Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards

Burnout and Vicarous Trauma:  An employee defect or a yearning for collective action for social justice?

If you work in the area of trauma counselling, chances are you have an organisation or colleagues keeping a watchful eye out for the first signs and symptoms of burnout or vicarious trauma.

In my workplace we have to complete two tests every year – the Compassion Fatigue Self Test for Practioners and the Trauma and Attachment Beliefs Scale.  We also have regular training so that employees can identify the symptoms in each other.

While it might be considered admirable for our organisations to have a Vicarious Trauma Policy and working proactively to promote the health and wellbeing of its employees, what is it that is really happening here?  And what effect is this having?

If someone returns high results to vicarious trauma testing, the onus is on the individual to address it.  They are encouraged to revisit their self care plan or self refer to the Employee Assistance Program.  This kind of response pathologises the problem and locates it within the individual, that the counsellor is somehow defective or not strong enough.   It follows then that the client is to blame for somehow causing an injury by sharing their story with us.   Vikki Reynolds says using self care as an antidote for burnout “does nothing about the social determinants of health for people….  The problem is not in our heads or our hearts, but in the social world where clients and workers struggle with structures of injustice.”  Vikki argues that assuming a position where clients are seen to be hurting us is not an act of accountability at all.

In Darwin where I practice, we are surrounded by some of the worst cases of injustice in Australia such as the mistreatment of youth in detention, the highest rates of removal of Aboriginal children from their families and concerning numbers of child abuse within the foster care system.  Not far from us, refugees on Manus Island continue to suffer.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to hear the sad and heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence and the impact this has had on our clients.  And yes, I see and hear the impacts of intergenerational trauma outside my house; it’s difficult to escape it sometimes.  However, I return a normal vicarious trauma result.  I also hear inspiring stories of skills, knowledge and strengths of survival; stories of people speaking out to the Royal Commission so that the same thing doesn’t happen to other people; stories of people taking action to reduce the isolation caused by their poverty and homelessness.  I admire the steps of resistance my clients make against systems of injustice.  Indeed, clients do not hurt us, but instead inspire us, teach us and critique us says Reynolds.

The biggest critique our clients could legitimately make is why we, as workers, are not ‘fostering collective sustainability’*, coming together in solidarity to challenge the institutions and systems which marginalise and victimise our clients.

Indeed the collective silence of social workers in Australia is more likely to lead to my potential burnout, due to my frustration with the profession.  Why are social workers not out on the streets marching together to get Manus Island refugees to Australia?  Why are we silent in our support of our Indigenous comrades in the fight for Recognition?  Why are we standing back and allowing removal of Aboriginal children from families to go up and up?  Isn’t that why we entered this profession in the first place, to make a real difference to the social structures of injustice?  I was once accused of getting too close to a community because I cared too much, and was threatened to be removed by my employer.  However I was proud of my role as an advocate for social justice for the community and its people.

Social justice activism is a protective factor against vicarious trauma.  It’s not our clients that are hurting us.  It is our silence and inaction.

Perhaps the care we can show our colleagues is not to watch out for signs or symptoms of vicarious trauma in the workplace, but to gather in solidarity around shared ethics of social justice and collective accountability.  Let’s get out on the streets and do what we signed up for.

*‘Fostering collective sustainability’ is one of the guiding intentions advocated by Vikki Reynold in Justice Doing in Community Work and Therapy.

‘Continuing the Bold and the Beautiful’ with Josephine Lee

The bold and beautiful Josephine Lee

Welcome back to Part 2 of my conversation with Josephine Lee, an inspiring Senior Aboriginal Social worker who has traversed all breadth of social work and currently finds herself supporting children, families and schools in remote parts of the NT.

We are often told that we can’t change the world, even though we enter social work to do just that.  After listening to this conversation with Josephine, you will walk away with renewed belief that change really IS possible!

Be prepared to be confronted and have your white middle class assumptions challenged, as we head into part two of my conversation with Josephine.

While it was an easy decision for me to interview Josephine surrounded by the beauty of nature, doing so means being open to the elements.  So I apologise for the sound quality at those times when the wind picked up.

This episode covers:

  • Why Josephine is very comfortable with who she is and what she has to offer the world
  • What it’s like to walk to two worlds and how it impacts on Josephine’s work
  • Racism in social work
  • Why politeness goes out the window so Josephine can be the best she can be as a human being
  • The importance of holding adults accountable for the harm they have caused
  • Strengthening the voices of compassion and human decency
  • How to be a change agent for the right reasons
  • How boldness can help us all shine in the world
  • Authentic warrior-like self care for practitioners with a trauma history
  • Establishing authentic connection in this risk-averse world
  • The gifts of ‘Kuleana’ from Hawaii and ‘Dadirri’ from Daly River for living and working authentically
  • Our responsibilities for ourselves, each other and the planet
  • Packing the essential sense of humour and relishing moments of joy
  • Reflections on suicide in Aboriginal communities and society’s response

We hope you enjoy this episode of ‘Talk the Walk’.  And if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.
Warning:  occasional explicit language.
Just click on the Play Button below and enjoy!  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.  Or subscribe by email via our Home Page.

Things to follow up after the podcast

In the song ‘What a Wonderful World’, Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole uses the word “Kuleana“.

Josephine says “Kuleana is the value of responsibility.  It drives self-motivation and self-reliance, for the desire to act comes from accepting our responsibility with deliberate intent and with diligence.  We want to be held accountable.  Responsibility seeks opportunity. Reciprocal relationship between the person who is responsible, and the thing which they are responsible for.”

About Desmond Tutu 

About Nelson Mandela

About Barack Obama 

A Truly Civil Society by Eva Cox, 1995 Boyer Lectures

Josephine saysThis book and many other writers that I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to or read in depth, raised further my awareness around “don’t forget that humans have constructed society”, the busyness, franticness and dehumanising processes. It can be deconstructed and reconstructed.”

Aboriginal Social Work writers that have influenced Josephine’s practice:

Connect with Josephine Lee on Linked In

How a Life of Devotion to Kinship Care saved Patricia from Death by Heart Disease

Patricia works as a Child and Family Support Worker at Relationships Australia NT

Patricia works as a Child and Family Support Worker at Relationships Australia NT

It was a total accident that Patricia Munkara came to be employed at Relationships Australia as an Aboriginal Child and Family Support Worker.  Another Patricia in the community had applied for the job and when I went knocking on doors trying to find her, I ended up going to the wrong house.  Or the right house depending on how you look at it.  It was Patricia Munkara that ended up with the job.  And I am so grateful she did.  Now five years later, Patricia has also joined the Healing Our Children project.

There are many things that I admire about Patricia, not least of which was her decision to adopt her grandson six years ago and raise him as her own.  This required Patricia to turn her back on a life of gambling, smoking and family unrest.

“He [Patrick] was like an underweight baby, 6 months old, and he was all covered in sores.  We didn’t have welfare that time.  But luckily I talked to my niece about me and my partner, giving him to us.  ‘We can grow him up’ I said.  He [Patrick] made me change.”

“I used to gamble, get involved in fighting and violence, arguing with other family.  When Patrick came into my care, I learnt bit by bit…. to look after him”

“It changed my life you know, doing good things for him.”

“I want to teach him growing up, take him to school everyday, make sure I keep him healthy.  When he is sick I take him to clinic straight away.”

Patricia had clear hopes and dreams for Patrick including teaching him to be independent, work for himself and look after himself.

“Mum was a rolemodel.  She taught me everything.  How to be independent myself.  ‘Look after yourself’ my mum said, ‘maybe in the future you’ll have your brothers grandchildren or children [to look after]’.  And that’s true, her word.  She taught me how to hunt when there’s no food…She said ’You might go hunting for your brothers kids or grandchildren’.  Now I’m doing that.”

“My mum was an adopted kid too.  That’s what I’m doing now.  Me and Rosita (my sister) growing up kids”. 

“I don’t want him (Patrick) when he finish up school to walk around like bludger, doing bad things.  Instead [he do] good things.”

One of Patricia’s other strength is her faith and culture.  This is something that was also passed down from her mum and dad.

“I had to pray, go to church.  I remember crying for my mum and dad when they used to go to church.  I used to run behind them when they leave me home.”

“I always be with my dad when he do that kulama ceremony…. He taught me hunting, where my country is, from each place.  I still remember going to our country.  Our dad took us there when I was a little girl.  And we’re teaching our children now.”

Patricia working in the Healing Our Children project.

Patricia working in the Healing Our Children project.


Patricia says one of the big motivations for her to become a carer was her knowledge that Patrick was going to grow up without the love of a father.  This is where Andrew, her partner comes in as a strong male role model.

“… other kids are bullying and teaching him wrong things, behaviour like swearing and backtalk.  I don’t like it… He’s got that cheeky attitude because of those other friends.  So Andrew said ‘OK, bring him here [to Raminginging].  [It’s] my turn, I’m gonna teach him now.  Andrew gonna grow him up and make him man.  So he learn ‘lore’ and he understand behaviour.”

“Andrew will make sure he is [learning about] healthy weight and eating.  Andrew teach him about hunting and bush tucker.“

Life hasn’t been easy for Patricia.  She has suffered from rheumatic heart disease, the number one killer of young people on the Tiwi Islands.

 “I had twice heart surgery.  Before I went to Adelaide I was still crying for [Patrick].  The doctor told me that I had two choices.  Whether you gonna live or whether you gonna finish.  He said to me ‘I give you this pacemaker then you will last longer…and see your grandson growing’.  I said to the doctor ‘I don’t want to die, leave my grandson’.  I want to raise him up, see him grow, have a little family of his own.”

Patricia with Patrick (right) and his younger brother Albert.

Patricia with Patrick (right) and his younger brother Albert.

So strong is her faith, love and devotion to Patrick, Patricia has even cheated death, to make sure she is around to finish what she started.

“Yeah, Jesus and Mary, they were calling out to me and waking me up.  I can remember how I slept, and I was finish, my heart was stopped…When I heard that voice, it was calling out to me get up, get up.  I opened my eyes and I saw that bright light.  I was in a strange room.  I was nearly finish, three days finish, in intensive care… All them nurses, doctors and everything, they had put it [defribulator] on my chest.  It wasn’t them that bought me back to life, because I seen that bright light.  He [Jesus] was still there standing beside me.  He said ‘you not dead, you still alive’.  He said, ‘I know what you worrying for…[you are] too much worrying for Patrick and you didn’t want to leave him behind”.

Patricia also believes in the power of culture for healing, something she learned from her father.

“Our doctor told my mum and dad ‘your child got asthma’.  My dad used to go hunting every day and when I finished school I always see long bum, mangrove worm, mud muscles cooking.  I used to eat that after school.  When Kulama ceremony came, my dad gave me that potato to eat, that chilli potato cured my asthma…. Following week I went to check with doctor, no more puffer for me.  And when they found out, they sent me for x ray, they thought I had lung problem but nothing.  No more short of breath, nothing.”

Patricia is one of the strongest people I know when it comes to tough love and protecting herself from the stress of family humbug.  The warning signs of feeling weak and low blood pressure means she takes some time out for herself.

“I help myself.  I stay home, watch TV.  Sit outside for fresh air or listen to music.  Or go for a walk to the airport and come back.  When night-time come….sometimes say a little bit of prayer then sleep.”

Thinking about the impact that Patricia has had on Patrick’s life, she recalls Patrick telling her recently

“Amawu [grandma], I can remember everything you taught me, I’m still growing and I’m still gonna learn more from you.  And I’m gonna teach my little brother.” 

For Patricia the impact on her is profoundly simple “He has given me new life.”

But the last word should go to Patrick. When I asked him what was the best thing about his grandma he replied

“Amawu tells me go to school and learn everyday.’

Patricia is now considering having another two children come into her kinship care.  Despite being on the Disability Pension, Patricia chooses to work because she is passionate about protecting children in her community and supporting women who are struggling. It’s a privilege to work alongside such an inspirational strong woman.

Mindfulness: A new fad OR a practice used for thousands of years in Australia?

IMG_2563

Nature has a way of bringing us back to the moment.

Has anyone noticed how busy, how violent, how damaged, how lost the world is lately?  Sometimes it feels like I spend more time defending some right, advocating for some justice or worrying about some worthy cause, than I spend with my own children just living and being.  My Inbox is flooded with agencies wanting my signature on their petition or money to fight their case.  As a peoples, we seem to have lost our sense of self – our humanity – distracted by the temptation of technologies and drawn into the seduction of social media.  We have been sucked into believing that our leaders and politicians have our collective human interest at heart.  We have been disconnected from what our intuition, our bodies and our earth is telling us.  We are detached from relationship to each other.

It seems like there are quite a few of us out there who are despairing at the ravaging of the planet and the inhumane treatment of human beings at many levels.  It has been refreshing to witness the emerging movement of people standing up for human and environmental rights around the world.  There is change on the wind.  Some have called it the time of the Great Turning.  There is also a movement of people simplifying their lives, ridding themselves of the possessions of consumerism, growing and sharing free food, moving into a tiny house, cutting back their work hours and looking for a tree change.  These are not what might be called hippies or tree huggers but average people. Yes it is the average person that is waking up and looking within for what is true and just.

Mindfulness is also making a comeback with a wider audience than just the yoga-loving types. Mindfulness teaches us to stop, to breathe, to reconnect, to listen.  Seigel (2015) calls it taking ‘time in’ (as opposed to time out) inviting us to become aware of our bodies, feelings and thoughts at this moment in time.  Not the past.  Not the future.  Now.

Professionals in the field of neuroscience now have the evidence that mindfulness really is good for our human brains.  So evidently the human services sector is jumping on board with mindfulness being the answer to all manner of human problems like addictions and mental illness, manifestations of the crazy, stressed-out world we have created.

I would argue that Aboriginal people in Australia have been practising mindfulness for thousands of years. It appears to be very close to what Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, from Daly River calls ‘Dadirri’.

Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.”

“The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole again.“

“There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.”

Miriam has said that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing, it is deep inside each one of us.  Sitting in nature is one way we can become more connected with the practice of dadirri.  Sit, feel and listen – to the birds, the wind, your breathing, your heartbeat.  Allow yourself to be quiet and be still in this moment.  It won’t fix the worries of the world.  But it will allow you to just be.

It’s pretty ironic that the one culture we have tried to destroy in Australia is the same culture that can teach us how to live in peace with ourselves and the earth?   If only we had just listened.

References

Siegel, D. 2015 ‘ Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain’.

‘Therapy on the Go’ – Mandalas

Mandala4‘Therapy on the go’ is about sharing quick insights into healing practices that anyone, any age, any gender, can do anywhere, even if you are time poor. Whether you are wanting to reclaim a sense of groundedness in your life, achieve some insight into your self or simply relax through meditation, creating a mandala can do all this and more. You could doodle one in your coffee break or create some space on a weekend to really go for it!

A quick history.  The Sanskrit word for mandala is ‘circle’ or ‘completion’. Eastern cultures have honoured the circle over thousands of years for its inherent beauty, wholeness and sacredness, with different interpretations put on its meaning for spiritual life. Carl Jung introduced mandalas to the Western World after noticing his patients spontaneously made circle drawings in therapy. He believed that if you drew mandalas or dreamed about them, it signalled a movement toward new self knowledge. Art therapist Cathy Malchiodi says mandalas “give us an experience of wholeness amid the chaos of every day life, making the “sacred circle” one of the very coolest art therapy interventions for both soothing the soul and meeting oneself.”

Mandalas are everywhere. They literally exist in the cells of my body, around my garden, even the universe. Take a look around your environment; notice the patterns and be inspired.

mandalaQuick reflection. Creating a mandala is a personal journey, it’s not about the final artwork. So take your time, enjoy it. Your mandala represents your inner emotions and thoughts at a particular point in time, through the shapes, colours and materials you use. Don’t think about it too much. Go with your gut instincts and see where your body takes you.

Mandala3Quick instructions. Gather your choice of materials. If drawing is your preferred medium, try pencils or pastels on large paper. If you like collage, almost any crafty materials or articles from nature work. Things like coloured or patterned paper, buttons, pipecleaners, feathers, fabric, ribbons, lace, wool, match and popsicle sticks, crushed eggs shells, , jigsaw pieces, bottle caps, leaves, dry grasses, small shells – the possibilities are endless. It could be as simple as a black pen and white paper or a stick and sand.

Start by drawing a large circle. If you like use a compass or trace around a plate. Then in the centre of the large circle, draw a very small circle or glue a centre piece. Work outwards from there, using the ‘mandala dance method’. What’s that? You’ll have to watch the video. Basically, you draw a line (or glue items) radiating out from your centre at 12 o’clock, 6 oclock, 3 and 9 o’clock. Then you can divide each of these sections in half again, so you have eight lines. Keep adding lines, patterns or craft bits to your mandala until you fill the whole circle. Try experimenting next time with black paper or a canvas board.

Quick inspiration. An artist friend of mine, Alison Dowell recently ran a mandala making workshop for International Womens Day.  Watch her quick instructions including her very cool ‘mandala dance’ here.

Here is a great picture summary, courtesy of one of my favourite websites where there is lots of inspiration.

MakeAMandala2

Use your mandala as a centrepoint for meditation, to decorate a wall or turn it into a coaster. Above all, enjoy the experience! You’ll never know what you learn about yourself, if you don’t try therapy on the go.

“Let’s Do Dadirri” – Using your Inner Wisdom on this rocky Journey called Life

IMG_2122How often do you stop and sit in quiet still awareness, open to listening to what your inner voice is saying to you?  For some, this might be too confronting, perhaps afraid of what they might hear.  However for the majority, it seems our busy world distracts us from this important human task.  Those who practice regular meditation will have some idea of what it is like to sit in quiet still awareness, and be open to receiving new insight into what the body and mind needs at any particular point in time.  For those with no time to do nothing – you could be missing out on so much more that life has to offer!

Before I moved to the Northern Territory, I had been told by two different employers that I should “stop and smell the roses occasionally”.  This is difficult to hear by one who is passionately driven in their work.   Then I came across the words of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Aboriginal Elder from Nauiyu (Daly River) who talks about Dadirri like it is the essence of human life.

“Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’.

When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening.”

“In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting.”

These words really struck me.  And I have carried them with me from the moment I stepped onto Aboriginal land to work with the Tiwi people.  For the first four months, I hardly spoke a word. I sat around with women Elders drinking cups of tea and listened as they generously poured out their stories – about them, about their community, about their people, about their hopes and dreams, and about what they didn’t want whitefellas doing to them anymore.  I learnt a lot by keeping my mouth shut.

Since injuring my back in January this year, I have had a lot more hours lying around in quiet still awareness, listening to what my body needs.  This has tended to be more reliable than the advice from doctors, physios, chiros and even well intentioned friends.

Dadirri doesn’t have to take a long time out of your day or be some mindblowing, life course altering transformation.  For instance, today I stopped to contemplate an out-of-the-blue email from an interstate colleague I’ve never met face-to-face, suggesting I read a book called “Leadership Beyond Good Intentions”.  She courageously suggested that “this book might help you look after yourself…as you continue your social leadership journey.”  I didn’t even realise I was on a social leadership journey!  I wondered whether others would have laughed off this observation, made a polite response and hit Delete.  But her insight got me contemplating.  What can she see that I can’t?  Where am I being lead?  Well, there was only one way to find out.  I ordered the book.

Anyway, it was all this contemplation that led me to write this blog…..

What are the signposts in your life that you haven’t noticed because you’ve been too busy?
What do the sights, smells and sounds around you have you feeling and thinking?
What is that piece of music or the bird that pooped on your head, really saying!
Stop and take notice.  Chances are your thoughts will be a reflection of what is important to you, who you really are and what you need.   It’s your inner wisdom talking.

“[Dadirri] is in everyone. It is not just an Aboriginal thing.”—Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann