By Belinda Harris PhD
The snow is falling thick and fast, and as I take a pause from completing tedious admin tasks, I am struck by the simplicity and boldness of the view from my office window: plump white pillows of snow rest softly on dark branches outstretched to form a canopy over the lawn in front of a formidable Victorian building. Built in 1869 as a hospital for the poorest children in Nottingham, and now an Islamic school for girls, the transformation from hospital to school was discreet, as the exterior façade of the building and the grounds remain unaltered, despite all the physical and functional alterations that must have taken place inside over the last 43 years.
As I ponder the lives, illnesses and deaths of the child residents who inhabited this building for over a century, I become curious about powerful sensations and feelings that are calling out for my attention. Slowly, I begin to make connections with lockdown and how it has affected my life and ways of being in and of this situation. Whilst my exterior persona is easily recognisable, my inner psychological landscape has been radically changed during the same time period. I deflect from work by making a list of words that represent key facets of my experiencing, before calling on the researcher in me to group and categorise them into themes.
My intention here is to offer three of these themes as a stimulus for your own reflections, not only in relation to the human impact of the pandemic, but also its ‘cousins’ in both the natural and the socio-political worlds. I am thinking specifically of the ‘black summer’ of bushfires in southern Australia, the wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington, and closer to home, the extensive flooding in Yorkshire, Humberside and the Midlands last year, to name a few. These stand in stark contrast to the significant reduction in city traffic, noise and pollution, and the palpable improvement in air quality that took place during the first lockdown. These events (and many more, plus the courage of Extinction Rebellion activists) seared into my consciousness our collective responsibility for climate change; they also highlighted the preciousness and fragility of nature, as well as the quality of our living relationship with nature for human survival and wellbeing.
Equally, the impact of pathological narcissism at the highest level of world governance has laid bare huge divisions in societies across several continents. Covid denying leaders paid scant regard to the suffering of citizens losing family members to an impenetrable ICU ward, and/or to death; the safety and wellbeing of those risking their lives to save Covid patients appears/appeared to be of no consequence to such leaders. In many families and communities additional suffering continues to be experienced by those whose illnesses were no longer a priority for treatment, and by those negatively affected by the wider social and economic consequences of the pandemic. The parallels and overlaps with climate-change denying leadership are easily discernible.
Meanwhile, unapologetically self-entitled, self-righteous heads of governments lie with impunity to bolster their own egos and peddle divisive ideologies. All of these phenomena are supported by a plethora of power games, in addition to denial: falsification of data, fake news, gaslighting, coercive control, labelling and pathologising are just some ways in which people, nature and the planet are ‘Othered’, and dehumanising or destructive behaviours are excused, condoned and justified. The interconnectedness of individual and environment is being devalued, forgotten and democracy feels fragile. The need for a profound shift in human consciousness and behaviour has never felt more pressing and inescapable. As I gain clarity and give voice to where I stand, I notice a pervasive sense of powerlessness and despair retreating into the deeper recesses and shadows of my being. I no longer feel overwhelmed.
As this is a short piece, I am unfortunately, unable to offer an in-depth analysis of the complex
interrelationships between Covid-19, climate change and toxic leadership. Instead, I have decided to take a more personal stance, and left significant gaps for you, the reader, to fill in, if/where any of this is meaningful for you. I have chosen to focus here on 3 Lockdown themes, which are characteristic of my own personal learning journey, namely, Loss, Legacy and Love.
In the Autumn Newsletter I wrote of the cumulative impact of losing 4 close, beloved friends and colleagues quickly in succession. A week after the previous newsletter was published another good friend died of Covid whilst in my local hospital recovering from hip surgery. Since then, I have had a palpable sense of Covid moving in, closer than ever before, and wonder how long it will be before my most intimate circle of friends and family is living the nightmare visited on and reported by so many families and news organisations across the globe. Although I am determined not to let fear take over my life, my body is already hyperalert, and I notice myself being jumpier and more irrationally irritable about the smallest interactions and events.
Last week, another friend was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. If she is ‘lucky’, she has six months to put her affairs in order and to spend precious time, with her soon to be orphaned son, a loving, highly intelligent and vulnerable young man. One of his peers and I consult with them both (on zoom!) and spring into action, recruiting a team of their closest friends and allies to be the practical and emotional support network they hope will ease the physical and emotional journey ahead. Becoming mobilised has enabled me to bypass my embodied response to the situation, and to distract myself from an underlying fear that the arrangements might inadvertently make their time together even shorter. What if either or both of them become infected with the virus or one of its so-called ‘variants’? I am terrified by this prospect, a weighty responsibility. The implications for breaking lockdown rules only comes onto my radar as I write this! In recent weeks my sleep has been light and broken or deep and riddled with traumatising dreams. Fear and loss pervade every cell in my body, and an accumulated torrent of tears is poised for release.
This week the UK exceeded 100,000 Covid deaths, the highest number in Europe at this time. Last week, 400 lanterns were lit in Washington DC, to symbolise more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S.A. Whilst such vast numbers trip lightly off the keyboard, it is extremely challenging to take in both the enormity and depth of everyday human suffering experienced by millions of families and communities, and the longer-term impact of this for mental health and well-being. I find myself avoiding news programmes on the radio and TV, and feel unable to open my news app, in case I am triggered into even more dissociative responses. When I am not being irritable and jumpy, I am cut-off and emotionally unavailable, or over-protective of my adult children, who want their adult mum back, rather than an annoyingly interfering ‘mummy’ figure! The truth is that I have lost my joie-de-vivre and find very little amusing, including their loving efforts to return our household ‘back to normal’. I share with them my own longing to be available for fun, laughter and light-hearted conversation, and catch a glimpse of that possibility in our loving exchange.
In my dreams I am working in a vast famine zone with different people each time: members of the UKAGP Organising Committee, neighbours, school, university or choir friends I have become more closely connected with via lockdown What’s App groups. In these dreams we are trying to provide hundreds of thousands of starving mothers and children with water and basic nutrition, whilst hungry wildcat predators gnaw at the corpses of dead orphaned babies no one has the energy to bury. An impossible task.
In my coaching work last week, a headteacher told me of 3 primary aged children, who had separately been seen scavenging for food in the bins of local residents, on their way ‘home’ from school. This is in the UK in 2021! With 19/25 members of her staff off with Covid, this dedicated headteacher was working tirelessly to keep the school open for keyworker children, and to run a breakfast club whilst fundraising more money for additional food parcels for some of the most desperate families in her school’s socially and economically deprived neighbourhood. A very challenging but not altogether impossible task.
On my early morning walk through the local cemetery, the final resting place of thousands of children from the Victorian hospital, I came across a couple of people ‘sleeping rough’ under bushes between tombstones, in temperatures below zero! Loss of dignity and basic survival needs are another reality that is all too close to home. I feel an urge to do something, to use my many privileges to make a difference. Definitely not an impossible task.
In my therapy practice, I am acutely aware that lockdown has not only been characterised by such ‘big-t’ incidents outlined above but also by many ‘small-t’ events, which have had a cumulative effect on my client’s wellbeing. The loss of meeting face to face, our bodies and minds attuning to one another (or not), the loss of human touch – a squeeze, a hug, a kiss, a handshake; the loss of a vibrant cultural life -festivals, live music, dancing, theatre, museums, art galleries and cinema; the loss of community – walking group, gym classes, meals and parties with neighbours, family and friends; the loss of freedom of movement – visiting friends, days out, weekends away, holidays or work overseas, and significantly, the loss of trust in leadership and sometimes relationships. The list goes on and on. Life feels insular and constrained in so many ways, and I can feel lethargic, exhausted by efforts to compensate for what has been lost, to put a brave face on it all, to bargain with the universe and to be a responsible citizen.
So what does all this mean for me/us as helping professionals, I ask myself? What is the work I need to do to heal myself, and to ensure that my relationships, my practice and my activism are all in service of, and healthily meeting both the needs of others and myself? This brings me to the second theme, which I have called Legacy.
This concept embraces the individual and collective ground which has influenced the now of events, including the history of man’s shift from living in harmony with nature to conquering and taming nature to meet our multiple needs, to comply with the demands of globalization, and to satiate excessive levels of greed; I am also mindful of the history of industrialization and empire, which necessitated and sanctioned the subjugation of the working classes here and the enslavement of people of colour from, and in conquered territories. There is a powerful relationship between the past, the present and the future, as ‘all epochs live and breathe in parallels’, and ‘full inhabitation of memory makes human beings conscious, a living connection between what has been, what is and what is about to be. Memory is the living link to freedom.” (Whyte, 2018:143; 145).
In reality, little attention was paid to our collective impact on the planet and on human civilizations for centuries – both were taken for granted and neither seemed to matter. Therefore, it is essential that they matter deeply now, and that collective efforts are made to wholeheartedly face, own and rectify the damage. How we do this is of the utmost importance, as whatever actions we take are a blueprint, and feed into a legacy that we will be judged on by future generations.
The same is true on a more personal level. Each person I have lost or am in the process of losing has left a legacy, and contributed to my own personal and professional development in different ways and to differing extents. Having a visual memory is a wonderful gift, as I am able to bring each of them to mind and reconnect with my embodied experiencing of specific moments or events. I feel blessed to be able to do this. I tend not to hang onto many words, as they feel meaningless without the context in which they were spoken/written; an embodied memory however, is enlivening and enriching, for better, and occasionally for worse.
Fear and shame were important legacies from my own childhood, as were the stories of resilience and perseverance my parents told about their childhoods and adolescence, and all of these served me well as forces for self-improvement and personal growth. Paradoxically, they enabled me to forge a radically different, and more privileged life than that of my parents. Our home was infused with an omniscient sense of lack: not only of time and money, but also of good contact, confirmation, inclusion and free will. There simply weren’t enough of these essential relational components to bring many developmental Gestalten to successful completion.
At the age of thirteen a new school was a godsend and became a haven, radically changing my capacity to learn, my self-worth and academic self-esteem. I had some stellar role models during the three years I was a student there, and it was no coincidence that I later became a teacher, psychotherapist and coach. Many years of therapy and personal growth work enabled me to do better by my own children, and to let go of past hurts. I felt content and at ease in myself and found a way to acknowledge and move through my shame, rather than losing myself and disappearing in silence.
It was therefore challenging to find myself in a precious friendship where, when things went wrong between us, my core shame was triggered, and I once more lost my voice and myself. In many ways this was an incredible opportunity to learn and grow in parallel. Every meaningful relationship is a sort of apprenticeship, a commitment by both people to draw on their wellspring of love, optimism and humility to navigate a path through the inevitable ups and downs of contacting, separating and growing together. Although I struggled to manage my shame at times, I really loved and valued this connection, as we had both experienced complex trauma in childhood, and had taken completely different routes to move through and out of it. I therefore appreciated insightful feedback and also the opportunity to take our understanding of relationships to another level. We had some exceptional times, and also some painful ruptures, mainly when early experiences of lack were triggered and overshadowed an otherwise mutually respectful, loving connection.
A toxic flow meandering secretly through the
Rhythms of life,
Sowing seeds of
Self-doubt, despair, distrust, the
Destruction of precious bonds. (Extract, December, 2020)
Over time however, the process of relational rupture and repair became significantly more challenging for both of us, as our earlier creative adjustments played out. I was positioned as the problem (my shame was a problem, for both of us!), and my attempts to explore the co of the co-creation were resisted. This was painful, as I felt so protective of, and compassionate towards my younger traumatised self, who desperately wanted to make everything ok. I also didn’t want to lose the relationship.
The work of loosening fixed Gestalten that were contributing to my capacity to be fully present under stress is ongoing. I am mindful of Kierkegaard’s wise words,
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
My understanding of this is that by remaining attached to creative adjustments made in childhood to ensure survival, I/we miss opportunities to expand our awareness and repertoire, and respond in ways that are appropriate and more attuned to the here and now situation.
I recently came across this image of a tree that had grown from a seed which had fallen or blown deep into a rock crevasse. This resilient seed survived a long, difficult journey to emerge from the constraints of its early years, from which point it had grown branches and foliage under a warm, bright and welcoming sky. I love and identify with this poignant image and its message of solidity, resilience, trust and hope, in spite of adversity. This brings me to my third and final theme, namely Love.
For me, one of the greatest blessings of retiring during a prolonged period of lockdown, has been the opportunity to reflect on significant events, and also to expand my awareness, understanding and knowledge via remote learning from and with people living in different time zones.
I missed the horses I’d been working with in my own therapy. Reflections on the totality of my equine therapy helped me see how beneficial it had been by moving me out of my word-filled world and head, and into my body. Early sessions had taught me that self-healing requires complete disentanglement from the ego. Once I had understood that and overcome my initial sense of discombobulation, the dominant mare in the herd taught me two particularly valuable lessons: firstly, to sit with humility and compassion in my vulnerability and uncertainty, in my not knowing and emptiness, and to allow everything to be, just as it is. Later she and her filly taught me the importance of moving effortlessly between playful (messy!) abandon and indignant kick back against others’ demands or expectations of me. These were two of my developmental milestones that needed completion – horses are so wise! In learning to play and fight I found freedom, joy and courage, although I am still learning to do both as well as I would like! On the journey back to the city each week, I felt as if I was returning from an exhausting but deeply satisfying day out with good friends. I felt loved and spaciously loving.
In the hurly burly of academic life, I had become preoccupied with relentless tasks and deadlines, and found little space to settle into and listen to my embodied knowing. I began to pay more regular attention to the breath and to view it as an ally and a gateway to somatic knowing. By gently noticing and staying with my own experiencing, eventually some kind of insight, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, occurred. I am sure this process is familiar to many of you, and yet, in profound grief, especially when complicated and entangled with prior individual, familial or intergenerational trauma, it is easy to forget, and for fear and shame to take up all the available space.
In his groundbreaking book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ Scott Peck (1990) draws on research undertaken in the upper echelons of the American military to highlight the key role of self-love for living a potent and good life. Self-love in this sense is not to be confused with a narcissistically preoccupied veneer but with a commitment to prioritise one’s own physical, mental and spiritual needs. The purpose being to enhance the capacity to selflessly be alongside and fully available for others, whether that be as a partner, lover, parent, neighbour, leader, colleague or citizen. This made such sense to me, and I turned my attention to finding ways to fill my own rapidly depleting reservoirs of loving kindness, patience, compassion and sensitivity.
In the vast world of zoom learning opportunities during lockdown I found three particularly resourceful. The first of these was continuing my yoga practice online with teachers and fellow students I trust and enjoy. This helped me to appreciate how important it was to maintain my therapy and coaching practice online, and to trust that together we would make the best of a difficult situation, and my online presence and genuine care for them would be enough.
I also decided to engage with some new learning and signed up for a couple of weekends, one on Jungian alchemy and breathwork, and the other Jungian dreamwork. Dreams of suicide were becoming more frequent and beginning to scare me, especially when I woke up one night bolt upright screaming, just before my body was about to hit the bottom of a cliff face. Working on my dreams seemed an obvious and sensible choice, and it was such a relief when the facilitator of the alchemy workshop stated that dreams are ‘love letters from the soul’. She talked of her own ‘death dreams’ and highlighted that in Jung’s writings, death and life are viewed as a unified whole, as Yin and Yang, interdependent aspects of the whole. The familiarity of her language was comforting.
She also explained that death of an aspect of self enables and releases a new relationship with the emergent self, in and of the heart field around us. I took much comfort from these weekends, as the facilitator shared so deeply and humbly her own experience of encounters with life and death; she brought Jung’s ideas and imagery vibrantly to life. I had not realised how talented a painter he was, and embarked on a journey of exploration, not just of my own rich dream life, but also of Jung’s writings and influences on Gestalt theory and practice. There is such a lot I had not learned in my own training!
The notion of symbolic death has stayed with me, as it ties in well with my equine learning, and the importance of emptying the mind, watching a sunrise or a sunset, hugging a tree, observing or stroking a cat, sitting with emptiness and not knowing, opening up inner space for being and feeling connected to something greater, and experiencing that somatically in my heart centre, with compassion.
During moments of intense heartbreak from all the loss, feeling broken and shattered, nights were restless, sleepless and my capacity to breathe through exhaustion was almost non-existent. Over time, I learned to appreciate these times as part of a field in which so many people are heartbroken, feel devalued, invisible and hope-less. Reconnecting with nature was the only thing that would soothe my heart and soul, and I became interested in exploring a nature-based path to spirituality.
The second online course I chose was an introduction to Irish Celtic Shamanism, a four-part training, which spoke profoundly to my longing for connection at the time. I was fortunate during this period to be caring for my mother down on the south coast. Aged 94 and living independently in her own flat, she is now quite frail and lockdown meant endless days alone once her carer had left. I viewed this time as a privilege and enjoyed nurturing her, meeting her in her ambivalence about dying and spending some heart-connecting times reminiscing, laughing and crying together; in those moments there was no sense of the familiar lack, only love and appreciation for all I had gained as her daughter. In a workshop with Bert Hellinger 25 years earlier, he had suggested I go down on my knees and thank my parents for giving me life. Memories of doing that with interest (but without conviction) resurfaced, and I felt myself living that experiment in real time with a full heart, through every touch, look and word. She felt loved and knew she mattered, and I felt her reciprocity in the way she received and appreciated what was happening. A precious gift! Whenever she had one of her extended naps, I took the opportunity to walk down beautiful, wooded chines to the beach.
I experienced these walks profoundly differently; more at peace with myself, and aware of a different energy moving through me. The sea air was cleansing my lungs and, as if mother nature was speaking to me, I felt my heart opening up to let in some of the natural beauty around me. These natural allies that had been there since my childhood but I had never seen them, accessed them, nor allowed them to impact me in the same way.
In the traditional shamanic way, there were a lot of imrana, or active imagination journeys, and during one I connected with a strong animal presence and energy that has been a palpable and stabilizing ally at several key points in my life. However, when she appeared during one of my walks one day, she came much closer and I felt able to hold power with her, and to feel her in me. This was a wonderful feeling, and for me these were moments of pure love and joy, of being at one with the natural world and at peace with myself.
As I commit to taking more responsibility for my part in the global challenges we face, I hope to make a very small contribution to reducing and repairing some of the damage to the planet. To support me with this task, I signed up for a further year of learning and am experiencing the Irish Celtic version of the medicine spiral. Having just completed the ‘North direction’, or winter, a time associated with death, the emergence of the new and wisdom, we are about to start our second ‘direction’, namely East, for Spring. I can’t wait!
The final online resource came leftfield – totally unexpected and unplanned. I had the privilege of joining a Mastermind group. Intrigued by its name, I signed up for a free Mastermind tasting offered by an executive leadership coach and trainer, whose blog I have followed regularly since meeting him (briefly) at a GISC Community weekend on Cape Cod. Mastermind is a powerful vehicle for bringing people together around a theme or question and gives each person sacred space to bring their own questions, concerns, successes and struggles to the group. Group members then share their own noticing, resonances, and any relevant experiences or resources, to support or challenge the speaker. The speaker then identifies what is most figural and useful to them before passing the space to another. I really enjoyed the tasting session, met some interesting women, and appreciated the ease with which Achim, the facilitator managed the time, and the process.
I was therefore delighted when I was invited me to join a new Mastermind group, designed for people approaching the ‘Fourth Act’, or penultimate stage of their professional life, and who would be willing to use the opportunity to move their intentions forward with support. The group has been a revelation to me – a gender balanced and multi-cultural, multi-racial group of highly competent, committed people with integrity and huge hearts. In this group, all eight of us make heartfelt, strenuous efforts to lean in and support one another, to build our connections between sessions and to hold one another accountable. There is no hiding place!
Key issues for society, such as those named at the start of this piece are embedded in the membership of this group, and a feature of our conversations, which are due to continue for another three months. In this group all parts of me are welcome and seen, without judgment, and it is a meeting place where my personal work and my professional concerns and questions all collide and are shaken out to help me move forward with grace and more confidence than I would have had alone.
I wrote this with appreciation and gratitude for everyone who has been with me during lockdown, those I have lost and missed, and those I have unexpectedly gained. I feel privileged to have met and known you all.
Kierkegaard, S. (2004; original in Danish, 1849). The Sickness unto Death St Ives: Penguin Classics
Whyte, D. (2018) Consolations: the solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of everyday words.
Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press