Last week, I attended the luscious Yarra Valley to participate in a 5-day Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) retreat. The images you see in this post are from the retreat, and while they capture some of the beauty of the property, the magic I encountered was a full sensory experience that cannot be depicted through ‘sight’ alone. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy my amateur photography.
I’ve spoken a little about MSC in a previous post, so I won’t go into the details here. Rather, I want to share some of my experience. I must confess, a major motivating factor for attending the retreat was for professional development, and I certainly ticked that box. But, actually I found that the experience was far more meaningful and transformational for me, and has given me newfound perspective and clarity.
We covered a lot of content in the program, which was very experiential – that is, we practised every new skill individually and in groups to fully learn and understand how to implement the practices into ‘real life’. A skill I want to focus on here, is something referred to as ‘holding space’. This is just a fancy way of saying, being there for someone else or yourself during a difficult time by listening carefully and curiously – not trying to ‘fix’ anything by offering solutions or comparing experiences, just simply listening and being present with the other/self. I call it a skill because I know from my own experiences in practice (and in life) that many people struggle to hold space. It is our natural inclination to try to solve problems – to make the pain go away. It takes great courage and strength to sit with another person or with oneself during times of deep suffering, but it is a skill that each and every one of us can cultivate if we choose to.
Why ‘hold space’?
I use this line a lot in practice: “what we resist, persists!” Or sometimes, I whip out this fancy formula: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. These are just two different ways of saying the same thing, which is, when we resist our difficult emotions (e.g. depression, anxiety), our resistance has the opposite effect to what we intend. Rather than the difficult feelings going away, they keep coming back, often stronger than before. If you think about what happens when we resist our depression, we may do things like withdraw from people because we don’t think they understand us, or we eat junk foods as if we are trying to fill a void within us, but this then makes us feel more depressed and hopeless, and the cycle continues. Holding space for ourselves is way to stop this cycle.
How do I ‘hold space’ for myself?
To demonstrate, I will use an example of my own that came up during the retreat. I was struggling with feelings of shame (Note, I will write a post dedicated to the emotion, shame, in the coming weeks! Stay tuned).
To start, I take a deep breath and pause, grounding myself to the present moment through the breath and/or by pushing my feet into the floor, feeling the support of the earth beneath me. I might say out loud or just silently to myself, the word, “shame”. Sometimes people like to say, “this is shame”, or in a gentle, soft tone, “ah, shame”. This is me noticing the feeling and acknowledging that it is here, now. When I notice, I do so gently and openly, without harsh judgement.
I then might start to get curious with this shame, again non-judgementally. Sometimes it helps to think of this exercise as a sort of experiment. I am the scientist and shame is the subject of the experiment, so I investigate it with curiosity and awareness. I begin to ask myself, “What does the shame feel like in my body?”, “Is there a particular part of my body that is holding this shame most heavily?” Again, I notice this. Often my pain sits in my stomach and it hurts. I say to myself, gently and with warmth, “ouch, this hurts”. I like to place my hand over my tummy, like I would hold a crying baby, offering a nurturing touch.
There were times during this exercise that I really started to identify with this shame, that I am a failure or not good enough. This happens from time to time, our minds are funny little things! When I notice this happening, I simply acknowledge it, “ah, this is shame”. Again, I investigate this shame, and bring a soothing touch to the part of my body that holds the pain or just place a hand over my heart and breathe deeply into the pain, holding this space for myself. I am not resisting my pain, just letting it be. I like to say to myself, “this too shall pass”, because I am certain it will.
TO SUM UP:
- Read about Mindful Self-Compassion here and here
- Nature is a magical gift, “stop and smell the roses”
- What we resist, persists!
- ‘Holding space’ can break the cycle of suffering in difficult moments