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Why facilitators need to 'empty out' to 'hold space'


There is no greater gift we can give to ourselves than to hold spacious space for ourselves through slowing down, relaxing and practicing mindfulness.  It is about opening to our whole experience of now and welcoming it all in with gentleness and acceptance, and with no judgment.  It’s a letting go of our need to fix or control our experience, recognising fear and judgment when they arise, and simply letting them be without acting upon them.


Instead, we learn to sit in an embodied space of love, feeling and listening - listening to our hearts, listening to what matters most to us, connecting inward and feeling into who we truly are.  It allows us the time and space to connect to the ground of our being, which is always present - we just don’t take the time to notice it.  Practicing over and over again to be in this space helps us to transmit this gentle yet powerful way of being to our loved ones, to our students, and to the world.

 

Part of the self-care regime of a facilitator before a class is to empty out of anything that’s distracting, or pulling attention away from the class at hand.  In other words, prior to facilitating, we hold space for ourselves first.  The value of holding space for ourselves is acceptance, honesty beyond ego, and a deeper inner connection and awareness.


We may feel moved to process something distracting through a meditation or movement practice, employing our tried and trusted somatic tools to bring the distracting static to peace.  If that’s not possible, or there’s no time for a proper process, we can always inform our inner child or masculine or feminine that we will return to the issue after the session; that we have not abandoned it or them; and that they can feel comforted in the knowledge that we will come back to address it or them. 

 

I sense this is where the term ‘holding space’ comes from – because the facilitator becomes the empty space / hollow flute / hollow bone through which existence sings its wisdom, and we are able to trust it deeply and thereby hold empty space full of presence for others.


This space of presence is then filled with the participants’ experiences, and the meanings they derive from those experiences.  Ideally, an opportunity to balance and integrate them at the end of the class is optimum, especially if there’s been a big discharge of emotional energy.

 

Mindfulness supports us to develop the skills to hold space for others.  It helps us see clearly when our egos are getting in the way of being open to someone else’s experience.  We learn to recognise when our personal anxiety is triggered, causing us to want to control the situation to alleviate our fears.  We notice our desire to push away unpleasant feelings, and then than simply witness them as they rise and fall.  We get to know when judgments creep into our thoughts, or when we disengage entirely.  Mindfulness helps us to let go, so our responses and reactions don’t get in our way of our offering others unconditional love, full presence and open hearts. Sending them the simple but profound message, “I love you and I am here for you.”

 

One of the most beautiful gifts we can give the people we love is to hold space for them. This is a courageous and radical act of love.  In our culture, we are not taught how to hold space for others. We are taught to speak up and take action.  Silence is considered awkward, rather than a beautiful way to be together when words are not necessary.  We learn to react in order to empathise, try to fix other people’s problems, or minimise their pain.  But there's no greater gift we can give those we love than to hold quality time, attention and space for them - space to listen and allow them to be heard, space in which they can be vulnerable and honest about their feelings, and space in which they can feel safe, loved, cared for and accepted fully just as they are. 

 

Because we’ve been so heavily conditioned into acting, and to derive our value from doing, simply holding space requires restraint.  One of the hardest things about holding space is that it can feel like we’re doing nothing.  Importantly, space holding does not mean taking responsibility for the internal world of others; it does not mean you have to say all the right things and it’s never our job to fix another person’s feelings or beliefs.


Holding space is an art form where we can be with someone’s pain and be the space for the them to feel their feelings, without making it about ourselves.  Holding space is the quiet, powerful revolution of loving presence.  It's patient, compassionate, and non-judgemental.  At the same time, it can be gently discerning and subtly guiding – provided there's no agenda whatsoever, and the guidance is asked for and welcomed.  Again, if asked for, our space holding may include hand-holding, a hug, or loving touch.  Waiting for consent is critical – silence is a no, maybe is a no.  Only a clear yes is a yes.

 

Our pain and grief deserve equal seats at the table, as much as our pleasure and joy.  As Rumi said, welcome all the demons, and treat them all as honoured guests.  It’s when we try to suppress or deny our feelings that unnecessary suffering happens – and as facilitators, sometimes it might be our own pain or discomfort that makes us want to make the other’s pain go away or resolve quickly.  As we learn to freely be the space for all feelings, we learn to let them pass just as freely. Living by a ‘love, light, good vibes’ only orientation can be polarising and divisive, and may ultimately lead to a nervous breakdown or dread disease.  In a culture where we shame negative feelings and elevate positive ones, we risk isolating ourselves at the very time when we need our community the most. 

 

Sadly, as I was writing this blog, a very beautiful member of my community ended her life - partly because she was unable to receive: she was the biggest giver, with the grandest heart, yet she could not accept people’s support and guidance. Furthermore, she was unable to witness and process her own shadow, and instead, projected it heavily out into the world, thereby losing access to a precious elixir: trust in existence.

 

As facilitators, let's not make the mistake of believing we need to be perfect in front of our students.  Don’t fall for the patriarchal myth that feelings and emotions are inferior and unspiritual.  Let's allow our feelings be known.  Even whilst holding space and retaining the energetic authority, we can still be human and fallible – we can share stories from our lives, and we can reveal our feelings in the moment.  This makes us real - not inferior teachers. Vulnerability invites others to share from their hearts too, which is a great gift to offer.  I call this facilitating from the masculine AND the feminine – holding immaculate space, presence and energetic authority while SIMULTANEOUSLY showing one’s own tender heart.

 

CASE STUDY FROM MY TEACHER, SHAKTI MALAN:  Shakti & Mind Games

 

Shakti Malan was running a 10-day women’s retreat in a wilderness area, which was attended by several women from the metropolis of Johannesburg.  None of them had done much inner work at the time, and it became obvious to everyone that they were ‘very in their heads.’  Every time Shakti spoke, they interrupted her, asking endless questions with a clear agenda to disrupt her as much as possible.  (The reason for this agenda may well have been their own fear of having to let go of dearly held beliefs, but that’s another story.)  It became painful for everyone, including Shakti.  But what to do?

 

After a couple of days, Shakti called everyone together.  She sat in silence as tears streamed down her cheeks.  Eventually she looked up and spoke from the depths of her heart.  She said, ‘I’m here to share what I know, and what has been supportive to me on my path – and perhaps with grace it will support you too.  I am not here to indoctrinate you or preach to you; and I’m not here to debate what is true or untrue, or right or wrong – that’s for you to meditate upon.  I’m simply here to transmit the wisdom which has supported me to be who I am right now, which may be of some use to you – and maybe not.  But I cannot share my heart if you don’t give yours; and I cannot point to the mystery if you remain locked inside your minds and separated from your hearts and bodies.  So you can either give me a chance, or we can end the retreat right now.  But I will not continue under the present circumstances.’

 

In that moment, the disruptors' hearts cracked wide open.  It was Shakti’s raw vulnerability that finally penetrated their fear and defence mechanisms, and invited them into their own tenderness and vulnerability. 


Relationships are deepened through vulnerability, and the courage to let others in when we are hurting.  From that moment onwards, everyone dropped into their hearts and bodies, and the retreat was an especially memorable one for all.  Authentic intimacy comes from seeing ourselves and others in our darkest moments, and reminding ourselves we’re loved exactly as we are.  We don’t have to put up defences, put on masks, or act clever or too cool for school – especially if we are the facilitator!


Kali's 10 Tips for Holding Immaculate Space:

 

  1. Listen to understand – not to respond

  2. Validate and name the feelings and emotions shared within the held container

  3. Avoid fixing, minimising or spiritually by-passing

  4. Be truly, fully embodied, present, mindful and open-hearted

  5. Allow all feelings and emotions to be there without judgement

  6. Practice radical responsibility (the ability to respond in the moment) and radical acceptance

  7. Trust their soul’s journey

  8. Welcome all parts of every participant

  9. Support their own intuition, knowledge, wisdom and agency

  10. Know they can take care of their needs

  11. Be aware of our own reactions, responses, discomfort, defences, story


In my next blog, I'll cover how to create safe, sacred containers, and how to hold the energetic authority.

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