What makes an indelible mark on listeners at a Conference and transforms the ordinary to an unforgettable moment differs for each of us. For some it is the lecturer’s flash of insight – the AHAH! moment; or a timely PowerPoint overhead that captures a vague image to suddenly illuminate a picture of clarity; or simply the energy in a breath, sigh or glance that in that fraction of second precisely meets the audience’s previously unknown need.
I experienced many such memorable moments during the extraordinary encounters we experienced between presenters and participants during our three deeply engaging days, 15-17 September 2017, at the R.A.N.Z.C.P. Faculty of Psychotherapy’s Conference, Uluru.
Fittingly titled ‘Heart of the Matter, Deep Listening, Dreaming, and Joining the Dance’, so deep were our engagements with the presentations that at times I struggled to retain my attention and awareness. On more than one occasion I lost consciousness. On awakening, I checked-in on myself to find possible reasons for my apparent ‘exhausted’ state: fatigue, boredom, the extra glass of wine the night before …all possible, but on reflection they all missed the mark. It was only on the last day that I regained enough clarity and insight to self-diagnose my condition as vicarious trauma.
Sunset Collage by Kate Tjuta
I decided that I become acutely dissociated during some of the presentations as they touched on the themes of trauma that triggered my own family history of intergenerational trauma transmission, leading to my dissociated states, even as the analysing was unfolding.
This reality, this real reason for my dissociated state become self-evident and obvious in the memorable moments following the Pamela Nathan’s profoundly moving Keynote address ‘Hurting Hearts, Spirits Rising – the Epicentre of Central Australia.’
In retrospect, I realised that I was totally unprepared for the deep listening that was demanded by Pamela’s penetrating analysis of the complex generational traumas and dissociations endured by the Central Australian Aboriginal population.
At the end of Pamela’s presentation, as I was slowly regaining my consciousness, Ken Lechleitner, part of the research team for Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) and Creating a Safe Supportive Environment (CASSE) took the microphone and my ears heard a booming, warm voice who beckoned us to take three urgently needed breaths. He beckoned, we followed his lead, ‘breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out; breathe in breathe out’.
Those moments of prescribed breathing became my ‘buddy moment’.
One of the first rules in scuba-diving is the obvious – the need to breathe regularly under water. But an equally important rule is to always dive in pairs – ‘buddy diving’. The self-evident reasons becomes clear to those who experience breathing problems underwater, any diver learns and knows that their life in such moments of crisis is totally dependent on their ability to share the precious air, via a single mouthpiece, passing it back and forth, a technique known as ‘buddy breathing’, as the pair ascend to the surface.
Ken’s beckoning for us to ‘breathe’ felt like he became my buddy as is the case in scuba diving, he was reminding me to pay attention to my critical state and my need to breathe.
‘Breathe’ by Tanya Taylor, Wellness Retreat at Desert Gardens
Clearly, under the spell of the profound trauma being shared in the lecture, I had forgotten the first rule of deep psychotherapy, that such deep listening to trauma creates waves of dissociation in the witnesses. Attuned as I was to the devastating material being presented, I could not sustain my deep listening engagement, I succumbed to my ‘bottom-line-defence’, as dissociation is commonly known.
My protective dissociation kicked in, known as dissociative attunement, to the speaker’s narrative analysing the suffering endured during generational trauma transmission.
On the last day’s summing-up panel session, as we sat three-deep in concentric circles, we shared some of our personal experiences, presenters and participants alike.
A free-flowing enlivening discussion highlighted many valuable lessons that we had learnt; offered creative ideas for improving the next scheduled conferences; and shared moving moments and surprising insights.
I explained how my lessons from scuba-diving might also offer us ways to think about our self-care as we gradually emerge from the depth of the last three days – the depth of deep listening, dreaming and joining the dance.
I suggested that just as with the case with deep diving, great care must be exercised in the ascent to the surface after deep listening, lest like the naive diver who rushes to the surface suffers the risk of injury, or worse, by succumbing to the condition know as the ‘bends’, so we should take care even as the Conference was about to finish.
Even as we are seeing the light above, surfacing, we should remain mindful of the profound emotional and traumatised depths that we had experienced, depths that would leave us vulnerable for days, weeks or months after. This risk parallels the risk after diving, where one is prohibited from flying for at least 24 hours after the dive, lest the pressure changes in the air create further health problems.
In the spirit of workplace ‘safety and self-care’, as psychotherapists who are treating survivors of massive individual, collective or cultural generational trauma, I suggested that we need to be aware of the profound depths of the human condition we engage with, as we plummet to those sub-verbal depths we translate into words during lectures, we tend to mask the power of the relational trauma and dissociations that we endure. We overlook this power at our peril.
I wish to conclude my reflections with a reminder to us all, that in order to practice ethical psychotherapy – first, to do no harm – we need to ensure that we do no harm to ourselves during deep psychotherapy as the prerequisite to delivering safe, supportive and facilitating environments, within and beyond our consulting rooms, for our traumatised and dissociated patients and their families.
As I concluded by reflection in the summing-up panel session, Ken’s warm, gentle booming voice insisted that we need to share an all-embracing hug, immediately…
‘Ken and George’, photo by Judy Smyth