On Presence

Holding SpaceI have been thinking about presence for a while now. While at the Osho Leela Tantra Festival last June I had a breakthrough in my understanding of what this word means. In the three days I was there I attended workshops with four or five different facilitators, including Jan Day, Shashi Solluna and Sarita. I noticed that how I felt and what I was able to express in each workshop was different – and it was something about the energy of the person at the front of the room that made this possible.

I have heard, and used, the phrase ‘holding space’ for a few years now. I first encountered it used by Cléo Dubois back in 2007. She said that we’d be holding space for Fakir and TJ while they did their suspension: I nodded knowingly because the phrase seemed to speak for itself, but in truth I didn’t really know what it meant.

Gradually, over time, I have experienced spaces held in a variety of different ways, and also learnt to hold space myself. But until recently the phrase still seemed abstract and unspecific, because I hadn’t fully grasped what it meant. But at the Tantra Festival in June I got a lot clearer on it. The ‘space’ is a container in which magical work can be done: strong emotions can be expressed, energy can flow and our sacred intentions can be committed to All That Is. And it is through the presence of the person at the front of the room that the ‘holding’ happens.

Presence. At its most literal it simply means the person standing there. But of course it also means something much deeper than this: after all, not just anyone can stand up and create a safe container for this work.

For me there are two aspects to the deeper meaning of presence that are significant here. One is the way it is commonly used in everyday conversation: when we say ‘J_____ has presence’, we mean that we feel J____ strongly whenever she is there. There is a power or strength to her simply being in the room that is noticeable to others. We often speak about actors in this way because the difference between a strong presence and a weak one is particularly marked in theatre.

In sacred practice we talk a lot about ‘being present’. Through my experiences at the Tantra Festival I realised that this is the other important aspect of ‘presence’. When someone is fully present while they hold a space, they profoundly tune into those around them: hearing and seeing and feeling those in the space much more fully than they would if their mind were partly engaged with something else. There’s no multi-tasking in magical space: the more a facilitator is ‘with’ the people in the room, the more held those people feel.

So, what makes a person able to hold a certain kind of space? By combining these two meanings of presence, I began to understand: the person at the front of the room has to both have presence and be present. Through this powerful combination, their presence becomes the safe container that allows the participants to do the work.

And because each person’s presence is unique, the containers they create are totally different. Jan Day struck me as a woman in her power who communicates her yeses and noes with precision and clarity. I also got the impression that this is something she struggled with in the past, that she had overcome difficulties in this area. As a result, in her workshop I was able to tune into my own struggles with finding my yes and my no. Her presence was a container that made it safe for me to go deeply into my own ‘stuff’ in this area.

In Sarita’s presence I felt a connection to ‘sky energy’ that I’d never experienced before. Just as Jan’s earthy, groundedness and clarity enabled me to get more grounded and in touch with myself, Sarita’s beautiful, spiritual Being allowed me to connect with something ‘up there’ that I might not have had access to otherwise.

I thought about my own work with clients and groups.  From what I’ve observed and what people have told me, I understand that my presence makes it safe for people to go ‘into the dark’ – to delve into scary and painful places that they’d otherwise steer clear of. This makes a lot of sense because I have done a lot of work on myself in these areas: exploring my own Shadow and playing around in the murky depths to allow my light to shine more fully.

I began to understand that it is not what we do as facilitators that really matters, but who we are. This is both comforting and scary. It’s comforting because it means we can relax a bit with the lesson plans, and not worry so much about going off-piste during a workshop. It’s scary because it means that there’s no way to pretend. We can ‘fake it til we make it’, but only if we’re ready to be there. Being at the front of a room and holding a spiritual space is not something to be taken lightly, or rushed into.

Since the Tantra Festival I’ve been tracking the way this works. I was particularly struck by the fearless presence of Robert Silber at a workshop in mid-August, in which more stuff came up for me than in any other workshop in over 10 years. Robert has a deep believe in the power of radical honesty and the ability of a group to become a community when nothing is hidden or held back. As a result, over the course of two days 16 people shared an intensely beautiful, wondrous and powerful space together. We opened up to reveal our power and our vulnerability, touching each other’s bodies and souls with love and total presence.

I have heard it said that we only go as deep as it’s safe to go in any situation. Our psyche knows how well the space is held, and responds accordingly. This is why so many people spend so much time contracted, disconnected, shut down. After all, who would open up to an aggressive, bullying or patronising boss, however hard they tried to convince us? Clearly not – and although this is an extreme example, it helps to illustrate the central point.

By contrast, when we feel that we’re in the presence of someone who can hold us, it’s amazing how much can come up, and how quickly. In three hours with Jan I found out that I usually don’t know where my yes is; in three hours with Sarita I opened my crown chakra and connected with All That Is; in a weekend with Robert I discovered anger, sadness and hurt that had been suppressed for 15 years. Of course my presence is part of this too: in all situations we are holding ourselves, and we only allow up what we are ready to process. But I wonder if I would’ve allowed myself to be so vulnerable and open in a group if the powerful presence at the front of the room hadn’t been such a safe container for me.

As I evolve my Sacred Kink practice this understanding feels very important. I am less afraid than I used to be: the ugly parts of me don’t disgust me and I don’t shut them off or lock them up. So when something ugly arises for a client, or when I need to embody something ugly for them to work with, I can do so with presence, respect and love.

Because I have done (and continue to do) ‘the work’, because I keep delving into the dark corners to unearth anything that is holding me back from fulfilling my potential, I am able to hold space for my clients to do the same. It could be a man letting go of his fear of surrender or a woman overcoming the abuses of her past: as long as I can stay present and be unafraid, the magic will happen again and again.

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