I am going down to the bone. A deep cleanse, a stripping away – like a diamond cutter chipping away the grit to reveal the sparkle.
This week, there was a large dumpster parked in front of my house. In went the old couches whose springs no longer held their shape. Then the detritus collected in our garage over the eighteen years we’ve lived here. Broken broom handles, kept just in case there might be a use for them some day. Bent tools, old bicycle tires, empty cardboard boxes. Next came the branches I’d trimmed from the shrubs and trees in the Spring, a broken bench, a rusted table from the backyard, and old playground toys long abandoned by grown children.
Finally, I stripped the floors in two-thirds of the house and dragged those out onto the growing heap in the dumpster. Each room took a little more effort than the last and each increased effort caused a little more wear and tear on my body. First I pulled out the stained carpet in the living room and hallway, the padding underneath, and the strips of upside-down nails at the edge that held it in place. Then the warped cork floor came out of the bathroom.
The kitchen, with its subfloor and multiple layers of linoleum increased the challenge, but I was up for it. After watching DIY Youtube videos, I set the circular saw at the right depth, put on safety goggles, and cut it into pieces. Then came the prying, the jockeying of appliances, and the endless nail removal.
The entrance, with parquet wood glued solidly to the floor, is challenging me most and it’s the only room that remained uncompleted when they picked up the full dumpster yesterday.
Why have I done this all alone? Multiple reasons, I suppose. Cost is probably the first factor, but there are more. I wanted to prove to myself that I could – that I was strong enough and capable enough and stubborn enough and fierce enough. And I knew that it would be cathartic – to work out through my body some of the stuff that gets stuck in my mind. I was right on both counts – today, though my body aches, I feel strong and fierce and a little more healthy.
And there were other reasons – deeper reasons… Like the fact that I had some shame about the state of my house and didn’t want anyone to see the stains on the carpet, the layers of grit under the carpet, or the dried bits of food stuck to the floor under the fridge. Or the fact that I felt like this was my work to do – to cleanse this space of the brokenness of the past so that my daughters and I have a new foundation under our feet for the next part of our lives.
Eighteen years ago this month, we moved into this house with two toddlers. Since then, the floors have taken a lot of wear and tear – spilled milk, spilled wine, spilled tears, spilled blood, spilled lives. We sprayed and scrubbed and sprayed and scrubbed again, but carpets can only take so much, and eventually the stains were so deep it was hard to know the original colour of the carpet.
We didn’t change the carpet, though, because we had hopes for bigger changes. Fourteen years ago, we drew up plans to add a big new kitchen onto the side of the house. There was no point in replacing floors, we told ourselves – we might as well do it all at once. So we put it off until we had the money.
But then we started making choices that pushed the renovation plans further and further into the future. First, Marcel quit his job to go to university and be a stay-at-home dad. Then I took a pay-cut to work in non-profit instead of government. And then I took an even bigger leap (and pay-cut) and became self-employed. The money was just never abundant enough to justify a big expense like a new kitchen.
Instead, we lived with ugly floors and a cramped kitchen. Sadly, though, that changed the way we felt about our house. We put in less and less effort to keep it clean and we invited fewer and fewer people over because the house never looked the way we wanted it to look.
But the floors weren’t the real problem. Perhaps, in fact, they were simply a reflection of the deeper problem. There were stains in our marriage too, and no matter how many times we tried to scrub them out, they kept popping back up again, revealing themselves to us when the light shone through at the right angle. The stains were harder and harder to ignore, and we finally knew that, just like the floors, we had to tear apart our marriage to see whether the foundation beneath it was strong enough to warrant salvaging.
We tried to renovate – visited multiple counsellors over the course of a few years – but finally it was time to make a hard decision. The marriage was too broken to fix. It was better to release ourselves from it so that we each could find our way to growth and healing. Last October, he moved out, and I started decluttering and painting. The flooring, though, had to wait until we’d signed a separation agreement and the house belonged to me.
Now, as I wait for a contractor to install the new flooring (my DIY abilities only take me so far – it’s good to know when to call in the professionals), we walk on bare wooden floors in empty rooms. Our voices echo against the walls in all of this hard space.
It’s all been stripped to the bone – myself, my house, and my marriage.
Unlike the marriage, the foundation of the house is still sturdy and strong. Only a few places need attention – where it squeaks, new screws will be applied. Soon it will be built upon to create a safe and comfortable home for the family that lives here now – my daughters and me. We’ll begin to fill it with laughter again, and when there are couches with sturdy springs, we’ll welcome friends to sit with us and hear our stories. And when we spill, we’ll mop up the spills and carry on.
We had to let go of dreams along the way – the new kitchen never materialized and the family isn’t the shape we thought it would always be – but we are sturdy enough to survive and resilient enough to adjust and grow new dreams. Despite the dismantling of the marriage, our family still has a solid enough foundation to hold us.
My own foundation is strong too. In fact, it feels stronger than ever. All of this chipping away is bringing me closer and closer to my essence, to the diamond under the grit. I’ve cleared out what didn’t serve me anymore, I’ve put some new screws in place to fix whatever squeaked, and I’ve called in professionals when that seemed wise. I feel fresh and alive and ready to hold space for whatever wants to unfold next in my life.
The liminal space has been hard and painful and I still ache from the effort it’s taken. Some of the tearing away revealed grit and shadow I didn’t want anyone to see, not even myself. But in the end, there is grace and the light is shining through and it is all worth it.
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“How do I know if I’ve gone deep enough?”
That was a question that came up during the Soulful Year virtual planning session on Saturday. It was asked in relation to an exercise that invites you to reflect on the grief, grace, gratitude and growth of the last year and then to release it so that you are ready to receive the year ahead. (You can find the exercise here.) The person asking it wanted to make sure she’d done a good enough job of processing what had happened in the past so that it wouldn’t get in the way of the future.
“Instead of asking ‘have I gone deep enough?’” I said, “ask yourself ‘have I gone as deep as I’m prepared to go right now?’”
“There will always be another layer,” I continued, “and perhaps when you’re working on another exercise this afternoon, something else will come up for you that you’ll want to add to this mandala. That’s okay. You can always go back. Just go as deep as you can right now and trust that, if there are more layers to uncover, those will come up at the right time.”
Here’s a story to illustrate the point…
Last weekend, I was decluttering and re-organizing my laundry/storage/pantry room in the basement. It’s one of those catch-all places for everything that doesn’t fit in the rest of the house, so it holds a lot of clutter. I hadn’t thoroughly cleaned it in a long time, so there were storage bins in it that still held clothes that haven’t fit my daughters since the early part of the century.
By the end of a weekend of hard work, it was still pretty full, but everything fit on the shelves or under the stairs. I was satisfied that I’d gotten rid of everything I could. At the very least, there were no clothes left that don’t fit someone in the family.
A few days later, I was sitting at my computer trying to prepare material for an upcoming course and becoming increasingly frustrated with how stuck I was. Nothing was flowing and no new ideas were showing up. In exasperation, I pushed away from my computer and paced around the house.
Almost by accident, I found myself back in the laundry room staring at the shelves. I yanked a Christmas wreath off the shelf and realized I hadn’t hung it in ten years and probably never will again. I was tired of it. It spoke of another era when I loved to play with pine cones and hot glue. I stuffed it in a garbage bag. Then I started pulling storage bins from under the stairs. One of them was full of dried flowers. Another held a half-finished knitting project and bags of moccasin-making supplies. A third held a handful of other half-finished craft projects and the leftover supplies from a dozen finished projects that I might want to do again someday.
I’d hung onto them because “you never know when I might want to make another pair of moccasins or a dried flower arrangement”.
The truth is, though, I won’t ever make another pair of moccasins or dried flower arrangement. That’s just not my style. I get really interested in an art form, pour my heart into it, and then abandon it when something else catches my attention. In all of my nearly 50 years on the planet, I have never gone back.
The boxes are still there because I’ve been carrying around a story about myself that that is a weakness. I was convinced that some day I’d fix that part of me and become a better person who finishes every project and doesn’t lose interest in things that bore her. Suddenly, standing there staring at those boxes full of craft supplies and shame, I was ready to release that old story.
Here’s a new story… I like to explore. I like to try new things. I am a scanner who loses interest in what I’ve tried in the past because it no longer challenges me and I crave something new.
Giving up on craft projects because they bore me does not make me a bad person.
Finding delight in new ideas every six months does not mean that I’m fickle or wishy-washy.
It’s just who I am. And I don’t need to have a basement full of reminders of why I should be ashamed of that face, because I am NO LONGER ashamed of that fact.
I packed it all up and gave it all away. And suddenly I felt something physical shift in my body – like something had been blocking my airwaves and suddenly I could breathe again. And, as if I’d planned it, Jann Arden’s song started playing from the music player on the washing machine… “So I’m punching out walls and tearing down paper, cutting my bangs, yeah sooner than later, I’m selling my soul right back to Jesus, taking up hope and giving up weakness, untangling the strings… I’m free, yeah. I’m free.”
Here’s an important part of this story… Just like I didn’t need to be ashamed about those unfinished projects or old stories, I also don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that it took me so long to release them. I wasn’t ready until now. I went only as deep as I was prepared to go at the time, and then, when something coaxed me to take another look, I went deeper.
Go only as deep as you’re prepared to go right now. There will be time for going deeper at another time.
I’ve been inspired by a few of the participants in my Mandala Discovery program who signed up for the program a few years ago and have worked their way through the exercises three or four times since. Each time they do them, they gain something new and take their learning to a new depth. What showed up in the third or fourth pass couldn’t have showed up the first time through. They weren’t ready for it then.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a residential school survivor who testified at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I told them about the physical abuse,” she said, “but I wasn’t ready to talk about the sexual abuse. Those stories will have to wait for another time when I’m ready to share them. They still feel too raw.” I was struck by her wisdom, trusting herself to know what felt safe to share and what needed more time in the tender places of her own heart.
This wisdom is true for personal growth, it’s true for interpersonal conflict, and it’s true for community-building. Whether you’re dealing with your own issues or wrestling through things with others, it’s important to pay attention to what level of depth feels right in each particular moment. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to go any deeper, sometimes it’s just not the right timing or you don’t have time for the deep dive, or sometimes you haven’t found the right container that can hold the complexity of the depth you need to dive to.
Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague and we were talking about some upcoming training we want to offer in The Circle Way. We were contemplating whether to offer a two-day session or a deeper dive in five days. One of the questions we were asking ourselves was what depth we felt the potential participants might be ready to go and what depth of conversation they might be ready to hold. The Circle Way is one of those practices and containers that can offer value at a rudimentary level or can hold really complex stories, emotions, conflict, etc. at a much deeper level. Again, it depends of the level you’re prepared to go or the length of time you have for the dive.
It all comes back to the spiral. Again and again, whether it’s in our own personal growth or the growth of our communities, we spiral through the layers of what we need to learn, going deeper and deeper until we reach the core. Just like a path straight up a mountain would rob us of our oxygen, a straight path to the depths of our learning would strangle us.
If you’re ready to go deeper, to find the next level of the spiral, then find the right container that can handle the dive. A “container” can be offered by a trusted friend, a therapist, a coach, or a sharing circle – whatever person or group of people holds space for you and makes you feel safe enough for the dive. Or it can start with a set of tools and creative exercises like Mandala Discovery or The Spiral Path (in both cases you have access to a community of people who are working through the program at the same time).
Consider the container like the oxygen mask and wetsuit of a deep-sea diver – the deeper you go, the stronger your equipment needs to be.
When you’re ready, take the spiral path to your own growth. It will lead you through the layers at the speed that you’re ready to uncover them.
I am writing from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve come here with my family of origin – my three siblings, their spouses, and all of our children. I’m currently sitting on the patio of the large house we rented, just feet away from the pool. I can hear the waves crashing on the shore on the other side of the fence.
Three years ago, Christmas, for our family, was a painful time. We’d lost Mom only a month before and we were all raw and wounded and the festivities all around us were like slaps in the face every time we left the house.
We’re less raw this year, but the grief is never fully gone.
After Mom died, we decided to use the small inheritance that was left, after all of the expenses were paid, for a family vacation. We started dreaming of a week in the sun together… and then we got walloped all over again when my oldest brother was diagnosed with cancer only six months after it took Mom.
The next sixteen months were again mixed with the same highs and lows we’d been through with Mom’s cancer. Sometimes we dared to hope Brad would survive, and sometimes we were almost certain he wouldn’t. In August of last year, when the cancer showed itself to have survived two surgeries and mutliple chemo treatments, the doctors said there was no longer any point in prolonging treatment. We tried to prepare ourselves for another loss. Expecting we would have him with us for no more than 3 months, the four siblings considered going on a smaller version of the family trip we’d imagined – just the four of us making one last attempt to have fun in an interesting location before our numbers shrunk.
But then, the pendulum swung back in the other direction. The doctors decided it was worth making one more attempt at saving his life, so they cut him open again, extracted more cancer, and hoped for the best. That was shortly before last Christmas. We spent that season in subdued hope that he would stay with us and that we’d have more holiday seasons together. His energy was low, and he couldn’t travel, so the rest of us drove across the prairies to be with him instead of the other way around.
Over the course of the year, things continued to improve, and his remission continues. For now. Today is what we have, so today is what we will celebrate.
This week, we took that celebration to the shores of the Gulf. Three years after she died, we finally unwrapped Mom’s final gift.
On Christmas Day, the four of us spent all afternoon playing like children in the giant waves. Spouses and children joined us for awhile, but the four of us stayed in the water by far the longest. We relished every wave and held every burst of laughter like a sacred jewel. Some waves tossed us to the ground, some buried us and left us gasping for air, and some let us simply roll gently over the top. Long after we were so weary we could barely stand, we played and laughed, hanging onto every moment as though it were our last.
At one point, in a short lull between waves, one of us remarked that this moment represented all that was left of the tiny pittance of money mom and dad had left after all of their years of toiling on the farm. Farming was hard on all of us, and in the end it killed our dad, but it also gave us many incredible gifts, including this moment.
This trip has been both grace and gift in the middle of all of our shared grief.
And that is the way of life. We walk through grief and then we step into grace, over and over again. There are moments of profound loss, and moments of ache and betrayal, and then there are moments when we play for hours in the waves with three of our favourite people in the world.
Earlier this week, on a long solitary walk on the beach, I was contemplating what my word for 2016 would be. Unlike a resolution, I consider my word for the year like an invitation or intention – something that helps me stay open for my own longings and the gifts that come my way.
The word that came to me was OPEN.
I want to live 2016 with an open heart. I want to be open to the gifts, the grace, and the grief. I want to open myself to new relationships, new experiences, and new learning opportunities.
I want to stay open the way I felt out there on the waves – surrendering to whatever gift each one brought – riding those that were gentle, rising up again after those that were not, and always laughing and hanging onto to those people who matter.
Soon we will begin to return to our various homes. We may have another chance to play together like this, or we may not. Only God knows our future. But in the meantime, we have this moment, and in this moment I make a conscious choice to remain open.
Note: If you want to choose a word for 2016, or if you want to reflect on the gifts, grace, and grief that 2015 has brought your way, there are mandala exercises for that purpose in A Soulful Year: A mandala planner for ending one year and welcoming the next.
Also: Mandala Discovery starts on January 1st.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.
Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.
This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.
It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.
But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.
Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.
I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.
First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.
Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.
At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.
What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”
I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.
I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.
The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.
This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”
We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.
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When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.
While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.
“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”
Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.
In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.
The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.
In my own roles as teacher, facilitator, coach, mother, wife, and friend, etc., I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way that Ann modeled it for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.
To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.
Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me.
- Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
- Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
- Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
- Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
- Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
- Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
- Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
- Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.
Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.
It is my intention to be a life-long learning in what it means to hold space for other people, so if you have experience that’s different than mine and want to add anything to this post, please add that in the comments or send me a message.
This post continues to travel around the world and has been shared in many interesting places, including a Harvard Business Review article, Beyond Automation, and a Grist Magazine article, 48 hours that changed the future of the rainforest. I have done a number of radio interviews, developed workshops, and spoke at conferences on the subject. If you are interested in having me speak at your event, check out my speaking page. If you are interested in a retreat or workshop, check out my calendar, or contact me about creating a workshop tailored to your organization’s or event’s needs.
Want to grow your own work in holding space? Check out my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.
This article has been translated into a number of languages (by volunteers):
Chinese (no link currently available)
Follow-up pieces about holding space:
How to hold space for yourself first
What’s the opposite of holding space?
Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing
Sometimes you have to write on the walls: Some thoughts on holding space for other people’s personal growth
On holding space when there is an imbalance of power and privilege
Leave space for others to fill your needs
What the circle holds
An unresolved story that I don’t know how to tell
Holding liminal space (moving beyond the cliché into deeper space)
If you’re looking for a pdf version for printing and/or passing around to others, you can download it here. You’re welcome to share it, but if you want to re-publish any part of it, please contact me.
UPDATE: Here’s a recent keynote address I gave at a conference in May 2016 on the topic of holding space:
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free e-book, A Path to Connection.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
Last year, as the year ended, I shared a special mandala prompt for reflecting on the passing year before you invite in the new year. In that prompt, you were invited to divide your circle into 4 quadrants, with the words “grace, grief, growth, and gratitude” in each of the four quadrants. Then, with some reflection of the year that had passed, you filled each of the four quadrants with the things that happened that were connected to those four words.
The process of filling those four quadrants helps you see the year for ALL that it was, not just the happy things and not just the hard things. Sometimes we get stuck in only one story and we assume that that story defines us, but each of us walks through many stories and each of those stories teaches us something. Life is never a perfect balance, but it’s also never only one of those four things.
That reflection mandala is now a part of A Soulful Year: A Mandala Workbook for Ending one Year and Welcoming Another. Before you begin the process of planning for what’s ahead, it’s valuable to reflect on what has passed and on what those events have taught you.
The Reflection Mandala is a useful process to do every year at this time. Take some time this week to create your own simple four quadrant mandala for 2014. Many of us have kept gratitude journals, and that is a beautiful practice that has been transformational in my own past, but sometimes that’s not enough. This practice offers an extension of that, where focusing not only on the gratitude, but on the grief and growth and what may have been really hard to walk through helps us recognize all of the complexity of our lives and all of the things that change us and stretch us.
Here’s an idea for extending the practice of reflecting on grace, growth, gratitude, and grief throughout the year…
Find, buy, or make four containers that you can keep on your desk, bookshelf, or nightstand. (I purchased 4 small jars at the dollar store for $2.)
Write (or print stickers, as I did) the words grace, grief, gratitude, and growth on each of the containers. Embellish the containers however you wish.
Cut up small pieces of paper that you can keep in an envelope close to your containers.
On a regular basis throughout the year (daily or weekly), reflect on how grace, grief, gratitude, and growth have been present for you. Write notes on slips of paper and slip them into which ever jar that reflection belongs in. You can do all four each day, or just do the ones that most apply to that day. Try to maintain a reasonable balance, filling each jar instead of focusing on only one.
Here are some prompts for the four categories:
This one is simple – what are you grateful for today? What made you happy? Who showed love or compassion? What did you have fun doing?
A simple definition of grace is “anything that shows up freely and unexpectedly that you did nothing to earn”. It can be a beautiful sunset that catches you by surprise as you’re driving home, an unexpected kind gesture from a friend, or forgiveness that you don’t feel like you deserve. What was unexpected and unearned? How did the beauty of the world stop you in your tracks? How did friends extend undeserved forgiveness or offers of help?
What made you sad? Who do you miss? What feels broken? What old wounds are showing up? What did you lose? What disappointed you?
What stretched you? What did you learn? What were your a-ha moments? Who served as your teacher? How did you turn hard things into opportunity for growth?
Fill your jars with meaning throughout the year.
It’s quite possible that some items will show up in multiple jars. For example, something that causes grief will probably also offer you opportunities to grow. And sometimes (like when friends show up to support you) grace shows up in the darkest of moments.
Keep the containers in a place where they’ll be visible and easy to access and where you’ll remember to fill them up. You might want to do this as a morning practice before you start your day or an evening practice as you reflect on the day that passed.
At the end of the year, create a new four-quadrant mandala, take all of the pieces out of the jars and write or glue them onto the mandala. Reflect on your well-balanced year.
Start filling the jars again next year.
Once you’ve reflected on the year that passed, you may want to continue with a variety of other processes that will help you welcome and plan for what wants to unfold in 2015. A Soulful Year may help.
If you’d like to receive a mandala prompt every day in January 2015, consider signing up for Mandala Discovery.