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Collective Grief and Finding Refuge with Author Michelle Cassandra Johnson

Collective Grief and Finding Refuge with Author Michelle Cassandra Johnson

Michelle C. Johnson is an author, yoga teacher, social justice activist, and intuitive healer. Her second book Finding Refuge: Heart Work for Healing Collective Grief is an outstanding resource for anyone who is dealing with loss, grief, and heartbreak. BGN had a rich conversation with Johnson about collective grief and finding refuge.

What’s “sadhana” and how is it vital to finding refuge?

Sadhana is a consistent practice. Sometimes it’s a 40-day meditation or perhaps a journaling practice. In Finding Refuge, I talk about when I was stopped in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, by a police officer. On the inside, I was terrified, furious, traumatized, but I was able to stay calm. I really relied on my practice. When I practice consistently, I don’t have to think about practicing. It’s just there. The breath was there in that moment when I was scared. I’m sure I was engaging other skills to calm the nervous system, I was thinking about my ancestors and people who protect me. It all just kicks in. I didn’t have to be like, “What am I gonna do in this moment?” My practice held me. That’s what a sadhana can do, and that is refuge.

Why is it important to name our grief?

When we experience things that cause grief and loss, and we don’t actually make space to process what is held within us. Not just our own, but our ancestors as well…we’re gonna pass the grief on and replicate more trauma and oppression. We need tools to actually be in community, to grieve. When I think about my ancestors, I know my ancestors were in ceremony, grieving and celebrating. Every time something happened, there was ceremony around it. Making space to grieve collectively feels like ceremony for me. And I feel like it’s what we’re going to need. We’ve been through some serious trauma together, a trauma that we’ve… I mean, I’ve never experienced before. Like 3,000 people dying a day. I’ve never lived through that consciously, so it’s necessary. I want us to move through what we need to move through, so we can heal.

What tools does Finding Refuge provide to allow readers to have the courage to turn towards grief rather than ignoring it?

We can’t push people into grieving, yet people are grieving all the time. We’re just not acknowledging it. Each chapter begins with my personal stories of grief. Then I connect that grief to systemic oppression and show how that oppression causes grief and loss for all of us. Then, there are tools after each chapter — rituals, meditations, and the sadhana practice we already named. The practices are not gentile; they’re intentional, though, and they’re meant to offer healing — going into the broken heartedness so you can heal your heart, thinking about your unique medicine because you have unique medicine to offer and you are medicine.

You talk about holding grief in our bodies, even in our bones. How does that manifest?

So many people think, “We all grieve in the same way.” We don’t. They think, “Grieving is a linear process.” It’s not. There are steps. There are some patterns. The most pervasive pattern is we don’t make space for grieving. If we do, we do it in isolation, and that’s not the way we were actually meant to grieve. People were meant to grieve out loud. I think about my ancestors. People weren’t grieving alone; they were doing it in community, in circle around the fire, right? Or near water. But today, if I go to my doctor and say, “I don’t feel well,” they don’t ask, “Did you have a recent loss?” I think we need to recognize that people are moving around brokenhearted. How does that manifest physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?

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In addition to the daily COVID-19 statistics, there have been over 106 mass shootings in the United States since January 2021, and we are experiencing continued police violence against unarmed Black people. How does finding refuge factor into our process of grieving while co-existing with continuous low grade trauma from daily news in the background of our lives?

This past year people have reached out for refuge, a space to hold them and all of the heartbreak that’s present. There are people who have bypassed compassion and created more grief and harm and aren’t interested in healing or doing what needs to be done for others to find space for refuge. Because I have not lived through an experience like COVID before, I’ve had to find ways to amplify the practices I used in the past in some way, to meet something I’ve never experienced before. And that’s a practice in asking myself, “How do I find refuge when I’m experiencing something I’ve never experienced before? When there’s uncertainty in a different way? When I don’t wanna read the New York Times briefing the next morning because I don’t wanna see how many people have died? When people are wanting all the businesses to open and all these things are happening? 

I think this year has made many of us be like, “How are we going to survive?” Survival is finding refuge in one another, in the Earth and connections, the things that we may not have made time for before, working with our ancestors. People have been pushed to find refuge in different ways, and we need it because we have a lot of dismantling to do. We are still in the thick of this. And there’s the aftermath, which is gonna last for a while. But we’re still in it. It’s back to sadhana right? We need that practice, and we need to find refuge in one another because so much is happening to split us apart amidst a pandemic that is doing that already.

When you were writing Finding Refuge, what brought you the most joy?

Writing Finding Refuge was a shamanic journey. I had to relive all of the personal experiences I was writing about again. It was a spiritual process of like, how do I talk about my personal stories connected to the collective, and offer a practice? My favorite part was that I was instructed by all my guides and ancestors to build altars for each of my personal stories. I love that to prepare for writing a chapter, I was called to build altars and honor what I was experiencing, moving through. That was a sacred process, a sacred story, and it’s beautiful to be in community with my ancestors and guides in that way. 

Michelle C. Johnson’s new book, Finding Refuge: Heart Work for Healing Collective Grief, published by Shambhala Publications, will be released July 13, 2021. Pre-order Finding Refuge and receive a 40-day sadhana practice. Johnson’s originally self-published first book, Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World (second edition) is being published by Shambhala Publications and will be released in late 2021.

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