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Not long after my first attempt at defining holding space, I changed some of my original language and I added a few important nuances. Specifically:
- 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 and transparent about your values. Let people know that you will err on the side of justice and that you will not be neutral in the face of injustice. Check out the values statements that we have posted on our Centre for Holding Space site for examples. The more clarity you have, the more prepared you’ll be to set healthy boundaries and communicate with those who cross them.
- 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.
Additional related resources:
- Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems
- QAnon is a Nazi Cult Rebranded
- Conspirituality: The Politics of QAnon Spirituality. (This episode with Seane Corn about how it has infiltrated the yoga community.)
- A Twitter feed about research done into “pastel QAnon”
- The Prophecies of Q: American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase
- The wellness realm has fallen into conspiritualism – I have a sense why
- Propaganda & Persuasion – (I used to use the definitions for propaganda in here when I taught university classes in Public Relations)
- How to Talk to Conspiracy Theorists – and Still be Kind
- Nazi Hippies: When the New Age and Far Right Overlap
- Friends And Family Members Of QAnon Believers Are Going Through A “Surreal Goddamn Nightmare”