The theme we have selected for this newsletter is emergence. As group therapists it is our practice to explore and discuss the various experiences and feelings ‘around the Zoom screen’ (previously around the table). And in typical group fashion, our feelings and perspectives differ. But what is apparent, is that like it or not, we are emerging - locally, nationally and internationally, albeit at different levels.
Emergence is defined in the Oxford Languages dictionary as “the process of coming into view or becoming exposed after being concealed”. That is certainly an apt definition of a new life stage in the time of Covid. Emergence, much like other stages of Covid, remains uncertain. Questions about contact, travel, and safely navigating relationships persist. Who can cross our borders, both personally and geographically? The cocoon that was once a haven has become an enduring habitat with an indefinite endpoint and emergence fluctuates with shifting statistics.
When the lockdown started, many of us thought it would be a month, maybe two. Perhaps for many this was a break from the rigours of the working world. But as months stretch into years how do we remain hopeful with generosity of spirit?
Inspiration in the time of Covid:
In researching the theme of this newsletter, reviewing articles, authors, and approaches to emergence it was captivating and inspiring to learn about Nipun Mehta. For the past fifteen years Nipun has been travelling and influencing with a commitment to ‘gift culture’ and a belief in ‘laddership’ as a way of leading that emphasizes giving and helping others to climb the ladder. Through his work in social change, Nipun was recognized by the Dalai Lama as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion”, President Obama appointed him to a council for social change, and he had the distinction of sharing the stage with renowned leaders including civil rights legend John Lewis.
Magnanimity and generosity, viewing others as if they are someone you already love, is the foundation of his belief system.
As group therapists we endeavour to create a culture of magnanimity through building supportive systems that appreciate both similarity and difference, through guidelines that highlight universality, instillation of hope, cohesiveness, and through ideally designing safe havens for group members to learn and grow. Covid has meant that this has all been translated to an online environment, but as we tentatively move forward into person-to-person interaction, the principles remain the same. However, inspiration at this juncture is of high value.
REFLECTING ON OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSES
“There is a teaching that says that behind all hardening and tightening and rigidity of the heart, there’s always fear. But if you touch fear, behind fear there is a soft spot. And if you touch that soft spot, you find the vast blue sky.”
Emerging, from survival to resilience, from brainstem to wise mind:
As we collectively emerge from the protective measures of physical distancing into a gradual return to in-person contact, we are required to regulate our brainstem stress reactions (fight/flight, freeze, collapse), which have been hyperactivated for more than a year of managing the Covid threat to our safety, and vector our awareness toward learning to live with this ongoing threat and finding safety in reconnecting with each other using common sense and mutual protection.
The prolonged state of survival that we have all been experiencing places us at risk of becoming stuck in brainstem protective reactions which provide us safety via disconnection from parts of ourselves and from each other. Neurosciences (Interpersonal Neurobiology; Polyvagal Theory) have shown us that we can rewire our brains by finding safety via connection. By connecting, holding and making meaning of our survival experiences with self-compassion, we can develop the psychological scaffolding needed to build resiliency. On a relational level, we can collectively process the impact of this pandemic on our lives and find safety via our connections with each other.
This video with Ruth Culver offers a clear and helpful explanation of polyvagal theory integrated with concepts of the Internal Family Systems model.
Attention and Intention
The concepts of attention and intention have proven very helpful to some of us as we initiate the process of emergence from such a lengthy period of isolation, fear and uncertainty.
We are collectively part of an ‘attention economy’ where many forces are constantly competing for our attention and are ever more sophisticated at captivating us. It is important to be aware that our uncertainty renders us particularly vulnerable to the influence of these forces, especially those with stimulating and fearful messages. The expression ‘paying attention’ highlights the notion that attention is a valuable currency that we can save, spend or squander.
In the early ‘flight’ stages of group development, anxiety is typically very high, and we naturally seek safety as we join with unfamiliar others in an unfamiliar context. As group leaders we know that guiding the attention of our members to their similarities and highlighting common ground between them is key to easing fears and increasing group cohesion.
Perhaps this would be a helpful intention to set for this process of emergence… that we be mindful of how we are spending our precious attention and energy and that we seek common ground whenever possible so that as a culture we can rebuild together on a solid foundation.
THE VALUE OF RELATIONSHIPS AND CONNECTION
The Well of Grief, David Whyte
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.
We recommend the following podcast, which offers a direct approach to belonging; how to extend ourselves to others; and what questions to ask.
John A. Powell is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute and a professor of law, African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.
This podcast is worth listening to. It is a call to action on behalf of each of us, and our precious planet … in the most respectful, compelling way. Powell notes that a recent survey suggested 70% of us feel we don’t belong! So, who does belong? He calls for us to co-create a world/space where we all feel full ‘membership’. He stresses that we are never called to do anything by ourselves. It is through our connections with each other that the journey becomes possible; resilience requires company.
These discussions are playing out in our various groups, teams and communities and as leaders, we are navigating our own emergence process, while supporting group members to do the same.
Engaging our denial:
We’ve had some interesting discussions about various levels of denial, as each foray we make out into the world potentially involves some level of risk that is greater than we have perhaps taken over these past many months in lockdown… dining out at a restaurant (are others vaccinated?), attending a wedding (can I hug family and friends?), attending a larger sporting event (where it’s impossible for people to properly socially distance)… and what levels of denial do we engage in order to allow ourselves this level of emergence? Again, each of us will take our place at various spots along the spectrum. For some, denial will allow them to act out recklessly, while others will be more cautious and careful.
In his text, Consolations, David Whyte describes denial as “the crossroads between perception and readiness”.
Butterflies with masks:
The image we came to was butterflies with masks; my behaviour not only affects me, it also affects you.
Emergence from self and other-imposed cocoons is in full swing across the country. We are invited to move cautiously into the public arena. The ongoing struggle between individual rights and communal responsibilities continues to be played out in public forums across our country. This same decision-making process plays out in our therapy groups as we need to decide how we will continue to practice.
For some, emergence is a gradual process; it requires caution and honesty. It can require overcoming fear in all its forms. We move toward like-minded individuals that we believe we can trust as we protect ourselves and our loved ones. As clinicians we may develop strategies around asking about vaccinations, where and when we wear masks and how we maintain sanitizing and other safety protocols.
With talk of a fourth wave and no children’s vaccine yet, some believe it is wishful thinking to talk about emergence as an absolute fact and rather look at it as another step in a journey that currently has no end in sight.
As group therapists at The Toronto Institute of Group Studies, we continue to examine our own individual process and the collective group process as we experience the ongoing impact of this pandemic on the individual and on the group (societal) systems. In this polarized group climate, we as group leaders are called to listen deeply and invite exploration not explanation of the differences being held by individual group members in the service of fostering connection and cohesion. In a parallel manner, we as individuals and the communities that we are part of are called to listen deeply to each other’s perspectives with compassion. We are invited to explore what we are holding for the group and connect with the universal need to survive and live with this ongoing threat in connection with each other.
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED RESOURCES
Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge-Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet
(New York:Flatiron Books, 2018)
This inspirational book is a light bearer for these dark times of collective trauma. The author identifies 5 psychological Edge States: Altruism, Empathy, Integrity, Respect and Engagement - that serve as guides to transforming suffering through compassion. We are at a fork in the road when standing on these Edge States; either we find our footing or lose our footing during turbulent life challenges.
This podcast stimulated our curiosity about the possible role of ritual during this process of emergence, as rituals have been seen to be helpful during times of transition. “In human development, life stage thresholds are marked and recognized through ritual. In psychoanalytic work, threshold is a symbol – a visible but not literal representation that calls consciousness to apprehend a larger, unseen reality.”
Aida Cabecinha, Susan Farrow, Maureen Mahan, Allan Sheps and Terry Simonik,