From Healing to Flourishing: inVIVO 2021 Highlights

As we closed out the tumultuous year that was 2021, it was truly a joy for the Nova Institute to co-sponsor inVIVO Planetary Health’s 10th annual conference, and the theme of “From Healing to Flourishing” couldn’t have felt more timely. Held virtually for the second time, the gathering treated participants to more than 160 inspiring talks from scholars, artists, activists, scientists, researchers, health professionals, children, and more (see the program and bios here)

Presenters spanned disciplines — and the globe itself — as they explored health and flourishing along every link in the person, place, and planet continuum. Nine roughly two-hour sessions centered around different focus areas featuring short, engaging video presentations, with participants and presenters alike engaging in “live” meaningful discussion at the end. 

Through monthly blog posts, starting with this one, we invite you to “dip your toes” into the richness of the inVIVO conference as we present some highlights (note: with so many terrific presentations, it wasn’t easy to choose which ones to feature!).

We begin first with a short introduction to the conference that blends visuals and ideas to convey the urgency of our need to work together to make a cultural shift, and how, in an era of so many interconnected challenges, there could not be a more important time for new narratives and ambitious, integrative approaches.

Next, Nova Scholar Susan Prescott, President and Director of inVIVO, sets the stage for the conference through “Foundations for Flourishing,” discussing how collaborations like this event provide connections to heal, as well as imagining new ways of being and the importance of making connections to art — and even talking about “love” (a concept you’ll hear about more than once at the conference).

Internationally renowned thought leader, strategist, policymaker, and environmental justice activist Mustafa Santiago Ali delivers a powerful keynote address in “Changing the Climate from Surviving to Thriving.” Ali says in this transformational moment, we have the opportunity to learn from the past and create foundational, systemic change as we move forward together. 

Cairo University’s Mona El-Sherbini takes a trip around the world to share the investigative work of the Africa Community of Planetary Partners for Health & Environment (ACOPPHE) in “A Planetary Health Perspective on Traditional Medicine.” 

ACOPPHE examines and promotes African and Latin American indigenous knowledge, while calling for action about the impact of climate change on the biodiversity essential for herbal medicine. They hope to increase science translation for the “decolonization of knowledge and demarginalization of traditional medicine.”

In “As Within, So Without,” Blake Poland from the University of Toronto re-frames sustainability as a relationship problem and posits that perhaps our climate crisis can’t be solved through technology, political will, or imagination alone. As is true for improving any relationship (even in parenting!), addressing sustainability may also require a “change of heart,” and fixing the world “out there” requires us to do the necessary inner work. 

Heeding a call to action, outspoken advocate of treaty and aboriginal rights and Dene Elder Francois Paulette shares an impassioned call to attendees to “Rise!” together to save the planet, with his powerful message intertwined with gorgeous images from photographer Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon.

If you enjoyed these video highlights and are ready to “jump in,” we encourage you to become a member of inVIVO and view the full recordings of the 2021 and 2020 conferences. 

Stay tuned for next month’s blog post, where we’ll share presentations around the journey from health care to health. 

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.