“By the end of the week, we’ll have turned you into a blues band.” Gulp. I could feel the anxiety rise when I heard those words. A blues band?! Me?! I have no musical talent and my Mennonite body is rhythmically stunted from all of those “dancing is sin” messages I heard growing up. How could I contribute to a blues band?
That statement still stands as one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever heard from the facilitator of a leadership workshop. Not surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most life-changing. Of course, in order for it to become life-changing, I had to get out of my own way first. I had to loosen my grip on some beliefs about myself and be willing to be uncomfortable for a while. By the end of the week, I had indeed written a verse for a blues song and performed it together with a rag-tag bunch of other equally intimidated participants over dinner in front of hundreds of people.
The invitation came from Jerry Granelli, a famous jazz drummer best known for the soundtrack of Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie. He was teaching the workshop together with Margaret Wheatley and Jim Gimian, as part of the annual leadership intensive program of ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action, formerly Shambala Institute). I’d signed up because I was a fan of Margaret Wheatley’s work. I left a fan of Jerry Granelli’s.
Last week, I re-listened to an interview that Jerry had done with CBC radio in the year before he died. And then I listened to it again and wrote down notes. Next I found a documentary about him and watched that. Then I watched an hour-long workshop that Jerry taught two days before his death (in 2021). Posthumously, Jerry had returned to be my teacher once more. Although I learned a lot back in 2010 when I was part of that blues band, I find myself even more tuned in to what his teachings offer me now.
Here’s some of what I took notes about:
1.Years and years of practice brings you closer to your own voice.
“It takes forever to sound like yourself,” Jerry said in the interview. “If you put a seed in the ground, it takes a lot of water to get a tree. So why should you wake up one day and find your voice? You practice in order to find your own voice, but at first you have to try to sound like other people.”
In the early years, Jerry rose in prominence as a drummer because he’d gotten so good at emulating other drummers. But then one of those drummers stopped him and said he had to figure out what “Jerry’s sound” was. From then on, he got clearer and clearer about what was uniquely his to put into the world. He’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a pioneer of psychedelic jazz. He’s also well known as an innovative teacher of Buddhist practices.
Jerry’s words were resonant for this moment partly because of the book I have coming out, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. Even more than my first book, The Art of Holding Space, this book feels like a fine-tuning of my own voice. Like a sculptor, I feel like I’ve spent years chipping away at all of the “not-Heather” words to get closer and closer to the essence of the “pure-Heather” voice – the voice that’s less weighted down with other people’s expectations and my own self-imposed limitations. Perhaps when I’m eighty, as Jerry was, I’ll be as close as I can get.
2.Our habitual patterns limit our capacity to make beautiful music.
“On a good day,” Jerry said, “we have the least amount of habitual patterns, so we’re completely spontaneous.” That spontaneity and freedom from the old patterns allows us to make innovative music. Unfortunately, a lot of days are not so good and our habitual patterns keep us stuck in mediocre melodies.
In my upcoming book, I unravelled some of those habitual patterns in myself in order to release myself from them and become more free to be spontaneously and authentically myself (at least… on a good day). Like Jerry, I want to be a channel for the music, not get in the way with my own hang-ups, self-doubt and ego stories.
I believe that this is such important work that I’ve also created a course where I provide tools and practices for witnessing and releasing those habitual patterns, because I want to help others get closer and closer to free, authentic and joyful living. If you’re noticing patterns of self-sabotage, perhaps that’s related to the way you’ve been taught to treat yourself by your family of origin. If there are shame stories you can’t let go of, perhaps there’s a thread that’s connected back to your religion of origin. If you’re driven by perfectionism and a value system rooted in performance and productivity, perhaps that can be traced back to grind culture and capitalism. Once you see those patterns and the threads that tie them back to their roots, they’re easier to let go. (Maybe one day I’ll even be able to dance as though the habitual patterns of a Mennonite childhood are no longer in my body.)
3.Practice is a life-long commitment.
“Last week,” Jerry said to the interviewer, “I had to keep from setting fire to my drums… I couldn’t make love to it… I went looking for salvation and the drum said ‘oh no, you can’t use me like that.’” At eighty years of age, he was still wrestling with the demons that got between him and the music, between his ego and his own voice. He was still humbled by the process. He was still slipping back into his own habitual patterns.
Unravelling and releasing those habitual patterns is never a “once and done” story – we still live within the systems that shaped us and we are still inescapably human, so it’s an ongoing, never-ending practice. There is always new information, there are always new ways to examine our patterns, and there are always more fumbles to keep us humble and in the practice.
4.Making beautiful music requires our willingness to be uncomfortable.
“What makes him special,” Jerry’s son said in the documentary, “is his willingness to be uncomfortable.” It’s clear in both the documentary and the interview how much Jerry pushed the edges of the music, and pushed the edges in himself, to allow something truly unique and revolutionary to emerge. That requires courage and a willingness to be unsettled – both individually and collectively.
In the documentary, Jerry can be seen creating rhythm with all manner of sound-making objects. He didn’t limit his imagination or playful spirit to what is conventionally known as a drum kit. During one of our plenary sessions at ALIA, the year after we’d created the blues band, I was puzzled to see a collection of pots, bowls and buckets on the stage, until I realized that Jerry was part of a team inviting us into a collective act of creation. Soon, he was making sounds and rhythm with that random collection and inviting us all to make music with him.
5.Music requires us to be willing to spend time with ourselves.
“Here’s a new way to make art – to start with myself. Start with my own mind, being brave enough, being willing to spend time with myself. Without the instrument.” In the workshop, Jerry goes on to say that “this (pointing to himself) is the instrument”.
A healthy, ongoing, honest relationship with ourselves is what allows us to access our own voices and to make beautiful music. As a Buddhist, Jerry nurtured that relationship by committing to an ongoing seated mindfulness practice. You can do a seated practice together with Jerry if you watch the workshop video.
My mindfulness practice has been less attached to seated meditation than Jerry’s, but it is still very much a part of how I spend time with myself. I practise mindful self-reflection in my journal, and regularly take myself out for mindful walks in the woods. On social media, I have, somewhat jokingly, said that one of my goals for 2024 is to spend more time sitting on things in nature. It’s not really a joke, though – it’s part of my practice. It lets me spend time with myself and it helps me see myself as part of the landscape. (I teach more about my practices in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)
6.Our music is meant for the collective.
“What does it take to play music with another human being? Interestingly enough, what it takes is the same things to live together as human beings.” – Jerry Granelli
As much as the interview and documentary focused on the unique genius of Jerry Granelli, none of it is really about individual genius. As a drummer, Jerry didn’t make music that was meant to stand alone – he was always part of an ensemble. He committed himself to his practice and to releasing his own habitual patterns not to become a solitary superstar, but to make beautiful, spontaneous music together with other people with a similar commitment. He did his individual work to find his own voice, and trusted other members to do their work to find their own voices, and together they created the conditions for magic.
As I develop my own work, I find myself in a similar dance – often creating independently, and yet always with the collective in my heart and mind. As much as I can, I try to remember that my voice is part of an ensemble.
The music was always much bigger than Jerry Granelli, just as this work that I do is much bigger than me. The work that you are called to do, the art that you are called to create, is always bigger than you.
7.Change the way you make music and you’ll change the system.
During that plenary session where Jerry was playing on pots and buckets, and a few hundred people were making sounds with their voices and bodies, there were other things going on as well. Arawana Hayashi invited some participants into an unchoreographed dance, and Barbara Bash invited a few to pick up brushes to make a massive collaborative art piece at the front of the room. I volunteered to be part of the brush work, and I can honestly tell you that few experiences have ever been more moving. For an hour or two, that conference room was buzzing with possibility and promise as we all contributed to creating something fully embodied and fully collaborative that had never existed before (and seemingly had no “purpose” in the way capitalism has taught us to understand purpose). (You can see a similar spontaneous co-creation by Jerry, Barbara, and Susanne Chui in this video.)
Not only do we often get stuck in individual habitual patterns, we get stuck in collective ones. Those habitual patterns end up becoming our systems (and driving our systems) and they exist on the micro level and the macro level. We are part of family systems, religious systems, economic systems, cultural systems, and political systems. All of those systems continue to function – often in increasingly destructive ways – because we fail to examine the habitual patterns at the root and we resist the discomfort of co-creating something new.
We can’t make jazz together when we accept the status quo as the only way to make music. How many conference rooms have you been in where nothing new was being created, where the only voices allowed to speak were telling the same old stories, harnessed to the same old habitual patterns? What will it take to change what’s happening in that room?
Systems are only as strong as the commitment people make to upholding them. When we unravel our codependence with those systems, shift our habitual patterns, and stop treating ourselves the way those systems have taught us, they have no choice but to evolve or die. Then, out of the compost, something new can be born.
We all have an opportunity to be in the magic of that conference room, where something new is being created. We have opportunities to unlearn our habitual patterns, find our unique voices, and create new music.
That music might seem a little amateurish at first, like the blues band I was part of when I first met Jerry, but that’s only a place to start. With time, we’ll each get more and more clear about our own voices so that together we can make something beautiful.
Thank you Jerry, for being my teacher.
p.s. Want to be in conversations about what it means to release habitual patterns and co-create the conditions for something new to emerge? Join me forKnow Yourself, Free Yourself. It starts March 5.
“Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
I wonder if the Boy knew the risk he was taking when he loved the Rabbit so hard he became Real. I wonder if he contemplated the fact that, unlike stuffed bunnies that are easy to control and contain, real bunnies have minds of their own and can hop off into the woods when they choose and leave their loved ones behind.
I’m going to assume that he knew those things, but was confident that his love was big enough to handle the risk (though I admit that it makes me sad that he no longer recognizes the Rabbit once he’s hopped off into the woods).
It takes a special kind of love and a special kind of confidence to give someone the space they need to grow into their Realness – to resist the urge to control them, change them, or take their sovereignty away just so that they won’t ever abandon you. It takes a special kind of belief in yourself and a special kind of ability to love through the shabbiness, through the deconstruction and transformation, and through the stretching away from you.
To witness and hold space for someone who’s learning to liberate themselves from old expectations, old projections, and old social programming can be painful and frightening and it can trigger all kinds of old hurts and unmet needs in us. “Who will they be when they transform and become more authentically themselves?” we wonder… “Will they still want me around? Will I be left behind? Will their stretching require that I stretch too, in order to meet them in that new place in the woods?”
A couple of recent parenting experiences have given me a new appreciation of what the Boy might have felt.
I knew that this was important to her and I’ve witnessed how her climate activism has given her a sense of purpose that I hadn’t seen in her before, so I wanted to support her, but I admit that it worried me. First, there were the things that every parent worries about… How will this impact her mental health? How will this impact her education? How will this impact her future? How will this impact her friendships? And… will she get bullied online?
But there was something else going on for me under the surface… something that made me feel a little like I imagined the Boy might have felt when he contemplated the risks involved in loving the Rabbit into Realness. What if allowing her to step into this was allowing her to hop off into the woods without me? What if she was entering dangerous territory where I could no longer protect her or control her environment, where she’d need to use her own skills to survive?
And what if… in doing what she was choosing to do, she was rejecting the “nursery” – effectively tossing off the social conditioning and safety rules that I’d passed down to her?
In the “nursery” – that space that’s made up of the old furniture we inherited from our parents, all of the old rules that our religions and cultures passed on to us, and all of the old boundaries and limitations that give us comfort but keep us trapped – it’s not safe to challenge authority. It’s not safe to raise your voice too loud, to speak out of turn, to break from old patterns, or to reject the old rules of decorum. It’s ESPECIALLY not safe if you’re a young woman.
Those are the things one can only do once you’ve rejected the nursery and headed into the woods. They can only happen when you dare to be Real.
The question I had to ask myself was… Was I willing to love my daughter in a brave enough way to let her leave the nursery, step into the woods, and become Real?
A whole lot of my social programming started to flare up when I considered it. “Women don’t talk too loud or make spectacles of themselves,” I heard the patriarchy say, as it tried to pull us both back into the nursery. “Mennonites don’t take legal action and ESPECIALLY not against their own government,” the voice from the religious lineage tugged. “You’ll be rejected by your conservative relatives,” I heard my old trauma say. “Your daughter will face ridicule and your family will be shamed,” my fear of abandonment whispered.
One by one, I had to quiet those voices and lean into what mattered – my love for my daughter and my belief that that love was big enough to hold the Realness and the risk. If she feels the urgency to lend her voice to the looming climate crisis, why would I get in her way because of my own fears? The planet no longer has time for our timidity. I chose to support her and we traveled to Vancouver together to participate in a whirlwind series of public events, ceremonies, and workshops.
I opened the nursery door and let my daughter wander into the woods and after I watched her, standing up in front of fifteen thousand people (on stage next to Greta Thunberg and David Suzuki), and being calmly interviewed on live national media, something remarkable happened. I recognized that not only was I helping to love HER into Realness, SHE was helping to love ME into Realness too. When I witnessed her courage in rejecting the social conditioning that wanted to keep her in the nursery, I was able to let go of some of the social conditioning that was still trying to pull me back there too.
A week after we returned home, when I found myself having to defend her against an older male relative who bullied her in a private message, I found a new freedom that had come from silencing the voices of the patriarchy, religion, and family lineage ringing in my head.
Not long after that, I had another opportunity to love someone into their Realness, and in some ways, this required even greater and more personal risk.
I could sense that something was bothering one of my older daughters and so I knocked on her door and asked if she’d talk to me about it. “You’re not going to like what I need to say,” she said, and she was right. What she told me was painful and hard to process. While she’d been trying to stay positive and supportive of her younger sister’s significant moment on the climate activism stage, what it triggered in her was resentment for the ways that she hadn’t received the same support when she was in high school.
“I see her getting the therapy she needs, and I see you cheering her on and protecting her when people bully her, and I feel cheated that I didn’t get those things from you when I was her age,” she said. “I was going through mental health challenges too and I felt like you didn’t believe me or offer me the resources she’s gotten. And most of all, I didn’t feel like you protected me from Dad’s emotional abuse.”
She was right. I wasn’t the mom for her then that I’ve been for her sister in recent years. I was far more stuck in the “nursery” back then, still trying to live up to what I thought my role as a good wife and good mom should be, trying to hold the family together, trying to keep the peace because that’s what my social conditioning had convinced me was right. She had the misfortunate of being in high school during the time when my mom died, I was starting my business, her dad attempted suicide, and our marriage was crumbling. We announced our separation to her and her sisters, in fact, the day after her high school graduation. It was a tumultuous time for me, and in the midst of all of that, I was failing to love my daughter into her Realness.
Fortunately though, it wasn’t too late. She was sitting there in front of me, opening her heart to me, offering me another chance to give her the kind of love she needed. In that one tender moment, there was hope for redemption if I made the right choice. I took a few deep breaths, and I apologized. I took ownership of the ways I’ve failed her and I admitted the mistakes I’d made in clinging to the old stories of what was right instead of stepping into the wilderness with her.
She forgave me and a beautiful thing happened. We both became more Real. We took the risk and found our love was big enough to hold the risk.
Attachment Theory teaches us that we all need healthy attachments (especially in childhood, but also in adulthood) so that we can grow into our own confidence, authenticity and resilience. A healthy attachment system involves both a safe haven and a secure base.The safe haven protects us and offers comfort when we’re afraid or need time for healing, and the secure base offers a launching pad from which we can move into boldness.
That’s what the Boy was offering the Rabbit when he dared to love him into Realness and that’s what I strive to offer my daughters. If I only give them the safety without the freedom, then I keep them stuck in the nursery. But if the freedom is also available to them when they’re ready for it, then they can find the adventure that calls them and they can step into it knowing the door remains open when they need it.
The risk is part of the process.
Note: My daughters have given permission for me to share this.
I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.
But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us.
Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.
Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.
Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.
Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk.
Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.
Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.
Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?
One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation.
On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.
By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space.
Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.
Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?
OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?
I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.
I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together.
My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly.
Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room.
The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.
The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”
From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)
By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.
It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.
In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)
Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.
As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.
In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.
Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.
People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.
I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.
Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:
1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room.Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.
2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.
3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)
4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)
5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.
6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)
With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.
I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.
Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.
For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.
There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.
In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:
When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.
This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.
After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)
the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
an assortment of talking pieces
an assortment of teas
a candle holder and candles
a box of tissue
an envelope with the group’s funds
Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.
There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.
It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.
There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.
We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.
If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:
A series of circle training videos created by me and other members of Gather the Women. (While you’re there, consider joining Gather the Women, an organization that supports women’s circles all over the world.)
The Circle Way website where you can find out about upcoming trainings and sign up for the newsletter
I wrote a very personal post recently for The Helpers’ Circle about how much I struggle with The Fear of Letting People Down (and how I’ve learned to talk myself out of it). Here’s a quote from that post…
“My Fear of Letting People Down started at a young age. I became very practiced at being The Good Girl, the one who didn’t show her anger, who took responsibility for her work and did it well, who didn’t rock the boat and who could be depended on at all costs. I needed people to be happy with me – to notice my good work and to not get angry. When people were pleased with me and nobody was angry, my world felt safe.”
After writing it, I was thinking about how many things get in the way of our quest for authenticity – fear, shame, duty, etc.. In almost every conversation I have, whether in coaching sessions or workshops, I hear a deep longing for greater authenticity, and almost always a deep sadness that the path to authenticity seems so treacherous and never-ending. And the fear always keeps us company… the fear of letting people down, the fear of embarrassing ourselves, the fear of rejection, the fear of judgement, the fear of falling flat on our faces, and the fear of being alone.
We want to be real. We want to be true to ourselves. We want to be bold in being who we truly are. And yet… so much gets in the way that sometimes it seems impossible. There are bills to pay, people to please, rules to follow, wounds to protect, and shame to hide.
Why is that the case? Why have we found ourselves in a culture that is so hell-bent on making people live inauthentic lives?
I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that question. It’s probably a nature+nurture thing. At least some of it can be connected to the materialistic lifestyles we’ve adopted – a function of living in a production-oriented, economy-driven world. Shiny things are the most desirable, and so we make ourselves more shiny.
But there’s also something else, and it’s about love.
Not long after I wrote the piece for The Helpers’ Circle, I interviewed my friend Lianne Raymond (who knows a great deal about psychology and child development) for one of the monthly interviews I’m sharing in the circle and Lianne said something quite profound that cracked open something new for me in this regard.
“Given a choice between authenticity and love, a child will always choose love.”
Wow. She’s right! That’s where it all begins! From the very first time we open our eyes and seek out our mothers’ smiles, our primary quest is for love. Love is the foundation – the ground we learn to walk on. From the moment we slipped out of the womb (and before), we needed it nearly as much as we needed the air we breathed. We did everything we could to get that love, even if it meant gradually giving up pieces of ourselves to please the person whose love we sought.
A world in which we were loved is a world in which we are safe.
Even good parents and guardians can unintentionally attach behaviour to love. I remember my own mother (who did so many things right) used to say things like “if you love me, you’ll wash the dishes”. And though I haven’t used those same words, I know there are moments I unintentionally make it clear to my daughters that it’s easier to love them when I see certain behaviour. We are all flawed in this effort to love each other.
Whether it was to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we quickly learned, as children, what behaviour brought us the most love and what behaviour resulted in that love being withheld. We adapted, we conformed, and we sacrificed. Some of us never really got the love we were seeking, and so the world became a very unsafe place. We didn’t know how to behave because nothing we did brought us the love we so badly needed.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it meant to be real. We only knew what pleased or displeased the people whose affections we craved. And some of us, raised in volatile or unstable environments, knew how to run for cover or to morph ourselves into whatever shapes would best protect us.
Then one day we grew up and didn’t recognize ourselves anymore. We saw only strangers looking back in the mirror at us. We realized that, instead of being authentic, we had become composites of all of the behaviours that other people expected of us.
To reveal the real work of art, hidden under the collage of other people’s expectations, takes a lot of courageous effort. Every layer we peel away reveals a tenderness, a shame, a wound. Every step we take to recovering our authenticity puts us at risk. We may be shamed for it, we may be rejected, we may not be loved. The little child in us shrieks “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! You’re breaking the rules! You need to be loved! You need to be safe!”
But “safe” begins to feel like “stuck” and we long for more. We long for truth. We long for freedom. We long for ourselves.
Gradually, those of us who finally decide that authenticity is the only way we can truly live, realize that we have no choice but to break the rules. We have no choice but to risk being unloved. We have no choice but to give up the safety we worked so hard to find.
After much agony, fear, and faltering, those of us who find the courage come back to ourselves. Many of us lose people along the way – we lose those people who only know how to love us when we behave in a certain way. But we find other people. We find people who are on similar paths to authenticity and we realize that we can cobble together new families and new communities that hold space for us no matter how we behave.
Finally, we find a new kind of safety – one that is rooted in real love, not conditional love – and in that place of safety, we unfurl into whoever we are meant to be.
It may never be perfect (even now I sometimes find myself hiding parts of myself from those whose love I value most because I don’t want them to reject me), but it feels a little closer to being Real.
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p.s. To see the interview with Lianne or to read the post I mentioned, about The Fear of Letting People Down, you’ll have to become part of The Helpers’ Circle.
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