How do we stay hopeful when everything seems hopeless? How do we remain centred and open-hearted despite the amount of violence and senseless cruelty that we are currently seeing play out in the world? In a time when it can be easy to lose oneself in and live in a mood of anxiety, despondency or fear, how do we cultivate a mood of love, compassion and HOPE?
Karen Nebe, leadership and wellbeing coach, is a firm believer and advocate for self-compassion and runs retreats entitled #TheSelfCompassionBreak. Karen is also an adept creative guide and I had the opportunity of attending one of her incredible weekend retreats earlier this year (read more about my experience here).
Karen is passionate about sharing tools, tips and practices that have transformed and added value to her life. She tells me, “I want people to understand that self-compassion is not just some airy fairy, self indulgent thing and that it truly can make a significant difference in your life.”
Practising self-compassion takes us out of stress response and is the gateway to acceptance. Shifting to a mood of acceptance is the stepping stone to moving into more helpful moods such as curiosity, wonder, peace, joy and ambition.
Self-kindness is about showing kindness and understanding toward ourselves when we fail at something. Rather than being critical or judging ourselves harshly when we already feel pain, we can recognize the negative influence of self-judgment and treat ourselves with warmth and patience instead. When we recognise it’s human to make mistakes, accept our perceived flaws, and show ourselves kindness, we practice self-compassion.
If we are wanting to take action and care for others and the planet, and alleviate suffering – we need to include ourselves in the equation.
Karen explains that unknowingly she lived in stress and trauma response for 40 odd years and as a consequence found herself mostly living in a mood of anxiety. This had a severe impact on her health (resulting in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to be more exact) however it was also the catalyst for her own healing journey and now informs the work she offers.
It began with undiagnosed burnout, thanks to a lengthy corporate career with perfectionism and workaholism at the forefront. When Karen resigned, she experienced some improvement in her health and her immune system also improved. In hindsight she can see this mostly came about as a result of getting two little dogs and getting out into nature more often. Having another nervous system around to co-regulate with is essential and this started the softening process. Karen thought it was just the job that had been the problem and the cause of her disease and so she then launched into ten years of running her own business, a production and events company, in an equally stress inducing industry. She pushed herself tirelessly and was incredibly hard and judgemental towards herself which all contributed to further stress. It was only when a colleague stopped her mid-sentence and pointed to her language that she began to have awareness of her own harsh inner critic and internal narrative.
During this chapter Karen had also been a caretaker on two occasions for her brother who was not well. Although she wouldn’t have had it any other way, she can see how detrimental it was for her own wellbeing. Her habit of always putting friends and family first and working herself to the bone all added to the burnout. A decision to go overseas and spend some time in New Mexico was her saving grace. For decades Santa Fe has attracted artists, writers, musicians and assorted other craftsmen so it’s no surprise she found her way here. And it was at the Georgia O’ Keeffe museum, where they were showing a film about her life, that Karen experienced a real shift and turning point. Georgia was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century and was devoted to creating imagery that expressed what she called “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”
While watching the film Karen burst into tears and initially thought, ” What’s this all about? Her innermost essence was loudly saying, “Where’s your creativity? You’re making beautiful things for other people, taking care of other people but not doing any of it for yourself.”
That’s when she came back to her ceramic work and started immersing herself in creating sculptures and vessels. Working with clay can be quite regressive in a sense, and so it can also be a wonderful opportunity to process old wounds. Karen started seeing more practitioners that were doing bodywork such as kinesiology and reiki and was seeing how being deeply engaged in art was incredibly powerful and transformative. She considered doing an art therapy training but due to her own experience of therapy in the past, she didn’t feel it was quite right.
Karen was instinctively guided to various modalities and trainings that had resonance and which all now contribute to her unique offering and the work she does with clients. The springboard was the Bridging Polarities work which is a form of art facilitation which places emphasis on the experience, rather than the end product. Through this training, more bodywork started emerging and she discovered Leadership Embodiment and Ontological Coaching. Karen was still wanting to stop the self-judgment and knew that breaking this habitual pattern wasn’t going to be easy.
“I needed to learn more about self-compassion and how do I get to that place of self acceptance. It’s all very well to say to someone, in order for you to create a shift in your life you need to get to a mood of acceptance. Well, how do you do that?”
Karen was led to Dr Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion which is backed by research and neuroscience which was important for her. Karen tells me that the Self-Compassion training has probably been the most useful modality for her personally – providing tools and practises and also exposing her to a new world of poetry. Encountering more spiritually inspired poets such as David Whyte, John O’ Donohue and Danna Faulds, realising that even just reading poetry can be so insightful, opened a new door for her. A trip to Ireland in 2018 gave her the incredible opportunity to really fall in love over and over with John O’Donohue’s work. He expands on the link between nature and being human and how we can learn so much from nature.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NATURE & FINDING HOPE
“I’ve found a lot of my healing and coming back to centre happens through nature. Being close to the sea. Being in the forest. Being able to have a garden. Because that reminds me that we’re all connected. And that’s also through the Self-Compassion training, they talk about common humanity. All beings, all humans experience suffering in some way and we’re not alone in this. We’re all connected. It’s so important for each of us to have our community.”
Just before the pandemic hit South Africa, Karen had decided to leave Cape Town. She intuitively knew it was time for her to move on from the city which was starting to feel too busy, too materialistic, all ‘too much’. She somehow ended up buying a house in the seaside town of Hermanus that was in quite a state and needing work. During lockdown, she took refuge in walking the cliff path daily. It was so quiet, there was no-one around and it was her first whale watching season. She would sit and feel their energy. It felt good and she had a sense she needed more of this.
She started becoming more aware of bird life, the local flora and fauna and to her delight discovered there were loads of chameleons living in her new garden. This incredible creature has an ability to look 360 degrees around its body, in two directions at the same time and change colours to blend into its environment effortlessly. Chameleons symbolise awareness, perception, curiosity and adaptability – their message couldn’t be more aptly timed.
“For me, it feels like the pandemic has been a sign for us to say Enough. Stop the building, stop the development. A time for Rewilding. That’s what Mother Nature is trying to tell us. Even though there is so much devastation and we really need to wake up, there is also so much good going on. Reading Jane Goodall’s The Book of Hope and listening to it on audible which she narrates herself, has been so incredible. She tells amazing stories of what’s being done, offers inspiration.”
During this period of uncertainty, there was also a Cape robin-chat pair that began building a nest in her garden. Karen watched the chicks hatch, saw them being fed each day and eventually watched them leave the nest and fly off. It was such an incredible gift to experience and witness the miraculous wonder of nature right in her garden. The move to Hermanus had been fairly traumatic and lonely too as it took place during the initial severe lockdown period and so this dose of animal medicine lifted her spirits, making her feel that she could come back to a place of hope. She reminds me, “Hope is not about optimism, it’s about belief that things will get better. Adamantly believing and then putting things into action to make a difference.”
This message of hope and the story of birds was the inspiration and theme for her 2020 retreat. “It was such a beautiful retreat and a perfect way to end the year after so much isolation,” she tells me. In 2021 Karen managed to run 6 retreats and found that they were needed more than ever. We are all really needing and longing to be in community. Karen has a wonderful ability to create safe havens where people can be heard, seen, valued and loved. In this nest of trust, people can open to each other and find meaningful connection.
A SIMPLE PRACTICE TO FIND EASE…
“I invite you to inhale, filling the lungs; exhale slowly and soften — allowing your whole body to soften. Think of someone or something that makes you smile—wait for an image to appear; and become aware of your personal space—that space immediately in front of you, behind you, to left and the right of you, above and below you; notice if it’s equal all around you. Invite a little more ease in your body.”
Karen is currently dabbling between and listening to The Book of The Hope and Atlas of the Heart.
The Book Of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglas Adams
Jane focuses on her “Four Reasons for Hope”: The Amazing Human Intellect, The Resilience of Nature, The Power of Young People, and The Indomitable Human Spirit.
Karen tells me it’s an absolute treat to be able to listen to Jane narrating and in conversation. “I feel goosebumps as I listen to her stories of hope. This book has helped me come back to the present moment over and over again as I become aware of so much suffering in the world and remind myself that we are all connected in some way and that hope is an active belief.”
The Atlas of The Heart by Brené Brown
If we want to find the way back to ourselves and one another, we need language and the grounded confidence to both tell our stories and to be stewards of the stories that we hear. In Atlas of the Heart, we explore eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human and walk through a new framework for cultivating meaningful connection. This is for the mapmakers and travelers in all of us.
The Audible book is also narrated by the author and Brené tends to elaborate a little more than in the book, so it’s more than just the book.
POEMS TO SAVOUR
Anything by David Whyte, John O’Donohue, Danna Faulds
All photography: Lana Kenney ©