We are all Seekers, we are all Guides by Serena Jones

Compassion (noun): a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Towards the end of last week in deepest west Wales, something remarkable happened. It was a gathering of people who share a passion for compassion and a hunger to see more of it in the way we approach health, specifically mental health. It seems a cruel irony that at a time when people most need a compassionate response, all too often feel unheard, disconnected and disempowered from the very systems supposed to help.

I had assumed it was a conference but it felt more like a retreat. It was promoted as about mental health but felt more about holistic health. It seemed like a place to learn new stuff but felt about connecting with what we know but may have forgotten – that we all matter, that connecting matters (to ourselves, to others), that being open hearted is the key and that community is always the answer.

Community of Equals

I met people who came to the gathering for different reasons. People who had felt brutalised by life and then the the mental health system, people trying to reform the system, people whose children are incarcerated, people who had found peace with their voices, people who were able to sing their truth, people who shared their scars, people who had found connection through art or movement, people who lived with acute sensitivity to their surroundings, psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health nurses and psychotherapists.

There were no divides between experts and learners, we were all guides and we were all seekers. It was a community of equals, a rare occurence in the modern world that values professions and qualifications over experience and connection.

I had underestimated how long it would take me to get to Fforest and I missed the opening introductory sessions, so I was instantly immersed into an experiential workshop on eCPR with Daniel Fisher. As the session was about to take shape, the chairs were rearranged in a circle and I felt instantly at home. We’ve been having team meetings in circles at Coastal for some time now, following us learning about restorative approaches and circle practice. I now feel awkward in any group that isn’t in a circle!

We each took a turn to say what we were there for and bearing in mind I had been present for only a few minutes, I felt safe enough to mention not only my ambition to help create a more authentic working environment but also that life as a foster carer has taken me to places (emotionally) that I could never have imagined. Cue tears. As my mother always told me in her soft Dundee accent “you’ve got your bladder behind your eyes”.

Later we practiced ‘being present’ in pairs and again, as I shared a little of my challenges in wanting to be a good foster carer, a few tears returned and my partner offered me her hand. It’s such a simple gesture isn’t it, but the connection created felt significant in that moment and I was grateful for it. And just to prove a point that Daniel had made earlier about how attuned pets are to emotions, a lovely little dog added it’s paw to our clasped hands. Aww.

Freedom within Form

Following a healthy, hearty lunch I went to my second experiential workshop, entitled compassion circles with Andy Bradley and Benna Waites. More circles, yay! This time with a discipline that meant each person got exactly equal time in each round, whether we chose to take it or not. Timers and clocks can be an awkward partner in a process like this sometimes but overall, it’s contribution meant we all generated more in an hour than we could have by conventional means and there was an equality in the experience.

The structure of the practice, much like Time to Think and restorative approaches which we’ve been integrating into our work in Coastal, is liberating not constraining. Freedom within form – and unlocking the flow of compassion to ourselves and to each other. We each took away three cards that simply said ‘YOU MATTER‘, with the invitation to keep one in case we ever forget; give another to a person we love to remind them and finally to give the third to someone who has forgotten that they matter.

We took away a commitment to do one thing to generate a greater flow of compassion to ourselves. I opted to reduce social media time at night and go to bed early, which resulted in me not re-joining the gathering for dinner later that evening but curling up in my bed from 8pm and having the first early night I can recall in months. Delicious.

Standing in Balance

On the second day, I was humbled by the experience of two people who shared their insights into finding ‘meaning in madness’. Elisabeth Svanholmer and Rufus May offered a view into their worlds that enabled those of us listening to make sense of feelings and thoughts that on the surface seem unusual.

Their stories are not my stories to tell here but what I am indebted to them for is the opportunity to see the world through their hearts and eyes, bringing colour, texture and light to a subject so often shrouded in mystery and fear.

I subsequently went to a workshop with them both on compassionate and non-violent communication and was delighted to see the synergies between this practice and the restorative approaches we’ve been learning.

A session with Claude Acker reminded us of how powerful it is to stand in balance, followed by a walking meditation. Every time I practice this I am surprised by just how much effort is needed to slow down the process and maintain balance. Walking is something many of us take for granted but the complexity of actions that take place, the relationship of heel to toe and the range of micro movements that serve to keep us moving are just astonishing. I resolved to practice this more.

We heard from Beatrice Birch in the penultimate session, and the therapeutic community she is part of in Vermont. Offering a year long programme for people wanting to come off psychotropic medication to reconnect with themselves and the world, she articulately described the activities and approaches taken there to heal the soul. She shared how inspired she was by a man incarcerated in prison who she had worked with. He had shared his surprise that he had found what he was searching for in art therapy in prison and from that, she decided she would not refer to people on the programme as patients, or clients, or service-users but as seekers. For differentiation, those working there as art therapists, psychotherapists, healers, etc. are described as guides but she was very clear that actually, we are all both – guides and seekers. I thought that was perfect.

Connections Matter

In the last session, we heard from some participants (seekers/guides!) at the conference who shared poems, stories, experiences and pictures of what this gathering has meant to them. Some of it was raw, some of it was reflective and all of it was heartfelt.

That the human spirit can soar despite the adversity it faces humbles me every time.

We closed with a circle, holding hands and singing. I know that to some people, that sounds like the hippies have taken over but think about what happens in pubs up and down the country with people swaying and singing together; think about the football and rugby matches where connections through singing and chanting can move you to tears and think about how little kids play in playgrounds and the songs they sing together as they skip around in circles. Connections matter to all of us, in whatever form and through whatever method but they undeniably matter and this gathering reinforced that in every discussion, action and interaction.

There is much to do to generate the greater flow of compassion, at both a micro and macro level. I’m left now with thoughts about how to bring some of this back to the workplace, to the way we live alongside tenants and communities and to the way we collaborate together as colleagues in the work. There is also much to do to challenge rescuing behaviours, that on the surface seem benign but in effect are toxic. With our investment in restorative approaches, staff development programmes, asset based community development and thinking environment as well as our long history of systems thinking and looking at ourselves ‘outside in’, we are already many steps into this journey and I’m excited about how we might be known not just as house, community and economy builders, but also as compassion builders!

There is a poem that has traveled with me for many years; that has spoken to me at different times for different reasons. I love that it is called ‘The Invitation‘ because that word implicitly indicates choice and ultimately, we always have choices.


The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

By Oriah © Mountain Dreaming, from the book The Invitation published by HarperONE, San Francisco. 1999. All rights reserved

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Serena Jones is Director of Homes, Communities and Services at Coastal Housing Group. She blogs at serenamjones.wordpress.com

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