It is only wholesome when
in the mirror of the Human Soul
the whole community takes shape
and in the community
lives the strength of the individual soul.
– Rudolf Steiner, The motto of Social Ethic (1)
You will probably have recognised that we are now moving to a new location on the map of the Circle of Presence, into the widening field of complexity and interrelatedness. I have named this area of experience I and Us, as it is a logical expansion from I and Myself and I and You. It is important to realise, though, that it is only logical if we assume that ‘I’ is at the centre of things, which, of course, it is not – although it is a fairly common starting point in Western mainstream society, and consequently also how I started my journey of growing consciousness and awareness. This is the only reason why I start with ‘I’ and expand from there. Reality isn’t really like that, as we shall see as we journey further.
As we saw in our exploration of I and You, a lot is happening unconsciously between us, under the surface, in our relating. It suffices to multiply all that unconscious activity by the number of participants to get a feeling of what is at play in a group of people. In addition to leaving behind our judgments of and projections on each other, opening to the inner dimension of the collective also requires us to become conscious of the deeply ingrained, common assumptions and mental models we collectively hold. Because they dwell mostly implicitly in our shared field, they stay underground and are not talked about. These shared assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our common reality and are a core component in our feelings of belonging. Nevertheless, assumptions and mental models also act as invisible boundaries that limit our capacity to see and understand. If a group can take the step of becoming aware of its limitations, a new way of thinking, acting and creating will emerge.
In the domain of I and Us we will discover many dynamics at play in groups, circles and teams; even families can be examined through this lens. It goes without saying that we shall not be able to name all of these dynamics, but we will articulate some important aspects that allow circles to grow in their capacity to attain shared, collective wisdom. The capacity to hold space for each other and for the group as a whole, as explained in 3.1 is quite essential here, as is the reverse capacity: to be held by the group.
What is at play in I and Us is more than being good team players. There is a subtle group field that is neither about entity nor process, neither about me nor all of the others; neither about the group’s purpose nor the process of achieving it. It is neither particle nor wave. It is all of this: a subtle, structuring field beneath the visible reality, a complex mesh comprising all our potentials, a web of invisible strands that holds a collective potential that has never yet seen the light of day.
As in the previous domains, here too we will apply the four movements of inner alignment to the field of I and Us.
1. Noticing what is – in the group: notice the group’s field and discover common assumptions
Most of what I have described regarding the unfolding of an authentic self (I and Myself) and an authentic relationship (I and You) is well known in the sphere of training and circles concerned with personal growth. As we focus on I and Us we expand our attention to include what is happening in the group at large. This territory is known to most good trainers and facilitators, but often not consciously. As we develop towards collective, shared and rotating leadership and collective wisdom, we are all required to learn this skill and competence, not just so-called leaders.
Noticing what is in the group builds on the capacity to be present to myself and in relationship with the other(s), expanding now to perceive the wider group’s field. It might start with noticing when you feel some kind of disturbance or awkwardness in the overall field. At such moments, you could offer some questions in the circle as a way of checking whether your sensing is shared or on track, and to help all participants notice what is happening: What is going on between us? What is at play at a deeper level in the group now?
Noticing what is in the group is more than just sensing moments of disturbance. It is also crucial to become aware of shared assumptions and beliefs. These are invisible when we participate in a group where we feel we belong. To begin to observe them you need to step back and take some distance. This is really not easy, and very few people have been trained to do this. I first became aware of the power of shared assumptions through the work of Edgar Schein (2). When it was introduced to our little women’s group many years ago, it made a huge impression on me. Schein offers three levels at which to reflect on an organisation’s (or group’s) culture: the first level concerns observable ‘facts’, what can be measured and recognised by outsiders; the second level relates to values – the ones that insiders speak about; the third level concerns these assumptions, which are unconscious and implicit – not spoken of, but always about the essentials.
I can still feel the mental stretch it took me to take it in and really start thinking about which specific assumptions we might be implicitly sharing. It is always a good idea to invite outsiders to help you in this regard, but over time, with practice, you can get a sense of the limiting beliefs and how they are at play in the group. Particularly, when all members of the group feel that there is no flow and no balance in the conversation, it can be helpful to raise some questions that inquire into these shared beliefs. It is not easy to give good examples of such shared assumptions, because they are different in every group. Suffice it to think about a total stranger from a different culture visiting your group. What beliefs would he or she have to adhere to in order to belong? What if you could offer some questions that can open this field of shared assumptions so that all participants could examine them more easily?
2. Accepting what is – in the group: widen my view on the group’s field and see others’ full potential
Accepting what is in the group invites us to broaden our own personal perspective, as we now know that accepting what is is about opening the heart. Our own personal identities and intentions are now positioned in this larger field – as they have always been, but now we make the conscious effort to keep this relationship constantly in our awareness. This calls for a process of tuning in with the inner dimension of the collective we are part of. It is an inner movement of awareness – an inward, widening embrace, finding balance in a broader field of awareness. The group’s field is – of course – not visible. It exists in the subtle realms and can be perceived through our subtle senses. As we open our hearts and minds to this wider field we step more deeply into interconnectedness and complexity. This experience cannot be grasped by the mind only, we need another set of senses to find a point of balance in all this.
Now that I am aware of this group’s field, I can understand at a deeper level why it is so important that I bring in my full potential. Once we acknowledge and open ourselves to the group’s field, we get a sense of contributing our own unique gifts, our own unique form of leadership, in service of the collective wisdom. At the same time, as we sense into the collective field, we start to see the unique contributions others are making. If there is such a thing as a group’s field, then it follows that there can be no such thing as ‘wrong’ members or participants in that field. In addition to simply observing and acknowledging this fact, comes the inner movement of accepting everyone and seeing that each individual feeds a thread into the collective weave. Sometimes participants are not aware of what they bring to the group, and the others might need to articulate what they see a person’s contribution as being. Sometimes people, used to leadership positions, have to come to terms with the fact that their role is limited – one among many – and that each individual has a role to play in service of the whole.
From the experience of our women’s gatherings, I can state with confidence that that there are many more tasks, gifts, areas of work and attention than just the ‘normal’, traditional forms of leadership. Here I am thinking of the more ‘hidden’ forms of leadership: cleaning and tending the environment, bringing in beauty, providing nourishing food, initiating celebrations and rituals, organising trips, holding space and potential, send out reminders for the next gathering, making a harvest or artefact of what has happened before, and so on. All these contributions are needed, and all support the group’s outcome.
3. Honouring what is – in the group: hold space and be held by the group’s field
Part 3.1 unpacked the concept of holding space in some detail. In a nutshell, holding space is about being aware of a potential that is present in the group but that has not yet manifested. This unmanifest potential is in you, in the other participants and in the group as a whole.
Honouring what is in I and us builds on the acceptance that we all have unique gifts and more potential than we realise at first glance. If I truly honour that each person fully participates and contributes their unique gifts to the group’s field, my trust in the group as a whole deepens and I can fully relax. Now I can open to the group as the here-and-now community that takes care of me. I can trust and follow the ideas and suggestions of others in areas of life or work that are not where my strengths or preferences lie.
To engage fully in the group, honouring what is in I and us also means being conscious of my own needs, big and small, voicing them and acting on them. This, too, is an act of leadership and a contribution to the whole. If you need to move your body to recenter yourself after a long conversation, just do it. Or propose it to the group as a collective exercise, because your need might be shared by others. But even if nobody else joins you, it is your responsibility to be present – not out of egotism, but in service of the group.
Honouring what is in I and us has an important receptive side to it: the ability to be held by the group. In my research, this aspect almost went unnoticed, first and foremost because I am myself a strong woman – at least that is what my personality believes! It failed to show up on my radar at first because my personal survival strategy is to ‘do it on my own’, to be strong and not to show my needs (remember the example I got from my mom). But then I began to recognise it in many, many others – and this is still ongoing. Because the gatherings of Women Moving the Edge attracted rather strong, developed women – after all, we invited participants to be on the edge! – many shared an implicit assumption that we need to be able to handle it all by ourselves. Our needs and emotions were to be kept out of the circle conversations. In this regard, we lost sight of the interrelatedness of the personal and the collective. As stated in one of our gatherings: “I need you all, and you all need my vulnerability too.”
In his interview with the Circle of Seven (3), Otto Scharmer articulates it very well: “Ken Wilber makes the distinction between I, we, and it. It strikes me that what you describe is yet another perspective: the second person plural, that is, unconditional witnessing by a collective. What I heard you describe is how unconditional witnessing by a collective works in terms of a nonjudgmental stance and in terms of the open heart. That places the attention toward what’s becoming – what’s coming into being. It’s the evolving self, not what’s already there.” Sharing our needs, expressing our vulnerability does not mean eliciting an avalanche of advice or calling for rescue. This act of sharing invites the embodied experience of being held by the group. Being witnessed in this way is enough in itself: I feel met as who I really am and I can move beyond any helplessness that might have been part of my story. The quality of attention offered in this witnessing teaches us to look at ourselves, too, without judgment. Even if we goofed, we need to feel no shame and can just take it as a learning experience. It is through the collective work in the circle that we are able to show up with ever less ego-as-habitual-pattern.
Although it might seem contradictory that we cannot experience the full holding of the group until we have learned to participate fully from our unique, authentic place (I and Myself), but that is not so. This kind of holding comes from a different level (‘trans’) than the holding that is needed by the baby or child (‘pre’). It is a deeper connection with mutual interdependence as the next stage in development, beyond dependence and independence. Sharing our needs, showing our vulnerability, trusting this group right here and right now, can feel like taking a risk – at least to our habitual survival patterns, by that part of us that was hurt so long ago. The Circle of Seven confirms: “There often has to be a risk in order for the collective to show up. The risk can be one person’s, two people’s, or all of ours, but there has to be some kind of risk or vulnerability for crossing the threshold that you’re talking about. I felt the whole space shift. Because you took a risk, it shifted the space for all of us. Maybe there are a lot of different thresholds.”
Honouring what is in the group’s field is more than trusting the members of your team; this is what the above quote points to. I well remember a situation in the very first Moving the Edge gathering. Most of us were searching for what to say and do in order to reach this Magic in the Middle. Faced with so much uncertainty, most participants fell back into downloading – their default way of thinking and acting. So we heard many different proposals of what we could or should do, but none gelled to the level of actual action. None engaged the whole group. After some hours of talking, somebody got up and went over to the trolley laden with tea, coffee and Danish pastries. Everybody got up and followed, without anybody having made the suggestion, or the group having reached consensus. The break just happened. The group’s field had taken care of all of us and we listened to the emergence that unfolded and of which we were part.
4. Living what is – in the group: full participation in the (subtle) group field
After some time in an ongoing circle, we begin to see clearly the special and unique flavour of this specific group. When everybody brings in his or her unique contribution, we get a splendid blend of qualities, a cornucopia of different ingredients that can lead to a totally new stew. In such groups, there is no boss, simply people who take on certain necessary roles. These are minimal and can rotate if the group so decides. Everybody participates fully, takes responsibility when needed or when his or her competencies, skills or gifts are called for.
On one occasion, our Flemish women’s group was together for a four-day retreat. We were learning to rely on what was unfolding instead of planning it all ahead by the hour. On our final morning, we all got up at different times and didn’t come together until almost noon. It turned out that all of us had actually wanted to start earlier, but none of us had spoken up. We had each seen the activities of the others and interpreted them incorrectly. We had all been waiting – our habitual response of being separated – instead of making our wishes and sensing clear. That was a big lesson!
If we are ever to behave as an authentic collective, each of us needs to learn to check our assumptions with the others and bring in all the available information – otherwise we are holding back, not recognising that what we, individually, have to offer might be crucial for the life of the group as a whole. Checking assumptions is often needed to restore trust and flow, when the connection and awareness of our interrelatedness has dropped out. This is a deeply systemic insight: if you hold back, the whole system is holding back. If you are not fully, consciously present, then the whole system cannot be fully, consciously present. We are all completely immersed, wanted, needed… Embodying this systemic view on life means that we are always invited to participate fully: sharing our unique gifts, contributing our subtle intelligence as well as our mental capacities.
In addition to speaking, there are a multitude of ways in which a group will express its unique character. This point is worth dwelling on: in Western society we are so used to ‘the talking culture’ that we no longer recognise that it is just that: ‘a culture’ – and therefore something we can create differently if we want to. The unique culture of a group expresses itself in many different ways: how things are done, where we meet, whether we break bread together, time spent on having fun or informal talk, and so on. The different kinds of expression can be examined very intentionally and just as intentionally changed to best fit this group or organisation. Then we see the birth of an Authentic Group – the living of what is.
The energetic awareness (the ‘holding’) of the group, its members and its intentions does not cease when we leave the face-to-face meetings. If the group has an intention to meet again, the holding continues. This holding means keeping the lines of connection present in your awareness. The Circle of Seven articulates it this way: “We sustain the intention and the energy of that person’s intention by the practice of holding during the time that we’re apart, after the circle breaks up. This is a practice of continuing to hold the field that I think we’re not fully aware of. It’s been developing since we began the circle.”
In my little women’s group we did a lot of rituals during which we connected all the levels of our being: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. We took the time to invent and create these rituals together and we all experienced them as extremely important. In retrospect, I can see our rituals honoured the different phases in the group’s process, although this was not planned as such. We were sensitive to how life unfolded in and as our circle, and we experimented with what we sensed was right to do at different times. This collective subtle sensing, honouring and living the life of the group is a crucial capacity for the times we are living in.
In the next chapter, we build further on this subtle sensing, but now in relation to the potential of what is present. In the movement of ever-growing awareness of complexity and interrelatedness, we will shift our focus to emergence, opening to surrender to what the subtle field of potential is showing us.
(2) Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. John Wiley and Sons, 2010.
(3)Scharmer, O., Cecil, B., Gillespie, G., The Presence of the Circle Being. Conversation with the Circle of Seven; Ashland, Or; September 15-16, 2003 (pdf)
When preparing the first Women Moving the Edge gathering, we relied on the template that Finn Voldtofte had distilled from the first Moving the Edge gathering, which included full exposure of the preparation conversations on the Internet, using circle practice to bring the design to its next level and inviting participants early on to fully step up to offering their unique contribution. Being in the hosting team to facilitate this experimental gathering, I was supported by my substantial experience from my women’s circle in Belgium and the principles and practices of the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter.
Searching through my files, it turns out that we had 20 conference calls before our first gathering, which took place just a year after the original Moving the Edge. As we would later come to recognise, as the hosting team we talked a lot about the pattern of holding back – as Tina had mentioned – and we wondered whether this was just us, or if we were seeing something like a feminine collective survival pattern. This theme of holding back was a major one in that first gathering.
We also pondered together what would be the right format for women to gather. Would being in a circle enhance women’s tendency to seek harmony? Would we then become stuck? Just waiting for emergence to happen didn’t appeal to us. We realised already at that point that there is no real freedom without some boundaries. We would need some direction, leadership, guidance or purpose (or maybe a question). Later this would become another core pattern in preparing the gatherings: to collectively seek and sense into the guiding question for the next encounter. So central is this pattern of having a guiding question that we now take it as essential for any collective inquiry, alongside the use of circle practice.
At a certain point (September 2006), we decided to assume a leadership role and, rather than convening a circle of friends, offer a gathering, hosted and facilitated by us. “We will guide the process in a way that women can come forward with their own leadership. We will create a container – the walls – and invite the women into that space; the balance between the masculine (some structure or container) and the feminine (openness – emergence).” (notes from the call of 21 September 2006). In that same call we decided not to rush or push ourselves, cancelling the original dates and postponing the gathering by two months. This marked the emergence of another pattern – discerning right timing – that would become core to our practice as our experiences unfolded and we learned to understand what was becoming manifest.
There is an invisible movement going on in the world. It’s a movement that is manifest in a variety of forms and practices. These practices rest on the same underlying principle: to form a safe collective holding space in which the participants support one another in making sense of and advancing their life and work journeys. It’s not actually new, for it’s what the bond of real friendship has always offered.
– Otto Scharmer, Theory U, p.410
So far in my story and explanations I have mentioned my little Flemish women’s circle and the Women Moving the Edge gatherings, but I have not described the form the actual meetings took. It may come as no surprise that we always worked ‘in circle’. So familiar and ingrained has this practice become in my way of being that I almost forgot to mention it here. Nevertheless, basic circle practice is an essential skill if we want to generate truly novel insight and action.
If you wish to embark on the path towards the Circle of Presence, there are many ways to train in the area of personal growth, especially with a view to learning about I and myself, and I and you. When it comes to I and us, you can look into group dynamics, but most training in this field focuses on how to facilitate or train a group, as an outsider. Opportunities to learn how to be in a group are much harder to find. One of the better options is to train by immersion. This means becoming a participant in a circle of peers, a community of practice. Get yourself dirty in the practice and learn together along the way. It can be rewarding in many areas of life and work.
Both my Flemish women’s circle and all the Women Moving the Edge gatherings used the circle as their main structure and methodology. As a way for people to come together, the circle has been around since the dawn of time. Many people thrive in a circle because it implicitly invites us to treat each other as equal human beings. Sitting in a circle invites an experience that is a world away from what happens when we meet around a square table, or in rows of chairs with someone standing in front. The latter arrangements tend to bring in more hierarchy, planning, debate and discussion (from the Latin root discutere, which means: to chop into pieces). In the Art of Hosting global network, we often introduce the circle as the mother of all social technologies. Lately, I have begun to notice an invitation to return to the circle in many different environments, especially for the purpose of learning the new skills we need in order to engage with the future awaiting us and the complexities currently facing us.
Sitting in a circle to have a conversation (from the Latin root con-versare, meaning to turn to one another) invites (more) equal relations in the group; it is an invitation to be a ‘leader-full’ group. Practicing conversation in this way over an extended period of time allows one to engage deeply with a group of people. It also offers an excellent training ground for the varied aspects of becoming present on all the levels described so far. It offers deep learning by immersion.
Circle practice, with its simple agreements and guidelines (described below), provides a safe space that invites trust, depth, intimacy and authenticity. When applied consistently and well, its guiding principles create a container of trust that strongly invites each participant to express their unique self and to welcome others in their authenticity in turn. As the shared experience evolves, this trust and safety grow, and participants begin to risk ever deeper authenticity, firstly within the boundaries of the circle and later in many other arenas of life and work.
Circle practice connects us deeply with our shared humanity, while simultaneously revealing how unique each one of us is. The witnessing quality of the circle invites each person to express more of who they are. We each realise that there is deeper potential in ourselves and in others as well.
Circle practice is not to be confused with a community culture of superficial saccharin sweetness (“we all love each other so much”). What we are talking about here is a method that has a clear purpose and focuses on a shared inquiry. The purpose of the circle is not to feel happy, but rather to learn together. It is a shared collective inquiry – although one can certainly become happy as a side effect! In a Circle of Presence, the focus is on how to become present – increasingly so and in ever more settings and situations – so that an emergent collective wisdom becomes available. In a Circle of Creation, described in part two of this book, the purpose is to extend the alignment in all directions and reach a space of shared creativity and generativity that adds more to life than what is already present.
Description of basic circle practice
What follows is a description of the basic circle practice. It can be used by any group in a wide variety of situations, as long as the purpose is to share, to learn and to inquire together. To learn more about the practice, I recommend The Circle Way initiated and originally stewarded by my dear friends and elders Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. They have written a number of books that offer a wealth of depth and detail that I can give you in these short pages. In part two of this book, we will build on this basic practice to deepen the conversation for the purposes of a Circle of Creation.
Welcoming and framing
Every gathering benefits from starting well. Circle practice starts with a welcome and some kind of context setting that brings the purpose to the fore. Often the welcome is spoken by the person hosting the gathering, but it could be any person present who feels called to do so and simply volunteers. In our Flemish circle we would always gather at one of our homes, and after welcoming with tea and coffee we would move to a beautifully appointed room to hold our circle and our unfolding conversations. Sometimes we would start with some kind of ritual together, but attending to the beauty and conviviality of the meeting space already made it clear that this was a place of respect and trust where we were all welcome. In the Women Moving the Edge gatherings, which always lasted 3 or 4 days, the hosting team would arrive earlier in the day or the day before in order to prepare the space, both physically, by adding flowers, arranging the chairs, preparing a poster showing the guiding question and getting familiar with the surroundings, and energetically, by holding our collective intention for the gathering in awareness and allowing it to imbue the space where we would be gathering.
How we frame or contextualise a conversation is much more important than we generally realise. Each time we meet, we need to be very explicit about our intention in meeting, the methodology we will use and purpose of the circle. It is not wise to assume that such framing is superfluous and that everyone knows what we are about! While circle practice is very simple, framing the conversation at the outset helps to set clear boundaries for the container being offered (“This is how we do it”) and ensure that that we are all on the same page in this learning environment (“This is what the conversation is about, this is our intention and our guiding question”).
Sometimes a moment of shared silence can be invited at this stage, to allow participants to sink into the here and now of this circle, and leave behind whatever they were doing or thinking before.
Introducing the circle practice
In as far as participants are not all familiar with working in circle, it is important to introduce the principles, the agreements and the main practices.
The practices are few and simple, but very impactful. First is to speak with intention. This means that when we speak we do not let our words meander aimlessly, but we choose what is relevant to the question or the shared topic. Second is to listen with attention or curiosity, giving our full attention to what is shared by others, trying to understand what they are conveying beyond the words spoken. This is empathic listening, where we are able to feel or recognise in ourselves what the others are expressing. The third and last practice is to care for the well-being of the group, specifically being conscious of the impact of what and how we say things.
The three principles are also very simple: first is that leadership rotates, in the form of the few different roles needed for a circle to work and to flourish (a host, a guardian and, perhaps, a note taker). Related with this, the group takes shared responsibility for how the circle unfolds and does its work. Lastly, have a higher purpose for the meeting. Hanging out with friends around a campfire might take the form of a circle and lead to meaningful conversations, but we wouldn’t call that circle practice.
These practices and principles are supported by four agreements: (1) What we say in circle is held in confidence. (2) Offer what you can and ask for what you need. (3) We listen with compassion and curiosity. (4) We agree to pause at a signal (often a bell or chime) to re-gather our thought or focus.
By articulating the practices, principles and agreements of the Circle, we are setting a container in which it is clear what people are expected to do and not do. This creates a safe space for sharing and discovery, and this is why it is so important to name it before the circle starts.
After the welcoming and framing, when we might hark back a little to what happened last time or what we had agreed to inquire into this time, we take the time for a ‘check-in’. In this context, checking in means sharing a little of what is going on in our inner and outer lives, both personal and professional. A check-in is an invitation to become fully present with yourself, as you drop more deeply into what is really at play in your life in the spaciousness of the sharing, and to become present with the others as you witness whatever is shared in the circle, and also with the inquiry at hand.
This slow-paced beginning is sometimes difficult for those of us who are well-versed in the Western patterns of speed, hurry, goals and let’s do it! And this is exactly why most people need a leisurely check-in to become present to what really is.
Talking piece and listening
Commonly, during check-in a talking piece is used to help the group focus on the person who is in the process of sharing and to make sure that no one interrupts. The talking piece can be any object that makes sense in your specific context; often a stone is used. The agreement is that the person holding the talking piece is the one speaking or sharing, while the others are listening with attention. Sometimes the talking piece is called a ‘listening piece’, because that is equally true.
One way of working with a talking piece is to let it travel, from one person to the next, all around the circle. If, when the stone reaches you, you are not yet ready to speak, you simply pass it on to the next person. Once the talking piece has traveled the full circle, it will return to you, and you can then take it in your hand and share your story. Another way of working can be to place the talking piece in the middle of the circle and invite everyone to listen deeply for when it is their true time to share. Whoever feels ready can pick up the piece and, when they have spoken, return it to the centre for somebody else to take up. Proceeding in this way slows the conversation down; people need to become aware of their inner sensing regarding whether and when to share.
To many, working with a talking piece seems inefficient, as it can take a long time – perhaps longer than expected or planned for. Taking a longer view, however, working in this way is more than efficient, as it impacts on so many levels: it builds trust and safety, it enhances listening and sharing, it provides a solid ground for further exploration of whatever difficult topics or questions people are bringing with them, and allows us to dive into our unconsciously-held shared assumptions.
For some people it can be a big thing to just listen without giving their advice, or chiming in, or questioning what the other just said. It confounds their habitual way of being in a conversation. Conversely, others are helped to speak up when the talking piece arrives in their hand – they are invited out of their habitual patterns of holding back and not sharing. The circle practices of ‘listening with attention’ (without interrupting) and ‘speaking with intention’ are an embodiment of true respect for the diversity of human beings. We are sorely in need of both this respect and this diversity: both need to be present if we are to be able to weave ourselves to a higher level of collective wisdom.
Quote from participant:
Using ‘a talking stick’ (or in our case, different talking pieces including stones) changes my relationship to the conversation from one of ‘needing to respond’ to one of ‘listening and silence’… it seems to hold an open space. It keeps my ‘ego’ in check. I’m less likely to ‘look for things to say’ or rush to insert myself by affirming commonality with the speaker or arguing from a place of contradiction or contrast. The usual superficial sociability drops away as soon as I’m slowed down and align with intention that is NOT about ‘me’. – Les
I have used my talking stones, which I carry with me in a beautifully crafted wooden box, in many different places and in many different contexts. I usually introduce the practice as an invitation to speak from a deeper level. You don’t have to have ready-made ideas in your head before you start sharing; you can speak what comes naturally into words. Let the story unfold by itself as you speak. I invite all people to listen not just to the words spoken, but to the whole as all the different stories weave together. This is not just about politely listening and keeping quiet. It is a deeper listening that is invited, a call to become present.
The conversation that unfolds after the check-in will probably be guided by a prepared question or an introduction of some kind. In the early years of our Flemish circle we would dedicate the time remaining (after check-in) to the questions raised by all or some of us. They were of different kinds: they could be therapeutic, asking for professional support, a collective inquiry and so on. The Women Moving the Edge gatherings were always collective inquiries where the guiding question or theme was set in advance by the hosting team.
The group can decide for itself whether it is appropriate to continue using the talking piece. From experience I can say that if you want to invite deep reflection and build capacity for presence and emergence, you would be well advised to keep using it. It slows down the conversation, so that the subtle sensing can find its way into what is shared and into the emergent collective wisdom. On other occasions, there might be a need for more freely flowing conversation and no need for a talking piece.
During both the check-in and the unfolding conversation, there is a role for a guardian. This role can be taken up by anyone in the circle, and can be rotated over different gatherings. The main purpose of the guardian is to keep track of time and the overall energy of the group. He or she will give a sign or ring the bell when it is time for a break, or when we need to stretch. Anyone can ask the guardian to ring the bell when he feels a need for it. Also when stories or insights have been shared that need some time to digest, anyone in the circle can ask for the bell to be rung. After some time, the bell is rung again and the conversation can resume.
Closing the circle
When working in circle, it is important to close the conversation properly. We give an opportunity for everyone to say a final word, to share the meaning this particular conversation had for them. An inviting question can be offered to guide this round of sharing. I notice how many times we drop this practice of closing, mostly due to so-called time constraints. When we don’t give in to this pressure, it is very rewarding to learn how people are leaving the gathering and what they take away with them from the circle.
Phases in the life of a circle
If you engage in the circle practice with the same group of people over an extended period of time, you will run into a lot of your habitual patterns (as we described in chapter 1 and 2). Confronting these patterns, acknowledging and reflecting on them, and trying out alternative behaviours and responses in order to change these habits is an essential part of any Circle of Presence.
In his book The Different Drum, Morgan Scott Peck (1) describes four stages that any kind of group goes through before they become what he calls a ‘true community’. Within the safe container of the circle practice, people find a trustful and open space to share who they really are, what they most care about. Most people who experience circle for the first time have lacked this so sorely in their lives that they marvel at the occurrence, and find this to be the best group ever! They experience the joy of finding like-minded people, or so it seems. This is phase one – the pseudo community. The golden glow persists until – as if out of nowhere – diversity shows up in the group. Weren’t we friends? Now I feel angry at you! We were on the same page, and now all of a sudden you have a different opinion?! Enter phase two: chaos. The members of the group are projecting on each other, personal shadow parts are not recognised. People try to fix the process, try to fix each other – or blame the process, or blame each other. And so it continues until finally folks understand that they can only change themselves and start looking within. So begins phase three: emptying.
In the language of Theory U, this is the point of opening the heart, realising that all the emotional charge that we project onto each other really belongs to us and we have to take responsibility for it ourselves. This requires going beyond right and wrong, or any other polarity that is present, and opening up to the reality of how different we all are. During the chaos phase, the talking piece can come to the rescue to keep projections within limits. Slowing the conversation down in this way gives people ample opportunity to reflect instead of instantly reacting to what was said, and letting some time pass before it is their turn to speak. In addition to the talking piece, we can invite all participants in the inquiry to speak to and from the middle (of the circle), rather than addressing a specific individual. I advise, from long experience, never to allow people to break the rule of the talking piece (not speaking when you aren’t holding it), if you agreed to use it at the outset. Introducing a talking piece is an act of power, and breaking the agreement on its use is an abuse of that power, especially as the host of the conversation.
This phase of emptying might look to many like a therapy group, but that is not its ultimate purpose. Reclaiming our projections is necessary if we are eventually to re-weave the strands of the group at a higher level of collective wisdom. The circle practice is a safe birthing place for the broken-off fragments of ourselves. Even when working in groups with victims and/or perpetrators of violence and torture, the sharing of stories in the safe container of a circle reconnects people with their family and their community – as I learned from the Tree of Life project in Zimbabwe. In reclaiming our projections we need the courage to connect with our deeply held and unconscious individual pain. But in opening the heart, first to ourselves, we are also connecting with the pain of the others as fellow human beings.
Otto Scharmer has a very helpful model of four different levels of conversation and listening (2). During this phase of emptying, participants in the circle are learning to listen and speak empathically (his third level). They are now beyond the phase of being nice and socially/politically correct (first level), and beyond the phase of talking tough and preparing for the next move in the debate-battle (second level). In empathic listening, they learn to step out of their own beliefs and ideas into the shoes of the others. Doing so allows them to embrace our shared humanity beyond the boundaries and limiting beliefs we had before we entered the group. As Scott Peck calls the fourth phase, True Community has arisen.
- Peck, Scott, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, Touchstone, New York, 1998.
- Scharmer, O. Theory U. Leading from the Future as it Emerges. The Social Technology of Presencing. Society for Organizational Learning: Boston, MA. 2007, p295.
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.