Let’s be in Messy Practice Together: a guide for holding space as we emerge from this pandemic

by | Oct 14, 2021 | Brave Space, Complexity, Holding Space for Others, Leadership, Liminal Space

Listen to me read the post…

We are now in the twentieth month of this pandemic. That’s twenty months of a global liminal space that has disrupted the lives of everyone on this planet – some more than others. It’s not surprising, after such a long time of uncertainty and anxiety, that many of us are still feeling rather wobbly and unsure of how to move on in our lives.

Lately I’ve been hearing from many people about how this pandemic has disrupted families, communities, workplaces, businesses, etc., and it’s made me reflect on what might be needed to hold space for what will emerge on the other side of this liminal space. Some of you are pondering how and when you’ll get your communities or churches back into the same physical space, some of you are wondering about what your workplace or school might look like in the future, and some of you are considering whether repair might be needed in your families after you found yourself divided on how to deal with the pandemic.

Perhaps it’s time for us all to step into Messy Practice together.

Here’s what I’ve been learning about Messy Practice…

Early in the pandemic, when life as we knew it had suddenly shifted dramatically and many new fears were beginning to consume me and the people I love, I realized that none of my usual practices and nervous system soothing techniques were working. This sudden dramatic thrust into liminal space was so foreign to me and everyone around me that I needed something new to help me cope with it.

That’s when I started my #messycovidartpractice. If you were following me online at the time, you will have seen evidence of it. First, I cranked up the music to get my body moving (Luke Sital-Singh’s music was speaking to me especially well at the time, particularly the song Nothing Stays the Same). Then I splashed multiple colours of paint onto a large canvas and, only with my hands, spread the paint around the canvas. Almost always, as I did so, tears would flow, and I would release whatever tension had been building in my body. In between moments at the canvas, I would dance. Every few days I would return to my canvas and add layer upon layer of paint, always reminding myself not to get attached to the outcome but to let myself get lost in the process. Every single time I did it, I walked away feeling lighter than when I’d come to the canvas. Now, over a year later, when I don’t need the practice as much, I’ve hung the canvas on the wall of my new office with the words Messy Practice on it. It’s a daily reminder to stay present, to be messy, and to remember that I am always in practice and never attaining perfection.

I believe this practice can inform us as we consider how to hold space for what wants to emerge from this pandemic liminal space. Whether you are gathering your community for conversations about the future, or holding space for changes in your family’s life, here are some ways you can be in Messy Practice together:

  1. Be playful. You can bring a playful spirit even into weighty conversations and remind people to hold things lightly. Play is about being together and having fun, not about being too focused on a goal or outcome. If you know you need to have an important conversation with people, you might want to be playful about the way you host it. Perhaps you can put a big canvas or paper on the table or floor and invite people to paint or draw while they talk.
  2. Be messy. Recognize that most of us are feeling disoriented right now and many may still have flooded nervous systems from months of stress, so acknowledge that things might get messy as you try to figure things out. Invite a spirit of acceptance and forgiveness and dive in without trying to impose too much order and control. Invite ideas and practices in even if they are not polished or complete. Give people permission to be messy.
  3. Get your bodies involved. If you and your people are sitting with big questions right now, know that the answers won’t come from your minds alone. Not everything will show up if you only ever sit in conversation. Your bodies have been holding much of the tension of these past months, and they hold some of the wisdom too. Invite your people to move together – dance, walk, swim, play, fingerpaint – do whatever works to release the tension and invite the wisdom.
  4. Let go of the outcome. If you are wrestling with what needs to change in your church, community, or business, it might be helpful to provide people with a brief primer about liminal space, helping them to understand that you are collectively emerging into something new but you don’t know what that is yet. (There’s a chapter in my book about it.) Invite them to be open about the future, while letting go of the expectations that things return to how they were before. Remember the layers on the canvas and give yourself permission to paint over what doesn’t quite work.
  5. Walk away when it’s the right time. (You can always come back later.) When you are in Messy Practice together, there will be times when emotions feel big, tensions mount, and/or people get tired, and you’ll need to acknowledge that it’s time to walk away (at least for awhile). Take breaks, call for pauses, and let people know they have the autonomy to erect the boundaries they need and can walk away when they need to. Remember that you are serving the cause of liberation and mutual sovereignty, not trying to impose control.
  6. Let it take as long as it takes. This pandemic liminal space has been bigger and more complex than anything any of us could have imagined before it happened. It has changed us and changed our businesses, community groups and families in ways we can’t even see yet. Now is not the time to rush through processes to try to find solutions, given the complexity of what has surfaced. Take the time you and others need.
  7. Let emotions flow without judging or stifling them. When you start creating and hosting spaces where people can express how this pandemic has impacted them, people might begin to feel things they haven’t allowed themselves to feel yet. They might discover that they’ve been stuffing things down just to survive and keep their families functioning. If you are hosting such a space, be patient and hold them with courage and compassion. Let the feelings pass through them so that they can begin to find their way toward healing.
  8. Let the music guide you. Remember that, as you are holding space, you are being held by Mystery and Community (More on that in my book.). Let go of your own ego and let yourself be moved by guidance outside of yourself. Move through change intuitively and with discernment, trusting that you are doing the best you can and there are forces beyond your control at play.

One final reminder… as you step into Messy Practice with your people, remember to hold love at the centre. Be patient and compassionate with yourself and with others, and remember that we have all been through something that stretched and challenged us beyond what any of us ever expected.


Want to learn more about holding space? Join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program, starting October 25, 2021. And check out our free series of mini-workshops, Love Letters for Those Who Hold Space


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