of or resembling a nebula or nebulae in deep space; nebular
When the lockdown is over, I will go back to the float spa. When I climb into that white pod, turn off the lights and music, and lie down to float in the warm saltwater, I will drift away into a nebulous field where there are no edges, no beginning and no end, no division between water, air and body. I will be, once again, an astronaut who’s climbed out of the spaceship and is floating in zero gravity. Sometimes, as I float into semi-consciousness, I wonder if the umbilical cord that tethers astronaut to ship is still holding me or if I’m floating in the ether alone, without it. Surprisingly, it’s never an anxious thought, just a curiosity. The floating feels good and safe and free.
My life became less and less tethered this year. I am beginning to float more. My youngest daughter graduated from high school. My oldest graduated from university. All three are perched on the edge of the nest, ready to fly off into broader spaces. They are loosening their tethers to the mothership. They make plans, they speak of new lives in new cities, for when the pandemic no longer holds them here. And in the meantime, my relationship with them shapeshifts into something new.
What happens, I wonder, to the mothership when the astronauts no longer need the tether? When they have found other people, other places in which to anchor? Does the mothership take flight too? Does she become young again, and drift off into unexplored territory, waving at her children as she passes? Or does she simply become one with the void?
My body of work is finding ways to become less tethered to me as well. A new business partner is tending to many of the threads that keep the work grounded. She waves me along as I float further and further away from the ground, into new spaces, new ideas. “Go. Explore,” she says, as I put on my spacesuit and open the spaceship door. My teaching work, too, holds me down less and less. New teachers come in behind me, they hold the space I once held, and they infuse it with new energy and new wisdom. My voice, while still needed, is now part of a chorus and no longer a solo act. I have new freedom to float into uncharted territory.
My book, too, has untethered itself from me. Like cells splitting to grow into organisms, the words that once belonged to me and were only on my screen replicated themselves thousands of times, in digital and print form, and landed in homes and hearts and classrooms and libraries all over the world. Those replicated versions pass from hand to hand without me, untethered to me, living lives of their own. They hold a memory of me, the stories of me, but grow into other things, plant seeds for new ideas, without me. Some even in languages I don’t speak. “Go. Explore,” they say, as I climb out of the spaceship door.
I wonder about this virus. Tiny. Invisible. Floating through the air from body to body. Untethered and free to roam. No umbilical cord holding it in place. If we could anthropomorphize it, give it a mind, a voice, and a purpose, what would it tell us? “I want to kill you.” Or “I want to wake you up.” Or “I want to thrive.” Probably, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m meant to do – find ways to live.”
Would it teach us how to live? Teach us how to thrive? Teach us how to be present and mindful and connected and interdependent? Would it teach us how to protect each other, to be less selfish, to work together toward a common purpose? Or would it scoff at us for the many ways we refuse to change, and the many ways we give it easy access to bodies in which to grow and pathways in which to travel?
I find myself drawn to the darkness this winter. I go for long walks on snow-covered paths, long after the sun has set, after all of the neighbours have headed indoors. I walk quiet streets and venture further and further into shadowy parks and unlit paths through the woods. The darkness feeds me, nourishes me, wakens me, grounds me.
The deer are shadowy ghosts on the frozen river, and one night a nebulous shape moves toward me through the darkness on a quiet street. Is it a dog? A large cat? I don’t see clearly until our eyes meet. It is a coyote, darting from shadow to shadow at the edge of the road, claiming the neighbourhood when the people are gone. I stand, still and breathless, and watch the trickster until he disappears into the grey at the edge of my sight. This feels like gift sent from the mothership. A thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth dissolves. But only for a moment.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I was in the Netherlands. Many late nights on ancestry.com had given me the names of the towns where my ancestors lived centuries ago. Back before the torture began and they had to flee to Germany, to Russia and then to Canada, always just a breath ahead of their oppressors. Back before they became pariahs, before the establishment declared them to be dangerous for their beliefs and the genocidal agenda began.
I stood there, on those narrow cobblestone streets in little Dutch towns, and I sensed them there with me, behind me, holding me, reminding me. Their DNA, still alive in me. Their stories, their trauma, waking up in my body after a long slumber. I wondered what it was like to be a refugee, an exile, an outcast. I wondered what it was like to lose your homeland, to become untethered from the place that once nurtured you. I wondered, and yet somehow I also knew.
When I returned home from my ancestors’ homeland, I dug for pieces of me in old boxes in my basement. Threads connecting me to my past. There, buried in the boxes, on journal pages and letters home to her mother, was the traumatized twenty-two-year-old, lonely and unprotected on her bed as the rapist climbed through the window and violated her body. I cried for her as she poured herself out onto those pages, trying to heal, trying to find wholeness, trying not to be crushed under the weight of what had been done to her. I cried for her shame, her innocence, and the poison she took into her body and tried to disgorge onto the page. I cried for the way she had never been told that her body was worthy, that sex wasn’t meant to hurt, that men didn’t get to take things from her that she didn’t want to give. I ached for the way she’d become untethered, unmoored, ungrounded.
Is she still me? Am I still her? Where are the edges between her and I? Where is the line between her trauma and my healing? Or is it all nebulous, without shape, without edges, without beginning or end? When does one give way to the other? Is there a moment when trauma loosens its hold and begins to seep out of a body that wants to heal?
I like starry nights, but my favourites, right now, are the cloudy nights when the snow-covered city is held in a pinkish-grey dome. I can walk forever on those nights, navigating the nebulous landscape, venturing into parks and woodlands that hold too much darkness on starry nights. On the unlit trails between the cathedral spires of leaf-less trees, I can’t see clearly enough to know where the path ends and the deep snow begins. I lean into trust and memory and plant one foot in front of the other, hoping my foot won’t sink deeply into untrodden snow. And sometimes, when it’s snowing and I return the way I arrived, my half-hour-old footprints are already obliterated. Was I ever there, or was it just an illusion? Do I hold enough substance to even make a mark?
I am mostly alone on my night-time pilgrimages, but one night I meet a couple carrying flashlights that lend glaring light to the ten feet in front of them but make the void beyond them even darker. I want to ask those people why they spoil the gentle darkness with the light, but I stay silent. I don’t want to spoil the gentle stillness with my voice. Instead, I carry on past them, deeper into the woods, and my eyes readjust to the darkness. Once again, I recognize the nebulous shapes around me as my sturdy and reliable friends, the trees. And sometimes a deer.
People ask me if I’m not scared, out there alone in the dark. I say “My safety was taken away from me at home, in my own bed. Out there in the woods is not where my demons live.”
I am in a new relationship now. No, not new… evolved. Shapeshifted. Once a friendship, now… more. Intimacy. Care. Intention. Listening. Exploration. Holding. Touching… but only for fleeting moments. We are hundreds of miles apart, and there is a pandemic in the gap between us, so we cancel plans to spend time together, and instead we grow a relationship in the nebulous digital spaces where there is no third dimension. Only flat video images and words on a screen. We long for more shape, less nebulousness, but the pandemic stands as a sentry at the gate, guarding the gap between us. We each stay tethered to our own cities.
What is the shape of love when bodies can’t collide? How do you become tethered when there is no touch and miles of space between you? What does this make us? What do we call ourselves?
In my basement is a large canvas. At the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and confusion and overwhelm and grief were the ingredients of the soup we were all swimming in, I threw paint at the void of that canvas and then dove in with my hands, smearing the paint around in swirls and nebulous shapes. Waves of emotion came through me as I painted, layer upon layer of paint applied only with my hands. Catharsis. Release. Deconstruction.
In the months since, that canvas calls me back, again and again. I layer on more and more paint, always obliterating whatever took shape the last time I stood in front of it. Each time I visit it, it evolves into something different than it was before. The canvas receives it all – my anger, my disappointment, my sadness, my joy, my fear, my love – and it blends it all together in swirls of colour. I am reminded that there are only blurred lines between my emotions and no single feeling speaks of only one truth.
My identity is reshaping itself in this nebulous time. Author. Business partner. I add those, like layers of paint on the canvas, to the evolving shape of who I am, who I was, and who I am becoming. I wonder if my ancestors knew, when I stood on their land at the beginning of this year, the shape of who I’d be, centuries after they died. I wonder how their identity is still alive in me, how I am tethered to them, how they witness me, if they do, from the beyond, on the other side of the thin place.
I wonder what stories DNA would tell, if we could give them voices too, like the virus. Would they sing ancestral songs of triumph and resilience? Would they chant laments in memory of the pain? Would they whisper to us, as they shape us into who we are, the secrets of the hard-won wisdom woven into them by those they shaped before us?
My son once floated in the nebulous space in my womb, tethered to the mothership, nourished through my umbilical cord. I wonder what he thought while he floated. Did he feel safe, like I do in the float tank? Did he dream of the day the cord would loosen and allow him to begin to explore the world? Or did he want to stay in there where he was safe, for as long as he could, with me?
But then, before his body had grown enough to support his journey outside of me, the membrane that held that space for him was violently torn by a doctor trying to protect him, and he was left exposed. The fluid that he’d floated in drained from my body, like a leak in the float tank. He tried to survive, and for weeks he did, but then one night, a tiny bacteria (harmless in me but dangerous in him), as tiny as the virus that is now killing thousands, entered his once-protected space and snuffed out his unborn life.
I wonder where he is now. Is he with the ancestors, on the other side of the thin place, watching, witnessing, floating? And is he telling them about the shape of me, from the inside where he once lived? I wonder what secrets his DNA whispered into my body before he floated away.
And now, perhaps something else uncovered in the shape of who I am… neurodivergent? My daughters, both diagnosed with ADHD, point toward me and say “you too, mom.” They see the patterns I don’t yet see, they point to the ways my brain works like theirs, they witness the places I fumble, forget, and get distracted. And they also see the ways I triumph, adapt and fight to thrive. They guide me into seeing myself anew. Who am I if I have ADHD? And what does it change in me if I fit into this unknown and yet familiar shape?
And there is one more layer of paint emerging in this nebulous year. Or perhaps an old layer, once submerged, now being revealed. My new relationship… it’s with a woman. She sits on the other side of my video screen, tethered to her city, separated by miles and a pandemic. Who does this make me now? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Queer? Shapeshifter? Who was I then and who am I now? Or am I simply floating in the ether, searching for a new tether that offers the safety and belonging I wasn’t sure I’d know? Does it matter what I call myself? Or her? Do I need my identity tethered to a word? (Perhaps I do, if only to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who came before and cleared the way so that I could float here now, in a safer place.)
I am finding that I want to play with words the way I play with paint on the canvas. I want to swirl them around with my hands, squish them with my fingers, blur them together, and make nebulous shapes in the chaos. After long months of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a book – and all of it into meaning, I want to remove the boxes. Remove the form. Remove even the meaning. Let the words float.
And what am I left with then, if the words flow like the paint from my hands onto blank pages? What do I hold, if there is no shape, if there are no answers, if there is no meaning, if it is all nebulous?
And perhaps this is what the pandemic offers. This nebulous space in which to float. This way of being that is less tethered to doing and completing and resolving. These long, solitary walks in shadowy places that change the shape of who we are, that blur the edges of who we encounter, that give us new identity and new connection to the spaces we’re in. This liminal landscape that allows us to transform, to shapeshift, to blur the edges, to become something new, to reclaim something old, to be reminded of who we already are.
Perhaps this is what the virus would say, if it could. “Just be.”
If you find that you, too, are being reshaped in these nebulous times, you might want to join my exploration by signing up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space.
On New Year’s Eve, I was contacted by a local radio station to do an interview on how to prepare for the new year. I didn’t get back to them soon enough, so they found someone else. Later that day, on my way to the grocery store, I happened to hear the interview with the life coach they interviewed instead, and while I was sorry to miss the interview opportunity, I realized I wasn’t quite the kind of voice they wanted to hear anyway. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to give the kinds of pithy, coach-y answers they were looking for. They wanted to hear about things like intentions or resolutions for the new year, gratitude journals, vision boards or tips for setting achievable goals.
These can all be good and helpful things, and I might have talked about them myself if I’d done the interview ten years ago, but none of them feel like they’re good enough for us anymore, especially when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and white supremacy is threatening to destroy democracy in the U.S..
Because so much of our narrative around New Year’s resolutions (and all of the trendy alternatives) are rooted in the “you are the master of your own domain” narrative that assumes we can control our own destiny – a belief that’s primarily rooted in privilege. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us how little control we have over the outcome of our year. And then (especially for those living at the margins of the dominant culture) there are all of those other things that get in the way, like systemic oppression, discrimination, abuse of power, lack of health care, poverty, etc. Yes, we have to take responsibility for our own choices and behaviour, and our plans and intentions can be valuable, but we also have to be honest about the ways in which we are part of a system that privileges some and oppresses others.
Because sometimes our “good intentions” can have harmful impact on other people, and to focus solely on individual intentions is to potentially overlook our commitment to the collective. This is another lesson of the pandemic – to make choices rooted in your individual rights and needs may have a devastating impact on people around you.
Because when we focus too much on plans and resolutions and fail to talk about how we’ll grow our resilience and adapt to change, we can set ourselves up for disappointment and distress when disruption comes.
Because many of us are just trying to survive right now, and too much talk about vision and hopes and resolutions and planning can be shaming to those who can barely get out of bed because of depression, who can barely pay the bills because the pandemic has taken away their income, who have difficulty planning because they’re neurodivergent, or who are deep in grief because the pandemic has taken away someone they love.
Because if you believe you can “manifest good things”, it’s a good sign you’ve been the beneficiary of privilege and don’t know what it’s like to be denied those good things because of your skin colour, race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, etc.
None of these things are related solely to New Year’s Eve – they’re present in all of the self-help industry and much of the coaching world. They are concepts that have been sold to us by those who know how to leverage our insecurities, our longing, our weakness, our self-doubt, and our shame. They exist because capitalism functions best when people are convinced they need more trinkets, more validation, more courses, more gurus, and more self-improvement to convince themselves of their own worthiness.
I think it’s time for the self-help industry to grow up. I think (to quote the Bible) it’s time to “put away childish things” and evolve into something that offers more meaning, more grit, and more contribution to the good of the collective.
The self-help industry is like the teenager of the personal/collective development family – it’s focused mostly on its own interests, it prefers shiny and pretty to gritty and robust, it tends to see the world (and all the people around it) as a vehicle to get its own needs met, it doesn’t like to clean up its own mess, it’s easily influenced by attractive and charismatic influencers, and it isn’t grounded or mature enough yet to withstand the manipulative forces of those spouting propaganda and conspiracy theories.
(I love teenagers, by the way, and mostly really enjoyed raising three of them. They have plenty of positive traits beyond what I mentioned above. But the fact is, nobody’s brain has fully developed in the teen years and they’re meant to continue evolving.)
What might it look like if the self-help industry grew up?
We would talk less about self-care and more about community-care. We would recognize that we are interdependent and that we have much more capacity for growth and healing when we do it together. Our bookstores would have “community-help” sections that would grow past the size of the “self-help” section.
Those with mental illness and those who are neurodivergent would be more fully integrated into our communities and wouldn’t be shamed for the ways they function differently. We would value their unique insights and we would recognize that when their needs are met and their voices are heard, it’s good for the collective and not just the individual.
We’d elevate the voices of those saying challenging and meaningful things rather than those who have the shiniest social media presence who promote aspirational but empty ideas. There would be space for those pushed to the margins by the dominant culture to be heard.
We would talk just as much about grief and trauma as we do about joy and desire. We would recognize that our lives are richer and fuller when we allow ourselves the full breadth of human experience and we’d let go of harmful ideas about how “positive thoughts attract positive things”.
We would learn to be in messy conversations with each other. We’d learn the transformational potential of conflict and we’d resist the urge to run away from it. We would listen to each other even when that meant we’d need to be confronted with our own mistakes and biases.
We’d quit trying to reach some unattainable standard of perfection and we’d give ourselves more grace for the ways we fumble and the times we need rest. We’d stop buying magazines or signing up for classes or watching movies that make us feel unworthy.
We’d wrestle with our own biases, our privilege, and our access to power and we wouldn’t assume that what we have access to is what we’ve “earned”. We wouldn’t let our fragility get in the way of our growth and contribution to the evolution of the collective.
We wouldn’t need to talk as much about worthiness anymore because we would have silenced the voices of those making money from our unworthiness. Our communities would evolve to value all kinds of contributions, so we wouldn’t have as much need to measure ourselves on arbitrary yard sticks of productivity or value.
We’d see that much of what we’ve been taught is spiritual bypassing that’s about avoiding the messiness in life and trying to transcend the pain. We’d recognize the harm done by that kind of belief system to ourselves and to the people whose pain we’ve ignored or shamed because of it.
We’d stop buying so many things in our efforts to fill the void. Instead, we’d spend time in nature, we’d rest, and we’d spend more time with people who challenge and nurture us. We’d learn from the natural world and we’d live in ways that are less destructive to the environment.
We would see that we are imbedded in systems and that personal growth is only part of what is necessary for our culture (and ourselves) to evolve. We’d recognize the need to invest in systemic change and to challenge systemic imbalances, and we’d give ourselves grace when our behaviour and choices are deeply rooted in the social conditioning we’ve received from the systems we’re part of.
Several years ago, a friend shared a graphic he’d made about his life. It was a timeline that showed the kinds of books he’d read at various stages of his life. It was particularly focused on the evolution of his spiritual life, moving from those ideas that he was fed by his family and community in his childhood, through his questioning and awakening phase, to a much more open-minded, complex, and non-dual spirituality. I appreciate what his timeline reflected – that there is a time and a place for every stage of growth and that what we explored in our younger years provided the platform for what we are ready to explore in our later years.
There’s a good chance, if you’re reading this post, that you’ve gone through a phase in your life when self-help books were valuable in helping you begin your self-discovery, healing, and personal growth work. That is certainly true for me and for most of the people I know.
But I encourage you to consider that there is a limit to how far those ideas can take you, and if you cling to them, your growth may become stunted. It would be like a toddler who refused to give up pablum for solid food. That toddler’s bones and muscles wouldn’t grow strong enough to carry them into adulthood.
It may be time to put away childish things and to look beyond the self-help industry for your next level of growth and healing.
It feels a little disingenuous to promote something at the bottom of a post in which I critique the way the self-help industry makes money, so you can feel free to ignore this next bit. However, if you’re looking for a way to go deeper in 2021, to move beyond the messages you’ve been fed by the self-help industry, you might want to sign up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space. It will challenge and stretch you while also reminding you that you are enough.
“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.
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.
Before my trip to Ethiopia in 2007, my friend and colleague Sam (who lived there and was traveling with us into some of the poorest parts of the country) recommended I read the book Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. “You will see some hard things,” he said, “and you’ll need to find ways of making meaning so that you’ll be able to cope with the way it will break your heart.”
He was right – we saw hard things. And my heart felt a little tattered. We saw poverty and food insecurity on a level that was hard for me to comprehend from my North American perspective. We also saw countless abandoned army tanks on the sides of the road, and men in remote villages carrying machine guns – evidence of the many years Ethiopia has known conflict.
But we also saw beauty and resilience, people making art and music, and people praying and dancing and worshipping God. We saw people loving their families and gathering with their neighbours. We saw people helping each other and serving their communities. Everywhere we looked, there were people shaping meaning in the midst of hardship.
I didn’t have to search for ways to make meaning – I simply had to pay attention to the ways that people were modelling it for me.
I’ve been thinking back on that time lately, partly because there is, once again, conflict brewing in the part of Ethiopia where we traveled, and partly because, in the middle of a pandemic, I see many people making meaning as a way of coping with this strange collective hardship we’re all in. Once again, I see people praying, singing, dancing, making art and music, connecting with their communities, and serving others.
Viktor Frankl, in his years in concentration camps during the Holocaust, came to the conclusion that those who best survived and thrived despite the hardships of the camps were those who found ways of making meaning out of the experience. By making meaning, they were able to claim their inner freedom and not be crushed by the inhumanity they faced.
“Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of the life we’ve lived — not whether we’ve been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger.” – Viktor Frankl
I have long been a meaning-maker, partly because I’m a storyteller and communicator who’s spent many years honing the craft of shaping stories in ways that inspire and resonate with people. (During that trip to Ethiopia, for example, I was leading a film crew that was gathering stories about the hopefulness of the food aid and food security projects our non-profit supported.) This practice of storytelling has helped me to be reflective of past events and hardships in my life, and to alchemize them from pain into gift. When I can shape something into a story and offer it to others to inspire them in similar hardships, it lessens the pain and releases the bitterness or regret that might be inherent in that memory. After my mom died, for example, I made meaning out of the grief and that meaning-making became the blog post on holding space that grew my work and expanded my community in a significant way.
Meaning-making heals me and helps me return, again and again, to hopefulness. It grows my resilience and my courage to face other hardships. It has helped me survive many hardships – like rape, stillbirth, divorce, the death of my parents, and the attempted suicides of my former husband. Instead of being crushed by the weight of those hardships, I shaped them into stories that are now at the heart of my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership.
The older I get, though, and the more I wrestle with the beliefs I hold dear – like the value of meaning-making – the more I am able to hold space for the realization that, even in the most beautiful concept, there lurks the possibility of a shadowy underbelly.
Yes, there is a shadow side to meaning-making. Perhaps multiple shadows, in fact.
For one thing, meaning-making can be a form of spiritual bypassing. If we rush too quickly to find the meaning in something, if we try to transcend the pain by choosing hopefulness and meaning, then we can rush past the deeper work we might need to do, we can gaslight ourselves into ignoring the harm that’s being done to us, and we can stuff down the hard emotions that need to be felt and released instead of stifled. (I, for example, have ignored abuse and gaslighted myself because I was striving to find meaning in it.)
Beyond simply doing harm to ourselves, spiritual bypassing like that can allow injustice and harm to continue unabated. It’s like a free hall pass for abusers. If, for example, Holocaust survivors were only focused on their own meaning-making and rushed too quickly past the injustice, then those who perpetrated the harm would not have been held accountable, the culture that allowed that harm in the first place wouldn’t have changed, and the same harm would continue to be done in the future.
There’s another shadow to meaning-making, and that’s something I see happening in the midst of this pandemic.
Unless it has healthy roots, the meaning that a person makes of a situation, that helps that person cope with it, might cause them to make bad decisions and might also be harmful to other people. Especially if that meaning is rooted in delusion or half-truths, it can put people directly at risk.
All of us are trying to make meaning of the pandemic. When there is disruption, we make meaning of that disruption in ways that help us maintain what feels important to us – our identity, our relationships, our stability, and our sanity. We search for answers from the media, from the experts, from our politicians, from our communities – whatever voices we trust to help us land on the meaning that makes the most sense.
For many, a random pandemic that can’t be traced to a particular source, that spreads across the globe in unpredictable patterns, and that causes a wide range of symptoms (or lack of symptoms) without a lot of rhyme or reason, feels far too nebulous and complex and scary. It’s hard to defend yourself against it, it’s so complicated that even the world’s best scientists are still struggling to understand it, and there’s nobody to blame for it. It just doesn’t make sense. We want things to make sense.
Especially for those with high anxiety and resistance to chaos because of the trauma of the past, it’s easier to make sense and order out of something (and therefore know how to respond to it) when you can pinpoint an enemy, when there are clear facts that you can cling to, when there’s a clear plan of attack, and when there’s an authoritarian leader who can be trusted to vanquish the enemy.
In a vacuum such as this, when there are so many unknowns and there seems to be so little meaning in all of the hardships we face, we see sometimes desperate and sometimes nefarious attempts at meaning-making bubbling to the surface. Perhaps this is the Universe giving us an opportunity to stop flying so many places so we reduce greenhouse gases. Perhaps there is an evil mastermind who created the virus as a way to frighten and control people and then inject them with tracking devices when they rush to get vaccines. Perhaps it’s tied to 5G technology. Perhaps this is a moment where a cultural reset is being called for. Perhaps there’s an evil cabal of wealthy elites who are feeding off of the blood of frightened children. Perhaps this is God’s punishment for a sinful world. Perhaps governments are colluding to take control of us by making us wear masks. Perhaps the scientists are all in cahoots and the whole pandemic is a hoax. Perhaps there is a hero or lightworker who will emerge to rescue us from this place of darkness.
On a Daily Show video clip, a Trump supporter claimed that the pandemic was created by the Democrats, so that people would be forced to stay home and use mail-in ballots, and that’s how the election was rigged.
I might not align myself with his particular meaning-making, but I can’t deny that he, too, is a meaning-maker.
Yes, meaning-making might help us cope and give us hope, and it might help us stay more calm in the face of the uncontrollable things that scare us, but it might also cause us to disconnect from reality, succumb to propaganda and manipulation, and make decisions that cause harm. When we are vulnerable and scared and disconnected from the things that give life meaning, we are more easily manipulated into attaching ourselves to beliefs and communities that give us comfort but ultimately cause harm. For those people who show up at anti-mask rallies, for example, who put other people in their communities at risk, meaning-making is more than just a shadow, it can cause direct harm.
So what do we do with all of this, then? How do we embrace meaning-making in a way that supports us, but turn away from the kind of meaning-making that causes harm? How do we recognize when meaning-making has become a form of spiritual bypassing or a coping strategy rooted in propaganda, delusion or conspiracy theories?
For one thing, it’s important to avoid rushing too quickly into meaning-making. When we rush too quickly, it’s likely because we’re avoiding the discomfort of feeling lost and not having control over the outcome. That was evident early on in the pandemic, when there was a flurry of people searching for the facts and putting out false information because of the vacuum that existed. There were a lot of people suddenly hosting gatherings and courses that felt like desperate attempts to find meaning in the disruption the pandemic caused.
For another thing, we need to surround ourselves with people who love us and aren’t afraid to challenge us when our meaning-making happens to quickly and/or slips into delusion or harmful coping strategy. We need to develop circles of trust where we can wrestle with hard questions and hold space for discomfort, so that we don’t feel as desperate to find answers.
And for a third thing, we need to develop the practices that will help ground us and resource us when we’re in the midst of the liminal space. Mindfulness practices, body practices, spiritual practices, creativity practices – all of these can be helpful in allowing the anxiety that comes with not knowing to pass through and not control us. My favourite practice right now is my #messycovidartpractice where I layer paint on a large canvas and make a mess of it with my hands. (You can find some of it on my Instagram feed.)
Most of the time, I find that meaning-making is most valuable for the time AFTER the disruption and not necessarily in the middle of it. That’s why, for example, it took me two years for me to write the blog post about holding space at my mom’s death bed. I couldn’t have written that in the midst of the deepest grief – I needed some spaciousness and time to reflect on what meaning the experience at her deathbed had left me with.
And sometimes, there IS no meaning. Sometimes things are simply random and hard and confusing and chaotic. Sometimes the meaning is simply in the resilience we grow in surviving it.
And sometimes meaning-making is like finding shapes in the clouds – it gives us some momentary pleasure, but it doesn’t change the fact that a cloud is simply a cloud and its shape will change soon after you identify it.
While we’re still in the middle of the liminal space, the best we can do is find the people and practices that help us not to give in to despair, that help us stay present and find things to laugh about, and that help us trust that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel even if we can’t see it yet.
I was driving home this morning (bringing home donuts, if you really must know), when a half-ton truck pulled up within inches of my rear bumper, impatient to pass me and trying to find an opening in the next lane to speed by me. I was going the speed limit, but as soon as I saw the truck in my rearview mirror, I second-guessed myself and wondered if I might be doing something wrong to cause his agitation. The light turned yellow in the intersection ahead of me, and I instinctively slowed down, but then my body went into panic mode and I considered rushing through the yellow light just to let Mr. Big Man in the truck get past. The law-following voice in my head battled with the keep-yourself-safe voice in my head, but I did the right thing and stopped. Behind me, I could see Mr. Big Man’s arm flailing in exasperation.
We were both in the right-turn lane. I could see that there was a no-right-turn-on-red sign, so I stayed stopped. But the keep-yourself-safe voice started clambering at me that perhaps Mr. Big Man couldn’t see the sign because my car blocked it from his view. What if he was still convinced I was making stupid driving decisions? Should I move so that he could see it better? Should I turn anyway, since there was no oncoming traffic and it wasn’t much risk? I could feel my nervous system kicking into high gear as my ears began to buzz, my throat tightened, and my brain became consumed with one thing – stay safe and do whatever needs to be done to minimize the threat. Make bad decisions if you have to but KEEP MR. BIG MAN HAPPY! Even after the light turned green and I pulled far enough ahead that he could race past me, I still felt myself in high anxiety over the fact that I had caused him distress. I would sooner find fault with MYSELF and MY actions, in the middle of that kind of crisis when my amygdala has been hijacked and I don’t have much capacity for rational thought, than blame him for impatient driving.
That last part is what always surprises me after my nervous system has recovered from an incident like that. That’s why it took me a long time to see myself in the trauma literature that talks primarily about a fight/flight/freeze response. Sure, I wanted to flee in that moment of distress, but this feels different from just fleeing. In order to calm myself down, my first reaction is to calm the abuser (or source of threat) down. And calming that person down often means completely shutting down my own needs, rights and opinions, to the point of assuming I must be at fault and am insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
When I found the research that identified a fourth trauma response (tend-and-befriend), I finally felt seen and could finally begin to name my reactivity as trauma-related and not just something that made me weak. (I could also learn to soothe myself, and to experience my heightened reactivity with more mindfulness and less self-judgment.) Tend-and-befriend is most often seen in women, according to the research. It’s the instinct that causes us to gather the vulnerable around us and to befriend those who will help us survive the threat. The “befriend” part can be a really healthy community-support piece (i.e. gathering other family members to help us protect our children), but the dark side of it is that we also tend to befriend the perpetrator of the threat in order to mitigate the harm. (Some also talk about a “fawn” reaction, but I like the added element of “tend-and-befriend”.)
Sometimes, when that threat continues because you are in a relationship with the person causing the harm, you find yourself in a trauma bond that is very hard to break away from. In a trauma bond, a person develops an attachment system with the person causing harm because that person is also a source of security (i.e. abusers convince victims that they are protecting them from even greater harm, and then gaslight them into believing they’re over-reacting to the harm and can’t survive on their own). Their nervous system is always on high alert because they never know where the threat is coming from or where/when they will be safe, and they lose capacity for rational thought. They cling to the abuser because the world outside of that relationship seems even more terrifying and unpredictable.
There’s another thing that is going on in the mind of someone who has an attachment bond to an abusive person and it has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that you feel when you try to hold two opposing views at the same time (especially when one of those views is tied to your identity). When, for example, you have to hold both the belief that “I am a good person and I make smart decisions” with “I’m choosing to stay in a relationship with an abuser”, the contradiction causes a great deal of stress because it might mean you have to change your view of yourself. In an effort to get rid of the discomfort, your mind begins to rationalize your choice by convincing you that the harm being done is minor and the good far outweighs the harm and maybe you’re just perceiving harm when it’s not really there and… isn’t the abuser a victim too and wouldn’t you be a horrible person if you abandoned a victim?
The longer you stay with a particular choice (even a self-destructive one), the harder your mind has to work to rationalize that choice in order to maintain the view you have of yourself and the harder it is for anyone else to convince you that it’s the wrong choice. To finally come to a conclusion that a choice you made a number of years ago may have caused harm to people (including yourself) is a massive disruption in your sense of self and many of us simply don’t have the emotional and psychological maturity and resources to handle that kind of uncomfortable identity crisis. It’s easier to dig in and heap more and more rationale (and additional bad decisions) on top of the reasons why you made that decision in the first place.
But at some point, you have to be held accountable for being complicit in harm. At some point, you have to come face-to-face with your own shadow. At some point, you have to take that difficult journey into your own psyche to see that you, too, may have become an abuser in your efforts to justify your choices and banish the cognitive dissonance. Or, if you simply can’t take that journey yourself and you escalate the harm you cause to avoid the dissonance, a moral culture may need to dole out consequences for your actions.
I wasn’t sure this was where I was going when I first started to write about Mr. Big Man at the intersection, but it seems to be what’s on my heart. Sometimes we make bad choices because bullies are breathing down our necks and we’re in distress. And sometimes those bad choices lead to even worse choices because we can’t handle thinking of ourselves as people who cause harm and who align ourselves with abusers and we have to justify what we did in the first place. And sometimes that means that we, too, become like Mr. Big Man, sufficiently disconnected from ourselves that we terrorize other people.