June 20, 2021

Understanding How to Hold Space

My idea of what holding a safe space for fragile life looks like.
I added this picture above to the message I shared with you below.

written by Jim Tolles
[source: Spiritual Awakening Process]

Holding space is one of those terms that mystifies a lot of people. It's like, "How do I hold space exactly? Is that like taking up space?" No. Not really. Holding space is about how we learn to be with others without judgment. I'll do my best to explain this term and why it's a powerful addition to your spiritual practice.

As a quick side note, you can hear all my latest tips and thoughts in my monthly newsletter called, "The Wake Up Call."

Letting Go of You

At the heart of the matter, you have to let go of yourself when you hold space for another. Mainly when I use this term, it's in reference to how we interact with others and situations. I suppose it could be used in reference to holding space for yourself, but that's a little bit silly. It kinda reinforces an inner duality that doesn't need to be there. Building inner space involves becoming the watcher or the witness to your thoughts. That's a step one for beginning to notice that a lot of the stuff running through your brain actually has nothing to do with you. This can be a way to develop a deeper sense of stillness, and as you come to understand this deeper space inside you, it becomes easier to let go of "you" and your ego desires and whatnot. Being able to move into this internal space is how we can hold space for another.

Holding Space: Some Key Attributes

Let me try to break this down a little bit. Here are a couple key characteristics to holding space, and I'll give an example to help solidify what I'm talking about. Some components are:
  1. Letting go of judgment
  2. Opening your heart
  3. Allowing another to have whatever experience they're having
  4. Giving your complete undivided attention to the situation/other person
Those are really the key elements of holding space. You're not trying to influence the situation. You're not trying to fix it, win at it, or affect any kind of outcome. You are simply being with it fully so that it can work itself out. This doesn't mean becoming a victim to it. Quite the contrary actually, you're very powerful in this space, and it certainly doesn't mean being hurt physically by another. By when you're deep into a space like this, you are far more immune to any "emotional" hurt than you might realize. So much of emotional hurt is just ego wounding. It's taking what someone else is saying personally. But oddly enough, what most people say about us is just a reflection of themselves. It's not personal. And while we don't turn a blind eye to everything other people are saying, we really begin to understand just how much illusion everyone else is trapped in too.

Allowing a Situation to Unfold

My example of holding space usually comes from my work with students, but I definitely do this with friends and other people in my life. The best example is when someone is expressing some pain or some difficulty. They're really upset. In these moments, I'm holding them with a lot of love and letting go of my judgments about them and the situations that they're describing. I'm not interested in fixing them, and in truth, I trust that as they allow themselves to fully express what's happening, deeper healing is already at work. Depending on how aware someone is, I speak less and less. The more of a practice they have, the more I trust in their own deeper intelligence to find solutions when and as they are needed. Holding space is truly about allowing experiences and emotions to arise and pass away. It's about making a safe space so people can actually feel their emotions and see their thoughts in potentially profound ways. All the while, I'm removing my ego as much as possible from the situation. The magic of this is that most of the time people figure out what they need to figure out, and by not repressing or avoiding their emotions, they carry much less pain in their lives.

The Magic of Holding Space and Building It as a Practice in Your Relationships

Holding space can be a lot of heart-work (I'm making a pun on hard work, here. Get it? ;). The first time that you do this and you are non-reactive to a lover's outburst or a codependent friend's tears, they may think you don't care. Far from it. You actually are caring more about them than ever before because you're not feeding their emotional issues. If anything, they now have to look at their emotional debris and own it because you're holding space as opposed to rolling around in this emotional mud with them. This can be intensely uncomfortable for the other person. It can be transformative as well, and as always, it's up to the other person in the equation to make the choice as to what results from it.

You can ever only own your pieces of the puzzle. You may want to explain what you're doing with the other person if this is the first time that you've done it. It may be a relief for the other person to not have you butt in and run their life. It cuts in many different directions, but it is always an enlightening experience in many ways--just not necessarily very comfortable ways initially. It may end relationships that don't want to evolve. Keep in mind that most people are happy living in the filth of their misery. They still want to come home and complain about how the world is dumping on them, on their ideas, and on their spiritual practices. If you don't join in with that negativity, they can get upset. They may leave. And you may need to be just as comfortable with that outcome as with the positive outcome that brings closer friendships and intimacies.

Failing at Holding Space

But stepping back from that, you probably won't be very good at holding space initially. You'll notice just how much ego shit you've still got, but this is still a worthwhile practice. I'd encourage you to find someone with whom you can practice this. You can take turns talking while the other listens. This is very similar to my blog post about the Art of Listening only with a slightly different twist. That post is about finding your voice and helping another find his or her voice. This is about how you learn to be with any story told to you. This is about how you can be open-hearted and without judgment when the worst is said about you as well as the best is said about you. But you don't need to jump that far into the fire yet.

For the most part, you'll just be hearing people talk about their own pain. See how you can be with it. See what comes up inside of you, and then you should talk about what comes up with your listening partner. Or you can journal it out if you don't feel comfortable talking about it with your listening partner. Watch what stories you project on someone and all the ways where you want to control the experience or get activated by their emotions. Any time you get upset by something, you're finding a nerve ending--a bit of unhealed pain--in yourself. It's a powerful practice to develop this awareness so that you can be with more and more people and all the stories and wisdom and lies they share. You can begin to find out what's true for you and help them find their own inner peace if you can stop, hold space, and trust the situation to unfold as it should.

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