Very few of my Saturdays are filled with learning. Their normal M.O. is brunch, coffee and maybe some form of hangout.
Today’s Saturday ventured right outside its traditional territory. I’m going away to a regional Burning Man next week. Part of the Burning Man ethos is giving back, which means volunteering your time for acts of service. You’re expected to pick up a volunteer shift at some point throughout the burn. I’ve got no issue picking up MOOP (Matter Out Of Place), but I figured I could be put to a different use than that. I volunteered for Sanctuary, which is a place that individuals in a heightened state can come to get grounded. It’s filled with all manner of soft and warm plounge things, stuffed toys and blankets. There are colouring books and people who have education in talking people down from places of stress or anxiety. As I learned in today’s education session, Sanctuary isn’t an I want a chill space sort of deal. One of Burning Man’s central tenets is Radical Self-Reliance, or the ability to take responsibility for yourself. Part of this involves a community providing care for their own. Sanctuary is more in line with the Men In Black “Last line of defence against the worst scum of the universe” mentality. Sorry, MENtality. If someone’s in an extreme altered state or unresponsive, we provide support or facilitate with Rangers or First Aid as to the best course of action. It’s pretty worthwhile work.
For eight hours, we learned about how to facilitate these experiences. We learned how to and not to act, what to and not to say. It was mostly clearer than my previous sentence. It was altogether a pretty large group, and the length of the session really reinforced how seriously they take this service. It was a pretty wide swath of ideas and concepts, from things that seemed intuitive to all new techniques. A large part of the focus was on teaching us that we weren’t there to solve any problems. We weren’t there to provide suggestions, counselling, therapy or answers. Our role was to ground our subjects and provide space where they’d be able to come back to Earth. Maybe with colouring books.
That sounds glib, it was more than that. There was a big focus on Active Listening as a prime technique. Active Listening, if you’re not familiar, is a technique that centres around re-framing what the subject has said as a way of making them feel heard and understood. Example:
A: It’s really shitty that my Mum won’t trust me to go out to this party on my own. I’m not a fucking kid anymore.
B: That sucks. It sounds like you feel more responsible than she gives you credit for.
Or something of the like. There’s a lot more to it than that. There are non-verbal cues or verbal punctuation (grunts of affirmation, etc) that show your subject that you’re paying attention and listening. There’s the principle of leading them to realise what they need or affirm it for you. Basically, you’re guiding them to find answers of their own. I’ve got a lot of absurdly emotionally acuitive people in my life (I mean, I live with one) so a lot of it seemed second nature to me. We split into groups of three to practice, one would be talking, one active listening and the other observing. It was really interesting being the observer, taking into account how others conversed and showed active support.
Another demonstration we had was on the differences between looking/listening/feeling both outward and inward. Outward looking would be seeing things with our eyes. Inward looking would be closing our eyes and looking with our imagination. Outward listening would be taking in audio stimuli. Internal listening would be hearing our inner voice, sounds our brain would produce. Outward feeling would be attuning to physical sensations. Inward feeling would be understanding how the emotional attachment to those stimuli. If this sounds pointless, there’s more. So often when we’re concentrating on one of these six channels, we blank out the other ones. Some are heightened, while others are relaxed. When someone is in a heightened state, it’s often in a number of these channels, while the unused ones remain relaxed. If they’re having trouble being overstimulated, focusing their attention to the relaxed states can help reduce that stimulation and lower stress. It’s not a matter of saying specifically “hey bro, listen inward now”, but more about guiding them through their experience to find a peace of sorts. It’s grounding. Comforting.
Honestly, the inward/outward sensation piece was a pretty useful tool. So many times when I’m feeling stressed or anxious, it’s in one of these areas. Refocusing to a calmer place could do wonders for overall mood. Spending my Saturday effectively in class isn’t my usual preference, but it’s gonna be a pretty warm feeling being able to help others in times of need.
It’s not like brunch is going anywhere any time soon.