In The Art of Holding Space, Heather Plett defines holding space as “what we do when we walk alongside a person or group on a journey through liminal space”.
She compares holding space to a bowl that has the ability to contain what breaks in times of sadness, loss, and grief, giving the person who is being held the ability and time they need to find the courage, support and strength to rebuild.
In this time of social distancing, economic instability and loss, we may be holding space for friends or family who are feeling anxious or depressed at a time when our own resources are diminished. We may even be trying to hold space as a way of distracting ourselves from our own fears and anxiety.
As I read I find myself wondering if it is possible to hold space for oneself. What does that look and feel like? No doubt the book will get there, but my curiosity has the best of me and I can sometimes be a bit impatient. So I have been exploring; taking some of the concepts and applying them to my meditation practice.
Before I write about what I have discovered, let me put some context around this. I am fortunate enough to be able to continue working in a way that feels safe, I have space both inside and outside of my house (places to find some time for myself), my children are grown and healthy and my relationship with my spouse is supportive and loving. Getting through this pandemic is easier for me than it may be for so many others, but it is still not easy. I have felt myself lose my centre, I have struggled with sadness and anxiety, and there have been some big losses to maneuver. I also have years of yoga practice to turn to (thank goodness). So I guess the caveat is that my experience may be much different than yours and therefor the outcomes of this practice may be different for you. And one more thing, I think that holding space for ourselves is not a replacement for finding someone to hold space for you (a friend, therapist, or family member), but it may help when those resources cannot be there when we need them.
So let’s look at the metaphor of the bowl Plett uses. She describes the bowl as having three layers:
the inner layer of the bowl (what you offer to the person for whom you’re holding space) is held together by the two outer layers: what guides you and what supports you as you hold space for others. All the layers are necessary to hold space in a healthy, consistent manner.
(2020, p 63)
She then goes on to describe the elements each layer of the bowl needs to maintain integrity and strength. When we explore holding space for ourselves, it seems to me that only a few of those elements she lists are essential (like the inner and middle layers), while the outer layer only has two elements, both of which I feel benefit a self-holding practice.
Sometimes bearing witness to a thought or emotion is all that is needed for it to soften around the edges, particularly if you can do it with a sense of compassion and without judgement.
For example, of all the qualities that Plett lists for the first layer, I believe the most important when holding space for one’s self are: bearing witness, compassion, and non-judgement. Sound familiar? For those who have attended a yoga or meditation class, it is likely that you have heard the teacher speak to one of these elements, as they are an important part of any yoga or meditation practice.
Each quality in the first layer informs the other, you bear witness to what arises (the good, the bad and the ugly) with non judgement and compassion. Like Rumi’s Guest House, you welcome whatever shows up with a friendly nod of acknowledgement, keeping an open and friendly heart. Sometimes bearing witness to a thought or emotion is all that is needed for it to soften around the edges, particularly if you can do it with a sense of compassion and without judgement.
The elements I think are essential for the second layer are: discernment, courage and curiosity. It takes courage to be with difficult thoughts and feelings, to turn toward them rather than away. Curiosity allows for spaciousness, and may be an antidote to judgement. Rather than label an experience, thought or feeling as good or bad you might look at what happens when you ask yourself, ‘isn’t that interesting...’. Discernment is the ability to recognize when we might need someone else to hold space for us, a friend, family member or therapist. Sometimes we just don’t have the skills or resources to take on deeper hurts or trauma.
In Plett’s bowl the third layer is strengthened by mystery and community; our sense of connection to others and that which is Love. Being open to the mystery of what it means to be human with all it’s joys and sorrows, separate but not separate. Learning to be okay with not knowing, and staying connected as best we can to those in our community who sustain us (in most cases virtually) provides substance and integrity to the outer layer of our bowl.
As I sat with these concepts, I let my body act as the container that held whatever needed holding (emotions, physical sensations, thoughts). I was able to bear witness to what showed up, keeping in mind that times have been especially difficult lately and allowing myself see the hurt and fear that was lurking just under the surface. At times I found myself moving toward judgmental thoughts like; what do you have to complain about, others are struggling a lot more than you. Rather than letting that take over, I found taking a deep breath and letting that thought go was helpful. And I just kept reminding myself to be kind. I visualized myself nodding to what showed up with smile. It was certainly not easy, and there were many times when the same thought or emotion would mosey on back, not quite satisfied that it had had really been heard. My practice was to keep acknowledging it each and every time. I will continue to work with this idea both as a practitioner and a teacher, and I will definitely finish Heather Plett’s book.
If you would like to explore this with me, I will be the Friday facilitator for Empower Me Yoga’s FREE month of meditation. Every morning at 8 am through the month of May there will be a teacher holding space for those interested in sitting in community. You don’t need any experience, and you don’t need to come everyday.Each session is 15 minutes in length. To sign up or get more info go to:https://www.wellnessliving.com/rs/catalog-view.html?id_sale=3&k_id=297561
Note: After finishing this piece I found this post by Heather Plett on her blog, https://heatherplett.com/2020/03/learned-time-social-isolation-liminal-space/
We humans are a mess of contradictions and perhaps enlightenment is accepting our messy selves with grace and humour as we move towards being our most beautiful and loving selves.
Before studying and practicing yoga and Buddhism, I would find myself repeating the same mistakes over and over, much like the protagonist in Portia Nelson’s piece, An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. I was perplexed, frustrated, and would often blame others for my mistakes; I was stuck in Chapter I (if you are not familiar with this piece check it out by clicking on the title above).
Slowly, I began to recognize the unhealthy patterns and take some responsibility for my life. I started to understand how my unconscious conditioning was a driving force behind many of my actions. In yoga and Buddhist philosophy this conditioning is known as our samskaras. Sometimes referred to as the grooves, patterns or scars created by our own thoughts, intentions and actions, and informed by our the actions, thoughts and intentions of our ancestors and our communities. Some grooves are deep and not well identified, like those that we have inherited from past generations, and some are relatively shallow and relatively easy to identify.
After spending some time learning about yoga and Buddhism and diving into the practices of yoga asana, and meditation, I began to recognize that there was an inner dialogue between my conscious mind and my unconscious conditioning. My conscious mind would want to pursue a course of action in line with my values and intentions, my unconscious mind would want what it wanted (intentions be damned!), and I would watch gobsmacked as my unconscious mind, more often than not, got its way. I could be in a conversation with someone, consciously decide that something I was about to say was unnecessary gossip and then watch myself say it anyway. And, to be honest, it still happens (the bowl of ice cream I had last night, knowing it would result in some digestive upset).
As I continue to move toward avoiding the hole (Chapter IV) or going down a different street (Chapter V), the two tools I am finding most valuable are creating space and letting go of judgement and self-blame.
One of the beautiful outcomes of a consistent yoga/meditation practice is the creation of space around our thoughts. It is not uncommon to hear yoga teachers talking about responding to a thought or situation, rather than reacting to it; the difference between the two is simply the space that exists between thought and action. In the words of Viktor E. Frankl:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
When I feel spacious I am more likely to recognize how my actions may be driven by my samskaras. Only then I am able to make a conscious decision to change my course, to make my way out of the old, well worn groove and start to create a new path. It doesn’t mean that I am going to make the best choice all the time and it certainly doesn’t mean that once I am out of the groove, I am out of it for good. I have found myself back in the same groove again and again, especially when I am under stress, or life feels difficult (ahem, Covid). But with practice and patience it is possible to create change and it all begins by learning to create space in the body, in the mind, around thoughts and emotions.
The other big shift for me was letting go of judgement and self-blame. When I watched myself doing things that seemed self-sabotaging or creating suffering (dukkha), I would berate myself for not having enough self-discipline or commitment. I would compare myself to others and feel like I was failing. There have even been times when I let go of my practices, because I felt I just wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, the faith I had in these teachings; in the practices of yoga and Buddhism kept me coming back. What really helped me though was finding a some amazing yoga teachers and mentors, as well as a supportive community (sangha) of yogis. This is when I learned that I was not alone and that my experiences were not unique to me. It is where I began to recognize that being human is a mess of contradictions, which we all have to navigate. I would never blame another being for doing their best with the life they have been given, so why would I blame myself?
Of course I try to avoid the streets with holes on them, but when I do find myself in a hole, I no longer blame myself or others, I simply look for the way out. You might even hear me laughing out loud as I make way way out of the same hole, yet again, because part of being human is walking down the street with the hole in it, on your way to enlightenment.
My name is Valerie and I am a registered massage therapist and yoga teacher/student. We humans are a mess of contradictions, and I love exploring how yoga can help us cultivate the qualities that make us kinder, more joyful beings and still leave room to accept this human experience with grace and humour.