Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us

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Hello again, dear friends.  Peace, love, and joy be with you on this, the autumnal equinox.

This post marks the conclusion of the Healing Through Connection Summer Series, 2016:  Holding the Space.  The story I will tell is important to me, and I love that it’s the series finale.  I wish I had posted on the last day of summer, but the first day of fall is okay, too.  Two days ago I was privileged to witness a whole lot of people, hold a whole lot of space, for a whole lot of suffering.  And I posit that we all came away better for it.  I invite you to sit back, get comfy, and take your time with this one.  I’m feeling particularly fulfilled as I sit to write, and I hope to convey the deep gladness I gained from the experience.

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It was day three of the International Conference on Physician Health, in Boston.  I had anticipated this meeting giddily for nine months.  From the moment I heard the call for abstracts, through the iterative preparatory steps, to the final emails, texts, PowerPoints, and conference calls with collaborators, through the personal connections and learning, I was now positively beside myself with zeal.  It was everything I had hoped and more.  I was surrounded by colleagues from three continents, all gathered to share and unite around making our professional world more humane.  We explored ideas like awe, joy, mindfulness, empathy, presence, and vulnerability.  I had lived two glorious days in a cocoon of safety, love, and resonance.  I was among my people.

This day’s workshop focused on compassion, and aimed to tap its deepest reaches within each attendee.  The presenter prepared us for the exercise by describing his work with previous groups—CEOs breaking open in anger, shame, forgiveness, and finally compassion.  He asked that we hold the gravity of vulnerability with reverence and respect.  We understood the solemnness asked of us, and responded in kind.  This was the exercise:

On a blank 5×7 index card, write a personal story.  You will have five minutes.  The cards will be collected at your table, redistributed, and shared anonymously at another table.  Be aware that your writing may be shared aloud with the whole group, later in the exercise.  Instruction:  Write the story of a time in the past year that was really hard for you, when you suffered.  It could be personal or professional.

For a split second I felt a catching in my chest—‘Yikes!’  And in the next breath, ‘Bring it.’  I knew this tribe.  They would hold it for me, with me, no question.  And because I was also a tribe member, I would do it for them.  I looked forward to it, actually.  I wrote with surprisingly little effort, concisely yet in detail, about a particularly challenging relationship and my struggles with perfectionism.  How could my other relationships shine so brightly, feel so easy, and flow so freely, while this one so regularly caused me angst and turmoil?

At the end of five minutes my tablemates and I placed our cards in an envelope provided.  I felt oddly relieved, as though a great weight I carried all this year had been lifted.  The envelope was marked, then passed three or four times between tables, so we didn’t know where our cards ended up.  They were as letters in a corked bottle, cast into the ocean, released to an uncertain, but hopeful, fate.

Our presenter explained that at this time, the envelopes would normally be opened, and each of us would take one card and read it.  We were to hold it and its anonymous author in the space of compassion, then share with our tablemates.  We would help one another hold one another.  Then, if so moved, each table would choose one card to share with the larger group.  Our task was to connect, with ourselves and one another, to feel deeply now, to remind us how to do it out in the world.  This was where it would get real, we all knew.   And though he had warned us earlier about an unforeseen shortening of the workshop schedule, we did not see the abrupt end of the exercise coming.  He told us we would not have enough time to do the exercise justice, and so the envelopes would remain unopened this day.  He acknowledged the conflict we all felt, the urge to look.  But he stood firm that experiences like this cannot be rushed, and he respected the time constraints of the meeting.

The tension in the room was palpable, even as we all sat in silence.  It felt jarring, painful, anxious.  What would happen to the cards?  What about all that suffering contained in them, people’s hearts and lives scribed with intention to be seen, known, understood, and held?  Surely they would not just be thrown in the trash?  One colleague voiced so poignantly our core conflict:  We all wanted closure for this vulnerable exercise, and that need competed with honor for the time required to complete it.  Our leader gracefully acknowledged this truth, and solemnly held the space for us all to be present to its discomfort.

For a moment we felt stuck, we connection seekers.  I looked at our leader.  His expression conveyed nothing but humility and empathy.  His posture conveyed resolution.  Despite our deep longing, he refused to lead us into treacherously thorny fields, because he knew he did not have the time to bring us safely through to the other side.  But he also allowed us to process, invited us to consider how else we could collectively resolve our unease.

I wondered what would physically become of the cards.  Would he take them home with him?  Would he burn them in a reverent ceremony of sorts?  I knew he felt responsible for us and our predicament.  Would he read each one, hold each of us and all of our suffering, all by himself?  I felt immediate compassion for him, and hoped that he would not take that route; none of us would want that for him.

I wanted to suggest that we be given the option of each pulling one card, to hold in compassion privately, as we left the workshop.   But we were spread out in a big room, feeling separated from one another rather than connected, and I felt sheepish.

Within a minute or so we had decided to collect the envelopes together, stand surrounding them as if around an altar, and offer a benediction of sorts.  I could not shake the urge to reach out, to take one person’s suffering and hold it for them, love them, send energy of compassion and solidarity to them, whoever they may be.  I realized also that this was exactly what I wanted for my card, for my suffering.  And now that we stood shoulder to shoulder, at least physically if not emotionally proximal, I felt more comfortable to speak.  “I really want for someone to take my card and hold it for me, and I really want to do that for someone.”  Another attendee immediately looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll do it.”  The group consented; each of us would take a card at random, if we wanted.  I pulled one from the third envelope from the top of the pile.  I held it to my chest and returned to my seat.  I forgot all about my own card, and my anxiety evaporated.  I no longer cared if anyone saw mine; I had released it.  My task was to hold my colleague’s sorrow with my own heart, and wish with my whole being for their peace and healing.

I’m so proud of all of us.  We attended to so many needs that morning, all with respect and kindness.  The presenter set the tone for the workshop from the beginning and we all understood the learning objectives: Practice opening up to let the healing in and practice the inner work of holding another’s suffering with your own.  Connect with our shared humanity.  We all learned an important lesson in flexibility, creativity, collaboration, and acceptance.  We held space like champions.

I’m proud of myself for finally speaking up, for asking for what I needed.  That I was met with such generosity and tenderness speaks to the remarkable power of mutual understanding and compassion.  I took a deep breath and read the card in my hands.  My colleague’s story was short, about the 5 year anniversary of his/her father’s death, and memories of loss and helplessness.  Tears came when I read it.  I hugged the card and said a prayer for its writer.  I’ll keep the card someplace safe, and eventually release it in some respectful, peaceful way.

I don’t know if anyone pulled my card.  It’s okay.  Just the hope that someone might have seen it and given it some consideration is enough.  I learned the lesson I needed: Offering my pain for someone else to hold a while, and accepting another’s sorrow to hold for them, constitutes the cycle of healing.  We are not here to go it alone.  We need one another in the best ways.

Holding the Space for Connection Through the Hard Conversations, Part II

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Today I watched this video of Trump supporters at his rallies.  Their words, actions, and expressions represent the basest human emotions.  I posted the video to my Facebook page, commenting:

(Donald Trump incites rage and hate) in his followers. He stokes the worst in people. He provokes the emotional states that preclude rational thought and reasonable behavior–he is the king of emotional hijacking. Nobody ever makes a good decision while emotionally hijacked; that is when relationships and connection are destroyed, often violently and permanently.

And here’s another irony:  We non-supporters are similarly hijacked by his belligerence.  He and his supporters incite us to rail against them all, collectively and wholly as individuals, as racists, bigots, idiots, haters, etc.  Name-calling is the easiest and most convenient way to separate ourselves from what we disdain, what we fear, and what’s too uncomfortable to tolerate.  But how does this help anything?

On my last blog post I wrote:

I intend to avoid:

-Speaking and writing in sweeping generalizations

-Following snap judgments about groups, or individuals based on their group membership

-Labeling and shaming people or groups as ‘racist,’ ’ignorant,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘lazy,’ etc.

Today I wrote about Trump’s supporters:

I’m trying not to label and pigeon-hole these people, trying not to judge them and discard them, just by what I see here.  That only advances the exact mentality I seek to reverse: more separation, more hatred, more “you are less than me, you don’t matter.”

I guess I have to keep reminding myself.

I can hardly imagine what it would be like to sit down, one-on-one, with someone who sincerely supports a Donald Trump presidency, and have a conversation about it.  But I can easily imagine talking to a Trump supporter about the trials and joys of parenting, the breakneck evolution of technology, and a mutual love of Marvel movies.  Who knows, maybe I already do.

I think most of my friends know my political persuasion.  Most of them also share it.  But probably more than I realize don’t share it, and we avoid talking about it.  Why?  Because it’s uncomfortable.  We don’t trust ourselves to avoid the emotional hijacking.  We’re afraid we’ll say something we’ll regret and damage the relationship.  Or (and), we see the only objective of such conversations as trying to change the other person’s mind, or having our mind changed, which feels at the same time futile and scary.  So our avoidance of the hard, uncomfortable conversations is an attempt to maintain connection (with ourselves as well as one another).  We intrinsically understand that our relationships are important.  So we limit our conversations to topics on which we agree.

At this time in our human evolution, however, we are called to do more.  It’s too easy to live in the echo chambers of like-minded friends and media sites.  It’s too easy to filter our perceptions through repetition and reinforcement, to think that our point of view is the only one, or worse, the only right one.  It’s too easy to label others as wholly racist, sexist, bigoted, idiotic, communist, misogynist, mindless, right-wing, extremist, or evil, based on impulsive interactions in comment sections on a blog or Facebook post.  It is simply too easy to fall victim to premature judgment and conviction based on skewed and incomplete evidence.  We are called to so much more.  We are called to the hard conversations, the interactions that require effort and persistence.  Why?  Because the rewards of this work are understanding, compassion, empathy, connection, and love.

My friend wrote to me, “We have to do this work for your beautiful children.”  Yes, my dear friend, for all of our beautiful, innocent children.  Let us model for them what it means to Hold the Space for Connection, even, and especially, when it’s hard.  This is the work we are called to do.

Holding the Space for Connection Through the Hard Conversations, Part I

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Hello again, friends!  I hope this post finds you happy, peaceful, and connected to the most important people in your life.  Looking back on the 26 days since my last post, I can honestly say that the last is always true, but not necessarily the first two.  Often these weeks, I feel challenged, tested, vexed, and conflicted.

Last weekend I had two prolonged and agonal Facebook conversations with one friend.  Tears were shed, consciousness distracted, identity challenged.  Suffice it to say, my friend persisted in his noble effort to help me look deeper into myself.  He helped (goaded?) me out of my comfort zone, challenging me to really empathize with the suffering of others, specifically of blacks in America—to put myself in their shoes, something I may have never truly done before, or a least don’t do often enough, I’m humbled to say.

I have always thought of myself as an empathetic person.  I can almost always relate to my friends’ and patients’ stories of loss, struggle, and suffering.  I can imagine, one-on-one, how I would feel in their shoes.  But I have also been careful not to say things like “I know how you feel.”  Long ago I learned that those words overstep the boundaries of truly shared experience, and I came to view them as presumptuous and negative.  As a result, I’m quick to acknowledge that though I can usually imagine, I cannot truly know the unique suffering of another.  My dear friend helped me realize last weekend that in my effort to respect and defer to other people’s suffering—again, specifically black people—I inadvertently separate myself from it, and from them.  And that, ironically, undermines the very connection I try so hard to cultivate every day.  I talk and write all the time about our ‘shared humanity.’  But it was not until the hard conversations last weekend that I realized—or was reminded, I’m not quite sure,  maybe I knew before?—what that phrase truly means.  Because of him I’m now far less likely to see current events as happening to Muslims, Blacks, or Asians, but rather as happening to fellow humans.  I have always understood this intellectually, but now I feel it, emotionally, viscerally.  And maybe that is where true understanding originates.  I am so grateful for this insight.

My last post was about listening…  Rereading it and looking back now, I see that in my Facebook conversations last weekend, I sought initially to be heard more than to hear.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves and in our own truth, at the same time that we Hold Space for others.  Fortunately, both my friend and I stuck with the hard conversations, striving to be heard, eventually also listening (reading), and in the end we both felt understood and accepted.  It was painful and frustrating, and totally worth the investment.  Our newly deepened relationship will synergize our respective efforts to make the world better—we have pushed each other higher, we are stronger, because we are connected.

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