No-one left behind – Cultivating resilience for difficult work

“Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.”1

bell hooks

I recently participated in a weekend workshop organised to examine our part in societal dynamics of privilege and oppression, and to explore working towards collective liberation. Although difficult, the workshop was a big learning experience for me and I feel compelled to write about it. This too has come with its challenges as I am new to writing about issues of social justice and making this process public. What follows are reflections that include concepts from Processwork and thoughts expressed by other workshop participants, to whom I am indebted for developing my learning from this experience.

One could say that the workshop fell apart, with several people of colour and one white person leaving midway. The absence of those who had chosen to leave greatly impacted the rest of group. Although the experiences of the remaining (and absent) participants were diverse, there was general consensus about a sense of sadness and frustration that so often when we come together to address issues of social injustice, the same patterns inherent to those issues are repeated. Yet again we had not managed to create a safe and inclusive enough environment to engage in these difficult but necessary conversations.

Trauma in the field

Working on themes of power, privilege and oppression is difficult work, and will trigger traumas in all of us, whatever the degree. Often in this kind of work, love and kindness become marginalised, both towards one another and ourselves. In Processwork terms, when doing this work the themes of external and internal oppression will be present within the shared ‘field’ and felt by those engaging with it.

As a person who is white, with many privileges and feeling like I still have so much to learn about social justice issues, I felt strongly impacted by a self-critical voice influencing my interactions with other participants and with what was happening between us. It makes sense to me that this voice was not only internal, but also a manifestation of the wider dynamic of oppression within the field. This critical voice inhibited me from connecting with my feelings, which reduced my ability to relate to others from a place of openness and compassion for myself.

No-one left behind

The fear of ostracisation from the group often prohibits open and honest interaction. The tendency in a group to evaluate one another and project judgements onto individuals repeats the dynamics of a competitively structured society that isolates us from one another and sets us up for distrust and division. To project onto and scapegoat individuals can be shortsighted as this doesn’t take into account that we are in this together and that one person’s unconscious behaviour is symptomatic of a wider dynamic of which we are all a part.

This doesn’t mean that our experiences and responsibilities are equal. Working towards collective liberation means that it is essential for those of us with more privileges to be held to account and develop tolerance for discomfort and self-questioning. One way of developing such tolerance is through practices of radical inner work carried out on our own time, which can relieve others from having to take care of us. But it is also a myth that we can provide all the love and support that we need for ourselves.

When someone in a privileged position behaves unconsciously, a commonly repeating pattern is that the onus of compassion falls onto those who are most affected by structural oppressions. To counteract this pattern, it can help when others in similar privileged positions take responsibility to hold one another to account whilst remaining empathetic, aware that any one of us could be the one to behave or have behaved unconsciously at another moment. The question remains, however, of how we can facilitate deeper relationship to do this work across our differences and social groupings.

Building a container

What emerged from the disintegration of the workshop was a shared recognition that feeling more connected to one another is essential for doing this work. This takes time and is difficult to achieve in a weekend-long workshop. Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on what kinds of practices support this work to be sustainable in the long-term, even when our opportunities to come together are limited.

To make a conscious effort to slow down, make space and cultivate a sense of togetherness helps to form a container for holding difficulty. Slowing down gives the opportunity to check in with our bodies and take care of our needs in the moment, which might include needing to step out and be alone. Interactions that mainly take place through conversation privilege the communication styles of those who find it easy to talk. Balancing these interactions with other shared activities – such as cooking, moving and visioning together – offers grounding and the chance to share and experience different aspects of ourselves.

Cultivating a container for being together is not about flattening difference or engendering a harmonious status quo. It supports the expression and valuing of our diversity of gifts and experiences, so that they can enhance one another. It emphasises the importance of relationship for being able to deepen this challenging work and facilitate more related interaction. I appreciate how the learning from this workshop reminded me of the value of creative processes in supporting this. Making space for creativity and relationship enriches our connection to our hearts, with much scope for cultivating our resilience to go deep, be challenged and lay the ground for honest conversation and community healing.

1hooks, b. (2008) Love as the Practice of Freedom, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York: Routledge, p. 243