Tag Archives: compassion

Holding Space

This phrase, “holding space” is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon of those who speak about interactions and relationships between and among people.  None of us grew up with this phrase in our vocabulary.  I’m not sure what I would have imagined it to mean if I didn’t already know. As I consider it now, an image comes to mind of throwing oneself onto the empty space in front of the curb along a city street in a vain attempt to keep anyone else from parking there.  Perhaps this isn’t an accurate picture, but the whole body energy required is not so dissimilar.  It can take a great deal of focus and energy to “hold space.”

My intention here is to consider the meaning of the phrase and what it looks and feels like when you are “holding space” for a person or group of individuals and their experience.  Behind that initial intention is the wondering about how we learn to hold space since clearly it is a learned skill or action, and frankly, most of us haven’t got it.

So, to begin, it would seem that you must be present to the person or group.  Does that mean physically present? I know what it’s like to hold space for someone over the phone, so it would seem that physical presence is not exactly required.  I do believe that you must be connected in some way through the senses of seeing, hearing or touching.  Tasting and smelling might be available but certainly not required.  And thinking or mind activity as the sixth sense is another issue entirely – one I will touch on later.  The point is that being present to a person or group means that you are connected in some way.  This connection also has some focus to it; it isn’t a casual flyby.  It isn’t a person you pass on the street or someone sitting across from you on the train, although it is possible that some circumstance shifts the focus of your interaction or relationship with that person and you find yourself holding space for him/her.

Once you are present in this way, perhaps the next consideration would be the nature of the space being held.  The qualities of this space help determine the qualities that you, as the holder of that space, must bring to it.  First it must feel safe, both on a physical and emotional level.  Second, The space must allow for the person to be heard and/or seen without hindrance.  Third, the takeaway must be determined by the person, not the holder of space.  These are seemingly simple requirements, but how do you ensure that they remain alive in that space?

One of the most critical qualities of the person holding the space is being fully focused on what’s happening with the person or group before you. No thinking of what you need to do later or of some incident that occurred the day before.  Your thinking or mind activity must be calm and open to the present moment.  It means relinquishing judgments, reactions and interpretations of what is happening so that all of your energy is available for witnessing.  In effect, holding space means being the best kind of witness – open, accepting, able to meet what’s happening with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

If these seem familiar, they are known as the Brahma-Viharas in Buddhist practice.  One does not, however, have to be Buddhist to see that these might be beneficial to pursue.  These are not concepts to be understood but ways of being in this world.  How could they not serve us to be the best humans we could possibly be?  What I love about them is that they are not presented in terms of what NOT to do; they don’t have the sense of rules or laws.  They do not threaten or exhort. Instead they represent an inner grounded state of being from which speech and actions emanate.  They enable us to speak and act with the kind of intention that supports healthy and humane interactions.

I suspect by now you might find that exploring the phrase “holding space” has led us far afield. In response, I would invite you to imagine how your life might be different if you learned how to incorporate these practices into your relationships and interactions with others.  This is a path that can even help us accomplish a related and most difficult task – that of holding space for ourselves.  Allow yourself a moment to consider what that might look like…

 

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Non-Judgment Day

Seems the deeper I get into what feels like the core of compassion and the closer I can hold it in my everyday attitude, the greater my awareness of the judgments I encounter in others.  It isn’t from my own judgmental point of view but from a place of compassion and caring for the suffering of others.  I say that because the energy carried in the spoken words and affect of these individuals seems burdensome to them – almost as if the people and/or actions they are judging are perceived as a personal affront and hurtful to them.  As they speak their words, it is clear that they are not happy and cannot be so until all the people and situations triggering such negative evaluative emotions are put right – whatever that means…

 

The attitude of exclusion surrounds us and permeates our lives.  On the surface it may seem to separate and support us by emphasizing those who are different or seen as less than.  But it actually serves to isolate those who carry the judgmental perceptions as a shield that defines the speaker by default.  It might go something like this, “If I can see the faults of others, that must be because I do not have them, and my ideas/attitudes are the right ones.”

 

Letting go of judgments requires more than simply rejecting them as they surface in your mind.  And don’t suppose that you can get to a state where they never come up.  It’s the job of the mind to judge.  We need to be able to make judgments about situations that may be life threatening, and this kind of evaluation must be immediate, almost intuitive.  Once again, this is a way of being that developed to enable us to survive.  How is it that it spills over to our everyday living?  How does it become this familiar tool that gives us a sense of being solid and grounded?  What does it take to appreciate that this sense may be a false one?

 

When this way of being determines how we relate to people and situations every day then it has become part of who we are or who we believe ourselves to be.  The more I have noticed this attitude reflected in the day-to-day interactions of those around me, the more I envision proposing a Day of Non-Judgment.  It seems like a great beginning point until I realize that each of us must first be aware of when judgment is present.  I must be able to discern when what shows up is my own opinion or belief.  Then I need to be able to appreciate that this may or may not be Reality or it may be Reality as it looks through my own personal filter.  Given that our minds are constantly evaluating and critiquing, perhaps the more accurate proposal would be a Day of Non-Attachment to Judgment.

 

Richard Davidson in The Emotional Life of Your Brain talks about open, nonjudgmental awareness as a form of attention.  He defines this as the “capacity to remain receptive to whatever might pass into your thoughts, view, hearing, or feeling and to do so in a noncritical way.”   So, how do we take the step back that is required to have a view from a perspective that can be “noncritical?”  Perhaps it’s the quality of attention brought to our judgments.  Instead of embracing them and clothing ourselves in them automatically, perhaps there can be a moment of taking a closer look.  There might be more attention to their shape, texture, color, the energy they carry, their potential to do harm.  Consider the care and attention we generally give to how we look and how we dress.  How would it be to give that same quality of focus to what we wear on the inside?

If we can apply this kind of attention to a single judgment we are having, then we might realize we have a choice.  The choice involves examining the intention behind the judgment – Is it about life or death?  Are we determining a potential danger?  If not, then can we relax into a more open, receptive attitude?  What would it take to allow that?

 

I have a sense about judgments which I experience as a visceral response.  It feels like a narrowing, a posture that shields or protects me somehow.  I experience it as a tension in my muscles which separates me from the other, from whatever or whomever is the object of my judgment.  Conversely, an open receptive attitude is what compassion feels like.  It’s inclusive and the boundaries around it can soften.  It arises out of my core or center, not from the edges of me.  Having the experience of this difference in your body, the choice becomes easier and more natural.  It’s basically the choice to practice this new way of being now, today, and then again tomorrow.  Perhaps a day of non-judgment is possible after all…

 

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Love is All There Is

It seems that none of us are born loving ourselves.  It even sounds odd to talk about an infant “loving” in our most familiar sense of the word.  What’s happening for him are sensations which might be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, what feels good or not, but hardly anything we would call love.  How does the feeling of loving oneself emerge or develop?

Suppose, just for a moment, that this is the purpose for each one of us in our lifetime, to come to feel unconditional love for ourselves.  How that happens can be a very convoluted route.  We first experience love in some way from people around us.  Mostly it would seem that what we learn is conditional – based on our behavior, how we look,  what we say or issues that have nothing even to do with us.   An infant growing up is left to interpret the signs, some of which may be subtle and some loud and obvious.  We don’t come knowing who we are, so we depend on these messages from those around us.  We internalize what is shown or said to us and, for the most part, come to believe this is who we are.

It’s true this may not be information that is new to you.  But, in the context of growing to love ourselves, how is it that we can come to learn that we are really okay and worthy of being accepted completely as we are?  Might it not be a matter of remembering a moment of wholeness – where there was no judgment, no sense of unsatisfactoriness.  All that is there is a fullness, an acceptance of however we are in that moment.  It’s a felt sensation that is independent of where we are, who we are with or what we are doing.  It’s simply a matter of being.

Mostly we consider that how we feel about ourselves depends on what’s happening, or what has happened or the possibility of what may happen.  All these considerations impinge on what we think of ourselves.  Interesting that so much effort can be spent on shoring up the bulwark around our own identity, trying to make it stronger or less impervious to outside influences.  It takes some remembering to get back to the whole and realize that nothing can touch or change the core of our being.  It’s not possible.

So, suppose you find a comfortable seat, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in and out.  Now let yourself remember an earlier time when you experienced the sensation of loving and/or being loved.  See if you can set the story aside and focus on the feeling.  It needn’t be one of those BIG, LIFE CHANGING events; it might be a few moments when you felt ok inside, when there was the beginning of an inner smile happening for no particular reason.  After you’ve connected with that feeling, open your eyes and move to where you can see yourself in a mirror.  Look directly at the person there in front of you. Allow yourself to remember that inner smile and consider that, regardless of what may have happened since that earlier time, or what might happen in the future or even what thoughts and emotions are creeping in at this very moment, you are the same inside.  That inner smile, the feeling of loving yourself, is there, simply waiting to be remembered.

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Discipline – Got it or Not

It’s really amazing how one simple word can bring with it so much energy and angst!  “Discipline” is definitely one such word – one that accompanies us often from childhood all the way through to where we stand today as adults.  Ever notice the harshness in it?  Or is it simply seriousness?  Difficult to say, and of course, it depends on our first introduction to the many layers underneath the linear aspects of its ten individual letters.

I suspect that each of us has our own story – the story of our relationship to discipline.  Maybe it began at a time when you were “disciplined” as a child or were criticized for a lack of discipline.  How does this translate into your present attitude toward being disciplined in the way you approach your practice of yoga or meditation?  Does “discipline” have to mean that you show up to practice every day for a certain period of time, even that you show up in a certain way?  I’m not so sure.

It would seem that discipline generally applies to those practices which we do not embrace easily.  So, it takes some resolve to get on the mat or the cushion and then more energy to follow through with what we are there to do.    I might add that there seems some sense of obligation or doing the right thing that accompanies this resolve.  Interesting that we seldom speak of activities of love or true enjoyment by using the word “discipline.”  When I think of doing an activity that I love, there is an inner drive that pulls me toward it even when I’m not actually engaged in it.  My thoughts don’t dwell in a negative space that overflows with berating words when I haven’t done it everyday.  Perhaps this is in part because there are no “shoulds” attached to these activities – they feel much more like gifts and easy to welcome when they do happen.

How would it be to face your yoga practice or sitting in meditation as though you were accepting a most precious gift?  If you show up so that your presence is drawn there by this inner drive, there may be more excitement at what can happen during these moments ahead.  Even if you feel you are still learning technique, still developing the skills needed to feel that you are accomplished at yoga or meditating, can you be a loving presence for yourself in this practice?  Perhaps that is, in truth, the bottom line – that you show up with compassion for yourself in the doing.  Even if you are a beginner, or a beginner again, you show up as if you are about to receive a wonderful gift.

This isn’t about the work required.  A change in attitude doesn’t mean that the practice will be easy, although you can explore the possibility of being more at ease with it.  The point is that how you frame the experience will undoubtedly influence what your practice will be like.  Of course, it will be different on different days.  No point trying to introduce sameness.   But honestly, doesn’t receiving your practice as a gift feel so much more supportive to moving forward with it than a more “disciplined” approach.  I can already hear some of you saying, “But sometimes I need the kick in the ass that comes with discipline in order to get on my mat or my cushion!”  So, perhaps at times like these, what you really need is to give yourself the “kick ass” gift of compassion!

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