Shelan Markus

‍Conversations on Trauma and Awakening: Shelan Markus

Interviewed by Hailey V. Martens
"Your trauma makes you, you. It gives you a unique perspective. Use it as your superpower."

Shelan is an art photographer and social justice advocate. She is the Executive Director of Level, a justice education and human rights non-profit, and she is the founder of City and She, a print shop of peaceful fine art photos from around the world. Shelan elevates wellbeing by merging her experiences as a lawyer and photographer. Her work at Level cultivates tools to build empathy and positively transform the justice system. Shelan established City and She to share joyful photo prints that uplift our mood and provide philanthropic support to communities and causes in need.

Learn more about Shelan and her work at cityandshe.com (@cityandshe) and leveljustice.org (@leveljustice).

Describe yourself in 3 words.

Empathetic, creative and self-critical/perfectionist.

How would those who love and respect you describe you?

Warm, a good listener, and non-judgmental. I usually see two sides and all angles of an issue. Over analytical and in my head, indecisive. Loyal and someone who’s willing to be there, in both the hard stuff and good stuff.

What helps you feel safe and grounded?

My good friends, family, partner, my dog Rumi and people who I feel want to see me reach my full potential. These people make me feel safe and grounded.

My day job centres in justice education for youth. I feel safe and grounded when I’m with other people that really want to help the youth we mentor. When I’m surrounded by other people who also want to raise the capacity of these kids, so that they can be leaders in their community and know their rights, this gives me a great sense of security and groundedness.

There’s a lot of creativity in my work as an Executive Director of a charity, which gives me a great sense of fulfillment, but I also enjoy the creativity I fulfill outside of my work which is photography. I feel a great sense of joy when I’m behind a camera or I’m editing a photo. Being creative is where I feel very safe and grounded.

So, feeling safe and grounded for me is about being given the freedom to be creative, to be myself and being around people who are striving to bring out the best in others.

How would you define trauma?

When I think about trauma, I think about an event, a time period or a feeling of discombobulation. Where things don’t make sense. This could be because of an event, or a period of time in life where you feel out of alignment with who you are or who you know yourself to be. It is traumatic when your world is turned upside down.

How has trauma contributed to your suffering?

I think the trauma I’ve had in my life has made me fearful of some situations or aspects of my life that are not necessarily scary, but in my mind I’ve made them that way. I have to fight that fear all time. Sometimes I have to learn to sit with my fear, understand it and not let it dictate my actions. My fear has also driven me forward.

My trauma caused fear around stability and around the idea of what does the perfect life look like?

What does the perfect life look like?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, there is no perfect life. It’s really what you make of it. Striving for this perfection is not necessarily going to make you any happier. You can learn to find happiness wherever you are. Nothing is ever going to be perfect; you have to embrace imperfection.

It’s about progress, not perfection. The key is being grateful for all the things that happen as you’re progressing. Not trying to change things from what they are, but trying to accept what is.

How has trauma contributed to your awakening?

Realizing that you are not just your trauma. Your trauma makes you who you are, but it does not have to define every aspect of your life. You have a choice on your perspective of life.

You can choose to decide that you’re damaged because of your trauma - or you can choose to look at your trauma, realize the impact it’s had on your life, and then make a decision about how that trauma is your superpower. Maybe you have a perspective now that other people don’t because of something hard you went though. Maybe you’re able to access that trauma when someone else is going through a hard time, and be there empathically for them.

You are not damaged goods - you just have an experience that makes you a unique human being. We all have trauma - and that’s okay.

Trauma is your superpower. The things we view as negative occurrences in our life, when we have space from them, we can look at those situations anew. We can ask ourselves: “What did I learn from that?” Being successful is nice and it feels good, but I think we can learn a lot from situations that are hard - where there is failure and difficulty. These are the situations we come out of and really look at who we are. We ask ourselves: “How did what happened to me make me who I am? How did that hard thing I went through teach me something about life and make me resilient?”

The main thing to remember is that we are not one-dimensional beings defined by our trauma. We’re multi-faceted.

How has trauma contributed to allowing you to align with your highest creative self?

I think that when you go through trauma and you end up on the other side, you realize how resilient you are. You realize what you are capable of creating.

Through my photography, one of my goals is to create art that brings calm, joy and sense of peace into peoples homes. That’s not a feeling I always had in myself or in my homelife. My trauma has made me realize that it’s possible to cultivate good feelings in the things you surround yourself with. My trauma has made me realize that sad feelings can be transformed into other feelings through the way we set up our space. My trauma has allowed me to understand that emotions pass, nothing is forever. Whether it’s a good emotion or bad emotion, every feeling passes into the next.

My photography is something that gives me a lot of joy. It takes me out of state of feeling despair or hopelessness. When I create a piece of art that uplifts others in their space, this also gives me a lot of joy.

I’m very sensitive to my space, the things I have in my home, and how those things make me feel. Essentially, trauma made me sensitive to space, to the beauty that surrounds us, and how that beauty can change the way that we feel. It is something that made me understand the unsettled feelings we have, and then how a photo, a piece of art, a sacred space can transform those feelings. Even though it’s just a photo, it can evoke emotion in us.

A good example of this is, if you’re feeling sad and want to feel better, you put on a song and it brings you out of that sad state. Photography and art are the same in that way. If we have a hard day at work, and come home back to our sacred space, our haven, however we’ve decided to set it up - I hope that my photography can help people access that state of peace.

I wouldn’t have been able to understand that transition of emotion without having gone through trauma. To know that even though you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, you can come out on the other side. There are things you can do in your life and surround yourself with, whether it’s objects or people, that can contribute towards helping you move out of a space of trauma, and into a space of safety and security.

What words of wisdom would you offer to those who are stuck in suffering that is similar to what you have been through in the past?

There is one constant in life: change. We are constantly adapting. I would say to people feeling stuck in suffering: there’s still hope and you have the power within you to access that hope and what gives you joy. Your trauma makes you, you. It gives you a unique perspective. Use it as your superpower.

Gary Zukav, in the Seat of the Soul, talks about making choices out of love instead of fear. This has had a big impact on relieving myself of suffering. He says to set your intention to everything you can to choose love with every interaction you have, every choice you make. He reminds us to just be gentle with ourselves.

We have to work with the cards we’re dealt. Everyone has their own trauma and their own difficulties in life. I’m listening to a meditation series on getting unstuck, by Oprah and Deepak. What has been helpful to me in realizing how to get unstuck, is paying attention to what gives me joy in my life. What are the things you do where you really feel like yourself? I feel like that’s how you get unstuck. By paying attention to what those things are, and doing more of that.

Another thing with getting unstuck, is maintaining an awareness of life. Don’t go through your life on auto-pilot. Be aware of how you feel. Be aware of how other people feel. Let that guide you. Our feelings are what guide us, so you have to listen to your feelings in order to make decisions that are right for you, and potentially move past a situation where you feel stuck.

Getting the new house, the car, the degree, that’s not necessarily going to help you get unstuck. It’s a feeling within yourself. I do believe that every single person can get unstuck. I don’t think that some people are better or more lucky. I think we all have the capability to get unstuck.

I’m not successful at being unstuck all the time. I don’t think you get unstuck and then you’re unstuck for the rest of your life. You go through periods where you feel it and get out of it, and it repeats. Some of our problems will follow us, but the hope is to continually work on ourselves. To spiral up, not down.

In those moments where you feel unstuck and feel the most like yourself, like “This is who I am,” thats where I personally feel like my anxiety is at a zero. It’s like being in this state of full potentiality, creativity, and hope. Pay attention to those moments when they happen. Try to replicate them.

If you go through life constantly distracted or doing things that don’t allow you to pause, you’ll never maintain awareness of your states of joy.

I think that awareness is a big part of getting unstuck. Taking time for yourself and being present. The autopilot, the distractions, they pull us out of the moment and that’s what maintains feelings of despair, hopelessness, stuckness and thinking "I’ve got no way out.”

Getting unstuck is the opposite of that. It is hope and realizing that there are endless possibilities. I can create whatever I want.

City and She print: Cali (Venice Beach)