I learned what a safe space is from an elderly gentleman who recently joined the yoga studio. The first time I met him he sat on the sofa and talked, about himself, the entire time I was trying to check students in. I was rather annoyed and, when he promised to finish a story after class, I made myself scarce. As I now understand, the first story he told me was all I really needed to know to watch how the studio transforms people.
The story went like this –
He was about 7 or 8 and it was Halloween. His father came home from work and disappeared into his bedroom. When he came out he looked like a bum. He grabbed his sons’ basket and off he went, trick or treating throughout the neighborhood. He was brought home about an hour later by the police, who politely asked his wife to reign him in, as he was scaring the neighbors. Laughing, his father replied that had been his intent. There were new neighbors he had not yet met. He knew everyone else would laugh at his costume and shoo him away. The new neighbors though called the police, believing him to be a real bum, and potentially dangerous.
The message of the story was that his father was a jokester and a funny guy. He stated that this was who/what he aspired to be. In the weeks that followed he told some really funny stories, proving he had achieved his goal.
He was notorious by the end of his first week with us. He had shared many stories with many people. He came 30 minutes before class and sat on the sofa, or at a table, entertaining (& Sometimes annoying!) us.
As enjoyable as most of his stories were, he presented a challenge. His determination to be funny had him cracking jokes all through class. This was especially difficult because the classes he took were usually restorative or gentle, classes students attend to mellow out. In addition to annoying teachers and other students, his comments often bordered on inappropriate. He was a young man in the ’60’s and is now a teacher at a local university. I’m not sure which is more influential, but both lend heavily to his sense of humor, which can be raunchy at times.
By the end of his second week the staff was discussing what to do with him. Everyone agreed that whatever actions we took needed to be subtle enough that he still enjoyed coming to the studio, and got the benefits of the practice. Fortunately for us, he figured it out himself.
His favorite teacher came out of a class with him 3 weeks into his membership and she was beaming. I assumed he’d said something especially funny in the class and she couldn’t wait to tell us. In fact, it was the opposite. He had been in a pose, about to make a joke, when he stopped. He looked at the teacher and said “I don’t need to do that here, do I. It’s probably detracting from the practice”. The teacher nodded and smiled, and with that, he stopped cracking jokes during class. He also cut way back on his story telling, which is both a blessing and a curse. Some of his stories were really funny, but as employees we do need to work!
He came in Sunday night when I was working and asked me how I was doing. While most people would get the standard “great, how are you”, I knew that he sincerely wanted to know how I was doing. So I told him. I told him about my falls and my plethora of injuries. He told me not to worry, that I still had a beautiful face, but said little else before class. On his way out he patted me on the head and said “take care of yourself. This is a really special place; a safe space. And that is because of people like you. So take it easy and take care of yourself”. With that he was off.
With that he taught me the true meaning of a “safe space”. This is a buzz word these days. Schools try to create “safe space”, people talk about “safe space”, and the debate about the necessity of safe spaces is often heated and contentious. What I learned from this man is that “safe space” is not about feeling ok honoring your sexuality, or your ideology, or some other characteristic that might be viewed as a “flaw” by our mainstream culture. A safe space is a place in which you shed your outer shell when you enter.
He learned, quickly, that he did not have to be funny to be accepted and loved. We all have these things about us, the aspects of our personality that the yoga world calls our “stories”. His story was “I have to be as funny as my father to be as good of a man as he was”. In shedding this story he became the genuine, fabulous person he was actually meant to be. And yes, he is still funny, but he no longer feels the stress of being funny. He is relaxed, he tells stories if he is in the mood and is quiet if not in the mood. We can all see a physical difference.
I’ve been thinking about this, especially in reference to my middle son. He was a dog walker from an early age, so he had disposable income. While half of his income went into his college spending account, the other half he chose how to spend. In the early years he spent it on junk at Five Below. It took him less than a year to figure out that if he saved his discretionary money he could buy something worthwhile. He set his sights on a laptop and, within a year, he’d saved the money and purchased one. I believe he was 12 at this time. Over the next 4 years he’d purchased 2 more laptops, learned to take them apart and upgrade components and, most importantly, taught himself 5 different programming languages. All before he turned 18. Naturally when he went to college he declared himself a Computer SCience major.
This would have been fine, except he is really smart. How many of us figure out, at age 20, that we are headed down a path that won’t make us happy? Not many. All of his friends are in their Senior year of college and convinced that they will be happy with the career path they’ve chosen. My son though, he realized at the beginning of his sophomore year that he did not want to be a Computer Scientist. This realization, this dissolution of the story he’d been living, led to a overhaul. Some might call it a break down, I call it a reassessment.
As much as I tried to assure him that he is ahead of the curve, he remains upset. He compares himself to his friends who are getting ready to graduate and “live out their dreams” and decides he is less than. Even though he is working a good job, with regular promotions, and is attending community college, he is still mystified. How did this happen, he thinks? He spent what in his mind were his formative years pursuing a dream he no longer wants. I wish I could convince him that most of his friends will go through the same process. The difference is that they will be 40, married, have 2 kids and a mortgage, and they will be stuck. They will be forced to live out the story they created as a teenager, whether they are happy or not.
What will his story be? How does a 20 year old rewrite a story he isn’t aware he’d written? I wish I knew. I wish it was as easy for him as it was for the gentleman who taught me the true meaning of safe space.
My story was that I am “practically perfect”. This is what I was called – until I went off the rails at age 14; different story. When I finished college, then graduate school, I realized I did not want to use the degrees I had earned. I went to work as a secretary in a Human Resource Department. Because I was “practically perfect” I worked my ass off. I revamped most of the procedures, I wrote training & orientation programs, and I gave compelling reports in staff meetings. I was quickly promoted. I continued to get promotions and better wages, I married and quickly became the perfect wife and the perfect mother. I was living my story. I was living my story well too! My home was immaculate, my career was thriving, my children were always impeccably dressed and fed, and I even found time to work out every day. Until the day I fell apart. Until the day my story bit me in the ass.
Over the past 4 years I have shed my story. I have let go of the idea that I can be “perfect”. In fact, I’ve come to the realization that it is a ridiculous standard to strive for. Rather than cleaning my bathroom or cooking a great meal, I am reading, and doing yoga and crafts. For the first time since I was about 7, I am being authentic. I am genuinely me; or at least becoming the genuine me. I’m also honest about my failures at work. Initially I got very upset whenever I screwed something up. Now I laugh about it. Or I shrug, think about the things I did right, and go on with my day. In shedding my story I’ve grown into who I really am, who I want to be, perhaps who I really was all along.
Now, because I am no longer striving to live a story that wasn’t really mine, I am happy more often than not. Sure, I have my moments, but most who know me would agree – I am a different person, an authentic person, a genuine person. My physician’s all agree the change has been tremendous for my body. Shedding the stress that comes with the story has allowed my body to begin the healing process.
I now wonder about the “safe spaces” being created all around our country. Are they really safe spaces, or are they places that encourage people to be their story, to live their story, to reinforce and strengthen their story. In not questioning their thoughts, behavior, attitudes and characteristics, aren’t the inadvertently reinforcing what might be a fake story? Fake News?
I don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is that as yogi’s say, we are not our story. We created our story, but it is not who we are. We must look much deeper than our story to find out who we really are. In doing so, we become the genuine person we strive to be. How cool is that?