Tools for the Awakening

Heart-Centered Leadership
12 min readSep 28, 2020

by LaUra Schmidt & Aimee Lewis Reau, Good Grief Network Founders

Dear Waking One,

The world is burning, literally and metaphorically. The soles of our feet feel the flames. Heat seeps into our lungs and smoke makes our eyes water. Do you feel it? Do you question how we’ll ever be able to fix this juggernaut we have set in motion? Are you afraid? Do you feel paralyzed to act?

We are experiencing disruption and rearrangement to all of our major systems. We are drastically altering the biosphere from which we evolved. We are killing off entire species, ourselves, and each other at alarming rates. Those who have done the least to cause these crises are, and will be, impacted the most.

Pause.

Let that sink in.

Don’t avert your gaze. Stay with it. Stay with us.

We need you to feel the weight of these actions. Where do you feel it in your body?

Burnout and despair come easy to anyone who closely looks at our plethora of problems. Whether it’s climate change, our decaying democracy, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, increased xenophobia, systemic racism, and mass violence. These seemingly intractable issues confront us from all angles. The problems are vast and prevalent, causing many to call our current situation a wicked predicament. There is not one solution that will get us out of this mess. The path forward will not be easy. And we cannot give up. How do we prevent being bowled over by our emotions and the urgency of change required?

We created Good Grief Network, an organization that creates and disperses tools to help sustain individuals on this difficult and brave journey of being a change-maker amidst such overwhelming destruction. We have constructed a 10-step program designed to build resilience and empowerment for those of us aware of, and overwhelmed by, the state of the world. It provides networking opportunities to share resources and strategies for healing and co-creating a life-centered society.

Community is tragedy’s remedy. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, you cannot do it alone. The Network provides tools to help you create a supportive community to engage the systemic transformation required. But first, each of us must become aware of, and begin mending, our disconnection from ourselves, others, and the more-than-human world. We can do this by working the Steps, which results in an acute awareness and exploration of self, leading to bridging the gaps in our lives, and reconnecting. This is the start of co-creating a meaningful, joy-filled life-centric existence for us all.

The following are steps each of us can take, right now. Practice them. Keep them as tools that help illuminate the path forward. Come back to them when despair overwhelms.

Step 1: Accept The Severity of Predicament. It is in this step where we aim to understand the problematic ways in which the dominant culture operates on this planet. When we catch glimpses of the problems and their severity, don’t look away. We must invite the grief to move through our whole animal body. The planet and our species need us to be awake and aware right now.

We’ve lost our way. Consumerism, pervasive violence, systemic racism, the climate crisis, water and food shortages, mass-produced propaganda, uneven distribution of wealth, the sixth mass extinction and the mental health crisis all point to the errors of our ways. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the fragility of our current systems and ways of being.

A delicate balance exists between false optimism and overwhelming pessimism. Reality exists between these two polarities. We aim to live within these two extremes.

Regardless of which collective problem most paralyzes us, remember that balance is a practice. We wobble. We fall. We get up and get to work again. Like any practice, balance gets easier the more we do it.

Now is the time to rise to the challenge. Let’s envision new ways of existing, together. First, we accept the severity of the predicament. After accurately discerning where we are, we can focus on the path to arrive where we want to be.

Step 2: Be With Uncertainty. The dominant culture is rigid. Most of us are conditioned to make little, or no, room for uncertainty. We want guarantees, plans, and perfection. We desire to feel secure and think certainty means security. Yet, control is an illusion. We can calculate the odds of every risk, but there is always some amount of uncertainty that exists. We minimize risks by making smart choices and planning, but there will always be external forces beyond our control. We live on a dynamic planet and our perceptions are limited. There is more to existence than we can take in. Can we give up our need to control the outcomes of our actions? The more we convince ourselves of a certain outcome, the less resilient we are. Can you take risks and chances and find meaning in our daily lives knowing that our existence is unpredictable?

Practicing flexibility moves us out of a fight/flight/freeze/fold response when we experience the unexpected. This allows us to respond from a place of patience and compassion. We must befriend uncertainty to exist in this time and place, and to preserve our sanity.

Step 3: Honor My Mortality And The Mortality Of All. Death is a natural and normal part of every life cycle. You will die, as all living things do. Nothing is free from death — not pets, not that person you’re certain you can’t live without, not even the sun. Death is natural. Yet, the high rate in which we humans are killing off other species feels nearly impossible to take in. We’re extinguishing other species so quickly that we’ve entered the Sixth Mass Extinction event on Earth. Humankind has become the first species to control the course of evolution.

How do we remain present knowing death is inevitable and avoid becoming obsessed by it or dwelling in the dark? We are alive for such a short time. Heart attacks, accidents, and illness hurl curve balls at the ones we love and us. Nothing is guaranteed. Death and life are interrelated. One cannot exist without the other. Once we accept the inevitability of death, we can be more alive in the present moment.

The work of this time asks us to be brave and courageous. Eventually, death comes for us all. So, how do we cultivate the most meaningful journey while we’re here? Let’s live while we’re alive because how we die matters and we die how we live.

Step 4: Do Inner Work. Our personal wounds and traumas add weight to the heavy emotions we feel on a collective level. We can deny, repress, or run from our personal struggles until they crush us. Or, we can explore them with curiosity and courage, recognizing that feelings are both mental and physical experiences that shape, but do not define us. In doing so, we choose to use this extra baggage and its weight for strength-training a little at a time, rather than collapsing underneath it. Our grief, anger, or fear then become tools for connection instead of roadblocks to plough through or avoid.

Until we can experience and process the full range of our emotions, we cannot truly face the systemic predicament. Our culture has deemed some of our feelings acceptable and others taboo. Many of us have received messages that it is inappropriate to share honestly and openly about our heavy or painful feelings. There is a tendency to “think” our emotions instead of being willing to “feel” them. Feelings are lenses that color our perception of the world. We invite you to feel your whole range of feelings. Try each lens on without judgment. What is it about each perspective that helps create a richer, fuller life?

All emotions are transient and recurrent. For example, we don’t “face our despair,” and then never have to think about it again. When the despair comes back, we greet it as an old friend and sit with it. We can ask, “What does this feeling have to teach me?”

It’s critical to learn methods for processing our feelings, because each of us wakes up and falls asleep in our own mind. Community offers solace and support, but If we can’t work through our own feelings, the help of a community is limited. We must each commit to a full life experience and build community from that place.

Step 5: Develop Awareness of Biases And Perception. We think we are rational creatures, but we are not. We construct our reality based on the information collected and processed by our instincts, cognitive biases, senses, complex thinking, and the stories we tell ourselves. This combination is limiting. We can’t know what we don’t know. If we never learn how our brain overcompensates for our limitations, we are held captive by the illusion that we are rational. As we begin to notice all of the ways our brains take shortcuts, we can begin to see reality as it is, not as we want it to be.

Each moment can seem overwhelming as our attention and reactions are demanded from the sensationalized daily news, our personal relationships, and the weight of our collective problems. This overwhelm can keep us tethered to our survival responses and stuck in our reactions. We can help our minds become calmer and steadier. Personal practices like meditation, mindfulness, reconnecting with our body, and embodied gratitude can train our brains to respond to stimuli in non-reactive ways. By observing our thoughts instead of identifying as them, we remove ourselves from the daily hype that leaves us reaching for the next addictive fix to cover up the intensity of the times we’re living in.

Personal practices can help us observe our limitations in perception. And, we will still falter because we are human. When we make a mistake, instead of chastising ourselves, we can see these slips as invitations for empathy and humility that deepen our connections.

Step 6: Practice Gratitude, Witness Beauty & Create Connections. Gratitude, beauty, and connection are resilience strategies available to us at all times. When we practice gratitude, notice beauty, or increase connectivity with ourselves, others, and the more-than-human world, we become present with what is still here. These practices help us overcome feelings of scarcity and lack and are tools for meaning-making.

Making meaning is not optional; we need it to survive. In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, he uses examples from his time imprisoned in a concentration camp to remind us that creating meaning and finding beauty are matters of perspective. They are available to us if we make the decision to pursue them. Terry Tempest Williams writes that, “Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.” The act of consciously experiencing beauty allows us to be transformed by it and in return we transform the world around us.

Desperation, hopelessness, and threats to our safety make it seem that meaning isn’t available, but as long as there is life, it exists. When we encounter such darkness, we must recall concrete instances of beauty, connection, or embodied gratitude from past experiences to help us move through it. Frankl reminds us that “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

What are the why’s that sustain you through dark times?

Step 7: Take Breaks And Rest. Taking breaks has been portrayed as an individual luxury afforded to us only if we have earned it. Rest is a human right. And it’s one that’s not recognized by the dominant Western culture that has profited from disproportionately denying rest to marginalized communities.

Each of us has personal limitations that we must respect. Because we have committed to doing inner work, we have cultivated enough self-awareness to know when we need to take a step back for a moment and regroup. If we continue trying to push through, we become saturated, leading to emotional, physical, and spiritual dysregulation. This state makes us unable to receive new information and insight. We become easily irritable, frenetic, and risk burn out. Responding from a place of agitation or burnout prevents us from participating in the meaningful work asking to be brought forward by each of us. Bayo Akomolafe often says, “the times are urgent; let us slow down.”

The collective traumas in the world are exhausting and being in a place of awareness and vulnerability requires precious energy. Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith suggests that everyone needs seven different types of rest: physical, mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social, and spiritual. We must cultivate space and time in our lives to engage with the different forms of rest, understanding that we can’t do it alone. To truly take breaks, we must rely on our community to hold us when it is our time to slow down. And when we are recharged, we reciprocate this generosity to our community.

Are you willing to slow down and take a break? The work will be there when you return.

Step 8: Grieve the Harm I Have Done. Part of the human condition involves being both the recipient and perpetrator of harm throughout our lives. As such, we must heal from the harm we receive and hold ourselves accountable for the harm we cause. The harm we engage in varies greatly based on how and where we live, the social and cultural norms we follow, our individual levels of power and privilege, and our past traumas and experiences.

Power-over structures, like patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, racism, ableism, and heteronormativity determine who has access to power, wealth, and resources, and who does not. For those of us living in the dominant culture, these structures are alive in each of us. And unless we do the gritty work of noticing, questioning, and transforming them, we let them live. Just by moving through our days and trying to fit into a deeply wounded culture, we may cause more harm. To survive in these toxic systems, we often disconnect, numb ourselves, and throw up walls, generally leading to feelings of guilt and shame over our actions. But we cannot get boxed in by our heavy feelings over the harm we have caused because the political and corporate elite prey on our immobilization, keeping us compliant.

This step is your personal invitation to turn inward, explore the ways in which you have caused harm, and become accountable for your actions. This practice is a continuous dance of learning, unlearning, grieving, forgiving, and repairing. By doing this, we open to new (and ancient) ways of being that dignify and protect those most vulnerable, our communities, and our planet.

Working toward collective liberation demands compassion and fierceness as we own our mistakes, reclaim our own agency, and tear down any walls that disconnect us, repurposing their scraps to build bridges.

Step 9: Show Up. Now that we have done some healing through slowing down, self-reflecting, and building self-awareness, we need to focus on showing up. This starts by determining where our energy is best placed.

The work of this time will eat us alive if we let it. It’s important to create and honor our personal boundaries to protect our energy. Boundaries help us be mindful of why and how we show up in our communities.

We can begin to explore whether we ought to show up or if our attention and energy are better placed elsewhere. Are we trying to prove something or please someone? Are we following a cultural expectation? Or, are we pushing through our own discomfort to cultivate strength, connection, and growth?

Once we learn how to be discerning with our energy, we can practice courage in how we show up. Ongoing disruptions will challenge our ability to be fully awake, aware, and connected, yet we know that we are most alive in the moments we engage with authenticity and vulnerability. What types of relational tools must we develop within our communities to be able to hold this tension and, like a band, take turns playing our series of notes and taking a rest, knowing that we are more resilient when we explore our edges while honoring our boundaries?

Step 10: Reinvest In Meaningful Efforts. The final step is to use the openness, wisdom, energy, and resilience that we’ve cultivated through the other Steps to inform our every action. As we reconnect to ourselves, others, and the more-than-human world, we make decisions based on compassion and insight instead of egocentric motivations. Our actions become relational. These efforts are generated from our inner stillness and from outer reverence. Meaningful actions can be identified at the intersection of our passions, skills, and experiences.

When there are no well-worn paths to help us navigate this predicament, we must take the next best step in service of connection, growth, and healing. This requires practices of courage and curiosity. By staying open and curious and joining in community, we can lay the foundation to co-create a truly just and life-centered future.

So now, Waking One, you have some tools to help reinvigorate your efforts in helping to co-create a truly just and harmonious future for all of Earth’s beings. As the world grows more chaotic by the day, it’s important to build and maintain an arsenal of strategies focused on personal resilience and empowerment.

We suggest working through these steps in community. Move through your difficult emotions and past trauma, challenge the social constructions pushed upon you, and wholeheartedly reconnect with life. When you complete the steps, run through them again with the new insight you possess. And then keep them as tools for your toolbox. Help awaken others and encourage them to reconnect and envision new ways of existing.

Take this leap. You are not alone. We are here with you. Gather support from your community. Create spaces to move through the heavy and painful feelings so that we’re not bogged down by them. Let’s process, dream, and grow together.

We need you now. There is no more time to waste.

Onward With Love,

LaUra Schmidt & Aimee Lewis Reau, Good Grief Network Founders

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