We're going to pay attention to our hearts. Our literal hearts. The organ that oxygenates and purifies the body. We often forget we have one so we’re going to start by finding it. Close your eyes, place your hands in the vicinity of the heart – for those of us who failed biology, it can be found to the left of your chest. See if you can feel it beating....
2020 has brought to the fore many sombre expressions: Unprecedented. The New Normal.
And perhaps that’s to be expected. Afterall, Covid-19 threw the entire world into a handbrake stop. The. Entire. World. Stopped. In a global industry like cinema you would understand just how unprecedented that is. Stats, box office figures, demographic data, release cycles all halted. Repeated zero’s showed up on spreadsheets around the globe. The computer no longer has anything to compute. Meanwhile ,over in digital, the computer can’t keep up with the churn. Tens turn to millions overnight. Sleeping giants wake with a start.
So we can forgive the attempts to shape a new language, to try and capture this sudden sense of ending and beginning. We can, as I will go onto explore, forgive ourselves for not knowing what to do, how to be or how to feel about it. And I hope you forgive me for coining yet another leaden phrase that articulates what I think is most interesting about this time. The Great Unlearning.
To learn means: to gain knowledge or understanding of (or skill in) by study, instruction, or experience. To unlearn is: to discard something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information. There is a relationship between the two. To learn is to gain understanding, to have the “oh right, I see” moment. It requires an openness and a porosity of mind. It requires a certain space, ideally.
However it’s hard to learn if your mind doesn’t have the space. If the space is taken by the worry that millions of people have died or are very sick with this virus - you may have direct experience of this or are worried that you might one day. If your children are suddenly at home and so are you as you try to patch together what is crumbling at work. Either that or you’re being dragged along at the rate of knots by the development of new technologies. It’s hard to have the mental space to learn when you’re suffering from Allostatic Load. Allostatic Load is the scientific descriptor for how our brains have turned to soft cheese, why it’s hard to retain or recall names or dates. Our brains aren’t meant to sustain such long and persistent stress. If adrenaline and the worry drug, cortisol, courses through us for too long, this can cause us to short circuit. Our receptiveness to learn diminishes. We simply feel tired.
So maybe unlearning might be an easier route and maybe unlearning what we think resilience is might be a place to start.
Currently I’m making a documentary called Transcendence: How Can I Feel Art Again which explores why, after years of programming and reviewing films and other art forms, my ability to feel the visceral passion for art has diminished. I’m talking to a whole range of people – artists, filmmakers, psychologists, curators - including a Dr Sarah Garfinkel, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. Sarah studies Interoception which is a sensing of our internal bodily changes. It's this sensing that gives rise to our feelings.
So I’d like to do the Interoception experiment on you that she did on me. It's quick and I promise painless. This will draw us back to our heart again. You’ll need to close your eyes for and, without touching your chest this time, sense your heartbeat. Find its' rhythm. Can you feel it? Now set a time and for say for fifteen seconds, count the beats. Now keep a note of that that number until the end of this piece. Because of your allostatic brains it’s probably you best to write the number down. We’ll do the final part of the experiment at the end.
Unlearning Resilience & Bouncing Forward
So back to resilience. Resilience commonly refers to our ability to bounce back from a challenge. The more resilient we are, the quicker our bounce back. It’s how governments refer to economies. A resilient economy bounces back quickly so we better get back to work, get shopping and keep carrying on.
However when carrying on isn’t an option (because a global shut down has rendered some industries and businesses and our ways of life obsolete) I wonder if it’s this very definition of resilience that we need to unlearn.
I left my job in film last year. I left because amongst other things, I felt the conversation raging at the time about how to protect cinema in a newly digitised landscape, was perhaps not the most compelling question. Whether we were ready or not, it seemed the world had irrevocably changed. Youtube videos were trending more than features. Handheld devices meant that on-the-go viewing factored more neatly in and amongst people’s busy lives. Socially conscious, globally connected audiences were demanding more from their "content providers" and the world about them. Demands for social accountability and equal and fair representation had become more acute. From George Floyd to Greta Thurnberg – we no longer have to worry about the sex, drugs and night-life antics of our movie stars. They’re now too busy fixing the world in their spare time. This was the world before Covid-19. News flash - the world had already changed.
Whether we are ready or not, this is indeed the time of the Great Unlearning. So I wonder whether rather than bouncing back, to attempt to recreate a world of an imagined past, we might bounce forward. To bounce forward, we each need a different approach. Because change does not just happen to us. Our approach to the world changes the world.
We must first be floored
So where might we start ? I’d like to suggest that before we get to any form of bouncing, we first allow ourselves to be floored.
When I left the BFI, I didn’t have another job to go to. You’re supposed to aren’t you? You’re supposed to spend your final year networking your ass off until you can make a sweet transition, so an announcement in Screen magazine reads that Gaylene Gould has left the BFI to run X or Y – X or Y being a similar outfit but slightly sexier. I left having done none of that and I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed and scared and hopeless and out of time and out of sorts. I had to dodge the industry folks who would ask where are you now? I would stick out my chin and respond “In my house”, somewhat childishly. In truth, I was scared. My identity was unravelling. And then a few months later, the pandemic happened and everyone else joined me In Their House. In those few months after leaving the my job, I was floored. And then suddenly we all were.
The definition of “being floored” is; to knock (someone) to the ground or to baffle someone completely. I felt both. I felt like if I stood up too quickly I’d be assailed by vertigo. So all I could do was lie down, be floored both literally and figuratively.
The thing with being floored is that it’s hard to feel anything except the beating of the heart. I began to pay attention to it – I mean there was little else. I began to pay attention to it with the help of Dr Kristen Neff a researcher who studies self-compassion. Dr Kristen Neff’s practice, like neuroscientist Dr Sarah Garfinkel, centres around paying close attention to the heart. The heart as we know from the movies signifies much. It is the bodily organ represents fickle fragility. Unlike the much venerated brain, (our world's now revolves around algorithmic reasoning) it' s easy forget that it's our hearts that feed our entire system.
Many artists, as well as Neff, see the heart as the site of compassion. And for a clarifier - compassion isn’t simply kindness. Compassion is kindness in response to suffering. Compassion first acknowledges that there is pain, that we hurt. Compassion is that overwhelming feeling when we see a toddler fall down hard as they’re learning to walk. We might wince and then feel a rush of feeling that makes us want to pick them up and give them a hug. We don’t berate them or immediately set them on their feet and order them to get back to the job of walking. There is a moment when we want to get down on the floor with them and simply to soothe them. We might say oh does that hurt? Where? Oh I’m sorry. Let me rub it better. That is compassion. It’s the act of soothing in response to pain or hurt or a challenge.
Self-compassion is the act of doing that for yourself. In self compassion terms, you are both the baby who falls down (whether that be because you’re working overtime, or sadly not working at all while home schooling and looking after ageing parents) and the one who soothes. You put your hand on your own heart and ask does that hurt? Where? Oh I’m sorry. Let me rub it a better for a while. Self compassion doesn’t ask you to fix the thing or have the answers. Nor does it shame you to be more like those other stronger kids over there because you should never fall down and graze your knees . Celebrated researcher, Brene Browne might call this about making peace with our vulnerability.
Serotonin and Oxytocin. The Black Panther and Captain Marvel to the Killmonger and the Krees.
There are medical and scientific benefits of self compassion for those of us who need evidence. That cortisol (worry drug) and adrenaline that’s running roughshod through us right now and messing up our minds and draining our energy, can only be vanquished by two other drugs – the love drugs - Serotonin and Oxytocin. They are the Black Panther and Captain Marvel to the Killmonger and the Krees. These love drugs are activated through acts of soothing and connection. It's the reason why the baby gets back on their feet with a smile on its face.
When we first take a moment to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a great challenge and that great challenges hurt, we allow serontonin and oxytocin to water down our anxiety. We slow down. We are able to think with more equanimity. We can see and connect better with those who suffer too. We can see the humanity in the challenges rather than just the challenges. In other words, our interoception is increased. We gain a greater relationship with our emotions and feelings and also the emotions and feelings of the time.
Self-soothing or ‘there-there-ing’ might sound a bit namby-pamby – especially to managers, leaders or caregivers who have been taught that to be good at our jobs we must know the answers. We must be tough, reinvent overnight, bounce back quickly. . These were some of my favourite self-goads as I lay on my living room floor. The thing about that internal critic is that that voice isn't great for motivation. Telling yourself you’re an idiot might rouse you for a moment but then it will drain you just as quickly.
When the world ended up on the living room floor
When the world seemed to end up on the living room floor, I felt somewhat of a relief. I could finally admit that what I needed was time to soothe myself from the years of feeling in the wrong place at the wrong time, a creative in a bureaucratic world, a black person in a space where my inner world was alien to most people around me, a woman who finally admitted after 30 years working in film I had felt silenced and unsafe. I needed time to say there-there. That was bloody tough. You have a right to lie down and rest on this floor for a while.
As the pandemic made this not such a weird thing to do, I got used to being rather then doing, listening rather than responding, reading rather than writing, asking rather than telling, connecting with new people as well as old and new questions began to surface. I discovered new radical ways of looking at old problems. I found new teachers and new philosophies which are exciting me with their fresh approaches. I’m learning to gently unlearn.
I have had to stop doing things that, up until this point, I thought were hard-wired in me. I had to stop fixing things. I had to stop being a diplomat and a people-pleaser. I had to admit that discomfort can be a space that makes us ask better questions. I had to stop measuring my existence in how much I did or the title on my business card. I have had to admit that for, this next act in my life, I have no idea how this is going to pan out. I have had to surrender, lean on people, ask for help, collaborate in new ways. I’ve had to move from listening to my head to listening to my body – to be led by what things feel like.
Many predicted this year's state of affairs would come to pass – that a global pandemic was highly likely, that the film industry was going to have to go through a monumental shift. But our tendency to “bounce back”, to cleave to what we know rather than explore a completely new path, prevented us from admitting the truth.
Now the world and many of our industries have had to admit that we don’t know. That we are all vulnerable. That we can be wiped out in an instant. That is sad. It’s tragic in fact. I now believe it is only by allowing ourselves to be floored, to stop and feel the beating of our tiny, powerful hearts that something new will emerge that responds to this moment and not the one before.
Count the beats
So now for the final part of the interoception experiment. Find your pulse. And for fifteen seconds, count the beats. Is this number close to the one you captured before? If so you have peak interoception which means you have a close connection to your feeling states. That’s good - you’re going to need that. We’re all going to need that. Because when the world demands us to be something new, that’s all we have.