From Sophy, June 2020
I’ve been reading books about indigenous perspectives on trauma (including Trauma Trails and Decolonizing Trauma Work) and it’s helping me to shift my understanding of what trauma is, seeing more of how much of a western view I’ve held. I originally came to understand trauma as a personal thing, something that happened to an individual. I had already felt a powerful teaching from holding grief work has been to see that trauma – an injury to spirit, mind, emotion or body that leaves a residue of harm – doesn’t arise in the original event, but is the result of a failure of the holding field around the person or group experiencing the injury. That is, most events can be recovered from, perhaps with scars, but with a still intact soul, mind, emotional or physical body. And even, when something major happens to us if we are helped and held, supported to shake or sweat or dance out our pain, outrage, to howl or roar or give it whatever shape it needs, we might be strengthened by the experience, as we feel our deep need of each other, as we learn that we can experience and recover from more. And also we might learn the practices of holding shock, harm, grief, even death, for others. So I was already re-framing trauma not as something that happened to an individual, but as a failure of the holding field around it. Trauma is essentially relational, but about an absence that would be present in a healthy, well functioning human culture.
The next layer I’ve been seeing is that trauma requires a whole landscape of potential holding and repair to be absent. Not just the first and immediate failure of help and holding, but a culture where the symptoms that something is wrong are ignored or pathologised, where we might be told to be strong, or professional; and if we persist in speaking about or showing our pain we could be condemned or labelled for being dysfunctional compared with the cultural norms of pain avoidance. In this landscape of a whole culture that is inured to trauma, our knowledge about whole systems of harm does not spur us to immediate action. We know (do we?) that one in four girls and a high but smaller number of boys are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18, usually by someone in or known to the family. This statistic hasn’t changed much since I was coming into adulthood , 40 years ago. How is it that this isn’t the first priority of our government to address? How can economic growth be more important than protecting our children?
In recent days we’ve seen the eruption of protests and rising up for change in response to the killing of George Floyd, latest in a repeating pattern of black people, mostly men, killed in police custody. I remember it happening in Hackney, in Tottenham, it’s not only American police who act out racial violence in their cells. It feels relieving to me that this ongoing system of racial oppression is being made visible in the dominant media, and impacting those who may believe their lives are not impacted by it. We are all impacted by this system, and all the other systems of harm and domination of one group by another. Some of us with white skin or other privilege just have more choice about whether to notice how it impacts us, more freedom from the consequences of the system of harm.
I’ve been interested for a long time in the connections between systems of oppression, collective trauma, the cultural relationship to pain, and how to work with symptoms of suffering such as conflict, grief and burnout. It’s a big topic to touch on in a short post. My small offering here to ask the question – what if violent power over systems don’t arise because of our love of power, or an innate desire to dominate (perhaps these things exist in some people). What if they come into existence as a way of managing unmanageable feelings; hurting or dominating, objectifying or exploiting others can be a way to deal with my own overwhelming emotions associated with trauma, an injury which has not been healed by those immediately present, or the wider community.
When it becomes a collective pattern of domination, exploitation or harm we might look for the cultural trauma that is unhealed, historic cultural experiences of violence, shock, disaster, invasion, where there was no resource to grieve and address it. Pat McCabe or Woman Stands Shining came to Devon a few years back inviting ceremonies to address the burning of the witches. Her guides had told her this was part of the trauma that led to European colonialism. Perhaps this systematic murder of women was the end of right relationship between men and women on these shores, between humans and the land. Manda Scott and Tim McCartney write about the specific and appalling violence dealt to tribes of this land by Roman emperors who feared the spiritual power of the people of this land. Is that part of what caused my ancestors to be part of colonising and traumatising so many others?
What would it mean to create grief ceremonies for the suffering caused by racism, in black, brown, white and indigenous bodies? For the scarred and broken landscape of relationships between men and women? I was at the “New Story Summit” in Findhorn in 2014. It was a Transition movement kind of event – how can we dream and move towards a new, just, sustainable, bright future? What’s the new cultural story? I was very struck that the indigenous leaders (who didn’t want a New Story, just to be left to get on with their Old Story that had worked fine) kept calling for rituals to heal relationships. They weren’t so interested in projects and action plans. My learning was that for them there is nowhere to go, nothing to plan or do, until the field of right relationship is restored. One of the ceremonies they called in, on Tuesday morning, was a “Consolation” ritual, from a Native American tradition, to heal relationships between Indigenous People and People of Colour; and then between these and White people. We held a ceremony for women and men on Thursday. A different kind of gathering.
At another smaller international gathering in Brussels this March I was really struck by the polarising of these two conversations. For one group of people the conversation needed to be about tools, practices, actions, plans, sharing projects and so on. For another group, including many of the black and brown people, the youngest ones and some of us involved in trauma or grief work, there was another important conversation to be had, about grief, trauma, polarising, privilege and marginalising, burnout, conflict and death. It was very difficult to get these two conversations to come together. The feeling I had was either “what does grief / trauma / death / power and privilege have to do with our community and capacity building projects?”; or “we’re trying to build relationships with local government and other public bodies; talking about that stuff won’t help us look like a professional outfit”. I hope the surging tide of putting racism in the centre helps shift this split between the places where the pain of our system is most felt, and those that are doing great work to increase capacity and address ecological harm, but still mainly working with those with privilege.
I’m hoping these conversations will come together more. It felt to me like there was a surge of bringing ecological / climate / environmental harm into awareness with the XR actions. Now we are getting reminded of the harm done to black people. It involves trauma, death and grief. Our system is a system rooted in harm. It persists because the structures where power is held are insulated from the harm they are causing. We need to both feel the harm where there is power, and build our strength where the harm is most felt. I’m grateful for all the protests and uprising. I loved this set of images, of strength and connection together.
Each time I think Grief tending is maybe done with me, I feel called back to it. I’m still apprenticing to this practice, still learning from sitting with a shrine, in ceremony, with others, finding ways to transmute pain into beauty, with rivers of connection and love flowing and interwoven with our tears. The teaching that grief, longing and joy are one thing with different faces still astonishes me, even though my head thinks it’s really got the hang of it. I’m celebrating the outpourings of collective grief in the form of marches, protests, signs. Celebrating how coming to know pain calls us to action, how wired up we are for justice, how outraged we are by these systems of harm.
So I’m still holding circles for grief, on Zoom. The last one stretched from Scotland to Spain, from London to Devon. It may be your place to express is on the street, or in some other action. If you want to bring something to the shared grief shrine, you are welcome.
I’m dedicating all the grief work I hold to the healing of our world, including the grief of the ancestors whose tears could not be shed or cries heard; for the health of future generations, may this system of harm be shifted, ended, healed; and for all beings living today.