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An exploration of the HHC model with Sophy Banks

We speak with facilitator and teacher Sophy Banks about what makes a human culture healthy and resilient. Sophy has been a trainer for over 20 years, she has worked as an engineer, information systems consultant and psychotherapist and participated in numerous grassroots community work. 

What inspired your development of the Healthy Human Cultures model?

I have always wanted to understand why humans create unintended consequences. Why do we create so much suffering, for ourselves, other people and other life forms? Why are we destroying the living web we depend on, and why is it so hard to stop?

I wanted to connect bits of answers I had come across – about societal systems of oppression and domination, or partnership and respect; about the human – beyond human relationship; the unconscious and how it governs our behaviour beyond our awareness; about trauma, stress and nervous systems. I felt each of these had something to offer, but there wasn’t anything that put them all on one map.

What are healthy human cultures?

I like to start by saying – “This is not the truth”. From the culture I grew up in I think it’s very hard to even know what healthy culture feels or looks like. But it’s a vital question to ask.

I think a more healthy culture is one where people are thriving – where people are living in ways that feel generally happy and peaceful, and feel able to cope with the changes, challenges and griefs that life brings. I’ve suggested five basic qualities that support this state, which we might experience individually and as families or communities.

I/we feel:

Safe

Connected

Valued

Empowered

Resourced

There could be other words that are more meaningful for you.

What principles or practices help a culture to be healthy?

I believe that in healthy cultures people spend much of their time in nervous system states which are generally relaxed – moving between action and rest without fear. I call this a ground state. There are times of stretch or stress, learning, growth, challenges, and a return to relaxation. Stephen Porges, the originator of the Polyvagal theory of the nervous system states, points out that cultures living mostly in these states would have an evolutionary advantage, as it’s very energy efficient as well as being beneficial for the immune system.

Healthy cultures have founding principles that value and support both strength and softness; will and love, movement and stillness. This might be embedded in routines for the day, seasons, projects or activities. Valuing the stillness and Dreamtime of winter as well as the activity of summer in a temperate country; honouring the cycle from birth through growth to ageing and death. It might be a medicine wheel, a community set of rhythms with time for solitude, for community activities, for work and rest, for shared grief as well as celebration.

When threatening situations arise, healthy cultures have social technologies which bring them back to this ground state. These enable the discharge of residual physical, emotional and mental stress from such experiences. In modern societies, we have an increasing understanding of healing individual and collective trauma through processes that involve body, feelings and mind. Many traditional cultures had ceremonies and rituals which might include music, dance, drumming, enactment, calling on the beyond human, loving touch and more. 

Shaking, moving, expressing, discharging together would help release the tensions of everyday life as well as any extreme stressful experiences. I have called these processes of metabolising stress “Return Paths” – and suggest that these are an essential element to prevent residual stress states from being increasingly present and eventually distorting our perceptions and beliefs about what being human really means.

I have found it helpful to name trauma as an overwhelming event followed by the failure of the Return Path. Then we see that trauma is not located in the individual, but in the cultural landscape, in the absence of systems to repair the injury to well being. Trauma is a cultural, not an individual issue.

What are some examples of where you have seen people use this model in a transformative way?

I offer Grief tending spaces where people can both be witnessed in their strong grief, and be the supportive circle that holds others. I’ve found this to be a revelation to many people – that can be both the one falling down with grief and a few minutes later, the support for the next person. It starts to dissolve the roles of therapist and client, of being either the person with a problem or the expert who doesn’t have problems. Now the pain we carry becomes something that knits us together as humans, that helps us to open our hearts and feel powerful compassion for others. Instead of it being something to get over or get rid of we may find that our sorrow, rage, fear, shame or numbness is something that has beauty, meaning and teaches us profound things about being human. 

And expressing it together opens the way to lightness and laughter.

I used the principle of creating feedback loops early on in the Transition movement inviting a burnout check at the second meeting of our local Transition core group. When we realised that everyone felt they could go on at current energy levels for only a few months we took a strategic decision to seek funding for paid support, which transformed the project. We also put in place many forms of personal and shared support. There was very little burnout in this very energetic and successful project.

I’ve heard people who have learnt the healthy human culture model say they have used it in facilitation settings, to help groups achieve their goals more effectively; in one to one settings, enabling them to provide a return path for a friend or relative who is in shock or grief; by building return paths for repairing harm to relationships into the culture of a group or project.

How might the Healthy Human Cultures Model help us to think in a new way about peacemaking and reconciliation work?

I’m not sure that any of this would be new – I imagine people working in these fields already have much of the knowledge that HHC offers. Here’s some of what might be helpful:

When we create a group, project or community, HHC encourages culture which enhances the 5 positive states listed above. If we feel safe, connected, valued, empowered and resourced we will hear other perspectives, learn new information, try out new ways, much more easily than if we feel alone, threatened, disempowered or unvalued. Building in practices of celebration, appreciation, gratitude, deep listening, valuing all voices and perspectives, awareness of self and other, apology and reparation, and so on, strengthens helps create trust from which we can create the best chance of addressing conflict.

Spaces in which we can hear and make meaning of the pain in the system would also be a key form of conflict prevention. When issues are addressed early they are less likely to flare up into conflict – which is often a last-ditch attempt to get something heard. This might be restorative circles, community spaces for reflecting together, or something else. I believe Ceilidhs in Scotland used to serve this purpose – a space for a community to gather and hear, discuss, and make decisions together.

If we find ourselves in a conflict, then understanding how human physiology underpins our states of consciousness is vital knowledge. The autonomous nervous system is constantly monitoring safety, and making decisions about what is noticed, how it is interpreted and how to behave as a result. Our strategies may be in response to past situations – including withdrawing, getting aggressive, giving away our own needs to appease others, disassociating, and more. Because conflict usually involves a significant feeling of threat, states of flight/fight or freeze may be very close even before a peacemaking process begins.

The most significant thing is that this happens out of our conscious awareness. When we bring inner awareness into our peacemaking process so that we stay out of emergency stress states, we have a much better chance of creating understanding and healing or resolution.

Mishal Baig

Research Intern