The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me.
There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.
I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.
Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home.
Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive.
When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”
That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women.
Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.
I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment.
That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive.
And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones.
Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.
1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need.
2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it.
3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later.
4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly.
5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.
6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.
Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.
I stopped talking about “non-judgement” and replaced it with “selective non-judgement”;
I started talking about boundaries and limitations and the times when you shouldn’t hold space;
I started writing about spiritual bypassing and the many ways we avoid the messiness of the liminal space (i.e. by trying to stay in “love and light”);
I evolved my language around “safe space” and started talking more about “brave space”.
Here’s why that matters: If these nuances are not part of the complexity of holding space, then it can be its own form of spiritual bypassing, it can be a justification for willful blindness, and it can make us complicit in allowing harm to be done.
If I hold space without any judgement, discernment, or boundaries, and if I insist on everyone being allowed to express any opinions they want in the spaces I hold without repercussions or accountability, then the spaces I hold can become cauldrons of toxicity and dangerous ideology, they will overlook the abuse of power and they will almost certainly contribute to the further oppression of those who are already marginalized.
I am currently seeing this happening in the wellness/spirituality/yoga communities. People are invoking the language of holding space to gaslight other people for daring to challenge belief systems and worldviews that contribute to oppression. They’re insisting on things like “safe space” and “no divisiveness” and “unity” and “all beliefs are sacred” and “all lives matter” as a way to shame people for challenging racism, fascism, ableism, and other destructive “isms”.
More specifically, this watered down, spiritual bypassing use of the language of holding space has allowed QAnon (a dangerous, cultish belief system rooted in fascist propaganda which espouses beliefs such as “the pandemic is a hoax” and “Trump is a lightworker who will save the world from a powerful cabal of leftist child traffickers”) to take hold in these communities and has stopped people from challenging the destructiveness of it because they don’t want to create divisiveness or judge other people’s beliefs. (Sadly, I suspect that it may be specifically BECAUSE QAnon saw the potential of this type of culture within this community that they put the effort into targeting it. If you’re looking for a fertile field to grow a dangerous belief system, why not target a space where people won’t put up much resistance or be judgmental when their friends buy in?)
I want to go on record as saying that I DO NOT support this use of a term that has become so close to my heart that I’ve co-founded The Centre for Holding Space (and written a book about it). I AM NOT, nor will I ever be, in support of this language being co-opted for those purposes. And I will not be a bystander and allow this beautiful concept to be corrupted in such a dangerous way.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu
Holding space is NOT about being neutral in situations of injustice. It is about wise discernment, courage, boundaries, anti-oppression, intersectionality, and fierce love. It is about centring the most marginalized and keeping the oppressor out of the circle (unless they show evidence of change and a commitment to repair). It is about daring to have difficult conversations and it’s about transforming conflict.
Holding space is about honouring the sovereignty and seeking the liberation of ALL people. That means not accepting the abuse of those who threaten that sovereignty or try to take that liberation away.
It doesn’t mean that you have to be unkind to people who’ve bought into belief systems that cause harm, but it means you have to be bold enough to challenge them and, if necessary, keep them out of circles where marginalized people risk being harmed.
Whenever I teach the Foundation Program in holding space, people are always somewhat surprised at the challenge and robustness of it, especially when we get to the part about Holding Space in Complexity. In that module, we talk about power, oppression, intersectionality, and conflict. Suddenly, a concept that started off as simply a way to support a friend through a crisis, or a client through personal or organizational development, becomes somewhat confronting when it calls us to be courageous in the face of injustice and oppression. Suddenly, we are called to be warriors rather than doormats.
From Buddhism, I learned the posture of “strong back and soft belly”. This concept teaches us that we should be welcoming and offer access to our open hearts through our “soft bellies”, but that we should maintain “strong backs”, prepared to become warriors who challenge that which threatens to harm us or other people. This, I believe, is how we should hold space – softness balanced with strength.
That means that there is openness to everyone’s questions, longing, fears, etc., but there are boundaries erected whenever harm is being done. In these spaces, you are allowed to express your beliefs, but you may be challenged if those beliefs don’t honour the dignity and sovereignty of other human beings.
At this point, you may be thinking… “but Heather… it sounds like you’re biased and you get to pick and choose whose belief systems are acceptable in your spaces”. Yes, I will admit to my biases and I will also admit that I am not always right and that I am still learning. (Each of us has biases and to pretend otherwise is another form of willful blindness.) As much as I can, I try to be biased on the side of justice, equity, and the sovereignty and dignity of ALL people. That means that sometimes I choose to intentionally centre the more marginalized and ask that those with more privilege relinquish some of that privilege (and dare to have the belief systems and biases connected to that privilege be challenged). That may feel uncomfortable for some, but I believe that it is the way that we will build more equitable and just spaces.
If you wish to hold space in a way that does not inadvertently create spaces of intentional blindness where dangerous ideas are allowed to grow unchecked, here are some tips:
Be clear about what is acceptable in the spaces you host. If you are a group facilitator, pastor, community leader, teacher, etc., it’s good practice to post what is acceptable, and/or invite people in your groups to collectively develop a set of agreements that articulate what is acceptable and then ask that everyone adhere to those agreements.
Work in community and develop a culture where vulnerability is valued and people can be open about their own biases and blindspots. Build trust and a strong container among your co-leaders so that when someone’s blindspots become clear to them they have the resources and support to work through any shame that might be triggered. (This is why I am now in partnership with a strong partner and have a team who work together and allow this work to expand beyond my own biases. I have been stretched because of it.)
Be in relationship with people who are different from you, especially those who are from marginalized populations, so that you have an expanded worldview and can gain perspective about the kinds of behaviour and beliefs that cause harm. If you don’t yet have such friendships, start by following strong leaders/writers/thinkers who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), LGBTQ+, differently abled, etc., especially those who clearly articulate how their communities are being marginalized.
Be committed to having your biases challenged and your worldview expanded. None of us can claim to be free of bias or prejudice – it’s in the soil our society was built on and it’s part of the evolutionary development of our brains that’s helped keep us alive and connected to our communities. Some of those biases, in fact, are inwardly directed as internalized oppression. (For example, after all of these years of living as a fat person, I still have to catch myself in the judgements I make about fatness.) We might not be able to free ourselves entirely of harmful biases, but we can be humble enough to admit them and open to having them changed.
BUT… don’t be so open to having your biases challenged that you’ll be easily swayed by manipulation and propaganda. Don’t be afraid to stand firm on your core beliefs. Check your sources, do some research about the origin of ideas and the people behind them, question things that seem preposterous, and look for wise researchers, thought-leaders and journalists whose analysis is rooted in good research methodology and who don’t use manipulation techniques in how they communicate. Use your logic to check an idea before accepting it. (For example, if someone tells you that ALL mainstream media or science agencies are corrupt and controlled by some dark force, contemplate, for a moment, just how many people the world over would have had to have fallen victim to some kind of illogical mind control. And then consider the danger of that kind of belief, the people who would likely be most harmed by it, and the people who most benefit from it.)
And now, for the sake of transparency, here are some of the things I believe:
I believe that Black Lives Matter. I believe that systemic racism exists and I believe it is the cause of many Black bodies being killed or harmed by the police.
I believe that, as a settler on this land, I need to commit myself to reconciliation and repair with the Indigenous people who were here before us and who were colonized by our ancestors (and that includes upholding the treaties and honouring their sovereignty and land rights).
I believe that climate change is real and that our capitalist greed has done damage to our earth. I believe that we need to act urgently in order to mitigate that damage.
I believe in the rights of LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities and I believe that we should, collectively, honour their sovereignty and dignity and work to create a society where they no longer have to face the harm that has been done to them throughout history.
I believe in science and I believe that, because science is built on a system of checks and balances and peer review, even when scientists make mistakes, there will eventually be better science that will reveal and correct those mistakes.
I believe that, though there is bias and some corruption in the mainstream media, and sometimes they may focus too much on certain things and miss other things that are important, there are a lot of hard-working journalists who have integrity and are committed to telling balanced and well-researched (and fact-checked) stories in the best way they know how. I believe they deserve our support and encouragement (and payment) to keep doing their jobs. I believe that there is great risk in relying only on biased, independent news sources, and I believe that many people become manipulated when that happens.
I believe that COVID-19 is real and that it wasn’t created by evil scientists or big pharma and that people are dying from it and unless we act collectively and responsibly to decrease the rate of infection, we risk putting many more people in harm’s way and we will over-burden our healthcare workers.
I believe that we are collectively responsible to do our best to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. During a pandemic, that includes following the guidelines our leaders and scientists develop, when they base those guidelines on the most current science available to them.
I believe that there is value in doing our best to strengthen our immune systems (and some of those things fall outside of traditional medicine) and I believe that we should ask for transparency about any possible vaccines and who stands to make a lot of money from them (thankfully, most of us live in democracies where we have those rights and, at least here in Canada, those rights aren’t being taken away), BUT I also believe that those things can distract us away from protecting our most vulnerable and can cause us to marginalize those who don’t have access to immune-boosting supplements, food choices, and practices, or have mental health issues or other challenges that create a barrier. I believe in collective responsibility and I believe that an “every person is responsible for their own health and for finding their own truth” mentality has the potential to do great harm.
I believe that QAnon is a cult and a system of propaganda for the far right (whose immediate purpose is to sway the U.S. election and control the most powerful country in the world). Like cults have been doing for centuries, it preys on people’s vulnerabilities, fears, and isolation, particularly in a time of disruption and insecurity like we’ve been experiencing with the pandemic. I believe that nobody is immune to cults, not even the most intelligent among us, because cult leaders manipulate people’s trauma and attachment systems in such a way that it makes it difficult to access the higher-functioning parts of our brains. Because of that, it is difficult to use reason to draw people away from it. (For more on this, read Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.) I believe that they intentionally manipulate people’s goodness and the things they care about (i.e. saving children from child trafficking) to draw them in. I believe that it is particularly insidious right now because it can harness the power of social media, and I believe it is particularly dangerous because it is mirroring the rise of Naziism in the days and months before the Holocaust.
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.
I am a meaning maker. A word warrior. A truth teller.
To me, the written word is like a flashlight, illuminating the darkness just enough so that I can see the next place my foot should land on the path. When I read other people’s words, they light the path for me. When I write my own words, I hold the flashlight for myself. And when I share those words, I turn the flashlight back and light the path for those who come after me.
Right now, I want to have words. I want to read them, write them, and share them. I want to cling to them like a lifeline.
I want to make sense of this strange world we’re living in. I want to illuminate the liminal space of COVID19 — with other people’s words and with my own. I want to know where to put my feet and I want to shine the light so that others will find firm footing too.
I turn to the poets and they lend me some comfort and meaning, but none of their poems fully satisfy the ache. I turn to my journal, but mostly I stare at a blank page. I turn to the stack of books on my nightstand, but none resonate with the tuning fork of this particular moment in history.
More than anything, I want to give a name to this thing that’s taken up residence in the pit of my stomach.
To name it is to tame it, I tell myself, as I wrack my brain for the right words for these emotions. Fear? Existential dread? Claustrophobia? Anxiety? Grief? Agitation? Restlessness? Loneliness? Emptiness? Malaise? Distrust? Despair? Anger?
What about the spaces in between the emotions, or the spaces where they overlap? Is there a word for grief-anxiety? Or loneliness-agitation? Is there a way to capture the way they swell up in me, one on top of the other?
What about the times when the emotions settle into little more than a dull ache – like mild indigestion in the pit of my stomach? And… is that joy that’s unexpectedly peaking through now and then? Or hopefulness? Peace? Ease? Restfulness? Are those things real or am I just imagining them?
What about the collective emotions? Is this thing in the pit of my stomach only mine, or am I holding a piece of something much bigger than me? How does this shadow of fear that’s spread over the whole planet feel when it lands in my own gut? What about my children’s emotions – do they swell up in my body the way their tiny bodies once lived in my womb?
I feel the questions fill me, but I don’t find any answers. I ponder, for a moment, whether we need a new name for this emotion – something to mark the newness of the place we find ourselves in. Covidaphobia? Coronanxiety? Is there something that will capture the many layers of uncertainty and loss and instability and unfairness and complexity? Is there something that speaks to the macro (the number of people who will potentially die or have their lives destroyed from this) and the micro (the small day-to-day ways that I and my family are impacted)?
No answers land. No words show up on the page. There is nothing that makes sense in this senseless landscape.
And so I go to my basement and pull out the large canvas I’d been saving to someday make something pretty with. But I don’t want to make it pretty today. I want it to hold the things I can’t put into words. I want it to be messy and unfinished and liminal and therapeutic.
I splash paint on the surface and, foregoing the paint brush, thrust my hand into the paint, swirling it around, spreading it to the edges of the canvas. It feels good to have my hand covered in paint.
At first I have to resist the urge to make it meaningful, to make it “say” something. My old ways of making meaning bubble to the surface and I want to translate what I’m feeling into something that makes sense – something logical and with shape. Would an ocean with waves represent how this feels? Is it the heart of coronavirus I want to express on the canvas? Is it a spiral? A globe? A labyrinth? A cave?
But every time I try to make it familiar and understandable, I feel constricted and frustrated. This is something different. It’s messy. It’s a process. Its meaning is in the doing, not in the outcome.
It’s sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful. It’s sometimes dark and sometimes light. There are moments when I love it and moments when I hate it. There are moments when it cracks me open and the grief erupts like a volcano from my body. There are moments when it stills the churning in my body and I finally find the peace that has eluded me in many weeks. There are moments when I feel myself dancing with lightness as I paint and moments when I want to burn it all to the ground.
I’m tempted to stop in a moment when I like what’s on the canvas. But that feels like cheating – like falling back on an old pattern – so I pour black paint on my hand and drag it through my favourite bits on the canvas. The black feels like truth.
When my body tells me there’s nothing left in me to express, I stop. And in that moment I look down and realize that what’s left on my hand is the most beautiful part.
The next day, I go back to the canvas. Again, I spill more paint and drag it across the canvas. This time a shape emerges. Sometimes it looks like a giant eye, sometimes it looks like lips. Again, I drag black through it. And then silver. And then I drag my finger nails down the page until it looks like everything on the page is caught behind prison bars. And then drops of red, like blood dripping down the canvas.
The emotional waves rise and fall, but they feel easier to hold this time – less constricted. Whatever shows up in my body shows up on the canvas. I don’t try to give anything names – only colours.
Whenever I look down at my hand, I see that it is beautiful. I resist the urge to give that meaning – instead I simply notice it.
The canvas never makes sense. But at the same time, it makes all the sense in the world.
I will keep going back to it, again and again, adding layer upon layer as long as this liminal space keeps us in this shapeless, senseless void. I will let it tell my body things that my brain can’t understand.
I will pour my feelings out through my hand onto the canvas and I won’t wrestle them into meaning.
The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.
We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.
The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on.
Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.
This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life.
Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.
Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.
In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.
In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.
A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.
“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”
I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.
“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”
The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.
It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.
For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.
It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.
Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.
Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.
The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.
Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.
The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.
Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.
It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.
Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.
None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.
I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.
Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.
So here we are… in this unusual liminal space between “the world before COVID-19” and “the world after COVID-19”. I gathered some of my thoughts around what it means to go through the liminal space, and how we need to seek out the wayfinders and imaginal cells in our communities and our world (and within ourselves). Instead of a blog post, I thought a video might feel a little more like the kind of human connection we need right now…