Lolly Bee has a lot on her plate. At this moment, she’s probably live-streaming to her Facebook group of 17,000 people while making a phone call to another medic and simultaneously texting fellow mental health personnel at Standing Rock. In spite of constant chaos, Lolly retains an air of constant care and energy. She carved some time out her day to talk about how exactly she ended up as an essential part of the water protectors’ medical and mental health operations.
Lolly’s path had not always led clearly to a movement so spiritual as Standing Rock. She grew up with no spiritual presence in her life. Spirituality, in fact, “was sort of presented as something we have evolved beyond.” But as a junior in college Lolly went to India, where many good stories about spirituality begin. Lolly went to do public health work in New Delhi, but while there she met a man who, she says, “knew things about me that were impossible for him to have known.” Having been raised in a secular household, that experience “created cognitive dissonance” in her thinking about the world. The man she had met was not exactly working in the secular, scientific tradition many of us are used to.
After some time telling friends about the experience and listening to those friends try to explain away the phenomenon, Lolly decided “it didn’t really matter how he knew or if it was real or not because what he had said was really helpful for my life.” And so she began to see a new possibility: “the possibility that there are things beyond what I had been taught was real and possible.” That experience opened a door to Yoga and to using yoga as a way to explore Vedic philosophy. In learning new spiritual practices, Lolly ended up having to “do a lot of unlearning.” Eventually she also started looking at shamanism, and indigenous American shamanism in particular. Having already earned two degrees in sociology and social work, Lolly began to tie yoga and shamanism into the psychological practice she had studied for years.
The common ground Lolly found between shamanism and western psychology was “the idea of psychic reality.” Shamanism accepts that there is another realm of reality—one outside of the physical one we know and touch—and shamanistic practices place enormous importance on this other realm. That other realm is the realm of our imaginations. A shaman would consider the world of the imagination to be “equally important to the work” between a spiritual guide and a patient.
Lolly recounted working with victims of domestic violence and patients who suffered from PTSD: “In those situations, what mattered was not what happened, but that person’s perception of what had happened. And in order to help someone reach a point of healing, you had to go into their reality and do the healing there.” And shamanism, she says, “accepted this other dimension of reality as equally real.” A psychiatric practice like role playing, then, becomes incredibly powerful. A traumatized patient could heal as much in an imagined conversation as they would in an actual conversation.
Yoga comes into the practice as a means of “altering states of consciousness.” The conventional psychological cures—the talking cure and the pill cure—largely ignore the body and how deeply grounded the mind is in the body. So if a patient has been “telling their story and reliving trauma all day” (as one does in much social work), they would be “in a different mindset than if they do some yoga.” Yoga can calm a traumatized mind, so that “when they’re in that altered state of consciousness, it’s a lot easier for them to go into that imaginative plane of reality.” Lolly has found that yoga fosters a mindset in which patients can more easily see themselves in the situation that they need to sort through. And once they can see themselves in that place more clearly, she says, “it’s easier to heal from that place.”
Lolly has also used yoga as a healing tool when the conventional practice of working through a traumatic experience is impossible or unhelpful. While teaching yoga in Uganda, Lolly met “women who had been interviewed so many times and had told these awful traumatic stories so many times that I was appalled.” So instead of having them tell those stories one more time, she offered “a practice of stretching and breathing where I don’t need to know what happened…because it’s irrelevant.” Lolly found a way to work as a kind of therapist—that is, she helped heal people from symptoms of trauma—without even speaking the same language.
At Standing Rock, people often come back from jail having been humiliated and locked in cages. They come back from the frontlines having been pepper sprayed and screamed at by scores of heavily armed police officers. As you might expect, traumatic experiences abound. So Lolly has put her integrative practice to work. She has been consoling people and listening to their stories for months now. She set up a mental health teepee just a few days ago. She’s become so well known that while sitting in a nearby hotel writing this article, I heard a stranger talking about her and how, “it’s like people just talk to her and then they’re like totally rejuvenated.”
At some point in our conversation I remarked that she herself must get worn down from vicariously handling so much trauma (not to mention the trauma of being chased through a field by police, which she’s experienced first-hand). I wondered how Lolly herself healed from all that trauma, and her first answer was “sleep, theoretically.” But in practice, her own healing method is the same one she employs with others: “sharing those painful stories.” Though it might be heavy, she says, “it’s also healing to be with one another and share that pain and anger. She recalled someone who said that “what’s wrong with the world is the lack of acknowledgment of spirit.” We’ve created a world in which we rarely acknowledge each other’s prayers, each other’s vulnerabilities and pains.
Luckily, Lolly has been changing that reality at Standing Rock. Lolly’s way of working through trauma—sharing spirit and pains—is embedded in the camp as a whole. The centrality of spirit is, in fact, how Lolly thinks the water protectors will triumph over the pipeline. Lolly’s favorite metaphor for how and why the protectors will triumph through prayer is, “how an eagle kills a snake: On the ground a snake is quick, dangerous, powerful and poisonous. But an eagle picks a snake up into the sky and totally incapacitates it. It can’t do anything. And then the eagle just drops it, and the snake is dead. So by elevating this stand into the dimension of prayer, the police have no idea what to do.” When people get violent and angry, as they occasionally do, the police are prepared. That is what they were trained for, and there’s no way the water protectors could win by force anyway. But, as Lolly says, “They can put their walls up if we curse at them, but if we’re just praying for them, there’s no defense.”