Holding a space that contains a felt sense of safety and connection is a special gift we can share with our students. It’s what we aim for in our groups, so how do we achieve it?
Facilitating a meditation group involves more than simply guiding specific meditations or teaching students a technique. As meditation teachers, we also need to be skilled at “holding the space” for our students.
We learn to hold the space by simultaneously practising emotional availability to ourselves and to members of our groups. This availability transmits itself to others through our attitudes of openness, compassion and emotional confidence; an approach that creates a sense of safety in the group. In this way, students can learn to welcome, manage and share their emotions instead of becoming fearful or blocked.
The key ingredient for teachers here is to be available to ourselves. If we can hold a space for ourselves, this invites group members into the same space within themselves.
Learning How to Do This
Regular meditation is a powerful way of promoting self-acceptance and equanimity when we have strong feelings. Regularly meditating either alone or in a group can have a powerful effect because doing so accelerates our own and our students’ capacities to open to greater self-understanding.
Fortunately, repetition of experiences makes them familiar and helps us to build confidence that we can handle them. As we or our students meditate, we therefore encourage acceptance of all experiences that arise: memories, suppressed emotions, tears, giggles, and outbursts of joy, and more. These can happen during or at any time after meditation.
As a safeguard, it is helpful to have a list of trusted counselors and psychologists to whom we refer students at times when they need support because intense experiences are surfacing. This enables us easily to refer a student and is a helpful backup resource.
So what can we do when a student’s normal ways of coping are not enough any more, because their meditation practices have released more intensity in them than they are accustomed to?
These times offer precious opportunities for healing and breakthroughs in personal growth.
What We Can Do
How do we ensure that our words and actions sensitively support our students in processing their emotions without our unintentionally inhibiting or interfering with their availability to what is arising for them?
The basic answer is that we may need training in what to do and how to do it and a lot depends on our responses at the time.
Taking on the responsibility of running a group necessitates the capacity to respond appropriately to these situations. The spontaneous eruption of emotion is common in groups. As a “feel good” culture, the way we handle emotions could be more supportive. So the onus comes back to us to model compassionate support that lets our students know that feelings are ok and are not to be feared.
An important key in enabling us to provide this support is to practise emotional availability in our own routines. This could include:
- Instilling in our own meditation practice opportunities to be aware of and feel our feelings on an emotional and physical level (since our feelings are felt directly as sensations in the body).
- Emotionally honest journaling.
- Owning our vulnerability by receiving counselling therapy when we need it.
Embracing these practices means we become more comfortable with our own vulnerability and feelings and by necessity, more comfortable with others’ feelings. We can remain emotionally present when challenged or triggered ourselves. Practising self-compassion leads to greater wisdom. We understand our own feelings better and develop the ability to support others sensitively through a felt sense of shared humanity. This enhances our ability to be present and supportive to our students and in all our relationships.
If we are not well prepared, then we run the risk of letting our discomfort run the show. For example, we may fear that:
- The person’s experience is a negative reflection on us as facilitators.
- The emotions triggered are undesirable rather than a natural outcome of meditation and living that produces change and resolution.
- We will be blamed for triggering the feelings by the student.
- We have done something wrong when what is happening may in fact be a sign of progress.
On a practical level, holding the space in a meditation group might look like one or more of the following:
- Honouring the student’s experience by pausing and taking time for students to process their feelings.
- Learning to become comfortable with this silent processing time, without rushing into soothing
- Using your body language; soft gaze, tone and gentle demeanour to soothe.
- Harnessing the group’s support in whatever way works for you. For example, asking the group to direct loving kindness towards the student
- Guiding members of the group in a mindfulness practice so that they remain present to their own experience as the student processes theirs.
- Normalising the student’s feelings if appropriate. For example, by saying, “I would feel like that too if I were in your situation.”
- Treating the situation as normal and natural. Staying calm and centred.
- Aiming to return the student to a centred and grounded state without rushing them.
- Developing your compassionate listening skills (found in most parenting and counselling books).
- Providing referrals if needed at the end of the session.
- Making sure they are ready to leave confidently and safely at the end of the session.
Of course, we respond according to our intuition and experience and whatever feels appropriate for the situation and person. We may not need to counsel them but we do need to support them.
There are many books available that offer ways of learning the above skills. No matter how good they are, however, as meditation teachers, we need to be living a holistic lifestyle that includes emotional self-care; and learning to be available to whatever arises in our experience as a result of meditation and other personal growth activities. We can try, but we can’t fake our ability to be present and available.
The space we provide in our meditation groups is precious and vital. It is the space between private experience and professional therapy; a space of shared experience. Our capacity to hold the space for our groups correlates with our willingness to hold space for ourselves.
By running a group that offers such a space, we model a new way for students to care for themselves. Our students then gradually develop the capacity to hold this space for themselves through the practice of meditation – whatever it brings.
 There is a ‘normal’ range of feelings that are natural reactions to life events such as grief, fear, disappointment etc. Then there are feelings that may alert us to more serious issues such as suicidal feelings or deep, ongoing feelings of depression. In these cases, ensure that the student has access to support before they leave your group, such as a helpline and referral to psychological support. At such times you might want to check in with the student the next day and if need be, call a helpline yourself for advice, or the police if you have reason to believe the student may be in immediate danger.
 For information on the grounding process refer to Ken Mellor’s book, Inspiration, Meditation and Personal Wellbeing.
Article by Lisa Forde
Principal, Australian Centre for Holistic Studies and Meditation Australia Board member