Inspired by Dr. Seuss: A mandala journal prompt for the liminal space

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Sometimes, when you’ve read too many deep thinkers and thought too many deep thoughts, you just have to go back to Dr. Seuss for some clarity. While writing the first three chapters of my book on holding space in the last few weeks, I was puzzling over how to describe liminal space. I finally went back to this…

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

In the first chapter of the book, I wrote about the liminal space we were in when we were expecting Mom’s death (an expansion of the blog post that was the catalyst for this book). Mom was in that liminal space herself (not quite dead, but no longer quite alive) and we were in that space with her) not quite bereaved and yet no longer able to participate in full relationship with her).

Inspired by Dr. Seuss, I wrote my own version…

We were waiting.
Waiting for her breath to change
or the pain to come
or the song to end
or the light to change
or the birds to visit
or the night to come
or the nurse to say “it’s almost over”.
Just waiting.

Ironically, (or perhaps serendipitously), while I’ve been writing these chapters, I’ve been in another kind of Waiting Place. This time, I am “not quite divorced and yet no longer in a marriage”. It’s been a summer of waiting. Waiting for divorce lawyers to draw up separation papers, waiting for the bank to clear the mortgage, waiting for the real estate lawyer to draw up new papers for the house, waiting for the land transfer title to go through so that I own the house. Each waiting period has been compounded with at least one of the parties involved going on vacation, so what should have taken a few weeks has dragged on for six months.

Last winter, I decluttered and repainted the interior of my house. Anticipating the new flooring that we badly need, I moved all of the living room furniture into the garage before painting. But then it took months longer than I expected to push all of the paperwork through, so the floors still aren’t finished and the furniture is still in the garage. My living room, quite literally, feels like The Waiting Place. (In fact, a friend dropped in to pick something up and thought she had the wrong place because it looked like we’d moved out.) “Waiting for the bank to call. Waiting for the lawyer to return from a month-long vacation. Waiting for the old carpet to be torn out. Waiting for the furniture to be moved back in. Everyone is just waiting.”

It’s been frustrating and what little patience I had at the beginning of the summer has been stretched to the limit. A person can only take so much of The Waiting Place. It’s been wreaking havoc with my emotions, bringing up old fears and frustration, and getting in the way of my most important relationships.

Finally, today, I decided it was time to do what I tell my coaching clients to do when they’re in the liminal space between what was and what is yet to come – stay present for what’s right now, find the tools and practices that help with processing, and open myself to what wants to emerge out of the liminal space.

For the first time in a long time, I took out my mandala journal and created a new mandala for the liminal space. It helped. Here’s a mandala journal prompt that I created out of my own process…

 

Liminal Space – a mandala journal prompt

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In anthropology, a liminal space is a threshold. It’s an ambiguous space in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. That liminal space finds us between who we once were and who we are becoming. It’s disorienting, uncomfortable, and it almost always takes far longer than we expect.

Much like The Waiting Place in “Oh The Places You’ll Go“, it feels like “a most useless place”, but it’s not. It’s a time of hibernation, a time of transformation, a time of resting, and a time of deep learning.

Nobody teaches us more about liminal space than the lowly caterpillar. Not knowing why, and not having the capacity to imagine its future as a butterfly, a caterpillar knows only that it must surrender, shed its skin, create the shell of a chrysalis, and then dissolve into a formless, gel-like substance awaiting rebirth.

The liminal space is about surrender. It’s about releasing the caterpillar identity before we have the vision for the butterfly. It’s about falling apart so that we can rebuild. It’s about daring to go into the darkness so that we can, one day, emerge into the light. It’s about trusting Spirit to direct the transformation.

One of the most critical things that the caterpillar teaches us in its transformation is that we need the shell of the chrysalis to hold space for us when we fall apart.

We need a protective shell that holds us in our formless state. It keeps us safe in the midst of transformation. It protects us from outside elements so that we can focus on the important internal work we need to do. It believes in the possibility for us even before we have the capacity to believe it ourselves.

When we enter our own chrysalis, whether that is the waiting place of divorce, grief, pregnancy, job loss, career change, graduation, children moving away, or any number of human experiences, we must build our own chrysalises that hold the space for our transformation. Like a patchwork quilt, we stitch together the people or groups who hold space for us (family, friends, pastors, therapists, coaches, churches, sharing circles, etc.), the practices that help us hold space for ourselves (journaling, artwork, prayer, body work, meditation, etc.), and the spaces which make us feel safe for transformation (our home, the park, a church, etc.)

Mandala Prompt

1. Draw a large circle and a second slightly smaller circle inside it.
2. At the centre of the mandala, glue or draw an image or words that represent the liminal space. (I used an image from The Waiting Place in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”. Another idea might be an image of a chrysalis.)
3. In the space between the image and the next largest circle, write sentences, words, or phrases that represent what The Waiting Place is like. Explore your emotions, fears, resistance, etc., and also explore your wishes, your opportunities for learning, etc. You can use the following as prompts for starting your sentences:
– I feel…
– I am…
– I fear…
– I want…
– I will…
– I am learning…
– I wish…
(Note: I blurred mine in the image above, since it was a little too personal to share.)
4. Imagine that the outer rim (between the two outer circles) is your chrysalis. Inside the rim, write down all of the people who hold space for you, all of the practices that help you hold space, and all of the places you go when you need to hold space for yourself.
5. Colour/decorate your mandala however you wish. As you are doing so, set an intention for what you wish to invite in as you surrender to the chrysalis. For example, I whispered an intention for more patience and grace as I wait for the next story to emerge.

Want more prompts like this? Sign up for Mandala Discovery and you’ll receive 30 prompts on topics such as grief, fear, play, grace, community, etc.

 

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My pause for radical self-care (and what happened as a result)

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I am slowly, one breath at a time, finding my way back to equilibrium.

Two weeks ago, I was suddenly aware of how wobbly I’d become – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Like a toddler on new legs, I was stumbling around, bumping into things (and people), and occasionally falling down. Also like a toddler, my emotions had become suddenly unregulated and unpredictable. I cried or got angry at the slightest provocation. And I was making mistakes I don’t normally make.

I knew it was time for a pause. I knew I needed to step away from my adult-sized obligations and simply let my wobbly toddler nature stumble along until she’d figured out how to walk again without harming herself.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a big year, full of significant shifts in both my business and personal life. Mix all of the ingredients of my year – rapid (and unexpected) business growth and increased demand on my time and energy, the ending of a 22 year marriage, solo-parenting to three daughters navigating the path from adolescence to early adulthood, and a few fairly significant volunteer commitments (sponsoring Syrian refugees, hosting race relations conversations, and starting a women’s circle) – and you get a recipe for stress. The wobble is not unexpected.

Though I’m fairly consistent about incorporating self-care practices into my week, it was clear that I had reached a place where I needed to take more radical action.

I knew that if I didn’t put myself first for awhile, I would not be able to be of service to anyone else.

Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks:

  1. I reduced my screen time to almost nothing, stepping away from social media and emails in particular. I’d noticed that my wobbliness got worse when I spent too much time online, so I got off that treadmill. This was one of the healthiest things I could have done. It relieved a lot of the pressures of having to live up to other people’s expectations, meet other people’s needs, etc. It freed up a lot of space to focus on the healing and soul care I needed to do.
  2. I spent a lot of time outside. Nature heals me. It helps me feel grounded and connected again. I wandered in the woods, played at the beach, and sat for hours in my backyard around the fire. I hugged trees and talked to pelicans and frogs. Mother Earth revealed her Spring splendour to me and, when I paused to pay attention, she helped to heal my hurt and reminded me of my place in the nature of things.
  3. I got physical and sweaty. I rode my bike, went for long walks, and dug in my garden. With each footstep, each revolution of the bike pedals, and each handful of dirt, I worked through my anxiety, my stress, and my hurt. I let my body take over where my mind had gotten stuck. I alchemized some of the ache in my heart by letting my muscles take on the aching for awhile.
  4. I went to see a therapist. I’d become aware that some of my stress was related to some old patterns that I’d developed over years of dysfunctional communication in my marriage. I needed help letting go of those old patterns so that they wouldn’t have control over me anymore. After listening to my story, she gave me wise, holistic advice that I’m still processing and will probably write more about another time.
  5. I let people help me. So many of you helped me – with your kindness, your cards, your financial support, etc. – and there are not enough words to express my gratitude. Accepting help is a humbling and healthy thing, but it’s not something my ego let’s me do very often. When I accept help, though, I am reminded that I am not in this alone and I begin to see the world through a less self-absorbed lens.
  6. I played, slept, and did some deep relaxation. For the first few days, after I’d canceled my client sessions and gotten offline, I slept much more than usual. Then, when I felt rested, I found ways to play. Being barefoot in the sand at the beach helped a lot. I needed lightheartedness to remind me not to take the world quite so seriously. Thanks to a birthday gift from my daughters, I spent a whole day relaxing with a friend at Thermeaoutdoor spa.
  7. I prayed. When I get wobbly, as I did, it’s often a reminder to me that I am trying too hard to carry the world on my shoulders and not living from a place of trust. Reaching out to a Higher Power reminds me that I don’t have to do this all with my own strength. I have a powerful God/dess on my side, so why walk alone? Like a toddler who knows her parent is close by to catch her when she stumbles, I reached out my hand and let Her hold me. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. S/he will not let your foot be moved; s/he who keeps you will not slumber.”
  8. I meditated. I’m not a very faithful meditator, but when I lose my equilibrium and my mind starts spinning in a hundred directions at once, I know that one of the only ways to find balance again is to plant my seat on my cushion, be still, and take deep breaths. It takes a lot of practice to still the racing mind, but slowly I’m getting back into the habit.
  9. I paid attention. The wobbliness was there to teach me what changes I needed to make in my life, so the first thing I did was slow down enough to pay attention. I paid attention to my body’s ache for more time away from the computer. I paid attention to what the persistent cough might be telling me about what was being stifled in my life. I paid attention to what triggered the tears and anger. I paid attention to how my breathing gets more shallow when I’m under stress and how I sometimes hold my breath. And I paid attention to how my needs were or were not being met. And then I responded accordingly.
  10. I cleared a lot of clutter. After years of neglect, our backyard had begun to resemble the wild kingdom. I began to tend it again, the same way I have been tending my heart – tearing out the seedlings that had grown in the wrong place, trimming back the hedges that were blocking the light, and pulling a lot of weeds that were smothering the beauty. At the end of hours of back-breaking labour, I put a circle of chairs around a small fire pit in the middle of the yard, under the canopy of ancient trees, and my daughters and I have enjoyed many hours of easy conversation around the fire.
  11. I let myself grieve. I reflected often on what David Whyte says in this short video clip… “One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much leaving the person themselves – because by that time, you’re ready to go. What’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow, no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you will share with them, you will never ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate in giving away, but making space for another form of re-imagination.” One night by the fire, after my daughters had made their way back into the house, I sat for a long time by the dying embers, grieving the flame that had died, grieving the shared dreams and the hopes that things would turn out differently. When the fire was gone, I got up and crawled into bed, alone and content.
  12. I dared to disappoint people in order to care for myself. This is a big one for me, as I have always struggled with a fear of letting people down. But I knew that I could not continue the way I was – trying to ensure everyone around me was happy so that my world would feel safe – and still be healthy and do good work. The words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation, kept going through my mind… “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”

Now, as I make my way back to my work and begin to consider what work calls me next, I am being more intentional about how I step back in. I am working on a deeper understanding of what it means for me to be “openhearted with boundaries”. I am trying to do a better job of managing people’s expectations (ie. if you don’t get a response from an email, please wait a few days). I’m looking after what my body tells me I need. I’m shifting the way I show up in relationships. I am being more careful to protect my energy, my health, and my heart.

I believe that, when I “put on my own oxygen mask first”, I’ll be better able to care for the people around me, and my work will come from a place of abundance rather than depletion.

I also believe that, once in awhile, it’s valuable to return to the legs and heart of a toddler, stumbling around trying to find balance, giggling at things that surprise us, crying whenever our emotions overwhelm us, reaching out to a benevolent grown-up for support when we need it, and exploring the delights of the world with unguarded eyes.

I turned fifty in the middle of my time away. Fifty is a good age to become a toddler again. It’s good to be standing on new legs as I enter the second half of my life. 

In honour of my new toddler view of the world, I am currently perched about six feet above the ground in a tree in my backyard. There’s a great spot, in a tree that must be at least a hundred years old, where three massive limbs separate and create a natural nook, that I always thought would be a perfect place for a treehouse. I haven’t built anything permanent yet, but today, on a whim, I carried a ladder and some old couch cushions to the backyard to make myself a makeshift little nest where I can sit and hide and get close to the birds and the squirrels.

How about you? Are you wobbling around on toddler legs? Is it time for you to pause for radical self-care and perspective shift? Is it time to say no for awhile so that you can say a bigger YES to the world that awaits?

If you’re telling yourself that “it sure would be nice, but there’s no way I could do that”, you might want to take a look at your excuses and see if they are true or if they are wrapped up in a story about how the world simply can’t function without you at the helm. You may not be able to step away in the way that I did (I understand the demands of small children and full-time jobs), but you can find your own version that works within your current reality.
p.s. If you need some help finding your balance again, or working through the stories that keep you stuck in old patterns, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.

The gift of falling apart: an Easter story

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It’s Easter, the time of year when Christians celebrate the end and the beginning, the death and the resurrection. It is also Springtime, when that which was dead awakes and is renewed.

For the past six years, Easter has taken on special significance for me. In my own life, I too celebrate death and resurrection, beginning and end.

Six years ago, my family and I traveled north to my brother’s house for some time with my family of origin. It was while we were there that we learned that my mom had cancer. It was also there that the crack in my marriage became too big to ignore.

At the end of the evening, when we were all shell-shocked with the realization we might lose mom, my husband and I got into an argument. I knew suddenly, with painful clarity, that if things didn’t change, this marriage would end. On the long drive home, I told him, in low tones so the girls in the back of the van couldn’t hear, that if things didn’t change, the marriage would be over. By the time we’d gotten home, we’d agreed that the next step would be counselling.

Something else happened that weekend before we’d gone to my brother’s place. Sitting in church on Easter morning, I had the sudden realization that the church I’d called home for the past fifteen years no longer felt like the right place for me to find community. Though I still loved the people in the congregation, changes in the church and changes in me made me feel like I didn’t fit anymore.

Monday morning, I woke with a horrible sense of dread, knowing that I was standing on the precipice of destruction. Everything was crumbling and I stood to lose the two people closest to me – both my husband and my mom – and the community that had once been my greatest support. The ground underneath my feet suddenly felt like it had turned to quicksand.

On top of that, I was in the first faltering steps of growing a businesses, and wasn’t making much money at it yet, so I had very little security of any kind.

When I look back over the five years following that fateful Easter Sunday, what I remember most is struggle and resistance. I was struggling to keep everything from falling apart and resistant to the changes I was afraid were coming. My husband and I attended repeated rounds of marriage counselling in hopes of saving our marriage. Together with my siblings, I supported Mom as she went through surgery and repeated rounds of chemo. I joined a new leadership committee at church, hoping a renewed commitment might help me feel like I fit again. And all the while I was struggling to make my business viable and to be a good mom for my teenage daughters.

One by one, all that I’d feared that Easter Sunday fell apart. Mom died a year and a half after she was diagnosed. My marriage ended and I stopped going to church. Three for three.

Yesterday, I was building some Powerpoint slides for a talk I’m giving in Kentucky next week, and I was looking for a visual metaphor for a point I want to make about how the work of holding space is very often the work of supporting destruction and regeneration. What I finally came up with can be seen in the photos below – a Lego house that is destroyed so that a bridge can be built out of the pieces.

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As I was building it, I wasn’t focusing on how personal it felt, but now that I look at it, I see my own story. My life was like the house in the first picture – tidy and secure, with my mom, my husband, and my church standing as the walls that kept me safe. But a house wasn’t what was needed anymore. It had kept me safe and secure for the first half of my life, and for that I was grateful, but now I needed to step into a new story. Instead of the safety and security of a house, it was time to transform and embrace the possibility and risk of a bridge.

The transformation can’t happen without the destruction. That’s what the story of Easter teaches us.

What made me feel safe needed to be dismantled because it was also keeping me stuck. Safety meant that I wasn’t telling the truth. I wasn’t living authentically. I wasn’t stepping out in boldness. I was saying and doing the things I needed to say and do in order to keep everything from falling apart. I was letting fear guide me instead of courage.

But now that it’s all fallen apart and I discovered I was strong enough to live through the pain, I am receiving the gifts of the destruction.

I am living more boldly because I have less to lose. I am telling the truth because I know I can. I am living like each day matters because I know it can all end in a moment.

In the process, I am building new relationships and finding new community that feel increasingly more authentic and connected to who I am now. I don’t have time for shallowness anymore – I need depth and passion, and that’s what I’m pouring my energy and my heart into.

After the destruction, I am living a bigger, bolder, more beautiful life. I am crossing the bridge instead of staying stuck in the house. That’s the gift of falling apart.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day we focus on the death of Christ. It’s a sombre day that reminds us of our own endings, deaths, and failed dreams. But that’s not the end of the story. Just around the corner is Easter Sunday, the resurrection, the delight, the fulfillment.

If something is dying in your life, don’t fight it, let it go. Release it and trust, because just around the corner will be your chance to rise again, to be made new.

After the destruction comes the possibility.

  *  *  *  *  *

If your life is falling apart, perhaps I can hold space for you with some coaching? If you’re rising from the ashes and are using your experience to help you hold space for others, join us in The Helpers’ Circle. If you’d like to explore how writing might support your transformation, there are two opportunities (one online and one in-person) to join the Openhearted Writing Circle.

 

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Spiralling across the sky like a pelican

pelicansThis week, school is back in session. One of my daughters started today and the other two start tomorrow. Two are now in university and one is in grade 8, her last year before high school.

I can say all of the clichéd things, and mean them… My how time flies! Wasn’t it just yesterday I was changing their diapers? How did it all rush past in the blink of an eye?

The return to school always reminds me of the relentless and dependable forward motion of time. Tick, tick, tick goes the clock. Flip, flip, flip go the pages of the calendar.

Today I was rushing out for last minute school supplies, haircut appointments, musical instrument rental, etc., and in the middle of it all, I wanted to hit the pause button. I wanted to slow down the pace of time, enjoy a few more summer days, and cling to my daughters’ fleeting childhood before it all disappears.

From my daughters’ perspective, still in their formative years, this is the way life is supposed to be lived – growing each year, advancing one grade after the other, stepping always forward on the straight line of time guided by the clock and the calendar. It’s the way we’re all raised – to believe that there is always meant to be forward movement. That’s not a bad thing – we want growth to happen.

But that’s only part of the truth and there’s something else I really want my daughters to learn that they probably won’t be taught in school.

Life is to be lived along the spiral and not simply the straight line.

When I was at the beach this summer, working on my book, I spent a lot of time watching pelicans. One of the things I love about pelicans is that, often, they fly across the sky in giant spirals, round and round, adjusting the arc of the spiral just enough each time so that they end at the far side of the sky from where they started.

They do this to conserve energy, riding thermals (updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground into the air), so they don’t have to flap their wings as often. They look so content and relaxed up there, circling round and round with very little effort on their part. High in the sky, they look like mythical creatures, as if they’d climbed out of ancient legends of magicians and shamans. Their shape and the way they move holds both mystery and myth.

That’s the path that I have come to believe is the most true way of seeing our lives. We go round and round, coming back each time to nearly the same place we’ve been, but always with enough of a difference to help us progress forward over time.

How many times have you been in this place you’re at right now? Like the seasons, our lives come back again and again to the harvest of Fall, the dormancy of Winter, the rebirth of Spring, and the growth of Summer. And, like the seasons, we live through the long dark spells, the slow sunny days, the rain, the wind, and the snow. We cycle through grief, through growth, through joy, through surrender, and through ease.

None of the seasons lasts forever. All of them change us a little before we begin the spiral again.

If you are in a place you feel like you’ve been before – whether it’s another cycle through grief, restlessness, waiting, or fear – don’t despair. You’re simply spiralling through the sky, learning what you need to from this trip around the circle, and moving a little further each time.

If you were traveling up a mountain, you’d be best to take the spiralling path, adjusting to the altitude, not tiring yourself out too quickly. Like the pelicans floating on the thermal air, you conserve your energy by not rushing straight ahead. You also learn more and see more that way. This is the way life is meant to be lived.

Don’t rush through, even though the path might seem hard right now. Take what you need from this time, and let it unfold in the fullness of time.

If you want to take a closer look at your own spiral path, I invite you to join us for the October offering of The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.

 

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On holding space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege

“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace

This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.

This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.

I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.

I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.

That challenge was further exacerbated by:

  • a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
  • my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens

In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.

In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?

That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.

Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.

This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.

How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?

This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.

If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.

Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.

  1. Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
  2. Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
  3. Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
  4. Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
  5. Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
  6. Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
  7. Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
  8. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
  9. Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.

I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?

 

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