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
Chapter 3: I and Us: Circle Practice
The move from the I and You of the previous chapter to the I and Us dealt with in this one is easy to understand and to make. To remind us of the larger context: we are extending outward in the process of aligning, becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of life and the interrelatedness of all that is in it. In any group there are constantly multiple relationships unfolding, back and forth and in all directions, both visibly and invisibly. To realise the full potential of such a collective, and to access the collective wisdom available in the group, we need to acquire another skill: that of becoming aware of the inner dimension, the inner collective, the inner plane of a group – for lack of a better word, the group’s field.
I would like to start by sharing another story, one which contributed greatly to my understanding of what might be possible in circles tended in this way.
3.1 What is holding space?
The unmanifest realm contains all that exists and all that could potentially exist. Elementary particles manifest from this place then vanish back into it. The whole of the physical world constantly vibrates in and out of the unmanifest realm.
– Brian Swimme, Nature and Eros lecture (Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011).
In the summer of 2007 I accompanied a dear friend in Denmark on what he called a writing retreat for himself. I expected that we would enjoy our habit of deep and inspiring conversations over breakfast and dinner together. He would then dive into his writing and I would be free to do my own thing: reading, exploring the neighbourhood and enjoying the beautiful nature. Soon, however, he announced that his writing practice would best be supported by fasting and that he would show up for neither breakfast nor dinner. I continued doing what I fancied, but missed the good conversational company and was wondering: What am I doing here? I still felt good about it, but why exactly was I there? I could read books and explore nature anywhere and at any time! Why here and now? After holding this question for a couple of days it dawned on me: I was holding space for my friend and his writing. I noticed a clear relief in my body when I realised this. After the five days, as we were driving home, I shared my insights with him and recognised what an intimate thing it is to offer to hold space for someone. It made me wonder…
A few weeks later in a phone conversation with another friend, I told him I was holding space for him and others as they engaged in large-scale strategic, systemic work in the world – not always easy. I explained to him that this strategic work within a huge bureaucracy was not mine to do, but that nonetheless I had something to do with it: I was holding space for it. As I spoke these words, I was astonished to find tears welling up in my eyes. Articulating this inner knowing had stirred up some deep sadness.
For a long time I had been holding the question: What am I really doing when I hold space? I had noticed that many facilitators and hosts nodded their heads in recognition when we spoke of holding space. They/we seemed to understand what we meant by it, but I had never heard anybody explain it, nor could I find reference to it in books. The experiences recounted here made me aware of certain aspects of it, and I realised in that moment on the phone with my friend that this capacity of holding space needed languaging: words and distinctions to make it visible in the world. Another friend called it ‘grandmother’s work’, which was a nice metaphor but not a useful distinction.
The next important experience came in a training seminar, where an awkward situation revealed to me that holding space, for me as a woman, was not something I did in the cognitive sphere of the mind, but was essentially something that I accessed in and through my body. This realisation was very grounding for me, as if I had finally landed in my right spot. From the response of other female participants at that seminar, it transpired that this was not just my unique individual experience, but something that many women resonate with.
Nevertheless, the question remained, although now in a slightly different form: what am I actually doing when holding space, in and through my body? Some years earlier I had realised that I could sense what would happen next in a group process or systemic constellation, and that this was alien, weird or simply not possible for others. I also came to recognise that this sensing of what would happen next was quite different from the visions of the future experienced by others. My friend at the time was clearly years ahead in seeing what would become possible in the future, but he had no (trained) sensing organ for what might be the first next step in this unfolding, and so he was quite unable to discern where best to invest his energy, with much frustration as a result.
Having been in this years-long inquiry for myself, and looking back at our experiences in the gatherings of Women Moving the Edge, it dawned on me suddenly one day that we never spoke about ‘Spirit’, but would always use the word ‘Source’. It intrigued me as to why this was. Upon reflection, I discerned that Source – at least for me – points to the depths, to something deep inside, while Spirit seems to encompass something high above, with an eagle’s view… Hmmm… I began to draw on a sheet of paper to flesh out these insights.
Totally focused on my quest to understand this difference, I first apprehended that Source can be seen as ‘unmanifest matter’ – a potential that can materialise or not, depending on a host of circumstances. And so the answer to the question I had been holding for many months began to emerge. When I am holding space I connect through my body with the unmanifest potential of the person, group, place, project or gathering that is my focus. This was it! Holding space is shorthand for holding the energetic space in which the potential of people or groups or projects can unfold and enter the reality of time and space.
This holding space is only possible from a state of emptiness and a deep inner stillness. Without this, the potential cannot be embraced free from attachment. Of course we do not perceive this unmanifest potential through our physical senses; rather, it is an awareness of the subtler, energetic levels. We can learn to become aware of and choose to open our subtle senses to intentionally connect with this potential in service of that what wants to or can become manifest.
This intuition was later confirmed in a conversation with two dear friends about their joint project. I explained that they, as the callers or initiators of the project, would always be the ones who held the deepest and widest wellspring of possibilities. Even if they eventually expanded their core group, as they were thinking of doing, they would continue to be the callers. Other people could join and become very active in the project, and if they left the project would endure. However, if the initiators both withdrew their energy and attention, the whole project would die. In my understanding, and according to the little model that was emerging, the new collaborators were not holding the space as deeply; they were more about bringing the project alive. In further conversations, the three of us articulated that the ‘callers’ are holding the source-point of a project. (There will be more on the practice of being a caller in chapter 5).
At a training seminar in the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, the question presented it self to me: “If a small group were to sit in silence, what influence would that have on the collective?” As it happened, and somewhat unexpectedly, many others where interested in this question. We spent what time we had together not ‘talking about it’, but practicing it directly. First there were 3 or 4 women, then 7 or 8 of us sitting in silence, with 10 minutes at the end to share our reflections and learning. I noticed at this particular seminar that people were invited to be in silence on many occasions. We were a big group, and some had to sit on cushions in an inner circle due to lack of space. I noticed that people would deliberately choose to sit near the centre in order to hold space for the rest. It seemed that a pattern was emerging and consciousness about it was growing.
Holding space and place for the unfolding of what is possible looks rather passive on the outside: you are essentially doing nothing on the visible plane. And yet this holding is active; it takes a certain presence, awareness and attention. You are giving care in both the physical and the energetic dimensions. The physical attention can be seen in the careful tending to the space and in the quality of the invitation to a gathering. The energetic attention is of course subtler by nature. Still, as people enter the room they feel that there is a connectedness and a depth in the space. They notice the difference, enjoy it and are sometimes even reluctant to leave.
Generally speaking, I realised, women have a natural tendency to hold space for people, places and projects. This reflects their capacity to literally hold space in their bodies for unborn babies, something they do unconditionally without knowing what this budding human being will look like or how its life will unfold. This capacity to hold a safe space in which the full potential can emerge seems to have been forgotten in the West, at least outside the domain of the family. In business, politics and organisational life, we (even those who do it naturally and automatically) are still unaware that this skill exists and is needed.
Some people seem to have this innate ability to hold. It is a fine quality of moving into a vibrational resonance with what is present and what is possible. It is not exclusively women who do this intuitively, but very many do and are happy when we articulate it and give it words. I have no mainstream ‘scientific’ way to verify this, but the fact that the female body has a womb – an empty space whose function is to hold and manifest potential – could explain why so many of us do it spontaneously.
Holding space is by no means always easy. In contexts of collective inquiry where there is potential conflict, where people are triggered into personal, emotional content, or caught up in giving advice or getting their point across – in short, wherever there is downloading – it can be hard to stay present to the potential. In such conditions, it can be a challenge to hold steady in that place of acceptance and support. At such times, someone needs to keep the energy and attention of the collective on both the intention of the inquiry and what can become possible through the conversations. Bringing in a question that evokes the intention and/or the potential (although without expectations) can help to shift the conversation to a more generative space.
Holding space springs from a different quality of being than engaging in the conflict or debate. It can create a very different atmosphere, and at the same time it builds (on) our capacity to become present and aligned within. By tuning into and staying attentive to the intention and potential, we broadcast this frequency out from ourselves to others. In this way we invite other participants to inquire and speak from the same space, frequency or alignment. We offer each participant an opportunity to reach for their greatest potential in the here and now. Holding space is both holding the unmanifest potential and holding the tensions in the process of inquiry. Depending on your perspective, it is holding the space open for the best possible outcomes and the greatest possible participation, at the same time. It implies absolute trust in both the process and the people.
Harrison Owen, the inventor of Open Space Technology, says that holding space “dates back at least to the first shamans”. The practice and skill of holding space is not limited to gatherings, training seminars and workshops, although facilitators of such events are to some extent aware of this quality they can bring in. I have learned that holding space is also used in other contexts: dance, psychotherapy, spiritual groups, and so on. The Quakers have a ‘vibes watcher’ in their meetings. Holding space also applies to mundane situations we find ourselves in every day. Wherever we are, we can be present to what is possible, in a benignly detached way without emotional engagement, expectations or fixed plans. We are just holding the potential; holding the space for wherever we are and for whatever is emerging.
We know from the work of midwives and doulas that birth outcomes are improved when there is someone present during the birth process who is there to hold space for the woman giving birth, alongside the midwife, who is there for the baby. We are gradually coming to understand that this is equally true for teams and organisations. What if this quality, this tending of the energetic space, were acknowledged as important in any new endeavour? Surely it would improve the quality and outcome of any project. Later in the book, once all aspects of the Collective Presencing practice are laid out, we will build on this strategic aspect of this new human capacity.
In order to avoid any confusion arising around this new concept, and in the interests of creating clear distinctions, it is important also to specify what holding space is not. I remember a story of a woman who spent many years ‘holding her sister’ through many challenging situations. All those around her could see that this kind of holding was no longer the right thing for her to do. The space she was holding for her sister did not arise from a place of stillness and centeredness; rather, she was stuck in a rut and could not respond in any other way. She was not able to say to her sister: “Do it!” or “Move on.” In her case, then, this holding space was not a capacity but a habitual pattern that she was unaware of and unable to relinquish. How sensitive is our understanding of what to hold and what not? Of when to hold and when to let go? Echoing earlier chapters: how flexible are we in our responses?
Holding space is always about keeping open the possibility for potential to manifest, be it in people, in seminars, meetings and events, in teams, in companies, and so on. Sometimes the holding is more passive, like an open hand: being present, supporting, giving attention. Sometimes it is more active, giving a clear signal or impulse: now do it yourself, give it a try. Always being like an open hand is too much of one flavour, and can let a situation stagnate without realising its potential. In this case, the holding gets blocked in a kind of waiting… waiting for the thing that we hope for, but that will never happen unless someone acts. Sometimes withdrawing the holding and support and trusting in the strength and resourcefulness that is present challenges the one being held to dig deeper into their actual power that was there all along.
In our Western culture, the expectation that the potential should manifest immediately blocks a natural unfolding. There is too much pressure to get things done, to take a step right now, even when it is not yet clear what the real purpose is or what action is aligned in time, space and context. Holding space needs to happen without any expectation of a specific outcome, reward or recognition; it is offering a space to unfold, and is not necessarily focused on tasks as such. Much of what good parents do is exactly this: sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging, but always open to the response and sensing what is aligned with the potential of this particular child.
This capacity to hold the whole and hold space for unmanifest potential has been attracting more attention in recent years, and is starting to surface more into awareness (in the West). Because it is part of learning how to consciously and intentionally manifest, alongside actually practicing holding space, it is equally important to name and articulate this skill. It needs to be included as a foundation stone to enable every project that is set up to develop in a natural and organic way. We have noticed that once this invisible activity has been illuminated it is more easily seen and recognised by others who have never given it attention before.
In the first chapter we described the process of becoming ever more present to ourselves, in all our nuances and fullness. This unfolding authenticity as a process of inner alignment, is accompanied by another alignment that extends from our selves out to what is around us. Exploring this inner and outer territory, we are building a map, piece by piece, that describes alignment on both vertical (inner) and horizontal (outer) axes. Eventually this voyage of discovery will give us two maps, but for now we will content ourselves with starting the first one, the map for the Circle of Presence.
A Circle of Presence is any group that has as its purpose to learn, individually and collectively, to grow more present to its collective wisdom. This presumes a capacity in each member of the group to be present with oneself, with others, with the group, and also with the potential that is not yet realised. Awareness on all these levels helps build our capacity to attain authentic, collective wisdom in service of actions that are unique, authentic and balanced in the world. In the second half of the book, we will describe how this awareness and consciousness can be expanded even further, both inwards and outwards, through the practice of a Circle of Creation.
In the previous chapter we distinguished and described different levels or layers in the movement of inner balance and the unfolding of authenticity: observing, accepting, honouring and living what is. As we now extend our awareness beyond ourselves to include the ‘other’, we find that these four verbs apply to this outward movement too. In our lived experience, of course, these layers are all co-arising, intertwined and interwoven. It is one thing to draw a map, but quite another to actually live in the territory! The map can help us now and then, but it is in the practice of daily life that we learn to embody both deeper authenticity and widening balance.
This process of outer alignment will result in an experience of balance, which extends to include the world around. We can differentiate several widening movements, from I and Myself, to I and You, through I and Us, to I and Potential. Again, these different domains are not areas with clear-cut boundaries; we simply separate them out in order to gain some clarity. The overall development here is a growing awareness that whom and what we relate with is much more complex than we had ever imagined.
Seeing this complexity is becoming aware of omnipresent interrelatedness; a deeply embodied understanding that there is never one ‘single thing’, but always – and really always! – mutual relationship. There is an ongoing influence back and forth; I can’t separate myself from my relationship with you, with the group I am in, or with the potential that we hold together. We are distinguishing them here in the interests of clarity, but in life this is just not possible. Of course, mainstream Western thought, rooted in the assumptions of an objective, scientific paradigm, has separated many ‘things’ out, only to recently arrive at the insight that life in general needs to be described in terms of complexity, chaos, networks and embeddedness in systems.
The movement of widening our balance can be seen as ever expanding waves of attention. First we must ease ourselves out of our rigid patterns and habitual boundaries (Chapter 1: I and Myself) before we can really connect with the other(s) (this chapter: I and You). This relational field needs to be mastered before I can live, love and respect on a group level (chapter 3: I and Us). In turn, we need some practice on this group level before we can start to live – together – in real emergence (chapter 4: I and Potential). Later we will see that authenticity and balance can extend deeper and wider, beyond the human beings we are with and out into the material world and into other realms, where authenticity becomes generative creativity and balance becomes coherence. But let’s not jump ahead!
We can see this widening of balance, including ever more in the process, as trusting the invisible ‘in-betweenness’ of all that exists. This trust in the subtle experience of that which is neither visible nor tangible, but which nevertheless influences us, helps us to learn to be at ease with surrendering to new insights, seeing new patterns and coming to an authentic collective wisdom. If we remain grounded in the thing-ness of our selves and others, we miss out on the relationships, the interrelatedness and the myriad other information streams that are constantly at work in our relational field. It is a stretch for our Western mind to shift our attention from the objects we perceive to what is happening inside and between them, but like everything else, this can all be learned and trained.
Balance as a process of widening awareness
As is our habit in the West, my personal process of awakening awareness started with myself, through the practice of meditation, emotional bodywork, different types of dance, circle work, and so on, all to learn about the deeper layers and possibilities in myself. This was all very much ‘me’-focused, at least in the beginning. I cleared many blockages and became freer in my expression and the quality of my life improved. Then something intriguing happened.
A ten-year relationship had just come to an end, and with it a 3-year experiment in a kind of co-housing project. I had prepared myself well for the next autumn and had planned for some evening workshops and weekends in Emotional Bodywork, which I had already been offering for a few years as a therapist. My plan was to build up my practice and to let go of my unemployment benefit. Despite all this forward planning, not one of the courses I was offering had enough participants, and I had to cancel them all. Now what? Finding myself with a lot of time on my hands, and intuiting that the universe was trying to tell me something, I meditated and contemplated to sense into what I was supposed to do.
One afternoon, as I was lying on my sofa groping for clarity, it dawned on me that, while Emotional Bodywork was excellent work, it was no longer mine to do. So what then? A faint inner signal told me that there was something with women, with spirituality… not clear, not sure… and off I went into a deep memory of being burned at the stake! Such a deep embodied, embedded fear that if I truly dared to speak my truth, I would be burned at the stake! My god! I was not at all prepared for the emotional clearing I had done on the level of my personal life to have this as an outcome! A new chapter was opening, this time a more cultural and collective one, and again there was pain to acknowledge and transform. It didn’t feel fair: was this the reward for all my hard work? I didn’t like it!
While I am no ‘true believer’ in past lives, as I have seen such stories used in unhealthy ways, nevertheless I cannot dismiss this intriguing, intense and embodied experience. I prefer to think – as I have learned to do from other experiences – that once we have cleared ourselves of personal traumas, more collective and universal ones will present themselves to us for healing. It is only through individuals taking on this job of expanded consciousness that cultural and age-old suppression can be brought to light and resolved.
This experience launched me into the process of coming together with women in circle, eventually culminating in the Flemish circle, and later the Women Moving the Edge project. Equally important, it taught me something about collective, energetic fields. It was clear to me that this was not solely a personal memory relating exclusively to myself and my story (regardless of whether past lives were involved). I had touched on a collective memory that was speaking through me, making me aware that ‘I’ was not an entity with a separate existence. I was more entangled in other systems and fields than I could ever have imagined.
In our little Flemish women’s group, we naturally expanded towards bigger fields to embrace. As I have already mentioned, we spent a lot of time disentangling what was whose in the field of emotions, triggers and pain. But next came an awareness that the group as a whole was also something to attend to if we wanted to plumb the depths of our collective wisdom. I am referring here not to the classical concept known in social work and facilitation as ‘group dynamics’, but rather to what we might call the ‘group field’ – the inner and subtle awareness of the complexity that is any group.
As our inquiry deepened and we experimented with what was unfolding, we focused more on our subtle and collectively aligned wisdom, and how we could stay open and surrender to it, instead of sticking to pre-made plans and known procedures. We started to ‘learn from the future’, as Scharmer would call it. These days, I prefer to call it ‘engaging with the present potential’. In our habitual linear thinking, we project the future as a straight line from the present. But the potential – or what Gendlin calls ‘the implicit’ – is right here, in every moment of the here-and-now.
I would like to offer a more detailed preview of what lays ahead in this process of widening balance, a process of aligning with what we see as outside of ourselves. We started out from ‘I and Myself’, which was described in the first chapter. Now we move out, allowing our awareness to embrace more of all we are related to and inter-related with.
I and You
Focus on: the inner being of the other
Open to: connecting
We have all learned ways of dealing with a wide range of situations. We know how to shy away when needed, to get furious, to get what we want, etc. As we described in Shadow and Gift, these are our survival patterns, our habitual and unconscious ways of relating with others. My patterns differ from yours, sometimes they are opposite, but they all have one thing in common: we don’t really relate with the other in the here and now. We tend to see others as enemies, as ‘really’ different, as ignorant, as stupid, as too this or too that…. alternatively, we don’t even notice the differences and expect everyone to be just like us.
It’s a big thing to really grasp the notion that ‘everybody has her own truth’, not just as a concept, but to really allow it to penetrate us until we embody in every instant as a lived reality. Whenever we are touched in a vulnerable spot, our defense mechanisms – our fight-or-flight survival patterns – automatically kick in and the value we want to live by (‘respecting different views of reality’, for example) flies straight out the window! Time and again, instead of going for another round of conflict or the mistrust that creeps in so easily, we need the courage and the consciousness to choose to open up to this other ‘I’ and seek a way of connecting that actually works to keep us in constructive relationship.
Once I can see through my own patterns and reveal the hidden parts of myself, it becomes much easier to see or assume these hidden places in the other and be open and respectful with them. After all this other person is just as human as I am, only with a different expression, a different colour and a different shape. Observing what is means just that: seeing the other as another human being whom we probably don’t know at all. Every act of every other person contains a subtle, more hidden aspect that we are likely not aware of and don’t even think about. Just as we can open to the full experience of ourselves, including our subtle senses, in the same way we can open to the inner, subtle self of others. How does this other really feel? What is she aware of that might be quite foreign to me? How does the subtle self of the other expresses itself?
Once we can start to bend a curious gaze towards this diversity and recognise that we are, quite simply, different, truly authentic relationship becomes possible. Our habitual ways of reacting hide aspects of ourselves that have never been fully in the light; some of these are very beautiful, related to being fully alive, while others seem quite dreadful, but really that is just the outer layer. This is true not only of me, but of all the other people I engage with. These shadow aspects that the ‘I’ wants to hide are essential to our true authenticity. Within their shell they conceal a pearl of wisdom and great vision. Can we discern and recognise this in others? Can we relate directly with this deeper layer and leave the habitual patterns for what they are? Are we able to see the gift others bring to the table? Can we truly accept and honour the other?
In this process of widening our awareness to others, we begin to appreciate that our individuality is not clear cut and separate, and that we live in a world of intricate interrelatedness. As we hold both ourselves and the other in full focus at the same time, we become increasingly aware of ourselves as an embodied flow of experiences. Our idea of ourselves as a process of becoming expands into a relational mode of becoming. This process will be described in detail in next section 2.5.
I and Us
Focus on: the group field, the inner collective
Open to: holding
Any collective, be it a team, a family, an organisation or a nation, is formed of a number of people, but it is much more than just the sum of those individuals. It is shaped by the relationships between all, by the mutual influences constantly ongoing, back and forth, at lightning speed. Just because these most often go unnoticed by the conscious mind does not mean they are not influencing what we say and do. The number of possible one-on-one relationships can be calculated by a simple formula (sum=Nx(N-1)) and the result is always much higher than expected. And this sum does not yet take into account the small subgroups forming and influencing each other whenever the collective has more than 4 or 5 participants.
The English language does not (yet?) have a word to describe this web of relationships, this awareness of interrelatedness, these invisible and subtle dynamics at play beneath the surface. The best term seems to be ‘field’, as it evokes a spatial entity beyond the boundaries of myself, and beyond what is happening between me and one other person. Here, we use the notion ‘group field’ to denote the inner dimension that seems to be present in any kind of group, to which our Western world pays scant attention. We distinguish between ‘group field’ and the much more widely recognised ‘group dynamics’, which point mainly to common emotional patterns that occur in group settings. My point here is that, alongside these emotions, there are always subtle energies present that we can learn to detect, to trust, amplify and nurture.
Our Western individuality can find it a challenge to set aside our personal preferences and motivations, to intervene and contribute in sole service of the well-being of the group and its purpose. Doing so does not mean regressing to a childlike state of as yet undeveloped personal identity; nor less does it mean falling into a victim style of conforming to the implicit group norm. Rather, we are pointing here to the next stage in consciousness: from dependent, through in-dependent, to inter-dependent: I need all of you, and you all need the best from me. Only if I offer my full potential can the group achieve its highest possible results. In those moments when my area of knowledge, skill, passion or expertise is at play, I am the leader. In the next moment, you take the lead in another topic or for another task, and we all know and trust this. Leadership circulates throughout the group, not according to a pre-determined schedule, but because we are a leaderful group. Through each fully participating, by sharing the overall response-ability for manifesting the group’s purpose, we are all leaders. (further description in chapter 3)
I and Potential
Focus on: emergence
Open to: surrendering
In previous versions of this matrix, I called this area ‘I and Evolution’, but I now think that it is more accurate to see it as the relation between myself and that which can become manifest, the potential that is present and waiting to be grasped and brought forth. In order for this to happen in a group setting, we need the capacity to be consciously present to all the previously described domains: what is going on in myself, in the other individuals, in the field, and where are we regarding the intention and purpose of the group – all at the same time. Through attending to all of this, we can begin to glimpse what is wanting to come to the surface and can start working with it.
There is a special kind of trust involved in this process of widening balance in the world. In highly complex situations, there is no one ‘right’ thing to say or do. How, then, to choose a certain action? The art is to stay centered and open, trusting that sooner or later the next nugget of potential will open and become accessible. Basically, it is about trusting that we are able to connect with unmanifest potential, consciously and intentionally.
In order to be able to listen to the future, to the unmanifest that is knocking on our door, we need a deep inner stillness. Stillness that is beyond being quiet or without noise; it is a centered state that is not engaged in any kind of habitual story. This inner centering allows us to become aware of the subtle energies that point to more potential and its possible manifestation. Accessing the collective wisdom that is held in any kind of group is a collective practice that requires adequate group silence. This means not only individuals refraining from speech, but also a group-connecting-in-silence reaching out – or opening up – to subtle, collective wisdom.
We focus here on the emergence of that really novel insight or idea that has never existed before, and that could only spring up in the midst of our collective witnessing and connection. It requires us to perceive all phenomena – everything that is happening in the room, within us, around us and in the wider field – without judging them with our habitual minds as not valid or not meaningful. It requires us to take them at face value; to acknowledge, accept, honour and live them.
Back in the days of our earliest experiments, we needed much training, courage and willingness to voice our own sparks of wisdom. Sharing your inner knowing, your unique perspective, your subtle impulse regarding the issue and the question at hand is key to achieving the unique collective wisdom of this particular group or team. But recognising the information held by others as wisdom is equally important. Emergence is a lot about ‘connecting the dots’, so if you fail to value your own dot, or disregard the dots that others have brought to the table, you won’t see the patterns and the new meaning that is arising, and emergence will not win through.