It’s an episode we’ve all been waiting for and Rachael and Elizabeth are hanging out with a dream guest: Amy Wright Glenn! Amy Wright Glenn earned her MA in Religion and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She taught for eleven years in The Religion and Philosophy Department at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey earning the Dunbar Abston Jr. Chair for Teaching Excellence. Amy is a Kripalu Yoga teacher, (CD)DONA birth doula, hospital chaplain, Birthing Mama® Prenatal Yoga and Wellness Teacher Trainer and a regular contributor to PhillyVoice wherein she writes on mindfulness, spirituality, parenting, ethics, birthing, and dying.
Amy is the founder of the Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath, and Death and the author of Birth, Breath, and Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula and Holding Space: On Loving, Dying, and Letting Go.
Amy talks about how air and breath help her to hold space and be present for others in birth, in death, and in life. Amy, Rachael, and Elizabeth also discuss how our own breath is the best teacher on being more present and how Covid-19 has affected our views on breath and the sadness we are all experiencing due to not being able to share breath with others.
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This episode was so important to us and so powerful that we wanted to it be available in written form as well. Below you will find a full transcript of our conversation with Amy Wright Glenn.
Rachael: Welcome to this week's episode of Everyday Thin Places. I'm Rachel Gallagher and I'm an interfaith hospice chaplain.
Elizabeth: And I'm Elizabeth Varaso and I'm a birth doula.
Rachael: And in each episode of Everyday Thin Places. We draw from our experiences, supporting birthing people and dying people to explore with honesty, authenticity, and humor, how we can all become more truly living people.
Elizabeth: This is an episode that we've been talking about and hoping for since before we actually even had a podcast. In this episode, we fulfilled one of our major goals for this project. We got to talk with Amy Wright, Glenn, which is really a dream come true.
Rachael: It is. Amy is the embodiment of this podcast in human form. Amy is a birth doula, a hospital chaplain, a yoga instructor, and an author who writes and teaches about mindfulness, spirituality, parenting, ethics, birthing and dying. Amy is the founder of the Institute for the Study of Birth Breadth and Death. And we are so grateful that she joined us to talk about the beauty and power of air and how air plays an important role in birth in death and in life.
Elizabeth: We hope you enjoy listening to our conversation with Amy Wright Glenn, as much as we enjoyed recording it.
Rachael: Amy Wright Glenn. It is such a tremendous honor to have you as a guest on our podcast. In a lot of ways, your training and experience represent all of the best of what both Elizabeth and I have to offer rolled up into one person. And, to add onto that, you have this whole third area of expertise in your training and your experience as a yoga instructor. And so we are just thrilled to have you with us and so, so excited to share you with our listeners. And I would love to just kind of start by having you talk a little bit of a concept that is really a big focal point in your books and in your teachings.
So we've read some of your writings and Elizabeth has been really involved in some of your trainings and classes. And we love this concept of "holding space", but can you, you just share a little bit with our listeners about what you mean when you talk about "holding space" and what does that look like in practice? Like what are you actually doing when you're holding space?
Amy Wright Glenn: Thank you. First of all, thank you so much for that warm-hearted introduction. It made my cheeks a little flushed to hear you say that again. I'm grateful. I'm the one I feel who's honored and grateful to be a part of your, your project. So thank you for welcoming me.
And when it comes to holding space, that that is a deep question. Yeah. And I think it's similar to a question, if you had asked a person. "Well, what does it mean to be present? What does it mean to be compassionate? What does it mean to be mindful? What does it mean to show up, what does it mean to be wakeful?"
And so those qualities that I've just highlighted are other descriptors I've used in my work to help people understand what the term holding space refers to. For me, I'm not the one who originated this term, it didn't originally come from my scholarship or work. But when I came upon it through the work of Heather Platt, who's a Canadian author, I found myself really resonating.
And then when I read more about companioning with, through the work of Alan Wolfelt based in Colorado, I also deeply resonated. So in my own scholarship and writing, I pulled from these sources and my own experience to define holding space as showing up to what is with compassion and presence.
So, I mean, what I mean by that is if I'm with my son and he's playing trucks or doing puzzles with me, that I actually am present to that, that my phone's put away that my mind is focused on this moment with him. Not as if I'm rigid, but just softly present conscious, connected, and compassionate to what shows up.
So talking about a hard moment or a funny moment, or a story that, that I can bring compassion to what showing up and I can bring my presence to this moment. And most of us do it pretty well when the moments are positive and easygoing and joyful, but it's harder to hold space when moments are difficult or there's physical or emotional pain, or there's a distress or fear or anger.
And I think it's partly because we don't practice it. Partly because our culture tends to push those things away. Partly because children aren't allowed often to feel those things they're sent to the room, if they feel those things. So we don't have a way to navigate so well because we haven't been practiced at it, but also because it means we have to expand beyond the pain and bring compassion to harder edges. And that's not easy when we want to run from it. I think our bodies tend to want to run away from those edges instead of engage them.
And then we certainly wouldn't require or ask anyone to hold space for actual danger. You know, if I'm getting attacked in the parking lot of a mall and someone's coming up to hit me, I'm not going to turn with compassionate presence and allow it to happen.
But that compassion for myself and the presence of mind to notice threat - hopefully it will give me the courage I need to respond. Even if that means in a defensive way. To respond to protect my own life and, hopefully catch it before it's right on top of me.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So Rachel and I both have experience to some degree with holding space, myself as a birth doula, which you know about, and she, as a hospice chaplain, which you also know about. But part of what we were thinking of when we put this series together, - I guess when I think about holding space, I also think of it as we're, we're creating room for people to breathe room for them to breathe deeply. And all the ways that, that this is symbolic of, just being in a safe space. So, you know, I'm used to having this profound, beautiful experience of watching people, watching babies, fill their air with lungs for the first time for their first breath. And Rachel is ushering people towards death when that air is going to pass from their lungs for the last time.
But when we think about breath, which we want this to be a part of a series where we're talking about the power of air and, and of breath - I think you're our dream guest for this because you have experience witnessing those first breaths, witnessing those last breaths and that you also help to guide people, to use air and breath during all their days in between, in order to live richer and kinder and more compassionate lives.
So. When you think of the power of air and when you think especially about air as being an essential element for sustaining human life - When and how did you come to understand how important and how powerful it is for us as humans to have that holding space room? And to breathe and to be able to pay attention to breath and how that rhythm of pulling air into our lungs and pushing it back out of our bodies could be such a transformative, powerful thing to pay attention to?
Amy Wright Glenn: Well, first let me thank you both for the good you do in the world - for being present at those threshold points of birth and death. It's very moving and powerful to hear you describe your work and your partnership together. And this project is beautiful. So beautiful.
For me, with regard to breath , I would say that there's this mystical element to awakening perspectives that recognize that what we're seeking we already have. So in other words, if I were to tell a group of people, or if someone told me "Amy, there's a really conscious wakeful, thoughtful person living in, I don't know, Prince Edward Island right now in Canada, and this person would, you know, offer ideas and she, or he walks around their yard and you can go talk to them. And they're just so smart and so fun and so awake and so alive. It's really worth it to just go and spend 10 minutes with this person."
And, you know, a lot of people do travel to be with teachers who they might think of as mentors or guides or connectors, right. And I think there's something beautiful about that yet that the greatest teacher I've come to see, one of the greatest teachers I've come to see, is my own breath and the breath within each one of us. Because that is the link to presence right now. What makes this moment present can be more fully opened if I'm aware of my inhale and exhale.
Because I can only breathe now. I'm not breathing the past. I'm not breathing the future. The breath rides, the present moment, linking past, future, every moment there's in and out in and out. This rhythm of presence. So no matter how wise the teacher may be out there, the breath is a constant teacher from the moment, as you said, a baby's born until the death of the human body this bridge exists. This teacher exists. This presencing exists. And if I can bring my attention to it, and notice and pause and feel into the wonder that there's life in this body right now. And I can be grateful and connected and curious about, well, "what does that mean for me? Where am I supposed to put my energy? Or where do I feel called to put my energy."
Honoring my breath as a source of presencing. I feel that in that sense, we don't need to travel far and wide to find " guides or mentors or teachers." And not that these folks can't help me and they have, but really the most powerful presencing I've known is the, the connection I feel to love.
When I'm in the presence of someone I love and the experience of love my breath fills. There's this sense of, Oh, I want to breathe this in. I don't want to miss a second of this. I want to be fully awake to this. This is so precious. And the heart lifts, the chest opens the belly expands. It's the body wanting to take it in.
And I think that for me, that awareness began to dawn when I started meditation practice in my teen years. And really sitting in the quietude of, of calming the outward senses and closing the eyes as I'm doing now, as I speak to you and letting the face muscles soften in the spine elongate and the belly soften and breathing into the body with wakefulness helped me see that, wow, I actually can access some of these deeper states just here in my bedroom. Sitting in my bed as a 16 year old person breathing. Wow. How amazing, how amazing.
Rachael: Well, Amy, I feel like this is - the idea of breath is timeless. We're always breathing, like you said, from our first breath until our last. But also I feel like it's a topic that is especially timely right now as the world is grappling with COVID-19 and the way that, that, that affects the respiratory system. There's a lot of talk about breathing. And I'm wondering if that focus on the lack of breath has affected your practice at all. Has affected how you care for people in today's world. You know, with everything that is going on surrounding this virus.
Amy Wright Glenn: Hmm. That's such a good question. Well, I have two thoughts that come to me. And one is that my teaching and for many teachers, this is true, has shifted to a virtual platform completely right now. I don't teach, outside of, you know, being with my son and connecting to him as a mom, in and in person right now. And, there's a real sadness for me about that because yeah, I really love the presence of being in the same space of, of people who are learning with me. So there's some grief. Yeah. I'd want to speak to the breath relating to grief.
But at the same time, what COVID-19 has inspired me to reflect on is how intimate breath is. And I've never really thought of it that way. So here we have a disease that transmits primarily through water vapor or droplets, you know, like these little aerosols that we don't even know we emit around us in speech and especially when we shout and sing and indoors when there's not a lot of crosswind movement. So being outside and biking with friends, I feel comfortable. But if I haven't gone to like someone's home for dinner and sat at their table and months because it doesn't feel safe.
And the reason it doesn't feel safe is because the sharing breath. But I've always thought of breath as very informal. That is not something that's so private because it hasn't carried this threat. And, certainly there've been airborne diseases that are dangerous. But something that's so contagious and worldwide and spread so quickly has made me, maybe has helped me reflect on the intimacy of breath. Because you know, like sexual fluid is intimate. That's clearly intimate. And so diseases that transmit through intercourse or sex have been talked about, you know, in public spaces. Be mindful, use protection, you know, don't have unprotected sex.
So I think we're used to, as a culture thinking of the body in that way as private or intimate. But breath is something - you know, I go sing with people. We go Christmas, caroling. We go to church. You know, I teach school. My son would go to school. Our Cub Scouts our, Aikido - all the things we did now suddenly, "Oh, they're not in our bubble. They're not in that intimate space." And suddenly my breath is something that could hurt someone if I'm not mindful.
And, so I have to be mindful of protecting myself and others. I don't know if this makes too much sense, but I've been really intrigued with this idea that breath can be an intimate, part of life. And that is something right now that people are being asked to contain within their families, whereas before it hadn't been. So there's grief for me around this disease and also reflections on breath in a really different way than I've ever, you know, reflected on it before.
Elizabeth: Yeah. What you're saying is striking so much. I think when Rachel and I were together last, I had just spent the morning with my family at the zoo. And I said, said, I told her "Rachel it was so sad." I mean, I said zoos are always a little sad. But it just felt sad to be out with people and that we couldn't share breath with each other, that we have the sense of keeping distance.
And it did make me think about breath and air and the way that even just, they carry the vibrations of sound. You mentioned singing together. There's this way that breathing is a communal thing. That our breath and sharing air is, is a part of us belonging to each other. And it's very difficult to not belong to each other in that way.
One sort of consolation that I've discovered is that I like to think of trees as breathing. You know, the trees that the living plants of our earth take the carbon dioxide that we put off and they turn it back into oxygen for us. And so it's been essential for me and my wellbeing to have some time where, since I can't be around people, I need to go be around the trees. Because I can safely share breath with that and feel that connectedness to the earth.
But I think that this has pushed us to sort of have to re-examine some of our most primal parts of mourning what we can't share with each other. And how can we connect in other ways?
And one thing I appreciate so much about you is that I think of you - and hopefully people will hear you and read your book and, and tap into other resources where they can know more of your story - but I think of you, you mentioned that as a 16 year old discovering meditation. Discovering the power of your breath. And that you had the boldness as a teenage person to start to look for wisdom in all of the world's faith traditions in ways that most of us sort of hover into our comfortable faith traditions of our family origin. And so you are, I think, a renowned expert, I'm going to call you that in understanding, meaning making in birth and death, and the meaning of breath and life across many faith traditions.
So I wonder if there are beliefs about air or breath in particular, or first breaths and last breaths, across other wisdom traditions that you find particularly fascinating.
Amy Wright Glenn: Oh, I love that question. And let me just say I'm a perpetual student. Always. I'm constantly learning and reading and I love reflecting on how one theme, let's say the theme of fire or the theme of the hero or the stories that relate to water, and you know, maybe monsters in water and how those stories, those themes appear in many cultures around the world at different times. And what are some of the common ways they are used. You know, if there is a common motif or if they are unique in every culture.
I love the study of what Ken Wilber, who's a philosopher I admire refers to as "deep versus surface structures." And the deep structures would be the things that are constant, nearly constant let's say throughout human society. That we all have one liver and not 10 livers. There's not a culture that suddenly exists that have, you know, 10 different livers. We have one liver we have by and large, most people have, you know, 10 digits on their hands and feet. And there's definitely anomalies, but the anomalies aren't that striking compared to the common features. And in culture too, there's common features. It would be nearly impossible, I imagine to find a human culture that didn't have some form of art or some form of music. But, how it sounds and what it looks like that can vary.
So we all breathe. And I think people have noticed from the beginning that babies, that don't breathe die. And so there's been an emphasis on that first breath as a holy moment in many cultures. And even then translating that to the idea that at least in Hebrew, the word "ruach" is breath. And the idea that this is what was breathed into to the earth to form Adam. You know, "Adam", meaning from the earth. So there's this sense that the breath of the Holy entered form and through that merging of form and breath life emerges. Human life emerges or other lives emerge. So breath is often associated in world traditions with spirit or with a gift from the gods or a gift from a source, a sourcing power that inhabits the body that's not ours.
I think that's another piece of it that I don't think we own our breath. It's not as if it's, I mean, it's mine in the sense that I, I can control it to some extent. But there's a power in it that would overwhelm my ego, if I suddenly decide I'm not going to breathe, that I'm just not going to breathe again and hold my breath. The body kicks in and it's like, "nuh-uh, you're breathing."
And certainly people have committed suicide by trying to asphyxiate themselves. Nonetheless, overall, it's a force that's to be reckoned with. It's not just our own in the sense of the ego self. It seems to have its own power and many cultures have ascribed to that power and the source of that power to the source of life itself.
And the breath is not replaceable. And so whenever I see my son find an insect, you know, maybe in the house or something and he doesn't want it, - "Mom let's kill it." It's like, hold on, hold on. Life is precious. And what you take, it's important to remember, you can't give it back. So you kill the spider, but you can't make the spider return. So make sure it makes sense. If it's threatening you, okay. But if we can put it in a jar, let's take it outside because it's precious. We didn't make it. And we can't undo what we would do if we kill it.
So even the littlest things have breath. And I try to encourage him to be respectful of that. I hope that's a helpful answer to your question.
Elizabeth: Yeah. It's interesting to think about breath, as we already sort of said, this breath is something that you share, and something that doesn't belong to you. Even literally in that the oxygen molecules that are filling my lungs in Philadelphia right now, - whose lungs have they already been in? Who across the globe, who across the time of human existence has already had these molecules of oxygen in their lungs before. And that, I mean, that's stunning to me. It makes me feel very small, but also very connected at the same time. And, so I do, I love that idea. I love that that breath is not something that we own or control, but it is, it does bind us all together in a really beautiful way.
Rachael: It's such, I mean, this is such an interesting conversation to be having right now. I mean, I think when Elizabeth and I started dreaming about this podcast back in January or February, this is one of the topics that it came up from the very beginning. And you, Amy are one of the guests that came up from the very beginning.
But yeah, thinking about that, universal idea of this air is all of our air. And even as you're saying that Elizabeth "who has breathed these oxygen molecules before me" is such a different question today than it was back in February. And I hope that we can think about that and reflect on it in a way that doesn't make us scared and terrified. But just causes us to dig a little bit deeper. And, you know, maybe if there's, if there's positive to come out of this, Global experience of a pandemic it's that we all think differently about breath and interconnectedness .
Elizabeth: I know that I'm never going to take for granted being able to sing in a room with other people ever again, ever again, once we can safely do that.
So I think to, to sort of wrap up our time, We would really like Amy for you to tell our listeners a little bit more about the Institute that you founded - maybe what you hope to accomplish through that. And of course, how they could get involved in that. We think you have so much to offer. I was just telling Rachel, before we got started, there's more than I even know what to do with the, with all of the amazing opportunities through this Institute.
But can you, can you share a little bit more about that?
Amy Wright Glenn: Yes. I'm happy to thanks for asking. In the same sense that in the same way, the two of you have created and crafted this beautiful podcast by pulling from your experience in chaplaincy and doula work . In that sense both of those experiences live in me too, as a birth doula and the death doula as a chaplain and a yoga teacher and a mom. And you know, all these different parts of me are woven into one self or one expression. And I wanted to create a meeting place where people who are seasoned in death work, or even new to death work and people who are seasoned in birth work or who are new to birth work could meet and professionally and personally enrich each other.
And since breath links, birth and death, I wanted to include a real warm hearted, welcome to individuals who devote their time to help all of us be more mindful as we live, you know, the Ministers, there's the Rabbis, the Imams, the yoga teachers, the Reiki teachers, the parents, the moms, the dads, all of us who are dedicated to really living mindfully - to hold space for four year old birthday parties and what it means to go get ice cream and go snorkeling in the ocean. Not only to hold space for birth and death, but to hold space for the life in between. And those moments that are just precious. Making pancakes with your kids or picking mulberries at the farm, you know, the simple things that are deeply meaningful, should they be seen in the depth that within which I think they do exist.
So pulling together birth professionals and death professionals was important to me. And that came to me after I presented in St. Louis at a MANA conference, which was Midwives Alliance of North America. And I was asked to lead a breakout discussion room conference, something, I can't remember the official title. But some event where I spoke about what birth workers can learn from those of us who work with the dying.
And so I spoke as a chaplain who knows it was about birth work because I have worked as at birth doula to a room full of midwives. And it was so enriching. I thought this needs to happen more, both in person and then also online. And so the Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath and Death is a brain child and a heart child and a, you know, a breath child of my own, but it's grown far beyond me in that now there's people who also feel called to stand in the threshold points of birth, breath, and death and inform others of what they've learned. And bring to this work, their own life experience, their own heartaches, their own wisdom. And it's become a place where it's bigger than certainly what I imagined at the time I made it.
And I imagine in five years it will be even more, more wonderful. I hope, you know, I believe it will be. I hope it's something that lives on for our, after my own life. And it's a place where all are welcome to engage with these conversations and particular, those who are professionally involved in birth breath or death work to inform and support each other.
Elizabeth: I've taken two courses through the Institute, a Holding Space series - Loving, Dying, and Letting Go. And then also World Religions for Birth and Death Doulas. And they were just both amazing. Fantastic. And my only problem is, is that I just want to keep taking everything. I guess it's not really a problem across time I'll be able to. But you just offer so much for, as you said, people who are birth professionals or people who are professionals supporting people through death. But the next course that I really want to take is, I know you do a course on Shadow Work and how is that not for everyone? We all have an ego. We all have shadow work. And so we really, really want to encourage our listeners to go check out the website it's birthbreathanddeath.com. Is that correct? I
t is. Yes.
Amy Wright Glenn: And, and thank you. I just thank you for lifting it up and taking the time to invite me. I so appreciate it. I really hope that people do find something there for them and whatever it would be. You know, I do hope that particularly parents and those who have felt the heartache of loss, especially bereaved parents, there's a real space in the Institute and in my heart for parents who have had experience with pregnancy loss or infant death, there's a place for you here where you don't have to feel so alone.
Rachael: .So Amy, we really love to encourage our listeners to be generous where they can, and we love to give them opportunities and suggestions for how they can be generous. And so I would love for you to share - I know that you have been doing a bit of a campaign to raise money to support other people. And so would you share with our listeners - , if you were to make a suggestion for how they can be generous, would you share about the campaign that you've been doing?
Amy Wright Glenn: Thanks for asking. With COVID-1 I have had quite a few people reach out in a real state of grief. Of loss. And especially when a family member has died of COVID and that individual died alone. There's just such a devastating sense of powerlessness and regret and sorrow and anger. So. There's been a hunger for ritual. And since a lot of our grieving rituals that we used to do collectively are also now impacted. Because we breathe when we grieve collectively and people cry and people want to hug each other and hold each other.
And if funerals are limited to 10 and you have to keep six feet apart and wear a mask, it's just such a different experience. And so I created a online and prerecorded experience called Rituals of Grief. And it's as simple walk through where I pull from prayers from different traditions. It's open to people of all faiths or no faith in terms of world religions. And it's a ritual where people are invited to light their own candle and do some writing and begin to touch a bit of the process of morning in a way with me. And it's, you know, online, of course it's not in person, but it's something that I could do. And then all the money that's raised through that - and it's, donation-based completely - I've given to Doctors Without Borders. So we've raised maybe $6-700 by now. Which then just goes to Doctors Without Borders. And it's a $20 suggested donation. And some people have given more, some people have given $5, it's fine. But all of it, I just, when it comes through PayPal, I just send it back to Doctors Without Borders because those healthcare workers are on the front lines in really vulnerable communities trying to navigate what COVID means.
I mean, it's hard in the U S I'm in Florida. It's pretty challenging. But imagine if I was in Vietnam in or in Bangladesh or in a community where poverty looks really different than it does for the poor communities of, in my area in Florida. And what Doctors Without Borders has always done is put brave souls right there and right there on the borders of really dangerous and hard situations.
So I thought if we could harness some of the mourning power and grief that needs to express. Ask for donation and then send the donation to support really brave people who are also standing in these front, in the front line of mourning and grief. Well, that's something I can do. I just feel as if everyone could think of how they could do something, there could be, there may be less helplessness and anger.
We could channel some of that anger and helplessness into what we can do safely right now for each other.
Elizabeth: Well, that's a brilliant idea and it's a beautiful idea, and I hope that our listeners will take advantage of being able to use that resource or donate on behalf of someone else to be able to use that resource and be a part of supporting this thing that you're doing.
And also, I love that challenge- that what else can we do? What's our part. I think that I feel ever more hopeful about all of that pain and the difficulty in the world, every time I engage with something that you have created. So I feel so grateful that this thing that we have created, that we have gotten to add your voice to this and that we have the opportunity to amplify your voice.
And I hope that our listeners will be able to become an extension of the compassion and kindness and brilliance and beauty that you are already putting out into the world. So thank you so much for this, this time that you've spent with us today.
Amy Wright Glenn: Well, thank you. That brings some tears to my eyes. It means a lot to to hear you say that. So I am grateful for whatever small part I can play. And I'm hopeful that we all can feel the support of each other at this really difficult time. I feel inspired by you two. This is a beautiful idea. And I can't wait to share this podcast far and wide within the communities of my influence. So thank you so much for welcoming me.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Amy.
Rachael: Thanks for joining us now it's our turn to hear from you. So would you do us a big favor and go into your podcast app and rate us? Even better would you write us a glowing review that will help other listeners to find us? And make sure to subscribe so that you don't miss a single episode.
Elizabeth: You can also visit our website at everydaythinplaces.com, where you will find all sorts of fun and interesting information, as well as learn about how you can help to support this podcast and earn special exclusive perks .There, you will also find links to follow us on social media. Or else just pop directly over to Instagram or Facebook where you will find us at Everyday Thin Places. Thanks so much for joining us today until next time. I'm Elizabeth
Rachael: And I'm Rachel.