Container Holding as a Hosting Practice

In the work and exploration of the Art of Hosting (AoH) Conversations that Matter we often talk about the container, creating the container, holding the container – but what does it mean, really? We tend to speak of it in the same breath as hosting, as if it is the same thing.  But, is it?

In preparation for a gathering of sixty five AoH Stewards from thirteen countries that took place in Minnesota in October 2013, Jerry Nagel, Stephen Duns, Bob Wing and I became deeply curious about what it would take to hold a dynamically complex field that included three breaths of Art of Hosting – founders, early adopters and new or emerging stewards, many of whom did not know each other and had never met in person – who were holding, each in their own way, many similar questions percolating in local fields around the world, centering on what it means to be a global self-organizing system.

panoramic photo of circle

We began a series of calls to see what we could learn about container holding that we could apply at the Stewards Gathering, recognizing that some who would be holding the container would not be present in person but would be holding from the rim – wherever they happened to be geographically located.  For our inquiry, we separated out container holding, design and hosting recognizing they often are intertwined, happening together at the same time and that they are distinct in and of themselves.  It was – and is – rich learning.

Container holding is part of the subtle arts.  It is metaphysical, meaning of or relating to things that are thought to exist but cannot be seen. So much of what we pay attention to in hosting, beyond process, people and design, is the invisible – the energetics, consciousness.  It is why we have offerings of Hosting from a Deeper Place or the Art of Hosting the Subtle.

The invisible is alive all on its own and it shows up in the physical in group dynamics, ease or tension, flow or disruption, to name just a few ways it manifests.  We know that in any offering that is co-hosted, the frequency of the team is also alive in the field.  When the team has challenges within, those challenges show up in the larger field.  When the team has an ease of relationship, infused with trust (and usually joy), this also shows up in the field.  What is in the team is reflected back to the team.  A well connected, trustful, aligned team – which does not mean members all think alike – can hold the larger field from a place of trusting what wants to emerge and not be knocked off balance when challenges spark – at least not so off balance that they cannot recover.  The more coherent the team, the deeper they can host and the more process will flow through them rather than the team trying to control design or over-design.

Container holding might look inactive whereas design and hosting might look more active.  When we are hosting, it doesn’t mean we ignore elements of the metaphysical or subtle realms – although we are often not full intentional or conscious about it.  Attention to the metaphysical or subtle realms can also be a sole component of container holding. You can be a container holder and not be in a visible hosting role.

In the work we do, the container can be porous or permeable – and given it is metaphysical in nature that would likely hold to be true all the time.  When the container is held with the crystal clear energy of intention, this intention infuses the field and what happens as much as, and sometimes more than, design does. The hosting can be flexible, which is what we always advocate –  with a willingness to be disturbed or disrupted, trusting the chaordic path – chaos can be good, especially as we learn to sit with it until a natural sense of order emerges. If the intention is strong and held with clarity, disturbance can lead to emergence.  When the intention is less clear, disruption can lead to chaos with no pathway back to order. It is important to not be attached to design, to hosting or to process  – to hold it lightly – which is simply good hosting practice at the best of times.  We can ask the question, what does the container need to be infused with to hold chaos and disruption so it is of service to what wants to happen? It could be different depending on what is the work we are about.

A well held container invites coherence into the field. Coherence is a frequency. When we tune into the frequency we can host it into being to allow or invite it to become present, or more present – like when we hold tuning forks up to each other, they pick up the frequency of each other and become entrained.  How do we grow coherence without control, to celebrate different thinking, recognizing it can all be aligned with a common purpose and clear intention?  Is this not our work as hosts?

Container holding is part of hosting – especially when we are intentional about it.  And container holding has its own energy, its own path and its own coherence.  So much more to explore.  We are deep in our learning.  And how beautiful is that?

Generosity – Guest Post by Bob Wing

“To be generous means giving something that is valuable to you without expectation of reward or return. Many traditions measure generosity not by the size of the gift, but by what it cost the giver.” 

Give me your heart

For awhile I have been pondering the topic of generosity, wanting to share some reflections – and I might still do that.  However, in the meantime, I am delighted to share reflections from my good friend Bob Wing, Warrior of the Heart Sensei and Art of Hosting Steward.  I resonate with much of what he wrote in response to an email thread on this topic and delight in how he is sharing his reflections through story.

I asked him if he would be willing to guest blog here on Shape Shift and he agreed.  He is my very first guest blogger and this is what he wrote:

I have some experiences and thoughts I would like to share, though they raise more questions for me than answers. 

A true story about generosity:

I learned something of generosity years ago, in a liquor store. I was in the check out line to buy some good beer. I remember it as being Guinness Stout. There happened to be two men in front of me, also waiting. One of them, a Native American (most likely a Lakota), asked me what kind of beer I had and what it was like. Well, you can’t really just tell someone what Guinness is like, so with a great sense of generosity and a very good feeling about myself, I gave him one.

It surprised me how reluctant he was to accept my gift. It actually took some coaxing. Finally he would only accept it if I would receive one of his Coors beers in return. Compared to Guinness, I find Coors quite anemic and I didn’t really want it.  In that moment, however, I realized that genuine generosity lay in me letting him give me something in return … a trade …not a gift… and then he could leave without a feeling of obligation to me. My real generosity was in accepting his equality by allowing him to give me something in return. 

Another true story about generosity:

In the early 1980’s I knew of a small group of very respected Lakota medicine people who had been invited to tour places in Europe to bring their “medicine” and to lead healing ceremony for whomever wanted to come. Their travel had been paid by sponsors but by tradition they could not/would not receive any money for their work. Medicine, both physical and spiritual, is held to be a gift and not a business.

The problem arose when most everyone who came saw it as being “free” and failed to offer gifts in return. While the medicine people could not “charge”, they did expect (this also by tradition) that their generosity would be met with material generosity in return. A medicine person does, after all, also need to support his life and his family, so it is important there be a way to do that, or the medicine/generosity-based culture crumbles. In their traditional culture everyone understands this and so are as generous as they can be in return.

 What finally happened was that after continually not getting anything in return the “medicine stopped flowing”. They perceived not getting anything worthy in return as being neglected, devalued, and even insulted. They stopped doing anything real. I think it was a misunderstanding of cultures, not so much of Native American and European, as of business culture and gifting culture misunderstanding each other.

 Some ideas on generosity: 

Gift culture is based on openness to a return and business culture is based on demanding a return, though maybe they are not really so different in essence. In both, if the return is not at least of some equality, then each will soon stop functioning–the medicine will stop flowing. 

 However, the language and gesture of each seems to be so very different. Maybe the difference involves who is perceived as having responsibility for seeing to the equity. In a gift culture, the responsibility for equity of the return is usually with the receiver of the medicine, and in business culture the responsibility for the equity of a return is usually with the giver of the medicine.

 Also, I think that business culture tends to promote separateness and gift culture tends to support relatedness. In our culture, business culture seems most dominant, though I suspect that the basis for keeping a sense of relatedness, even in business, is actually an expression of gift culture. It may come from the sense most humans have of needing to be related to others. 

 Personal awareness of generosity:

I am aware that I am in love with gift culture and I suspect most of us are. I love being generous as I suspect most of us do. I love having the means to be generous in all ways, although I don’t always seem to have these means. It’s a quandary.

A big problem for me sometimes comes in my skillfulness to communicate my needs in a culture where people most often seem to act as though it is either “free” or it “costs”, maybe similar to the essence of the problem the Lakota Medicine people had. When I sense that I’m not in some way being gifted enough in return, my “medicine” stops flowing. I don’t like it when that happens. I search for good ways to travel between these two. I like the saying I’ve heard many times before and have really taken to heart, “I don’t work for money, but I do accept money for my work.”

And this, to me, is some of the crux of what we meet up with when the work we do is for the good of ourselves and others, to shift the shape of patterns that no longer serve and generate new patterns that serve us better.  How do we value this important work in the world and not feel embarrassed or awkward about being paid well for the work?  What is the spirit of generosity and reciprocity that creates expansion and openings for things to flow in the best of ways and continues to make what we offer widely available, recognizing various capacities to be financially generous and knowing that generosity shows up in other ways too?

Thank you, Bob Wing, for your willingness to have your reflections shared here.

Hosting Lessons from the Field – Part 2

How many of us have had the opportunity to enter into hosting a day or a training (Art of Hosting style) without any design for the day, completely sensing into what is needed in the moment and fluidly dancing with five other hosts with offerings to meet what was emerging in the field moment by moment?  How would you meet that invitation?  Excitement? Trepidation? Both and anything in between?

It is one thing to do this on your own or with one other person as Bob Wing and I did last summer in work we’d been invited into that turned into Hosting Ceremony.  It is a whole other thing to do it with a new hosting team  constellation of six of us on the third and last day of working together – in this case for the first Warrior of the Heart training completed in Brazil in January 2012.

Warrior of the Heart is the work of Toke Moeller and Bob Wing coming out of many opportunities they had to jam together combining Art of Hosting and Aikido practices and principles.  Playing together they imagined Warrior of the Heart training into being.  I’d participated in a couple of Warrior of the Heart trainings – on Bowen Island in August 2010 and then at Windhorse Farm in Nova Scotia just this last October, 2011 with my 9 year old son.  I’d also had the chance to work with Bob where Warrior of the Heart became a component of the Art of Hosting training we were delivering.

In September 2011, after the Art of Hosting training in Porto Alegre, Brazil that I’d been co-hosting, Thomas Ufer, Najara Thamiz and I sat down with Jose Bueno and crafted an invitation to Bob and Toke to bring Warrior of the Heart to Brazil for the first time to seed the field for more and build the ground for the amazing expansion of the Art of Hosting and social change movements happening there.

Working with a larger hosting team for a training the two of them were used to offering on their own invited Bob and Toke to some new learning edges. They invited the rest of us to go there right along with them.  There was already a huge reservoir of trust in our hosting field even before we began. We built on it during our preparation and hosting time together.  On our last day, it was Toke who invited us into the dance of hosting together without an agreed to advance plan.

I felt in me my own skepticism at the invitation which arrived after morning practice, before breakfast, where we had actually invoked this flow already.  I really wasn’t sure how it would work and whether we would all find our own place to play in this day – but I was willing to step into the challenge – because with this team there was nothing to lose and lots to gain.

As the six of us stood in a tight circle on the stone patio outside the training building, a staff was in the centre with the challenge of who would take it first and offer something to the group to begin our day.  Silence.  A deep collective breath or two.  I could feel the tremble in me.  Another breath and then I reached for the staff.

I had been preparing during our time together to do a teach with the sword – in this case the wooden representation of the sword – a bokken.  Bob had been coaching me.  Perhaps because I was preparing to step into the challenge of a teach on something I was still very much learning myself, I had taken Bob’s feedback and coaching in in a whole new way, embodying the teaching and the sword movements with more fluidity and confidence than I ever remembered feeling.  I had been preparing for a teach and this was apparently the moment it would be offered.

I started the teach – the four directions – and forgot how to do the step to turn from one direction to another.  Without being hard on myself, I asked Bob to step in and help — and he did because he had my back.  All six of us had each other’s backs and none of us needed to shine or take up too much space and yet we were all invited to offer our brilliance when we felt the call.

It was the beginning of a rich dance that included all six of us throughout the day.  The experience was playful and fun and ended with a touching and powerful ceremony.

Raising the Sword in the Warrior of the Heart (Brazil 2012) Closing Circle

The willingness to let go of control and design flowed into the Brazil Stewards Gathering that followed the Warrior of the Heart – in its own way and to its own degree because, of course, the team and the circumstances were different.  But the fluidity of the dance was just as hesitant and joyful in its own way.

I’ve been reflecting on what makes this kind of dance possible?  One is definitely trust in the individuals and the collective of the team – knowing that each individual is there to serve the good of the whole and with no need to shine on an individual basis – although, as I mentioned above, of course each person does shine because of the gifts they have to offer in service of the whole.

A sense of knowing when what I have to offer as an individual is exactly what is needed now.  This is a complete dance with the subtle energies, with intuitive capacity.  The courage to offer it when it is called.  A certain level of trust or confidence in my own skills and abilities.  A willingness to let other people shine in their mastery or even in their apprenticeship.

It takes a certain level of maturity in each individual, the team and even in the field.

Would I want to completely free flow it every time?  I don’t think so.  Every situation requires us to be tuned into what is wanting and needing to happen.  Different situations will call out different things. And many situations invite a free flowing of design and offerings to different degrees.  I and we are already practiced with working with emergence.   Practicing to this degree honed my skill and my sensing capacity and invited me into new levels of mastery.  It is embodied in a new way.  It will always be with me – and with each of us.

Having had the opportunity to host immediately after this experience, I know it’s in me in a new way and for that I am grateful.  Looking forward to the next opportunity to dance in the ultimate emergent design – and to all the other variations of that that will show up along the way.  Thanks Toke for the invitation and to Thomas, Narjara, Jose and Bob for being willing to dance the beautiful dance that shifted the shape of my hosting experience to new depth.