Living Ubuntu

Why Living Ubuntu?

Why Living Ubuntu?

By Barbara English
September 4, 2007

In December 2003, at a holiday meeting / party for a non-profit organization with whom I’d been volunteering, I sat next to a woman, also a volunteer. We were good friends. Amidst all the festivities, she leaned over and whispered to me that one of her co-workers had been killed the day prior. It felt like a strange mix to be hearing such jolliness coming in one ear and such grief and sorrow in the other.

Throughout that evening I caught myself glancing around the room wondering how many others had something yet un-whispered. Somehow holiday celebration in a group of people interacting as close friends, brought together with the intention of helping others in the world but seldom ever mentioning the realities of their own personal lives did not sit well with me. I felt like an accomplice in adhering to the rule of never mentioning the dead dog rotting in the living room. After all, we can just keep stepping over it despite the stench.

I knew that the only way caring people could be at their best in helping others was to start with their own needs being met. Volunteers who over-give without the counter-balance of one’s own emotional needs being met is a recipe for burn out. And beyond that, it just felt fake, even potentially arrogant. How could we all sit together noting the holidays and never address the pain in the room? How could we only focus outwardly as if all the people with needs existed outside that room?

A few months later, that experience, added to others, prompted me to start a new group. For those who wanted to help others in the world, this would be a place to come to share their own life struggles, get needs met and connect so that not only would unmet needs be filled to whatever degree possible, but the ability to genuinely give more to others would be increased. The emphasis in this new group was to be authentic sharing and the indirect benefit was to be burn out prevention.

One day I was telling a friend about the group and describing the purpose of just being human together. She said it reminded her of the South African word, Ubuntu, which she defined as “we are bundled together.” When I looked it up in an Internet dictionary, I resonated deeply with a quote by Desmond Tutu as he attempted to explain for the Western mind what the meaning of Ubuntu is. In English, we don’t have an adequate, comparable word, thus the group got its name: the Ubuntu group.

Why the focus on trauma?

The churning had been going on for years, slowly building momentum inside me. However, it was at some point in early spring of 2004 that I finally felt more clear. As I read the newspaper accounts of global conflicts and an under-reported genocide in Darfur, I couldn’t help but feel we were all in big trouble.

While the destruction, and horror of war extends in many directions, my obsession is with the human experience of unrecovered trauma. Some years ago I saw a researcher on Nightline reporting how for many in the refugee populations he studied, PTSD and depression were just as relevant 20 years post-war as they had been initially. Then my mind drifted to studies in Infant Mental Health which confirmed the transgenerational aspect of unrecovered trauma. Research shows that infants born to mothers with PTSD are often negatively impacted (as if traumatized) even if born in times of peace and without having been directly mistreated in any way.

My thoughts continue: trauma from natural disasters, accidents, gang violence, domestic violence, sexual assaults, child abuse…

…PTSD increases risk of violence, violence increases risk of PTSD, war increases risk of PTSD, PTSD increases risk of war…

Internally I followed countless loops of these dangerous types of potentially escalating cycles.

All I could, and can, think is, “This has to stop!”

The numbers are a gross mismatch. The number of people who have access to good mental health services is miniscule when compared to the number of people potentially in need. The ratio of people with professional training to the number of people in the world that need help in order to recover from trauma is an absolute no win.

In the U.S., the numbers are inadequate. Good quality mental health services are often not available due to the financial cost. Even with insurance benefits there are limits, and we have many that are uninsured.

I know in other cultures, access to mental health practitioners is not an option not only for practical and geographical reasons, but due to cultural obstacles as well. There are a range of issues such as the stigma or taboo of seeking help, combined with those who are suspicious of outsiders or might feel misunderstood by them. There are many places in the world where someone familiar to them, from their own village, their own language and customs, could serve them far better than someone with Western training, who is uninitiated in their culture.

I think the only thing that makes sense as partial remedy is for the lay public to become more informed about trauma. We have to find a way to increase the sophistication in the general public about these issues. Policy makers, military advisors, conflict resolution professionals, first responders, voters, parents, educators, international aid organizations, criminal justice workers… there is a long list of who needs a good grasp of what trauma is, how it plays out if left unchecked, and how to best promote recovery.

Due to the universality of trauma as common human experience, we need to invest in creating a population where recognizing symptoms of trauma and what to do about them is as commonly and well understood as the practices of good dental hygiene. Every young child knows he is supposed to brush his teeth, whether or not he does it consistently; how can we get to the same place with trauma and recovery?

We also need to shift how we think about trauma and how we deal with it if we are going to have a chance to bridge the gap regarding access to good quality help. This requires moving away from the current model of mental health professionals as the only option for trauma recovery. The first tier of professionally trained and licensed medical and mental health professionals could remain status quo and attend to those with access, those who could afford to see them. Professionals will always be essential for those seeking to get more in depth help or have more complicated, severe issues.

But if we add a second tier more people can be helped. There are many untrained people who are sensitive, well-attuned to others and are very empathic. What if we had more well trained lay support people that could be added into the picture? Couldn’t we then expand the range and number of needs that could be met? I see well trained, compassionate lay people and paraprofessionals being essential in beginning to turn around the situation created by lack of access due to geographical or cultural obstacles, or lack of financial means to pay for services.

The brainstorming continues as I am intent on revision of the current paradigm.

A few years ago, I heard about a workshop featuring an international trauma recovery expert named David Berceli. It was one of those moments that felt incredibly synchronistic; ponder the paradigm shift and the guy already working on it will arrive!

He had been working in many different countries for years, but of all places, most recently he had been in Sudan. When I first heard that my thought was: “Sudan? Sudan??! What sort of coincidence is that? Right in the middle of my obsessing about Sudan, I find out this guy has been working there! No one does trauma recovery in Sudan! Who the heck is this guy?”

Dave is certified in a body psychotherapy called Bioenergetics (the same method as my own background). He combined that training with information from the field of trauma recovery and his own personal observations based on living in regions at war to create a body-centered self-help method for trauma recovery. He has been successful in conflict zones where the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is very high because his method (Trauma Releasing Exercises) does not rely on the traditional Western Mental Health Model; it can be taught to groups as well as practiced by individuals. His workshops provide culturally sensitive information on trauma, trauma recovery and conflict resolution and offer TRE as a method that can be utilized by groups and individuals after he leaves the area. TRE can be continued in what ever context desired: individual, family, village, school, church group etc. The feedback he got from his work in Sudan was that they experienced significant relief from PTSD symptoms and felt much more able to come to terms with their experiences.

I took his workshop and learned that listening to Dave was a healing experience in and of itself. I had never heard someone address the topic of trauma with such optimism. He was truly inspirational and due to his global travels spoke with a different voice than any Western clinician I had ever encountered.

Starting from early in life I suffered from severe PTSD and it persisted long-term. Many years of therapy and body work had brought me great healing. While the most severe symptoms of PTSD had subsided a long time prior to Dave’s workshop, TRE enabled me to feel a more consistent state of calm than I had known could be possible for me. I had been unaware of how over-adrenalized or on “high” I had been until I felt what it was like to truly calm down. An additional benefit was that my threshold for stress was noticeably increased.

Living Ubuntu begins

In July 2004, I told Anshul and Eleanor, two of my closest friends, about David Berceli, his background, my TRE experiences and how good a match this method seemed to be for addressing the pervasiveness of global trauma, “The Invisible Epidemic” (Bremmer). After visiting Dave in Tempe and beginning the plans for him to come to Orange County to give his workshop to a larger audience, it became apparent that in order to be effective we would need to form a non-profit organization.

Thus, Living Ubuntu came into existence. Now we are broadening our focus. Prevention is always easier than repair. Living a life that pursues good health and well-being seems a stronger starting place than focusing only on correcting what is already in need of remedy. In order to live well, we need to recognize the interrelatedness of the mind and body, in other words, “we are our bodies.” From our Ubuntu group experiences we know that fostering community, addressing compassion fatigue and cumulative stressors need attention as well. While seeking to broaden the number of related issues we can be successful in addressing, increasing awareness of trauma and recovery will remain a critically important aspect of the organization’s focus.

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