The Questionable Shambhala Practice of "Holding Space"
by Charles Carreon
As you know, Shambhala is now in a "time of groundlessness". Accordingly, cranking out comforting blather like a crisis-control webpage entitled, Resources for Helping our Sangha to Understand Current Events in Shambhala is the organization's only real job these days. So, if you search that page title, you'll find that almost all of the local Shambhala centers have posted a page with this title, followed by a series of links to Shambhala propaganda. Among those links is a podcast by Shante Paradigm Smalls who "began her formal Buddhist journey at 16 ... has been a Shambhala student since 2006" and is now one of the main teachers at New York Shambhala. Well, according to the short bio on The Black Scholar, "Shanté Paradigm Smalls is a scholar, artist, teacher, and writer who works at the intersection of blackness, popular culture, critical theory, and performance."
Ms. Smalls' podcast is hosted on the ny.shambhala.org subwebsite Meditation in the City with Shanti Small Holding Space, Healing Harm. So Shambhala central basically made it easy for their centers to spam this podcast out to all of their followers.
I've been listening to this podcast, and I can't say I'm getting any more clarity on what "holding space" is. So far, I'm 26 minutes into it, and I've learned a little bit about Ms. Smalls -- she plays with her phone when she doesn't want to talk with her lover ("partner"); she didn't feel like practicing when she read the Sakyong's non-confession back in June 2018; she pauses a lot when she's talking; she alternates between like gushes of devoted enthusiasm, self-revelatory statements, and attempts at profundity. Sample attempted profound statement: "I don't have a choice in whether or not I want to be a practitioner. I mean I do, but I ... don't."
At 29:00 minutes in, a questioner asks her to focus on what "holding space" means to her. He doesn't actually say, "Yo, the lecture topic, babe!" He's nice about it, and she answers:
So, since Shante Smalls is the Shambhala authority on this topic, we'll use her definition. Holding space means ... uhhh, well okay it's still a little vague, but let me try. Holding space seems to mean aborting your immediate reaction to a thought, feeling, or perception, and instead, "staying with that feeling." So let's practice. The car doesn't start. I feel angry. Instead of pulling out my phone and calling AAA for a tow, I stay with my anger. Gee, that doesn't seem very helpful. Let's try again. A clerk ignores my joke in the checkout line, preferring to engage the next person in line. I feel dissed. Ordinarily, I would just forget about it, and drive home, but instead, I sit in the parking lot, stare at the windshield, and stay with that dissed feeling. Hmmm, why would I want to do that?
Well, let's think a little harder. Ms. Smalls thinks that people tend to react negatively to mental unpleasantness, and then the "mind" or "brain," being a "problem-solver," gets all active with cognizing the nature of the problem, and goes to work solving it. Y'know, like "The Big Bad Wolf blew down my brother-pig's house of sticks and ate him. I'm going to build with bricks!" Obviously, when dealing with life and death problems, like the Big Bad Wolf, holding space could be deadly. "The Big Bad Wolf blew down my brother-pig's house of sticks and ate him. How do I really feel about that?" Ms. Smalls doesn't seem to consider that the real problem when dealing with a Big Bad Wolf is freezing from terror, and doing nothing to protect yourself. A better form of internal dialogue might be: "Okay, my brother-pig is dead, and not even a corpse to bury. I'm freaking out. But I need to get a grip. Think. Better building design is required. Resistant to wind. Where have I seen something like that?" If you think about the Buddha's approach to suffering, it was a "problem-solver" orientation -- he wanted to "end suffering," not "hold space" for it.
Interestingly, the nature of thoughts is not to stay. If you want to "stay with a feeling" or "stay with a thought," you actually have to keep it active in your mind. It's like playing with a ball. You stop moving it around, the game's over pretty quick. So I can see why they call it "holding space," because if you just let your thoughts go, pretty soon, you're on to another one. But if you want to make a big deal about something, you need to hold onto it. At the outset of the podcast, Ms. Smalls suggested that she was pretty bummed out about the Sakyong having "caused harm" by his "romantic" activities. Pretty soft euphemism for sexual abuse, drunkenly groping people, lying, misusing Shambhala funds, and all of the other things that we know he's done. Whatever we call it, when she found out about it, she felt a loss of faith, a loss of "practice motivation," and she told us that in the past, this kind of bummer could lead to a downward spiral that could lead to severe "self-harm." I'm thinking cutting herself, playing with needles? Sounds nasty, but also very up-to-date. Self-harm and self-care are very up-to-date topics.
The big danger, of course, comes from "not wanting to practice." Gee, let's think about that. This person who has been worshipping the Sakyong for thirteen years hears that the Sakyong is a drunken sexual abuser, and she doesn't want to do the meditations that the Sakyong taught her? Wow, that's too bad. As we know, given that she's been in the business so long, she must be doing "Sakyong Guru Yoga" by now -- visualizing this pervert as her sole refuge from the suffering of Samsara. The pure and deathless being who will be there for her today, tomorrow, on her death bed, in the bardo, and in her future lives!
Okay, so the thought, "The Sakyong is a fucking perv!" would naturally cause her a lot of pain. Got that. And the proper remedy for that pain would be to grab her copies of "The Lost Art of Good Conversation," "Rule Your World," and "Turning the Mind Into An Ally," and chuck them in the trash. The best thing to do would be to say, "Wow, I am fucking shocked that I have been sucked into this goddamned guru-worshipping bullshit cult. I feel like a goddamned idiot! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" She wouldn't have to exert any effort to "hold" that emotion, and she would be on her way to escaping from the Big Bad Wolf. Because that's the problem here. The Big Bad Wolf has in fact gobbled up a number of her sisters, and if anybody else had molested her sisters, Ms. Smalls would be all over them like stink on shit. After all, she's "the head of the Pillar of Protection," according to the New York Shambhala website: "Shante is also the Rusung or Area Protector of the Shambhala Center of New York City and is the head of the Pillar of Protection in NYC." What does a "Pillar of Protection" protect? The Space of the Teachings! Oh, and some people who might be in it, referred to as "the community that practices the teachings":
But you can see how difficult this would all be for Ms. Smalls. It is way too late for her to retract herself from Shambhala. It's part of her self-identity, and she has worked her way to the top of the Kasung heap in New York, and I am sure that required a lot of space-holding along the way. So she can't just throw all that away on a hairbrained scheme to protect "the community" from the Big Bad Wolf who is their Guru. She's just going to have to hold space and sit with that weird feeling of total dissonance you get when you find out that a person you can't cut out of your life is fucking you right up the keester. It's like having a job you can't quit. Like being in the Mafia, and the Boss tells you to murder your best friend. Now you gotta hold space, and hold it hard, because if it gets away from you, the Boss is not going to appreciate it. No whining.
The purpose of holding space is to hold on when you want to let go, and you should let go. Andrea Winn, creator of Buddhist Project Sunshine, might seem to come from the opposite end of the Shambhala gene pool, but the more you read her tepid expose, the more you realize that she is holding space, too. Here's how she explains it, and for me, it's clearer than Ms. Smalls' efforts to articulate the concept:
Andrea Winn wrote:
So Ms. Winn thinks that maintaining her love for a man whom she believes abused cocaine, women, and animals, committing "atrocities and betrayal" while predating on a loyal Sangha of believers who coddled him throughout his long, fraudulent career is to maintain "love, admiration and gratitude." This is, in fact, what a lot of Shambhala practitioners are doing. They turn their problem into a psychological conundrum. They tell themselves that the question for them is, "How do I handle this mentally?" Which is entirely the wrong question. They have a whole lifetime to meditate. The question is whether they're going to be working for an abusive system for the rest of their life. They don't need to find a way to be okay with that. They need to listen to their basic, self-protective intelligence that is telling them: "Get out!"