On Being Space

On Being Space

I've recently had some thoughts, thanks to the very astute questions from my clients, about various things including:

1) How I think psychotherapy (or at least the form of it Sam and I practice) works,
2) How does Focusing (which is the heart and soul and center of our psychotherapy) works
3) Mindfulness
4) Interpersonal relationships
5) How to live (or how I aspire to live)

And I thought to share it here. It was during a particularly engaged and deep interaction with one of my clients that the common or underlying theme tying these 5 areas together came to us. It lies in one word.


"Huh? What the hell do you mean, mate?" I hear you ask.

Let me explain.

Psychotherapy and Focusing works by making Space - in the relationship between me and my client, and within the client for their Emotional Self to emerge, and to "unfold". I use a gardening analogy to explain this to my clients.

If you have a small plot of land and you want to grow a tree on it, chances are that the tree would not grow very big because it can't take root too deeply or widely, and would fall over if it became too top heavy. And if you're a gardener who has expectations about how the tree should grow, then you might put scaffolds or sticks around it to twist the emerging tree into the shape you want it.

This is in a sense, a metaphor for the conditions of our lives, and the ones we often grow up in. We've got little space to be ourselves, and often the expectations and interactions from others force us to twist into certain shapes, become a certain way. This is also especially true for our emotions. We're not allowed to express some emotions. Heck, sometimes, we can even Feel these emotions in ourselves because they're assumed to be wrong or terrible.

Now, if you had a nice wide piece of land, and you let the tree grow how it would, what kind of tree would unfold? Probably a wild but beautiful specimen of nature, unlike any we can imagine.

Psychotherapy and Focusing is about creating this nice wide piece of land for a person's Emotional Self to unfold, without scaffolding, to be what it was meant to be. This nice wide piece of land would be a caring relationship (hopefully from the therapist) and also the client's own internal awareness.

Which ties into mindfulness. True mindfulness, as I was at pains to explain a few times before (see my previous posts), is about creating or Remembering that at the Very Bottom of all our thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensation; we are conscious aware Space for all of these experiences.

Sometimes, we therapists encourage clients to do some mindfulness "exercises" to remember the feel of this conscious aware space. In this space, the Emotional Self can flourish, and meanings/ stories contained in them can come up, be heard and be resolved. And then we can return to being simply....simple Space.

Relationships are a kind of space in and of themselves. Between two people, there is a space to give and receive (opinions, feelings, emotions, and anything else really). However, like all spaces, the one between two people can become blocked with less than ideal stuff like stagnated past resentments, old hurts, unhealthy expectations, miscommunication, mis-cues in communication, tension, and much more.

To allow a relationship to thrive, John Gottman - the world renowned relationships expert (along with his wife Julie Gottman) did mention that you need kindness and generosity. This is because kindness and generosity helps clear the Space of a lot of what is blocking it, so that you can see each other with fresh eyes. Lynn Preston - a psychoanalytic psychotherapist calls this connecting anew with someone the "New Us". In this kind of open Space, new interactions, new ideas, new energies and new ways of being can emerge.

So you really need to tend the Space between you and the other person (if you value the relationship that you have). One practical way of creating a fresh new space between you and another person is to us Mindfulness or Focusing to create more Space in yourself first, to allow any lingering unhappiness in the relationship to be explored, expanded, and transformed.

Once the emotions are transformed, they will no longer block you from the Very Bottom, where you are simple conscious aware Space. From this Space, it becomes easier to take in the other person as they are right now, because nothing's in the way between you and them anymore. It's like having the grime cleaned off your glasses. Now you can see with compassion.

Another practical way is to create rituals in a relationship - small Spaces or neutral ground where all the old hurts and current stresses are put aside. A small kiss in the morning, making up before going to bed, a hug, making your parter/ friend/ family member a cup of coffee no matter how irate you are at them, and so forth. This is taking a leaf out of the book (or books) of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's ideas on using small reminders to become still and to take in the current moment as it is.

I believe that living is an ongoing, fluid process containing both predictable parts and organic chaos. While we have our routines and habits, we also have experiences all the time that are not in the plan. That's why over the centuries, we've develop philosophies, values, guidelines, principles, ideologies, religions and rituals to help us navigate the messy bits of life.

It literally is a Way of Life.

For me, I feel that one important guiding principle in how to live and to conduct our lives, is to strive to be Space for all of life's experiences moment-by-moment.

This includes our internal experiences, often mingled with our relationships, and things that happen to us. It also includes the times when we "fail" to be Space for these other experiences, and an awareness of our personal limits to what we feel we can tolerate experiencing.

Being Space would allow us to open up to the colourful yet mostly subtle vicissitudes of Life as it is unfolding in the moment. To me, that's what being Open-Minded and Open-Hearted means.

The challenge for you (and all of us) is: how would you personally go about being that Space?


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