Sunday, 26 May 2019

Where activism meets embodied learning

A new day dawning in the Simpson Desert, 2011
From around the start of this decade, two things really arrived in my life and sent me on an enormous learning curve. One was political activism. The other was the Feldenkrais Method of embodied learning. Activism and Feldenkrais have created that learning curve, which has been a process of loosening shackles that once killed confidence, clashed with identity, and eradicated personal sovereignty.

Like many of us, I spent a long time being obedient, doing study, working towards a full-time job, a family, following a path that seemed to be “what you are supposed to do”. That led me to spending my 20s in impressive-looking positions at major media organisations, then into being a spin doctor for the Queensland Government, then to complete burn-out.

The burn-out was labelled a major depressive episode – falling into the category of mental health. But I was to discover that health doesn’t need categories, and of course, the burnout was about more than my mood. My body was breaking – it could not stand the strain of sitting, stressed and deeply unhappy, in a job that felt completely disparate to the faint sense of who I actually was, or was meant to be.

My government work involved researching and writing about policies and procedures around the lives of First Nations people, and then around the protection of the environment. I could see how both were being treated within the context of colonisation – controlled at the whim of government, and placed at enormous risk. The fact that I was so obviously a part of that colonial project meant that I didn’t go out and meet people who I would want to socialise with – I felt like I couldn’t justify who I was and what I was doing.

Thanks to my mental, physical and emotional health screaming at me, I was forced to stop.

I spent two years obeying various doctors’ orders not to engage in that work. I spent that time recovering (recovery from burnout can take years), and gingerly venturing into the world in new ways. I began trying to activate some dormant part of myself, the part that knows who I am and what I want to do. It still struggles to be heard, from years of obedience training, but it gathered enough confidence (or desperation) to begin some ventures.

I began engaging in community projects. Unfortunately, I felt compelled to give too much, in order to make myself worthwhile. In any case, I leapt in, and kept meeting people, forming connections, learning my limits.

I remembered that I always had been obsessed with plants as a child, and considered studying some kind of ecology course. As a taster, I volunteered with ecologists in the Simpson Desert. On returning, I heard about plans for a mega coal mine (Clive Palmer’s) to destroy a remnant nature refuge in the Queensland desert uplands. I got to work, got involved, but my burnout kept me in check. When my anxiety started taking over, I had to step back. I hated myself for being a flake but I was still in survival mode.

At the time, I knew there was something about the pairing of these two worlds. I knew that activism seemed to be the only thing that could save many species, including humans, from the forces I had previously worked for. At the same time, I could see that activism was populated by people constantly on the brink of burnout. I knew burnout, and I knew it was something best not to toy with.

But what is the alternative, when you’re fighting power structures based on greed and competition?
                                                                                                                              
As I continued to explore change theory, I met a couple from South Africa who had long worked in community development, who seemed to be working on wellness and wholeness in activism. I travelled to South Africa to find out more.

This idea of wellness in activism seemed to be my place in the world. At the time I was criticised for it. I recall one conversation about the South Africa trip, with a very committed activist, who said something to the effect: it's all very well to sit on a mountain and meditate your whole life, but how will anything get done? In hindsight, the answer is that there's no point getting stuff done, if you're doing it the same way that things have always been done, if you're replicating greed and competition, if you're living out self-flagellation.

As all of this was going on, I was trying to reinhabit my body, which I knew had taken a toll. Joints hurt, my back would snap into painful configurations. I was bound up in anxiety and flattened by depressive thoughts. So I overcame anxiety to attend courses at a yoga studio I’d been to years before, and there I happened upon the Feldenkrais Method.

I was wondering what to do with myself. The idea of further academic learning terrified me. I was looking around at yoga teacher trainings, not feeling called to anything.

It only took my attendance at about two Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement classes for me to become very curious. There was a state that I entered every time I did one of these lessons – a state of coming back to myself, despite my runaway thoughts, despite my physical pain, emotional distractions. It seemed this method offered the red herring of movement, and led you to a place of personal self-knowledge and sovereignty. Feldenkrais held the promise of something that I was later to understand as self-compassion. How to be gentle with yourself, how to find the ease to keep going, even when things seem too difficult.

It was also around this time that the Feldenkrais Institute of Australia was bringing a professional training to Brisbane, for the first time in many years. So I signed up for the first year of the four-year training. I had a payout from the Queensland Government, who had made redundant my fallible, human self. I was extremely fortunate and privileged, and I knew it, and often this turned into the less-than-useful emotion of guilt.

However, this course of study was the only thing I had ever done (in terms of a life path) that I actually wanted to do. So I kept doing it, even though at times it didn’t make sense. The mind and the body are the same thing – WHAT?! But then the course gave me a concrete experience of this concept. And it’s not hocus pocus. It’s the nature of the human nervous system, the sensory-motor cortex, the brain.

The rest of the story is not written here, and it continues. The burnout, the depression, the ways of resolving internal conflict, ways of maintaining personal sovereignty, the learning – these are ongoing and challenging. Suffice to say, I have spent the ensuing years immersed in communities of people fighting for change, working to become autonomous from the power structures that surround us, always causing me to question how I understand the world. For that, I’m grateful.

Within these enormous learnings about the world, power structures, privilege, my own privilege, blind spots, weaknesses, I change. I rarely remember what it feels like to be the person I used to be, because my sense of self has changed at a neurological level – how I sense myself, hold myself up, move, propel. How I act in the world. How I act on the world.

And so I continue to attempt to bring these threads together into something cohesive: embodied learning, embodied knowing, activism, how to make change sustainable, how to dodge and weave opportunities for burnout.

I’ve had the opportunity to provide the service of embodied learning to people in activist contexts, people re-traumatised in conflict, and some with complex PTSD that they were never afforded the capability to control.

How to bring people back to themselves, to the ground, to reality, that is my work now. Making it happen while paying rent and living and business start-up costs in an increasingly insecure labour market – that is now the challenge!