I had high hopes for what this season of my life would be. Back in late 2019, when I settled on September 29th as the date my book would be launched into the world, I was imagining myself heading out on an extensive trip, connecting with my friends and readers around the world. I wanted to fly to Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands to spend time with the many people I’ve met there in the last few years, people who helped me shape the ideas in the book. I even contemplated getting a camper van and setting out for a long road trip, crisscrossing North America.
Back then I thought the timing was PERFECT – my youngest daughter would have graduated from high school, likely one or two of my daughters would have moved out, and I would be much less needed on the homefront. I could go away for more extended periods than I have in the past.
But, alas. COVID-19 hit. And here I am, at home, spending endless hours on Zoom instead of hugging the people I want to hug and passing my book from my hand to theirs.
Not only am I stuck at home, but all three of my daughters are here too. This year, all four of us will be working or studying from home (even though one is going to university halfway across the country). Our house isn’t very big! We’re having to get creative about finding spaces for everyone to work. (If you follow me on social media, you might have seen the desks I built for them.) We’re hoping we still like each other in a year.
I’ve been feeling some grief about the loss of my book tour. At first, the grief simply felt like inertia – I just couldn’t motivate myself to plan a book launch on Zoom when I’ve already spent more time on Zoom this year than most people will do in a lifetime. And then I recognized it for what it was – grief.
I had to process that grief, and one of the ways I did that was to get out my power tools, buy some wood, and build things.
Something occurred to me while I was building… Sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger. Sometimes you have to contract before you expand.
I was reminded of the time, almost exactly eight years ago, just before my mom died. It was August and I’d flown to Ontario to co-host a fairly large gathering. I was excited about the opportunity and it felt like it was the beginning of bigger and bigger work for me. I was ready for my work to grow and my circles to expand. Then, like now, the timing felt perfect for expansion.
But then, while I was in Ontario preparing for the event, I got a call from Mom. She’d seen her oncologist. The cancer was back and was too far progressed for any more treatment. The best she could hope for would be six months to a year of life.
At that gathering, it was suddenly clear that, though I was ready for expansion, what would be needed instead would be contraction. Instead of hosting bigger circles, I would need to spend the next few months in a very small circle – sitting with my mom in her last days of life.
That’s exactly how it turned out. For the next three months, my work nearly ground to a halt. I was still teaching a class at university, but other than that, my business was barely growing. Instead, I spent much more time than usual with mom. Yes, there was a part of me that was resentful over that fact, but I was also glad I had the flexibility to pivot and turn my focus toward her. I will never regret the time I spent with her and with my siblings, especially in those final days of her life.
It took some time, after that, to regroup and to refocus on the expansion I’d been hoping for earlier. For the next two years, I plodded along, growing slowly and learning what I needed to learn from grief (it’s always been one of my greatest teachers). And then, two years after Mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space at her deathbed, and…. BAM… suddenly the expansion I’d let go of two years earlier came barreling toward me faster than I could have dreamed it would. Suddenly my inbox was exploding and my work was growing exponentially. Over the next couple of years, I built the original program that has evolved into the Holding Space Foundation Program (a program that has sold out all five times it’s been offered). Plus I got to teach in Australia (three times), New Zealand (twice), the Netherlands (three times), Costa Rica, and all over North America. It was more than I’d hoped for back when I was in Ontario ready to co-host that gathering.
And the lesson in that is… sometimes you have to get smaller before you get bigger. Sometimes you have to contract before you expand. Sometimes – despite your readiness to rush into the next big thing – the work has its own timing and it asks you to slow down, to wait, to spend time in reflection, to learn a few more critical things, and to accept a pace that you’ll only have the capacity to understand in retrospect and not in that moment.
I don’t know why this is happening again – that I’m now needing to contract back into my own home, into a small circle with my three daughters. I don’t really need to know the meaning of it (or even if there IS a meaning in it). I simply need to do the next right thing, the thing that’s in front of me to do. For now, that will include more Zoom calls. It will also include more conversations with my daughters before they leave the nest (like the ones that helped birth the course on How to Hold Space for Difficult Conversations in Your Family) and more quiet time for writing and reflection. There will be time for learning new things that likely couldn’t be learned if I were traveling for days on end.
Perhaps there will be expansion in the future. Perhaps, though my personal life feels contracted, the book will have its own expansion, traveling all over the globe and sitting with people as a sort of surrogate for me. And maybe that’s good enough for now. Maybe, in fact, it will give people time to read the book and let it gestate before we come together again.
I am open to what will come. I am open to discovering what magic is possible through the power of the internet. I am open to waiting until COVID-19 no longer keeps us contracted and we’ll all get to experience a return to in-person circles and real hugs again. Imagine what that will be like!
I have passed through the grief that was with me for the last few weeks and now I am beginning to dream again. I am dreaming about what a virtual book tour will look like. Perhaps I can still sit (virtually) in some of the circles I’d hoped would be possible, and maybe even in MORE countries than I’d first imagined. Perhaps I can pop into book club gatherings in South Africa or Singapore or Iran. Perhaps I can visit schools or speak at conferences in Brazil or Bangladesh. Who knows what’s possible?!
I wonder, dear reader, if you’ll begin to dream with me? Would you like to invite me to wherever you are, to sit with whoever you’ve gathered, to talk about what’s on the pages of my book? Please reach out with an invitation and we’ll see what’s possible from the contracted space of my own home. And then, maybe next year, I’ll travel the miles to give you that in-person hug.
It’s Friday afternoon. I’m staring out a large picture window, watching the poplar leaves dance with invisible partners. A squirrel just darted across my line of site, leaping from poplar tree to pine tree to spruce tree. Just beyond those trees is the lake. If I stood up from my semi-reclining position on the couch, I could see it. A moment ago, I was out on the patio, watching a pair of cormorants on the water, until a light rain chased me inside. This morning, I paddled across that lake, when it was as smooth as a plate of glass, on a yellow kayak and I watched an eagle come in for a landing at the top of a tall tree at the edge of a cliff. On the way back, I stopped to photograph lily pads and lotus flowers. After I put the kayak back in its place, tipped over to drain the water that had dripped from my paddle and down my knees, I sat on the dock with my journal and watched a turtle poking its head above the water.
I’m at a cabin in western Ontario. It’s nearing the end of a week of solitude and writing. I haven’t been online since Sunday. I don’t miss it. I have no idea what’s going on in the world and the only time I’ve spoken has been once to the young boy who greeted me on the dock, and for about five minutes each day when the owner of the cabin checks if I need anything. (My answer to her is always the same: “I’ve got everything I need.” Except when I needed more propane for the barbecue.)
Since I arrived here on Sunday, I have done a remarkable amount of work – more work than I normally accomplish in two months at home. I’ve worked twelve hour days since I got here, and today was the first time I allowed myself enough of a break from the work to paddle across the lake.
It always seems somewhat indulgent when I book a cabin like this for a working retreat, or I fly to Reno to stay in my friends’ guesthouse to complete my book, but so far I have never, ever regretted it. Not even a bit. It’s worth every penny I spend on it. And I’ve done some version of it at least once a year for the last eight years or so. (In the early years, I had to find inexpensive options, like borrowing spaces from friends.) I will continue to do it every year for the foreseeable future, though it may look different once my kids are all moved out of the house.
Because this is how I do deep work. This is how I hold space for my wild and wonderful wisdom. This is how I entertain the muse when it’s especially greedy and wants my undivided attention.
Not that it’s only for capitalist reasons, or that I have to justify why I do it, but if I were to work out how much income I generate from what I create in a week like this, the hourly value would be much higher than the usual time I put into my business. It is, therefore, one of the best annual business expenses I ever invest in. (If you have a business that relies on your ability to create things, I highly recommend you consider doing something similar.)
It’s not that I can’t write or create at home. I can and I do. But when I have a major project that requires intense focus and my clearest, most creative mind, I do much better when I remove as many distractions and other commitments as possible (it’s especially important to get offline), give myself large chunks of uninterrupted time, and find a place where nature nourishes and inspires me.
Cal Newport calls this “Deep Work”. It’s “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. … In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.” Sadly, he says, most people have lost the ability to go deep, “spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”
It’s true – our world has become too fast-paced, too high-impact, too full of distractions and unrealistic expectations of speed and availability for many of us to do deep work. Just as I am less focused and less creative in my home, where the internet distracts me, the news worries me, and my children’s and clients’ needs and expectations often take precedence over my writing time, so too are people the world over. (Especially in a pandemic.)
Some of us, though, have a special calling to do such deep work. The writers, artists, makers, musicians, philosophers, designers, teachers, inventors, healers and leaders – all of us need to find ways of accessing deeper wells of inspiration than we normally have access to in our day-to-day lives. We need to carve out time and spaciousness to tap into our own wild and wonderful wisdom. We need to create containers where the flicker of our most brilliant ideas can be protected from the wind of the noisy world, and then we need to add fuel to grow that flame into burning heat that warms, lights and destroys whatever it needs to.
It feels a little like an archaeological dig, when I disappear into work like this. When I’m at home and can only work in snippets, I only ever dig a few inches beneath the surface and never get to the really juicy ancient stories buried under centuries of history. When I’m away and can dive into the work for twelve hour stretches, interrupted only by the need to sleep and eat (and occasionally stare out the window or sit on the dock), I get to dig down into the places that make my whole body come alive with wonder and possibility.
I wish that there were more support, more permission, more money, and more acknowledgement of the importance of this kind of dedicated time available for the creators and thinkers of the world. I wish that there were more patrons and/or public institutions that would fund the sparks of ideas that come especially from those who can’t afford a week in a cabin the same way I can. I wish that there were many champions who would advocate for anyone who needs dedicated time to work on their craft, so that they didn’t have to spend all of their energy convincing people of the economic value of their work and could spend more time creating. I wish that we had stronger communities that would identify the makers and dreamers and thinkers among us and would collectively decide that they need to guard, protect, and encourage the space and time for these people to do what they do best. I wish there were eager volunteers for childcare and meal prep for all those whose families take them away from their ability to create.
Because, more than ever in these strange, challenging, disruptive times, we need art. We need music. We need books. We need ideas. We need ingenuity. We need dreams. We need hope. We need makers. We need thinkers. We need inventors. We need scientists. We need healers. We need people to go to those DEEP places.
We need creative people who will imagine our world into climate solutions. We need artists and musicians who will help us dream into more racial justice. We need thinkers and inventors and scientists who will navigate our way through this global pandemic. We need creative community builders and healers and web masters and coders who will help us thrive and connect in the midst of this strange pandemic-imposed disconnection.
But all of these people need to first find ways of doing deep work. They need to be able to carve out space and time without disruption. They need to be given ways of feeding their families and paying their bills so that their minds are not consumed with financial stress and family responsibility.
What will we do to make this happen? I don’t know. Coming up with that solution is not my particular line of genius, but I hope for whoever it IS, they will find a way to disappear into the exquisite solitude of a week in a cabin by a lake (or whatever helps their creativity blossom) so that they can think and create their way into their wild and wonderful wisdom. And then I hope they share it and we all get onboard.
Last night, after sunset, I lay in my hammock in the growing darkness of my backyard feeling low. I couldn’t shake the growing melancholy that’s been with me this week, but I couldn’t quite name it either. Why, in the middle of all of the excitement of finally launching the Centre for Holding Space after many months of hard work, was I feeling so much sadness?
Perhaps it was launch hangover? Perhaps it was weariness from holding space for some of my daughters’ crises this week, combined with disappointment in myself when I missed a baseball game and let down my nephew, combined with some vicarious sadness for a daughter’s friend who’s been here a lot this week because of family conflict? Perhaps it was worry over my daughter’s health or concerns over my other daughter’s disappointing job prospects?
I gave up on the hammock last night and came inside to let Netflix put a pause on the overthinking.
And then, some time in the middle of a mediocre TV show, it hit me… today is my anniversary. Twenty-seven years ago, I was a hopeful bride entering a new chapter in my life. Twenty-seven years ago, I was oblivious of the hardships that would bring that chapter to an end.
And tomorrow is another kind of anniversary. Seventeen years ago – the day after we celebrated our tenth anniversary – my dad was killed in a farm accident.
Suddenly I knew what my body was holding. It was grief over the many losses that this week represents. It was the loss of dreams, the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of belonging, and the loss of lineage. It was also the loss of home (my mom left the farm shortly after) and the loss of a grandfather for my kids.
It was the loss of Plan A.
Earlier this week, my daughter and I watched the movie Interstellar. It’s a too-long sci-fi about a hero who must pass through a worm-hole into another galaxy to find another inhabitable planet on which to relocate humanity (because the earth is dying). Frankly, I’m weary of the hero’s journey trope in movies in which someone (usually a white male) has to make the ultimate sacrifice and abandon his family in order to save the world, but there was at least one thing in the movie’s plot line that I found intriguing.
Finding another planet and relocating humanity is Plan A. It’s what motivates the hero (the only man left who knows how to fly into space) to take the journey because he wants to save his children and create a future for them. Plan B – the fall-back plan if the hero and his crew can’t return to this galaxy and to earth – is to stay in the new galaxy, let the old earth and all her inhabitants die, and colonize another planet with the frozen embryos they’re carrying with them.
At some point in the movie, (spoiler alert), after the hero and his crew have made multiple sacrifices and are somewhere in the other galaxy, we find out that the scientist who was the mastermind behind the journey knew that Plan A would never work. BUT… he also knew that if the hero didn’t BELIEVE that Plan A was possible (that his sacrifice was worth it in order to save his kids), he would never be motivated to make the journey. Plan A was what got him to the place where Plan B could be implemented.
Sometimes Plan B is the only thing that CAN happen, but we only get there because we commit ourselves to a belief in Plan A.
This morning I rode my bike to the park and sat on a bench with my journal. The tears started to flow as I realized that my body was still holding some of the grief over the loss of Plan A.
Plan A was what that blushing bride was carrying down the aisle twenty-seven years ago today. It was the dream of a traditional family unit – a home with a mom and a dad with good jobs and a couple of kids with the white picket fence and the annual vacations to interesting places. It was stability and ease and it was raising kids who’d still have grandparents into their adulthood. It was the kind of Big Love and Romance the fairy tales had held out in front of her.
Plan A didn’t involve divorce and single parenting and a dad killed under a tractor or a mom dying too young of cancer. It didn’t include suicide attempts or psych wards or dead babies. There was no thought of trauma or grief or tear-soaked pillows in the middle of the night. None of that was there, in her thoughts, when she walked down the aisle. They couldn’t be, or she would never have taken those steps into the unknown galaxy.
But maybe Plan A was never anything more than an illusion – the kind of mirage that keeps a person moving forward in a desert even when there is no water to be found. Maybe the belief in Plan A is what motivates us, in the early days when the world seems more black and white and full of clarity and promise and binary belief systems, so that we have the chance to grow and deepen enough to live into an acceptance of Plan B.
Maybe Plan A was never the point, it’s just the path to get us here.
For me, an acceptance of Plan B – the realization that my life wasn’t going to be a fulfillment of the hope that the blushing bride carried down the aisle along with her bouquet of white roses – is what brought me to the Centre for Holding Space. It’s what allowed me to make meaning of my mom’s death and write the blog post that catapulted this work into the world. It’s what was awakened in me when my stillborn son Matthew made his brief sojourn into the world and introduced me to grief and pointed me in the direction of the quest I’ve been on since.
No, I wouldn’t have chosen Plan B, but if I hadn’t found my way here, I wouldn’t know the pure joy that this work has brought me. I wouldn’t have found my way into genuine community and the kinds of deep relationships that give life meaning.
I wouldn’t have discovered that life has more purpose and beauty when you let go of the illusion.
Truthfully? Though I let myself grieve Plan A for a moment in the park this morning, because my body needed me to acknowledge it and not brush it aside, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The loss of Plan A is what brought me to this beautiful life, this beautiful community, and this beautiful work. And next month, it’s what will allow my book to be born into the world.
From this side of the Great Loss, Plan B looks pretty amazing and richly textured. In retrospect, Plan A looks rather two-dimensional.
I’m going to celebrate the beautiful complexity that is Plan B. And I won’t be afraid of the grief over losing Plan A, because that’s what gives the beauty its shadow and texture.
It happened repeatedly in my youth. I’d come home from a friend’s house and walk into the house to find nobody there. I’d look in all of the rooms, start to get that panicky feeling and then go out to the farmyard to see if somebody was in the barn or cattle pasture. Suddenly, I was desperate to know that somebody was home – that they hadn’t all abandoned me. I only felt secure when I heard my dad’s voice or spotted my mom in the garden.
It was the end times I was most afraid of – being left behind when the rapture came. Every person I know who’s grown up in an evangelical home has a similar memory. “What if they’ve all gone and we didn’t get taken with them? What if we weren’t Christian enough? What if we haven’t sufficiently confessed our sins and will be denied entry into heaven?”
There’s a certain trauma that gets left in a person’s body when you grow up with that fear. There’s a heightened awareness that threads through your nervous system, reminding you always that you have to be good enough, obedient enough and repentant enough to make the cut when the second coming suddenly separates the saved from the unsaved.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize how much of that early conditioning has left me with an easily triggered fear of being found out to be sinful, wrong, or bad. To be bad is to be separated from God, shunned from your community, and at risk of spending an eternity in the fires of hell. Even long after you stop believing in hell, the trauma stays rooted in your body.
Abandonment. Shame. Shunning. Pain. Death. This is what my amygdala still tries to convince me – in moments when it’s triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn – are the consequences of being bad.
I have been wondering, lately, whether this isn’t just a personal experience (the result of being raised in an evangelical home) but a collective one.
How much have we ALL been socialized into this kind of reactivity, even those not raised in evangelicalism? How much of that trauma remains deeply and subconsciously rooted in our culture, here in North America (and elsewhere), given the fact that we are, ostensibly, “Christian” nations, colonized by countries where Christianity was the dominant religion? How much have we internalized the fear of separation and abandonment that a sin-doctrine embeds in a culture, even long after it’s not the central narrative?
There’s a pattern that I’ve witnessed over and over again when I teach the Holding Space Practitioner Program… people show up eager to learn about holding space for others, and somewhere around Module 2 (on holding space for yourself) they come face-to-face with their own biases, trauma, blind spots, and shadow. Suddenly… WHOA! I start getting remarks about how hard the work has become and how they need more time (we’ve lengthened this module for that reason), and the resistance shows up. Some push back, some want to abandon ship, some create conflict. Many end up begrudgingly thanking me for nudging them into work they were avoiding doing, but first they have to fight it.
It’s hard to look into your shadow. It’s painful and shame-inducing to suddenly have to face your biases, blindspots and blunders. It’s also, if my theory is right, trauma-inducing. It triggers a deeply rooted, culturally sanctioned, subconscious fear that we will be abandoned, shunned, and “sent out of the kingdom”. We’ll lose our standing in the community, we’ll risk an eternity of pain and separation, and we might even be put to death. Or at least that’s what the amygdala believes.
It’s why we have things like white fragility (though I appreciate what this writer says about renaming it “white flammability”). People who’ve convinced themselves they are good people, in good standing with their community, are suddenly sent into spasms when their biases and blindspots are revealed. They can’t fathom the fact that they are capable of causing harm. They haven’t been equipped to hold space for their own shame. Subconsciously, they’re terrified that they will be abandoned and, at worst, banished from the kingdom.
It’s also why we’ve developed such a punitive legal system in our culture. We might call it a “justice” system, but it’s really not about justice. It’s about shaming, blaming, and punishing those who do wrong. It’s about creating separation from those of us who are seen to be “upstanding citizens” and those who are criminals. It’s about sending people out of our communities and abandoning them in prisons, so that we can hide the collective shadow in our culture. Out of fear of our own shadow, we call out those with more obvious shadows (or those marginalized by the dominant culture and made to look like they are bad) and project our shame onto them.
Because of this collective fear of being wrong, we’ve not only punished the transgressors, but we’ve also elevated and idolized those with curated lives who look like they’ve managed to transcend the messiness the rest of us get stuck in. We overlook the cracks in those we want to emulate because we want to see the polished life, and we want to believe that it’s possible for us, too, to live untarnished lives. We project our unhealthy aspirations and expectations of ourselves onto those who appear most worthy of our adoration. Social media makes this even more tempting because it allows us unprecedented access into our heroes’ lives and opinions.
When you find yourself in a position of influence like that, with people projecting their ideals onto you, it becomes surprisingly tempting to give them what they want. If they give you money to teach them how to live a charmed and curated life like yours (or to model it onscreen), it’s even more tempting. The money allows you to put even more polish on your life, so it perpetuates the cycle. Meanwhile, your own trauma and fear of abandonment is at play, so you work extra hard at meeting people’s expectations of you for fear of being found out and suddenly shunned and left behind.
Unfortunately, that charmed place on a pedestal rarely lasts. People find the cracks in your facade and when they start poking around, they find that those cracks are really deep, dark chasms of shadow. And then, because they feel betrayed by you, because you no longer give them hope that a shadow-free life is possible, they tear you down, with a vengeance. That’s what “cancel-culture” is all about.
Sadly, if those influencers had known, early on in their development, that the uncomfortable shadow work that they avoided is what could have saved them from the destructiveness of the tear-down, they might have found themselves on a different trajectory. Sure, they wouldn’t have found the same level of celebrity and status, but they would have found something much better and longer-lasting — authentic community. Relationships rooted in truth-telling and vulnerability are worth a lot more than those shallowly rooted in performance.
In recent months, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront of our consciousness, we’ve seen several people, especially in the coaching and personal development world, with large followings and lots of influence, whose cracks have been revealed. People are pointing out the lack of consciousness around anti-racism and anti-oppression and revealing where harm has been done to the marginalized in their communities. Some of them, in avoidance of the shame of being called out, use gaslighting to shame and reject anyone who might challenge them. Some teach spiritual bypassing as a way of avoiding the darkness and keeping their followers in a state of compliance and fake peace.
Some of these leaders, sadly, have developed cult-like followings where people are shamed by others in the in-group for daring to challenge what their leader says. As Alexandra Stein has pointed out in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing, these leaders manipulate their followers into unhealthy attachment systems, where followers will do anything to stay connected to the leader because of the way that their needs are met in the community. The leaders manipulate the trauma coursing through our culture, reminding people that they will be rejected if they step out of line, if they point out the flaws in the leader or what’s being taught within the community. The trauma bond floods the nervous system and makes it nearly impossible for people to think clearly and notice how messed up the leader, community, and/or belief system is.
The only solution, as I see it, is for us to work to heal the collective trauma and begin to create greater space in our culture for shadow work. We need to make it acceptable to speak of our mistakes, to admit our biases, to own up to the ways in which we cause harm because of our trauma and social conditioning. We also need to build collective systems in which we learn how to co-regulate in those moments when we are triggered so that we don’t cause so much harm as a result.
We also need to change our collective views about leadership. When leaders and influencers can be flawed and vulnerable, when they don’t feel the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and when they are embedded into communities that both support them and hold them accountable, then there is less inclination for them to become abusive when their biases and blindspots are pointed out. They don’t have to hide their shadows because they’ve never pretended they didn’t have them.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be launching the Centre for Holding Space. One of the reasons why I’m going into partnership in launching this, instead of building it alone, is that I want to be intentional about building a structure that doesn’t elevate me into an unrealistic position of leadership and influence. I don’t want to be the influencer who cracks under the pressure of meeting people’s expectations. I want to be able to continue to reveal my shadow, and I want to be held accountable for the ways my biases and blindspots get in the way of the work. I don’t want my trauma – my deeply held fear of being found to be bad – to be running the show and separating me from my humanity or the humanity of those in my community. I want to be imperfect and I want to keep striving to welcome imperfect people into the circle with me.
My partner, Krista, is very good at supporting me and helping me stay grounded and honest. We have built a solid relationships of trust in which neither of us has to be performative or defensive of our flaws. We are also growing an incredible team of people that is eager to support this work as it grows, and they’re all equally committed to showing up flawed and vulnerable alongside us.
In building a solid foundation for our business, we recently worked through a Conscious Contract with our lawyer, in which we developed a co-founders agreement that will help us work through conflict and hold space for the shadow when it shows up in ourselves and our business. We’ll hold each other accountable for doing the messy work and for staying in the discomfort long enough for transformation to happen.
We are excited to welcome you, our readers, clients, and friends, into this space we’re creating. We want to hold space for your imperfections. We want to create a space of healing where trauma isn’t shamed and nobody is shunned for being wrong.
Whenever I teach my workshops on holding space, I warn people that there will likely be a moment when they have to face their own shadow and their discomfort might make them want to run from the room. “You’re allowed to step out of the room if you need to,” I say, “but know that you are always welcome back. We will hold the space for you to return.”
This is what I want for the Centre for Holding Space to be – a place where people can peer into their shadows, and trust that, even if they run away, they’re still welcome back in the room. Because when people come back to meet themselves in the circle, that’s when the real healing happens.
We’re now a couple of months into The Great Pause. We’ve baked all the bread, learned to cut our own hair, logged too many hours on Zoom, built elaborate islands on Animal Crossing, adapted to the new protocol at the grocery store, rewatched our favourite series on Netflix… and here we are… just waiting for when this might end. Waiting, as Dr. Seuss says, “for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No, or waiting for their hair to grow.”
How do we stay in this waiting place, when there is still so much we don’t know about what’s on the other side? How do we maintain our sense of well-being and not spiral into despair and fear when we don’t yet know when we can see our loved ones, gather with our communities, or send our kids back to school?
Here are some of my thoughts about ways to sustain ourselves in the midst of liminal space:
1. Soothe your flooded nervous system. There’s a reason why so many of us are baking bread and why I haven’t been able to find any yeast at the grocery store for the last few weeks. (In my home, it’s my daughters baking bread and I just have to buy the ingredients.) Bread is comfort food and we all need soothing when we’ve been living in this state of heightened anxiety and uncertainty. But bread can’t be the ONLY thing we turn to for soothing. Nor can wine or chocolate or Netflix (as much as that may be tempting right now). A soothing technique can quickly become a way of bypassing or numbing if we rely on it too heavily.
My new friend, Dr. Robin Youngson, recently introduced me to a practice that has become my favourite soothing technique. It’s called havening touch and it’s designed to mirror the way that a mother soothes a distressed infant (except you can do it for yourself). There’s a series of three soothing caresses that you repeat – running your hands down your arms, rubbing your hands together, and stroking your face with both hands. You can watch Dr. Youngson demonstrate havening touch on these videos.
2. Name and grieve the ambiguous losses.An ambiguous loss (a term coined by researcher Pauline Boss) is a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. It’s the kind of loss that is felt when a child is abducted and the parents don’t know whether they’re dead or alive. Or the loss of a marriage when the other person is still alive and yet you grieve the loss of what you once dreamed the marriage would be. Or (as my friends on Facebook shared) the kind of mixed emotions that a parent might feel when a child undergoes gender transition. (You can listen to Pauline Boss talk about it on this podcast.)
We are all experiencing multiple ambiguous losses right now, as we wait to see what the new normal will be. Not only can we not do many of the things we’re used to doing, we really have no idea when we can do them again and whether they’ll look the same when we do. If you’re a church-goer, for example, will you have to sit six feet away from your friends in the sanctuary and avoid hugging them or shaking their hands? Will you get to go dancing with friends or sing in choirs, or will that have to wait until there’s a vaccine? What about your job? Will it be waiting for you or will you face unemployment?
It’s okay to grieve those losses. Even though you might be inclined to shame yourself for having “less significant” losses than the people who are losing family members, your loss is legitimate. Let yourself grieve. You might even want to develop some kind of ritual to mark those losses. When I talked about ambiguous loss on Facebook, Lori-Marie Boyer said that she has a practice she calls “list and sit”. “I’m keeping a list of what we are missing and sitting with it for a bit each time as a way to just keep naming and honoring.” It seems like a good way to grieve and release.
3. Discharge built-up energy without aiming it at anyone. The frustration can build up, when there is so much outside of your control and you don’t know when this will all end. When, for example, you’ve got young kids in your house all day every day and you’ve suddenly become their parent, teacher, playmate, AND therapist, you might feel like a pressure cooker about to explode. Or when you’re not sure if your business will survive, or if the money will reach to the end of the month, or if the sick family member you’re not allowed tovisit will get better, the tension in your body can feel like too much to bear. Despite your best efforts at self-soothing, in those moments, you might find yourself fighting with people on Facebook, or yelling at your kids, or throwing your wine glass across the room.
That’s when you might need some fairly aggressive (but not harmful) activity to help you to release the tension. Try pounding your feelings into something that won’t bear the scars. Go dig in the garden, or dance vigorously, or swing a hammer, or wash the floor, or go for a run, or scream into a pillow. I have a particular fondness for power tools, partly for this reason – they let me be aggressive without harming anyone. I also like to jump in my car, go for a drive, and, at the top of my lungs, sing/cry/scream to Nothing Stays the Same by Luke Sital-Singh.“Cry your eyes out, Fill your lungs up, We all hurt, We all lie, And nothing stays the same.”
4. Practice impermanence. One of the things that this pandemic is teaching us is the impermanence of that which we assume we can rely on. For those of us living in developed countries (and especially those living without disabilities), we’ve come to assume the accessibility and reliability of things like grocery stores, doctor’s offices, restaurants, churches, etc. We’ve also come to assume that we can visit our elderly parents whenever we want to and that our children can go to school every day.
It’s a shock to the system when what you rely on is taken away. Some of us may already be adapted to that (those who are disabled or who grew up in poverty or conflict zones), but for many of us, this is fairly new and unfamiliar and it can be quite scary. I remember the first time I went to the grocery store after the new social distancing rules were in place – it felt a little like I’d landed on the moon instead of my neighbourhood grocery store.
Having a practice that embraces that sense of impermanence is helpful in processing all of this and learning to let go of attachment to the illusion of certainty. This is something I learned from the Buddhist teachings on impermanence – that to practice an art form in which you detach from what you produce and simply be fully present for the process is to better accept the impermanence of the world. (Consider the way that Buddhist monks make elaborate sand mandalas and then sweep them away and pour the sand into a body of water.) In my basement is a large canvas where I practice my #messycovidartprocess which I shared about in this post. Every few days, when I feel anxiety or frustration build, I go to the basement and paint (with my hands) another layer onto the canvas. I focus only on the process, and always end up covering up whatever might be pleasing to the eye. I intend to continue this as long as we are confined to our homes. I don’t know yet what I’ll do with it then – perhaps I’ll burn it.
5. Nurture the seeds that want to grow. Perhaps by now, after the initial shock and stress of this has settled somewhat, you’re beginning to wonder how this Great Pause will change your life, our culture, and perhaps our relationship with the natural world. Maybe you’ve now got some space in your brain not just for survival but for curiosity and possibility. Maybe you’ve become inspired to start new art projects or to create new ways of gathering people online – projects that aren’t just about surviving the here-and-now, but that might help us live into a new future beyond COVID-19.
A few days ago, I co-hosted a call with former participants of my in-person workshops in the Netherlands, and I sensed a different energy than any of the calls I’ve had since this all started. Though there was still some grief present, I sensed that people were beginning to imagine the new things that can grow out of this time of disruption. A few days later, a similar thing happened on the calls for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. There’s a shift and people are beginning to see hope and not just despair.
When you feel ready for it, bring your “beginner’s mind” (another Buddhist teaching which refers to an “attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject”) to bear. Look around you at how your life has been disrupted and notice the ways that you don’t want to go back to how things were before disruption. Consider that, after COVID-19, you might have a new opportunity to choose how you want to live and interact with the culture around you. Maybe you have new ideas to contribute to your neighbourhood about how to organize around local needs and local capacity. Maybe you’re beginning to imagine a more equitable way for your business to function or your church to serve its people. We don’t have to go back to the way things were before – we have this opportunity to imagine something new into existence.
To foster this practice, first bring awareness to what’s growing and where you can plant and/or nurture seeds to grow. If you live in the Northern hemisphere where it’s now Spring, you might want to play in the garden or wander through the park taking pictures of new leaves and baby geese.
6. Find circles that can hold space for complexity. People are at different stages of this journey and have different levels of capacity for holding space for the complexity of this time. Some of us, because of necessity or trauma or fear, can function only in survival mode – getting through what’s needed day-to-day – and can’t hold space for grief or for the kind of transformation and possibility mentioned above. Those may not be the people you’ll turn to for deep conversations or for wrestling through the emotions or questions that are surfacing.
But some people – particularly those who have navigated challenging life circumstances in the past and have learned to meet those challenges with curiosity and openness – have great capacity for holding shadow, grief, fear, transformation, anticipation, loss, and birth. Turn to those people, gather them in circles for storytelling, deep conversations and imaginative dreaming. Invite them into the depths with you, feel the complexity of your feelings together, dare to be playful with new ideas, and notice how your body and heart are transformed in the process.
Yesterday, I sat on two calls with the participants of the Holding Space Practitioner Program and I marvelled at what beautiful things can show up on Zoom calls when there is a strong container in place that can hold complexity, curiosity, and depth. We’re nearing the end of this eight month program, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the capacity that these people from all over the world are growing (and I along with them) is exactly what is needed for times like this. (Note: This program will be re-opening in July, under the new banner of the Centre for Holding Space.)
7. Release, receive, return. I have found myself, more often than usual, visiting the labyrinth this Spring. Partly I go because that’s the place where I notice the earliest signs of Spring and it gives me a sense of hopefulness. It’s near a pond where the frogs begin to sing as soon as the ice melts, and there are wild crocuses that are the first flowers to bloom on these northern prairies.
The other reason I go is because the labyrinth teaches me one of the most useful spiritual practices for a time such as this. It teaches me to release as I walk into the labyrinth – to empty myself of the burdens, expectations, fears, disappointments, etc. that want to cling to my spirit and drag me down. It teaches me to receive as I stand at the centre of the labyrinth – to allow in the voices of Spirit, the Earth, and my own Soul which are often stifled in my crowded life. And it teaches me to return as I leave the labyrinth – to take with me all of the gifts that were entrusted to me at the centre and carry them back to my village, the people I’ve been called to serve.
When I can’t get to the labyrinth, I try to spend time focusing on my breath, reminding myself of the same three-part process. Or I use a finger labyrinth like the one I made (which I gave instructions for here).
To stay grounded at a time when the world feels wobbly and unreliable takes extra commitment and determination. It also takes a combination of the above practices – self-soothing or discharging when necessary – so that you can be more fully present for the mindfulness of release-receive-return.
8. Don’t forget to laugh. When I was growing up and Readers Digest arrived monthly in our home, I remember flipping to the section called “Laughter is the Best Medicine” and reading through the jokes people had sent in. Back then, I just thought it was a cute title, but now I understand the truth of it. Laughter doesn’t just boost your mood by releasing endorphins, it helps to diminish pain and strengthen your immune system. Regularly finding time for laughter also helps you to cope with the needs of your children and it gives you a higher tolerance for the frustrations of dealing with red tape or opinionated people on Facebook.
My extended family gathers occasionally on Zoom and we’ve had some good laughs over online versions of Pictionary or our former fashion choices in old photos of our rare family trip to California (apparently I had a penchant for tucking my pant legs into my socks back then). My daughters and I have been sharing some laughs while making our way through the seasons of New Girl on Netflix.
Even in the midst of deep grief and fear, laughter has a place. It doesn’t just offer temporary relief, it helps strengthen you and make you more resilient to cope with the hard stuff.
9. Focus on what’s right in front of you and do the next right thing. This world is a big place, and it can feel overwhelming to open the floodgates of social media and let it all come in. When your news feed is full of stories of heartache from all over the world, and you’re hearing the voices of politicians and scientists and each one seems to have a different opinion, the complexity of this situation can knock you flat. Whose voice do you listen to? Which expert has your best interests at heart? Whose stories do you you let into your heart?
While I don’t think it’s wise to keep your head in the sand too long, lest you lose touch with the world and begin to think only of yourself, there are times when you have to shut out the rest of the world and just be in your own little bubble. There are times when the best you can do is get out of bed in the morning and make sure your family has enough to eat.
Narrow your focus when you need to and ignore the needs or concerns of anyone outside of your home. Feed your cat, play with your kids, or curl up with a good book and look after nobody but yourself.
One of the best decisions that I made at the beginning of the pandemic was to stay offline entirely on Sundays. I’ve kept it up for two months and I intend to continue even after life settles into the new normal. I did it at the beginning because I noticed how much mental load I was carrying by the end of the week, trying to focus on my kids’ needs, my own needs, my clients’ needs, and my business’ needs while also trying to process all of the new information and anxiety surrounding the pandemic. Even after my initial anxiety and overwhelm had settled, though, I realized how much I appreciated the peacefulness that a day off the internet gave me.
10. Extend kindness to yourself and others. It may seem cliched to focus on kindness, but I believe that it’s one of the things that will get us through this time. Kindness helps us turn our attention away from worry and frustration. Kindness helps us focus our energy on positive things instead of negative things. Kindness helps us build communities and bond families.
When you focus on bringing someone a little spot of happiness or a moment of ease, you get back almost as much as you give. It’s a win-win situation.
Kindness might be sending an overwhelmed mom a gift certificate for a meal delivery service. Or it might be paying for the order of the car behind you in the drive-through. Or it might be packaging up the books you’ve finished reading and sending them to a friend who’s getting bored alone at home. Or it might simply be smiling at the neighbour on the sidewalk, or letting a person cut in front of you in the grocery store lineup.
In these unusual times, I think that it’s also an act of kindness to wear a mask in public so that the person selling you groceries has one less chance of exposure. Or it might be tipping the food delivery person extra for the increased risk they’re taking. Or it might simply be staying home to help decrease the spread and not overburden our healthcare workers.
And don’t forget that one of the people you should be extending kindness to is yourself. Recognize that you’re under an unusual stress load right now (we all are) and offer yourself compassionate care in any way that you can.