Holding Space by Melita Marshall
“What does it mean to be a woman?” “Who am I talking to?” I asked. “God . . . What does it mean to be a woman?”
I mumbled some words—“Receptive, reflective, nurturing, birthing, creative, consuming. Sensing, hearing and feeling—the brain stem and limbic system functions. Holding space and the wider view.” “Come to Peru and write.”
After a few moments, I became aware again of the soft voice and rattle of the Ayahuasca shaman as he sang the icaros to call the spirits of the medicine plant we had taken earlier. This was a different, much gentler journey with the medicine than my two previous experiences. We had come to the jungle of Peru for a few days and this young Ayahuascero had agreed to work with us at short notice. The vine he had picked to make the medicine was also young. It was a relief not to fight the nausea I had come to associate with this ceremony and to find myself in this sweet space. Yet here was a challenge—“Come to Peru and write.” Write what? I didn’t think of myself as a writer.
What did it mean to be a woman? The question stuck with me. Somehow I knew my response in the moment had been inadequate. This land and these people had already taught me much about opening the heart. And in helping to open mine I had quite fallen in love with them—like a young goose imprinting ‘mother’ onto the first object it sees on being born. So the invitation to come back was welcome, if a little scary.What would they teach me about being a woman?
My meditation began to yield an answer in the form of a further question. “What does it mean to hold space?” The spirit of the Ayahuasca plant was to reveal to me in further visions the true dimensions of the cosmic joke, in which the answer was contained in the question.
Mothering and Holding Space Two years later, I found myself sitting in the forest at Breitenbush, just a week after the joyful community experience of Summer Solstice. I was contemplating holding space, this time in its connection with a new/old paradigm of mothering. Months spent in the Sacred Valley of Peru, my work at Oregon House, and time spent with the Breitenbush Community have taught me much about this aspect of the feminine.
I am not speaking only of the care of children. Adults need mothering too. We all need places of respite, to rest and heal and grow. We at Oregon House, the Community at Breitenbush, and all those running similar centers have an enormous job to do—an unseen and generally unacknowledged job. In order for the thousands of individuals and groups of people who come to such retreat centers to receive healing from the sacred land and waters that we steward, we who live and work there need to ‘hold space,’ that is, maintain a safe container, for them. What I have learned about holding space is that it takes a lot of energy, even though it may seem as though we are doing nothing.
So what is this that we do, other than making sure that our guests’ basic physical needs are taken care of and that access to the land and waters—be it the beach or the hot spring pools—is safe and monitored? Certainly we extend a compassionate presence. Even if guests are having a hard time, we do not take it personally—for we know that healing happens when the shadow material is allowed to come up and be expressed. We are committed to our own personal growth for, to be able to be a container for others’ growth and transformation, and to offer clear reflection, we have first to come into comfortable relationship with our own.
But beyond all of these attributes, holding space is a spiritual exercise in which a higher consciousness, a high vibrational field, is invoked and maintained. It is invisible and hard to describe, but people feel it and need it. To do this, we consciously honor our connection with Source and with all life, we celebrate our work as service and demonstrate the value of community.
Is this not what mother does—or did before she went crazy?
She went crazy because staying home is no longer a valid or valued contribution and support for it in our society disappeared, so she had to “contribute” by going out to “work.”
In other cultures less fractured than ours, I have observed that the self worth clearly demonstrated by women comes from their role as holders of space in the family and community. Women are the constant center from which the children and men leave and come back. Women are the hub, the core. In the villages, the women work hard at the daily chores but there is not the sense of perpetual inconsequence that comes of not being valued. The women are confident in their sense of themselves, they support one another and often make light of the work by doing it together. I have enjoyed watching them laugh and joke together as they do the laundry in the river that runs through the village or sitting for hours twice a week on market day selling the few vegetables they had harvested from the parched soil. Here is where the support of the community lightens the weight of frustration and isolation felt by women in their own nuclear family structure.
As a result, I have come to grieve for our culture. In ceasing to value mothering and the energy it takes, we have disempowered the women, who kept the hearth fire burning in the home, and sent them out to work instead. We have created generations of latchkey children and men fed on fast food and television, not to mention burned out women doing two jobs.
It may seem politically incorrect to talk about the need for women to be at home, but let me make it clear that I am not talking about all women here. There are many expressions of the feminine that women need to honor and express at different times in their lives, and some women are not made for mothering at all. Even today, however, with all the hard won freedom of choice that women have, many women choose to have children because the role of “supermom/working-woman” is the only path sanctioned and supported by a social structure where the archetypal roles of “priestess,” or “sacred virgin/prostitute,” or “single woman/healer/creative artist-complete-unto-herself” are not honored.
But there is an enormous personal cost to choosing that “supermom/working-woman” role, because it condemns a woman to years of exhaustion, with terrible cumulative impacts later on in life. Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, both immune deficiency syndromes, may well be examples of our bodies trying to tell us we have been living a depleting, inauthentic life. Our challenge then becomes how to create the support we need through our community as we make more authentic life choices for ourselves. In meeting that challenge, we will continue to evolve the culture, which is all to the good but no easy task.
Meanwhile, what of the children? I am exquisitely aware now that unless someone—and a man can express this aspect of the feminine as well—holds space for us when we are children, then as adults, finding out who we truly are and coming fully into our creative power is a painful process of unlearning and healing. The fear-based survival skills we develop as children, which become habitual and unconscious as we grow, keep us out of life as adults as strongly as they preserved it when we were younger and had no control.
How can the wheel of life turn if it has a rim and spokes but no hub? How can we feel safe to go out there and explore our world if there is no one to come back home to? How can we feel safe to delve deeply into our selves, our wounds, our shame in order to heal them if there is no constant one to hold us, support and soothe us when we come back with our pain? How can we grow and create and be all that we can be without the security of a container?
‘Holding space’ is a way of characterizing this container, this vessel. In ancient cultures the vessel was a symbol of the feminine. The revolution in cultural creativity that is currently in progress is defined by a broad intuitive impulse to create balance between the male and female. For too long our culture has been enamored of and dominated by patriarchal values and practices. We know that this imbalance has directly led to the way we mistreat our planet, exploiting and destroying valuable and non-renewable resources and species because we feel separate from them. Lack of respect for the feminine translates to lack of respect for the earth, the Great Mother, who supports and holds space for us. In our bodies, our vessels, being out of touch with the deep feminine translates to closing down our lower chakras. We rarely come into ourselves and slow down vibrationally enough to be fully present in the moment to notice life’s little treasures on the way.
Mother as Container My personal experience on relocating to the Northwest is that “Mother” for me has increasingly become the forests, the mountains, rivers and ocean. I enjoy a sense of being held by Her. How different this is from my mother of origin.
I was born in England just after the war. My mother, who had already raised four children, had been enjoying her newfound freedom and peer companionship in work outside the home. She was in her essence a healer, not a mother, but had been frustrated in her desire to train as a nurse. She resented having a new baby to care for and returned to work shortly. I was ignored or tormented by relatives and other caretakers and did not have a safe container. My learned survival skill was to isolate myself and find some measure of control on my own.
But a strategy that saves your life one time may betray your life later on. About a year ago, I had a near death experience on a boat trip in the Bahamas. I had gone for a week of relaxation and to swim with the wild dolphins. I had silently asked for healing through a release of armoring in my first chakra. It is said, wisely, to be careful what you ask for. I had envisioned a kind dolphin swimming up to me and zapping me with her ultrasound—a sweet and painless release of deeply imprinted fear. Well, so much for my projections. What actually happened was that the dolphins came and drew me into stormy waters and strong currents. I nearly drowned, and experienced a turning point in my life. I knew in that moment that I was possibly not going to make it and that, if I continued to struggle to gain control alone— my unconsciously adopted childhood survival strategy—I would probably drown both myself and the man who had swum out, ill-equipped but well-intentioned, to help me. I knew that my survival in reality depended on my being willing to surrender to the support that was offered. So I told my body to relax completely. I went limp and drifted in and out of consciousness. After a number of surreal moments, my rescuer got me back to the boat. The Great Mother had held me, and taught me to trust in being supported by another.
This new strategy is now imprinted cellularly, I can assure you. And this is important, for it is not just an idea but an experienced reality. I now have a new choice—relation instead of isolation. In fact I know that my life will sometimes depend upon it, as it did in those waters.
It has taken all these years and a new birth through near-death to re-pattern this. I grieve for my old self who could never trust myself with another in complete vulnerability. And it is not that others will never let me down—at times they will, due to their own overwhelm. Betrayal is part of life, for we all still struggle with our humanity, our unconscious agendas, and poor communication. The point is, I have learned to trust myself in relationship with another. I can surrender control knowing that, whatever happens, I am safe. I have faced death so now I can face life.
Mothers who truly hold space give the gift of this knowing to their children. If we are not received into a safe and supportive container of parental presence upon being born and in those early years, our experience of terror, abandonment and betrayal as we lose contact with Source, with the womb, remains with us as a core belief that we must have done something really bad to deserve this. In effect, it is a casting out of paradise into hell. This core shame is archetypal and deeply held and leads to unconscious behaviors which keep us separate.
In trusting another with my life in the water I trusted the cycle of life and death itself and changed the basis for choices in my life. Later, I chose to return to be with those I love and who love me, instead of returning to Peru where I was deeply held by the land but isolated. Walking through the old growth forest at Breitenbush a few days later I had a sudden sense that maybe I really had died and gone to heaven—for this was paradise. Here I was, surrounded by the smells of the cedar and fir trees, the sound of the swollen river rushing through the gorge, a double rainbow cast in the white clouds by the sunlight, and the company of a dear friend. What was more, despite an old voice in my head telling me I should leave, I knew now that I could choose to stay in paradise, to know in fact that I had never left, was never cast out.
What does it mean to be a woman? One of the things it means is to hold space—to hold a safe and constant container of relationship within which others can go to meet core fears and beliefs in order to heal them so that they can become empowered. Let us as women and men once again value this role and the energy it takes to simply be there, to support, to hold the center, to hold sacred space.
I give thanks to all the healers who have held space for me over the years, for this is the work of a true healer too. I give thanks to the community at Breitenbush for welcoming me back and allowing me to stay while I really got it in the cells of my body that I was worthy to be in paradise. I give thanks for the opportunity through stewardship of the sacred land and water at Oregon House and through my healing work to offer this gift of holding space to others. And I give thanks to all the mothers who are remembering and honoring their vital, life-giving and life-sustaining role at the center of family and community.
Melita Marshall has a practice devoted to healing trauma and life-shape re-patterning. She is the founder of Oregon House, a retreat center on the coast near Yachats dedicated to empowerment through purification, healing and spiritual alignment. Oregon House is available year round to individual retreatants as well as to families, businesses, healers, artists and groups of all kinds. Call 541-547-3329, or visit the website www.oregonhouse.com for information.