Skip to Content

The Courage to Play

Back in 2013, Bruce Springsteen pulled a request from an audience member at a concert to play Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Which he had never performed before. Which his band had never been prepped for. He hums and strums and struggles to find the right key. The band is looking mystified and frustrated. And then he takes off. After a few bumbles the band kicks in. And then the joy begins. Everyone gets caught up in the pure creative fun, and you can’t watch it without laughing and dancing (even if in your desk chair!).

In today’s fractured and fractious time, it often feels to me like we’ve lost the joy of playing together and risking together. When we’re anxious our instinct is to hold ourselves tight, to contract, to hesitate in case we get it wrong. I know I feel that way. Watching this video and feeling the bubble of joy break through me, I realized how much I need this feeling, and how I need to let myself play!

What would happen if we tried and got it wrong? The world would not crash down. What happens when we hold back? Our souls close down. Bruce Springsteen had the luxury of a band that would play along. Who in your life could play in your proverbial “backup band” while you risk making mistakes and feeling foolish?

I never thought of play requiring courage. But clearly it must, or we would do it more often. Children at play are often fearless. At some point we realize there are consequences to our actions and the fear starts shutting us down. But that child in us still longs to play. My vow to myself is to let her come out and tease me into risking being the fool. 

All best,

 

 


Terasa Cooley
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs offer places and practices where you can freely explore life’s big questions with a spirit of play.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Becoming an Ally to Indigenous People

This blog is based on Coleen O’Connell’s chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education, edited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane, Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie Jones, and Deborah Spragg. 

A Passamaquoddy elder and healer, Fred Pollack, lives in a small house perched on a granite hill overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay where Canada’s Maritime Provinces meet the United States. He smiles broadly as I greet him with a hug as he arrives at the field station for his teaching stint with Lesley University graduate students in the Ecological Teaching and Learning MS program. He listens generously as students introduce themselves and he makes comments and sometimes jokes about the information that is shared. For the next three days we will talk with him over meals, go hiking in the woods to gather medicinal plants, get sticky with the sap of a balsam tree, climb ladders to tap pine trees, and sit with him at a Passamaquoddy sacred site as he speaks about his life growing up on the edge of this continent.

Some of his stories are painful to hear, especially those about his treatment at the residential school set up specifically to assimilate Indigenous children. Fred has many stories and they are shared either in small groups while hiking through the woods, while eating together at the dining hall, or in the larger group as we sit in a circle. By the time he leaves, most of these teachers can now say they have their first Native American friend. And by sharing so authentically with Fred, the graduate students determine that their teaching about Native Americans will never be the same again.

I could not bring students to this ecological field program in Maine without introducing them to, and including, the voices of living Indigenous inhabitants. It is through such experiences that students begin to identify that their own concerns for the natural world are congruent with the teachings of Native cultures. They begin to see that becoming allies with Native cultures is an act of reciprocity that holds within it a kernel of hope for our world.

In my first days of the field program, I survey my mostly white graduate students. I ask the following questions, (and I encourage readers to take this survey, and see if there are areas about which you could learn more):

1) How well do you know Native American History in the US? How did you learn what you know?

2) Are you familiar with the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny – both concepts within US doctrinal history that have vast influence on the oppression of Indigenous people on this continent?

3) Do you know who are/were the original native people of where you live?

4) Do you have a Native American friend? What tribe? How did you come to know this person/family?

5) Have you ever visited a Native American reservation or community? Which one(s)? What was your experience?

6) Do you include Indigenous cultures in your teaching curriculum? If so, describe how you do that.

 

It has been my experience that most white educators have a very limited understanding or knowledge of Native American history and as a result do not incorporate any Indigenous cultural work into their curriculum. More shocking to me over the years is how many students state that they had no idea that there were still tribes organized and living in America. Most cannot name the local tribe that inhabited the place they now call their home.

Becoming an environmental educator has afforded me the platform in which to correct the ways in which we teach about Indigenous people. As I came to understand the degradation of the environments of planet Earth, I began to also understand that Indigenous cultures had a well-developed ethic brought from thousands of years living and thriving with the land.

In my teaching I not only encourage teachers to become friends with Native people, but to go further and become allies. In becoming an ally, we use our own white privilege to speak out about injustices, to teach culturally accurate history, and create a consciousness about the rightful place of Indigenous people in our diverse country.

When the students return to their home places from the field program, one of their fall assignments is to discover who the Indigenous people are in their bioregion. It is in this assignment that I begin to explore with students how to become an ally to native people.

It starts with research and curiosity. Google, historical records at the town library, books written by local authors, organizations in the area all contribute to this knowledge.

By beginning to pay attention to the history and presence of Native people in their bioregion, educators can begin to search for Native organizations or Native presentations that are offered locally. They find social events where native people are present and as speakers and workshop leaders, Pow Wows, and other events sponsored by the local tribe.

Classroom educators can start by inviting a Native person to present to their class; not once, but multiple times. Each time the relationship with the Native person becomes stronger, more familiar, and a friendship begins to form. Becoming aware of Native history, different from the one most of us were taught in our American History courses, will hopefully provoke a desire to speak in support of native initiatives moving us from friendship to being an ally. Supporting the efforts of Native people around the world to retain sovereignty of their lands, to prevent further degradation of Earth, and to honor the diversity that makes our planet operate in healthy systems, is to speak for oneself. Native people ask us to have gratitude for Mother Earth and to arise each day in thanksgiving; a simple request.

What Native people want for their children, I want for mine. In this way we can work together to insure that future generations will have what they need to sustain them. We have only to look to our Native neighbors to find comrades in this uphill battle to save the planet for all life. We are all related.

 

Coleen O’Connell is Director of the Lesley University Ecological Teaching and Learning MS Program, teaches Graduate Education courses, and serves within the STEM Science division. She has had a lifelong relationship with various Native American cultures. In addition to many speaking engagements, O’Connell was the Maine Environmental Educator of the Year in 2013. 

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Thin Places

The following is an excerpt from Sally Z. Hare’s introduction to a new book, Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, gathered by Sally Z. Hare and Megan LeBoutillier. As facilitators of Circles of Trust®, the writers have grown to understand that thin places are best found in nature AND are created with careful attention and intention to safe and trustworthy space. They share their stories with the hope that you’ll find some pieces of your own story, that you will discover portals to your own thin places.  

Thin places have become, for me, a way of naming the space where I have the best chance of nurturing the courage to seek the undivided life I want to live. In a thin place, I see my connectedness to everything around me. I see the wholeness that is my birthright gift. So our new book, Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, a collaboration between 25 CCR facilitators, has offered the chance for me to go even deeper in that topic.

The idea of thin places goes back to the ancient Irish people, before the Celts arrived sometime after 500 BC, before Christianity came to Ireland. Researchers have uncovered signs and symbols of the beliefs that there was another world, a parallel world, and that thin places were the portals between the two worlds.

For that earliest Irish community, a thin place was an actual physical place. Over the next several thousand years, the definition of thin places expanded to include particular times of seasonal shifts, such as Samhain, the Celtic holiday when the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds were transparent. Some thin places became known for their energy, rather than for being an opening between the worlds; people would go to these places to absorb their power.

Thin places are places of mystery, holy places that allow humans to connect more easily to their spiritual selves. In thin places, we have easier access to Mahatma Gandhi’s “indefinite mysterious power that pervades everything.” In a thin place we have a better chance of seeing what Thomas Merton called a hidden wholeness in Hagia Sophia:

There is in all things an invisible fecundity,

a dimmed light,

a meek namelessness,

a hidden wholeness.

This mysterious Unity, and Integrity, is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

Harvard theologian Peter Gomes writes:

There is in Celtic mythology the notion of “thin places” in the universe where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. To seek such places is the vocation of the wise and the good — and for those that find them, the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal. Mountains and rivers are particularly favored as thin places marking invariably as they do, the horizontal and perpendicular frontiers. But perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.

The writers in this book have come to understand that thin places can be created with careful attention to safe and trustworthy space. These authors are all Kirkridge Courage Fellows, which, by prerequisite, means that they are facilitators prepared by the Center for Courage & Renewal. The Center was founded by Parker J. Palmer – and what has come to be called Courage Work (it started as The Courage to Teach® – and over the past 20 years, is also The Courage to Lead® and Circles of Trust®) is grounded in Parker’s writing and philosophy.

Throughout our book, thanks to Parker’s generosity, you will find insights from his writing. We begin here with Parker’s insight on creating space from A Hidden Wholeness:

  • We know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, analyzing reality, parsing logic and arguing its case: such spaces can be found, for example, in universities.
  • We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions into play, reacting to injury, expressing anger and celebrating joy: they can be found in therapy groups.
  • We know how to create spaces that invite the will to emerge, consolidating energy and effort on behalf of a shared goal: they can be found in task forces and committees.
  • We certainly know how to invite the ego to put in an appearance, polishing its image, protecting its turf and demanding its rights: they can be found wherever we go!
  • But we know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to make itself known. Apart from the natural world, such spaces are hard to find – and we seem to place little value on preserving the soul spaces in nature.

So thin places are places where the soul can show up. The poet Mary Oliver says “Nobody knows what the soul is”; nevertheless, we share with you what we mean by the word in our book’s glossary! We began the Kirkridge Courage Fellowship Program (KCFP) out of our yearning to create for ourselves that kind of space Parker writes about, the space we were committed to creating for others. We took to heart Parker’s admonition that the natural world was the best place to begin – and we chose the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center for five retreats over two years from 2014-2016.

As you read Parker’s writing about The Movement Way, you’ll get a sense of our path. This book represents, for us, the step of going public. After all, we are the ones who have been facilitating this Courage Work, who have embedded the principles and practices into our lives.

Now we want to share our stories with you. We do so because of our belief in this idea from Frederick Buechner:

My story is important not because it is mine…but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is yours.

We hope you’ll find some of your own story in our stories, that you will find portals to your own thin places.

Dr. Sally Z. Hare, Singleton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Coastal Carolina University, is president of still learning, inc. (www.stilllearning.org), and one of the pilot facilitators of Courage work. She lives in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where she is happy to share her ocean with her husband Jim R. Rogers, and dog, TBO. She can be contacted through e-mail: couragetoteach@sc.rr.com

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Something Good to Do Together

“How do you get people to be willing to come together across differences and really connect?”

When someone asked me this question recently, something about the way it was asked caught my attention. I suddenly focused on the “willing to come together” part. Much of the focus seems to be on trying to find a magic formula for difficult conversations. But I hadn’t really dwelled upon the part that comes first: 

Why would people come? 

I suddenly remembered a piece of wisdom I received from a great mentor of mine: the author Tillie Olsen. In addition to her acclaimed literary contributions, Tillie was at heart a community organizer. I brought a community problem to her: a particularly nasty conflict was developing in a church community I was working with and I was trying to get them to work together. 

Her advice was this: “Give them something good to do together.” 

And this memory connected with Parker Palmer’s sage notion: “When all of our talk about politics is either technical or strategic, to say nothing of partisan and polarizing, we loosen or sever the human connections on which empathy, accountability, and democracy itself depend. If we cannot talk about politics in the language of the heart…how can we create a politics worthy of the human spirit, one that has a chance to serve the common good?” 

Conversations about issues, about political positions, about solidly held opinions will always be polarizing. They require people to put a stake in the ground. But it starts by finding ways to talk about what we have in common. When we find the common good we want to bring to our communities together, we may loosen the gridlock we find ourselves in. 

Here’s an example of people speaking heart to heart that I love:

How do you bring the language of the heart to your communities?

All best,

 

 

Terasa Cooley
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs offer places and practices where you can connect with yourself and other people to explore life’s big questions. 

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Getting by with a little help from my…circles of trust

It’s been a tough month, one of those squeeze points in which life throws a number of curveballs. I can juggle like the best of them and am reasonably adept at managing the difficulties that hit from time to time. It’s hard, though, when they come all at once. Without offering too much information, the recent wave falls into the arenas of health (two recent surgeries) and personal crises (let’s not go there). Either would be challenging. But in the span of a few weeks it has been a lot to navigate.

Over the past few days I have conducted something of an internal review since I have needed to strengthen my foundation, engaging in grounding and extra care.

I remember a time when my notion of self-care involved getting a good massage or enjoying a meal in a favorite restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m first in line for either of those things. (As a matter of fact, I’d take both of them today, thank you). They just don’t cut the long term mustard when it comes to the bedrock I need to keep on keeping on.

During a time of trial like this one, I go through something of a check list and it’s not frivolous – it feels like a choice between what is life giving or death dealing. Eating well? Check. Sleeping, at least as best as possible? Check. Therapy? Nah, it’s been wonderful and helpful in the past, but it’s not needed now. Meditation and exercise all in good order? Check.

I get up early and have a steady morning routine. I made a commitment to a daily set of spiritual practices about a decade ago and although it shifts through the seasons in a sweet sort of rhythm, it also has a consistency about it. I’ll start with a period of meditation, prayer and two readings, one from a beautiful almanac given to me by a dear friend, and one online by a spiritual writer I’ve come to cherish. Sometimes it’s also just sitting there looking out the window at the dogwood branches nodding in the breeze. After sitting, a long walk each morning, so by the time the world is waking up, I’ve had a couple of centering hours to ease into the day.

Early on these practices brought a pink cloud and a fervor that I sought to ‘helpfully’ offer to those around me. I cringe at remembering how I’d yap about it to anyone who might listen. (Passion and a desire to share with others? Check. A hearty dash of ego? Check, check, check).

Looking back, I think I was seeking something of a mystical bliss train, hoping to find the magic bullet that might make everything turn out alright. Over the years, though, the morning hours have become the not-to-be-compromised foundation on which the rest of life sits, there to support these times when the going gets tough.

A friend of mine once told me that she asked our mutual mentor if he had a daily spiritual practice. He told her, Yes, I do. Every day I try to be honest with myself. At the time, I thought, what? That’s all? Now I’m smiling, as I realize how challenging that really is.

In the midst of this time of reflection and mindful attention, if I’m going be honest with myself, I fall into a couple of serious and consistent traps that are just below the surface and pretty much always there.

One is that of being afraid of losing a loved one. Although it isn’t unfounded, it also isn’t very helpful. How many teachers through the millennia have addressed the negative consequences of living in fear?

The other trap is that of sliding into a mode of if only, or if I just. It’s related to that first one, surely; somewhere along the lines, I got the idea that if I (fill in the blank) then I’ll find a solution to whatever is ailing (fill in the blank). It may not sound like a revelation, but there are serious flaws in that very human logic. Really: I’ve got it figured out? The lives of those around me depend on my management? I control the outcome? Seemingly one small deception and yet the layers of missing the point are staggering.

So where do I go from here? As I continue with that checklist, am I leaning on my husband? On good friends? Maybe a pastor friend or two? Check, absolutely. But too much of that is – well, too much. I don’t want to be that girl who goes on and on about the trials of her life to the exhaustion of her loved ones. I’m not suggesting that it isn’t important to be vulnerable and yet there is a fine line between sharing and bending the ears of those close in.

Navigate life’s changes
with the support
of a circle of trust


Embracing Change:

Journeying with Grace
through Seasons of Transition

January 11-13, 2018
Van Etten, New York

Click here for details

During this time of deep difficulty, I come all the way back to what I already knew all along. We are not entitled to a particular outcome and sometimes things are hard. One of the most vital, life giving things I can do – for myself, for my health, and ultimately for my family, community, and the world, is to return, again, to a circle of trust. I’ve got monthly gatherings of folks and some upcoming retreats to look forward to, although even the word retreat doesn’t fully capture just what that powerful experience is and can be.

I need to follow that Mobius strip and sink into some wayfinding, tracing the threads that take me into solitude, alone with others, deep into my interior, where the noise settles. There in that quiet, I can finally hear my heart speaking. It isn’t an extra or something nice, it’s something I need as badly as air and water. And as much as I appreciate that daily morning practice, the quality of silence is different somehow when there are others in the room with me. There is solace there which is hard to capture in words.

After I gain some access to what lies within, it helps tremendously to have kindred souls to ask me some honest and open questions – those questions that might eventually lead to clarity, insight, or simply, a moment of peace in which I can nod and acknowledge – yeah, this is a tough one. I’ve been here before and I’ll move through it again. But here in the midst of this quandary, what lessons are waiting for me? What new perceptions and discernments is this time meant to bring?

Then, there is the looping back out to take the learnings from that time into the world since this work has never been about navel gazing – it’s about taking a deep breath and returning to the world of family, community, work – to what needs to be done out there. Roll up my sleeves and dive back in (for what else is there to do?) only now, renewed, and with some ballast under my feet.

At the end of the day, the circle of trust is the most tried and true outlet I’ve got for moving through these challenging times. It’s on my list to seek out next. A massage might be nice, but sitting in a circle is more lasting. I’ll feel the positive effects of it for months.

And it may sound over-simplified, but in the words of a friend and mentor, this shit really works.

eames-sheavly2014x271

Marcia Eames-Sheavly is a Courage & Renewal facilitator and a university horticulture educator, who has devoted most of her professional time to bringing people and plants together, whether students in the classroom, online learners around the world, or community members from New York to Belize. The recipient of national teaching and writing awards, she presents internationally and has authored numerous publications, book chapters, articles, and recently, a book of poetry – So Much Beauty.

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Sending Courage Prayers to Bhutan


In the Courage to Lead for Nonprofit Leaders retreat series co-facilitated by Ken Saxon and Kim Stokely in Santa Barbara, California, one of the exercises at the fourth of five retreats is to invite participants to design and create prayer flags.

The following morning each participant presents their flag to the entire cohort, and then the group ties them all together. The metaphor is to honor the unique creativity we all possess while allowing us to collaborate on a single work of art with a common goal, which is far more than the sum of its parts.

At the end of the retreat, the group decides where they want the flags to fly. The most recent cohort sent the prayer flags to a preschool for at-risk children and then to a facility serving people with disabilities. After those two stops, cohort member Chris Tucker offered to take them with him to Bhutan’s famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

I woke before dawn in Kathmandu to catch the daily flight along the front range of the Himalayas across a narrow strip of India to reach the remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, known for its guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness. I carried only a day-pack with a special cargo of a handmade prayer flag from the 6th cohort of the Courage to Lead for Nonprofit Leaders retreat series in Southern California.

Dodo, my appointed Bhutanese guide, met me on the tarmac in Paro airport dressed in a short robe, a kilt-like garment, dark knee socks, and hiking boots. After our greetings, I explained that I had come with a very special goal of delivering prayers for the world from a group of thoughtful leaders in my country. I opened my pack and his eyes grew wide as he unfurled each panel, every one thoughtfully designed and created by one of our Courage to Lead members. Speaking Bhutanese words in soft reverent tones, he examined the art work and words and smiled broadly. I asked him if he could help me find the right place to hang our prayer flag? He said that he would take me to one of the most sacred places in all of Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, where the breeze and combination of elements are most auspicious.

A few days later we made the six-hour hike up through the forest to a rushing waterfall. Across the gorge, the ancient monastery clung to the cliffs as if part of the mountain. In the clear mountain sunshine, we hung the Courage to Lead prayer flags among others exactly in the spot that Dodo knew was just right. Once we tied the long strand securely, Dodo said a prayer, brought his hands together over his heart and smiled. I smiled too, visualizing each of us who made the flag stopping in our daily routine to imagine our collective messages of inspiration and peace waving in the springtime breeze here on the roof of the world.

You can see Dodo hanging the prayer flags in a short video here.

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Welcoming the Stranger

What does the word “community” evoke for you? Family? Friends? Neighbors? Religious groups? The Cheers bar where everybody knows your name?

We are social creatures that need company – to know and feel known. Isolation withers our spirits. Companions call us out of ourselves, and reflect back to us what we put out into the world. But do those companions always have to be people we know?

For much of my life I have held close to myself a piece of wisdom from Parker Palmer:

“In true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with lives….” [The Company of Strangers]

As I move to a new city completely across the country from my familiar communities, and assume a new leadership position with a group of people I hardly know, I am struck anew with the beauty of connection that can happen with strangers. Unencumbered with assumptions built up in past relationships, strangers can meet as they are in that moment.

Without prior knowledge of one another the brain often seeks refuge in stereotypes – socially constructed prejudices that can lead us to avoid or fear the stranger. The divisions and polarization of our current culture give testimony to this instinctive behavior. It is a tragic gap we all live within. But when we take the courageous step of receiving the stranger as a gift of grace, we can go to a deeper place of soul connecting to soul. These encounters can be as, or sometimes more, life-giving than a meeting of life-long friends.

When I think of the communities that are most energizing for me at the moment, they are ones where people cross the usual boundaries and together create an experience of grace and joy, even amidst the challenges that diversity can bring. One such community that I’ve had the great pleasure of witnessing is The Sanctuaries: DC, an intentionally inclusive gathering of young adults who bring art and spirituality together and weave a new fabric of community. Here’s a video of a song they created called “Love Reaches Out” that shows the joy that comes as a result:

Love reaching out is indeed what our world needs more of right now. And I take courage from the model of these folks willing to challenge the easy assumptions that keep us divided. Strangers can indeed create a home together. I am grateful for the strangers who have welcomed me into my new life, my new home. I so look forward to what we can create together.

Warmly,

 
 
 
 

Terasa Cooley
Executive Director

P.S. Journey to a deeper place of soul connecting with soul in a Courage & Renewal program. Find a program near you.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Finding the Held-Back Place of Goodness in the Broken Hearts of Veterans

Before there were the concepts of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Moral Injury to describe veterans’ suffering that persisted long after battle, there was the concept of “soldier’s heart,” which dates back to the American Civil War. The place of veterans’ suffering was sought in the heart.

The heart is the place of courage (the Latin root cor which gives us words like “coronary”), but it is also a place of vulnerability to the invisible wounds of war. A bridge between military and civilian worlds for returning veterans is courage. In the military, courage is necessary to protect and defend our country. Military courage and civilian courage both come from the heart, but they look different in action. In the military, courage comes in the form of extending one’s self beyond emotions of fear and self-preservation for the good of the unit and the success of the mission. In the civilian world, courage takes the form of opening our hearts to others.

Parker Palmer has written about the courage that we need in our dealings with ourselves and with others, that we need “the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able” (The Courage to Teach, p. 12). War is one of those times when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able. When I read Parker Palmer’s description of the two ways the heart can break in Healing the Heart of Democracy, I instantly thought about the experience of veterans.

[The heart] can break “apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement…This kind of broken heart is an unresolved wound that keeps wounding us and others. When the heart is brittle and shatters, it can scatter seeds of violence and multiply our suffering among others.” (Palmer, p. 18-22)

I work with veterans every day and the pain that they carry in their hearts sometimes leads not only to their suffering, but extends outward to everyone around them in an emotional blast radius. This is the sad truth of the contagious aspect of violence. Carl Jung’s concept of “mental contagion,” Robert Jay Lifton’s concept of the “death taint,” and Sigmund Freud’s concept, of “thanatos” or the “death instinct” all recognized how violence can spread once it is unleashed. When the heart breaks apart and shatters, it causes emotional and spiritual shrapnel injuries to self and others.

Many veterans have a difficult time with the cultural shift from military culture to civilian culture. People who study culture call this “reverse culture shock” where what used to be familiar now seems foreign. Many veterans return home to find that they feel an “us and them” mentality as they cannot relate to civilians and the civilian world. Many veterans went off to war to fight to bring peace and security to the world, but upon their return home they cannot find peace in their hearts, minds, or lives. The struggle to live with a shattered heart is a lonely and isolated place to be.

Parker Palmer tells us that there is another way that the heart can break: it can break open. This is a form of suffering or sacrifice where pain opens the heart to greater compassion.

When the heart is supple, it can be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity to hold our own suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them. (Palmer, p. 22)

Palmer tells us that democracy depends on the heart being able to break open and this is exactly the struggle that veterans face as they return from war and do the work of acculturation to feel part of society again. How can we increase the chances that trauma, suffering and heartbreak will increase an individual’s capacity for compassion, rather than lead to a perpetuation of violence and trauma?

This is the question that Joseph Rael and I have sought to address in our book Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. We can look at suffering in two ways. The first is that it is meaningless and needs to be medicated, repressed, or moved away from. The second way is that it is necessary part of a process of initiation. I think this is what Parker Palmer is speaking of when he describes the different ways the heart can break, when it breaks open the pain can be used as an initiation process into greater compassion for self and others. Joseph Rael, whose Tiwa name is Beautiful Painted Arrow, teaches that there is intentional suffering and unintentional suffering. When suffering is embraced, intentionally, its energy can be used for transformation. When suffering is not accepted, it becomes unintentional suffering and we feel victimized by it. Joseph’s visionary work taught him that everyone has a “held-back place of goodness” within their hearts, no matter what they go through in life. Veterans’ challenge, and our challenge as the society responsible for sending them to war, is to create supportive spaces where we can all sift through the pieces of our broken hearts so that we can find the held-back place of goodness that allows us to give birth to compassion out of trauma. This is necessary not just for veterans, but for all of us to heal the separation and divisiveness in ourselves, our country and the world.

This blog features an adapted and edited excerpt from Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD by David R. Kopacz and Joseph Rael (pages 156-159).

David R. Kopacz works as a psychiatrist in Primary Care Mental Health Integration at the Seattle Division of Puget Sound VA and is an Acting Assistant Professor at University of Washington. His experience ranges from running a holistic private psychiatry practice in Champaign, Illinois, to working as Clinical Director of a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Auckland, New Zealand. His blog beingfullyhuman.com focuses on living an integrated life and his website davidkopacz.com displays his poetry, photography, painting and writing as well as information on his books.

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

Welcoming Change

With my final Words note before I retire and pass this task on to my colleague Terasa Cooley next month, I want to reflect on what I find at the very heart of the Courage & Renewal approach that CCR has brought to you for over 25 years: encouragement. 

I cannot hear the word encouragement without thinking about Alfred Adler.

As a teacher in the 1980s, I encountered the groundbreaking work of Alfred Adler, a Viennese physician who was initially a member of Freud’s inner circle.

He broke away early to develop his own theory of human behavior – a theory I find the world today yearns for.  

Though little known because he died young, and because the Freudians controlled the academy across the U.S. and Europe for over a century, Adler was an influence on the landmark work of American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark whose research was influential to the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s.

I believe that the implications and applications of Adler’s thinking stands alone as theory of human psychology that is a theory of equity and democracy whereas all other dominant Euro-American theories of behavior – Calvinism, Freudianism, Behaviorism – are all theories of hierarchy.

At the heart of Adler’s thinking is the role of encouragement and discouragement in a human quest to achieve a sense of belonging and significance among other people. 

Over many years of working with teachers, I played with the roots of the word encouragement and its opposite, discouragement. One means “in heart” and the other means “removed from or out of heart.

In experiential activities with teachers, we played with the difference between the dominant use of “praise” with students and the alternative use of “encouragement.”

Examples for praise might be: 

“Good girl!”
“You got all As. Here’s $5 bucks.”
“I’m proud of you.”

Examples of encouragement are: 

“I have faith in you.”
“I trust you to make the decision that is right for you.”
“Can you tell me more about your painting?”
“What did you learn here?”

We watched teachers powerfully realize that praise was all about the teacher and being manipulative, while encouragement was all about opening a relationship. 

Teachers in role-plays quickly realized that when people praised them, it severed relationships and that they were doing the same thing to students!

Encouragement sends a message that we see the other person and recognize their humanity. It is not judgmental nor shallow nor manipulative but connecting and open. It opens a door to relationship founded in dignity and respect. 

And it is one of the powerful ways Courage & Renewal programs create welcome so quickly among strangers.

Personally, it is one of the factors that drew me to the work of the Center seventeen years ago and it will keep me connected for years to come.

What are the most encouraging words you’ve ever heard? From whom?

Where do you feel welcomed without a shred of doubt? What created this sense?

Warmly,

Terry
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Experience encouraging, revitalizing relationships in a Courage & Renewal program. Find a program near you.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter

The first time I met Caribbean-American poet, Aja Monet, was in a church basement in New York City. We were there to read essays we had written for a book called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. I remember Aja, with her bouncy hair and bright lips, remarking how long it had been since she’d been in a church. And I remember thinking – after she read her essay, “No One Teaches Us to Be Daughters”– that perhaps it was because the church could not contain her. Her writing writhed from easy grasp.

This Mother’s Day, Aja is releasing a book of poetry that continues to venerate the female line in all its complexities. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books, 2017) is “an ode to mothers, daughters, and sisters – the tiny gods who fight to change the world.” We are more than fighters, though. We are also weapons of violence. Aja’s collection of poetry moves us deeper than a holiday celebration of women toward a political excavation of the human heart.

As I read the collection, I was struck by how beautifully and ruthlessly Aja excavates her own life for her art.

The collection is broken into three movements: inner (city) chants, witnessing, and (un)dressing a wound. In the first movement, Aja meditates on the inviolable connection to our origin stories. In the poem “wit” she describes her first audience as “a small room of ovaries.” In “my parents used to do the hustle,” she captures a child’s complicated devotion:

i chose them
long before
their hurt
long after
they chose me

The second movement threads Aja’s upbringing in Brooklyn with the overarching story of now. The poem #sayhername is a reminder of the black women who have been victims of police brutality and how no liberation of black lives is possible without men and women feeling bound up in each other:

we do not vanish in the bated breath of
our brothers. show me, show me a man
willing to fight beside me, my hand in his,
the color of courage, there is no mountaintop
worth seeing without us.

Some references to current events or cultural cues were lost on me, as if I were missing the ability to taste all the ingredients in a rich stew. It made my mouth water for more understanding, my heart ache to taste and see more justice. This, I want to tell my old friend Aja, is what makes your art so good.

freedom’s smile is a contagious spirit
a rattling song of the heart

These lines come from a poem entitled “she sweats” in the final and most buoyant movement of the collection, in which her poetry crisscrosses the globe between the personal and the universal, the national and the global. Ultimately, when the book comes to an end, we realizing it’s the human heart we’ve been traversing: Aja’s, strangers’ and our own.

Aja writes in her author’s note, “These poems are a way one posits the importance of feeling deeply in order for substantial social change to take place. This is a way of exploring the unknown. Actions without a confrontation of repressed feelings become movements without meaning. Gestures in good faith do not end oppression; it is risk and ruthless radical love that will see us through.”

This is precisely why poetry is so central to the work we do at the Center for Courage & Renewal in helping people align their inner life with their outer work in the world. Poetry is not just a respite for the soul. It can also be the guttural, biting song of resistance.

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter turns bodies that have been used as weapons into weapons of liberation. We cannot be contained.

___

Aja Monet is a Caribbean-American poet, performer, and educator from Brooklyn. She has been awarded the Andrea Klein Willison Prize for Poetry and the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title, as well as the New York City’s YWCA’s “One to Watch Award.” She is the author of The Black Unicorn Sings and the co-editor, with Saul Williams, of Chorus: A Literary Mixtape. She lives in Little Haiti, Miami, where she is a co-founder of Smoke Signals Studio and dedicates her time merging arts and culture in community organizing with the Dream Defenders and the Community Justice Project.

Erin Lane is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and the Center’s Assistant Program Director for Clergy and Congregational Leaders. She develops programs that deepen the spiritual formation of people of faith and support healthy congregational life. A writer and speaker, Erin is the co-editor of Talking Taboo and author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. You can find more of her writing at www.erinslane.com.

Share this on: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone