Friday 10 April 2020

bodhi - the paintings of Joan Watts

Taking a short break from National Poetry Month, because today is the birthday of artist, Joan Watts. I wrote an essay about her work, particularly a series called bodhi which became a book published by Radius Books in 2018. I posted about the series and book back in 2018, and promised to eventually post the text of my essay - but never did. 

Since its Joan's birthday today, and since I feel like her work is a balm for times like these, I am fulfilling my promise now. And including some images to go along with.

- the paintings of Joan Watts


Michaela Kahn, PhD

This dewdrop world –
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet …
--Kobayashi Issa

            Each painting is a breath.
Have you ever really felt a breath? Inhale. Slowly. Feel the texture of the air, cool through the nose, the slow expansion of belly, chest, throat. You are a three-dimensional being. You are connected to this invisible matrix that binds the world together. The world is inside you. Exhale, slowly. Chest falling, muscles letting go, the air leaving you, warmer now having taken a bit of your heat. You are falling outside yourself, released, part of the world.
This is only the beginning of where the twenty paintings of the series, bodhi, by Joan Watts, are leading you.
Joan Watts’ light-drenched studio overlooks the canyon formed by the Santa Fe River as it flows down from the reservoir into town. In the studio’s foyer a large window looks out across the canyon at the pine-covered triangle of Picacho Peak. Beyond the peak the sky is a radiant, impossible blue. This is a view repeated throughout Joan Watts’ home – just across a little stone driveway from the studio. The living room, bedroom, kitchen, and her small low-ceilinged mediation room are all turned in a sort of vigil toward this view of Picacho – with its slow rise into sky. 
All twenty of Joan Watts’ new series of paintings, bodhi, are hung around the walls of the studio. Just over a year ago, I was invited here to see the first two of these paintings, and now I am back again, to see them completed.
At the base of each square painting a single color begins an ascendance toward white. Ranging from gray to sky blue through sunset orange and lime green, these colors are sometimes barely there, the merest ghost of sunrise on cloud which gently fades to white, carrying the color almost through the whole canvas. In other pieces the color lies in a dense accumulation at the very bottom of the piece – diffusing and disappearing swiftly into full, roiling white.
This rise of color, the diffusion into white, create a sense of depth and space in each piece. While there is a natural sweep of upward motion there is also a feeling of expansion outward. (That three-dimensional intake of breath). And with their painterly texture of interweaving and overlapping waves – these paintings seem to counterpoint that expansive movement with another rhythm, a pulse just beyond hearing – the particle/wave paradox that underlies the universe, known through its incarnations as light, water, air, sound, and color. (The world inside you).
Those familiar with the work of Joan Watts will find this gentle dissolve familiar from earlier series, but bodhitwenty paintings, half of them 12” x 12” panels, the other half 24’ x 24” canvases – takes this process beyond any of the previous versions. bodhi is a culmination and a fulfillment of a lifetime of both painting and meditative practice.
Joan Watts started painting at the age of 18. At 19, Watts spent a year in Florence, Italy with a friend, working in a small studio in the mornings and wandering through churches and museums in the afternoons. Surrounded by this wealth of Renaissance art and architecture, exposed to works by the likes of Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo – it isn’t surprising that this experience drew her more firmly toward art. When she returned to the United States, Watts rented a cottage on the Florida coast, living alone and painting for six months. It was there, in solitude, days spent studying the play of light on water, that Watts decided to enroll at the San Francisco Art Institute.  During her years there, 1960-63, the SFAI was under the influence of the likes of Richard Deibenkorn and Clyfford Still, a growing nucleus for a uniquely “West Coast” abstractionist movement. It was, as Watts says, “A wonderful place to develop.”
When she graduated from SFAI, Watts was offered a graduate assistantship at the University of Hawaii where she taught, studied, and continued to develop her work until she received her MFA in 1966. Hawaii, before the tourism and development boom, was a magical place and Watts was tempted to stay. But the continent was calling. Watts had a desire to be near the museums, galleries, and thriving art world of New York City and found a job teaching at SUNY New Paltz in the Hudson Valley, a couple of hours by train from the city. Over time, though, Watts found the distance too great, and she made a move to teach at Briarcliff College in 1968, in order to be more fully immersed in the art and life of the city.
Watts eventually moved into a loft in SoHo - back, as she says, when “SoHo was SoHo” – a mecca for artists. She began to find a foothold in the art world, earning solo and group exhibitions at a number of galleries both in New York and internationally during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Having retired from teaching at Briarcliff in 1977 in order to focus wholly on her painting, by the mid-80’s, Watts felt as if she had reached the end of what she’d imagined she needed in order to become a “serious” artist. The city no longer held the same thrill for her. It was time for a change.
Watts’ move to New Mexico in 1986 marked a significant turning point not only in her life, but in her art. Having always worked in a reductive mode, by the time Watts came to New Mexico, her work had moved through several different periods – from hard-edged geometric abstraction into a more organic expressionistic abstraction, experimenting with form, including the use of circular canvases. Watts had brought several of these circular stretchers with her to New Mexico, but the experience of such vast horizons, dawn and dusk uninterrupted across a vista, the quality of light in the desert southwest, radically changed her focus. She didn’t return to her circular paintings - instead she began to paint landscapes. Sky, subtly diffused color, the anchor of a strip of earth or stone, light – these elements broke open on Watts’ canvases and marked a distinct shift toward the work that represents the latter half of Watts’ career.
It was in 1989, when Watts was diagnosed with breast cancer, that the next important shift came. Looking for answers, for a fundamental change in her life, Watts began to investigate Buddhism and the practice of meditation. Reading books, listening to lectures on tape, Watts taught herself the basics of meditation and began a practice that would become a central part of her life.
About three years in, Watts found herself looking for more formal support and became interested in the teachings of Shinzin Young, a Vipassana Buddhist teacher. She signed up for a ten-day silent retreat he offered in the mountains above Santa Barbara. She admits she had no idea what she was getting into. Having never sat formally with a group, nor having ever spent 10 days in silence, the experience was both shocking and transformative: “I came out of that a changed person, knowing this was the path I needed to follow.”
Returning from that experience, Watts sought out and found a sangha (community) in Santa Fe – first with a small group of Vipassana practitioners, and then, as Watts’ attraction to Zen grew, at the nascent Zen group founded by Joan Halifax. This was in the years before Halifax became a Roshi and founded the Upaya Zen Center. At the time, meditation and dharma talks with small groups took place at the small Cerro Gordo Temple, (which still stands near the site of Halifax’s Upaya) often followed by impromptu dinners at Halifax’s home.
Watts continued to sit and study with Halifax for seven years, doing periodic retreats, deepening her practice. Some time following the building of the large temple that became the center of Upaya, Watts broke away and helped to form a smaller group of practitioners who continued to sit together in the Cerro Gordo Temple for over a decade.
Eventually, Watts came to a point where she could no longer physically sit for long periods and so had to quit sitting formally with the group. That isn’t to say that she stopped meditation, however.  As she says, “It’s more about … Every. Single. Moment. And, of course, my expression of it is in my painting. More and more so. The baseline is the practice now. It really is quite simple, but it takes a long time to get there.”
The nomenclature of meditation as “practice” refers to just this idea – that it is practice for everything else, for life. The attention, awareness, and mindfulness which are practiced in the controlled setting of sitting meditation, are meant to be brought forward into every moment of every day, into every action – from the mundane task of washing a sink of dirty dishes, to the profound act of creating a work of art.
            Which brings us back to Watts’ series, bodhi. Having often been more enigmatic with series titles in the past, Watts offers the name “bodhi” as a gift to us, a cairn to help point the way with these paintings. The term, Bodhi, from Sanskrit, is often translated in the West as “enlightenment,” but is perhaps more accurately defined as “awakening” – the understanding of the true nature of things.
            The physical limitations which kept Watts from being able to sit formally eventually also kept her from being able to work in her studio. For two and a half years, Watts was unable to paint, forced into a more hermetic life of quietude.
Finally, however, Watts found a way. No longer able to spend whole days in her studio, Watts required a further reduction of the elements and variables used in her process. Brushes had to go. Her use of saw-horses to mount her canvases while she bent over to work on them, had to change. She created strict parameters in order to concentrate her periods in the studio to only two or three hours a day. Drawing inspiration from the meditative practice of Japanese calligraphy – where a practitioner will create a complex character in a single elegant movement - calling on years of both artistic and meditative practice, Watts was able to adapt her method of working into a heightened state of concentrated effort.
Without sixty years of experience and mastery of artistic practice, without nearly three decades of experience meditating, and without those fallow, quiet years between, this series could not
have come to fruition.
My paintings are in the realm of the metaphysically evocative paintings of Malevich, Reinhardt, Rothko, Ryman, and Martin.  This is not to say that content or meaning can be defined. It cannot. It is more an emphasis upon the intuitive and how a painting might evoke what is unknown and what is beyond. The painting may be a medium that is a gate into direct experience that is nonverbal and non-conceptual.
 – Joan Watts

In reducing her artistic process down to the bare essentials, Watts is, in effect, re-creating the experience of meditation on her canvases and panels. What is sitting meditation itself but a trimming down to essentials? Cut out the distractions, the extraneous noise. Cut out talk and visual stimulation. Cut down movement. In the beginning, as meditation is often taught, the novice is told to merely follow her breath. In. Out. Sometimes breaths are counted: up to ten, then start over again. It is much harder than it sounds. Almost immediately there are thoughts, memories, urgent desires (I must itch my nose! I must write down that idea!). Emotions rise up – anger, fear, boredom, restlessness. In meditation you are taught to recognize these thoughts and emotions and then let them go, let them pass by. Being able to notice them, to see that train of thought and recognize it before it’s whirled you off six stations further away, is the challenge.
The paintings of bodhi strip away distractions. A single color, a square format, gentle textural waves, a subtle fade into white. All art asks something of us, requires that we engage. But perhaps none asks so much of us as reductive or minimalist art. And within reductive work, perhaps none so much as “white” paintings.
White paintings are hard. They defy our expectations about what to expect from a canvas hanging in a gallery or a museum. The expectation is to see a landscape, a nude, or perhaps an energetic display of color. Instead, with "white" paintings, we must blink back those preconceptions and take a step forward toward the painting, meet it on its own terms. More than that - we are asked to offer up something of ourselves.
There are many anecdotes about negative public responses to “white” artwork. Joan Watts herself had such an experience with a white piece from the late 90’s, which was punched while it hung in a museum exhibition in Santa Fe. She received a call from a sheepish museum administrator who wanted to know whether Watts could come and “fix” the painting. Luckily the canvas wasn’t torn but dented, and miraculously Watts was able to mitigate the damage … using sponges, water, and a hairdryer.
Often, anecdotes like these are used to shore up an elite view of art, to emphasize a divide in class and education and suggest that to understand such reductive art one must have an extensive background in art history, an understanding of critical theory.
But why? To punch a painting in a museum requires real passion. It is one end of a spectrum of the most passionate type of response a work of art could evoke. Whatever anger arose in that viewer, it was real - a truth which encompassed both the viewer’s feelings and perceptions about the world, and the perceived divide between the artist (and perhaps the other museum goers) and himself. That viewer looked into that white painting and part of what he saw there was himself.
Not all meditative experience is peaceful.
I’m not advocating the defacing of art - but the response itself, this anger, is not the bad here –rather it is that, upon experiencing that rage, the viewer allowed it to overwhelm and stop his experience, to halt any further dialogue between himself and the work of art. What might that rage have transformed into if it had been given a moment to pass through, if it had been given a breath?
What if he had been able to go beyond?
The paintings of the bodhi series enact and guide us toward that meditative possibility. With their rising and expansive movement, they have an ability (if we are willing to give ourselves over to it) to lead us back into our own body, our breath. Color on the canvas pools, rises and fades, like a thought or an emotion inside us: roiling in, shading our mind, and then with our exhalation, the thought too disappears into white.
Each piece in the series is an offering from an artist who has herself gone beyond. In her studio last year, Watts spoke to me about how, after finishing an intensive painting session, she returned to the house exhausted, needing hours to recover, with a sense that she had “gone somewhere.”  It was not an experience that Watts was capable of on a daily basis. Days and days might pass and then one morning, Watts said, she would wake up and think, “Today I could disappear.”
Like the misunderstanding that the purpose of mediation is some kind of “peacefulness,” there is another misnomer that the goal is a kind of “checking out.” On the contrary, meditation requires every bit of our attention, vigilance, and wakefulness. Meditation, like a white painting, is hard. Watts, with her years of experience to guide her, to guide us, creates in her work a trail for us to follow, a lightly sketched map into the territory of consciousness.
            In Buddhist practice there is a tradition of koan study. Koans are rhetorical devices, often in the form of questions, used as a way to help a student break through their mental constructs about the world and deepen their practice. Koans generally are, in some way, nonsensical, paradoxical. Perhaps one of the most famous examples in the West is the question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” An answer to that question can’t be found using only logic, language, or the mind.
            Like a koan, the series bodhi engages us in a process which is often paradoxical. Here what is presented has been paired down to a bare minimum, but simultaneously creates something richer, deeper, filled with almost infinite detail and possibility. What is simple, what is quiet, is potentially the gateway to a whirlwind. Paradoxes open a space in the world. They create a little crack in what we know (or think we know) that forces us to stop completely in our tracks.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha
--Heart Sutra

This line from the Heart Sutra roughly translates as: gone, gone, gone beyond, utterly and completely gone, oh, awakening! A paradox if ever there was one – how losing one’s self can be the clearest path toward being fully present.
            If art requires something of us, asks us to fall, to let go, to feel, and then to let that feeling fly, if it demands a bit of soul in exchange for experience, then so does our world. The world asks us to stop, breathe. To see and be seen. The world asks that we be with it.  If meditation is a practice for life, then art too has that potential.
            Joan Watts has made this journey, gone beyond. Her life is evidence of this. Her paintings are evidence of it. The fullness-and-emptiness that you feel standing before the deeply-gray-opening-up-into-white of one of the bodhi pieces is evidence and offering of this. Her work is a gift of space and solitude, a small piece brought back from beyond and made tangible to lure us, to perhaps help show us how to make the journey for ourselves.
            What you find on the other side … well no one can tell you that. You will create it. You and the painting together.
            Each painting is a breath.
The first breath. The last breath. The world between them.

Sunday 5 April 2020

National Poetry Month, in a Plague Year #2 – Allen Ginsberg

National Poetry Month, in a Plague Year
#2 – Allen Ginsberg

Seems appropriate, during national poetry month, and on the 23rd anniversary of his death, to mention Allen Ginsberg.

I’ve often wondered if Allen Ginsberg and I would have gotten along. There are odd little coincidences and catches surrounding my experience of Ginsberg … He died the year before I went to the writing school that he founded with Anne Waldman in 1974 (the year before my birth).

My first summer at the “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics” (yes, that is really its name) his presence and his absence were palpable. Everyone was still very much grappling with his death.

I mostly felt shut off from a lot of the discussions and sadness and celebration about him. While I had read a few things, I’d only gotten a book of his work about the year before. I hadn’t even realized, when I applied to Naropa (the school where the JKSDP lives), that Ginsberg was a founding father.

I got to know Ginsberg after his death, in my two years at the school, feeling his influence all around. I checked books out of the library with his handwritten notes in them. I had teachers who were his former students, friends, lovers. I heard gossip, worship, and derision. Becoming so steeped in this world of his absence, my “personal” experiences with him are rather ghostly than concrete.

Here are two. First, one morning just before a weekend workshop that was going to deal with Ginsberg, I woke to find a hand written notation in the front of my copy of his 1996 “Selected Poems”. I had no idea how the note had gotten there, although it seemed to be my hand writing. I couldn’t remember having written it at all. It felt like a message direct from Ginsberg himself. It reads: “If you say it / absolute, perfect honesty / they will get it. / Trust yourself”.

And once I had tea with him, in a dream. (Dreams were definitely something to pay attention to at Naropa … for instance, the gossip around school was that everyone always eventually had a dream about a particular teacher of poetic theory … And I did eventually have mine, it was wild.) In my Ginsberg dream I was in the mountains, high up among tall narrow pines. I struggled along a frightening, narrow dirt track on the edge of the mountain – up and up, until I found a little cabin. Inside the cabin, Ginsberg sat waiting for me. He invited me in, offered me tea. We sat and drank the tea together. Mostly in silence. And in the end, I left the way I’d come, feeling as if I’d just had a visit with a Buddhist master, feeling as if I might be able to see straight through the veil if I could just let go enough.

I’m not a Ginsberg scholar in any sense … but I think that his poetry tells you a lot about him. For one thing, he cared deeply about the suffering of others, was deeply affected by the intrenched inequalities and injustices in our social and economic systems, and was brilliantly, joyfully, and exuberantly defiant of those who cared more about the bottom line than their fellow humans.

I think he probably would have had a lot to say about the way COVID-19 has brought into such stark relief the disparities between rich and poor, the ominous greed of the power elite, and the fragility of our very un-ecological economic system.

For now, I thought I’d share one of his most haunting and heartening pieces – the Footnote to Howl, written in 1955. It’s a very Ginsbergian celebration of the world and all things in it (except, possibly, Los Angeles).

FOOTNOTE TO HOWL by Allen Ginsberg

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady holy the unknown buggered and suffering beggars holy the hideous human angels!
Holy my mother in the insane asylum! Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas!
Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace peyote pipes & drums!
Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! Holy the cafeterias filled with the millions! Holy the mysterious rivers of tears under the streets!
Holy the lone juggernaut! Holy the vast lamb of the middleclass! Holy the crazy shepherds of rebellion! Who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles!
Holy New York Holy San Francisco Holy Peoria & Seattle Holy Paris Holy Tangiers Holy Moscow Holy Istanbul!
Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the clocks in space holy the fourth dimension holy the fifth International holy the Angel in Moloch!
Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the abyss!
Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

                                                                                                            Berkeley 1955

Wednesday 1 April 2020

National Poetry Month, in a Plague Year

National Poetry Month, in a Plague Year

What does poetry matter during a time of plague? Has poetry ever stopped a plague? Probably not. Has it ever stopped a war? I don’t have the data but I’m going to say it’s probably doubtful.

So then what does it matter? What can poetry, or any art for that matter, do for us, right now?

At its best: poetry tells the truth. It tells the truth in a way that gets at what is beyond words. That knowing just beyond sight, beyond hearing. It gets to truths that aren’t able to be codified or ordered. It gets to the kind of truths that don’t just happen in the brain, but in the whole body, in the soul, in the heart. And even if the truth that the poem is expressing is something that could, by the right person, be distilled down into a digestible sentence in a text book – what poetry does is give the reader, or hearer, an experience of that truth.

And an experience requires participation. It requires a meeting between the object of art, the poem, and the person reading it. In between is a third thing (as D.H. Lawrence would have called it), a meeting, a negotiation between the poem and the reader. The meaning is there – but it’s also, in that moment, in us.

Poetry, as well as other art forms: music, painting, sculpture – opens the possibility within human beings of being able to hold multiple truths at one time. What John Keats called “Negative Capability”. Here’s the bit from a letter where he first mentions it: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In the midst of uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt – in the midst of fear and threat – what better skill than to be able to hold it all in balance within ourselves: the fear, the hope, the conflicting sources of pain and joy.

And of course, poetry invokes Beauty. A whole treatise unto itself … Whether you think that beauty is the driving force of life that sparks evolution, cell mutation, the co-arising of bee and flower, the language created by a pine tree as it spins out the patterning of its DNA, ring by ring. Or if you believe that beauty sings from inside a balanced mathematical equation, that it is the force of gravity and the movement of planets. Or the painting of a twisted, violent, yellow tree against a deep blue sky.

For me poetry helps because it reminds me of what humans can be. It reminds me of why we might be here. It reminds me of what we might do, how we might see. And how we might change the world to make it more true, more beautiful.

And so … a poem. By the U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, from her 1990 book In Mad Love and War.

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Identifying and Dealing with Anxiety and Emotional Shock During the Pandemic from someone with C-PTSD

Some tips on identifying and dealing with Anxiety and Emotional Shock
During the COVID-19 Pandemic
From Someone with C-PTSD

I’ve spent pretty much my whole life with, at minimum, a low-level feeling of being under threat. Feeling like something, someone, somehow – is about to attack. On bad days, that sinister feeling ramps up to an overwhelming sense of imminent disaster.

The strange thing about being a survivor of child abuse with C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder) right now is that, on the one hand, you’re going to be triggered way more than usual.I know that from just the past week or so of escalation of the virus in the media and around the world.

Example: Just this past week, I was going along, seemingly fine, getting my office work done (from home) and I started to struggle to breathe. I ignored it for a bit, kept working. I started to feel dizzy. Okay … time for some intervention, I realized. I started to bring out a few of the laundry-list of techniques that I’ve learned over the past 6 years that I’ve been engaged with healing my trauma. The first few didn’t really work. I ended up in full blown “Flight” mode (As in, Fight / Flight / Freeze) – pacing back and forth around our little apartment, rushing out onto the patio, back inside again. In my head started the doom loop about how I couldn’t breathe because it was COVID-19 and I was going to die.

And yet … I’d had exactly those symptoms before. In fact, for about a year and a half these attacks happened quite regularly. So I managed to hold on to that tiny part of my brain that remembered and could match up the symptoms, then and now. When I made that connection, I engaged a series of Acupressure points on myself that had worked in the past. And viola! I could breathe again!

And think again.

So wait, what was the pro-side? After 6 years, I’ve finally started to learn some techniques to help mitigate panic, anxiety, and emotional shock, and – perhaps more importantly, I’ve started to learn how to track my body and mind, so that I can tell when it’s happening.

So that’s why I thought I’d share. Because with the world-changing events going on around us, the depth of the uncertainty about what’s to come, I know that a lot of others out there, even those without C-PTSD or PTSD, will be feeling intense anxiety and even emotional shock.

First, a few ways to identify if you’re headed into a full blown anxiety attack, emotional shock, or perhaps if you’ve been triggered into your own trauma. Here are a few things to watch yourself for to try to catch yourself before you’ve fallen too deep down that rabbit hole:

1.     Fear, anxiety, panic attacks. This includes a whole range of symptoms. Overwhelming sense of dread or terror, going blank, irritability, feeling jumpy. Physical symptoms can include heart palpitations, upset stomach, headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, shaking, insomnia.
2.     Brain fog. You can’t think straight, can’t concentrate, lose focus easily.
3.     Dissociation. This is the process of disconnecting from your own thoughts, feelings, memories, identity, and even your body. You could even get a sensation of floating, or like you are watching your own life as if it were a movie, or like you’re a ghost watching the world (this is a further form of Dissociation called Derealization/Depersonalisation, which I am quite familiar with).
4.     Physical side effects. I mentioned some in #1 – but essentially this is because your body has been triggered to go into fight or flight mode. This releases adrenaline and a whole host of other hormones. In addition to the list above, also add things like random aches and pains to the list.
5.     Exhaustion/Fatigue. This tends to come with more long term symptoms – but even in the short term in can take hold. This can be because of insomnia, but a general sense of unrelenting fatigue without having a reason is a key sign of trauma.
6.     Your emotions are all over the map. One minute you feel amazingly powerful, happy, positive, the next like a small child about to be punished. Cycles of shame can arise, as well as blame, anger, and guilt.
7.     Old patterns raise their ugly heads. Old habits that we’ve managed to come to terms with may come back: from negative thinking patterns to addictive behaviors.
8.     Depression and hopelessness.
9.     Inability to feel compassion for yourself or for others.

So … if you’re tracking yourself and noticing some of these arising. Or even just that nagging pit of the stomach feeling of anxiousness – what can help?

Before you can start to address the emotions and the overwhelm, it’s important to get yourself out of shock, back into your body and to fully engage your brain. When we are triggered into Fight/Flight/Freeze, a large part of our brains actually go off-line and so we lose access to logic and compassion. It’s important to reboot, get the different sides of the brain talking to each other again, in order to start to address the trauma.

These techniques can help with the reboot:

1.     Cook’s Hook Up. It’s a technique where you cross one ankle over the other, then one arm over the other, twist like a pretzel, and do deep breathing. You can find tutorials online. This helps get your left and right brain talking to each other again and also helps reroute disruptive energy in the body.
2.     Ice. This is more for when things get a bit extreme, but it works. Put some ice on your forehead or the back of your neck. It kind of helps reset your brain into the here and now, getting it out of a shock or trauma loop.
3.     Intense smells. Like ice, it’s a way to cut through the noise. Essential oils are great for this. Lavender is really calming – but Peppermint can be great for clearing out the fog.
4.     Tapping. This can be just one finger on each hand, or your feet, or your hands on your knees. Tap back and forth, left-right, left-right. Again, getting your brain to connect left to right.
5.     Touch parts of your body and name them. Hold your foot, say “This is my foot”. Touch your left shoulder, “This is my left shoulder.” Sometimes it’s good to do this a few times, or to tap or squeeze the body part. You’re bringing your attention to that place, re-entering your body.
6.     Box breathing. There are so many different varieties of breathing techniques that are useful. Box breathing is using a 4/4/4/4 pattern: in 4, hold 4, out 4, hold out 4, repeat. Count as you breathe. Feel the air in your lungs.
7.     Heart Math. This is a great technique that allows us to reconnect with our heart center. Look up more details on line. The basics are: first, focus on the area where your heart is, basically center of your chest. Just focus for a bit. Then, start to breath in and out and imagine that your breaths are going into and coming out of your heart. Do that for several breaths. Next, think of someone or something you love. Try to feel the sensation of that feeling in your heart as you continue the heart breathing.
8.     Swallow water. I know this sounds a bit strange, but it is weirdly efficient. Basically just take a small sip of water, cool/cold is usually better because you can feel it more easily. Feel the water travel down your throat, all the way into your stomach. Give yourself space between sips to notice your throat, your body, your reactions. You know you’ve got it when you notice that your body makes a small involuntary sigh after a sip of water.
9.     Notice colors. Pick a color, say blue – now notice everything in the room, the car, the store, the area, that is blue. When you find something blue, say the world blue in your head or out loud.
10.  Acupressure points. Here are some great points for dealing with anxiety (taken from a pdf I got online called “Self-Care for Anxiety – Tips from Chinese Medicine”. These are the ones that helped me with my recent panic attack. I do them in the order shown, but I don't think that that is necessary.

When you’re stuck in shock, triggered, it’s easy to believe that the feelings or thoughts you have at that moment are forever. Once you are back – in your body and your mind, it becomes easier to see that all things change. All things pass. This doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t make the suffering of the world or yourself less … but believe me, it makes a difference. It’s a door.

Thursday 19 September 2019

Culture and Nature

The content of the article linked below is, ultimately, distressing. By using harvest records from 664 years of grape-growing in the Bourgogne region of France, these researchers were able to determine that there has been a significant increase in temperature in the region - harvests are now happening 13 days earlier than the average for the previous 664 years. The most significant change has happened since the late 80's.

That is nearly half a month difference, and reflects some noteworthy warming.

And that is distressing. At some point, if unchecked, getting grapes to harvest in the Bourgogne is going to start becoming more and more difficult. 

But on the other hand, this study surprised me by also making me feel quite tender-hearted about the history of wine-growing and growers in this region. 664 years of families growing grapes and making wine is a long time. 664 years of knowing a landscape, working with the sun and seasons, predicting rainfalls. 664 years of integration between the economics, the politics, the culture, and the nature of this region.  The simple fact that grapes can still grow there at all is testament to conscientious farming practices - considering that the history of large-scale farming in the United States goes back only a couple hundred years - and the result has been massive top soil loss, mineral depletion, and post-war, with the full-scale implementation of corporate farming - ultimately the loss of small farms and the cultures that they created.

Too often we humans think of ourselves as separate. Different from the rest of nature in some essential way. Whether it is Biblical "dominion" or Cartesian "Dualism"--from the vantage of our cars or desks, it can be hard to feel anything but alienation from our planet. After all, our busy, frenetic, increasingly internet-and-media-focused lives even leave us alienated from each other and from our own bodies.

I've never been to the Bourgogne, but did visit Toulouse once for a Eco-Criticism conference at the university. After our first day, the whole group went out to eat at a local restaurant, where the chef was frustrated trying to find me (a vegan) something to eat, even commenting that the diet was "not very practical ..." (And by the way, the resulting pyramid of rice with sautéed vegetables was absolutely gorgeous). But the first thing we were served was a local liqueur mixed with a local sparkling wine. A traditional aperitif in Toulouse. It was golden and tasted like sunshine and earth fused on the tongue. It tasted like what I had imagined wine must be like when I was a kid. And there was a centuries long history to its production.  

Whatever concepts or devices may block the way - we are all made of Earth. Quite literally. 

This article (below) had the amazing effect of making me both hate and love human beings at the same time ... 664 years of harvest records for one wine-growing town in France ... and what they mean.

Forest Fires and Carbon Emissions

It's been over a year since I posted anything on the blog. In a very practical sense, it doesn't really seem to exist anymore ... but I'm beginning to contemplate a resurrection.

To that end, I've been posting short little blurbs and news articles on FB the past week or so in the lead up to the Climate Strike this September and I thought, why not transfer some of these over to the blog as a start.

So here we go:

I've been seeing some interesting reactions around the net to the news of the fires in the Amazon. People saying "But the smoke will block the sun and slow global warming." Sorry - but trees are one of the most important ways for our planet to trap carbon (C02 is the top greenhouse gas we're worried about, followed by Methane). So not only are we losing the forests that act as filters and carbon-traps, but the smoke is full of carbon, therefore increasing the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Add to that that the main reason for the fires is to clear land for cattle grazing, and you also add in an increase in methane production as well. Article below about the importance of our forests.Here is a great article about the importance of our forests.

And if you haven't signed on for daily updates from Climate News Network, I highly recommend it. I know that the stress of the endless flow of climate news can feel overwhelming - but they actually include good news stories, too, when they can be had.