photo credit: Greg Rakozy, Unsplash

“Is there empirical evidence that backs up your holding space concepts?”

I’ve heard some version of this question a few times in recent months. Sometimes it comes from people who are simply curious, sometimes they want to include my work in an academic paper and need to be able to prove its merit to their academic advisors, and sometimes they’re a little suspicious of what I teach and want to know if they can trust it. 

I understand and appreciate the question. I value the rigor of science and research and believe it’s important to do due diligence when we’re presenting ideas that might challenge our behaviour or disrupt our communities. I’ve spent a lot of time digging into research papers and quantitative studies over the years, and have always been deeply appreciative of those who make it their life’s work to design good research projects that give us important information about ourselves and the world we live in. 

The answer to their question, though, is no. There have been no academic researchers who have applied the rigor of scientific methodology to my work. Perhaps someday there will be (and there is at least one study in Australia that has done some research about the value of holding space for new moms that’s not directly related to my work), but for now, it is rooted in my observation, my own years of study and teaching and research, and my capacity for meaning-making and storytelling. Scientific research is not my particular area of expertise – I am a teacher, storyteller, wisdom-seeker, idea-synthesizer, and sometimes poet.

The purpose of this post, though, is less about defending my expertise and more about interrogating something that I believe is, at least some of the time, underneath that line of questioning. It’s about whether or not we can only trust a scientific way of knowing. 

Is a concept only worth believing in and pursuing if it’s been proven by an academically rigorous research process? Is that the gold standard of our “knowing”? And if that is the gold standard, then what kind of wisdom are we missing because of it? Do we treat the wisdom of the storytellers, poets, artists, philosophers, mystics, culture-watchers and edgewalkers as only second rate? 

One of my greatest sources of inspiration in navigating this question recently has been Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss. She’s a professor with a PhD in plant ecology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In addition to her scientific training, she is deeply rooted in Indigenous spirituality and plant knowledge, and she has the heart of a poet. In her books, she weaves the scientific way of understanding plants and the natural world with a more spiritual and intuitive Indigenous way of knowing. 

“Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. I came to understand quite sharply when I began my training as a scientist that science privileges only one, possibly two, of those ways of knowing: mind and body. As a young person wanting to know everything about plants, I did not question this. But it is a whole human being who finds the beautiful path.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer

In a recent interview, Robin Wall Kimmerer talked about the journey she had to take to get to the place where she felt confident enough to trust in her Indigenous way of knowing and was able to hold it alongside the scientific way she was being trained in within the academic system. With time, she developed the “language of resistance” to push back against those academics who were dismissive and she now weaves all ways of knowing into her work.

There’s a deep resonance for me in this integrated way of knowing that honours mind, body, emotion, and spirit. It adds so many layers of richness to our knowledge and our inquiries into the world and into humanity. It allows space for the poets, the mystics, the storytellers, and the Indigenous wisdom keepers alongside the academics and the scientists. It’s like looking at the earth from all sides and recognizing that it is multi-dimensional instead of flat.  

Not only should we weave other ways of knowing into our collective consciousness, we should also recognize that those people rooted in what we think of as “alternative” ways of knowing are often the forerunners and explorers, leading the way into new territory that the scientists and academics have not yet entered. Poets and storytellers and philosophers have a certain way of seeing the culture and the natural world in ways that many academics do not and they’re able to shine lights into new places and witness the emergence of new ideas and trends. Scientists should, in fact, be grateful for their vision and be willing to follow behind with the relevant research, when it adds to the knowledge. 


In the last chapter of my book, I talked about my conversations with my friend TuBears, a shaman and elder of the Choctaw nation. She offered me a unique perspective on holding space, one that she’d learned from her many years of attending sun dances, hosting vision quests, and being in ceremony. I had tried in vain to find the original source of the term “holding space” (to honour the lineage), but TuBears suggested that perhaps there is no one source. Perhaps there is only universal Source. 

TuBears started using the term “holding space” years ago, before anyone taught it to her, and she believes that it simply came to her because it is rooted in an Indigenous way of knowing. Together we surmised that the concept of holding space is being awakened in many people all over the world (myself included) simultaneously because it is badly needed in the world right now. If we block it because it doesn’t fit the kind of wisdom that’s acceptable to the dominant culture, then we miss an opportunity for meaningful cultural shift and healing.

I wonder what might change if we brought a more holistic wisdom perspective like what TuBears offered me into our education systems. What if we trained our kindergarten teachers in mysticism as well as academics and they transformed their classrooms and lessons accordingly? What if we taught elementary students how to spend time in nature, how to be in ceremony, and how to talk to plants? What if our high school students all had to spend at least one week a year immersed in the spiritual teachings of their indigenous cultures? What if we wove emotional and relational education (and holding space) into our academic education all the way through university?

Perhaps if we did, we would find ourselves moving in greater rhythm with the natural world. Perhaps then we would no longer treat the land and all that grows on it as “resources” but as “kin”, as Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches. Perhaps we would also know how to build healthier communities where nobody would be marginalized and even the most vulnerable and least “productive” would be highly valued. Perhaps we would consume less and love more.

In the midst of this pandemic, I find myself looking for this more expansive, more holistic lens on the experience we are in globally. While science is crucial in helping us cope with a deadly pandemic, and I am grateful for the many researchers pouring their time and energy into this, I also want to know what the poets are saying about how the pandemic is changing us. I want to hear from the storytellers and philosophers about what is being revealed in our culture. I want to sit with the wisdom of the mystics as they guide us in a spiritual inquiry into how this virus is interacting with the world. I want to hear from the shamans and Indigenous elders and artists. I want to sit at the feet of wisdom-weavers like Bayo Akomolafe or those who gather around Science and Nonduality. Surely there is greater wisdom available to us than what we hear from the most prominent voices in our media streams.


Last night, after spending a full day writing, I closed my computer at the end of the last paragraph and went for a walk. It was one of those beautiful winter evenings, when the low cloud cover reflects back some of the light of the city, and the snow has a pinkish, mystical glow. To get away from the lights and noise of the street, I walked down to the riverbank not far from my house. There isn’t a well-trodden path down to the river, just a deer trail through the tall grass and shrubbery, and I had to climb over dead trees to get to the edge of the frozen river. It was worth it, though, for stillness in that liminal space between land and ice.

Across the river, I spotted some movement, and realized that I was being graced with the rare presence of a coyote as it dashed along the frozen river. As it ran past me, it spotted my movement and paused for a moment while we stared at each other. I stood there in awe, in one of those “thin places” that the Celts talk about, where the gap between the transcendent and the commonplace is especially narrow. Nothing else in the world mattered in that moment but me, the frozen river, and the coyote.

I was reminded, as I stood there, of what Richard Rohr writes about in The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, about seeing a sunset as the mystic sees it:

One man saw the immense physical beauty and enjoyed the event in itself. This man was the “sensate” type who, like 80 percent of the world, deals with what he can see, feel, touch, move, and fix. This was enough reality for him, for he had little interest in larger ideas, intuitions, or the grand scheme of things. He saw with his first eye, which was good.

A second man saw the sunset. He enjoyed all the beauty that the first man did. Like all lovers of coherent thought, technology, and science, he also enjoyed his power to make sense of the universe and explain what he discovered. He thought about the cyclical rotations of planets and stars. Through imagination, intuition, and reason, he saw with his second eye, which was even better.

The third man saw the sunset, knowing and enjoying all that the first and the second men did. But in his ability to progress from seeing to explaining to “tasting,” he also remained in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else. He used his third eye, which is the full goal of all seeing and all knowing. This was the best.

That third eye way of seeing has always been present for me, for as long as I can remember. More than once, in my youth, I remember trying to describe how it could move me to tears to watch the grace with which a deer jumped over a fence. The people I was talking to looked completely puzzled, not understanding how that could have been so meaningful to me. There might have even been one or two dismissive comments like “what have you been smoking lately?” Those people had likely never seen with their third eyes.

After enough of those puzzled looks and comments, one learns not to speak too much about that other way of knowing, or the third eye way of seeing. Deep down, though, I always trusted it and knew that I could return to it, even when I spent years keeping it hidden so as to make myself more acceptable in corporate, academic, or religious environments. 

One learns a myriad of ways of hiding one’s third eye.

Like Robin Wall Kimmerer, though, I have developed the “language of resistance” over the years, and have found enough grounding, support and confidence that even those with puzzled looks, ridicule, or suspicion can cause little more than a glimmer of self-consciousness in me now.  

The beauty of finally living with your third eye exposed, after years of trying to hide it, is that you have an easier time finding others who also see with their third eyes. And when you spot each other, there is a look of recognition and familiarity that passes between you because you know that this is another person who has stood in thin places.

Right now, in this complex time with multi-layered challenges coming our way, more of us need to find the courage to uncover our third eyes and speak from our other ways of knowing. There is no one way of knowing that will see us through this shadowy time. We need to gather all ways of knowing.

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