To my dear readers: Today’s newsletter about creating sacred space takes the place of the January 7 issue, as I’ll be traveling next week to see family. I’ll be back on a regular Tuesday schedule on January 21. I send you my heartfelt wishes for a joyful, meaningful, and healthy 2020. Happy New Year!
This Christmas Eve, we were invited by friends to a lovely party. I was enjoying the candlelight, the smoked salmon, and the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen, when I found myself in front of 25 people, wondering what to say.
One by one, each guest had drawn a prompt from the hat. Some of the prompts were funny. Some were deeply personal. Mine was daunting: “If you were ruler of the world, what would you do first?”
I stood there. I thought. Finally, I realized—
My silence was my answer
“If I were ruler of the world, the first thing I would do is think,” I said. And then I thought, “What an HSP thing to say!” This was a Christmas party, for heaven’s sake. But it’s our nature to be deep thinkers, and to crave space and silence for deep thinking. I know our “thinkingness” causes us problems sometimes. But it is also an incredible strength…and a much-needed one.
In that light, as the New Year approaches, I’ve found myself thinking about Elaine Aron’s idea that highly sensitive people are—or should be—the “priestly advisor class” of society. I have always been allergic to that “priestly advisor” title. I hardly see myself consulting with kings or presidents. And sadly, the very word “priest” makes me flinch now because I associate it with the countless sex abuse lawsuits that show up weekly in the newspapers here.
But I recently re-read Dr. Aron’s chapter from The Highly Sensitive Person on HSP spirituality, and I heard her words differently this time. She is trying to tell us that being “priestly advisor” means choosing to use our sensitive power to create sacred space. And she is explaining why this role is so important. This passage (page 214) particularly struck me:
Today, sacred spaces are quickly made mundane. They require great privacy and care if they are to survive. They are as likely to be created in the offices of certain psychotherapists as in churches, as likely to occur in a gathering of men or women dissatisfied with their religion as in a community practicing its traditions, as likely to be signaled by a slight change in topic or tone in a conversation as by the donning of shamanic costume and the outlining of a ceremonial circle. The boundaries of sacred space today are always shifting, symbolic, and rarely visible.
While bad experiences have caused some HSPs to reject anything striving to seem sacred, the majority feel most at home in such a space. Some almost spontaneously generate it around themselves. Thus, they frequently take on the vocation of creating it for others, making HSPs the priest class in the sense of creating and tending sacred space in these aggressively secular-warrior times.
Your very presence can help create sacred space
Dr. Aron has written and spoken at length about the deep silence she experiences in the room whenever she addresses a group of HSPs. I have felt this same silence and profound attention in my Focusing classes for sensitive people. HSP’s energy and attentiveness are quite different from a more typical audience.
Did you know that your very presence can help create sacred space? I ask because many of us are only vaguely aware of this gift we possess. And our lack of awareness prevents us from fully realizing our gift in the world. And what does it mean to “realize” our “priestly advisor” role in our lives, anyway?
Dr. Aron begins to answer that question herself in the quotation above, when she says that sacred spaces can “be signaled by a slight change in topic or tone in a conversation.” In other words, you don’t have to have an official title, or do anything grand or unusual. A subtle invitation to go deeper, to re-focus the conversation, to bring compassion to a discussion—these are examples of our power “to create and tend sacred space in these aggressively secular-warrior times.”
Dr. Aron is the first and by far the best-known champion of sensitive people. She defined the trait of high sensitivity, and has done more than anyone else to educate the world about it and to advocate for HSPs. But in my mind, we have a second, quieter champion.
Why Eugene Gendlin is a gentle warrior for HSPs
The HSP trait hadn’t been named yet when Eugene Gendlin did his seminal therapy research. So why do I mention him? Because this insatiably curious, dauntingly brilliant, and profoundly gentle philosopher and psychotherapist introduced Focusing to the world. And in my experience, Focusing stands out as an essential resource for inner work for HSPs.
Not only is Focusing powerful in itself: it synergizes with any inner work to make that inner work more powerful. What’s more, Gendlin generously and presciently chose to make Focusing “open source:” that is, he chose not to copyright the Focusing method. As a result, succeeding generations of practitioners— like me— have expanded the uses of Focusing in countless creative ways.
How do we create sacred space?
Most of us, including me, aren’t priests, or political counselors, or shamans. Outside these official roles, what does it mean to use our power to create sacred space? Remember what Dr. Aron said above: sacred space can be “signaled by a slight change in topic or tone in a conversation.” These are the moments when—
- You take time to check in with colleagues before starting a meeting
- You listen with quiet respect to something someone else has to say, making sure you’ve heard them before responding
- You notice heightened emotion in a friend’s voice as they mention an incident. You pause and say, “Something about that really moves you…”
Each of these moments is a small one. But pausing this way is a sacred act. And it can have a profound effect on our lives and the lives of people around us.
You may have observed that our sacred pauses start within us. And I don’t have to tell you that the territory of “within” is our HSP playground. We love to go inside, examine our feelings, and reflect upon meanings…and in this playground we find our power as change-makers.
Dr. Gendlin describes this inner process in Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy (pages 227-228). Read this slowly then read it again, because it is as profound as it is dense:
A new action changes the body because it requires a new manner of bodily experiencing. Inner difficulties will be experienced in a new and different way. A small act, therefore, insignificant in itself, has the potential to shift the whole inner complexity of a problem.
When we take even a small action—a pause, a word, a moment to quiet ourselves—our power to influence the world expands. Gandhi put it this way:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.
Our sensitive “beingness” is itself a priceless contribution. Being “priestly advisors” in 2020 means choosing to use our sensitive power to create sacred space. This power is not rare or elitist. On the contrary: we can use it anywhere, at any time. And we need to use it—for ourselves and for the world. If you’d like join my next Focusing 1 for Sensitive People course, email me and I’ll put you on the waiting list.
Image © 2019 Emily Agnew