The Spirit shall look out through Matter’s gaze
And Matter shall reveal the Spirit’s face
And all the Earth becomes a single life.
– Sri Aurobindo; Savitri. A legend and a symbol.
Now that my question about holding space had found a provisional answer, I embarked on a deeper quest to explore the big concepts ‘spirit’ and ‘source’. Why was it that in our women’s gathering we rarely ever talked about ‘spirit’, but spoke of ‘source’ instead? I delved deep within to uncover the core qualities and functions of both concepts as I understood them in my body and through my experience. This was no easy task, because so many concepts and ideas in our language are made to separate, while I was looking for synergy and interweaving. To get more clarity, rather than thinking and reading ‘about it’, I resorted to my more familiar tools like drawing and contemplation.
On a blank sheet of paper, I wrote the words ‘Spirit’ and ‘Source’. I tend to see Spirit as somewhere high out there, while I experience Source as something deep within. So Spirit went at the top of the page and Source at the bottom. It is worth noticing my use of language here: I ‘see’ Spirit ‘out there’ and I ‘experience’ Source ‘within’. While it was possible that this distinction was valid only for me, other people were also prepared to go along with it, so I let it stand as the basis for what followed.
If Spirit lives at the top of the page and Source at the bottom, then the real world is in the middle. I use ‘real’ here in the sense of space and time: the manifest world that we see and know in its three or four dimensions. This is the world of our senses and experiences, the world of incarnation. Now, how was I to understand the interaction between these three: Spirit, Source and the manifest world?
My contemplation showed me the movement from the manifest world towards Spirit as a way of taking some distance from an experience, to witness, think and reflect about it; to gain more consciousness and awareness; also, the ability to capture the world and life with language, symbols and concepts. By contrast, the movement upwards from Source to the manifest world seems to originate in a huge space of potential, transiting through layers of ever denser energies, until the potential takes a form and manifests. In Gaia’s Quatum Leap (p130), Marko Pogacnik speaks of ‘source’ as life force “through which the fabric of creation is continually enlivened”. The reverse movement, sensing from the manifest world into Source, is the capacity to sense what is coming, what is possible and what has life in it. More specifically in terms of our practice here, it is sensing what is about to happen but not yet here. If we consider the latest scientific discoveries in quantum physics, my image might not remotely resemble how it works; nevertheless, it was enormously helpful to me in understanding a lot of situations.
Returning to my paper, my next step was to draw a circle connecting Spirit and Source, because to me, somehow, they inhabit the same realm. Somewhere they are one; perhaps together they are ‘the One’, or perhaps they share the same origin. I can envision Spirit and Source as the first couple that came out of the One, whatever that is (which is beyond the scope of this book to define). The first polarity arose with this pair. Related pairs are: light and darkness, yin and yang, inward and outward, masculine and feminine, and so on. “The One is inclusive of unmanifest and manifest, the being and the non-being, the before and the after, all present now.” This quote comes not from a renouned guru or philosopher, but was a reflection by one of our participants in a Women Moving the Edge gathering, after representing ‘The One’ in a systemic constellation. (see more about this practice in chapter 8)
Back to holding space… In a nutshell, when holding space I connect in and through my body with the subtle energy dimensions, with the potential that is able to unfold. In my drawing, therefore, ‘holding space’ is another layer between Source and the 3-dimensional world. But, as with many failed experiments with non-authoritarian education, something is missing here if we want to see this potential actually coming into being. Holding space asks for its counterpart at the same level on the side of Spirit. Some structuring energy is required to balance the vastness and openness of holding space. That structure is provided by keeping our attention on the intention or purpose. This focus or intention must not be closed or fixed, however, or there will be no room for unfolding, emergence or birthing of the new. The best articulation I have found for this activity is ‘staying in inquiry‘.
On my paper, I now draw a circle connecting Staying in Inquiry with Holding Space. It’s looking good, but I’m still not satisfied. The distance between the two outer circles feels too great. How does Source become Holding Space? How does Spirit become Staying in Inquiry?
In the movement towards the manifest world, what is Source providing? What is its first discernible level of manifestation? When I contemplate the trajectory towards manifestation from the perspective of Source, I experience a vast ocean of possibility. That makes a lot of sense: Source provides the material world with an infinite reservoir of potential. What, then, is Potential’s counterpart on the side of Spirit? How does Spirit show up in the world of manifestation? I am inclined to name that ‘Consciousness’. With this notion, I could now draw the third circle, between the first two. The resulting image struck me as highly revealing. Later we started naming this the Spirit-Source model and I continued to delve deeper.
Before looking into this model, I want to state explicitly that it does not aspire to be an accurate representation of reality. Wiktionary says: “’Model’ has many meanings, one of them is: A simplified representation used to explain the workings of a real world system or event.” I don’t claim to have found the truth with my model, although it continues to help me understand how emergence can come about, and what its essential elements are. You might find it helpful too.
Emergence of Collective Wisdom
My next question was: When I am holding space for the highest potential, what is it for? What is the real purpose of holding space? Why would anyone do it? Slowly it dawned on me… Ah! I am holding the possibilities because I want them to manifest. It seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time I was thunderstruck. In essence, then, holding space provides a supporting energy or attention that bridges between Source and the real world: it is Holding Space for a Potential to Manifest. That is what parents do for their children, and it is what we do when we host conversations and change processes in groups. Equally, it should be a core competence in leadership teams dealing with complexity and uncertainty.
The next question to arise was: What is the counterpart on the side of Spirit? I wanted my model to be balanced; simple, beautiful and elegant like a good mathematical formula or excellent programming code. Not having any clear distinctions myself for this part of the model, I turned to a male friend for help. We concluded that the basic purpose of Staying in Inquiry is: for Inspiration to Show up.
In this way I saw how Source and Spirit work together in synergy to create new life. If we hold space so that potential can manifest, and if we keep the inquiry open for inspiration or innovation to show up, then these two interweave in co-creation and emergence will happen.
Emergence is the manifestation of something really new, the novel that never existed before. An example of emergence from science is what happens when hydrogen and oxygen atoms are combined; it makes water. The wetness of water is found in neither hydrogen nor oxygen, it emerges from the interaction of the two; it is an emergent property. The scientific concept of emergence is now finding its way into mainstream conversations, but is not always well understood. In the realm of collective intelligence and wisdom, we talk of emergence when connections have been made between different elements – like different insights from diverse participants – that lead to a totally new feature or insight. A potential that was not known or even possible before, has come into existence, and we notice an innovation in products and/or processes.
In real life, even in intentionally designed group situations, emergence seems too messy and chaotic for many people to feel comfortable with – there is not enough order or control, things are too unpredictable. Although what emerges actually is some form of order, it is not any kind of pre-determined – or even pre-existing -order but something that is too complex for us to grasp in the moment it is happening. It is not until after the event that we can discern patterns that have formed and become visible. Emergence does not spring from external structures or controlled order, rather, it can be facilitated (but not guaranteed) by creating a strong energetic container (holding space for potential to manifest) while staying focused on a core question that holds an intention or purpose. This is when new and unforseen connections can arise from the chaos and emergence can come through. In some circles, this way of working is known as ‘walking the chaordic path‘. There is little that is tangible to hold on to: this holding space expresses itself only through a few guidelines or principles and is basically done in the intangible, subtle or energetic space.
Chris Corrigan, a Canadian colleague from the Art of Hosting network, says: “Emergence is what happens when everyone leaves from the party with something that nobody came with.” He points to one of the conditions in a group that makes emergence possible: the interweaving and cross-pollinating that happens when people enjoy being together and engaging with each other, like at a party. What emerges is what I call ‘collective wisdom’ – a wisdom that is not the sum of constituent elements, but a weaving and bringing together of the intelligence and wisdom present in the members of the group. While this is already a welcome outcome, the emergence of generative, collective action is something more, as we shall see in the second part of this book. It requires greater alignment, more deeply into ourselves and more widely out into our context.
If our purpose is truly to let collective wisdom have its way, this model of emergence can inform us in designing meetings and strategic change processes. In addition to having a clearly articulated purpose that is translated into cogent guiding questions, the processes we design must include and support the holding of the space. In essence we need formats and approaches that can illuminate the potential that is present in the room and bring it into expression. While the skills of deep listening and true dialogue are crucial, this model clearly shows that listening to all the diversity, allowing all the voices to be heard and holding the energetic space are not enough on their own. Of equal importance is the open inquiry around the purpose that calls our attention and guides us to innovation. (more on emergence in chapter 7)
Ongoing spiral dance between Holding Space and Staying in Inquiry
Wisdom is a love affair with questions; knowledge is a love affair with answers. The questions are there, not to be answered, but as a guidance.
– Julio Olalla, on video.
There is an ongoing dynamic, coil-like, involving the level or depth of Sourcing and the level or depth/height of Consciousness (or Spirit). We can access the full depth of the potential in service of manifestation and generative action, only to the extent that we can articulate a clear and lofty intention or purpose. This explains the importance of finding powerful guiding question(s) and clearly naming the shared purpose. Just as the tallest tree has the deepest roots, the higher the consciousness from which our question is voiced, the deeper the level of sourcing it will invite and the deeper and more subtle layers of information to which it will grant access. This field that grows wider through many cycles generates authentically new wisdom.
Quote from participant:
I know this feeling of having a deep sense of something that wants to happen and then your mind goes to work and fills it in. I’ve learned to just hold it. And when things don’t align, to just see that my idea is not aligned, or not right timing yet, or whatever. At least in me, sometimes it is a lonely thing. I feel some loneliness in just holding the sourcing of it, knowing something wants to happen. And sometimes it takes years of just holding that potential. – Ria
We shape our self
to fit this world,
and by the world
are shaped again.
The visible and the invisible
in common cause
to produce the miraculous.
I am thinking of the way
the intangible air
passed at speed
round a shaped wing
holds our weight.
So may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
and look for the true
shape of our own self,
by forming it well
to the great
intangibles about us.
– David Whyte, The house of belonging
Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone thought up for self-improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and body together.
– Chogyam Trungpa, Shambala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior
Experience: body sensations, reflections and subtle sensing
Experiencing is a thick, bodily-felt flow of situational events; it never has just one form or ‘propositional content’ which might be compared to words.
– Eugene Gendlin, Authenticity after Postmodernism, 1995.
It was Julio Olalla who pointed out to me that, overall, in the West we lack distinctions for describing what is going on in our interior. Being trained as an emotional body-worker, I have spent many years in the ongoing practice of fine-tuning my inner senses, and many times I am perplexed at how little people feel or notice about what is going on inside them. Olalla posits that we need to challenge our deeply held assumptions: we are so attached to what we ‘know’ that we don’t want to give it up even when it doesn’t bring us the expected outcomes. When we expand our observation to include not only our thoughts and opinions but also our inner states and feelings, our whole perception of reality changes, resulting in different actions, feelings and interventions.
When we practice noticing our inner, subtle senses we eventually reach a point where we can experience everything that arises within us with equanimity and compassion — indeed, this becomes second nature. Held with compassion, the unknown parts of our self become less ugly, hostile or weird, and reveal their charms and hitherto unsuspected strengths. This in turn eventually enhances our capacity to sense what is happening in other people, and beyond.
Let me begin by sharing some of the assumptions that underpin my way of looking at things. Our lives are made up of our experiences. These include everything you can think of, everything that you have ever… well, experienced. Your experiences might be comparable to those of your sister or your colleague, but quite unlike those of someone of another gender or generation, let alone from another culture, climate or social class. In the manifest world, experiences can be narrowed down to what we experience through our senses, our physical sensations, since these can be shared, measured, recorded and replicated. This has always been the domain of our mainstream sciences.
But our daily experiences are by no means restricted to our bodily sensations. Alongside everything that can be measured and replicated, we also experience ideas and beliefs and, most of the time, a plethora of emotions and feelings too, whether conscious or not. This complex mesh of sensations, ideas, feelings and emotions is what I mean when I speak of experiences.
As humans, we also have the capacity to reflect on our experiences and to witness what is happening both inside and outside of us. This is the world of consciousness and awareness. It is our capacity to stand outside our experience and notice what is happening. This is mindfulness, witnessing; sometimes called a meta-capacity because it is like standing on the balcony and observing at a distance.
Not all our experiences are based on physical sensations, emotions or ideas, however. We have all had one or more experiences like this one… When I was almost eighteen, I went to enroll at the local university. I was best at, and most interested in, the sciences – maths, physics and chemistry. But out of the blue — I enrolled for psychology. I never uncovered any rationale or other cognitive explanation for this. Looking back over my life, after living more than half a century of it, it makes a lot of sense. At that moment, though, I experienced it, and was somehow aware of it, as ‘something’ – a subtle sensing – that was not conscious in my discursive mind. So where did it come from? Today, my answer would be that my soul was pointing me in a certain direction. Luckily, I was sensitive enough at the time to register it and act on it, although not at all consciously. This sensing, this subtle perception is not something you can measure, and therefore this inner knowing – to use another name for it – has not received much attention in our Western world. Psychology comes closest to it, indeed, but still…
Many people see this inner knowing or subtle perception as something that you either have or you don’t. My conviction, and my experience, is that you can learn it, we can teach it; everybody has it and does it. In fact, throughout history – even in the history of science – and in so many different cultures, this way of knowing has been essential to the human endeavour. When paying more attention to the subtle in our selves – and in others and in our surroundings as well – these perceptions seem to become more palpable, even more understandable. We begin to recognize that they are omnipresent. We become more able to speak about this dimension of ourselves and the world, and to articulate what we are noticing. Like any other practice, when we bring our intention and attention to bear on it, we become better at it.
It is of course in and through the body that we register and identify our physical sensations, and that we are in relationship with what is all around us. But thinking and reflecting, on the one hand, and subtle sensing on the other, also only become possible through the body – because this is where you become conscious of them. Nonetheless, neither is happening in the physical body in the same way as our physical senses can be tracked; rather, both are beyond, or perhaps implied or enfolded. Instead, our physical sensations are happening in the body, through our five senses.
These days, there is increasing recognition that thoughts, intentions and beliefs can be seen as forms of energy that have a certain influence on the plane of matter. I see inner knowing or subtle sensing in the same way. We cannot register them with our five senses, but still they ‘do’ something! There isn’t really that much difference between thoughts and subtle sensing in this regard, which makes it all the more curious that thoughts and ideas have been ascribed so much value over time, while subtle sensing has been seen as unreal and unreliable.
If you want to be able to deal with the greater complexity and uncertainty of life in today’s world in a relaxed way, and enjoy a more emergent quality in your life, then you need to develop this capacity to sense the subtle dimensions of yourself, others and the environment. This subtle way of knowing allows you to notice shifts in energy, in vitality, in life force – like weak signals pointing into the future – before ever anything becomes visible or manifest, if indeed anything ever does. It hints at where life wants to flow.
The capacity for subtle sensing is dependent on the ability to be present and mindful in your experiences. By ‘being present’ we mean being open to what is in the moment, which is a doorway to being open to what wants to happen in the future. Basically this means being the master of your attention: being able to guide it and let it rest where you want it to be. This capacity is not usually part of the mainstream school curriculum, and so it is barely present in our Western culture in general. It can however be cultivated through many different practices, whenever people conceive the intention to do so.
Collective Presencing, the new human capacity described in this book, implies a lot of awareness. Building up that capacity is a process of alignment, both inner and outer. It is about integrating into our awareness more of the unconscious and unrecognized elements of life, in our selves, in others and all around. If we are to become aware of these so-called blind spots (you can’t see what you can’t see!), it behooves us to develop our subtle intelligence. Many would name this area of knowing ‘intuition’. But that term is rather vague and too general, and so not adequate for our purpose here. We need more clarity in this domain of subtle intelligence, and so we must resist the temptation to simplify or generalize.
Scharmer, in his work on Presencing, says: “We need to learn from the future.” Collective Presencing builds on that, but in order to “learn from the future” we need to be able to distinguish between actually sensing something from the future and wishful thinking and/or emotional projection. We will see that quite some emotional intelligence is needed to be able to discern what is what.
My own premise is that if we notice or perceive something — however vague or subtle it may be — we are also able to become conscious of that perception, right in this moment, provided we allow it time and space in which to unfold. We need only slow down and let our subtle sensing reach our consciousness; or perhaps it is the other way round: we can let our attention and awareness reach out to our subtle sensing. Or better still: let our subtle sensing and our awareness synchronize, or come into coherence. In this way even really novel thinking can emerge.
Philosopher Eugene Gendlin has named this kind of inner subtle sense the ‘felt sense’, and has developed a process for attending to it, called Focusing. This process guides your attention to the vague feeling, which itself knows quite exactly what words or expressions fit or fail to express its essence. Based on this Focusing practice, Gendlin developed a 20+ step methodology called ‘Thinking at the edge’, specifically for the purpose of achieving new, theoretical insights based on this felt sense. While we do not follow his defined steps, we do invite everyone to become aware of their felt sense and take the time and effort to (learn to) articulate it for the benefit of others.
Subtle sensing is not only a sensing into objects of substance, distinct and separate elements; it is also a sensing of connections, of atmosphere, of relationships, of that which is in between — some would call it energy. For our Western mind, this involves withdrawing somewhat from our default way of seeing, taking distance from objects, from matter, and instead looking with a broader view and softer focus, and noticing what is happening in the relationships and energy exchange.
Some people use the word etheric sensing, a form of perception based on sensing the energetics of people, places, animals, plants and so on. They see it as a resonance in the etheric levels, and therefore primarily related to life force. This is probably also the reason why people can more easily access or notice their subtle sensing when in nature. My explanation for this is that nature has no agenda, it just is. There is only the life force present; no thinking/ideas and none of the big emotions that humans tend to have, which might block the flow of life. In nature, the predominant presence is the subtle life force so that is what we resonate with.
All experiences happen in real time and our bodies are always involved: pleasant and unpleasant experiences; small and big events; ordinary and exceptional things, even (day) dreaming or a sudden insight. None of this could have any effect on us if our bodies were not involved.
Expression is a big part of our embodiment. To express my perspective in this book, I must speak it or write it down – I could even try to dance or draw it. Regardless of the medium I chosoe, it will always involve my body in some way. Experience and expression are inextricably linked with our physical bodies. I repeat: experience and expression always involve our physical bodies. This ineluctable truth seems often to be forgotten in the mental discourse on so many topics. The process that we are – we are not a clearly defined thing but a process that is ongoing – happens in and through our bodies. It is our very physicality that makes all of our experiences, indeed our whole life, possible: the sensations, the emotions, the thoughts, the subtle feelings, the inner knowing. All of it.
To be human, to be alive, is to be in a physical body. It cannot be otherwise. That’s essential – at the core. Somehow it must have some deep value for life itself. The body makes it possible to learn from experiences, because something has in-form-ed the matter of the body, and the learning has made an imprint. It seems that we are now in a time where we are invited to learn more from the subtle experiences we have too.
Our thinking, our body’s intelligence, our inner knowing, our emotional intelligence… let’s be clear that these aren’t separate. They live in a constant dance of mutual influence: from the inner lived experience or from the so-called observer outside, they are one big flow. This constantly changing interplay actually constitutes the whole of who we are. It is only for the sake of clarity that we separate them out and make distinctions — the reason why science came into being in the first place. But never forget that it is ‘for the sake of clarity’ and not because ‘it is’ like that. Don’t mistake the map for the territory!
Subtle sensing is a finely tuned noticing of bodily perceptions, it is a perception of energy flows streaming or blocking. It can take the form of an experience in your body, when you suddenly realize that you ‘know’, because it is something you can sense, you have received it in your whole body, thinking, feeling, sensing, all included. If you are not embodied — not present in your body — you will miss some or all of the ongoing subtle sensing about your self and your environment. It doesn’t mean you can’t have any subtle sensing. Many people who are good at sensing energies outside them, in the environment, aren’t good at sensing what is going on inside themselves.
Although there are many differences in people’s capacity to sense into the subtle, we can generalize that most people need some silence, some slowing down, some standing still to be able to perceive what is happening on this subtle level. If your attention is not focused on your subtle experience, then you are basically moving too fast (as is the norm in Western society) — and this is not a natural rhythm. In nature, there is a time for speeding up and a time for slowing down. Our culture, in the industrialized world, seems to be constantly in springtime energy, where fast growing happens with no time to harvest the fruits, let alone to be in the deep rest of winter, waiting for the next thing to be born.
We know from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that different people have different preferences in the use of the physical senses in perceiving the world. They either habitually rely on visual cues, or auditory, or kinaesthetic (external touch and inner feel), taste or smell. The same is going on at the subtle level. Some people ‘see’ on the subtle level and are inspired or learn through imagining or holding a vision, others ‘hear’ some truth ringing or only dissonance, while others ‘know’ for sure that something is not aligned. It is good to know which kind of channel or subtle sensing has your preference, and not to fall into the common trap of believing that ‘seeing’ – as our culture is so visual – has more value or holds more truth than the other (subtle) senses.
Full embodiment, so needed to be flexible and in flow, can be inhibited or blocked as a result of past experiences (mostly in childhood). Your characteristic way of doing things, the frequently recurring themes in your life, the things that you hate or always fall in love with, are like stuck patterns that developed for the purpose of survival. In the present moment, though, they prevent you from being flexible in your response to what is happening in and around you. What many people don’t realize is that not expressing, holding back, withdrawing — when it is a habitual response — is also a survival pattern. It influences the body and its capacity to express freely.
In all these cases, the body blocks free expression and falls into a habit, not from a consciously made choice but as a ‘remnant’ of past experiences. Because there was too much pain for the body to process or for the mind to make meaning of, and no context or support to hold it all, the emotion and its spontaneous, bodily expression (like laughter, crying, anger, dancing, reaching out etc.) retreated underground, into what we call the unconscious, beyond the reach of our normal, everyday mind. Once these past experiences are brought back to the surface, restored to the world of current time-and-space, our understanding (mind) of who we are changes and expands, and the flexibility and breadth of our channels of expression (body) grow. Some painful experiences from early childhood (trauma) can be accessed and healed only through the body (in trauma healing where resonance and trust provide a safe context to do so), because no mind or memory had yet developed at the time when the painful event(s) took place. In such cases, working through the emotions, as in regular therapy, is not sufficient.
The practice of sensing in daily life
As I had been trained in Emotional Bodywork and gone on to become a trainer myself, I had learned a lot about where I was blocked in my own expressions, and how to become free and flexible again. It was a huge clearing of the emotional baggage still stored in my body. As I drew ever closer to the world of subtle sensing – while trying to distance myself from all the new age hype around it – I made up some exercises that I did a lot, and still do. Paying it attention and constantly practicing, my capacity for subtle sensing grew enormously, especially in relation to the environment and the future.
One of these exercises was ‘sensing my place’. Entering a big room full of chairs, whether at a workshop, a conference or a restaurant, I would use my subtle senses to choose my chair. I tried not to think about it, or search for familiar faces, but go fully with an inner sense. Sometimes this led to fascinating encounters!
Another exercise is ‘what is next?’ I am a keen gardener, but I don’t plan my work. I go with whatever I have energy for. Of course, this is guided by what the seasons require, but it often happens that the one thing that my mind was sure I was going to do that day while I was still in bed, didn’t get done until the following weekend or even later, when my energy was finally aligned with just that task. I have learned to trust this so deeply that, for instance, after nearly 3 years in my current home, I gave up pushing myself to buy and plant fruit trees — normally something you do at the beginning of tending to a new property. Instead, I just trusted that there was a reason why my energy wasn’t taking me there. It finally dawned on me that this probably had to do with building up more compost in our heavy clay soil so that the saplings would have a better habitat to start in. Now that the trees are finally in and thriving, my suspicions have been confirmed.
This exercise of ‘what is next?’ is a good preparation for what we will later describe as ‘following your soul’s calling’. It is following your energy, but on a greater scale than a project like your garden. Now you start applying this subtle sensing to your professional life and your life as a whole! It becomes an exercise in ‘what is mine to do?’ and ‘what is the minimal, elegant, next step?’
All these little exercises — and you can invent your own — help us to be more embodied, more present with what is really there. All in all it helps us to be more in the flow and to sense whether we are in or out of alignment, both inner and outer.
Please read my own comment below, where I posted a piece of writing by Bonnitta Roy, who is way better at explaining what I mean to get across here!