building the banks
Sophy is a weaver of wisdom, traditions and the twin forces of will and love. An engineer and therapist by training, she has spent a lifetime exploring how things work within us and around us. Sophy believes that western culture has lost the rituals that help us come to terms with the fact that everything we love we will lose. As a founder of the Transition movement, a grief tender and in her work restoring healthy human cultures, Sophy helps people see how they are part of systems of trauma, and how to create return pathways to states of health.
Learn more about the people influencing this work, many of whom are mentioned in this episode, here.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.
Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
I was with a group of people working in questions around health recently, and somebody brought the idea of how much ill health can come because our biome is impoverished, is depleted, and how our inner biome mirrors the depletion of our external biome. And I was curious – how does that translate into consciousness? You know, how are we… is there a similar pattern of depletion? And I wondered whether the thing that we’re missing is ritual. Because what these bacteria – you know, this gut fauna or flora or whatever it is – is helping us to digest our food so that we can take the nutrition from it. And for me, I think you could say that’s what ritual is. Ritual are processes that help us to digest our experience. And again, whether that’s the micro ritual of how we greet each other, or how we wake up and have breakfast or end the day, or whether it is the ceremony where a group of people that have been traumatised are brought back into the village so they’re not taking it out on each other.
We’re in, we’re in South Hams in Devon, walking across the south facing slope of this beautiful valley. I’ve got some roots in Devon, so my grandfather was Brimblecombe, who grew up in Plymouth. Yeah. And I grew up in central London, so for me it was extraordinary to move out of cities. I’ve always lived in terraced houses with streetlights and neighbours and, you know, to be in a place where my neighbours are cows, and there is no street lights to get in the way of the stars. I continue to be kind of in, or, and, count the incredible blessings and privilege of living in a place like this, where there is a stream and yeah, space and woodland and wildlife.
There’s a really lovely bit that, that oak tree has just fallen down in the last big storm that came through, but further down, there’s an oak tree that fell, must’ve fallen or, it’s got a little bridge over the, over the stream. And it is like a kind of green room, it’s completely overhung with, I think beeches and hazels and oaks and willow. And it’s the place that I’ve come to do ceremony. So there was, uh, between 2018, October, 2018, Maeve died, my grief tending teacher, age 39. And then the next year I’d done a bit of work with Polly Higgins, she died. My, you know, another teacher died. Like there was just a series of deaths, all women, most of them under 60, and that’s the place that I went to go time after time to put flowers into the water for these beautiful women, you know, these beautiful souls that had carried medicine and healing for the world, just was really powerful and to feel supported by the water and the trees and the landscape of that. Yeah. I mean, I can go and sit there and not be in grief, but there’s something about how connected that spot is for my love for them and the blessings of knowing them, you know, and the incredible gifts that I received from them. Um, that is very precious.
I used to go and sit on Hackney marshes when I lived in London, but this is a different kind of thing, to have that. And it’s, you know. One time I’ve met somebody else there. Yeah. Beautiful to be able to be in a space like that on my own. And what a rare privilege that is in this country, at this time.
Uh, so today was module two of the apprenticing to grief program, which I co-facilitate with a guy called Jeremy. We’ve been holding grief spaces for several years together. When we’re dealing with collective destruction or collective pain, we need to meet it as a group and feel others around us and have more support. We’re weaving teachings but also doing the practices. This is water from the shrine, the grief shrine so I’m just offering it as a blessing to life, to be a blessing to every living being that it touches, may it serve to heal the ones that have gone before and the ones living today, human and non-human and bless those still to come.
I’m finding it hard to navigate the steepness of the slope, that I’m sure it’s very metaphorical for something. So I wonder about finding somewhere and sitting. Shall we go and sit up by the barn? Something like that? Okay. What is it? It is just a ruined, falling down barn, a collapsing bit of the last agricultural era.
You know, I went off to be an engineer. I became a radical feminist, meeting a lot of sexism, as well as a lot of support, you know, I met everything in the engineering world. And, and I think I was at an age of, you know, at university and coming into adulthood, of really starting to question a lot of things. I ended up joining a lesbian football team in East London. It was very working class, there were lots of black women as well as working class white women. So there was a whole journey that I did about coming to understand systems of oppression and how my experiences as a white middle-class woman was very, very different from the experience of Black women and working class women of all races.
I got recruited out of the local swimming pool, the lifeguard took a shine to me and invited me to join and then went along, you know, I was back in London having been made redundant and was looking for things to be part of, so yeah, I was newly moved to Hackney and went along and there were all these kind of incredibly confident, loud, quite intimidating – I was really scared when I joined that team of saying anything – I didn’t know how to find my place, but over time, you know, came to be able to speak.
There was something that was a kind of coming home to women who weren’t making themselves smaller in the world, that I really was attracted to. And I feel incredibly lucky to have found that. It’s like, okay, this is a place where I don’t need to make myself smaller. That was like a real homecoming to me, that group. And there was a sense of, you know, in the face of discrimination – and, you know, at that time, people were losing their jobs and losing their children because they were lesbians – of really having each other’s backs. And that was again a sort of new experience of what it meant to be part of a community, just supporting each other, just really holding each other.
And then I did a therapy journey, so I did my own therapy, but I also trained as a therapist. And that gave me a whole piece around trauma, about that sense of parts of us that are running us that are out of awareness. So coming back to engineering, you know, the question that an engineer asks is, why does this thing behave as it does? So whether that’s a lump of wood or, you know how water flows through a pipe or the thermodynamics of a power station or semiconductors, you know, like why does it behave like that? So that’s a very intuitive part of engineering, which is feeling into the system, and there’s something then that puts that intuitive sense into mathematical equations. So then we can design a bridge, or make very, very small semiconductor chips or whatever.
I think you could say my life question, sometimes I say, was, why do humans create harm unintentionally? You know, why do good people create systems of harm? Or what is it about groups of humans where it’s not enough to have a good intention? It’s not enough to have ideals or ideas. Something else is in the field that disrupts that.
And then I guess the third big strand you could say was, was the Transition movement. I spent ten years in the transition movement that started, you know, just down the road from here, 2006. Which was really asking, how do we wake ourselves up? How do we wake each other up to the severity of the crises? The tipping points around climate change, the depletion, you know, all of those things, depletion of energy and other resources, soil erosion, water. In a society and in a kind of modern culture that is profoundly unequal, and you know, where we’ve lost so many of the technologies of community – how do we repair that? There was another whole journey about that, being part of a movement, again, with high ideals and seeing both the enormous amount of positive things, but also some of the shadow of that, of things that weren’t addressed.
I think about Francis Weller’s five gateways to grief. I just think it’s a really helpful way of thinking about the different sources of grief. The inevitable kind of grief is that everything we love we will lose. And that can be the personal things of relationship and identity – people die, relationships end – but it also is the landscapes that are being destroyed. You know, the tree that’s fallen down just below us in the last storm that came through.
He speaks about ancestral grief, the impacts of colonialism and patriarchy and centuries of some very deliberately created systems of separation and harm are still with us. These things are still here. So there’s a lot of pain walking around in people’s bodies, you know, from all of these things.
He names another one, you know: places in me that have not known love, places that have not known love. So, you know, what have I not yet been able to welcome about myself? Where is there shame? Where is there things that I haven’t been able to grow into or develop? Which might include our capacity for intimacy and feeling joy and beauty, because they got shut down in some way, creativity. I’m not going to be able to remember the fourth one, what is it? Hmm. That it hurts when we see the planet, landscapes, you know, a beautiful bit of nature, tarmaced over or forest cut down to build more houses and…
One that I like to name last is: what we expected on arrival and did not receive. And I think it’s a really interesting gateway to name, because it’s the thing that has no name until you name it, in a way. I think we expect to come in and have a world where people are taken care of, where the people with power care about everybody in society, not just the rich or not just their families, the ones they’re connected to. I think we expect that to be a sense of justice, you know, I think we’re wired for justice. So there’s an outrage in us, you know, when we live in a world where there’s so much unnecessary poverty and violence.
We expect somebody to notice when we’re not okay. We expect to come in and be held by healthy, supported mothers. And we expect that when we’re hurt, there’s going to be a repair to that hurt. And it’s shocking to us that that doesn’t happen. So whether that’s, you know, abuse or trauma that happens as children or whether it’s things that happen later in life, I think there’s a layer of grief that’s to do with the thing that happens, but there’s a second layer of grief that is – and there was no help for me. There was no community or even just members of my family that pulled me back.
I’ve spoken about trauma as not just the overwhelming event, not just the shock, but the failure of that return path, what I’ve called the return path of pulling back. I think we’re wired for attachment, I think our nervous systems are wired for attachment. All Stephen Porges’s work about polyvagal theory, the neuroscience that’s backing up attachment theory as a kind of childhood developmental way of understanding relationships. So the degree of stress that babies experience when they’re separated from their mothers, which completely makes sense in evolutionary terms – you know, mothers carrying completely dependent infants in nature would not leave their babies on the ground or in the crook of a tree overnight and go away. You know, they would be held to the body and experience human skin, probably, you know, pretty much 24/7. And I think that’s what our skin and our nervous system expects. And there’s you know, the work around separation and the consequences of separation and how we end up in these patterns of insecure attachments, which have enormous amounts of stress with them. And that attachment is not just when we’re young, you know, there’s this, the two sides of attachment that if we’re securely attached, we can be more autonomous. If we’re well-developed in our capacity for dependence and connection, we have more confidence to go out into the world and be on our own. And that’s what a healthy human being is, is somebody that can do both of those things and has confidence in both.
The two patterns of insecure attachment are resistant, or the sort of clinging – you know, I need you, codependent – I don’t want to be on my own, is one, and the other, when even that has failed, so resistant is a kind of protest against separation: crying, expressing the pain. And the avoidant is when I’ve just shut down. That thing in Bowlby’s work; it looks like the child has recovered more, but actually it’s a much more severe rupture, because now won’t be an attempt to repair. You know, the resistant is trying to get the repair to happen, and the avoidant is like: I’ve given up, I’ve given up now. You know, I think you can look at the shapes of consciousness that trauma creates, not only, you know, all these different gateways, you can see them embedded in our economic system or our political parties or the design of the Houses of Parliament, or, you know, the laws that govern how companies have to behave that prioritise profit over, you know, care.
I read a lot of systems thinkers and I have, you know, two or three tests for whether systems thinkers are going deep enough to actually name what a healthy system might be, what regenerative systems are. And the first is, are you talking about collective trauma? Are you talking about race and patriarchy and colonialism, because if you’re not, your solutions aren’t going to work. And the second one is, in your regenerative culture, are you putting mothers and babies at the centre? Because if you’re not, you’re still growing human beings who are wired up for high cortisol, high reactivity, broken attachments. Like if mothers and babies aren’t at the centre of your economic priorities, then forget it. I don’t care what you’ve done to the economy. If you’ve just made some nice green jobs and local things.
And the third one is something about putting relationships before the material world, understanding that as human beings, we’re primarily emotional relational beings. And so what should the government’s priorities be? Growing healthy children, supporting mental health, supporting conflict resolution, you know, having ways that communities and individuals and families can grow into healthy networks of relationships. And if we did that, we wouldn’t need all of these material compensations because that’s what, that’s the fundamental thing that creates healthy people.
A healthy human being is one, you know, we talked about it – about children that have a developed capacity for autonomy and a developed capacity for dependence. A developed capacity for will – this is how we were taught to think about it in my psychotherapy training – will and love. In Chinese medicine, yang and yin, you know, in the Dagara – so one of my teachers Sobonfu from Burkina Faso – fire and water. You know, these archetypes come in lots of traditions: two contrasting qualities that need to be balanced and relating to bring about health.
So where we have strength or power, action, that’s become disconnected from love, we get cultures of domination, of privilege, of avoidance. Where the love archetype, the relating archetype has become disconnected from strength, we get a kind of collapsed, codependent, you know, maybe a victimhood or sort of inability to set and maintain boundaries. That’s part of healthy relating. So these two archetypes, and then they’re held by structures, habits, norms, daily rhythms, work practices, how do we greet each other, and all of that is held by a presence and understanding around return paths. Shit happens, we get to situations that are shocking, violent, you know, accidents, or, you know, we grow old, people die, there’s grief, but collectively we have technologies that bring us back. So collectively we can hold each other to process and metabolise the shock. To repair the relationships that have been broken. To support somebody through the journey of grief for the loss that life brings naturally. And when all of those things are working, then I think we’ve got a lot of the elements of healthy culture, healthy humans across scale.
There are like micro return paths, which are an act of kindness, a smile, but then when, when big things happen, we need big return paths. So what’s our community reparation or conflict resolution process when something really major has kicked off within a family or a town, a village? One of my lineages in the grief work is Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé from the Dagara people. And they said that they would do a grief ceremony every week, you know, regularly as part of the kind of emotional hygiene of the village. So there’s drumming and dancing and movement and shaking and a place that you can express. And it’s contained and you’re not taking it out on your neighbour or your child, or your loved one.
And I see it in the ceremonies that I hold, which are grief ceremony spaces for people to come and witness grief. And I see those moments of transformation of, oh my God, nobody’s ever said, thank you for feeling this now, you know, I’ve always been too much. It’s always been something that I’ve had to manage. And the amount of energy that comes when people can put their burdens down, you know, the first time I’ve really felt the sadness of my father dying and he died 30 years ago. You know, what energy is it costing us to carry this grief around when our bodies just want to let it flow? And I think grief, why did we evolve to feel grief? I think we evolved to feel it because it connects us back together. It’s the glue that we’re missing in so many contexts.
It’s really quick, you know, the transformation that you can do when you’re working in a group and you know, the one-to-one work and longer work is needed as well. So for me, it’s a return path, but it points very directly to this question, what do we do with our pain? Is pain medicine? And is it the beautiful threads that weave us back together? Is it a thing of exquisite nature that is completely inseparable from our love for each other and our creativity and our expression and our deepest truth, or is it something that’s inconvenient that we need to medicate and shut out? You know? And, and the engineer goes, pain is also a feedback loop. There are two kinds of pain. There’s the clean pain of what life brings us, however immaculate and beautiful our culture is. And there’s the dirty pain, which is the pain that is being recycled into other people’s bodies, or I’m taking it out on my own body because there’s no good way to express it and to metabolise it. And massive amounts of pain in our culture is dirty pain because we don’t have spaces for grief.
I mean, how, how do we turn this thing around? We need a thousand, a million responses and there’s no one right one, but it’s one thread that I am weaving into the, you know, this huge tapestry of return paths and interventions.
2002, 2004, I was introduced to Sobonfu’s work – so she and Malidoma both came over, seeing that the West needed some of their teachings. You know, they had this incredible life journey, but part of that for me, was sitting with a woman who’d grown up in an intact, traditional, earth-based, you know, we call it Indigenous culture, speaking about women, and women’s teachings, about bleeding and periods, about birth, about what it means to bring new life in through your bodies. And you know, a lot of the places where I’d encountered sort of Shamanic traditions had been teachings brought by men. And there was something about sitting with a group of women receiving these teachings from a woman who you could see in her body had just had a completely different experience of what it was to be female, embodied, sexual, bleeding. And there was something about that that really lit something up in me. Again, this sort of what I expected and did not receive.
I guess the final weave of it came through a woman called Maeve Gavin, who I met at a Joanna Macy workshop in 2009, and Maeve was learning with a lot of the same people – Sobonfu, Francis Weller, Joanna, and she made a weave of processes in a sort of four day workshop that she brought to Devon, and Jeremy and I were sort of participating and supporting, and then she stopped coming from the North of Scotland. And so we had to choose whether we were going to hold it and offer it ourselves, or it wouldn’t happen again. And so that’s part of how we came to inherit this particular weave, you know, that I’m sure draws a lot from Francis and others in the States who also have similar lineages.
I think ritual is our birthright. You know, there are people that have written that a lot of addiction, you know, a lot of dysfunction is because of the absence of ritual, and it’s become something that, you know, I’ve come across working class people or people who go, well that’s not for me. Of course, there’s a lot of wounding around ceremony and spirituality that’s come from people’s involvement with religion, but actually I think ritual is kind of a necessary staple of human existence in some way.
A ritual often involves calling in support, the support of the circle. You know, we might do ritual on our own, but in that case, we’re probably calling in the support of the beyond-human world. We go out into nature, some traditions call in the elements: fire, water, you know, how can the qualities of earth or air or something else, how can that support us? And in the grief tending, we certainly pull in a lot of support. So this idea that we start by building the banks of the river, we don’t just dive into our pain. We start off from a place where we’re resourced. And then there’s a kind of journey, you know, from a place of support, resource, calling in, connecting, building safety and trust. Having a form. So part of the safety of ritual having a form, even if it can flex a bit, and then something happens and whether that’s, you know, we use shrines, they’re just a place to put things. It’s a place to go and do something, you know, but a ritual might be a journey, a pilgrimage, it might be a conversation, you know, it might be sitting in circle and hearing each other. All of these things could be rituals. And then there’s an ending, you know, there’s a way out, there’s a closing down of the space. And again, you know, that, that sense that I really love, it can just be tiny, you know, it can just be putting your hand on your heart and making an affirmation or, you know, saying thank you when we eat a meal or remembering that this food came from somewhere, people work to put this food on our plate. Yeah, it can be very small and it can be big.
What are the rituals, like, what are the ceremonies, what are the processes that are going to enable us to deal with trauma around race? You know, trauma around gender, trauma around disconnection from the earth? Like how, do we do that? I feel, my sense is that we probably need more of that and to grow the skills and capacities. I think Joanna said it and others, you know, you would be crazy not to feel like we’re on the brink of collapse. You know, she called it the great unravelling. There are things that need to unravel, you know, but our ecology, our life living systems are unravelling. We can see that the climate is just part of that. So, yeah, that’s a part of me that certainly thinks that there’s huge amounts of collapse, of violence, of destruction, still to come. I don’t know how the next generation will be growing food in the world as it’s going to be in 20, 50 years. And I’m astonished at how much waking up is happening, you know, I think it’s extraordinary how rapidly we’re developing trauma healing technologies and how many people are interested in that. So both things are happening.