The Work That Reconnects: A Resilience-building Practice

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by Constance Washburn

 

I have been taking a deep educational and personal dive into trauma in the past year. The Covid pandemic, the social and political upheavals, as well as the continued “natural” disasters due to global climate change have revealed deep seated trauma wired into my nervous system. Even with years of “work” on myself and many resources such as nature connection, yoga, mindfulness practices and The Work That Reconnects, I am still getting pushed outside of my resilient zone and into fight, flight or freeze responses. I am white, privileged and still able to earn a living without risking my health, but the current state of the world is much harder for most people and it is creating more trauma on a global scale.  

We are collectively acting out generations of trauma, continuing to harm not only ourselves, our fellow humans, our democracy–but also our Mother Earth.

We all have experienced trauma and stress and how well we are able to process it has a huge influence on our lives.  We act out unprocessed trauma for years to come. We are collectively acting out generations of trauma, continuing to harm not only ourselves, our fellow humans, our democracy–but also our Mother Earth.

Millions of people around the globe are being traumatized by abuse, wars, climate disasters, oppression, racism, mental illness, disease and isolation.  We as a species do not act wisely under ongoing stress. When we go into fight, flight or freeze, which are responses to traumatic events and ongoing stress, our thinking brain quite literally goes off line. This was helpful when we needed to get away from a tiger immediately, but it is not helpful in figuring out ways to deal with climate change, social injustice, species extinction and racism. 

 We humans need to learn and share ways to rewire and regulate our nervous systems as well as nurture ourselves so we can function in ways that will help humanity and the planet thrive.  I am learning this is possible and essential if we are going to create the world we want for future generations. 

Facilitators can focus on the capacity of WTR to build resilience,  foster wellness,  calm nervous systems, and empower wise action.

IThe Work That Reconnects is in fact a body of work that builds resilience and empowers wise responses to the crises of our time. And as more and more people worldwide are affected by the world’s many crises, they are  coming into workshops stressed and traumatized.  WTR facilitators need to be more “trauma informed” as we do not want participants to get retraumatized or “ triggered” by the Work. We want them to experience the Work as a process for building their resilience in the face of the Great Unraveling. Facilitators can focus on the capacity of WTR to build resilience,  foster wellness,  calm nervous systems, and empower wise action. 

I have recently been trained in the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) of the Trauma Resource Institute. I chose this model out of the many I have tried in the past year because it is simple, science based, tested all over the world and it works.  Debra Clysedale, a long time somatic therapist, and I are planning a series of 5 webinars March 29th to April 26th noon- 2pm PST to explore the neuroscience of trauma and practice the 6 core skills of CRM related to the WTR Spiral.  Learning and  integrating these skills and understandings into WTR facilitation can enable facilitators to create a safer and more transformational space for building resilience. 

Here I will not talk in detail about the CRM tools as it is best to experience them live.  Check out the Trauma Resource Institute website.  I want to outline, through a CRM trauma informed lens, what I understand as some of the resilience building skills that are already part of the Work That Reconnects’ core philosophy and practices as well as how to use them in a more trauma-informed way.

Core WTR Beliefs and Practices that build resilience 

“If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.”  ~Joanna Macy

Broken Hearted © by Carolyn Treadway

WTR believes in the innate wisdom, resilience, courage and capacity of people to act on behalf of life in meaningful ways. This is revolutionary and shifts the focus from what is wrong with us to what is right with us. A key to building resilience is seeing people as resilient and helping them see themselves as resilient and empowered in the face of disaster and trauma. Those who have been traumatized often feel they have no choices and are powerless. It is important when leading WTR to clearly give people choices in how or if they participate in a practice. The WTR trusts each participant to find what they need within themselves and does not tell them what to think or feel. 

“ Feeling pain for the world is natural to us as the food and air we draw upon to fashion who we are. It is inseparable from the currents of matter, energy and Information that flow through us. .. We are not closed off from the world , but integral components of it., like cells in a larger body. When that body is traumatized, we sense that trauma too.”  (J. Macy and M. Brown, Coming Back to Life, 2014)

WTR normalizes our responses to stressful and traumatic experiences. Humans respond to these experiences in similar ways. Our responses and our feelings are common reactions and do not make us weak but rather are a reflection of our deep humanity and interconnection to the greater web of life. Growing our capacity to be with the emotions caused by stressful experiences expands our resilience zone and thus our ability to act on behalf of life in difficult times. It is important that facilitators acknowledge the normalcy of the emotions and the responses of fight, flight, or freeze to the stressful events of our time. There is nothing “wrong” in these responses and there is much “right” that can come from our post traumatic growth.  

Living systems evolve in variety, resilience and intelligence; they do this not by erecting walls  of defense and closing off from their environment, but by opening more widely to currents of matter/energy and information. (J. Macy and M. Brown, Coming Back to Life, 2014)

Reconnecting to ourselves, to all humanity and to the more than human planetary community is the core work of WTR. Connection is healing and powerful. Feeling connected to ourselves, co-workers, friends and family gives us strength and makes us feel safe. And our connections to the earth, nature, animals, as well as spirit enables us to act with the greater intelligence of the whole living system. When we do not feel alone, when we feel connected we are more resilient. The Work That Reconnects is a needed gift to the world at this time. 

Life can only take place in the present moment. If we lose the present moment we lose life.  (The Buddha)

Being present to what is or being mindful is a core underpinning of WTR. The Work is deeply informed by Buddhist practices and philosophy and many start workshops with meditations for getting in touch with the breath and the body. It is only in the present moment that we can know what is true. Awareness of the breath, body and body sensations are keys to being present and touching into our emotions. And for some people who have experienced trauma, asking them to close their eyes, be in their body and be aware of their breath can be scary. There are many ways to come into the present moment. We can ask participants to feel their bodies in the chair or the temperature of the room.  We can ask them to look around the room and notice different colors or walk around feeling their feet making contact with the earth. We also can be sure to ask people what feels pleasant or joyful at any moment to counter our habit of focusing on the negative or painful. Both are usually present. Being able to be with both or moving between the two means we are in our resilient zone.   

Art is a constant agent of transformation and is indeed the Soul’s drive to health.  (Cathy A. Malchiodi, PhD.)

Poetry, art, music and movement are woven into the fabric of the Work That Reconnects. Making art, masks and drawing our feelings are creative outlets which allow us to tap into that which is larger than ourselves and are powerful healing tools for stress and anxiety.  The arts take us out of our habitual thinking and the grip of the Business as Usual world.  Readings of poetry can shift our perspective. Shared songs, dances and music can bring us together to form community and feel safe by very literally syncing up our nervous systems. These are very ancient technologies used to overcome trauma and stress around the world. Joanna Macy always starts workshops with the Elm Dance which creates safety and group cohesion. 

The Resilience Spiral

The Spiral is a resilience building process.  We expand our resilience zone by going around the Spiral repeatedly, resourcing ourselves and deepening our capacity to be with our pain, then seeing with new eyes and going forth.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a revolutionary act and a healing act as well.

One of the first tools for building resilience is to identify a person, place, animal or spiritual belief that resources you, uplifts you, nurtures or sustains you. These resources calm our nervous system and bring us into our resilient zone where we can respond intelligently to the ups and downs of life. In WTR when we start with gratitude we are helping participants find that resource which opens their hearts and also helps them be with the pain for the world without being pushed out of their resilient zone into fight, flight, or freeze. Gratitude is a revolutionary act and a healing act as well. It improves mental and physical health and it enhances self esteem and empathy as well as helps in overcoming trauma. Gratitude practices and solidifying our resources are important for working with Honoring our Pain for the World in a safe way.  

Honoring Our Pain for the World  

As facilitators of the WTR we know the transformational power of being with our pain, grief, rage, fear  and despair. Our grief, as we know, is the flip side of our love, our rage is our passion for justice, our fear is our courage and our despair is an opportunity to open to new possibilities. This transformational process is an amazing example of human resilience and it requires that we stay present to our feelings and stay in our bodies. This is possible if we are well resourced and do not get “triggered”,  retraumatized or pushed out of our resilience zone, which can shut us down and take us out of our bodies. Since we are living in such traumatic and stressful times, more people are experiencing stress reactions. But brains/nervous systems can change and given resilience tools and identified resources WTR participants can navigate this transformational process. Our ability to be with the feeling without getting overly activated allows us to be more fully present and of benefit to ourselves, our communities and the planet in these uncertain times.

Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes 

WTR practices and teachings help us experience our interconnectedness with all of life. This understanding of interbeing is ancient, all indigenous cultures around the world have known this and now “western” science is catching up and rediscovering Oneness.

Roots Seeking Connection  © by Carolyn Treadway

My nature connection has been a primary resource for dealing with my early childhood trauma. My best friend as a child was a tree. That Copper Beech tree held me, consoled me and made me feel not alone. I also connected early,  as a baby in an incubator, to the Earth and understood at some very deep level that she was the ultimate mother. Practices for touching into interconnection and sense of belonging to Earth are important resources that WTR provides for all experiencing trauma and stress reactions. 

Belonging to the human community is also a resource and through WTR workshop practices we come to understand with New Eyes our interdependence with our fellow humans. As mammals we are wired for connection so when we feel disconnected we can get very fearful, pushed out of our resilient zone and then lose our cognitive ability to think or act in the best interest of ourselves or life itself. The WTR practices which help participants reconnect, feel community support and feel heard are key to building resilience, calming the nervous system and bringing the thinking brain back on line.   

Going Forth  

At the end of a workshop or training we facilitators aspire to send people off with a heart full of active hope, an inspiring vision, some next steps and with gratitude for their lives, interconnection, creativity and capacity to be of benefit to the Great Turning. Yeah!! These are great for building resilience but, as we know all too well, we can get out there in the “real” world and so easily get overwhelmed, pushed out of our resilient zone, with all the demands created from both personal and global crises. 

There are many skills and tools from WTR that support resilience and empower going forth. Facilitators can remind participants of them before they leave.  

  1. The Spiral is an amazing resilience tool which we can use in all aspects of our lives.  People can review the practices they have done in the workshop and talk about how they can use them in their day to day lives to rewire their nervous systems to be more resilient, less anxious and more effective. Gratitude practices; remembering what resources us, journaling, dancing, singing and being in the body.  Honoring their Pain for the World so that they find their love, passion, courage and creativity; Seeing with New and Ancient Eyes,  reconnecting to nature, seeing allies everywhere, systems thinking, connecting to that which is larger than ourselves. Going Forth, envision the future you want, follow your bliss,  stay connected, take action together.
  2. Review the healing and calming practices they experienced that they can continue at home; Gratitude, art making, music, movement, poetry, presencing, breathing , mindfulness, nature connection, being present with awareness of the body and sensations.
  3. Facilitators can offer participants this list of the Help Now skills from the Community Resilience Model. These science-based simple activities regulate the nervous system and bring us back into our resilient zone. These are useful to give at the start of a workshop so participants can practice them when they feel they are getting pushed out of the resilient zone while doing the Work.
    • Drink a glass of water.
    • Look from side to side slowly, noticing what’s around you.  
    • Listen to the sounds around you
    • Feel the textures of surfaces; desks, chairs, clothes, trees, water
    • Take a walk noticing the movements of your arms and legs and  your feet touching the Earth. 
    • Push your hands or your back against a wall, a door, a tree. Notice the contact with the surface and note the muscles pushing. 
    • Ways to stay connected: Provide contact information and if possible before leaving have participants take time to network and create a plan to reconnect. 

This has been a revelatory process for me to look at the Work That Reconnects through the lens of building resilience in the face of trauma and ongoing stress. The WTR is a powerful set of practices and concepts that have helped countless people transform their lives, reconnect to others and the Earth as well as to their own aliveness. In other words, it builds resilience!

There has been a tendency to focus on the Honoring Our Pain stage of the Spiral as the most important part of the WTR. Yes, it is essential for us to feel our pain and it is critical that we stay in our resilient zone where we are able to stay present with the pain and bring our best thinking and creativity to bear on the issues facing us. To do this we need to resource ourselves using the other parts of the Spiral and WTR practices such as gratitude, arts, movement, silence, nature connection. We can come to see ourselves as resilient, able to travel through the Great Unraveling towards the Great Turning with open hearts, no matter how painful.  

New Life Emerging © by Carolyn Treadway

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