By Amahla Johnson
Recently I was invited to attend a visioning retreat for the New Mentality because I did some leadership consulting with them over the summer. I had many thoughts and feelings throughout the weekend and wanted to put some of them down as I continue to process about the experience.
The visioning retreat’s purpose was, in part, to begin to examine how the New Mentality can extend its reach, as there is more demand for their local groups than they can meet with the capped funding they currently have. The retreat participants were adult allies of the youth that participate in the New Mentality groups. They were a diverse group of smart, deep and compassionate helpers – a lovely bunch of people to spend time with.
Gerard, a First Nations elder who helped open the retreat, grounded the group in the spiritual reality of our connectedness to each other and the natural world. I felt grateful to be able to hear his deep words. He set the tone by making it okay to talk in terms of spirit, which in turn made it easier for me to acknowledge how much that is the foundation that I come from.
As we began to discuss familiar issues around youth engagement, I began to think about how challenging it is to change social fields. Because I knew we were going to be using the Process Work/Deep Democracy model later on the in retreat, I was reminded of a book by Arnold Mindell (founder of Process Work) I’d read a long time ago which used the idea that people diagnosed with mental illness are unconscious communicators of shadow awarenesses that the community needs to integrate. I also thought about the concept of the “identified patient” – where a group or family issue lands on one person, often a vulnerable member such as a child, who gets identified as “the problem” and taken to the therapist to get “fixed”. I wondered to what degree are our youth and children are suffering from a lack of emotional sustainability in our society, but are given only frames that say it’s an individual problem.
There is a collective aspect to the issue of mental health – for instance, suicide rates for trans youth are high, but the highest for youth who are both trans and of colour. The lack of physical and emotional safe space for marginalized people is clearly an impediment to mental well-being. We need to look at our feelings around vulnerability and power in order to create safer spaces and equitable dynamics. I think often about the concept of neurodiversity as it’s discussed with reference to people on the autism spectrum, and felt there was a connection here – the need to set up social and physical environments to encourage a diversity of ways of being. Safety and accessibility within groups are a big part of individual wellness.
A strong theme that was repeated by many people at different times, was the need to keep the youth voice at the centre of the organizing for the New Mentality, and any endeavor that seeks to serve or involve youth. It’s too easy for adult voices to take youth off their own track, even through approval or giving greater positive attention to things that coincide with an adult agenda. Here I found myself feeling that the Reggio Emilia approach (which is a philosophy of learning informed by Paulo Freire’s popular education among other influences), and its ground breaking practices for safeguarding the young child’s voice within a system constructed by adults, would help organizations not have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to child and youth engagement. At some point I need to write or do workshops on using those concepts and practices within the social services realm.
During one of the activities, I had a talk with Cathy where we discussed the early experiences that caused us to go into the kind of work we do, how she has always worked within the system while I have always worked outside of it, but now the inner and outer ways are meeting.
After that activity, I was motivated to share with the group a story of a short energy-reading I did for a homeschooling mom who was feeling that she was low in resources and maybe should be putting her 9 year old in school. I saw something that I didn’t expect, which was that the mom’s energy was waning partially because her daughter’s energy was rising up to move outwards into the society. Even though 9 seems so young, I saw that children that age are already shaping the world that they will be moving into – shaping it with their imagination and their presence. So although we think of 9 year olds as not having much power because they don’t have access to things like the right to vote, money or public channels of expression, they do have powerful vibrational and creational power. We don’t have to give them all the answers, we just need to enshrine their right to remain true to who they are, then from that place they will build a world that comes out of that true place.
Cathy said something profound to me just after that, something like – between the discipline of offering guidance and the discipline of allowing, the allowing is the deeper discipline. I said that too much doing makes us think we don’t have enough resources. By doing less, we can move into abundance. Cathy worded it beautifully: the question is, how do we build systems of allowing?
The second day of the retreat, we did a personal check-in. During my check-in I talked about people who have gone through what is sometimes called a “spiritual emergency”. Sometimes triggered by meditation or other types of spiritual practice, people can have their ego structure disintegrate. I had something life-changing like this happen to me when I was 19 and I used to call it my breakdown/breakthrough. I know people who actively hid their abilities to experience states outside of consensus reality because they didn’t want that to be be misinterpreted or put them in danger from other people who didn’t understand. It has only been in the last several years that I have met other people who have gone through this spiritual breakdown phenomenon, but were hospitalized and put on medication. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, in many ways, to have been left alone to go through my own “craziness” and to deal with my sensitivity on my own terms. I had to isolate myself to complete my process away from others, but I came out the other side with a more expanded model of reality – one that I now am able to share with my energy-reading work.
In order to be truly whole we need to be in connection and in community, and I see this is the layer of healing I am working on now. We all need a place to be heard and to have our gifts received. Community that can provide this is a powerful force for health. I notice how much environment affects the kind of interaction and community that can arise. By Lake Couchiching, I felt the peaceful vibe of the land made possible a lowering of people’s guard and a letting go of stress that interferes with intra & interpersonal connection.
During another activity on day two, we broke into two groups. The group I was in explored and used the Process Work/Deep Democracy approach. Since I have some understanding of it and use a related model in my energy healing work, I was able to give some concrete examples of role fluidity. I told a story about a private school that would eject one person out of the community each year, but each year it would be a different person that would get scapegoated and booted out. So using a Process Work lens, we as the community, would ask what does this have to do with us and what archetypal voice or role are we projecting onto these people? An example I gave of polarity was that I could hear a head-heart opposition in the group’s discussion of whether we needed to buckle down and be accomplishing more in the short time we had available or whether we just needed to build relationships and community because that is what brings about the real results we are looking for. Probably most people there are connected to both their head and their heart and try to honor both if they can – which is why they would be present for a dynamic where both are trying to be heard.
After that we did an exercise where we brainstormed a list of all the stakeholders and participants who are involved with the New Mentality. We then chose roles to roleplay and answered questions about the New Mentality from their perspective. My small group chose the role of teacher, which was interesting for me because I have little contact with the educational system and forget about the worldviews and tensions teachers and administrators in the school system have to hold.
Later on in the day, I was given the opportunity to do some work with the group, using the sound healing I do to shift energy. Caralyn, the new program manager and I decided that what I should work on is helping each person to calibrate and internalize the originating energy behind the creation of the New Mentality. I did toning (voice-based sound healing) for about 12 minutes and shared a bit of intuitive information I received.
The energy I felt had such a clear stamp of youthfulness on it – I felt it came from a generation of youth who were at their limit in terms of coping on earth and did not want to be here anymore. They were asking on a spiritual level for some assistance in being here. The universe wanted them to know that they matter and their being here matters, and so that was part of the generating power behind the New Mentality, and I’m sure other innovative projects in different places. It gave them a place to be with others and the message that they were alright as they were, allowed to be accepted and in connection just as they were. I felt they also were being told that all they needed to do was to tell the truth about their experience. They did not have to only exist within the isolation of their own mind.
In terms of what the adult allies are able to offer, besides the creation of a safe inclusive space for the young people to be themselves, is language and ideas that help broaden their perspective, and see patterns. The most ideal way for them to go about providing these things for the youth in their groups, is to give this safe space and postive broadening messages to themselves first – eg I matter, me being here matters. Then they are able to naturally extend this to the youth they work with.
I had the chance to have some wonderful interactions with people during the weekend. Certain ideas kept coming up for me, mainly the need to be able to remain oneself while simultaneously being in connection to others and in community. I was left mulling over the questions: in what ways can we create the conditions for sovereignty, autonomy and self-love for all people within the context of community, and how do we create “systems of allowing”?