our body and focus in on it, e.g., our arms beside our body, our relaxed legs or our fingers joined and pulsating with energy.  Diana particularly stressed the power of “feeling the support of the earth” through our feet on the floor or the ground.  Our breath with its natural rhythm can provide a basis for experiencing calm and ease (unless, of course, focusing on our breath acts as a trauma stimulus).  If attention to our breath is calming, there are many ways to access a relaxed state through mindful breathing  practices.  We could adopt “micro-practices” such as the  4-7-8 breathing practice often used in yoga, the breathing in time practices (using our breath as a musical instrument) or we could pay attention to the internal physical sensations of our breathing – e.g., the rising and falling of our abdomen or the feeling of air moving in and out of our nose.  Diana suggests another alternative is to pay full attention to the sounds in the room or what is being generated externally (especially if we are in a natural setting with the sounds of birds, waves, or wind).  Sound can also be used as a calming mindfulness practice as we listen to and sing mantra meditations provided by people like Lulu & Mischka (such as their Rainbow Light song as part of their peaceful Horizon album).
  2. Holding strong emotions: Normally, people tend to suppress challenging emotions, deny them, or deflect their attention from them by numbing themselves with some form of addictive behaviour such as drinking excessive alcohol, overeating, taking illegal drugs or over-spending while shopping compulsively.  Mindfulness experts and psychologists remind us that we need to face up to our emotions or they will cause disruptions in our lives through some form of mental and/or physical illness.  Diana encourages us in this guided meditation to pay attention to our challenging emotions and observe how they are manifesting in our body, e.g. tightness in the chest, pain in the arms or neck, headaches, overall stiffness or fibromyalgia (non-specific whole-body pain).  Holding on to these strong emotions enables us to deal with them directly and use the healing power of our mind and body to dissipate them.  If we experience overwhelm while confronting our strong emotions, we can return to our meditation anchor which could be our breath, external sounds, bodily sensations or music.
  3. Compassion practice: Diana explains that compassion practice in this context involves ourselves as well as others who may be experiencing suffering and loss.  She encourages us to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion as we struggle to deal with our challenging emotions and our misguided attempts to ignore them or numb them.  She suggests, then, that we extend loving kindness to others in the world who are experiencing pain, devastation, grief and anger.  Diana offers  a possible expression of compassion for others in the form of a statement of desire, “May you be freed from pain and suffering and find contentment and ease”.

Reflection

We have a deep well of ease in our bodies that we can access at any time, if only we can let go of our damaging thoughts.  As we grow in mindfulness through calming practices, facing our challenging emotions and practising compassion towards ourselves and others, we can gain the insight, courage and capacity to manage ourselves during difficult times.  Mindfulness enables us to achieve emotional regulation, self-awareness and the creative drive to be the best we can be.  Challenging emotions, left unchecked or ignored, can undermine our endeavours at home or at work.

Over time we can develop a regular mindfulness practice that suits our make-up and that we can undertake on a daily basis (e.g., Tai Chi, mantra meditations, chanting or yoga).  This core mindfulness practice can be supplemented by micro-practices that we engage in throughout the day (e.g., when washing our hands, during waiting times, or when boiling the jug).  The compound effect of these core and micro-practices is a calm state of mind, enhanced patience and conscious presence.

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Image by ChiemSeherin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Building Resilience One Step at a Time

We all experience adversity and setbacks – it is how we deal with them that shapes who we are and what we are capable of.  Sometimes the setback is so great that it throws us completely off balance – at other times, it involves a minor and temporary dislocation.  Shelly Tygielski, in her course The Power of Showing Up, talks about how she was completely derailed by a painful divorce that left her as a single mother trying to raise her young son.   She found that she was unable to meditate or focus on anything because of her mental and emotional disorientation.

Eventually, Shelly through persistence with meditation (however dissatisfying because of her incessant distractions) was able to restore her balance and rebuild her resilience one step at a time.  She achieved this, in part, by “chunking” tasks to manage the challenges she faced with her endless “to-do lists”.   The determinant of the priority of her tasks was the degree to which they served her life purpose.

In her course, Shelly helps us to identify our thought patterns, emotional responses and habituated behaviours.  She provides ways to “deconstruct” ourselves and, in turn, “reconstruct” our sense of who we are.  The processes, including journalling, help us to break free of the ties that bind us and better align with our life purpose.  Releasing the hold of perfectionism, fear and expectations enables us to achieve personal integration and access our innate creative and fearless nature.

Shelly demonstrates through her own life history, experiencing traumas and multiple setbacks, that we can emerge with renewed strength, a laser-focus on our life purpose and the resilience to overcome whatever life’s turbulence throws our way.  Tina Turner, too, demonstrated a similar resilience through drawing on the power of meditation and chanting.

The road ahead involves taking one step at a time, confident in the hope that the journey provides its own rewards in terms of self-awareness, emotional regulation and achievement in line with our life purpose.  We can get ahead of ourselves too easily, expecting too much too soon – negative thoughts, such as “I should be further down the track” or “this process is taking too long”, will only hold us back.  We have to maintain our focus on the end goal – through mindfulness practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, chanting or journalling.

Chelsea Handler, in the Foreword to Shelly’s book, Sit Down to Rise Up, recounts the story of meeting Shelly backstage at a Wisdom 2.0 Conference.  Chelsea was immediately drawn to Shelly’s “vibrance” and to the fact that she was witnessing “someone who lives their life in purpose”.  Shelly subsequently invited Chelsea to join her at a meditation retreat for survivors of gun violence and family members who lost someone through such violence.  Chelsea immediately experienced negative thoughts about her own adequacy to participate in such an emotionally charged event.   Shelly assured her that she is “good enough” and has “personal agency” – messages she reiterates strongly in her book and her online course.   Chelsea participated in the retreat and learned a valuable lesson about dealing with people who were experiencing trauma and grief – “sitting and listening to people’s stories is sometimes all that is needed”.

Reflection

I was very recently thrown off balance by the fact that my three-year old car broke down. It lost power and displayed multiple malfunction messages relating to the engine, the transmission and the high level safety features.  This was particularly disconcerting and that meant that all the things that I had planned for the day were not possible, e.g. collecting a book from the library, dropping off clothes for dry cleaning, buying fresh seafood for dinner and purchasing other foods from a supermarket.  While this was a minor setback (that proved costly), I was blindsided by the fact that it left me so unbalanced.  However, I resorted to Tai Chi and persisted, despite feeling very unfocused and distracted by lots of thoughts and anxiety.  This proved to be the one step I needed to restore my balance and help me to refocus on my tasks and my writing. 

As we grow in mindfulness through practices such as Tai Chi and journalling, we can realign with our life purpose, restore our balance and build our resilience one step at a time (through one setback at a time).  It may take a short time or years (as in one of Shelly’s many setbacks) to restore our balance and alignment, but we need to persist in this process of metamorphosis.

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Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Showing Up for Community Care

Shelly Tygielski is an advocate for translating mindfulness practices and related self-care approaches into community action.  Shelly herself epitomizes this translation, being a trauma counsellor for surviving victims of mass shootings in the US and for refugees from Ukraine in Poland.  She advocates strongly for both self-care and community care and argues that you cannot do the latter without the support of the former, otherwise you will suffer “compassion fatigue” and burnout.

Shelly sees meditation and other mindfulness practices as central to self-care.  She is a meditation teacher and herself practices meditation and what she calls “micro-practices”.   These are brief mindfulness practices that can be employed by anybody throughout the day, particularly at times when you are time-poor and feeling stressed, distressed or anxious.  

Shelly indicates that these micro-practices can be linked to some action you already undertake during the day, e.g. she employs the yogic technique of 4-7-8 breathing  when washing her hands.  This involves breathing in through the nose for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds and breathing out through the mouth for eight seconds (there are various combinations of these breathing processes, but basically the outbreath is longer than the in-breath or holding your breath).  This breathing practice can be used when waiting for traffic lights or waiting for the jug to boil or food to cook on the stove.  Richard Wolf in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, offers alternative breathing practices that are linked to the different times in music, e.g. ¾ time.  He also offers deep listening approaches that can be employed as micro-practices.

How to show up for community care

Shelly provides the answer to this question in her new 10-day online course, The Power of Showing Up.  I recently purchased this course and I am very impressed with the way she has structured the course to literally “take you by the hand” and lead you to self-empowerment and the capacity to undertake community care.  She is not only a very inspirational speaker but totally transparent, sharing her own struggles and ways she overcame them.  It is not as if she immediately fell into the practice of community care.  She herself had to overcome the scars of being kidnapped at the age of two and inheriting “intergenerational trauma”.  

Shelly provides support for developing our inner landscape and overcoming negative thoughts such as “I am not good enough” or “I don’t know enough” or “I feel like an impostor” (“impostor syndrome”).  She strongly encourages us to overcome these obstacles (that she herself has experienced and overcome) and offers knowledge and pathways to develop a community of care – epitomized by her own creation, Pandemic of Love, which has matched the needs of 2 million people with other people who can provide concrete help and support.

Shelly’s course offers ways to help others in need so that they feel valued and appreciated.  In the process, she helps us to understand our own inner world and what is holding us back.  She offers a way to live a more meaningful life, aligned to our values and utilising our core knowledge and skills for community care. 

Reflection

I was very inspired by Shelly’s presentation at the Self-Care Summit and since then have joined a community of care, ExtendaTouch (Caregivers Supporting Caregivers).  I joined this community after receiving an invitation following publication of my blog post, Conscious Aging: Reframing for Health and Happiness.  

As I participate in Shelly’s course, I am working on developing an online Community of Care that will involve people sharing their mindfulness practices, approaches to self-care and strategies for overcoming daily challenges.  I hope to progress this community to a stage where we share our “self-care plan” and hold each other accountable for its implementation and ongoing refinement.  As we grow in mindfulness together, we will be able to develop the necessary self-awareness, courage and creativity to overcome our life challenges and help others (in our online community and elsewhere) to do so.

Shelly also provides added inspiration and insight in her book,  Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World.

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Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Self-Care for Community Care

Shelly Tygielski – activist, author and mindfulness teacher – was recently interviewed by Fleet Maull as co-host of the Self-Care Summit.  Shelly’s lifetime focus is on self-care with an emphasis on transforming self-care into care for the community.  She is a living example of her beliefs and has worked with trauma sufferers including refugees from Ukraine and provided trauma-informed counselling and healing to victims of the Buffalo supermarket shootings

Shelly is accredited as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) facilitator.  The creator of this intervention process, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes her as “the real deal” – she genuinely and uniquely practices what she preaches.  Her commitment to community action is also reflected in her creation of the Pandemic of Love – a global, mutual aid community that connects people in need with people who can provide help and resources.  It has grown from one person, Shelly, posting a simple matching process online to more than 3,000 volunteers.  Shelly was inspired by the fear and traumatising needs arising from the pandemic, such as the fear of one’s young family running out of food.

Shelly provides a range of resources to assist people with self-care, including a weekly guided meditation that is conducted with thousands of people.  Her podcasts and webinars also provide insight into her philosophy and approach and the inspiration to engage in self-care for community care.  Shelly’s experiences, insights and practices are also capture in her online course, The Power of Showing Up: Learn how to best support yourself and others.  

Shelly acknowledges that she herself suffers from intergenerational trauma which involved, in part, the way women were treated in her own family line.  She readily shares that she herself has had to deal with a lot of issues but has found that this makes her more empathetic to others and helps to build rapport and authenticity with the people she is attempting to help in whatever context she is working in.

Principles and practices

Underpinning Shelly’s approach and dedicated community service is a set of principles and practices that she shares generously with others in her writings, workshops and speaking engagements.  In the limited space provided in this post, I can only hope to scratch the surface of what she provides elsewhere as a source of inspiration for others:

  • Self-care is self-preservation: self-care is not self-indulgent.  We all need to care for ourselves so that we can manage the ups and downs of the waves of life, including the “dumpers” that leave us floundering.  Without self-care, we can “go under” – drowned in the misfortunes, setbacks and failures we experience in everyday life.  Carers and people in the helping professions tend to ignore self-care at the expense of their own physical and mental health – they identify with their role of care giver, not care taker.  They see self-care as self-indulgence and in their view can ill afford the time to attend to their own needs. 
  • Self-care is community dependent: we cannot survive without the support of others. One of the main causes of depression and addiction is disconnection from others – being isolated from the “helping hand”, the thoughtful word and the kind action.  GROW, a peer-led mental health program, reminds us that “You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone”.  We need the support of others – we may be “down” and de-motivated when they are “up” and providing energy and inspiration by their example, enthusiasm, commitment or encouragement.  Shelly recommends having a personal self-care plan that we share with a “community of care” that can keep us accountable for our planned actions.  She suggests that this is the way to achieve “sustainable self-care”.
  • Self-care is for community care: we are all interconnected and interdependent.   The pandemic has highlighted our dependence on doctors and nurses, transport workers, farmers and farm workers, shop assistants and anyone who provides products and services.  It deepened our sense of the pain and grief of others who experienced illness and/or loss of friends and family.  Shelly’s Pandemic of Love provides a constructive way to help those in pandemic-driven need. She leads by example and asserts that self-care in isolation does not recognise our connection to others in all walks of life.  Shelly argues that self-care for the community is what is ultimately important.  She maintains that if we are depleted, cynical or depressed we cannot show up for others in need.  Self-care re-energises and re-builds us to provide the help and support that members of our community need.  This lesson was particularly brought home to Shelly after leaving behind the devastation of the lives of refugees from Ukraine whom she had been helping – besides experiencing emotional and physical exhaustion, she felt shame and guilt on returning home to peace, access to the healing power of nature and support of family and friends.  She found that her self-care, micro-practices helped her to restore her perspective and energy.

Reflection

Kelly’s message is not only to engage in self-care but to transform this into community care through caring for others within our capacity and in accord with our knowledge and skills – the theme of her course, The Power of Showing Up.  She acknowledges that many of us are “time-poor” and often feel guilty for taking time for ourselves, particularly if we are in a carer role.  With this in mind, she highly recommends micro-practices which she utilizes extensively herself.  Shelly shares her insights and practices in her podcasts and her recent book, Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World.

Shelly contends that we have a moral obligation to show up for others in need.  We can create “ripples of influence” by joining with others to create social movements.  The recent example of the success of TEAL candidates during the Australian Federal election shows how community activism around a shared set of values can cross the divide of location, socio-economic status and prior conditioning.  TEAL is a loose connection of independent political candidates (not bound to any political party) who share a commitment to the common values of climate change, political accountability and gender equity.  This solidarity led to unseating previously-elected members of the ruling political party who failed to demonstrate true commitment to these values, and, in some instances, had actively worked against them.

My takeaway from listening to Shelly and observing her vast array of actions and activism is my need to join or develop a community of care.  To this end, I have purchased her course, The Power of Showing Up, so that I can engage more actively in community care. I also need to maintain my self-care activities in the form of Tai Chi, mindfulness activities, micro-practices and the reflective writing of this blog.  As we grow in mindfulness through these kinds of activities, we can gain the necessary self-awareness, emotional regulation, self-care and courage to show up in the world and use our gifts to support others in their daily lives.  

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Image by Angela Huang from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.