On rest and being part of a pack: looking to coyote

Humans are like coyotes. Coyotes are like humans. We have both learned how to survive as part of a pack and as a lone individual. We are both able to move back and forth between sharing power with members of a group and navigating the world alone. Coyotes and humans do this without diminishing our ability to survive. This is not true for all mammals. Most of us mammals are more heavily conditioned for one or the other. This means that, in moments of crisis, most mammals either depend on pack or go out on their own. They can’t switch back and forth. Coyotes have also figured out, like raccoons and foxes and deer, how to thrive among the chaotic disruption of human urbanization and change. Coyotes are cool.

So we are like coyotes. We are ok with a group and we are ok alone. Not ok as in how it feels, ok as in able to survive. We make instinctive choices based on the context around us. We make choices based on what we have been taught or experienced that makes us lean more towards connection with others or look for our own way.

While we can survive in both ways, they are not mix or match. Our ancestors were wiser than that. They shared forward a range of strategies to survive and thrive that work best in different situations. Because they practiced this over and over again, it became instinct. And we are each born with these instincts, curled up in our cells and waiting to unfurl. As we grow up, those instincts can get over-ridden by culture or by violence or by a host of other things. Over-ridden does not mean disappeared. The instincts are still there, a gift from all those relatives who lived before. Healing, coming home, coming more deeply into our connected lives, helps those instincts sit up and pay attention again. Coyotes, like humans, when under great stress and overwhelm, will leave their pack and scatter across the land as lone individuals or in pairs. Like coyote, in moments of high stress, we can scatter from the collective. Go it on our own. And in these moments of crisis and high intensity, if there is no one else around, our bodies will still work, our brains will still think, and we have the capacity to find our way through impossible times. On the other side of impossible times is the possibility of rest. This is not the best way to survive…. except when it is the best way to survive.

To survive means to rest. We share the instinct to rest with pretty much every living thing. To rest is to not act. To not think, move, protect, forage, find, fight, flee, or even massively feel. To rest is to let other important systems, like the glial system, come on line and clear away the excess that makes our brain weary, our thoughts feel stagnant. When we are truly deeply hurt, resting can mean being able to crawl away into someplace warm and safe, a burrow, the womb, and rest, with minimal stimulation, so that our bodies can focus attention on healing. Lizards and snakes do this. They lower their body temperatures so that they can lie dormant, not needing much food or water until they are well. Days, weeks, sometimes months. Then they wake up again and move out into the world. Us warm bloods can’t do this on our own, no matter how well we are hidden. We need others around us so that we can rest. We need fuel to keep going, even when we slow down, even when we are mostly sleeping…. Or weeping. When we are overwhelmed and licking our wounds, we need someone to watch over us so that we can rest, so that we can eat and take a shit and come back to rest again. To be fully vulnerable, life-vulnerable, we have to connect to someone else, preferably more than one with a few spares. This is why we evolved packs.

We need a pack when we have young ones among us, when we have elders among us, when we have any body that is somewhat dependent for its own survival. A pack exists to circle up and protect, to share the care and watching of each other. It lets us be vulnerable in ways that are difficult when we are on our own. 800,000 years of evolution have winnowed out the survival possibilities and ended up pretty clear: most of the time it is best to not go it alone.

In my practice, as well as in my life, I know many many people who have been deeply harmed by their packs; who are figuring out, on their own, how to feel alive again. They are hungry for pack. They want that burrow and they want to be curled up, safe and resting, in the back. One of my friends and mentors, a somatics practitioner, has said for years that she wants to hold an open space where people of color, where queers and transfolk, where those who have experienced significant violence, where those who still experience violence can come and just rest. Together. Supported rest, with all of the cushions and blankets and gentle teachings that help a high end nervous system start to unwind back into gravity. Like all things body-based, we can only learn these things by practicing them. There is nothing abstract about rest. It is physical. We can’t understand our way to it.*

Like us, coyote is a predator. Like many of us, coyote is a predator with other predators impacting her liberation. Coyote is all about shift and change. Coyotes have shifted and changed their sleeping habits in order to navigate around human cycles. Coyote mostly sleeps during the day, looking for hidden places to rest. Sometimes, when few other predators are around, coyote will sleep in more open spaces like high grasses or the shadows under a tree. Coyote rests every time there is a chance, going into deep sleep for small periods and then waking up to sense the air before going into deep sleep again. Coyote rests and coyote community is increasing.

Since the early 19th century, sometimes US federal and often US cultural policy has looked towards the extermination of coyote. In the 1930s, the US government paid $10 million to something called the Eradication Methods Library to come up with new kinds of poison and new killing methods, all focused on disappearing coyote. Even today, around half a million coyotes are killed each year, many shot to death by ranchers from small planes and helicopters. Yet the coyote survives. The coyote thrives. In the early 19th century, coyote only lived west of the Rockies. Now coyote lives from sea to shining sea. There are coyotes in New York, in Boston, in Chicago, in Atlanta, in Minneapolis. Coyotes are increasing.

Coyotes, like humans, can shift and change how they sleep, how they eat, if they travel alone or together, in order to survive. They remake themselves, surviving attempted genocide, surviving the destruction and recreation of their habitat, surviving the winnowing down of competitive predators to, most of the time, us and them. Here is what comes first: the protection of pack and the right to go solo when that is the best chance of survival. Here is what comes first: finding new corners and spaces where there is rest amidst the chaos of city cars and daytime drama.

After 17 years of a bodywork practice, what I notice most of all is that the bodies that come to me are more tired. More deeply tired. I talk with bodyworkers who have been in practice for 30 or 40 years and they reflect that way back when, people came to see them and things moved faster, changes and shifts went in deeper and lasted longer. They say the same thing: people are more tired now, more tired. This is a through line that weaves across gender, class, culture, race, and other kinds of life experience. This is a through line, this line of exhaustion, of too much getting too much-er.

Who is your pack? Who is the person, who are the people, who are the trees and the rivers that, when they are nearby, help you to rest? How do you center rest, for yourself and your people, as one of the ways to hang out? Not doing, not working, not creating or making or moving or shaking, but resting, resting, resting? I am writing this piece, not because I have already learned how to do it, but because I have to learn how to do it. Like all things body-based, we can only learn these things by practicing them. There is nothing abstract about rest. It is physical. We can’t understand our way to it.

Rest is not about rest, it is about the context that surrounds rest. It is about state violence and the culture of surveillance, about the amount of hours you have to work to pay rent or chip away at your mortgage. Rest is about how unfinished histories hide behind our eyelids and the fact that healthcare usually means the opposite of rest. We need packs. We can not rest alone. What is most important, it’s why we are here, is this: we are here because we take turns.

We take turns. Like coyote, we find different places to sleep, alone, together.

Who is your pack who keeps watch while you shut your eyes?

And now rest.

And then watch the door, watch the clock, watch the kids, get the food, make the food, so that someone else can shut their eyes, too.

  • Thank you to the Nap Ministry who is preaching the gospel of rest, naming it as a form of resistance.

Thinking about the healing in justice and the justice in healing. www.susanraffo.com

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