Compassionate Witnessing

Updated: May 12, 2019

WEEK THREE OF "INITIATION INTO A LIVING EARTH: AN ESSAY JOURNEY"

BY SHANTE' SOJOURN ZENITH

Our bodies need compassionate witnessing from others to learn to tend our emotions and heal from trauma. This initiation is based on the gate of grief that honors "what we expected and did not receive."1 It is an invitation into tending our "deep time inheritance" and learning to "give what we need.”2 This is also the place in which we heal from the wounds of "childhood trauma" and "disconnection from other people" that are social causes of depression.3


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Awakening


I gather the child to me in my arms—something to push against as she lashes out in wildness. I hold in my arms the roiling thrashing feathers and wings and screaming agony of something unknowable but like despair.


Then, at last, she eases in my arms and her shaking becomes a rhythmic rocking. I am rocking her as she holds onto me tightly, her exhausted body sobbing and returning to warmth.


Her head rests on my chest, which opens to hold her, my ribcage expanding to hold her breath also. She wails into the chasm of my lungs, her cry reverberating down my back.


We rest like this for hours, days, years; she relaxes into my heartbeat, listening to the steady undulations of my insides. My body teaches her to come alive, teaches her the meaning of warmth and throbbing blood, of breath expanding.


Where does the past shadow the present with words? Grow me spacious to hold my own unfolding, let the ache stretch me into beauty all unknown.

The Initiation of Compassionate Witnessing


Witnessing is one of the extraordinary powers of community. There are certain passages and initiations that require the presence of others to help hold the bigness of the new narrative while it stabilizes in our bodies, minds and hearts... To be invited as a witness into the lives of others calls upon our accountability. The moment another opens an aperture into their secret hearts, we become each other’s keepers. The strands of our stories are entwined in a shared tapestry of belonging unto which we become responsible.

Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home 4

“What’s holding you back?” a poet asked me in the middle of a deep conversation at Schumacher College in England. "You have such a perception of patterns and structure, why are you using this knowledge to help other people but not to grow yourself?" It was as if someone had taken the mirror I hold up to other people and turned it around on me. For the first time in my life, I felt fully seen.


The week before, I had shared a poem with my online writing group, haunted by my observations of strangers on the tube in London afraid of being seen looking at each other:


You're not supposed to look at me and I'm not supposed to look at you. Partly etiquette, partly awkwardness, but I get the feeling it's mostly fear that if I look at you, it won't be ok with you--it might disconcert you, you might think that I'm not "normal", you might be afraid that I'll hurt you. Our eyes can meet for a second, but then I have to look away. We're not allowed to watch each other, to witness. And yet there is such a longing to connect--surreptitiously, we gather a picture of the other in momentary glimpses, prepared to flick our eyes back to the ground.


Someone in my writing group said that the poem was written from the point of view of someone lonely, an outsider, in a place where they didn't belong. The callousness this was said with stabbed at my heart. Part of me wanted to say “no, you don’t understand” and part of me wondered if it was true.


“That’s my fear,” I told the poet, “that I’ll be lonely, that I’ll be an outsider.” And in that moment I was able to articulate that latent feeling that I hadn't able to name, “but it’s not that I’m an outsider, it’s that so often I feel I’m the only one on the inside and that it would take just the slightest shift for other people to see from this place, but they’re too afraid to look.”

As humans, we learn to be ourselves through the witnessing of others. This learning takes place at a deeply embodied level, our nervous systems responding to the presence of the people around us. Poet-biologist Andreas Weber describes "this gift of being seen, of being mirrored" as "a biological necessity.”5


From the time we are babies, we learn to self-regulate by the way our adult caregivers respond to our emotions. Developmental psychologist Aletha Solter explains that an important reason for caregivers to hold babies while they cry is to reassure them "that their feelings of sadness and anger are not going to destroy the bond with their parents."6 Crying "creates the emotional safety for deep healing to occur," allowing babies to release tension and return to a place of self-regulation. Solter observes that the emotional patterns that begin as young children carry through our entire lives:


Many adults do not cry as much as needed because nobody was available to listen to them as babies and children, and they have therefore learned to repress their emotions...We live in a “non-cathartic" culture where the expression of strong emotions is discouraged, so our tensions and painful emotions accumulate over the years.7


A few days after my conversation with the poet, I stood alone in a field of bluebells, wondering how to incorporate this experience of being witnessed into my art practice. Something in me had opened and I wanted to express from that feeling. I spread my arms and turned into the wind, breathing in big gulps of air, dissolving the edges between myself and the world. From deep in my belly, a sound rises—ugly and raw, coming just as much from the wind as from me. I reach inside, moving deeply into that sound, leaning into my discomfort—people pass on the other side of the hedge, cars go by. I sing into this tone, moving into that break in my range, that wound connected to shame and the tightness of my jaw, the holding of my chest, the place where the weeping lives.


I imagine that place of suppressed weeping lives inside many of us. A deep wound of the dominant monoculture is the amount of people who grew up without emotional mirroring as children. In the 1920s, the United States government published pamphlets cautioning "mothers against rocking and playing with their children." According to these "federal experts" writing less than a hundred years ago:


The baby is never to inconvenience the adult. An older child—say above six months— should be taught to sit silently in the crib; otherwise, he might need to be constantly watched and entertained by the mother, a serious waste of time.8


This parenting advice is still popular today in the infant sleep training practice of "crying it out." The extreme version of this is called the “total extinction method,” in which babies are left to cry alone in a room at night until they fall asleep. After several days or weeks of this practice, the babies give up hope of their caregivers returning and stop crying altogether. Neurobiologist Darcia Narveaz explains that:


If a baby is left to cry for a length of time, several detrimental outcomes occur. His brain is flooded with high levels of toxic stress hormones that eventually kill neuronal connections... In reaction to nonresponsive care, the baby may shut down emotion expression, making it seem as if he is fine when cortisol readings indicate he is not. Ongoing experiences of grief (e.g., from physical isolation) set up conditions for chronic mood disorders.9


There are devastating resonances between an "extinction method" that shuts down children's crying and the mass ecological extinction of our time. In Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, Narvaez describes this as a main impetus for her research:


Humans in the modern world and unlike any other animal, are destroying their habitat and committing speciescide on a daily basis...like a slow-motion asteroid, up to 50 percent of all species may soon be extinct from human activity bringing about a sixth mass extinction on the planet. 10


How much of our culture's lack of ecological empathy is rooted in practices of emotional "extinction" that conditioned us to suppress our emotional responses as young children?

As I sang in the field of bluebells that day, feeling into the sound of the weeping, I noticed how constricted my chest felt, as if the fascia were closed fists protecting my heart from the world. The question the poet had asked me—"What's holding you back?"—morphed into wondering: "What am I holding?" Over the next few months, I immersed myself in research on trauma and embodiment, delving deeply into the work of Peter Levine, a somatic therapist who articulated what my heart already knew: "trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness."11


I realized I had been carrying significant trauma since I was ten years old, the only child of a single mother in chronic pain so intense she was suicidal. My mother had had cancer the year before, and after she went into remission she began struggling with chronic pain so severe she was unable to work. We ended up living in a friend's basement because she could not pay the rent. The doctors could not identify a physiological basis of her pain and told her it was all "in her head." Our community, burned out from caring for my mother during her cancer, started shaming her for not going back to work, implying she was making up her pain to seek attention from them. My mother chose to cut off contact from our community, alienating us from the only support system she had. This plunged her into a depression so intense she checked herself into the psych ward. Later that year the source of the chronic pain was revealed when my mother's hip broke, the bone weakened by the radiation therapy which no doctors had thought to connect to her pain. By this point, my mother was so unable to trust her own experience that she used crutches to walk on her broken hip for two days before being convinced to go to the emergency room.


The adults around me during that time were not very emotionally literate and did not know how to support me through the trauma of my primary caregiver being in so much pain she did not want to live. I now realize that the way I contributed to keeping my mother alive at that time was by being emotionally undemanding and retreating into my own world. Without adults who knew how to help me process my emotion, my body decided that it was not safe to cry. Throughout my teenage years, I had outbursts of rage and depression which no one connected to the grief I felt from the time when I had no option but to swallow my despair. Over a decade later, when the poet asked me what was holding me back, I still carried that suppressed emotion stuck inside the fascia of my chest.

I still vividly remember my ten-year-old self reminding people that "it takes a village to raise a child." I remember that hollow ache inside me as a visceral longing for community that could see me and hold space for my sadness. One of the gates of grief Francis Weller describes in The Wild Edge of Sorrow is the grief of "what we expected and did not receive." Weller explains that we come into the world expecting a depth of witnessing beyond the capacity of a single caregiver:


We expected forty pairs of eyes greeting us in the morning, and all we got was one or two pairs looking back at us. We needed the full range of masculine and feminine expressions to surround us and grant us a knowledge of how these potencies move in the world. We needed to have many hands holding us and offering us the attention that one beleaguered human being could not possibly offer consistently.12


I experienced this quality of witnessing this past year as a participant in Francis Weller’s workshop Entering the Healing Ground of Grief. The experience of the grief ritual was intensely beautiful, a taste of the village I had been longing for. When I went to the altar to grieve, I felt a wave of sound rising in me, that deep place of weeping finally feeling welcome to come to the surface. I asked the person who was with me as my "container" to press their hands on my back, the steady presence of something to push against as my body arched and wailed. The singing of the village on the other side of the room held me safely in a wall of sound—I could express myself fully without feeling self conscious. I felt into the weeping, into the shaking of my jaw, the clenched fists of the fascia in my chest, the sound issuing from deep inside my belly.

When the weeping moved through and I was welcomed back by the village, my voice had dropped by an octave and my body felt flooded with oxygen. I felt opened to a power I'd only experienced before in rare peak moments as a performer—my feet were connected fully into the ground, my heart field receptive, my breath expanding deeply into my belly. The voice that issued from me then was not the one I used in daily life. Raw and open, this voice came deep from the inside of mountains, speaking with a fierce authority of emotion. I had found the missing piece of my practice during the ritual, the part that binds together emotional expression with the healing power of compassionate witnessing.


REFLECTION QUESTIONS:

1. When in your life have you felt the presence of the village?


2. What are the “edges” in yourself that need witnessing to feel welcome?


3. Are there spaces for deeper witnessing that you could create in your life?


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Footnotes

1 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 54.

2 Thomé, Azul Valérie. “Grief Composting Circles.” SOULand, https://www.souland.org/grief-composting.html.

3 Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury USA, 2018, Page 158-254.

4 Turner, Toko-pa. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. 1st edition, Her Own Room Press, 2017

5 Weber, Andreas. Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science. New Society Publishers, 2016, Page 181.

6 Solter, Aletha. The Aware Baby. Revised edition, Aware Parenting Institute, 2001, Page 51. 7 ibid, Page 62.

8 Blum, Deborah. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. Basic Books, 2011.

9 Narvaez, Darcia, and Allan N. Schore Ph.D. Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, Page 47.

10 ibid, Introduction

11 Levine, Peter. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books, 2012, “Forward.

12 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 41.

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