Creating Space for Another

It was a question I hadn’t expected. I fumbled for an answer while another person at the table provided a more focused response. Now several days since this dinner conversation occurred, our discussion has stayed with me because of the importance of the insight contained in the brief exchange.

Four of us were having a friendly dinner and chatting about many topics in a somewhat random way. In the mix of topics, one of the people at the table – a high school football coach – asked a significant question. He began: “Sometimes, the kids talk to me about things I’m not sure how to handle. I’m not sure what advice to give them. I don’t want them to think I don’t take them seriously, but I just don’t know what to say. What should I do?”

It was clear that he was bothered by his inability to respond to the youth with whom he works. I suspect he and I are like many adults: we just don’t quite understand some of the pressures that impact youth and aren’t sure how to respond to problems that were simpler in a different era. We just don’t fully understand the complexities of their lives. After all, so many things are different than when we were in high school. At that moment, I reflected on how different life is for youth today than it was for me.

Another person at the table was able to add to the conversation in a more helpful way. “Don’t be concerned about what you’re going to say. Just listen and take it all in.” He went on to explain that often times the first thing that someone shares isn’t the real issue the person wants to share. The person may want to talk about something more significant but is testing to see if the listener is open and receptive of what may be shared. Having an answer or advice generally ends the conversation. That’s not helpful to the person with something deeper to share. Instead, simply try not to rush the conversation or add any opinion. By way of silence, a nod of the head, or brief encouraging comments, allow the other to know that you are listening and not judging what’s being said.

This approach is essentially used by counselors. A therapist knows that the when a client first begins to share, the first things said (often called “the presenting problem”) are not actually the heart of the matter. What’s said first is really just a starting place. It takes a while for most people to talk about what’s going on inside.

While this was a good perspective for my friend, the high school football coach, it’s an important perspective to have when supporting another person’s growth along a spiritual path. Having someone with whom to share thoughts, insights, and concerns is essential for spiritual growth and development. Through spiritual practice, meditation, and reading, we gain new insights and encounter richer dimensions of our lives. Sometimes these things are confusing, or isolating, or enriching. Talking about these experiences is an important aspect for growth and maturity. Yet, it can be difficult to find someone who will listen and accept our experience and insight for what it is.

Many times, people aren’t looking for advice or an answer. Instead, they want to be heard. It’s often helpful to simply be a witness to what is being said, to hold a safe and accepting space in which to receive what’s being shared. By creating and holding that space, by not responding with quick advice or an off-the-cuff resolution, we become witnesses to the other person’s journey toward wholeness and integration. That is a precious gift to give others.

As we continued to talk, my friend the football coach admitted that as a coach, he’s used to having answers that provide a clear direction. “When you throw the ball, do this; when you’re running a play, do that.” That’s the right thing to do as a coach. But there are other times when the best thing we can do for others is to listen and remain quiet. In doing so, the other comes to find the experience and thoughts shared are respected. In that process, growth can occur.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Grief: Remembering Forever

It was something he hadn’t experienced before. I was a bit surprised by that, but it’s probably not uncommon. He told me that at age 26, it was the first time he knew someone who had died. Of course, I know that my life was a bit unusual in this regard. By age 26, I had tended to the passing of more people than I could count, both from old age and sickness as well as from HIV/AIDS.

It was his grandmother who had passed. She was 97. “I didn’t know her well. She was a formal Southern woman whom we always addressed as ‘ma’am.’ She was kind to me, but I don’t feel like I really knew her. So, I’m not sure how I feel about her death.” He paused for a moment and then continued. “My father’s taking it hard. I don’t really know why. It was his mother, but she was 97. It’s not like we didn’t expect that she would die soon.”

Loss is something we all experience. The only way one comes to understand loss is to experience it. I wasn’t sure how to process my experience of multiple losses in my 20’s. It had taken a toll on me. That’s probably why I did my doctoral dissertation on bereavement. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was probably trying to sort out my own issues by doing research.

At the time I was doing my dissertation research – around 1989 and 1990 – the literature on bereavement was a bit different from today. At that time, there was still a general assumption that one would recover from loss. The work of object-relations psychoanalyst John Bowlby was popular. His contention was that most people, in about a year or so after the loss, would recover and re-integrate life in a new way without the person. Today, that’s not the prevailing opinion held in psychology about bereavement.

While it is true that people re-integrate their lives after a loss, the period of time can vary a great deal from one person to another and from one loss to another. There are many factors that come into play. My short-hand for this is to expect at least a year to get past some of the most challenging aspects of bereavement. But even though we are able to get on with life, the grief from the loss of someone significant in our lives really never ends. Instead, we just learn how to live with it.

Sometimes, occasions bring back the feelings of grief, like a birthday or holiday or anniversary. Other times, we’re caught very much off guard by having a vivid memory of the person who is long dead. There are times when a fragrance or aroma will bring back a memory or a particular food. Of course, songs have lots of memories, too. Even though my father’s been dead for twelve years, I can’t hear the Christmas carol, Angels We Have Heard on High, without hearing him singing in my ear. (Dad never had good pitch, but he loved to sing!)

I tried to explain some of these things to the young man. As I did, he had something of a blank look on his face. I knew he didn’t understand. He couldn’t. He hasn’t experienced it for himself.

I asked him if he and his father were able to talk about personal things. He said they could and that he always enjoyed talking with his father. I suggested that over the next year or so that he ask his father about how he’s doing with this very significant loss, to try to be there for his father and just listen. I suggested that he ask his father what he misses about his mother and the things that he thinks about. I noted that he shouldn’t be surprised if it’s odd little things that he calls to mind. That happens for most people.

I hope that this young man will be able to learn more about bereavement from his father’s experience of loss. That way, he may be more prepared for this process when he experiences it himself. When we talk about our losses and the experience of bereavement, we not only help ourselves but prepare others who will also experience grief throughout their lives.

I shared with him something I included in my dissertation – which is something I remind myself often about bereavement. It’s one of the important lessons I learned about bereavement during the days of the AIDS crisis. It’s the closing scene from Harvey Feinstein’s play, Torch Song Trilogy, where Ma says to Arnold, “Give yourself time, Arnold. It gets better. But, Arnold, it won’t ever go away. You can work longer hours, adopt a son, fight with me…whatever, it’ll still be there. But that’s alright. It becomes part of you, like wearing a ring or a pair of glasses. You get used to it and it’s good … because it makes sure you don’t forget.”

Grief: while we find ways to reorganize our lives without our loved ones who have died, there’s an ache that stays with us. It becomes part of us. It’s good. It makes sure we never really forget the life and the love we shared.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Caring for House Plants and Spiritual Practice

When people visit my home, they often comment about the plants growing in the various rooms of the house. They compliment me about how healthy the plants look and how well I must care for them. I accept the compliment but rarely do I share my secret to caring for house plants. I’ve learned it’s easier to simply accept the compliment than to try to explain my secret in caring for house plants. I stumbled onto this method a long time ago and I found that it works for me.

So what’s the secret? It’s really quite simple. Once a week, usually on Friday, whether the plants need it or not, I dose them all with water. I water all the plants enough so that water flows out of the bottom of each plant. When I see water coming out, I’m done with that plant and move to the next. They all get the same treatment. Once a week, each and every plant gets drenched.

Of course, this isn’t a good way to care for plants. While the plants that are in my home are resilient enough to do okay with this kind of treatment, most house plants don’t respond well to this kind of care. Only the hearty survive. When I see a new plant not doing well, I give it away so I don’t have to deal with it. The truth is: I’m not very good with house plants.

However, because some people think I do well with house plants based on seeing what they assume are healthy plants in my home, they sometimes give me exotic plants for gifts. Few of those plants remain in my home very long. My friends who are more careful than me about caring for plants typically end up with the more delicate varieties before I’ve had the chance to kill them.

My method to care for plants works for hearty varieties that will grow essentially anywhere, but it’s clearly wrong for plants that need particular care or special soil and food, like cacti, succulents, or most anything that blooms.

It may seem like a bit of a leap, but I find that people are much like house plants when it comes to the care of the soul. It’s not very helpful for people to get a good dose of spirituality or spiritual practice now and again and not much in between. I suspect many people already know that, particularly those who have been attempting to integrate spirituality with other aspects of their lives. Spiritual practice that supports our growth and integration requires that we take time to till the soil of our inner selves and water and fertilize our hearts on a regular basis. Perhaps that’s why I find so surprising that many books on prayer, meditation, and spiritual practice are not particularly helpful to most people. Many books, as well as the spiritual teachers who use them, recommend one approach or type of spiritual practice for all people. Recommending that everyone do the same spiritual practice is really a lot like how I care for house plants. What happens to the plants? Most varieties begin to die. Similarly, many people languish when forced into a mode of spiritual practice that isn’t right them.

I’m one of those people who find meditation to be a simple and relatively easy practice. I’m able to sit in silence and move to an inner sense of quiet without much difficulty. I also tend to be an introverted individual who enjoys solitude over groups of people. It’s part of my personality. This is probably how my brain is hard-wired. But many people aren’t like me. Others struggle with the spiritual practices which I find easy to do.

I have a very good friend whom I’ve known for over 25 years. He’s tried meditation but it’s like torture for him. But he’s naturally extroverted, very musical, and is very active physically. Even when standing in line, he’s likely to move around a bit like he’s dancing. Some time ago I suggested that he try yoga as a spiritual practice. Yoga’s been very helpful for him. He’s very kinesthetic and expressive with his body. He finds yoga to be a great way to move to an inner state of quiet. But for me, yoga is just exercise. He and I are very different when it comes to spiritual practice.

While I contend that the spiritual dimension of life is an essential part of every person, the way to best nurture the spiritual dimension may be very different for one person than for another. In one of my early books, The Good Road: The Journey Along a Spiritual Path, I discuss this at some length. I find it helpful for people to consider what’s been helpful in the past in terms of spirituality and how people have experienced “spiritual moments” in life. Those are clues to how we are naturally pre-disposed to the spiritual dimension of life.

While it can be important to experience new approaches to spiritual practice, for most people, the spiritual practices that connect most are often aligned with who we are. While some writers approach this topic from the perspective of personality type, I’ve found it more helpful to consider the model of neuro-linguistic programming and the way we process information and memories: visually, aurally, or kinesthetically. While psychology has various ways for explaining what makes us different from others, the important thing isn’t how we understand our uniqueness but that we acknowledge that it impacts the spiritual dimension of our lives. With that uniqueness in mind, we’ll understand that when it comes to spiritual practice, one size doesn’t fit all. Instead, we each need to utilize what’s most helpful to us for the care and nurturing of our spirits.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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