Image description: The 4 of Cups in the Next World Tarot. A person with one breast exposed from a pink housecoat sits on a dock, examining her nails. Four corked bottles float in the ocean beside her, and she has nail polish bottles on the deck beside her. She is wearing fuzzy green slippers.
This is another cross-post from my tarot blog. It’s been a really intense few weeks of responding to abuse – people in my communities are responding to interpersonal, intimate, and social/structural abuse, and it’s been really heavy. Tarot has been helping me work through this, and today’s post is a companion to last week’s Ten of Swords post.
Last week I pulled the Four of Cups, and my phone ate the post. I meant to come back to it, but didn’t have time.
This morning, I pulled the Four of Cups again and I am thankful for the opportunity to come back to this. I’m also so conscious of how our relationship with the tarot deck is so contextual – this card lands differently today than it did last Saturday.
Today, I flipped that card over and in the femme checking her nail polish I saw so many women and femmes in my own life who have experienced abuse and are bored with it.
I thought about those moments when you’re shocked that someone would say or do something abusive, but you also know that they’re just reading from the same ratty old playbook as so many people before them. I’m thinking about how predictable and unoriginal abuse is; the gaslighting, the victim-blaming, the blame and shame and fragility and violence.
And it doesn’t really matter who they are, we see it all over the place. TERFs abusing trans women in the same boring old ways. Men abusing women and non-men in the same boring old ways. White folks abusing people of colour. Across every gap of privilege and dominance, there is the potential for this abuse and when it shows up, it is horrible and unacceptable and boring.
The effects of abuse are real. When I say that abuse is boring, I am not at all intending to downplay the impact. But where I see creativity, resourcefulness, innovation is in the responses to abuse. Abuse is so easy – our whole culture is set up to comfort and console and protect people who misuse their power. Capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy – it’s all designed to make it easy to misuse our power in the same old ways. At the end of the day, it’s the same old Scooby Doo villain reveal – looked like an exciting new monster, but it was the same old thing again.
I see this boredom in the Four of Cups today.
I feel this boredom in my heart. And I feel the heaviness of it in my shoulders, my temples, my hips. Because it may be same old same old boring shit, but it’s also pervasive, entrenched. It’s everywhere. Yes, it’s the same thing. Yes, we can predict the gaslighting, the victim blaming, the revisionist histories. We can predict the response of the media and many of the people around us. But that doesn’t make it any easier. That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t give the disenfranchised access to power or stability or security. The boring abuse still takes over lives, leaves people hurting, alone, living with trauma.
So, back to the Four of Cups.
Personally, I have always read this card as being about scarcity. It shows up when I’m feeling restricted, afraid. There’s often a sense of constriction in this card for me. I’m holding all those cups in reserve, because I don’t know if I’ll have anything left tomorrow. I’m unwilling to engage, because engagement feels risky.
In Carrie Mallon’s interpretation of the Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown, she writes:
This card tends to get a bad reputation, but it’s one of my favorites, and it has a very nuanced message. In some circumstances, this card suggests a person who is closed off from opportunities. Being too absorbed in your inner world can be a detriment, leading you to miss golden opportunities. Disconnection and apathy can be inherent in this card.
But in another view, emotional withdrawal does not have to indicate a negative form of apathy. Sometimes you need to hole yourself up, forget about what shiny things the outside world is offering, and let your emotions stabilize. After all, four is the number of structure and stability, and cups are the suit of emotions. Therefore, the Four of Cups can advise you to come back to your own emotional center.
Even in the more “negative” interpretation here, I wonder: what has led this person to be closed off? What has been happening in their context that has them turning inward to their inner world? What is the context that invited disconnection and apathy into their lives?
I think this is especially relevant when we are examining our own responses to someone who has experienced abuse. Do we see them (or ourselves) as “missing out on golden opportunities” (without holding compassion for how much those opportunities might cost)? Are we frustrated with them (or ourselves) or not engaging in their/our own lives? For not leaving, responding, resisting – all the other “opportunities” available to people who are experiencing violence (which are often not actually as available as they seem).
The Next World Tarot guidebook interpretation of the 4 of Cups highlights the potential positives that come with disengagement and withdrawal. I think this is relevant to the current theme of responding to abuse which is so present in my life these days.
In the Next World guidebook, Cristy C. Road writes:
It feels as if she has been in the middle of this argument for centuries. The 4 of Cups is strong, but exhausted, and unwilling to part with the quiet. She is happy now – along the seaside, surrounded by her most comforting possessions. The 4 of Cups asks you to question your exhaustion. Is it due to unhappiness, disinterest, or boredom?
Living in a society so complacent with injustice, the 4 of Cups asks you to transform exhaustion into your own disengaged moment of accidental self-care.
Are there ways in which exhaustion can highlight injustice? Can our exhaustion and disengagement be an indicator of where something is wrong, and we are unwilling to cooperate with it?
Is there a way in which exhaustion can be refusal? Is there a way in which our acknowledgement and response to exhaustion can be self-care?
So often, interpretations of the Four of Cups can feel incredibly victim-blaming. (In Michelle Tea’s Modern Tarot, she actually says, “Often when this card comes up, the problem is you but you’re too deep in your own bad feelings to see it.”)
When we locate the problem internally, it becomes difficult to see the wisdom and creativity of people’s choices to disengage. Disengagement, turning away, avoidance – these things are all massively devalued in our capitalist, productivity-worshipping, success-chasing, “manifest your best life”, “law of attraction” culture.
But people are always responding to the hardships and traumas in their lives.
People are always resisting.
Nobody is a passive recipient of hardship.
Certainly, there are times when we want to be engaged, and there are times when we want to shift away from the restriction and isolation of this card. But what would happen if we brought curiosity to our interpretation of what’s happening?
What if we asked:
Am I feeling disengaged right now? Does this card reflect my feelings in my own life, or is it an invitation to think about how I’m viewing the world around me?
What have I learned about disengagement as being either good or bad? Who taught me this? Does this learning align with my own values, or my own lived experiences?
If I am disengaged right now, why am I disengaged in this moment?
What am I disengaging from?
What does my disengagement make possible?
What have I learned about greed, or selfishness, or self-absorption (also strong elements associated with this card)?
Whose values do these lessons about greed, selfishness, or self-absorption align with? Do these values apply differently depending on the social location of the person who is behaving in “greedy” or “selfish” or “self-absorbed” ways?
What have I learned about self-care? From whom?
Is there a small moment of self-care that I can engage with today? What might that look like?
Who does it serve or benefit when I engage in self-care? Who does it serve or benefit when I do not?
How can I reevaluate (the key word on the Next World Tarot version of this card!) what I have been taught? Can I choose to engage with these discourses and narratives with curiosity, and to honour my own insider knowledges?
This week, in fact the last few months, has been focused on being a support for people responding to violence in their relationships (both intimately and socially/structurally). I have been so thankful for the gentle invitations that the tarot has offered me over this time. I’m particularly thankful for Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot and the liberation and justice-oriented interpretations offered in the guidebook.
(This post was originally written for my tarot blog.)
I am tired of watching the people in my life suffer at the hands and words of people who claim to love them.
And it does not escape my notice that it is more often the femmes, the women, the disabled, the neurodivergent, the vulnerable who are experiencing violence and abuse from their partners.
I am overwhelmed with listening to people who consult me for narrative therapy, and who consult me as a friend, talk about what has been done to them, talk about what has been said to them, talk about what has been said about them, and to hear them questioning themselves with the oppressive voices of our culture.
Was it really so bad?
He didn’t mean it.
Am I too needy?
He was drinking.
They were having a panic attack.
Everything I say makes her angry.
He really tries.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Of course they doubt themselves! Our culture chronically gaslights marginalized communities. Marginalized communities are often operating within transgenerational trauma, poverty, scarcity (if not in our families, then in our communities). Marginalized communities may also have to contend with other structural and systemic issues that make naming abuse and violence more challenging – Black and Indigenous communities are at such increased risk of violence from any system. Seeking help often means finding more violence.
There is so much normalization of violence in our culture. And although it is not an issue that only impacts women, or is only perpetuated by men, there are patterns. They are painful patterns to witness.
One of my friends recently posted this open letter to men:
Just wanted to let you know I am so over it. I talk to your partners every day. I see their tears and listen to their self flagellation in the effort to make you happy. I watch them cram themselves in tiny boxes so they don’t threaten you. I fume as they suggest, gently, kindly, if it’s not too much trouble, that you consider their needs, but your wants are more important. Men, I watch you casually ask for sacrifice as if it were your due. I seethe as your partners ask for the simplest things of you, and you just don’t even bother. I see you go through the motions and call it love, when it doesn’t even pass the bar for respect. And then, as it all falls apart you claim you need a chance, as if you haven’t been given dozens, that you didn’t know, as if you hadn’t been told relentlessly, and that you can change, as long as you won’t be held accountable.
Men, I am so over watching your partners unilaterally trying to fix relationship problems that are yours. I am tired of knowing your partners better than you. I am exhausted having to buoy them through the hard times because you cannot be bothered. I am tired of you cheapening what love means by buying the first box of chocolates you see (not even their favourite) and calling it an apology but changing nothing.
Don’t hurt my people. Men, do better or go home.
And still, the questioning. Maybe it wasn’t so bad? Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Because each incident on its own might not be so bad. Might be a bad day, a bad choice. Might be a bad moment. It’s not the whole story. Maybe it’s not so bad.
And on its own, maybe it isn’t.
Image description: The Ten of Swords from the Next World Tarot.
From the guidebook by Cristy C. Road:
This is the final straw, and the 10 of Swords is exhausted from counting. They have lost themselves, over and over, in the name of love, self-worth, trauma, post-traumatic stress, healing the body from abuse, healing the mind from manipulation, and unwarranted, non-stop loss. The 10 knows healing, they studies it and have been offered power, candles, bracelets, and messages from their ancestors through local prophets who run their favorite Botanica. They are listening, but they are stuck. Proving to their community that while they have known power, they have known pain they don’t deserve.
The 10 of Swords asks you to trust your pain, own your suffering, and don’t deny yourself of the care you deserve from self, and the validation from your community. That validation is the root of safety. The 10 of Swords believes now is the time to ask your people for safety.
I pulled this card after another conversation with a beloved member of my community about an incident of misogyny in an intimate relationship.
I had brought this question to the deck – “How do we invite accountability into our intimate relationships?”
I wanted to know –
How do we create the context for change without putting the burden of emotional labour onto the person already experiencing trauma from the choices and behaviours of their partner?
How do we deepen the connection to values of justice, compassion, and ethical action, for people who have been recruited into acts of violence and abuse?
How do we resist creating totalizing narratives about people who use violence and abuse? How do we resist casting them as monsters? How do we invite accountability while also sustaining dignity?
How do we, to use a quote by one of my fellow narrative therapists, “thwart shame”? (Go watch Kylie Dowse’s video here!)
In moments of distress, I often turn to the tarot. When I don’t know how to ask the right questions, and I don’t know what to say or do, I turn to the tarot. Tarot cards are excellent narrative therapists.
I flipped this card over and the image moved me immediately. These acts of intimate partner violence and abuse do not occur in a vacuum. It is not just one sword in the back.
A misogynist comment from a partner, directed towards a woman or femme, joins the crowd of similar comments she, they, or he has received their entire life.
A racist comment from a partner, directed towards a racialized person, joins the pain of living an entire life surrounded by white supremacy and racism.
An ableist comment from a partner, a transantagonistic comment, a sanist or healthist or fatphobic or classist comment – these comments join the crowd.
And so, how do we invite accountability while preserving dignity? How do we resist totalizing narratives of either victims or perpetrators, resist recreating systems of harm in our responses to harm?
See the whole picture.
Even though it is so painful to look at, see the whole thing.
Rather than locating violence and abuse as problems that are localized to a relationship, individualized and internalized to a single person making choices, recognize that these things happen in context. And for many folks, these contexts are incredibly painful.
It will take time, and patience, and compassion, and gentleness, and a willingness to do the hard work of both validation and accountability. It will take community to find safety.
We need each other to say, “it is that bad, even if this incident might not be.”
When the victim-blaming, isolating, individualizing voices start clamoring, we need each other to say, “this is not your fault.”
We need something more nuanced than “leave,” “report.”
We need to show up for each other, with each other. We need safety. We need validation.
Can we do this by asking questions like:
How did you learn what it means to be in relationship?
What examples of making choices in relationships have you seen around you? What was being valued in those choices?
Does what you’ve learned about being in relationship align with what you want for yourself, and what you value for yourself?
Do the actions you’re choosing in your own relationship align with your values or hopes?
Who has supported you in your values and hopes?
Do you share any hopes or values with your partner(s)?
What have you learned about violence and abuse in relationships? About who experiences violence and abuse? About who enacts violence and abuse?
When did you learn this?
Does this learning align with what you’ve experienced in your own relationship?
What insider knowledges would you add to this learning, from your own experience?
Have you ever taken a stand against violence and abuse in your relationship?
What enabled you to take this stand?
When violence or abuse shows up in your relationship, are you able to name it? Have you ever been able to name it? What supports this ability?
What have you learned about what it means to be accountable in relationship?
Do you have supports available to you that invite accountability while sustaining dignity?
Who can support you in being accountable for the actions you’ve taken when you’ve been recruited into violence or abuse? Who can support you in asking for accountability from a partner who has been recruited into violence or abuse?
Here are some resources if you’re looking for ways to respond to intimate partner violence:
The Stop Violence Everyday project.
Critical Resistance’s The Revolution Starts at Home zine.
The Creative Interventions toolkit.
(This post was originally posted on my tarot blog. You can find it here.)
(This post was available a week early to my patrons. My Patreon helps support this work, and I appreciate my patrons more than I can say!)
Tarot is an important part of my life, and has been for quite a few years.
I use tarot as a way to think about what’s happening in my life, with tarot spreads acting as invitations to think about situations in specific and focused ways. I have also used tarot in narrative therapy in a similar way – inviting community members to engage with the cards as a visual way to explore their stories. I also use tarot as part of my slowly developing spiritual practice. I’ve written before about how I use tarot as self-care, in this post that introduced my tarot practice, and in this post about how to use tarot as a self-storying tool.
I participated in parts of the Owl and Bones August tarot challenge on Instagram. There was a prompt for each day, and it was an interesting process to notice was came up, what kept coming up, and how I responded to the cards. (I will admit that my participation was a bit more hit and miss while was away, mostly because I was so sick.)
On August 22nd, the prompt was “Where are things out of balance?”
I drew the Nine of Wands.
Image description: The Nine of Wands from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, against a black background.
This card is about stamina and inner strength – it’s about continuing on the long path.
Carrie Mallon, a tarot blogger who has written posts for each of the cards in the Wild Unknown deck (which I’m using here) writes about the Nine of Wands:
“The Nine of Wands shows that sometimes we need to draw on our inner reserves. We need to protect what is important to us, we need to protect our energy. We need to keep going, even though we may feel a little tired from being so on-guard. This kind of perseverance can be admirable, but can also lead to weariness.”
I thought, of course. Work is out of balance! I’m working too much. I’m always on the edge of burnout. I’m too busy, there’s too much going on, there’s too much pressure and stress. Work. This is about work.
But for some reason, I paused before posting the picture and that little response to it on Instagram. Instead, I sat with it for a few days.
I wondered why it was so easy to come to that interpretation.
I wondered about what the effect of having this story so prominently in my mind might be – how does it impact my days to always be framing myself in terms of “the edge of burnout” and “doing too much”?
I was a little uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, because I am always cautious when I feel myself edging towards “shift the narrative.” So often, this is used as a bludgeon against people who are legitimately struggling with injustice.
“Just shift your narrative!”
“Just focus on the positive!”
How about, just bite me.
However, this idea of shifting my own narrative is a theme that’s been coming up for me in a lot of areas lately. I have noticed that I’ve pushed so hard away from weaponized positivity that I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my connection to any kind of positivity at all. It’s easy, lately, to find myself feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless.
Even though it is unjust to demand that hurting people “focus on the positive,” that doesn’t mean there is never a time to re-frame.
In my narrative therapy training, I’ve been taught to “linger with intent” in the problem story – to invite community members to talk about their problems without shame or judgement, and to look for ways to strengthen their connection to preferred outcomes and preferred selves within those stories.
What this looks like in practice is that I listen to the stories that community members bring into narrative therapy sessions with an ear open to “double-storying” – what’s not being said here, but might be present anyway? In a story of anger, for example, there is sometimes a sense of justice that refuses to be silenced. In a story of hopelessness or exhaustion, there might be a cherished belief that things could be, and should be, different.
This means deepening stories of resistance and response, looking for those moments of choice and asking questions that connect people to their own acts of agency and to the ways in which they’ve responded to the problems in their lives. It also means looking for what people are valuing – what they hold to be precious or cherished, what they want for themselves and the world, what they hope for and dream – and working to strengthen their connections to the histories of those values.
This feels different than telling people to “shift their perspective” or to “think positive.”
It’s hard for me to write about this in clear and confident ways because I’m in the middle of the struggle myself.
What I do in a narrative therapy session is try to help people shift how they are oriented towards their problems and their own stories. I try to shift the narrative!
But outside of narrative therapy sessions and the respectful framing that I’m learning in my narrative therapy training, what I see in so much self-help writing is demands to “change your perspective and change your life,” with a subtext that seems to say that people have invited their own suffering, that they’re experiencing the consequences of their own “low vibrations” or “negative thoughts,” or that they have both the power and the responsibility to single-handedly and through the power of positive thinking change their external context. I hate these demands so much.
But what I’ve noticed in myself is that in rejecting the culture of “manifest your best life” positive thinking, I have also rejected a lot of helpful wisdom (wisdom that shows up in narrative therapy, too, and that I love in that context!) In rejecting the idea that individuals are responsible for changing social contexts that they can’t control, I have found myself also rejecting the hope for any change at all. I have focused so much on the harms of individualizing problems that I sometimes think I have forgotten the hope of collective action. I have focused on resisting narratives of “manifestation” and I think that I have sometimes lost sight of narratives of agency and choice.
I don’t know what to do about this.
But I do know this – when I pulled the Nine of Wands, my mind leapt to a very specific narrative of myself. It is the narrative of overwork. The narrative of “the edge of burnout.” It is a narrative I know very well, and anytime a narrative comes that easily, it’s worth questioning.
Because, even though it is a narrative that comes with my critique of capitalism and my feelings of powerlessness in the face of late stage capitalism, it’s also a thin narrative of myself. (“Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.” – from What is Narrative Therapy on the Dulwich Centre’s excellent site.)
I started wondering, what if the thing that’s out of balance isn’t work, but my narrative about work?
(And, since it’s Sunday when I’m writing this, and Sunday in the Tender Year is when I pick a binary and challenge it, what if it isn’t either/or, but rather both?)
I started asking myself what is rendered invisible when I focus only on the part of my working self that is so tired and overwhelmed?
The answers came slowly, especially because I was sick. But they did come eventually.
What gets erased is the joy I take in my work.
What gets erased are the positive effects of my work.
What gets erased is the support I have in my work (including from my patrons!) and the growth that I am inviting into my life by continuing to do this work.
My choices get erased in this narrative, which is a narrative of work being foisted on me – work that I have to do in order to pay the rent, work that I have to do in order to get where I need to be.
But I do feel joy in my work.
There are positive effects that result from my work.
I have so much support for my work, and I do make choices.
After sitting with this idea of work / narratives of work, I laid out another tarot spread for myself.
Image description: A Wild Unknown tarot spread and a muffin on a wooden table. The spread includes the Nine of Wands, the Four of Cups, the Ace of Wands, the Four of Wands, and the Son of Pentacles. The Father of Cups is also visible on top of the deck.
I pulled out the Nine of Wands, and then laid out my favourite spread with that as the focus.
My favourite spread is the elements – a five card spread with a focus card (or a card that represents the situation or the whole), and then cards for air/mental self, water/emotional self, earth/physical or material self, and fire/creative, passionate, or spiritual self.
In the air position, I had the Four of Cups.
The Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown always strikes me as being a card about feelings of scarcity – that rat is trying so hard to keep control of all the cups, to make sure they don’t tip or get stolen. The Four of Cups is often about feeling like there isn’t enough, and in this deck (more than most others) it makes me think of the way scarcity can invite us into desperation and a desire to control our situation more tightly than we need to, more tightly than we actually can. This card says, “I can’t let go of anything, or I will lose everything.”
It landed like a hammer and I almost didn’t even flip the rest of the spread. This card speaks directly to what I had been thinking about over the four days since originally pulling the Nine of Wands.
Maybe I’m out of balance about this because I am so focused on scarcity. I am so terrified of scarcity. I am terrified of financial insecurity – I have experienced acute financial scarcity in the past, and I am chronically on the edge of it (and have been since my divorce), and those thoughts consume me sometimes. Especially when I think about work, and about throwing myself more fully into my narrative work.
I noticed the moon in both the Four of Cups and the Nine of Wands. That dark crescent in the Four is a rich golden colour in the Nine of Wands – two different narratives of the same moon. Am I working towards that bright sliver of light, or am I clutching what little I can in the shadows? It’s the same thing, but it’s a very different story of that same thing.
So that first position is air, how I’m thinking about the situation.
I moved on to the rest of the spread.
Water – how am I feeling about this situation? Where are my emotions here?
The Ace of Wands. This is a card about new beginnings, and about passion. When I think about work, I do think in terms of scarcity – a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of faith in myself. And a lot of that is justified, but it isn’t the whole story. Because when I feel about work, particularly about my narrative work, my community organizing work, my writing work – I feel passionate and excited. I feel like I’m building something! I feel like there’s value here, and the potential to do something new and needed. This card resonated for me, too.
Then across the spread to Fire – where is my passion and creativity here?
The Son of Pentacles. I see the same golden crescent moon as in the Nine of Wands, and notice the pentacle (a symbol of earth and grounding and materiality) centered in it – another narrative of this same story that adds stability to the potential and “enoughness” of that rich crescent.
Carrie Mallon writes about this card:
The Son of Pentacles leans into the card, pressing forward slowly but surely. An orange crescent moon frames a pentacle above him. The background is dark, but lightens where he gazes.
The Son of Pentacles is not one to act with great haste or passion. He is purposeful and careful in all that he does. Once he has decided to move in a given direction, that is simply where he goes. He sticks the course and slugs through the mud to reach his goals. He doesn’t always trust easily, but if someone does earn his trust, he stands by them without fail.
On the positive side, this attention to detail can be essential. The Son of Pentacles is thorough and has unparalleled determination to finish what he starts. On the negative side, he can fall prone to tunnel vision.
…[The] Son of Pentacles is looking down at his chosen path. He is so resolute in his endeavors that he may forget to look up and assess his current surroundings. He may have a difficult time with changes and flexibility.
That also resonates with what I’d been thinking about this whole work/narratives of work thing. I recognize my own determination, but I can also see how sometimes I get focused on a particular idea or narrative and it’s hard for me to deviate from that. I also find this interesting because this card is in the fire position – it’s all about passion. But the Son of Pentacles is not a passionate card. He’s determined, focused, attentive but not passionate. And I am passionate. I am passionate in general but I am especially passionate about my work.
Except, not so much lately.
Lately, I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so fixed on how hard it is, how hard I’m working, how hard I have to keep working, and I haven’t been feeling my fire. I’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately – climate change, economics, politics. I’ve been doing my work, but I’ve been doing it more like the Son of Pentacles than I would like.
And the lovely thing about that is that I can make choices about whether I continue like this! The cards are not fixed, fatalistic. The cards are a conversation. And I can make choices, make changes. I can invite more fire into this part of my life.
Finally, Earth – where is my physical and material self in this?
The Four of Wands. Where the Four of Cups is about scarcity and lack, the Four of Wands is about celebration and reaching milestones.
I’m interpreting this card as an invitation to notice successes as they happen, rather than constantly watching for upcoming failures or challenges.
The fact is, some things have gone really well in the last while! I have First Class Honours in my first course of the Masters program. My birthday offer of $37 narrative therapy sessions has been popular, and I only have 25 of these sessions left. (If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, get in touch! I’d love to work with you.) I have a lot of ideas for posts and projects, and lots of people are interested in participating in these projects. The next zine is almost ready to be printed!
I’m going to try to notice those things when they happen, and to let myself linger in those stories of success and hope.
It’s really difficult looking at our narratives and allowing them to shift (or even acknowledging that a shift might be possible or desirable).
I appreciate the way that tarot invites me into these difficult and rich conversations with myself and with my stories.
At the beginning of January, I posted about upcoming projects. At the beginning of February, I posted this on my Patreon! If you’d like to see what I’m up to in a more timely manner, I definitely recommend the Patreon. One of the benefits is you’ll see posts theoretically a week early, but actually more like a week and a half, since I am forever struggling with herding those to-doodles. This version of the post is updated to add details that have developed in the last 12 days. Phew! What a moving target life is.
One reason I’m going to keep up with the review/preview posts through 2018 is because I tend to set unrealistic goals for myself, not attain those unrealistic goals, and then feel like a failure. I would like to start documenting my goals and my work, so that I can bring my goal-setting more into alignment with my actual available time, energy, and financial resources.
This will be particularly important in this upcoming year because my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program starts this month. (Yes!) Update: Today! It starts today! Once I hit publish on this post, I’ll be hopping over to the UofMelbourne site to get started on my readings!
I work with people to help them develop sustainable self-care strategies and to help them make progress on the goals that are important to them. I want to help myself in that way, too. And the first thing I tell almost every client is – start noticing. If a client came to me with my life and asked for help, I would say – Notice what you’re asking of yourself, notice what you’re accomplishing, notice how it feels, notice what choices you’re making to support and care for yourself. See it, name it, make space for it.
So that’s what I’m doing in these monthly posts, and I’m hoping to keep that up throughout this year.
So here’s what I accomplished (and didn’t accomplish) in January, and what’s on tap for February.
– The Caring for Neurodivergent Kids book club has soft-launched. The Facebook group has been created, and the first book has been chosen. We’ll be reading No You Don’t by Sparrow Rose Jones, the author of Unstrange Mind. There is still space available in the book club, so if you’re in Calgary and interested, let me know! Our first meeting will be happening at the end of February. If you’re not in Calgary, or not able to attend, I’ll still be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on the blog. Update: mid-March for the first meeting, so that we have time to read the book, which hasn’t arrived yet.
– The Extroversion and Self-Care/Mental Health resource is progressing slowly. We ran into a few hiccups with scheduling because January was full of migraines and illness for myself and the people I was trying to coordinate with. It’s progressing, though! And there is definitely still opportunity to get involved, if you’re interested. Update: I had an absolutely fantastic interview with someone for this project, and have a refined vision of what kinds of issues to include in the resource. Namely, the expectation placed on extroverts to be perpetually resilient and constantly available.
– The collaboration with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, has a name. Well, This Sucks will be a resource to help support that self-care and recovery process for folks following sexual assault – both the survivors and the people supporting them. I’m not 100% ready to reveal the major changes to the plan but trust me when I say… it grew exponentially. It started as a plan for a downloadable resource, similar to other resources I create on specific topics, and over the course of this month, during discussions between Domini and I, and one really fantastic interview with a community member, it grew. And it grew in ways that made my therapist say “wow, that sounds really exciting!” Domini and I are heading out of town for a day of planning, budgeting (yes, it has become a plan that requires a budget), and preliminary-outlining. I’ll have more to share after we get back! Update: Ye gods, is there a lot to share. This will be a whole post.
– The Bad Gender Feels resource is also slowly progressing. Very slowly, but that’s okay.
– The January Possibilities event was great, and the Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers resource was posted earlier this week. In February, we’ll be talking about Self-Care in Queer Relationships. I think the upcoming discussion and resulting resource will be important, and I’m really excited about it.
– The February Self-Care Salon will feature Rein Sastok presenting on self-care for teachers and other child-centric professionals, with the conversation also extending to parents, stepparents, and other carers. To be honest, I have been struggling with the Self-Care Salons – attendance is low, and I have yet to cover the costs of renting the space and paying the guest speakers. Update: This was cancelled. We are still going to generate a resource, to be completed in May, with companion modules for professionals and parents/stepparents/non-parent carers.
– Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care has launched, and I am really happy with how it’s going! I also had the realization, as I finalized the Week Two content earlier this week, that once I’ve run each of the four core courses this year, I will have 200+ pages of work, which could form the backbone of a book on self-care. That’s not something I’m committing to, it’s just sort of floating around in my head as a thing that could happen.
– Speaking of books… the 100 Love Letters book is… still going to be happening. I did make some progress on it this month – I won that package of coaching sessions for writers back in December and I had the first coaching call on January 18. I’ll be slowly (emphasis on slowly, and on low pressure) moving ahead with this project.
– I haven’t made a ton of progress on pulling my work off of Facebook and onto the blog more consistently. For some reason, that extra step just feels overwhelming. I am considering figuring out some kind of content management system that will let me cross-post to multiple platforms at once. But I’m not 100% sure when I’m going to do that so… we’ll see. But I do know that many of my favourite people have fled the mess that is the books of face, and I want to stay connected. It’s simmering in the back of my head. I’ll figure something out, but I’m not sure what or when.
– I started working on the disenfranchised grief project(s). There is a set of grief-related projects that are coming up. One is a resource on sibling loss, and I’m collaborating with a new friend, who has lost a sibling, on that project. We’ve started pulling notes and resources together. Another is on the loss of someone who is addicted or street-involved, because that grief is so complicated by our victim-blaming culture. And the third is a project on anticipatory grief. This is all in the preliminary stages, but I’m including it here because it’s been floating to the front of my mind pretty regularly this month and I’ve spent time and energy on it.
– I’ve kept up with the Tender Year posts, and am posting those on my personal facebook page (almost) every day! I’m really proud of this project, and of the fact the three of us collaborating on the project have stuck with it for 120+ days so far. I don’t know what will come of this work, but I am excited about it either way.
And in terms of new goals and projects for February.
– That Master program thing. I’ll be doing a lot of reading in February, but I won’t have my first written assignment due until early March. Would patrons be interested in hearing about what I’m reading and learning? I will definitely have to slow down on the output of my other writing (look, aiming for sustainability!) and this would be one way to keep up my end of the Patreon deal. (I will still be producing the Possibilities resource and the Patreon reward posts each month, and I’ll still be working on the other resources, just a bit more slowly.)
– I’m going to take one day off every week this month. That’s not an “output” goal but I think it is important to take note of. I had hoped to do that in January and it just fell apart after the … honestly, I only managed it one week in the whole month. So, I’m putting it here as part of the accountability part of this project. Update: Lol. BUT! I am trying. This week, for sure. For sure!
– I have two outstanding Patreon reward posts for January, and one Patreon supporter whose birthday is in February who has asked me to do something super terrifying rather than write them a reward post. So, I’ll be catching up on those two posts and also considering the absolutely mortifying idea of setting up some kind of crowdfunding for the financial gap I’m looking at over the course of this year. I will, even if I don’t set up any crowdfunding, definitely be writing about the process. I think that money shame is a topic I’ll be tackling in February. (And by “tackling” I mean “sidling up to slantwise and with much trepidation.”)
– I’ll be hosting another Smutty Story Circle facilitated writing group for the Calgary Centre for Sex Positive Culture on March 2. (I know that’s not February, but I’ll be doing all the prep in February.)
– I’ll be meeting with a professional grant writer this month to talk about finding some funding for the (suddenly enormous) collaboration with my sister, and possibly for some of my other work. Update: Wednesday! Wish me luck.
And, of course, continuing to post about self-care, including Stick Figure Sunday and Woodland Wednesday, on the Facebook page.
If you want to be involved in any of the collaborative projects, let me know! And if you have any feedback on the projects, or other projects that you’d like to see added to the slow-moving list, let me know that, too!
I really could not be putting as much energy, time, and effort into creating the self-care resources without the support of my Patreon patrons. When I get discouraged, and feel like my work isn’t making a difference because the world is just so sharp these days, the fact that people consider my work worth supporting keeps me going.
Two more updates: First, I lost one of my paying jobs. This is a big deal, because I was already facing some challenges on that front. I’m applying for more editing work, and renewing my focus on finding ways to get the word out about the coaching business. And second, I am launching an exciting new tarot project. It’ll be separate from this work, so if you’re interested, send me a message and I’ll connect you with that!
(Image description: A cloudy sky with reflecting sunrise light is seen through tall trees. Photo was taken by Stasha Huntingford.)
A Year of Sacred Attendance #tenderyear
We are nearing the end of #100loveletters.
Would you like to do another thing after that?
This was the question Nathan Fawaz posed to me, and the answer was an easy and enthusiastic “yes!”
The 100 Love Letters project has been transformative for me – it has been a thread of connection back to myself during a summer that included too much travel, too much stress, too much emotional upheaval, too much existential dread. The love letters were a daily reminder to sit down and breathe into a space of compassionate self-awareness. The letters were permission to take time, even five minutes at the end of the day, to love myself in the middle of the hard weeks and the bad weeks and the overwhelming weeks. They built space into my day, and gave me new tools for self-care and new methods for engaging my narrative. (You can find the posts related to this project here, and the PDF will be added to this section as well.)
The 100 Love Letters project was also an opportunity to build community, and I have appreciated the new friends I’ve made as a result of the project, the connections that have grown and strengthened as we witness and support and encourage each other through the process.
The 100 Love Letters project will continue on in various iterations – Nathan will be presenting their 101st letter at an event on October 14 (you can find out more about that event here), and I will be putting together a PDF that will be available for free download on my website, with prompts, encouragement, and a “how-to” section. (I’ll still be available to support anyone who started the project on a different day, too. You can always email me or find me on Facebook or Instagram!) I’m even working on a book proposal about the project!
But the 100 Love Letters project, in its original form, is coming to an end today, September 29. It’s 100 days since we launched at the beginning of the summer, and it has been a beautiful journey. It’s time for those of us who started our 100 days a season ago to shift into something else.
If you want to shift with me, consider this an invitation to a Year of Sacred Attendance.
This project, co-created by Nathan, Stasha, and myself, is that ‘other thing’ that was gestured into being with Nathan’s question. I think it will be amazing.
We started from another of Nathan’s ideas. They had said, “One thing that is coming up for me is the idea of attention, attendance.”
Being present with ourselves, attending, bringing attention, and tending to ourselves – that’s one of the most powerful elements of the love letter project. We each wanted to maintain that spacious, gracious sense of intentional, compassionate attendance. And we wanted to push gently against the edges of other aspects of our lives that could benefit from this kind of compassionate, intentional, regular tending.
Around Stasha’s kitchen table, the framework for a yearlong project coalesced. It was, and is, a collaborative project generated by the powerful narrative spellwork of the three of us, but we remain individuals within the project and we are so excited to share the project with as many of you as want to join.
The Year of Sacred Attendance will run from October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018.
Each day of the week has a unique focus. You can participate in all of them, or pick and choose the ones that resonate for you. We will be using #tenderyear for every post related to the project, with daily tags as well (to make it easier for folks to find each other on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter).
Meditation to Challenge the Binaries. #challengethebinary
Meditation is a flexible form here – the goal of this day is to invite participants to think about binaries, opposites, exceptions, and subversions. Think of Venn Diagrams, exceptions that subvert the rule, grey areas that provide productive space for expanding and exploring our narratives. On Sundays, we look at The Normal and The Other, and we grapple with that. We look at The Thing and The Opposite of The Thing. You can engage with this focus through art, writing, or any other method that helps you dig into the topic.
Attending to the Questions. #questioneverything
A significant focus of this project is inviting and facilitating compassionate self-awareness. You can ask yourself whatever questions feel right for you – the focus of Monday is simply to take time to ask yourself how things are going. If you’re not sure what to ask, here are some sample questions, and you can answer whichever feel right for you. Not everyone participating in this project will be working on creative projects, and not everyone will feel comfortable with a goal of presence – trauma is a real factor in many of our lives, and can make presence a real challenge. These are just a place to start:
What are you creating?
What do you need?
Do you feel present?
Could you try something different?
What are you wondering about?
Love Letter #100loveletters
We wanted to keep the focus on self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-care, and self-love. The 100 Love Letters project continues on in the Tuesday focus.
Drop Into A Moment #wednesdaymoments
Find a moment to fully experience. This focus is about sensory awareness, mindfulness, presence, and about paying attention to our lives. You can participate in this through art, writing, photography, or simply pausing to observe yourself as a physical being within a physical world.
As Above So Below #fiveelements
Thursday’s focus builds on the physical presence of Wednesday, and is about connecting to the world around you.
Friday’s focus can take so many forms. Reflect on your week, reflect on your relationships, post a selfie, take a picture of a reflective surface – the beautiful thing about reflection is the many ways it can be interpreted.
Affirmations for yourself, for your communities, for the world. What do you need to hear? What do you need to affirm for yourself or for your people?
The #tenderyear project is open to anyone to participate, and participation can happen online or offline. Participating online can happen privately in messages or between friends, or publicly. We will be using the #dailypractices and #tenderyear hashtags throughout the posts.
There is an email list, similar to the one that was available for the #100loveletters project. You can sign up here. I’ll be sending out mostly-weekly emails with prompts, links to blog posts, interviews with participants, and encouragement and support. There will also probably be give-aways, like the handwritten letters that were sent out to Love Letters participants.
To give you a sense of the what and why and who behind this project, here is a mini roundtable with the co-creators.
How did this project start?
Stasha – For me the 100 love letters made sense as resistance to oppression, and as a lifesaving intervention. When Nathan and Tiffany also participated in the 100 love letters, it opened up a space in my heart. I was able to cheer on their resistance and to witness them both weaving powerful magic in inspiring their communities. I think after feeling that daily magic, all of us knew that sharing and sustaining this magic is vital. Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other with this even more so. I spent so much of my life stigmatizing parts of me that had been shamed by society, I didn’t survive 37 years to live in shame. I survived by transforming my pain into empathy and learning. This project assists me in that alchemy, a most sacred healing magic.
Nathan – Somewhere between letter sixty and letter seventy-five, I noticed this sensation within me… the sensation had been there since the very first letter, really, but it took me a while before I could identify it… anyway, I noticed this sense of space. That’s the best word I have to describe it. This sense of space. And, at the same time, I really began enjoying in the community that was emerging as part of #100loveletters. As I got closer and closer to letter 100, I found myself wondering what I could do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself. And how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.
Tiffany – Just like the #100loveletters project started with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Stasha’s original post about her project, this new project starts, for me, with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Nathan’s “Would you like to do another thing?” In both cases, I felt like I was being gifted a new tool to expand my self-care practice, my community care practice, and to share with the individuals and groups that I work with.
Stasha said, “Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other even more so,” and Nathan said, “[What can I] do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself, and how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.”
These two origin stories for the project echo and overlap with my own – this project, for me, starts with trying to open up space for self-love and self-compassion, for myself and for the people around me, and to support and foster connectedness and love within my communities. It fits so perfectly with the work I want to do as a self-care and narrative coach, it feels like a gift. Two gifts! (Which is totes a double entendre because I am referring both to the two projects AND the two people. Clever!)
What do you find exciting about this project?
Stasha – Everything. The sacred belonging and acceptance that I already feel is amazing. I love working with people who understand how tenderness can bring down oppressive systems. What could be more radical than tending love in this world? Already we have done so much by creating a public space where we celebrate insanity as necessary for problem solving and community building. We have made a place that includes our hearts, our fears, our bodies, our chronic illnesses, our genders, our minds, our ptsd, our communities, our joy, and our pain. One of the most painful things about participating in groups, is that often parts of me are not welcome. This project allows me to participate as a whole person, which helps me nurture love.
Nathan – Everything. I am excited by its potential for compassion, and self-compassion. I am excited about its accessibility. I am excited to make this commitment in community, both online and in person. I’m excited for the container of this project. And I am curious to see what it will hold.
Tiffany – I am excited by the idea of making space for ritual and for the sacred in my life. I think it’s possible to engage with this project without ever engaging with any kind of spirituality or sense of the sacred, and that would be totally valid, but for me… I have been writing about, talking about, thinking about, and longing for a sense of ritual and connection for a long time. But I haven’t done the work to create space for ritual in my life – I’m always too busy, I’m always too scared of doing it wrong. I love that this project is flexible, expansive, and that it offers opportunities for sacred ritual but also for goofiness and lightness. And, a year is a long time. I’m excited about the opportunity to go through the first exciting month or two, and then the drudgery when it gets old and weighs more, and then the renewal when I find the excitement again. A year is long enough to cycle through a few times, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to helping others through that cycling, too. That’s been one of the most rewarding things for me about the love letters project.
Who would you like to see participating in this project?
Stasha – Honestly, I think we all need this kind of love in our lives. I hope to model a year long spell of mindful intent, and learn from others as I go.
Nathan – I am interested in anyone participating in this project who is drawn to participation. There is no outcome. No certificate. It’s a process. Mostly gentle and generative and sometimes takes the long way to get to gentle.
I am most interested to see who will find themselves a small home in the space of this project. Who will tend toward it.
Tiffany – I would really like to see anyone who feels lonely, alienated from their own heart, scared to connect with themselves, struggling with shame and anxiety and fear of failure and fear of success – I would like all the queerdos and weirdos and sad pandas to find this project and find community and support and a way to connect back to themselves, to centre themselves in their stories, to renew themselves through this year of attendance with themselves.
What are you hoping to get out of this project?
Stasha – I am working on the theme of listening for this project. I struggle with interrrupting people, and asking rapid fire questions without listening to the answers. I work on this because I want to be more respectful of other people, and I want to learn from them. I value being listened to, and I want to give others the same gift. This work will help me to survive in an oppressive world. It also improves the world by focusing on connection, and trying to understand the world by changing it. I believe that the focus on how we are part of the earth, is vital in these times where that connection is denied. The practice of tending must be tended, us doing that together is very powerful.
Nathan – I am hoping that through this project, and the gentle tending of it, that my own rhythms, interests, way of dreaming, way of loving, further emerge into the space that they need.
I am curious to see what will happen.
Tiffany – One million new followers. Just kidding! Not totally kidding. I am hoping to build my base with this project, by offering support and resources and encouragement. But I am also hoping to find space for myself within the project. I want to find that sacred ritual.
This is a Patreon reward post, though it was a few weeks late. Every Patreon supporter at the $10+ level can have a self-care post written for them, on the topic of their choice, during their birthday month. Sound interesting? Head over to my Patreon! All patrons, regardless of support level, get access to posts early and are able to offer feedback and make suggestions.
Rachael’s requested topic was “mindfulness and self-care.”
I was inspired by Rachael’s ability to successfully inhabit multiple roles, which gave me the idea of integrating various selves through different mindfulness practices. I’m really drawn to narratives and frames that incorporate the elements as metaphors for and aspects of the self – I use elemental interpretations of my tarot spreads really frequently, and I find that it’s helpful for viewing myself and my situations as parts within a whole. By explicitly pulling the mental, physical, emotional, and creative/spiritual selves out, I’m better able to see how the different parts of me influence the whole.
I used this framing to build the structure for my online courses, and leaned on it again for this post. (And on the topic of the online courses, keep your eyes open for the fall course, on emotional self-care, launching soon!)
One reason I wanted to use the elements in this prompt is because mindfulness so often so often, the idea of “mindfulness” is connected exclusively to ideas of meditation or deep breathing. It doesn’t always show up in how we understand other aspects of ourselves, and it can seem out of place in our emotional or creative lives. Although meditation and deep breathing are valid (and important) mindfulness practices, they aren’t the only ways to bring mindfulness into your self-care routine. So, here is my woo-influenced four-part mindfulness and self-care post. You can ignore the woo and just go for the self-care strategies if that’s a better fit for you.
The air element (the sword suit in tarot) is all about the mental self.
We’re starting with the air element and the mental self because “mindfulness” is all about being present, but that’s tricky when we’re talking about our mental selves. For so many of us, being present in our minds looks more like over-thinking, over-analyzing, and over-intellectualizing than anything else. The mind overtakes, and mindfulness takes on a new meaning – full of mind, full of thoughts and thinking. The swords are sometimes called the “suit of sorrow” and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Swords are not just about the mind, they’re also about the truth. They’re about insight, knowledge, and awareness.
They’re double-edged. The truth hurts, indeed.
So how do we practice mindful self-care when it comes to our mental selves, especially when we often find so much pain in our minds?
My favourite tarot blogger, Beth Maiden at Little Red Tarot, says this about the swords – “Don’t let your mind be your own worst enemy. Laugh at it when you can – the swords and all the insecurity and strife they represent can be helpful, even when you think you don’t want to know… Seek the truth. Face the truth. Accept the truth…or change it.”
Based on that insight, here are a couple mindfulness exercises for mental self-care:
Laugh at it when you can.
“Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back in on the inhale.” – Will Durst
Many of us (I would venture to say most of us, in this current political and social climate) are operating under persistent, pervasive, chronic stress, anxiety, and existential dread. We are definitely living in the swords – the painful edges of the truth are cutting so many of us as we realize (or re-realize) how hateful and cruel our fellow humans can be, and are.
Laughter feels challenging in this context.
It can feel disrespectful to laugh in the face of so much danger, violence, and hate. And it’s a fact that too much comedy has become disrespectful, leans too hard on punching down.
But laughter itself is powerful medicine. And, although mindfulness often brings connotations of Very Serious Business, mindful laughter is a real thing, and can be really helpful!
So, find a way to be present with your current experience, and, if you can, find some way to laugh – at it, about it, despite it.
If you need tarot inspiration, turn to the Nine and Ten of Swords. In these cards, everything is so awful that sometimes you just have to laugh. These are the nightmare cards, but together they become mockable. Is it really so bad, they ask? Yes! Yes. And still, it’s possible to laugh at them, at ourselves within them, at the situation that calls them out.
Make a list of all the things that are wrong and horrible in your life and in the world right now. How many of them are so wrong and horrible that even five years ago they would have seemed like a parody?
Find a way to frame them as being as ridiculous as they truly are.
Draw them as a cartoon.
Write a story that highlights the what-the-fuckery of the situation.
Or even just look at the situation all around us, see it, and laugh.
Find a way to laugh – for yourself, in a way that is healing and mindful for you. Use laughter as a tool to pull yourself out of the dread, and to allow yourself to be more fully present with your experience.
(Laughter can also be used as an avoidance tool, and that would be counter to this exercise. It can also be used as a weapon against people more vulnerable than we are, and that, too, would be counter to this exercise.)
Tell the Story
If you can’t stop yourself from overthinking – and seriously, welcome, join me, this is where I live – then stop trying to stop yourself and simply observe yourself. Rather than rejecting and shaming your overthinking mind, start watching and narrating what it’s doing. You might find that you’re overthinking a specific issue because your mind is (wisely) trying to get to the root of it, or find a new way out. You may discover that the overthinking is triggered because the current situation mirrors a situation from your past, and by making the links explicit, you can start to see the differences between the two situations.
So, when you start overthinking, just take a small step back, and start narrating the story of your brain in its activity.
Imagine yourself narrating what’s happening in your own mind (picture Morgan Freeman or Ron Howard’s voice, if it helps). Be gentle and honest.
Your initial narration might look like – “Right now, I am thinking about what happened three years ago. The story I am telling myself is that this situation is the same as that situation. I can’t stop thinking about how it felt. I am worried I’ll feel the same way again.”
Once you know what’s happening, you can make choices from a place of compassionate self-awareness.
The earth element (pentacles/coins in tarot) is all about the physical self.
Mindfulness and the physical self is the entire focus of my summer online course, so this has been my life for the last 6 weeks! (It’s also, by far, the most challenging element for me – dissociation has saved me so many times in so many trauma responses, and I spend time in this body only reluctantly and hesitantly. I’m working on it, but it’s still tough. For my other trauma bbs out there, who use dissociation as a valid and effective coping strategy, solidarity. It may not be where we want to stay, but it’s where we are sometimes.)
Despite all of the work I’ve done to bring mindfulness to my physical self-care, and even the many successes over the last year of focus on this, I still find that my favourite mindfulness exercise when it comes to my physical state is an old one. The new skills I’ve learned – breathing exercises, grounding exercises, body scan meditations – are useful and valuable, but this simple three-step process is still the one that is most accessible to me in difficult moments.
Breath, Posture, Grounding
A couple years ago, I went through an extended period of depression, anxiety, and general Life Suck. My friend, Jim Tait, would send me regular messages – “breath, posture, grounding” – whenever I seemed to be spiraling. It was a gentle, non-judgmental reminder to come back to my body, and I found it easier to engage with than more elaborate mindfulness exercises.
I would sit up a bit taller, let my shoulders drop down from my ears, and gently coax my spine back from its question-mark hunch.
I would take a breath and feel the air fill my lungs. Sitting up opens up so much space in my lungs, and I would feel the tightness across my clavicle as the air filled me up (or tried to, anyway).
I would feel myself on the earth – either my feet on the ground, or my hip bones on my seat. Grounding is always the hardest for me, especially when I’m spiraling in anxiety or lost in depression, but finding a way to connect back down to the physical world and to my physical body within that physical world is always so valuable.
So, that’s the exercise I leave you with as well.
Just a gentle nudge to be present with your physical self, even more a moment – breath, posture, grounding.
Touch the Earth
Emily Goss (from groweatgift) suggested this additional exercise, and I love it.
“Dig your hands into the soil in a forest. Trees are all connected through the wood wide web. Feel the connection with something larger than yourself by joining the conversation. When you return home, plant a seed (perhaps a tree seed you’ve collected) and nurture it into growth.”
The water element (cups in tarot) is all about the emotional self.
It is incredibly difficult to bring mindfulness to our emotional selves. When we’re angry or afraid, we lose connection to our mindful selves when the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system kicks in. When we’re embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated, we disconnect not only from ourselves but also from anyone around us. When we’re having a trauma response, dissociation is an incredibly common reaction. And even when we’re joyful, we often get caught in what Brene Brown calls “fearful joy” and anticipate the loss of our joy.
So, how do we bring mindfulness to our emotional selves, and how do we do it in a way that is compassionate, intentional, and self-aware? How can we practice mindfulness in our emotional lives without completely letting go of the necessary coping strategies that get us through difficult emotions?
It takes practice. And it takes an awful lot of gentleness and patience, because it isn’t easy.
Emotional Mindfulness (in five not-always-easy steps)
1 – Pause. Notice that you are having an emotional reaction (good or bad or awful) and take a moment before proceeding. It can be helpful to practice this when you’re having positive emotional reactions at least as often as you practice it when you’re having negative emotional reactions. It’s often easier to bring mindfulness to our fear, anger, or sadness because we notice them more easily. But bringing mindfulness to joy, happiness, and calm can help us recognize those feelings in our body and practice accepting positive emotions when they come (which is surprisingly difficult for a lot of us!)
2 – Name the emotion. Give words to the experience. Not only does this help you understand the experience, it also acts as a reminder that you are the expert in your own experience, and you are at the centre of your own story. You are the narrator. You have the knowledge and insight to be able to name and know your emotional self.
3 – Accept the emotion. For me, this one is hard. It is helpful for me to remember that acceptance is in this moment. If I am afraid, I can name it (“I am afraid”) and accept it (“I am allowed to be afraid, my fear is acceptable”) without committing to it as a permanent state. Accepting that I am feeling what I’m feeling doesn’t mean I have failed or that I will be caught in this feeling forever. And, if the feeling is joyful, accepting it doesn’t “jinx” it. Acceptance just means intentionally and compassionately allowing the emotion to be what it is.
4 – Remember that the emotion is temporary. Whatever it is, it will pass. This is where all of the ubiquitous river imagery comes in – life flows along, and our emotions flow with it. Nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same forever. This can be an impossible truth to hold when the emotions are overwhelming us, or when we are terrified to lose the feeling, but it is true, and once we accept it, we can allow the emotion to flow through us without getting stuck. Imagine yourself on the shore of the river, the emotion flowing past you. If it is a joyful emotion, let it continue to flow without trying to trap it, because the act of trying to hold it changes it and often stifles it. If it is a fearful, angry, or shameful emotion, also let it continue to flow. It will pass, and you will still be here.
5 – Once you have noticed, named, accepted, and allowed the emotion to flow, take a deep breath and consider your response. What, if anything, do you need to do with this true and temporary emotion? Allow yourself to act, with awareness, compassion, and intention. Trust yourself. You are the expert, and you know what you need.
Have a Bath
Another suggestion from Emily, that bridges the physical and emotional selves, and ties more directly to the element of water.
“Have a bath with oils that feel right to you. Slough or scrub your skin while imagining your frustrations being shed with your old skin. Make your own toiletries from sea salt and oats, or other natural products to reduce the strain on the planet. We are all part of the same world and respecting the planet shows self respect. After your bath, use the water to water plants – your dead skin sells can provide nutrients for the plants (and it avoids water waste).”
The fire element (wands in tarot) is all about the spiritual and creative self.
This element is all about passion – fiery energy that fuels creativity and connection. Not everyone has a spiritual self, and not everyone identifies as creative, but we each experience passion. This part of ourselves shows up in unique and beautiful ways.
Because creativity and spirituality are both so individual (and come weighted with so much narrative baggage – who is allowed to be creative, what spiritual experiences are valid), I found it difficult to choose a mindfulness exercise for this element. But because this element is so important to my own experience, and because I associate Rachael so much with this element, it felt important. So, you get two.
Pick a creative activity. Pick anything – drawing, writing, painting, dancing, singing, baking, origami, game design, coding, songwriting, guitar strummin’, flute whistlin’, knitting, crochet, etching, woodcutting, Lego, gardening, science experiments, beadwork, jewelry-making – any activity that feels creative for you. If you’re really stuck and this pokes you in some vulnerabilities, pick something ridiculous. Macaroni art, for example.
Clear some space.
Get your materials out.
Take a deep breath.
Set your timer for 15 minutes.
And then just keep breathing and doing your creative work. Stay focused on how it feels to be creating something, whatever that something is.
When your judging mind leans over your shoulder and says “Really? Rotini? I thought we were going for more of a impressionistic rigatoni look here,” just lean back in your chair, look that judgey self right in the metaphorical eye and say “Inner critic, it’s okay. I know that you are afraid someone’s going to laugh at this, but it’s okay. We’re creative and we’re doing this. I appreciate the penne for your thoughts, but I’m going to re-fusilli to respond with anger.” (And then laugh at those sharp swords of self-doubt dulled to dry spaghetti by your wit and self-awareness. Look, we’re back at Air!)
Keep doing your work. Feel the materials you’re working with, look at what you’re making, be present with your creative self. Keep coming back to that creative self. Whenever you get pulled away into judgement, or fear of the future, or remembering failures of the past, just come back to this moment of creativity.
When the timer goes off, take another deep breath. Assess. Are you done? If not, keep going. If you are, that’s awesome. You did it!
I struggle so much with this myself, as a former evangelical Christian, former capital-a Atheist, current pagan-of-some-flavour, tarot-reading, here-for-the-queer-witches something-or-other.
But after many weeks of thinking about it, I landed on this:
Pay attention to the moments when you feel connected to something bigger and deeper than your normal everyday self. You may perceive this as a spiritual experience, or not. What you’re listening for, watching for, feeling for is a sense of connectedness.
(This is not a “do it for five minutes” exercise – this is a “watch for it throughout the next week” exercise.)
When you feel it, note it.
Just give it a little nod of acknowledgment. Maybe even take a note of what was happening that helped you feel connected. Were you outdoors? Were you with people? Were you doing something ritualized (often ritual allows us to drop into that connected space more easily) or were you trying something new?
Note it, acknowledge it, and keep going.
The more we learn to see these moments of connection, the less alone we feel throughout the rest of our days.
And this is not necessarily a spiritual practice – secular ritual is something I’ve been researching for almost a year now. So, although I am calling it spiritual because I experience it as spiritual, you can dip your toe in this exercise even if you are a staunch atheist.
Build a Fire
Another suggestion from Emily.
“Make a fire by hand and use your breath to turn embers into flames (being careful not to burn yourself – sparks can fly!) There’s something magical about making a fire happen from scratch (but don’t feel ashamed if you need to use a lighter/matches instead of a flint).”
Integration: One Last Mindfulness Self-Care Exercise
Because our selves all co-exist and are each integrated (to various degrees) within a single bodymind, a final mindfulness self-care exercise focused on integration.
This exercise is one that I use when various selves are flipping out – when my inner trauma child is frightened or angry, or when my shame gremlins are on the prowl, or when my Gender Feels are making some noise.
Mindfulness is, after all, nothing more (or less) than being present in the moment. Bringing awareness and non-judgement to the present moment, and accepting that it is what it is. In my own practice, mindfulness extends into intentional compassion, to the acts that weave together into sustainable self-care.
So, in the moments of dis-integration, disassociation, dysfunction, distress – be present. As much as you can, take that steadying breath, take a look across your inner selfscape, recognize the fractures and bends and the negative spaces where parts of yourself have gone into hiding. Let yourself see the disintegrated self, and accept the disintegration, and extend compassion to it.
I don’t believe that mindful integration requires us to heal all the wounds, fill all the gaps, join all the points of disjuncture. I believe that all we have to do is be present with ourselves, accept ourselves in whatever state we are in, and in that process of gentle acceptance we will start to make space for those wounds to heal, for those selves to slowly slide back into the negative spaces they left when they bolted.
So many of us who have trauma in our past have so many of these gaps in our experience of self.
We can be present with ourselves as we are now, because we are still good, now. We have everything we need. The small childself hiding in the closet in the dark corner of our mind is still there – they just need some gentle safety to come back out. We are whole, even when we are broken. We are good enough.
We can breathe and be present with ourselves, however we are, whatever that looks like, and bring ourselves through the experience of distress.
A Tarot Bonus
This is the spread I use most often, and I find it helpful when I’m trying to decide what sort of self-care I need.
I shuffle my cards, cut the deck, lay the cards out (centre card first, then air, water, earth, fire) and then flip them over. Whatever card shows up in each position, I take as an indicator of what I might need in that area, or as an invitation to think about the narrative I’m investing in when it comes to those elements.