Over the past month, I had the incredible privilege to utilize one of REACH’s unique benefits; a paid four-week sabbatical where the only requirement is to focus on what I need in the moment. Sabbaticals were added to REACH’s benefits two years ago and are offered to all staff after every seven years of employment. While I often marvel at how sustained I feel working at REACH, having the opportunity to take a period of intentional rest and restoration offered a unique experience that I wish everyone had access to.
If you asked me what I was up to over the past month, my answer was always the same- “birding, photography, and spending quiet time in nature where I don’t have to talk to anyone.” The reality was so much deeper. Birding is a hobby I picked up after my wife gifted me a DSLR camera over the holidays. Learning photography has been a life-long dream of mine, and I was THRILLED to finally turn it into a reality. But we were in a pandemic, not really going places or seeing people. After a few short weeks I realized I needed to find more subjects to photograph other than my wife and dog… enter birding. During my sabbatical, I walked the trails of Audubon societies and state parks, listening to the sounds around me. In all honesty, my “deep listening” was me trying to find the birds I was attempting to photograph, but I quickly realized it had additional levels to it.
While I fumbled to learn what the many buttons and settings were for on my camera, I also accidentally stumbled into a practice of mindfulness and presence. As I got better at finding and photographing the birds around me, I learned that to do so required stillness, patience, and being intently attuned to the sounds around you. Was that rustling leaf from the wind or a snacking chickadee? Was that call I heard close enough that I would startle the bird by moving too quickly to turn around? Was that chirp actually a squirrel…? When my mind was elsewhere or I wasn’t willing to be fully present in the moment, I often lost out on opportunities to find and photograph the birds around me. In order to achieve my goal, I had to develop and hone new skills. Quiet and presence.
Although I frequently facilitate trainings on the importance of self-care and the impact trauma has on our neurobiology, taking time to intentionally be present has never been something I’ve felt particularly skilled at… or enjoyed… Confession time: more often than not, when I play a video facilitating a guided meditation or deep breathing, I don’t participate. I find myself too wrapped up in my head, anxious about whether I’ll miss something in the room if I close my eyes. Even though my work focuses on prevention, I know that every training I lead may have survivors in the room. I carry an invisible, often unacknowledged, weight of trying to foster a trauma-informed space for all the participants. When I support volunteers or community members, I hold space for them and their well-being. And while REACH as an organization strives to foster this same support for our staff, it’s hard to actually carve that space out for myself. I find myself doing it in small ways, but the cumulative toll of bearing witness to trauma, supporting supporters, listening to stories of pain and suffering, and striving to help build skills and shift our culture so that organizations like REACH no longer need to exist- that toll is real. It grows and develops so slowly, I truly didn’t notice how much space it had been taking up in my body and mind until I took the time to step away.
Spending time by myself on the trails, camera in hand, listening for the songs and sounds of nature, helped me to find a new way to cultivate presence. My sabbatical provided me a beautiful and unique space to simply be present in this moment in time and space. As I re-enter work this week, I’m finding myself reaching for those practices that became grounding tools over the past month. I am hopeful that I’ll find ways to continue their cultivation, perhaps developing deeper skills of mindfulness in more spaces than just in nature. For now, I’ll continue to hone these skills as I have time on walks and weekends, finding joy in seeing a new-to-me-bird (or a “lifer” as I’ve learned birders call them!). Having this time off to intentionally be present was an incredible opportunity. I’m so grateful that REACH’s board and leadership’s saw the promise of this unique benefit. I hope it becomes a more common opportunity for more people. At first, I was skeptical about the impact intentional rest could have. At this moment, I’m simply finding myself grateful.