Seven years ago, sixteen women gathered at the edge of a lake in Ontario to learn The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin. I was one of those women, having longed for this opportunity for ten years, since I’d first read Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture.
As is almost always the case when like-hearted women gather, our conversations quickly took us into deep and reverent places. It was the kind of nourishment I needed in that middle place I was in at the time – at the threshold of leaving full-time employment and launching my new business.
Punctuated throughout our circle time that weekend were the sounds of gunshots from across the lake – geese hunters, we presumed. The harshness of the sound (and what we assumed was the result) was in sharp contrast to the gentleness of our circle.
It dawned on us how symbolic this was… on one side of the lake was the softness of feminine energy, while on the other side was the aggression of masculine energy. The two were at odds and neither knew how to integrate with the other.
I went for a long walk one afternoon, and though the woods were quiet and peaceful where I walked, the ongoing gunshots reverberating across the water troubled me. Somewhere in the woods, I had the thought… “I really want to row out to an island at the centre of the lake, to meet the masculine there. I want to be a bridge-builder, a healer of this divide.” At the end of that walk, before returning to the retreat centre, I was surprised to find a weathered old sign pointing back in the direction I’d come. There was one word on the sign – Lifeline. I couldn’t help but think it was meant for me.
What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the healing work I wanted to do at the centre of the lake was not only about healing relationships between other people, it was about healing the relationship between the feminine and masculine within myself (and how I related to the masculine in others).
Perhaps it was because of that personal divide that, for the next several years, my work focused primarily on women. I gathered women together in retreats, created resources for them, and wrote articles for them. It felt good and right, and yet… I kept feeling like something was missing. I couldn’t forget the vision of the island at the centre of the lake.
Gradually, I began to incorporate more men into my circles, but it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes those men brought too much of the unhealed masculine into the space, dominating the conversation and interrupting without self-awareness. And sometimes the women silenced themselves or became awkward when the men entered the space. And sometimes my own social conditioning came into play, and I deferred to male voices instead of holding them accountable.
And yet, despite the challenge, I knew that this was important work and that I couldn’t back away from it. So I worked on healing myself so that I could offer healing to others.
Last week, I flew to Germany to participate in a global gathering of practitioners of The Circle Way. I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly that I needed to be there, but I kept hearing the nudges, and so I decided to follow them.
I didn’t know then that the gathering would represent some of the healing I’d wanted to find on that island in the centre of the lake.
Near the beginning of the gathering, on a beautiful piece of land in the Eifel forest region of Germany, we were invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, a tradition that had been passed down to the owner of the land from his teacher, a Lakota elder. For personal reasons, I did not participate in the ceremony, choosing instead to sit at the fire and watch the fire-keeper feed hot stones into the lodges.
There was a binary nature to the ceremony that was troublesome for some in our midst (including myself). Men sat in one lodge and women in another and there was no space for those who fit within the non-binary space in between. In addition, the women in their moon time were not allowed into the lodge (in keeping with Lakota tradition) and though they were told they shouldn’t enter because they are particularly powerful at that time of the month, they didn’t feel very powerful, sitting at a separate fire at the edge of the ceremonial area. A man lead the ceremony (even entering the women’s lodge at the beginning to offer teachings and songs) and a man served as fire-keeper.
In the sharing circle the next morning, a few people mentioned their discomfort with the ceremony and the way it divided us and excluded some. Nothing was resolved in that conversation, but some of us continued to have conversations on the sidelines.
Though the ceremony challenged us, I think it was a valuable place for us to start because it offered us a base from which to grow. When we turned away from the ceremony and toward other things, something began to shift, helping us evolve out of the patriarchy-imposed binary and into the space in between.
There were playful moments when it seemed the trickster was in our midst, messing with what had divided, excluded, and wounded most of us throughout our lives. Once, in the middle of a long afternoon of conversation, when we’d settled back into the circle after a break, a platter of cake was brought into the room by two people who’d gone to the kitchen to get us a treat. Instead of what we might have expected, it was men who brought the food and served us one-by-one. At another moment, when women gathered in a small circle to talk about their wombs and what they carried, an open-hearted man joined in. And then there were the two people who slept in tents at the edge of the property (while everyone else slept in comfortable beds) like warriors guarding the village. Those two people (myself included) were women. And then, in the only session when we weren’t in circle and there was a more visible hierarchy (with people at tables and the hosts standing), all four leaders were women.
There were personal things happening as well. One of my favourite conversations, that stretched from supper until midnight, was with two men (one of whom kept getting up to serve me every time my glass was empty). We shared vulnerable and authentic parts of ourselves, and at no point did it feel that our gender differences created any awkwardness or disconnection. Each of us was able to hold space for the others in ways that crossed both gender and language barriers (for both of them, English is a second language).
By the end of our time together, it was my impression (which was confirmed by others in the group) that we had arrived at a place of much more gender fluidity, playfulness, and possibility. If a new ceremony had emerged at the end of our gathering, I’m convinced it would have looked quite different from what we began with. Our time together changed us. Together we were learning to integrate our own masculine with our own feminine and dancing with others who were doing the same.
On my flight home, I realized that my dream of an island at the centre of the lake was beginning to come true, and there were others willing to meet me there, willing to heal the wounds of the patriarchy, and willing to dance in the space in between.
Somewhere over the ocean, I started to dream of something more specific than just a mystical island. I started to imagine a gathering of people who want to dance in the space in between. It wouldn’t just be about gender – it would be an intersectional gathering, where all of our parts (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.) are brought forward in the dance. It would be a place where we could have both hard conversations and playful ones – where we can challenge each other with words, but then engage each other more playfully with art and dance and music. It would be a place where we would share food and be held by the land in a way that would help us imagine the community we once dreamed was possible – where the patriarchy no longer destroys our connections with each other or with ourselves.
It would be a place where the circle would remind us that there is a “leader in every chair” and that differences are not threats when we can look each other in the eyes and listen with deep attention.
I am imagining a learning village that uses Open Space Technology so that the agenda is not fixed in advance but rather there is an invitation to enter the flow of what we could co-create as a village. Anyone could bring an idea and invite others to play and/or wrestle with it. Anyone could call a circle, start a piece of collaborative art, or invite us to dance. All gifts and questions would be welcome.
Perhaps this dream will grow into a living thing in the year ahead. I am open to the possibility. And I am open to whoever wishes to step forward and help me dream it into reality.
P.S. If you want to meet me “in the space in between”, consider joining me at one of my upcoming retreats…
1. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
2. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
3. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand.
NOTE: If you are interested in the next offering of Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, which starts January 2018, you may wish to put your name on the waiting list as it may sell out quickly. If you want to be notified when registration opens (next week) send an email to heather at heatherplett dot com with the following in the subject line: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” ― William Hazlitt
The wedding I officiated on the weekend took place in a circle. The bride and groom and I stood in the centre, with the guests gathered around us.
After I had shared a few words of wisdom about marriage, I read a blessing and then passed a talking piece (a stone on which I’d printed their names) around the circle inviting each person to speak their own one-sentence blessing to the couple. If they didn’t feel comfortable speaking, they had the option to simply hold the stone for a moment and offer an unspoken blessing.
It was a beautiful and simple ritual that felt like the couple was being held in a giant container of love by their community.
As I said in this piece last November, the talking piece isn’t magic, but “what IS magic is the way that it invites us to listen in ways we don’t normally listen and speak in ways we don’t normally speak.”
When a talking piece goes around the circle, the person who holds it is invited to “speak with intention”. Everyone else is invited to “listen with attention” and not interrupt or ask questions. Everyone in the conversation is invited to “tend the well-being of the circle”. (Those are the three practices of The Circle Way.)
A talking piece conversation has a unique quality to it. There is more listening, less interrupting, more pausing, and, almost always, more vulnerability than ordinary conversations. Yes, some people get nervous about the talking piece (because it puts them on the spot and feels like pressure to say something important), but when they get used to it, (and when they realize that anyone is welcome to pass the talking piece without speaking) almost everyone acknowledges that the talking piece brought something special into the space that they’ve rarely experienced before.
The talking piece is not meant for every conversation, but I believe it should play a more significant role in many of our conversations. Here’s why:
1. The talking piece invites us to listen much more than we talk. When in a circle with a dozen people, I have to listen twelve times as much as I talk. That’s a very good practice. Listening opens our hearts to other people’s stories. It invites our over-active minds and mouths to pause and be present for people who need to be witnessed. And when it’s our turn to talk, we know that we are being listened to just as intently.
2. The talking piece encourages us to get out of “fix-it” mode. When a friend shares a problem with us, it usually feels more comfortable to jump in with a solution than to sit and really listen. But unless that friend has asked for advice, what she/he probably needs more than anything is a listening ear. The talking piece doesn’t allow us to interrupt with our version of “the truth”. Often, simply because they’ve been heard in a deeper way than they’re used to, people walk away from the circle having figured out their OWN solutions for their problems.
3. The talking piece makes every voice equal. Nobody has the podium in a circle. Nobody stands on a stage. Each voice makes a valuable contribution to the conversation and none is more important than the others. With so many race issues happening recently (especially in the U.S. and Canada), I like to imagine what might happen if more people were to sit in circle with people of different races. What if we mandated interracial circle conversations for every high school student? What if students couldn’t graduate unless they’d spent time learning to listen to stories told by people who are different from them? What if Dylan Roof, for example, had sat in a weekly circle listening to stories from the black community? Might that have changed last week’s outcome?
4. The talking piece invites us more physically into the conversation. There’s something special about holding an object in your hand that has been passed there from hand to hand around the circle. It invites us to be present in not just our heads but in our bodies. It invites us to sink physically into the conversation, engaging in a deeper way because our hands are engaged along with our hearts.
5. The talking pieces creates the silence into which open hearts dare to speak. There’s a level of vulnerability that shows up in the circle that is rarely present in other conversations. Because the talking piece invites us to slow down and be more intentional, we don’t just talk about the weather or yesterday’s shopping trip. We talk about things that are real and we show up authentically for each other.
Have you had experience with a talking piece? I’d love to hear about it.
If you haven’t experienced it yet, don’t be afraid to try. Yes, you might get some funny looks from your family or friends when you pull out a stone, a stick, or even a pen and invite them to pass it around the circle, but there’s a very good chance – if they’re openhearted and authentic – that they will be surprised at what it brings to the conversation.
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Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.
– Parker Palmer, Let your Life Speak
When I shared my post about what it means to hold space for people and it went viral, I learned this…
This desire to hold space well for other people is vast and diverse.
I have heard from the most fascinating range of people about how this post is being circulated and used. It’s showing up in home schooling forums, palliative and hospice care circles, art communities, spiritual retreat centres, universities, alcoholics anonymous groups, psychotherapists’ offices, etc. The most interesting place I heard about it being shared was within the US Marines. It is also touching the lives of people supporting their parents, children, spouses and friends through difficult times.
The lesson in this is that no matter who or where you are, you can do the beautiful and important work of holding space for other people. There are so many of us who are making this a priority in our lives that I feel hopeful that this world is finally swinging like a pendulum away from a place of isolation and individualism to a place of deeper connection and love. Isn’t that a beautiful idea?
Recently, I participated in an online course on “Leading from the Future as it Emerges: From Ego-system to Eco-system” and the underlying premise of the course was that we need to find a way to make deeper connections with ourselves, others, and the earth so that we bring about a paradigm shift and stop this crash course we’re on. There were more than 25,000 from around the world participating in the course. That’s a LOT of people who share a common passion for changing the ways in which we interact and make decisions. I walked away feeling increasingly hopeful that I am part of a swelling tide of change. The response to my blog post has further reinforced that hopeful feeling.
We are doing the best we can to live in love and community.
We are not perfect, and sometimes we still make selfish decisions, but we are doing our best. Thank you for being part of the change.
The other thing that struck me as I read through all of the comments, emails, etc., is that, while all of you are all responding from a place of generosity and openheartedness, wanting to learn more about holding space for others, you also need to be given permission and encouragement to hold space for yourselves.
This is really important. If we don’t care for ourselves well in this work, we’ll suffer burnout, and risk becoming cynical and/or ineffective.
PLEASE take the time to hold space for yourself so that you can hold space for others.
It is not selfish to focus on yourself. In fact, it’s an act of generosity and commitment to make sure that you are at your best when you support others. They will get much more effective, meaningful, and openhearted support from you if you are healthy and strong.
In the Art of Hosting work that I do and teach, we talk about “hosting ourselves first”. What does it mean to “host myself first”? It means, simply, that anything I am prepared to encounter once I walk into a room, I need to be prepared to encounter and host in myself first. In order to prepare myself for conflict, frustration, ego, fear, anger, weariness, envy, injustice, etc., I need to sit with myself, look into my own heart, bear witness to what I see there, and address it in whatever way I need to before I can do it for others. I can’t hide any of that stuff in the shadows, because what is hidden there tends to come out in ways I don’t want it to when I am under stress.
AND just as I am prepared to offer compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and resolution to anything that shows up in the room, I need to offer it to myself first. Only when I am present for myself and compassionate with myself will I be prepared to host with strength and courage.
In other words, all of those points that I made about how to hold space for others can and should be applied to yourself first. Give yourself permission to trust your own intuition. Give yourself only as much information as you can handle. Don’t let anyone take your power away. Keep your ego out of it. Make yourself feel safe enough to fail. Give guidance and help to yourself with humility and thoughtfulness. Create your own container for complex emotions, fears, trauma, etc. And allow yourself to make decisions that are different from what other people would make.
This isn’t necessarily easy, when you’re doing the often stressful and time-consuming work of holding space for others, but it is imperative.
Here are some other tips on how to hold space for yourself.
- Learn when to walk away. You can’t serve other people well when your energy is depleted. Even if you can only leave the hospital room of your loved one for short periods of time, or you’re a single mom who doesn’t have much of a support system for caring from your kids, it is imperative that you find times when you can walk away from the place where you are needed most to take deep breaths, walk in nature, go for a swim, or simply sit and stare at the sunset. Replenish yourself so that you can return without bitterness. Whenever you can, take a longer break (a week at a retreat does wonders).
- Let the tears flow. When the only thing you can do is cry, that’s often the best thing you can do. Let the tears wash away the accumulated ick in your soul. A social worker once told me that “tears are the window-washer of the soul” and she was right. They help to clear your vision so that you can see better and move forward more successfully. When my husband was in the psych ward a few years ago, and I still had to maintain some semblance of normalcy for my children, I spent many, many hours weeping as I drove from the hospital to the soccer field and back again. Releasing those tears when I was alone or with close friends allowed me to be strong for the people who needed me most.
- Let others hold space for you. You can’t do this work alone and you’re not meant to. We are all meant to be communal people, showing up for each other in reciprocal ways. As I mentioned in my original post about holding space, we were able to hold space for my mom in her dying because others (like Anne, the palliative care nurse) were holding space for us. Many others were stopping to visit, bringing food, etc. We would have been much less able to walk that path with Mom if we hadn’t known there was a strong container in which we were being held.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply “paying attention to your attention”. In mindfulness meditation, you are taught that, instead of trying to stop the thoughts, you should simply notice them and let them pass. You don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion to practice mindfulness – simply pay attention to what emotions and thoughts are showing up, and when they come, wish them well and send them on their way. Are you angry? Notice the anger, name it anger, ask yourself whether there is any value in holding onto this anger, and then let it pass. Frustrated? Notice, name, inquire, and then let it pass.
- Find sources of inspiration. There are many, many writers, artists, musicians, etc. whose wisdom can help you hold space for yourself. When I was nearing a nervous breakdown earlier this week because of the intensity of my post going viral, I went to a Martyn Joseph concert (my favourite musician), and when he started to sing “I need you brave, I want you brave, I need you strong to sing along, You are so beautiful, and I’m not wrong”, I was sure he was singing directly to me. (Watch it on Youtube.) That evening of music shifted the way I felt about what was going on and I was able to walk back into my work with courage and strength. Later in the week, when my site crashed and I was having trouble bringing it back to life, I went to sit in the poetry section of my favourite bookstore and read Billy Collins.
- Let other people live their own stories. You are not in charge of the world. You are only in charge of yourself and your own behaviours, thoughts, emotions, etc. Often when you are a caregiver, you’ll find yourself the target of other people’s frustration, anger, fear, etc. REMEMBER – that’s THEIR story, not yours. Just because they yell at you doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Take a deep breath, say to yourself “I am not responsible for their emotion, I am only responsible for how I respond”, and then let it go. When you’re feeling wounded by what they’re projecting on you, return to the points above and walk away, practice mindfulness, and let others hold space for you.
- Find a creative outlet for processing what you’re experiencing. Write in a journal, paint, dance, bake, play the guitar – do whatever replenishes your soul. Few things are as healing as time spent in creative practice. One of my favourite things to do is something I call Mandala Journailing, where I bring both my words and my wordlessness to the circle. You can learn to do it yourself in Mandala Discovery: 30 days of self-discovery through mandala journaling (which starts April 1st).
I hope that you will find the time this week to hold space for yourself. Your work is important, and the world needs more generous and open hearts who are healthy and strong enough to serve well.
Blessings to you.
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Ever since facilitating a conversation on race relations last week, I’ve been thinking about what it means to really listen. There were many challenges for me last week, and some of the greatest challenges were those that showed me how much deeper I need to take my own listening practice. Here’s what poured out of me this afternoon, after a few days of contemplating listening.
Listen, my heart said.
You don’t have to fix anything right now,
you just have to listen.
Listen to the wounded.
Listen to the joyful.
Listen to the fearful.
Listen to the warriors.
Listen to the poets.
Listen to them all.
Gather the bits of wisdom
they scatter on the ground
like seeds in the Spring.
Gather the bits of stories
they drop in your basket
like morsels for a picnic.
Gather it all
and let it change you,
let it reshape you.
Let it crawl under your skin
and plant itself there
like it was always part
of your own dna.
Listen to the elders,
to the children,
to the women,
to the men,
to the Spirit,
to the earth,
Listen for understanding
Listen when they’re silent.
Listen when they’re loud.
Listen when they’re happy.
Listen when they’re sad.
Listen when they hurt you
in their efforts to hurt less.
Listen when they disagree with you.
Listen when you disagree with them.
Before you do anything else,
before you step onto the path,
before you become an agent for change,
before you know the answers,
before you try to lead anyone,
And then let your deep listening
be your guide
and let your courage lead you forward.