I’ve been sick this week. Congestion, fever, a nose like a leaky faucet. This morning, I was just going to carry on with my day as though my body wasn’t begging to stay in bed, but then the fever finally convinced me a day under the covers was justified. One of the dangers of working from home, though, is that I can take my computer to bed and the inner drill sergeant still expects me to get stuff done.
I can chalk it up to the work ethic I was raised with. My dad was known to push through every sickness and more than once, he passed out in the barn when he was too sick to stand (and then got up and went back to work). My mom came home from the hospital, where she’d just had a radical hysterectomy, and re-washed the floor that sixteen-year-old me had washed the day before (but had used too much cleaner so it was sticky).
Yes, even after all of these years, there is still a voice in my head that becomes hyper-critical whenever there is evidence of laziness. Perhaps it’s still sixteen-year-old me reminding me that I’m not living up to the expectations of the hard-working folks who raised me.
There are not a lot of things pressing that I must do today, so a rest day is not unreasonable, but here I am writing this blog post because I’d told myself I’d write one today and whenever I try to rest, my brain spins in circles and makes it nearly impossible. Here’s what I’m thinking now… maybe if I get this post out of my brain, it will allow me to nap. (Fingers crossed.)
It’s ironic to be writing this, so soon after I wrote a post about why Krista needed to rest, but isn’t it always easier to tell other people what they need than it is to meet those needs for ourselves? (I’ll let her get revenge when she comes back to work.)
I’ve been thinking, though, about the bigger picture about how we treat our bodies and why we need to be more tender with our own bodies and each others’ bodies. As I mentioned in the earlier post, grind culture is abusive and we shouldn’t contribute to that abuse on capitalism’s behalf. Let’s face it – capitalism is never going to be kind to us, even if we break our bodies on its behalf, so why make such a huge sacrifice?
The other thing I mentioned in that post is that when we rest, we send a message to people that we value them whether or not they make measurable contributions to a capitalist system. When we are cruel to our bodies because they don’t perform as well as we expect them to, we are upholding a values system that places bodies in a hierarchy, with healthy, productive, physically fit bodies above those that are chronically ill or disabled. We contribute to the marginalization of other people by not valuing our own bodies when they are sick, weak, or tired. (And then we succumb to internalized oppression when we’re hard on our own bodies for being sick.)
This isn’t just about rest, it’s about all of the ways that we treat our bodies. It’s about the ways we punish our bodies with restrictive diets to try to lose pounds so that we can be seen as acceptable and attractive. It’s about harsh exercise regimes that make us feel like our bodies are more worthy. It’s about supplements and cleanses and… so much more.
You don’t have to spend much time on social media to realize just how much we are inundated with messages about how we should treat our bodies to make them conform to a certain standard. Influencers tout the latest exercise trend or body-enhancing supplement, ads tell us which bathing suit to wear so that we’ll look slimmer, and movies remind us that slim, attractive, fit people will find love before we will.
Wellness is a huge industry and, sadly, much of it promotes healthism. Healthism, defined in the 1980s by Robert Crawford, is “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of lifestyles”. When we believe the wellness influencers who tell us that our health is within our own control, then we make health a moral issue and we treat those who have attained good health as superior to those who haven’t. Those who are disabled, fat, chronically ill, immuno-compromised, aging, or simply out of shape can easily be blamed for their status in life because they “just haven’t done enough to take control of their own health”.
Healthism “ignores the impact of poverty, oppression, war, violence, luck, historical atrocities, abuse and the environment from traffic, pollution to clean water and nuclear contamination and so on. It protects the status quo, leads to victim blaming and privilege, increases health inequities and fosters internalized oppression.” (Source: https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-healthism/)
A healthy lifestyle is not a bad thing, but when you begin to define health as only one thing, then it becomes problematic. What is healthy for you might not be healthy for someone else. What is the right size for your body may not be the right size for another body. Many health experts are now revealing, for example, that fatness is not nearly as unhealthy as it was once believed to be. Many of the health risks and diseases once associated with fatness have now been linked to other factors. (Listen to the very informative podcast Maintenance Phase for more on this.)
It turns out, in fact, that our culture’s phobia of fatness is not about the health risks at all, it’s about white supremacy. In the book Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings does a thorough excavation of history to find out why western culture became so afraid of fatness, and it turns out it’s largely because elevating the status of white bodies meant denigrating Black bodies. According to Strings, “…the current anti-fat bias in the United States and in much of the West was not born in the medical field. Racial scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century has claimed that fatness was ‘savage’ and ‘black’.” She goes on to say that “…racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to create social distinctions between themselves and fat racial Others. Black people, as well as so-called degraded or hybrid whites (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), were primary targets of these arguments.”
Recently, I heard someone on a podcast talk about the rise of “body fascism” and I was intrigued, so I went digging to find out more. Collins Dictionary defines it as “intolerance of those whose bodies do not conform to a particular view of what is desirable.” Taken to an extreme, though, it’s not just about intolerance, it’s about control, oppression, marginalization, and violence. When a culture becomes too consumed with the elevation of a certain body type, as Strings points out was the case within the western world’s obsession with whiteness and thinness, then that culture will naturally vilify any body that does not fit the ideal. It will become harder for those who don’t fit the ideal to access social programs, to be treated fairly, and to be seen as worthy.
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see body fascism as the next dangerous step in the progression from healthism. When you assign personal responsibility to each person to reach a certain standard of health, and you devalue those who are unable to attain that standard, then you’ve created the conditions where it’s socially acceptable to marginalize people. Consider, for example, the Aryan race that Hitler was determined to create and uplift, while extinguishing those who didn’t fit his standards – that’s body fascism to the extreme.
When I consider the concerns currently being raised, especially in Hollywood, with the way that Artificial Intelligence can now be used to recreate video images of bodies that don’t even need to be present (or consenting), I can’t help but wonder whether this is another step toward body fascism. For one thing, if they can make movies without having to deal with the fallibility and imperfections of real bodies, what’s to stop movie producers from even more significantly elevating a certain body type while denigrating others? For another thing, why pay real bodies, when they can simply create images of bodies that will do their bidding without the annoyance of contracts or the need for fair treatment?
What does all of this have to do with me being sick? Well, it all comes down to the way that I choose to treat my own body. Do I view it as an unworthy body when it can’t perform the way it’s expected to perform? Do I punish my body for failing? Or do I cherish it, find a way to be tender with it, claim its inherent value, and divest myself of the systems that teach me to abuse it?
After all of that… I’m going to answer my own questions by turning off this computer, crawling back under the covers, and having a nap. Not because I’ve earned it, but because this body is worthy of it.
p.s. If you’re on a quest for a more tender relationship with your body, join us for A Full-Bodied Life. Sign up to study alone, or join the community for meaningful conversations.
Everyone is talking about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, but the problem with much of the response to this event is that it gives us a clear “them” to vilify. “Those horrible neo-nazis and white supremacists. Can you BELIEVE what they’re doing and saying?”
When we isolate them and their extremism, we miss the point that white supremacy is part of our culture and it’s something that ALL WHITE PEOPLE benefit from.
“The overtly racist White Supremacists marching in Virginia are not a part of a binary, they’re part of a scale. When we capitalize the words “White Supremacy” and treat it like a monstrous philosophy, it is an extreme that can be handily rejected by the majority of whites.
“However, on the same spectrum, less extreme, are the various forces that lead to the overrepresentation of whites in nearly every desirable facet of society, and to the contempt and distrust with which POC are seen. We have decided to call these things “white privilege,” but one rarely mentioned aspect of white privilege is the privilege to use language to pretend it isn’t white supremacy. Richard Spencer and his ilk are the id, not an aberration but rather a natural byproduct of unchecked white privilege.” From the article Why Privilege is White-Washed Supremacy.
If we all benefit from it, then we all must participate in dismantling it. This is not just a leadership problem (though good leadership would certainly make a difference). It’s not just an American problem (there’s lots of racism here in Canada too). It’s a problem that every one of us can participate in addressing.
Here are some things that you can do to help dismantle white supremacy. (Note: this list is meant primarily for white people and it emerges out of my own years of wrestling with my whiteness.)
1.) Do an inventory of how white your lens and life are. Do you surround yourself with white friends? Are your bookshelves full of books by white writers? Do you primarily watch TV shows and movies with white people in them? Are you doing business with, banking with, signing up for courses with, and hiring mostly white people? If so, ask yourself what you need to do to change the fact that you are centring whiteness.
2.) Listen to, read, and amplify the voices and wisdom of people of colour. Commit to reading only books written by people of colour for a year. Share at least one article each day on social media written by a person of colour. Sign up for courses with people of colour. Follow them on social media. If you have a public platform, share it regularly with voices that your audience needs to hear from.
3.) Buy from and amplify businesses owned by people of colour. You can do a lot of good by being more intentional about where you spend your money. Do your research and search out businesses owned by and run by people who look different from you. And then tell all of your friends about where you’re spending your money, not as a way of bragging about how socially conscious you are, but as a way of promoting these businesses and supporting their success.
4.) Consider the power of your vote. Do your research about the people you’re voting for. If you can, support people of colour running for political office (if they represent your political views). If the candidates in your neighbourhood are white, then at least talk to them about what they’re doing to address racism and white supremacy. Don’t just take their word for it – find out who they’re hiring, who they’re engaging in their campaigns, and who they’re doing business with for a better picture of how white their lens is.
5.) Talk to your racist neighbours, friends, family members, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, etc. Stand up for the people they dismiss. Challenge their attitudes. Invite them to multi-cultural events or lectures where they can expand their thinking. Don’t just ignore it because “they’re otherwise such kind people.” When you’re silent, you are complicit.
6.) Talk to the children in your life about racism and white supremacy. Point out the areas where they are benefiting from white privilege. Have hard conversations about news stories like Charlottesville. Model for them by letting them see you reading books by people of colour, having meaningful friendships with people of colour, voting for people of colour, and challenging your racist relatives. Help them develop strategies for addressing the racism they may be witnessing in their schools, sports teams, etc. (AND, when they grow up and start learning things you don’t know and listening to voices you haven’t heard, be willing to learn from them.)
7.) Research and send money to non-profits run by and working with communities that have suffered from oppression/colonization/conflict/etc. Non-profits that are run by white people, that have mostly white people on the board and on staff, etc. may be upholding white supremacy by not including the voices, wisdom, abilities, etc. of the people they say they’re serving. Note: I specifically said “send money”, because if you choose to send them the physical items YOU THINK they need, then you are taking their autonomy away. Unless they ask for specific items, let them make their own decisions by giving them money to spend as THEY see fit.
8.) Stop spiritual bypassing or other avoidance techniques and dare to peer into the shadow side of our culture. If you believe in “love and light” than dare to shine that light into the darkness of racism and white supremacy rather than trying to pretend that “we are all one race” or “I don’t see colour”. The fact that you have the option to avoid this kind of negativity is a sign of your privilege. Your spirituality is selfish if it lets you “rise above” the ugliness of the world.
9.) Learn to sit with discomfort. Do the personal work (mindfulness, therapy, coaching, etc.) that will build your resilience and help you deal with negative emotions in a more healthy way. If you are always running away from fear, shame, anxiety, etc. then you won’t have the courage to step into difficult conversations where you might be challenged for your white privilege, covert racism, etc. If you shut down every time someone expresses an opinion different from yours, then you’ll stay in your little bubble and not contribute to the change this world needs.
10.) Find places for conversations and meaningful action. Join an ally group that supports the causes of people of colour (eg. SURJ). Start a conversation circle where you can wrestle with the hard conversations. Seek out Facebook groups or other social media forums. DON’T rush in to do what YOU think needs to be done – instead, follow the leadership of the people most impacted by the issue and LISTEN.
The border appeared too quickly. On a small highway with little traffic, nobody had bothered to post a “5 km to the U.S. border” sign, so I was suddenly there with no time to prepare. With some trepidation, I pulled up next to the border guard’s window, took off my sunglasses, smiled my best “I’m not a danger to your country” smile, handed him my passport, and tried not to look nervous.
I could feel my heartbeat increase as he scanned his computer. Would he see the alleged “note on my file” that the last border guard had said he was putting there when I’d been told I didn’t have the right visa and wouldn’t be allowed back into the country without it? Would he turn me around and send me back home, even though I was visiting for pleasure this time and nobody would be paying me to work in the country? Would he, like the last border guard, wave a binder full of visa information in front of me and say “I’m not sure which visa you need, but I know you don’t have it.” I wasn’t sure… all I could do was smile, nod, and cooperate when he peered through my car windows at the camping equipment in the back.
Minutes later, he’d let me through without incident. My body reacted with relief, taking deep gulps of air to fill the lungs I’d apparently been depriving. How long had I been holding my breath waiting for this moment? Perhaps for months already.
I didn’t realize, until that moment, just how claustrophobic I’d been feeling, worried that I might no longer have easy access into the United States where so many of my friends, colleagues, and clients live. Many people live rich and full lives without ever owning a passport or crossing an international border, but I am not one of those people. I was born for expansiveness, for global wandering, for deep connections with people and places all over the world. A smaller life than that leaves me feeling trapped, with less air to breathe. (Yes, I am aware of what a privilege this life is, and how my normal privilege, as a white woman, is to easily cross the border into any country I’ve visited.)
After my breath slowed and I continued my long drive to the Boundary Waters for my canoe trip, I had a sudden flash of insight…
I have been performing for border guards all of my life, waiting anxiously with a smile on my face as they decide my fate, hoping I haven’t done or said anything that might offend them or turn them against me.
Every woman knows this story. So does every person of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled person, and member of other oppressed groups without access to power. We all know that we can choose to stay in our own “countries” (the spaces, jobs, neighbourhoods, etc., where those with power consider to be our rightful place). But if we dare to venture forth into more expansive “countries”, we have to face the border guards who have the power to create or dig up arbitrary rules about why we don’t belong there.
There were the border guards who told me which sports a girl was allowed to play. And some who told me what clothing was acceptable and wouldn’t create too much temptation for the occupants of the more powerful “country”. Others who said that I was pretty smart “for a girl”, letting me know that there was a limit on how far I could go with my intellect. And there were those who didn’t allow me into certain boardrooms or didn’t invite me to attend political events because I didn’t play “the (male) game” well enough. And some who told me I couldn’t be a good leader if I didn’t learn to keep my emotions out of it. And some who said that women weren’t as valuable in the workplace because they’d end up going off on maternity leave at some point. And others who implied that the business I longed to build was too “soft” to be taken seriously.
Most of those border guards didn’t think of themselves as border guards and were probably never fully aware of the fact that they were keeping me or anyone else out of their country. They simply saw it as their birthright to live in a more expansive country than I did, and when they saw me or anyone else trying to cross the border, they got nervous that there wouldn’t be enough space for all of us, so they pushed back, made up arbitrary rules, and protected their territory. Some were probably very uncomfortable enforcing these arbitrary rules, but they feared they’d be kicked out of their own country if they didn’t uphold them. (I think of my father, for example, who admired strong women and often told me so, but, as the leader of our small church, couldn’t let me do Bible reading or speaking from the pulpit because it would make other church members uncomfortable.)
Just like I could choose to stay in Canada, I could choose to build a relatively full and happy life within the confines of this country called womanhood, but that’s not the life I was born for. I was born with natural gifts in leadership and communication – both things I’ve often been told I’d need to suppress in myself because of my gender. The claustrophobia that had me holding my breath at the border had me holding my breath on a regular basis when I feared I’d reached the limits of what’s acceptable for my gender.
There’s another claustrophobia that I’ve wrestled with in my past and that is the claustrophobia of the faith I was raised with. There are many things I love about my Mennonite roots, but the “evangelical” part is one that my expansive heart wouldn’t let me hang onto.
I could no longer live within the confines of a “country” where we were taught that there was only one way to get across the border – to have access to the “true God” and to get the golden ticket to heaven. I could no longer live in a country where my Muslim friends, my Hindu friends, and my LGBTQ+ friends needed to be converted. I couldn’t be part of a faith that wanted me to become one of those border guards, letting people know how to gain access.
Once again, I don’t think anyone within the evangelical faith tradition thinks of themselves as border guards and some will be offended that I offer this analogy. The people I know well are loving and kind people who want to share the faith that sustains them and I don’t blame them for that – faith is a good thing to have and to share. But I know that my own personal claustrophobia only ended when I chose, instead of an evangelical church, to sit in circles with other seekers who choose not to believe that one way is the only way, that one “country” is the only good country.
In both of the situations I’ve mentioned, I learned, to one degree or another, both to live with my claustrophobia and to begin to serve as a border guard myself, conveying the rules to those who didn’t yet know them, letting some people know that they weren’t behaving in a way that warranted access, and protecting the privilege and power that I, too, have benefited from. When it comes to being white, for example, it served me well to work with the border guards in making sure we didn’t have to share the country of power and privilege with too many others. Sometimes, serving as a border guard is as simple as turning a blind eye to the plight of those who’ve been denied access.
I kept myself small too, serving as my own border guard and limiting myself with my own self-doubt, fears, and internalized oppression. It was easier to learn to live with the claustrophobia than to risk the judgement of the border guards I was taught to fear.
This week, I looked at the photos of the white supremacists marching with torches in Charlottesville and I saw border guards. These young white men desperately want to protect the “country” that they believe is their birthright. The world is changing around them and they feel threatened and backed into the corner by those people demanding access to what they’ve always assumed belonged exclusively to them. They watch the rise of Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the election of a black president, increased immigration, and the legalization of same sex marriage, and they’re incensed with the fact that too many people are crowding into their “country”.
But the thing about being a border guard is that it’s a fear-based position. If you are tasked with protecting something that everyone else wants access to, you have to be ever vigilant and watchful and you can’t help but be somewhat paranoid. You can’t really trust anyone because you never know when they might threaten what you want. And you have to be willing to sell your soul for the cause of the country you’ve pledged allegiance to. When the rules change, you have to keep enforcing them even if you don’t understand or agree with them. One false move and you could lose your precarious position, so you learn to obey the masters that control your fate and dole out the power you’ve become addicted to.
Just like there is claustrophobia in being confined to a country that feels too small for you, there is claustrophobia in being a border guard protecting a space that outsiders are trying to get access to. I could see that claustrophobia on the faces of those young white supremacists. Their coveted space is getting smaller and they’re panicking over the fear that sharing it means less for them. Their wide open spaces don’t feel so wide open anymore.
I don’t only suffer from claustrophobia in a metaphorical sense – I face it in a very real sense in closed, crowded spaces. When it happens, I have a minor panic attack and have to find a quick exit to an open space where I can take deep gulps of air, just as I did when I crossed the border last week.
I’m sure some of those young white supremacists were feeling a similar desperate need for the fresh air they’ve convinced themselves they no longer have access to, and they’re willing to step on people in their desperation to get to it. If they only knew that the only way to breathe truly fresh air without feeling like you’re being closed in on is to allow everyone to breathe that air.
I don’t know for certain if this was the origin of my claustrophobia, but this is the first of it I remember… My older brothers and their friends had constructed an elaborate maze out of hay bales. As kids on the farm, we often built forts in the hay bales, but this was the first time I remember them building a maze, where you enter a dark, narrow doorway on your hands and knees and have to find your way to the exit, feeling your way along in the pitch black. Since you’re in a space only big enough for your body on hands and knees, there is no turning back.
I was always eager to hang out with my brothers, so I accepted their invitation to be the inaugural visitor to the maze. Once inside, I panicked. No matter where I turned, I couldn’t find the light at the end of the tunnel. The walls started closing in on me. I called to my brothers to let me out, but, at first, they laughed and said I’d have to keep trying. Then I started to panic, shrieking and flailing, desperate for light and fresh air, convinced I was going to die inside that dark tunnel. Finally, my brothers, who cared too much for me to leave me trapped, began dismantling the maze until they found me and could release me into the fresh air.
This isn’t just a story from my childhood – it’s a metaphor for what we need to consider in our culture right now. There are people trapped inside the maze of patriarchy and white supremacy, trying to get access to the same air that those outside the maze have access to. (Think, for a moment, of Eric Garner, who died telling the police “I can’t breathe!”) There are people who’ve reached the height of their claustrophobia and they’re flailing around and screaming, trying to get the attention of the people on the outside. Those who stand outside can choose to hang onto their fear that there is not enough air for all of us and continue to serve as border guards, serving the system they created and benefit from, or they can start to dismantle the system, one hay bale at a time.
I choose to be one of the dismantlers.
Because the air I breathe is only fresh if you have access to it too.
I was on a fourteen hour train ride between Brisbane and Sydney the day the U.S. election was sealing the fate of the country for the next four years. I’d chosen train travel over flight because, after the intensity of facilitating two sold out retreats and a one-day workshop in a country far from home, I needed many hours of integration, electronic disconnection, solitude, and staring out the window at the vast countryside. Slow travel offers me self-care in times like those.
For those fourteen hours, I had no access to internet, so I didn’t know who won the election until hours after it had been announced.
I say that I didn’t know, but really… I DID know. Hours before an astonished fellow traveler announced to the rest of us in the railcar what she’d read online, a sudden ominous, panicky feeling engulfed me and I knew intuitively what the outcome was. I had a strong sense of the shadow showing itself in the world. I knew that the world was about to change – and not in a good way. I didn’t want to believe it, but when the woman exclaimed “Has the whole world gone mad?!” my fears were confirmed. A man who is openly misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, and emotionally immature is about to become the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Yes, I’m Canadian, and my life and the lives of my children may not change dramatically because of this election, but what happens in the U.S. affects the world. What hurts my Muslim, Black, GLBTQ+, Indigenous, and Mexican sisters and brothers hurts me. And this is not an isolated incident – it comes too quickly on the heals of Brexit to not be seen as a global pendulum swing toward protectionism and the far right.
There is good reason for the ominous feelings in the pits of so many of our stomachs. White supremacy and the patriarchy have reared their ugly heads and they appear to be winning this round. The shadow is big and ominous and it demands to be seen.
Just a few days before sitting on that train, I had a similar ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, but this time it was much more personal and close to home. I was facilitating the second retreat at Welcome to the BIG House when things started to go sideways. No, they were not on the “Trump winning the election” global scale of ominous, but not unlike what’s happening in the U.S., group shadow had showed up at the retreat and was threatening to derail everything we’d worked to build.
I’d known from the start of the retreat that something was slightly out-of-balance. It started with a gut feeling when I walked into the room and it continued when the opening sharing round did not invite as much vulnerability and trust as it normally tends to. The next morning, I was even more certain that there was some stuck energy in the group when a simple exercise fell flat. We were simply trying to walk in a circle together, looking down at the words we’d placed on the floor, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get the circle to move. We were stuck.
It was hard to put a finger on what was going on. There were beautiful, openhearted people in the room who came willing to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation. Nobody was openly disruptive or serving as an “energy-vampire”. When we moved into smaller circles, the energy flowed more easily and intimacy and trust seemed more present, but when we were in the large group, there was a flatness and disconnection that didn’t seem to shift.
I questioned everything. Was the group too big? Had the purpose of the retreat been unclear and so people arrived with differing expectations and intentions? Was I trying to mix together the wrong content? Was my ego getting in the way? Was there some underlying conflict I didn’t know about? Was there a cultural disconnect I didn’t understand? I didn’t have the answer.
On the afternoon of the second last day of the retreat, we started to talk about shadow. I explained how shadow is made up of all of the things that we keep out of sight because we’re afraid to bring them into the light. These are not necessarily all bad things – they are simply the things we fear will make us feel unsafe if we reveal them. Beginning with an exploration on personal shadow before we moved on to group shadow, I invited the group into a guided meditation in which each person explored the messages they’d received in childhood about which parts of their personality and identity they’d learned to keep hidden because it wasn’t safe to reveal them. “Perhaps you learned to keep your voice down because you learned it was unsafe to be too loud. Perhaps you hid your body because revealing it wasn’t safe.”
Before we could move into a conversation about group shadow, the shadow showed up and revealed itself to us. A few people in the room spoke about the shadow that was coming up for them within the container of this retreat. (Giving more specific information would betray confidences, so I will simply say that they were honest about their personal shadow and how it might be contributing to what was happening in the group.) As soon as the words were spoken, it felt like a bomb had been tossed into the room. Suddenly there was something staring us in the face that many of us were afraid to speak of. Some were confused and disoriented by it, and all felt some measure of discomfort.
What should we do now? Everyone looked to me, hoping I could magically make the bomb go away. I knew I couldn’t do that alone and I knew we didn’t have enough time or energy left in the day to fully dismantle it.
With my head spinning in circles like a roulette wheel trying to land on the right number, I reached deep for what my intuition told me was the next right step. “It’s late in the day, we need a meal and a rest, and I don’t believe that we have the space and time to fully address what just happened,” I said. “We need a strong container to hold the shadow that just showed up, and we can’t be strong if we don’t care for ourselves first. I know that, as the circle host, my resources are spent at this point in the day, so I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves well if we stick with this right now. I’m going to suggest that we close with a check-out round, and then we each do what we need to do to care for ourselves throughout the evening. In the morning, when we are refreshed, we will come back into the circle and hold the space for what showed up. I will set aside the teaching exercises I had planned so that we can give as much space for this as we can in the short time we have remaining.”
For the check-out round, I asked the question “what are you curious about?” Most people spoke to their curiosity about what had just happened and how it would be resolved. When everyone had spoken, I read the following poem:
Lost (by David Wagoner)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.
In closing, I offered this invitation. “Tonight, I invite you to sit with your discomfort. Go sit with the trees, if that helps. Don’t try to resolve it too quickly. Sit with it and ask what it is here to teach you. Because in your discomfort is great opportunity for growth, learning, and transformation.”
By the time I got back to my own room, I could feel the heaviness of what had just happened settling into my body and I could hear the gremlins beginning to offer their displeasure in my head. “Did I do the right thing? Did I fail the group? Should I have been more forceful or decisive? Will I let them down if I don’t teach the parts of the curriculum I’d planned to teach? Will we really be able to resolve this in the morning? What if everyone leaves the retreat dissatisfied? What if I fail?”
I turned to my go-to self-care stress-reducers. First, I climbed into a bathtub full of hot water and epsom salts. I stayed there for nearly two hours – as long as it took to slow my breath, still my brain, ground my body, and give comfort to my heart. Each time the gremlins attacked, I took deep breaths, said a prayer, and repeated a few of my favourite mantras. I also sent out a couple of SOS text messages to dear friends who would hold space for me from afar, and, after my bath, I unpacked what had happened with Georgia, the owner of The BIG House and the guardian of the circle. As we were talking, sitting in darkness in her living room, two creatures showed up in the room – a large frog by the kitchen sink and a bat flying through the open window and fluttering above our heads.
By the time I climbed into bed, I was relaxed and confident that, if I could get my own ego out of the way, the circle would be strong enough to hold the shadow in the morning.
The next morning, I started by asking the group for their permission to clear out the centre of the circle. We’d let it become cluttered with some creative containers we’d made earlier in the retreat as well as other things that didn’t need to be there. “I want to clear out the centre,” I said, “to remind us of the intention that brought us here this weekend. This retreat is called ‘Living with an Open Heart’, and that is what we came here to do. We want to place our intention to be openhearted at the centre of the circle and remind ourselves that, whatever happens in this space, we commit to connecting back to our own open hearts.”
Then I asked the question “How are you arriving?” and passed the talking piece for a check-in round. People were tentative at first, but then there was a gradual opening up and the energy in the room began to shift. It felt like a little light was peeking through a window. Part way through the round, a few people started to open up more than they had before in the large circle.
Once we’d completed a check-in round, I said, “My intuition tells me that we simply need to allow the talking piece to make its way around the circle again and invite people to say whatever they feel needs to be offered into the circle.”
One person asked “aren’t we going to confront the shadow that showed up here yesterday?” I responded with “‘Confront’ isn’t the language I’d like us to use. Instead, let’s do our best to speak with open hearts so that we can reveal and shine light on the shadow that we’ve all brought into the room.”
This time, while the talking piece passed around the room, people cracked open even more, especially those people who’d revealed the shadow the day before. What they offered into the room revealed deep awareness and learning that had happened overnight. Each person was willing to own what she or he had brought into the room.
The energy shift was palpable and people leaned in to the centre in ways they hadn’t before. They were finally beginning to trust the circle to hold their vulnerability and personal shadow. Some profound shifts happened for several people, and one person in particular admitted that this was the very first time she’d ever come to a place where she was safe in a group setting. “When I knew that I was safe to sit with my discomfort and then come back into the room, I felt like I was truly safe with other people for the first time in my life.” She wept and many of us wept with her.
Several people thanked the shadow-bearers. “If you hadn’t spoken what you did into the circle yesterday, we would have walked away with only half of an experience, not knowing what we were missing. This morning was worth every bit of discomfort we felt last night. I am leaving this circle with an open heart.”
We were ending the retreat at noon, so we only had time for a short break and then a check-out round. During check-out, each of us spoke to what we were taking with us from the retreat, and many spoke of life-changing shifts they’d experienced.
“Some of you were uncomfortable giving up the teachings that I had prepared for this morning,” I said, “but if I had pushed through with my curriculum, it would have come from a place of ego and not openheartedness and it would not have served the good of the group. Also, all of the things I had planned would have kept you in your heads, but what happened here this morning brought us all back to our hearts. You have taught each other much more valuable lessons than I could have taught you.”
A few days later, when I was on the train and had received the news of Trump’s election, I thought back to our experience at the retreat and wondered what it had to teach us about the state of the world right now.
Just like at the retreat, there is an underlying shadow in the world that we haven’t always known how to talk about. There have been some brave souls who’ve spoken about it throughout history, but many have been killed, tortured, or ostracized for their efforts and the rest of us have been scared off by what they’ve endured. If I were to give it a name, I would use words like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”. There are other related words… “consumerism, greed, environmental destruction, protectionism, etc.”
It’s been under the surface for a very long time and, collectively, we’ve tried to ignore it because it brings up shame and fear and makes us feel unsafe to speak of it. But in recent years, it’s been surfacing more and more and there are more and more brave souls willing to speak of it. Many of those brave ones – like those in the Black Lives Matter movement, or those protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any feminist who dares to face the trolls online – continue to suffer the consequences. The courageous ones continue to do it anyway, because they are called to be the light-bearers.
When you dare to speak of the shadow, it can show up in the room like a bomb that’s been dropped, surprising and disorienting us all. Trump’s presidency is one such bomb dropped into our world, revealing to us the shadow that exists in ALL OF US. We can’t simply blame a few scapegoats – we have to take ownership of this shadow if any real change is to happen.
Just like at the retreat, we need a strong container that can hold space for the shadow. We need people who aren’t afraid to speak of what they hide inside themselves. We need people who will come to the circle with open hearts. We need strong leaders who do not back down in the face of conflict or their own fear. We need people who are willing to sit with their discomfort so that the learning and wisdom can emerge. We need those who will turn to the trees and to the creatures for wisdom and guidance. We need prayer warriors and caregivers. We need those who offer sustenance and shelter. We need warriors and lovers.
We need commitment, courage, compassion, and curiosity.
If there had not been strong and committed people in the room with me at the retreat, there is no way I could have held it alone. The circle would have crumbled and we all would have taken our fear, discomfort, and shadow with us, probably stuffing it further down so that it would emerge in much more destructive ways later on. The shadow doesn’t go away – it just goes underground for awhile until it finds another crack through which to crawl.
This is my challenge to you – can we gather together the people we need to create a container strong enough to hold this shadow? Can we rally our co-leaders, our allies, our prophets, our teachers, our guardians, our disruptors, our light-bearers, our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our priests, our caregivers, our helpers, our prayer warriors – anyone who is willing to hold the rim while we wrestle with the shadow in our midst? Can we sit with our discomfort long enough to let the learning and wisdom sink deep into our hearts? Can we stand firm in the face of those who continue to hide the light?
Can we commit to real change rather than surface platitudes? Can we dare to face our own shadow so that the collective shadow loses strength?
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is hijacking space.
When you hijack a vehicle (a plane, train, ship, etc.), you illegally seize it for your own purposes and force it to a different destination.
While holding space involves supporting without judging, fixing, or controlling the outcome, hijacking space involves manipulating, disempowering, and imposing various forms of judgment and control.
When we hold space, we liberate. We give someone the freedom to be who they are, to make sovereign choices, and to control their own outcome. When we hold space, we leave the person feeling supported and empowered.
When we hijack space, we violate. We take away a person’s freedom, limit their ability to make choices, and take control of the outcome. When we hijack space, we leave the person disenfranchised and weakened.
While holding space offers people an open bowl for their journey through liminal space, hijacking space puts a lid on that bowl.
Some forms of hijacking space are obvious and intentional (such as violence, abuse, overpowering, or bullying), but other forms are much more subtle and inadvertent. Many of these more subtle forms of hijacking space include the kinds of behaviour of which we are all guilty—and usually more frequently than we care to admit.
Here are some of the ways that we hijack space:
expecting them to experience or interpret situations the same way we do
acting as the “tone police” when their emotions are stronger than we’re comfortable with (ie. insisting that they calm down before we’ll talk to them)
gaslighting them and making them believe that they are going crazy and/or are no longer in control of their own emotions
one-upping their story with a better one of our own (and thereby dismissing the value of theirs)
implying that our emotional response to something is more important than theirs
dismissing the value of their work and/or taking credit for it ourselves
not allowing them to trust their intuition and insisting they do things our way
acting dismissively when they share a personal story
not hearing them when they ask us to change our behaviour toward them
ignoring and/or dismissing their emotional state
fixing their problems for them and taking away their power to fix them themselves
taking over their emotions and feeling those emotions deeper than they do
apologizing too much so that they become responsible for making us feel better
expecting them to feed our egos
passive-aggressively trying to manipulate their behaviour
shaming them for feeling too much, speaking too much, eating too much, etc.
over-explaining things (with an assumption that they can’t understand otherwise)
expecting them to educate us about how we should be in relationships with them instead of doing the hard work ourselves
worrying about them in a way that implies we don’t trust them enough to look after themselves
Hijacking space, at its worst, is a tool of oppression. Those who uphold the patriarchy or white supremacy, for example, are usually masterful at hijacking, whether or not they know they’re doing it. We have all seen it happen – the person in power dismissing, fixing, shaming, interrupting in ways that keeps the other person disempowered and fearful. Even in race relations work, where people are conscious and intentional about being in conversation and reconciliation, I have seen people’s ideas being dismissed, emotions being shamed, and/or problems being fixed. (I have even, admittedly, caught myself doing it.) It can feel surprisingly threatening to see an oppressed person claim agency over their own bodies, emotions, etc., and, in response, those who are used to holding the power fall back on the tools of hijacking space that have been passed down through the generations.
But we can’t simply dismiss it as something “they” do.Each of us finds ways of hijacking space. We do it to our children, to our friends, to our spouses, to our employees, and even to our parents. We even do it to ourselves when we police our own emotions in order to make other people feel better (ie. the inner patriarch that Sidra Stone talks about in The Shadow King: The Invisible Force that Holds Women Back).
Just this week, my teenage daughter came home from film camp complaining about a girl in her group who annoyed her, and I was tempted to jump in and assure her that it wasn’t really as bad as she said it was and that she needed to be kind to people no matter what, etc. If I’d done that, I would have immediately disempowered and shamed her. Instead I tried to listen without judgement and speak with compassionate guidance. The next day, she figured out how to deal with this person on her own without me needing to intervene.
We also do it in situations where we’re trying to increase our power in a relationship. Consider a time, for example, when you felt intimidated by someone, and, consequently you interrupted them, dismissed their emotions and/or tried to control the outcome of the conversation. Though it might have felt good, in the moment, to be doing it to someone with seemingly more power than you, it doesn’t serve either of you well in the end. Change doesn’t happen when space is hijacked.
In the talk I gave at a conference a few months ago, I talked about holding space as “being the bowl” for someone else. After a Lego house falls apart, I explained in my analogy, a bowl serves to contain all of the broken pieces before they can become what they’re meant to transform into after that. The bowl doesn’t intervene – it just holds, protects, and creates safe space for the brokenness and emergence.
As hijackers, instead of serving as the bowl that holds, we become the mold that shapes. Instead of creating safe space for the emergence, we break the house and we force it into the shape of our choosing. We manipulate, direct, and judge.
Consider, in your own life, how often you have made choices that weren’t authentic to you, simply because you didn’t want to stir someone’s anger or because that person was shaming you for your choices? Sometimes it’s the subtlest of behaviours that have the most power.
It takes a lot of emotional maturity to be the bowl instead of the mold. We have to do our own work to dismantle our inner patriarch and to look deeply into our shadow. We have to address our shame and our fear, and we have to practice releasing control and sharing power. We have to find the spiritual practices that allow us to detach from other people’s emotions and their outcomes and to allow them their autonomy. We have to practice trust in ourselves and in each other.