Awakin Calls » Laura van Dernoot Lipsky » Transcript
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky: Sustaining Ourselves Through Trauma and Overwhelm
Guest: Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
Host: Pavi Mehta
Moderator: Angela Montano
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of Service Space, a global platform founded on the simple principle that that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us.
Pavi: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening!. My name is Pavi Mehta and I am really excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call -- welcome, and thank you for joining us! The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life -- speakers who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today, our special guest speaker is Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. Thank you again for joining today's call! Let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call -- today, in conversation with Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. As an all-volunteer offering, each Awakin Call is a conversational space that is co-created by all participants on the call, and we invite your active involvement in the conversation. In a few minutes, our moderator Angela Montano, will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker and by the top of hour we'll roll into Q&A and circle of sharing -- where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a comment or question via the webcast form, if you are listening online via the webcast. We invite your active co-creation of this space through your shared reflections and direct engagement with our guest.
As mentioned, our moderator today is Angela Montano. Angela Montano has an extensive background in television news. She's worked with local news, PBS and McNeil-Lehrer News Hour as a reporter, host and producer. She has explored hundreds of news stories in these capacities, and in the process, she found herself tuning into deeper truths of the human spirit. This led her down the unique path that she's followed for over two decades now, as a prayer practitioner who is catalyzing a movement to rethink prayer as a new language of love, healing and acceptance. Working with people from all walks of life and of different faiths and beliefs systems, Angela approaches prayer as a process that can help heal, transform and open our hearts. It's a joy to have her moderating this conversation today, and I'm going to hand it over to her now to introduce our guest. Thank you, Angela!
Angela: Thank you so much, Pavi . I am so grateful to be here and to have the honor of being with Laura and introducing us all to this beautiful soul. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is beloved by all those whom she works with and by all those whom she serves, and you are going to get a real sense of that in a moment. And when I was thinking about this call this morning, I was really tuning into this, since I feel like it's really going to be an opportunity for healing for all of us.
When Laura was just 10 years old, her radiantly healthy mother went to the doctors. They thought at worst it was going to be pneumonia. And when her mom came back, she was diagnosed with lung cancer with a prognosis of just three months to live. And her mother endured and lived three years and those three years of Laura caring for her mother with her brother and her family and her community really began what has ignited and shaped her world today.
She is 13, she goes through adolescence as a high achiever, and she is an overachiever. And yet at night, she's in despair. She's holding it together and I think many of us can relate to that experience of holding it together, soldiering on. And fortunately at 18, she, at a very young age, she found her calling. She tapped into the the power and the fulfillment of service, and it was at that young age, when a lot of people are pretty self-absorbed, at 18, she's volunteering nights at a homeless shelter. And she went on to work with survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, acute trauma of all kinds, and natural disasters.
And still at such a young age, at 28, it really caught up to her and and she describes that time of being on the brink of, it's just that all that trauma really that she was exposed to, caught up with her. And she will tell us more about that. And that has led to her journey of inquiry into the lasting effects of both individual and communities exposure to suffering, hardship, crisis and trauma endured by humans and other living beings and and the planet itself. Now, today Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute. I just think those words together -- trauma and stewardship are so fascinating. I'm really interested in learning more about that.
And she's author of two very important books. The first one is Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. And her latest book, her new book is The Age of Overwhelm. And I love the subtitle too, which is, “Strategies for the Long Haul”. So widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of trauma exposure, she has worked with people from zookeepers to post-hurricane-Katrina survivors, firefighters, public school teachers, private practice doctors, and even people in the entertainment industry. She's part of helping to educate those people who are actors, screenwriters, about the consequence of replicating trauma on screen. And as someone who lives in Los Angeles here, when I was reading your bio, Laura, about all that you've worked with, I actually had the question -- what movies do you watch, you know? And how do you relax? So welcome to our beautiful Service Space community global call!
Laura: Thank you so much. And thank you so much for having me.
Angela: So I would love to start with what is trauma exposure and who is and isn't exposed to trauma?
Laura: Well, I think the least clinical way to think about it, which is generally how I think about it is, you know, trauma again, if we get clinical, we can get much more specific with it. But part of what we talk about with trauma is it is something that fundamentally shifts your worldview. So it's not something that was hard, that was a lot, that was really something. When we talk about trauma, it's something that fundamentally and really generally, permanently alters your worldview. When we talk about overwhelm, we usually pull the lens back a little bit, and pitch a wider tent, for that. So those, obviously those experiences are often linked.
And with trauma exposure -- you know, in terms of who -- I mean, so many people have said to me over the years, that if you are a conscious being out there in the world, you are exposed to trauma all the time. So I think one of the things that's been really interesting is helping, supporting people moving away from this perception of 'This is solely a conversation for maybe SEALS or First Responders'. And really understanding that if you're connected to yourself, and if you're not numb, and if you have some level of awareness, you know? It's, for many people, just going through your days with everything we see, everything we're exposed to. That's, it's really hard.
There's so much suffering out there. And so trauma exposure, you know, for some people it's watching, you know, folks ask for money. When you know, you could give them money all the time, off the side of the freeway, and that's not going to help the massive homelessness crisis. And that can feel traumatizing, because it is so heartbreaking. And for others, it's caretaking for a loved one, which can certainly be overwhelming and traumatizing. And then, you know countless people have careers, jobs, professions, work that they do where they have elected to, you know, have a high level of exposure.
Angela: You know, I was just at the doctor's just a few weeks ago, just an annual checkup and I was talking to my internist. And he was talking about just like how overwhelmed everyone is and just exposure to everything we see on the news these days. And he was saying how I just feel like there's nowhere, nowhere that anyone is is protected from being traumatized for a day! And then I chimed in and I go, “Well, you know, I have a friend who just moved to New Zealand and it seems like just such a peaceful society there!” And it was the very next week that we have this mass shooting in New Zealand! And I feel like so many people, like I would like to think there is somewhere that we're not exposed to trauma. But with our being such a global society today, it seems that we all are -- like you're saying, pretty much anyone with a bit of consciousness has to become skilled in how to meet that trauma. And instead of being crippled by it, allow it to shape our souls in some way.
And is that how you came to this? Did you coin this term trauma stewardship? And what does that mean to you personally? And how does that phrase speak to ways in which we can you know create equanimity and transformation from trauma?
Laura: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean many traditions talk about this and certainly Buddhism talks a lot about these different states. And so either being really attracted to something or aversion to something. And this kind of -- we talk a lot in structural oppression about the binaries and reductionistic analysis and having collapsed analysis of things. And that's what we talk about with depression, and it's something certainly that we talk about with trauma too. And I think that for many people, there can be this natural pulling back instinct with pain and suffering and trauma. And this, a bit of a resistance. And you know, neuroscientists will share…. I mean, so there's all these different... There's how Buddhism talks about it. There's how Neuroscience talks about it, in terms of you really don't want to get into resisting things.
And so I just came to think about it more in terms of how can we deeply and abidingly and mindfully care for it, over time. It is -- suffering in life exists. And not all pain is suffering, and not all hardship is suffering, and not all hard things are trauma, by any stretch. Also, there is a tremendous amount of pain and overwhelm and sorrow and heartbreak and suffering and trauma. And I think, I know for me, it was better suited for me to learn how to have an orientation, for the duration dedicating my life to trying to figure out how to care for that. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “cradling your suffering” and how to care for that, as opposed to being in this position of always having my back up. Or always being on my heels or something. And so that, to me, is where that orientation of trauma stewardship came from. And both really, in an individual way, but also in a collective way, with all the work that is done out there. Again, whether the work is caretaking in your home or raising your kids, or showing up in your community. Or the countless fields and jobs dedicated to this, as well as this much larger conversation about supremacy and structural oppression.
Angela: And how did you, would you tell us some about your personal story? About how you, from 18 to 28, you're doing all this important work in the world. And I just so adore your TED Talk. I recommend anybody to check that out, it was the first TED Talk delivered from inside a woman's correctional facility, that TED Talk you did in March of 2015. And you know, you said there was a time you felt like, you know, I'm doing God's work. Step up or step out of the way. You know? You were in that “Go” mode! And then how did you go from that to being one that is willing to cradle your own suffering? And how did you make that transition? And how has it changed you, Laura?
Laura: Well, I made the transition very ungracefully. It was a series of, it was a series of things, really. Other people pointing out to me how just how much I was just really, really, really struggling. You know? I was -- like you said, I was deeply involved with all this work, and I was very cocky and very arrogant and very self-righteous. And you know, I was in an age where I wasn't parenting at that time, or have kids at the time. And I didn't have a lot of outside responsibilities at that time. And I was surrounded by a bunch of people who were healthy, without outside responsibilities, had a huge amount of stamina, and a lot of fire in the belly, and a lot of commitment. And we worked all the time, and in a wide range of fields. And we did it with a lot of passion, and we did it with a lot of commitment, and we did a little lot of tenacity, and a lot of political framework behind it. But we didn't have any kind of a trauma understanding, at all, in terms of how to sustain.
And so over time, as you know, when you are exposed both to the depth and breadth of the volume of all of this -- it is going to have an impact. And so it was having an impact on me! But I was not, I had zero insight into that. And you know, that's what we talked about in that talk, about just how I came to have that understanding. But it was, you know, it was late in the game. And it was very, like I said, ungraceful. And it was after a lot of harm had been done certainly to myself. And I'm sure I was highly unpleasant to be around. And then I just, from then, started trying to repair and rebuild and sort things out. And I think was very readily able to, I just, I was very open to talking about it. I didn't feel like any privacy around that piece. I was like -- wow, check this out! This is like a trip, to get this close to kind of losing my mind entirely, you know? And then, you know, that was 32 years ago.
It's still true today that many of us are isolated. But certainly then, there was a ton of isolation around this idea of vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, compassion fatigue. So I think in my talking about it, person after person was like -- “Yeah, I got it! Me too! Struggling as well! Yeah, I totally hear you.” And then just one thing led to another, in terms of talking more about it, and then talking more formally about it, and then doing trainings on it. But it's been, it's been decades of -- I still am sorting it out, because obviously it's a daily practice, to have this exposure, which I still have in my work, and then to try to reconcile it. And have a life that is not totally just entirely dictated and governed by being numb or being cynical or being hopeless. So it continues to be a process. But for me it was there was nothing conceptual or theoretical about it. It was all deeply lived experience!
Angela: Right. And when you say, you know, your loved one saw it first, they pointed it out to you,what were they seeing? And for any of us who are listening, who are going like -- “Wow. I really am relating to this. I'm exposed to a lot of trauma,” where do they begin? Where do we begin to acknowledge the impact of trauma exposure on us, whether its first-hand, second-hand, you know? What did your loved ones see? And how does one begin that process of self-awareness that you were willing to begin?
Laura: Yeah, I think that part of what very hard with this is -- it's often cumulative. So I think that's one thing to remember is that, it's not -- you don't overnight lose your sense of humor, you don't overnight become super-edgy, you know? You don't overnight become obsessed, right? That's generally not what happens. It's generally cumulative, which can make it very hard certainly for the person experiencing it themselves, but also for people's loved ones, because they can be like -- “Wait! I feel like we used to go out more. Didn't we used to go out more?! I think we used to go out more or we used to laugh more?! I think we used to laugh more! Didn't we used to laugh more?” So it can be like this. It's generally much easier for other people to see. But even for them, when something is gradual and cumulative and incremental, it can be much harder to gauge.
So I think some of the the primary things that we pay attention to is: One, your world can get smaller and smaller in terms of whatever you're struggling with, whatever you're grappling with. Given your level of commitment and dedication to it, it can be very challenging to be around people who are not equally committed to that. So if your whole work is being exposed to sex trafficking or HIV/AIDS or sexual assault or drunk driving -- whatever it might be, and then if you find yourself hanging out with people you used to hang out with, who, first of all, don't get it necessarily; second of all, maybe don't want to talk about it; third of all, might not have some of the learned awareness you have about what could be homophobic, what could be transphobic. There's just a different level of consciousness. Or, if you just come to think, with your work, it's so important, so then you're not willing to go hang out with your friends who sell real estate, right? So there can be all this judgment that creeps in. There can be self-righteousness that creeps in, and then there could just be the sense of, what we hear all the time from people like, "You don't get it. You just don't get it." So then, one thing you can see is people's worlds kind of shrinking a little bit. Like, the only people you want to hang out with are the other people who are thinking exactly in alignment with you, and it can feel kind of intolerable to go to happy hour with your friends, who are working retail or something. Even if they can be doing nothing particularly (wrong and they're) absolutely lovely (asking) "Hey, how was your day? (You respond) "Fine." (And they ask) "Do you want to talk about it?" (And you respond) "We just did." You just don't want to get into your stuff. You don't want to talk about it, or you want to talk about it all the time.
So that's one thing, is you can start seeing this real rub between how people spend their time, who people spend their time with, and that really deep sense of isolation that can creep in. It's like, "The only people who understand this are other people are doing as extreme stuff as I'm doing." Now that's not just on the job, because certainly caretakers feel that as well. You know, if you're taking care of somebody who's got cancer, Lou Gehrig's Disease, or if your child is really struggling with autism at this point and you're hanging out with other people, you can have that sense, "Man. They just don't get it." That can feel really, really tough.
Then it gets, of course, harder if, as I was doing, and many of my colleagues were doing, that if you then layer that with some kind of, "What we are doing is God's work and all this other stuff is less than." So, that's one thing. I think sometimes humor can get really, really challenging, that we can lose the sense of humor we used to have. Instead of the absence of humor, we can use a lot of cynical humor.
We find that people often times are very distracted. A lot of times, what people's loved ones will say is that you're not present. They'll say, "You not present." Part of what they mean is physically (present). You might not be around that much, because you're working all the time, or engaged doing other things all the time. But you're also then, once you are around, you're just not. You're still absolutely not present. You're very, very distracted.
We can see a change in people's addictions and even if it's not getting high all the time or cocktail hour at 2 p.m., but that you know people can get really, really loaded on caffeine, and can start eating differently. And adrenaline is a very powerful addiction for most people and there's no shortage of adrenaline. I mean, just a news cycle. Even if you're an organic gardener, and you're listening to the news all the time, you can be flooded with adrenaline.
So those are some of what we think, that it's called the "Trauma Exposure Response" where it's not a cycle, but there's a number of, a constellation of what we see that manifests for people, both individually, but also, in their movements, or in their communities or in their departments, or their organizations (or) agencies.
Angela: That's very helpful. So Trauma Exposure Response. Losing your sense of humor, becoming obsessed, edgy, feeling like other people don't get it, because they're not doing the work you're doing, wanting to talk about it all the time or like you're saying, not talking about it at all, having difficulty traversing in other milieus of people, who are maybe beloved by you, but aren't doing what you're doing, distracted, not present.
So if those of us listening are relating to that and we go, "That's me! Trauma Exposure Response. I think I exhibit some of those characteristics." How do we begin the process of moving from going to those things like you're saying, the addictions, the adrenaline-junkie tendency to want to just rev up all the time? What are the practices that one can do to shift that sense of isolation within this Trauma Exposure Response? How do we bring ourselves into greater balance and health and wholeness?
Laura: I think the good news with this is, that there are countless things that can be done, and many of them don't take any additional time and don't take any funding, or you don't have to have the financial capacity for it. So many of them are really a reallocation of where we put our thoughts and headspace and an increase in mindfulness. Some of them do take time. But the vast majority do not, which I think is really important because there is nobody I'm working with who is not maxed out, doesn't want anything else on the to-do list, is already feeling like they're just overwhelmed with the day-to-day. So then giving them a whole list of things to do is just not realistic. And the financial consideration is for everybody I'm working with is also at play.
So, I think part of it is simply having an awareness of, "Oh. I'm being affected" and "This is not sustainable." Easier said than done, obviously. That is a big stretch, for a lot of people because identifying that we are affected can pull up so much, not just in this lifetime, but if you believe in intergenerational trauma or intergenerational transmission of oppression, if you believe in any of that, and then also just how we were raised in this lifetime, as well as how we were raised in our fields. If you've gone to med school, if you've been in the military, if you've been through the police academy, there can be so much socialization around what it means to do this, and be cool and tough and committed and dedicated. So when I say one of the first things is acknowledging I'm being affected, for many people, that takes Herculean effort because of socialization.
Angela: I just love those two statements. "I'm being affected. This is not sustainable." Getting those two ideas in one moment. "I'm being affected. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can take it a little more. I can do. I can do. I can go." And then I think sometimes we've flipped it. "This isn't sustainable. How do I escape my entire world, my life? Where's the rock I can crawl under?" And then flip back to, "I'm being affected. This is not sustainable." But I love the idea of, as one movement, "I'm being affected. This is not sustainable." That's what is going to take you to some new possibilities, and not just being, for lack of a better way of saying it, but just flipping and flopping between those two ideas.
Laura: Yeah, and I think part of what gets challenging with that also, is that a lot of people have a very high pain threshold, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. So, for a lot of people, even if we do understand we're being affected, man, we're going to push it. We're going to push it physically. We're going to push it mentally. We're going to push it emotionally. We'll push in our relationship. We're going to push it in the workplace.
So the whole idea -- Jack Kornfield, one of my teachers, says that humans are very loyal to our suffering, and I think that is something that a lot of people can relate to. First of all, again, just if you don't believe in spirituality, but just from a neuroscience standpoint, it is incredibly hard, really really really hard, to shift how we do things and shift our minds. You can do it, of course. It's arduous. It's hard. It's often unpleasant. So I think, for many people, people will really push it, either because just that change piece is hard, but again, also because looking at socialization is imperative.
I think there are so many cultural pieces around this. Again, there's so much of how we're raised, indoctrinated from a really young age with misinformation and disinformation, and then there's the intergenerational piece, which I think really is poignant for a lot of people. So I think one of the most important pieces, of course, is having some realization of, "I'm being affected" and then understanding, "We all are. There is nobody who is exposed to suffering, hardship, crisis, trauma, overwhelm who is not affected." But that doesn't mean that we're able to just settle into it. Nor does it feel like a big hug. Then understanding it's not sustainable, and then understanding next is that there are some very slight shifts that can be made. There is some -- like that theory of the aggregation of marginal gains. There are some incremental steps that people can take where it can make it an enormous, enormous difference.
And also just that people are not alone. But trying to interrupt that isolation, even if you're surrounded. You can be in a workplace with a ton of people. You could be in a huge family. I work all the time with adolescents -- you can never be alone and still be deeply, profoundly isolated. So I think that's the other thing -- is really interrupting that isolation. This is not just you. This is not just you in your head. This is not just something about you.
Angela: Beautiful. And when you talk about those slight shifts, small steps, what are three that you would want to give people to chew on as they consider this for themselves?
Laura: Well, these will be known to people already. There are many. In terms of three and, again, these will be reminders for people. One is, we talk a lot about how do you metabolize what you're being exposed to, either through just living your life and knowing what's going on in the world, or caretaking or having any of this work, trying to get through middle school, high school after high school and young adulthood.
One of the things is understanding that we have to intentionally metabolize what we're being exposed to, so our nervous system isn't affected over time. So then when we look at taking care of our nervous system, which again if we put it in those terms, it helps, because everybody's got different beliefs in terms of whether it's religious or spiritual or philosophical, but most people appreciate neuroscience. So if we look at just how do you take care of your nervous system? What all traditions talk about, and obviously what all of our ancestors engaged in, in some form or another, was that you intentionally engage your breath, in a deliberate way to regulate, re-regulate, and really really deeply care for your nervous system.
In terms of what the research shows us, being in April 2019, some of the most efficient, most effective things you can do is that, unless you're medically advised against it, you would try to, six days a week get your heart rate up and break a sweat; that you would do something every single day that is going to help metabolize, purge, allow this to wash through you, so nothing's accumulating in your nervous system, as well as really take care of your brain chemistry, take care of your neurotransmitters, tend to what is so prevalent for so many folks in terms of depression and anxiety and any number of related things.
So, breathwork, engaging in breathwork, it's been around forever. All of our people have done it. All traditions talk about it. And in terms of many people's lives right now, if you can get even a short 14 minutes, 20 minutes, 24 minutes, 30 minutes, you don't have to train for a triathlon here, but you do have to do something every day to get the heart rate up. Break a sweat and with an intention of ‘May anything that is accumulated in my nervous system in the last 24 hours be removed from my nervous system, be flushed through my nervous system so I have a chance at another 24 hours of bringing my highest self to whatever it is I'm doing.’ The good news there is that can be a hike, and that can be doing stairs, and that can be dancing, and that can be swimming, and that can be doing one of the eight million free workouts online, and that can be boxing, and that can be playing the saxophone. I mean, it's really limitless what that can look like.
And of course, with what we're talking about, you're doing it not in front of the news. You're doing it not while you're complaining about your colleagues the whole time. You're not exposing yourself. You're not listening to horrible, violent music or playing Fortnight while you do it. So whatever you're doing, even if it's 14 minutes, you have some intention of, "May anything that is accumulated in me be released." And you're doing it with the real intention of moving, just flushing your nervous system. Again, from the last 24 hours, but many of us have a backlog that we're working on from back in the day. That is one practice.
Another practice that people find deeply meaningful, and of course, it's been around forever and there's a lot of research around it, particularly for those people who would say like I can't get into this "New-Age-ness" like, folks who want some research, is having some kind of a gratitude practice, some kind of a practice, that allows us to focus on what's going well and to be able to notice what's going well and pay attention to what's going well. That can be setting alarms on your phone that help to remind you to do that, where you, just a few times a day, bring in your mind something that's going well. A lot of people, before they go to sleep or when they wake up, they write down three things that are going well. Many people have reminders go on throughout the day, that it takes you no time, and you just bring it to the forefront of your mind. something that's going well. You think of something that's going well.
Another piece I think that is really very, very important and it's going to take time, and you're going to need to remind yourself to do it, is just continue to check in with yourself on what your intention is. Why am I doing this? And is there a way to do it differently? Is there a way to not do this, if it is not serving me anymore or serving others anymore? Now that could be hard on the personal front, in terms of, you know, why am I parenting? Why am I in this committed relationship? Why am I caring for my brother-in-law who is still living with you? Why am I caring for somebody whose illness is going on for awhile? On the personal front, that can be more fraught, but I still think it's really important even there. We still need to check in and remind ourselves we are making choices and ask what our intention is in those pieces. Certainly with work, any of the work that people have chosen to do, we need to be asking ourselves these questions every single day -- Why am I doing what I'm doing? And that we really remind ourselves that it's not being done to us. Our lives are not being done to us. We are in a relationship with all of this.
Angela: Beautiful. I love those and I really appreciate your framing those in relationship to our nervous system. We must take care of our nervous system when we are in these positions of service. And yes, even though some of these things you've said have been around forever, it helps to really frame them within the context of the breath work. This allows the nervous system to be balanced, as does exercise getting the heart rate up, and the Gratitude practice. I really love this idea of asking questions: Why am I doing what I'm doing? What is my intention? I'm a mom of a teenager, and I think about times I've reflected on my own parenting. There were times I went unconscious and suddenly, perfectionism was my intention. I am driving an agenda that I didn't mean to be driving, but I was. So, only that question -- but what is my real intention? This enables me to really check in with what is running me right now. That's good for one's work, one's life and such.
So I think those are really valuable and useful. I want to just share a couple of the reflections that some of our community members have have written in and have you respond.
Laura: Great; that's great.
Angela: Jan writes in: “My adult son had surgery for a very large bleed in his brain and was in ICU for three weeks, before it became clear that he was not going to recover in spite of many stretches, when it looked hopeful. During this time, I remained unnaturally calm and hopeful and stayed present with him, talking and sharing with him how proud and glad I was to be his mom. I massaged his limbs and shared my touch to let him know how much I loved him. He had previously shared his wishes about dying with dignity. He said, if he was going to be dependent on feeding tubes, etc. and if he would become bedridden, needed 24-hour care, and if it was left to me to carry out those wishes, I needed to let him go - which I did as graciously as I could. Now nearly five months later, I believe I'm experiencing depression due to the trauma that was created for me in spite of the decisions I made out of love and respect for him and his wishes. Most days I have no energy to do anything other than the most essential tasks of getting through the days and I can rarely cry, although I feel it welling up inside. I know I need help, but cannot find the energy to search for it. I have much experience with getting help for many other losses and other traumas in my life, but can't seem to reach out now.
I have a loving family who wants to help but don't know how and I don't know how to communicate what I need. The days are long and the nights are longer. My second son lost his life to suicide many, many years ago, and that loss is being experienced again, as I try again and again to process this overwhelming feeling. I'm 75 years old and want to live my life with energy and love and be able to have moments of Joy again. The only peace I have is knowing I will always be their mom forever. Thank you for an ear for my losses.”
Laura: I mean, there are no words. These are times that we would be better served in some form of a ritual, or a sweat lodge or a circle. There's really no words. I think that a few things to remember is that there's nothing surprising there, that that is all very consistent with what we could expect, right? Anybody who can relate to that -- you're in good company with where we hold it together, and hold it together, and hold it together frequently, to get through those overwhelming times. And then finally when there are the conditions in place to be able to let it all just disintegrate and kind of decomp, that we do that. I mean, your nervous system and your mind, body, spirit -- however you want to frame it -- we're only holding it together for so long. And some people do that for weeks and months, and some people do it for decades. But then when there is a time, where it's safe to really just disintegrate, even if temporarily, that you're going to do that, right? Of course it's understandable and it's something to be expected.
I think what we would want to look at, for example, what was shared there, or with other people can relate to this, is again, isolation can be very, very damaging. Sometimes we just don't have the life force to be able to -- that experience of "I want to reach out. I can't even pick up the phone. I want to go outside. Putting my shoes on is way too exhausting." And so I think this is where, if we can make sure that we're not isolated, and if we can have some people who we can really designate as "you are the person to come over five days a week and get me out of the house. I'm not going to want to get out of the house. I'm not going to be pleasant. I'm not going to be chatty. And I'm really not going to want to go to that class at the gym. I’m not going to want to go on that walk. I'm not going to want to do any of this, but you're the person who's going to come help me do this, right?" So that you have somebody who is coming or some people who are coming, and they're the people who are helping you get out of the house.
Then there's the people who are going to vet for you a counselor. Researching a counselor can be really challenging and unpleasant and take a huge amount of energy. So then maybe some of these people who care, in one's life, can help research a counselor. And then they narrow it down to three people. And then you only have to go meet with three people and see which of those people [work], right? Counseling is one option. It's not for everybody and it's not, certainly as we know, the only piece. But it could be helpful to have somebody to go and just articulate "on this day, this is what was so hard." All the things that might be held in, that are just so excruciating would, having been through that and been through the previous loss as well, having somebody you can go [to], and if it's meaningful, good, productive counseling it really can be a very sacred space. But the idea of just on your own trying to find a counselor, of course might just be too foreboding. Who wants to take that on? So if somebody in one's life could be assigned to that, that could be something.
I always appreciate people being discerning about who they're spending time with, but again, keeping a very close eye that we're not being isolated, and that we're not isolating ourselves. So again, if there's somebody else who's like "Okay, I'm going to say I don't want to do it, but it'd probably be good for me to go to the farmers market. I'm going to say I don't want to do it, but we used to always go to that reading that happened monthly, so just come pick me up for that."
For years -- people talk about this. I remember once when I worked at the trauma center, I had somebody I worked with and I happen to see her years after, which was very, very rare. But she said, "this spring is so much more beautiful than the previous spring." She had not noticed any blooming for years. She had not noticed any change in the weather for years. She had not noticed any birds chirping for years. This can take a long time to move through our system, nervous system wise, to say nothing of the heart and soul piece. And so I think being able to have realistic expectations of the time frame here. Now that doesn't mean not going out, not seeing people, and just over time, emotionally, just becoming more and more within ourselves. But it does mean counter to what happens, at least in the United States a lot, is that we expect people to be just regrouping after a few days or a few weeks, which is wholly unrealistic.
So I think if one is blessed enough to have people around who are really willing to do something, then somebody kicking into project manager role and being like, "You two are the ones who are going to be the gym people, you're going to be the ones to find the counselor people, you're going to be the ones to find things in the community just to get out." And some of it is all we can do is just get through our days, without causing any harm, until you get to a place that maybe at some point you're like, "Oh, I've actually, for the last 12 minutes, I haven't been having flashbacks, and I actually enjoyed being on this drive, and this is the first 12 minutes in months that I haven't been just feeling haunted by PTSD." And you're just putting one foot in front of the other here, metaphorically, and just trying to get to a place where there's a freedom from suffering, as the mantra goes, and the roots of suffering.
Angela: Right. I'm thinking for Jan, I'm just so grateful she wrote this reflection to us because this is a reaching out in and of itself, and in some way we're here holding some space for her and that is piercing the isolation to some degree. I love your permission. It takes what it takes, in terms of time. There's no pushing or rushing, and I really like this idea that even though you don't know what the people who love you can do, like I don't even know what to ask for, just "I need help. I don't know what to ask for." I like your idea of okay, maybe I could assign someone to be sort of project manager.
I know a few things that are going to help, maybe getting out on a walk, the simple things. That is a beginning space and I really appreciate, too, just noticing the five minutes here, the five minutes there, where I wasn't thinking about it. Okay, how do I allow that to grow? I have one more question for you before I turn this over back to Pavi.
Laura: The one thing I should add there, too, is just any, any, any compassion that one can muster for oneself -- that she can muster for herself. What she's gone through and what other people are going through is just ineffable. And so any compassion, even if you're not somebody who's well-versed in self compassion, but any compassion or understanding that it can feel absolutely impossible to survive what she survived, and what so many other people are surviving. And so any ability to have compassion, of course, I would not be feeling a very strong life force, given what I have just been through, given what I have been through years ago, given what I am now remembering. And having some compassion, which doesn't mean that we lower what we expect of ourselves, and we don't want folks colluding with us, again, going into a deep retreat -- that might not be constructive. I don't mean like an intentional retreat. So it's not colluding but really, in a very, very supportive way making sure… Jack Kornfield says if your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
Angela: And this goes back to what you're saying about cradling your suffering. I really do believe self-compassion is in some ways a more important thing to develop than even self-esteem, because if we can have compassion for what we move through, we're going to find a way to be in some openness to love. So that is so good. So thank you.
My last question is you talk about how important it is not to numb in your TED talk, in some of the different things I have read and researched about you, and to be present, to process this trauma. But what I want to know is what is the difference, in your mind and in your own practice, between what might be self-soothing and taking a break versus numbing? Like if I'm in bed and I'm watching six episodes of some comedy on Netflix, am I numbing or is that self-soothing? Like I'm just taking a break. How do you determine what's numbing and what's changing the channel?
Laura: Yeah.. that is really really important. It is an important distinction. One of the things that we talk about with numbing is, starting with simply having awareness of it. Right - and we are not getting delusional with ourselves of, "Am I numbing out?". I mean we are all numbing out. At some point. So one piece is being just really really honest with; the questions are -- when am I numbing out? how am I numbing out? why am I numbing out? to what benefit, you know, am I numbing out? what's it doing for me? And do I have a plan, and do I have a way to bring myself back to a full range of feelings? Right - So it's not that, if this is happening, OK! But what's my plan around all of this? And what is it looking like for me? Right - and to what benefit? And then, what's my plan to be able to, again, bring myself back, really, intentionally. Right?
So, I think that, you know, some people will talk about, "I just get into my garden, and then.." and they’ll use that as an example of numbing out. Right? I am not worried about the gardening. So what I get worried about is when, folks feel like the only way to get through something is to numb, and that there is not a plan to come back to a full range of feelings.
Or with many of the -- there are so many work fields that will tell you like -- look, this is the only option here. Like this is the only option. Obviously if you do this, you are going to become numb. This is what's going to happen. So what I want to help people re-frame is that you want to be intentional about it, and it is not a default position. Right? So, that is one piece - just having awareness of that distinction.
And then, I could answer the part about how we are numbing out. Is it through the screen, is it through being busy? Is it through care-taking or focussing on other people? So there is a lot of places that we can numb out, that are really, you know, I mean where we get a huge amount of props from people -- "Look at you, like I don't know how you are doing that? You are on eighteen committees. Going to every rally and march. You know?! Taking care of forty people. Wow!" So this isn't just some of the addictions that we think about. But we want to be, really need to be, really, really honest with ourselves about like ‘Here is also me numbing out’. Right? And you want kind of open it up in your mind about what all that can look like. Right?
And then I think that, if you are going to even spend a whole weekend, “I am just going to do everything I can -- a whole week dedicated to Game of Thrones, followed by Shonda Rhimes, followed by Fortnite - followed by whatever.” I am much more comforted by people, who are like, “Here is me, diving into this. And like I can't wait.” What I worry a lot about, are the people who are just like, you know - "Netfilx it keeps auto-reloading, and I don't know how to press pause. And one thing led to another. And then I am ordering at Uber Eats." Where people don’t even have (a sense of this) -- twenty minutes turn into twelve hours. Right? And I hear these stories from people, all the time. People will talk about, pulling up to their house and probably before they just go in, they want to spend some time with themselves. They get on their phones, and they start doing whatever on the phone. And then, it was going to be two minutes turning into half an hour or 20 minutes -- you know, a long time. Kind of when you lose yourself in it, without being intentional. Right?
So that's what, some of what you are talking about in terms of "Is this soothing or is this numbing?" And then, of course, there is the other things that we are doing that are numbing, that, that again - this is what I need to be able to do, I need to do this. Whether it is any of the addictions, what we are going for is an intentionality. We just want to be very, very intentional about, what's up for me, why am I doing this? What's the method with which I am doing this? And you know, what is my plan around this? You know - like if you need to hunker down for screen time, for two days straight, then you are being really mindful about it. You know - if you are going to get high - you know I feel like - I just gotta smoke some weed, and do this for a little bit -- right? Or if I am just going to - my numbing out is going to be eight shots of Espresso today.
Or whatever it is -- you are being accountable, you are being responsible, you are in a direct relationship with it. As opposed to it overtaking you and you know, getting into that -- there is no option and obviously if I am going to do this, then I am going to be numb. Does that make sense?
Angela: I like that. I like the key being the intentionality. Because what I don't want to have happen is people to be exposed to all this trauma and then you know -- to me it is a very fine line between decompressing and you can’t always breath work, meditate, exercise your way through it, right? And I like the intentionality being the lynchpin. So I thank you so much Laura, for this very productive, very resourceful conversation. And thank you deeply for your work. And Pavi, I want to turn it over to you now.
Laura: Thank you so much. Really, really enjoyed my time with you. So thank you so much.
Pavi: Thank you both. Angela and Laura for such a rich first hour to our call. I want to remind listeners , that if you have a question, you can email us online at email@example.com, or simply hit *6 on your phone to be added to the queue, if you are listening on your phone.
Pavi: In the meantime Laura, I am going to jump in with a couple of questions, of my own. One of the things, I was thinking about, as you were talking is, how I have always been struck, by how doctors for instance, you know - I have heard certain doctors speak - and when they talk about the most powerful learnings - is they are learning from their patients. Teachers learn from their students. And I was wondering in your decades of experience, working with people with trauma, are there any stories that come to mind where you just, I am sure there are many, are there any particular stories that you can share with us, of an experience, of learning from the people you worked with?
Laura: I am trying to hone into one - there is a judge I can share - that I will forever be appreciative of this judge. And I think it was part of what he said, but it was also -- that he was a judge. And if you know any judges, it is just given their training and given what they do all day, I think it is particularly remarkable that this came from this judge. But we were - it was at a conference - it was all judges, and so he was sharing with his judge colleagues. Which for some people can be - you can be less inhibited and for some people it can be more - and we were talking about gratitude. And you know, sometimes when we talk about some of these concepts, if people have preconceived notions about them, or how they view whatever we are talking about and about how they view themselves -- some people can have a really immediate aversive response. And the word gratitude for some people - it is like nails on the chalkboard. And we were talking about it and this judge started speaking and what he shared was, and I just still remember, the room was so quiet, and he said... We were talking about the incredible importance of having a practise, daily, multiple times a day, where you notice anything that is going well. And anything that you can be grateful for. And he started talking and he said, "I will force myself to stay sitting on that bench, after the entire courtroom has cleared out, and I will force myself to pour through the entire day's docket, and I make myself find, everyday, find one ruling I made, that possibly will obliviate harm in one family's life." And he said, "If I do not do that every single day, I will drown in the hopelessness of all of this." And that is something I think about all the time.
Pavi: Yeah- I was thinking as you were talking how - how we respond to what happens to us. You know - it's like there is such a potential there for - the phrase that comes up to me is like - ‘let's not squander the suffering that comes our way.’ You know? By either having it get stuck in us, or you know, pushing it down or suppressing it, ignoring it. But to cradle it, as you said, it also allows it to move, not just through us, but move us into the next state of our own growth. I was wondering, I noticed that you were the founding member of the "International Transformational Resilience Network". And I love that kind of the interplay between trauma and resilience. And I know that this is a network that supports the development of our capacity to address climate change. And I wonder if you can speak a little bit about that?
Laura: Well, they're doing, the work that's happening there, so many people, they're doing tremendous, tremendous things and I am not deeply involved now at this point, just given other things that I'm involved in. But they they have so much wonderful things going on that they're doing. I think one of the things that I can share about the climate piece is, well, I work with a lot of climate scientists and environmentalists and ecologists and so I have the privilege of getting to work with many people involved in those fields.
I also, there's really not ever a time when I'm doing this work with any group I'm working with, where we don't spend at least a little bit of time talking about what is happening with the climate. Because one of the things that I think that is so important for us to remember is that, you know, regardless of how anybody feels about it or their beliefs are with the climate or global warming, anything related there, as I think it is really really imperative that we do, that we are very aware and keep it the fore of our mind, that if things continue to go the direction that they're going with the climate and weather, you know, and again this can extend to everything from water, to air, to lead, and to storms and weather patterns...
But for so many people I'm working with, the folks who they're serving, who are historically marginalized, historically oppressed, historically underserved, those are going to be the folks, even if these are agencies and organizations that there's nothing directly linking this to a climate conversation, but the countless people I work with who are working with folks who are marginalized, those are the folks who will continue to be disproportionately affected by what is happening with the climate and with weather. And if anybody has survived anything related to this, we know that one's ability to rebuild one's life in the aftermath, God forbid, of something happening climate-related, weather-related is so intimately connected to the resources one has, and the capacity one has, individually and collectively, and really one’s privilege. I mean the the privilege that we have, whether to be able to access resources or to be able to relocate or to be able to rebuild. And so it is something I have, this is something I've been talking about for a long time and I am continuing to talk about it because of my own concern and because of what I'm seeing.
Pavi: And I know you address this in your latest book, The Age of Overwhelm, as well. And where you do talk about strategies for how to move forward and to do that with integrity and anchoring perspective. Could you speak a little bit about what prompted that book to be born?
Laura: Well, with both books they were born because I was asked to write them. I'm really not a writer and it is a similar story with both books that I was asked to write them to such a degree that I then agreed to write them. And, you know, the circumstances were different for each book, but there was enough that transpired that I felt like if there's something I could do that would possibly be helpful and you know be a contribution and that I had again the privilege and the support to be able to write.
And if it helped even the few people, you know over the years who had asked me to write it, then it would be worth it. With 'The Age of Overwhelm' there was really, and I talked about in the book, but there's just more and more ‘a look in people's eyes’ about I think an an overriding sense of being at a loss and a sense of despair, and the sense of -- like I don't know, so many folks just feel like ‘I don't see a way out of this’. And so a hope with that book was to try to, one of things that can be very hard with trauma, of course and oppression, is feeling that you don't have options, that you don't have choices. So part of what we try to do with that book, while not having it be too much, was provide as many strategies as we could to help people see that there are some very, very tangible ways through.
And another piece, honestly with that book is, it was really, really important to us that we wrote something that might be accessible for adolescents and we're talking about you know, young adolescents through young adulthood, what many of us say young adulthood, but it's still Neuroscience-wise adolescence, and that's because of the number of adolescents who I work with and just the incredibly overwhelming terrain that countless adolescents are navigating right now, that we wanted a book that would be, of course, helpful, meaningful, relevant to adults and also one that, hopefully, could provide some kind of affirmation and validation and interruption of isolation and some really practical concrete things that adolescents could also do. I'm continuing to be really concerned with how much they're up against.
Pavi: I know many of our listeners work with adolescents, many of them from underprivileged backgrounds, who are experiencing, you know, enormous amounts of not just trauma exposure, but trauma, and I was wondering what are some of the strategies or the guidance that the book provides them that you can touch upon here for our listeners?
Laura: Well, some of it is not separated out of course by age. But some is what we shared earlier in the call. Some other pieces are you know, this whole conversation about media and exposure to media, mindfulness around media, social media, we do talk a lot about that and we cite some research. I would say, you know, one of the more despairing moments for me in doing the research and we focus grouped with adolescents and interviewed a bunch of adolescents for the book, is every single adolescent I talked to, and again adolescents we’re talking, you know, 11/12 through the age of 25. That's how I'm defining it, which is the Neuroscience definition of it. So it's a big age difference there. In terms of the teenagers we worked with also for the book, I mean every single one would talk about how much harm they knew that social media in particular was doing in their lives and was causing in their lives and in their friends' lives. And not having an off-ramp, not having a way out of it, despite efforts to manage it, right? To be on the screens less and to be having platform purges, and to limit what they could do there, but even, they've talked about just how much of middle school takes place on their phones, how much of high school, how much of that experience takes place on their phones.
And so that is something that we do spend quite a bit of time talking about, is trying to be very, very -- I mean being realistic, you know? The point is not to go out and run over your phone with your bike or your car, being realistic about this -- but understanding, again developing some awareness of “When I am on Snapchat, do I feel better about my life?” You know, when I am rolling through people's curated lives posted on any of these platforms, do I feel more connected, do I feel calmer, do I feel edified? Or do I feel like all the research says, which is, more isolated, more alienated, more lonely, all of that, right? So some is just the awareness of how am I feeling because it's such an addiction for, I mean it was designed to be addictive, right? And for so many of us, it's such an addiction. So even getting people to slow down, like do I want to pick up my phone right now, do I want to wake up to this? Do I want to go to bed to this? Every time I'm standing in a line, every time I have any quiet moment, do I need to be picking up my phone and scrolling? So some is helping, we talked quite a bit about just slowing your roll there, and having some awareness of how you're feeling about it, how you're interacting with it.
And then you know, on the other hand, what was very inspiring with the research is so much of, and it's intuitive to a lot of people, but some people like the research around it, the research coming out around being outside and being in nature and I think for a lot of young people, they really connect with that too. It doesn't have to be that you’re kayaking, and then you’re snowshoeing, and then you’re summiting something. But this can just be like -- take it outside. And there's so much cool research coming out about that, you know, whether it's soil or trees or being in open spaces.
Pavi: That's great. And so, so important. I know these these messages strike a chord for me and I'm sure for many of our listeners, and I was wondering how as a parent, knowing all that you know and being so exposed to this research, and the harms as well as the ways out -- how do you navigate that line of, you know, allowing your children to find their own way, while also making sure they are anchored in what is wholesome?
Laura: Well, I'm sure, you know, not very well -- which is, I'm like everybody about my parenting. You know, it's very challenging! I mean, it's challenging, you know, for anybody who does this work of trauma, it's challenging just from a hyper-vigilant standpoint, because it is hard to not be catastrophic and it's hard to not see everything as a potential threat and it's hard to, you know, just not always be braced, right? And worst case scenario. You know, I mean anybody who does this work, I mean, it just takes you no time to go to the catastrophic piece of all of it.
And so I think, I was just in Maryland yesterday and I was talking to a mom who is despairing about her own parenting and part of what we were talking about is one of the things that I think is so helpful as a parent to focus on, is just cultivating our own impulse control, you know our own, which they say, after the age of 25, it should come back online for you and you should be pretty solid with impulse control. But so many of us I think really, really struggle with that ability to pause in between. You feel something, you know, you have some internal reaction and then whether it's a look on our face as a parent or something that comes out of our mouths or the tone we use.
And so what she and I were talking about yesterday is just trying to really work by the ability to have some impulse control, because anything that our kids can present, I mean we could we can go again to that catastrophic place or even that cynical place, right? And instead trying to tap into that, asking yourself like to what benefit is what I'm going to say? Like, is there any benefit in what I'm about to say? And again, with kids who know us so well -- the tone, the look in my face, how I'm holding myself. Right? And understanding that, of course one of the benefits of doing this work and then being exposed is, you know, perhaps one has more wisdom, perhaps you have more insight, perhaps you have more knowledge, you know, there is some good knowledge to pass on out there about, you know, how to be moving through things in a sound, safe constructive way, all of that.
But I mean, the majority of what so much of us share with our kids, those of us again doing this work where we have kind of haunted sense of everything that can happen is, you know, we can be really, really unhinged. So I think being able to have some impulse control and just ask like, you know, what's my intention in imparting this, right? And would this be better channeled into a counseling session or a boxing session or an acupuncture session, and then I can have some intentionality with actually what is it that I wanted to share with my kid. And not even the major moments, but just even even how we react to anything that they're sharing with us.
Pavi: Yeah, and that really can translate into any relationship not just parenting, just having that form of awareness. And we do have a series of questions that have come in online from our listeners that I want to make sure that we have time to get to. So here's the first one. It's from a listener, Gayathri in India, who asks about climate change trauma, feeling the loss of rhythm as seasons shift, worrying about water scarcity, wildfires, earthquakes. As we can see how we've collectively scarred the Earth, how do we deal with the overwhelm on that matter and the fear that our small acts might not ever add up to saving this beautiful home we have?
Laura: Well, I really appreciate that question. So thank you so much. And that is something, yeah, that I, as you know, you're in good company, that many of us are grappling with every day. I think there's, I mean there's a couple pieces, there's what we can do about it, you know, so figuring out again in a sustainable way what constructive things we can do about it.
Now, there are some people who, their entire careers are dedicated and they're at the fore of this and you know, they're doing massive things around this. And then there's some people who have stopped using straws and who are taking public transportation more and who are you know doing zero-waste households. And so I think we want to remind ourselves that there is a very, there's a big continuum here of the doing piece. I think what I also want to speak to in that question is allowing oneself to grieve, allowing oneself to mourn, allowing oneself to feel very, very, deeply the fear and the panic and that kind of sickening sense in our stomachs of, "I don't know. I don't know how this is going to go." Right? And there's people who know so much more than I do who actually have a sense of how this is going to go possibly and and then they're having to contend with this on a whole different level.
So I think one thing -- there's the doing piece around this. And being really thoughtful about what we're doing and how we're conducting ourselves, even again, even if this isn't our career, and we're not leading the fields in this, that we're all doing our part of what we can. And then I think there is allowing oneself to have the space to grieve and mourn and fear and let our hearts break, and be able to feel deeply, so then we can reorient day after day to contributing as skillfully as each of us can, with the means that we have and the resources that we have at hand. But I think that sometimes, if we are not allowing ourselves to feel deeply and to be able to constructively move those feelings through us, then as we talked about earlier we can get really really saturated in our nervous system and you know, to say nothing of mind, heart, all of that. But we can become very saturated and just completely paralyzed and think that there's nothing we can do. And then that quickly of course as we know goes to hopelessness goes to helplessness even can go to cynicism. And so I think one piece that's really important is making sure we're tending to the feelings we have around this and that we're really honest about that.
And again, you know releasing that, so that's what you would take into a boxing, you know training session. That's what you take on a run. That's what you would take, you know, to your dance that you're doing. That's what you would take to your saxophone playing but you do (release it) and you’ve got options about how you're going to move that through you. But I think that is an everyday experience of how am I going to move this through me, so I have enough internal space within me to actually figure out how can I today contribute skillfully in some way to this?
And so I think it's that balance of being able to, you're not solely sitting, you know, as you were saying -- ‘early childhood education and our big feelings piece’ -- of course, that's not what we're doing with the solely feeling piece. But if we're not honest about how enveloped we are in grief or fear or a kind of this low-grade dread panic, then I think it can be really hard to contribute an act constructively.
Pavi: Thank you. Thank you for that. It relates really well to our next question from one of our callers, Chris in the Bay Area who says, "I was struck by the quote by Thich Nhat Hanh related to your recent book. 'Compassion, yes! Compassion is happiness itself.'" And I'm curious about your personal avenues to compassion. I notice in myself compassion arises spontaneously often and at the same time I'm contemplating how to cultivate it more intentionally, how to put myself in the way of compassion, so to speak. What enables you to access the deeper compassion in you?
Laura: That's a great question. I, you know, as we know, there's things where it's not challenging to feel compassionate, you know, in a lot of different realms. I think for me what I have tried to be really deliberate about is noticing the places, where I'm very low on compassion, and that it can be really, it can be very, very challenging to access. And then trying to have some constructive practice around that.
So, you know, one of the practices that I talk about in terms of compassion, and this is for those moments when it might be hard to feel compassion or there's any number of things going on that it just, there can be a lot of noise, is I'll try to stop myself, just like literally, and this can be something politically that's going on, or this can be you know, if it's with, you know any relationship. I mean, I’ll notice the lack of compassion and then I'll really try to just hit like a hard-stop, to stop myself. And one thing that I've come to ask myself is, "Laura, have you ever -- I'll be asking myself, "have I ever knowingly or unknowingly caused another living being harm?" Right? And I try to just kick in some amount of humility, right particularly when I'm noticed that I'm like really feeling super-edgy about something. And you know, then I immediately have I ever knowingly or unknowingly cognitively harm? Yes, you know, I mean like countless times a day. Before my kids leave for school, I'm causing harm by like screaming at them and trying to get them out on time and whatever, right. So like the answer is a resounding, "Like yeah, of course, like literally countless times a day."
And then I can quickly kind of adjust and re-regulate to a place of like so I know what it's like to fall down. I know what it's like to make countless mistakes a day. I know what that is like. And then it helps me be present to what the next step will be -- if I am going to have a critique or engage or provide feedback or you know? Either orientation in my head, or there's some action to be taken, whether that's personal or professional. But then I can come at that, from a place of ‘I too know what is like to make mistakes. I too know what it's like to have blind spots. I too know what it is like to be totally uninformed and. Oh my God, like I absolutely did not track that, did not see that.’ So then coming from a place of being able to, then when I'm actually engaging, from a place of humility and from a place of the interbeing, of ‘I know what it is like to also have this experience.’ And so it's not that duality is like, you know, you're so jacked up with this and I'm so not, but it's much more from that place of interbeing, and that to me has helped me with the compassion piece. Just that, just being able to kind of pull up every day and be like -- what I don't know about this is everything. Right, just like what I do not know about this is everything. And I think dropping into that place of interbeing can be really helpful.
Pavi: We're running into the last five minutes of our call but I want to ask the follow-up part of a question from our caller who asks, "I'm reflecting on a subtle fear that I carry of entering back into counseling work after graduate work that included an environment of quite extensive vicarious trauma. At the same time, related to compassion, I know how fulfilling it can be for me to hold space for others, witness their truths and sojourn with them towards greater wholeness and interconnection. Any reflections you can share on the balance between serving others and serving oneself."
Laura: Well, if I'm understanding the question right, I think this is where again we're well suited. Keeping asking myself, why am I doing this, right? What's my intention for doing this? Is there any trauma mastery involved in me doing this, right? So like we're getting very very clear and just vivid with why am I doing what I'm doing? And then it just, it reminds me, you know, Howard Thurman, who I quote all the time, as you know -- don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
You know and Pema Chödrön says, death is certain, time of death is uncertain, how do you want to spend your time? And so I think part of, for me, of an important practice, and again, this isn't, you know, you can do this when you're walking your dog or you're sitting in traffic, or you're washing dishes, but really daily you're asking yourself, with what's going on in the world, with what's going on in my life, with what's going on with however I'm spending my time, you know, do I have what it takes today to bring my highest self to this? Like do I have an A-Game left with this? You know, can I, can I engage in this without causing any harm, to myself, to those around me, to those who I am aspiring to serve? And that we're really, that is a daily conversation, going back to the intentionality piece of to what benefit is this, right?
And that whole piece of caring for others and caring for ourselves that it's just that we, that we’re not colluding with martyrdom, you know? That we understand that, that we really, to be able to engage with this as right speech, right contact, right action. We're wanting to be very very deliberate and self-reflective about whatever it is I'm electing to do, however it is I'm electing to serve. Can I do that and make sure no harm is being caused to my own health, right, to those around me who enter my life and then to the folks I'm aspiring to serve? And part of that, make sure we are very, very, clear on what our intention is. That we, if we are engaged in this because of trauma mastery, we're aware of that. If we're engaged in this because we feel obligated, because we got a master's degree or a PhD, or this is what other people think we should do -- we're aware of that. If we're doing this because you're close to retirement or we can't find our resume on our hard drive. Whatever it is. We're just really clear on why we're doing what we're doing. And then we're honest about does that feel that that is, you know, is that rooted in our integrity?
Pavi: Beautiful, beautiful answer. That's the wonderful penultimate question to help close our call. We do have a final question, Laura, that we ask all of our guests and that is what can we as the extended Awakin Call Service Space community do to help further and support your vision and your work in the world.
Laura: Well, that is so lovely. I think, you know, an ongoing concern, as I've shared, that I have is making sure we interrupt folks' isolation. So I think what is helpful is just for anybody who can relate to this conversation or know somebody who might be able to relate to this conversation. It doesn't have to be my work at all. But that we continue to communicate with folks that they are not alone in terms of trauma, in terms of vicarious trauma, in terms of overwhelm, and that there are a number of resources out there and there are video clips out there and there are, you know, TED Talks out there and there's resources and there's books and there's groups and there is stuff online, and just that we continue to make sure that people know that for anybody who is exposed to any of this, there are going to be consequences to it and that there are, there's really truly countless places to get support around it.
Pavi: Wonderful, wonderful. And we'll make sure to send out some links to your work and websites to all our listeners who RSVP'd for today's call. And you know, before we end with a minute of silent gratitude for all that we've received, I just want to say that, you know, it's been a privilege for us to get to listen to you and all that comes with you invisibly into this conversation, the decades of work and commitment and all the learnings and the insights that you've gleaned over the years through your dedication in the field.
I'm reminded of a line from your TEDx talk "Beyond The Cliff" where you say, "One of the things in your ability is to bring your exquisite quality of presence to what you are doing and how you are being." I feel like in so many ways you've reminded us of that agency that we each have and I know we'll be holding that as we as we go forward into our own, into our own life. So thank you so much, Laura.
Laura: Thank you so much, thank you for everything, thank you.
Pavi: We will close with a minute of silent gratitude, the wish to pay forward what we've received and have it find its way into the world wherever it's needed most.
Pavi: Thank you. Thank you again all.
Laura: Thank you.
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