“The Art and Practice of Holding Space” with Rev. Christine Kell
What does it mean to “hold space”? Can anybody do it? Coach and facilitator Heather Plett says holding space is not exclusive to facilitators, coaches, and ministers. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other. Listen in to this Sunday’s talk to learn more.
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“The Art and Practice of Holding Space” with Rev. Christine Kell
Good morning to my One World Family, and thank you for joining me.
As you may be aware, our theme this month is Experiencing the Sacred, and this morning my topic is The Art and Practice of Holding Space.
Interfaith minister and spiritual mentor Rev. Julia Corbett-Hemeyer describes holding space as sacred, holy work. But what exactly does that mean? What do the words holding space signify?
I hear the expression “holding space” a lot today, and maybe you do too. The term has been broadly used and is growing in popularity among caregivers, healers, therapists, yoga practitioners, and spiritual seekers, just to name a few –– including me. But no so long ago, I thought to myself, do I really know what it means to hold space? So, those of you who know me may also know that then I had to look it up. And when I found out, I knew I had to share what I learned with all of you.
Put simply, holding space describes the act of “being there” for another person or group of people.
According to Heather Plett, author of The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, it means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome.
Holding space is the art of being completely present, and totally invisible. It is a conscious act of being present, open, allowing, and protective of what another needs in each moment.
When we ‘hold space’ for another person, we are, as Ram Dass says, a ‘Keeper of the Heart,’ someone whose task is to hold an open, loving space no matter what else is going on. Our only assignment is to open our heart and provide unconditional support, letting go of all judgment and need for control, providing a container of hope and compassion where our beloved can rest and feel safe. In holding space for another, we create an environment that encourages the healing, growth, and transformation of that person.
Holding space is an impartial practice. In the moment when we are holding another’s fears, suffering, or grief, personal opinions are irrelevant. In many cases, being there is enough; simply being a loving presence often can bring about a deep sense of relief that eases the pain of another. We are the witness; our perspective isn’t the one that’s important.
Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, ministers, or caregivers. It is something that all of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbors – even strangers.
So, how do we hold space? Well, first of all, we can hold space for others only if we are able to do it for ourselves. Rev. Julia tells us we cannot hold another’s pain unless we can hold our own. We need to take care of our own well-being first, meeting our own needs and treating ourselves with care, consideration, kindness, compassion, and love.
This means we accept our own imperfections, know how and when to say no, and maintain healthy boundaries. And, we know when to ask for support for ourselves. Oftentimes, we can hold space for someone, while another holds space for us.
Holding space for ourselves also means we have developed a practice of stillness and reflection, and contemplative prayer or meditation.
Chris Corrigan, Open Space facilitator and student of the Tao, offers this interpretation of verse 10 of the Tao with regard to how to prepare to be a Keeper of the Heart:
Nurture the darkness of your soul until you become whole.
Can you do this and not fail?
Can you focus your life-breath until you become supple as a newborn child?
While you cleanse your inner vision, will you be found without fault?
Can you love people and lead them without forcing your will on them?
When Heaven gives and takes away, can you be content with the outcome?
When you understand all things . . . can you step back from your own understanding?
Giving birth and nourishing, creating without possessing, expecting nothing in return.
To grow, yet not to control: This is the mysterious virtue.
One great way of holding space for ourselves is through mindfulness meditation. With consistent practice we can gradually achieve a fully mindful and present state. We can learn to tune into the rhythm of our thoughts, and practice letting go of judgments and expectations a little at a time. As little as five minutes a day spent on this practice can retrain our brains to mindfully anchor ourselves in the present.
Being fully present is also how we hold space for others. Once we find stillness within ourselves, we can offer this gift to others. As we hold space for them, we provide an environment where in turn they can be present and rest in their own stillness.
In the practice of holding space, it is not selfish to focus on ourselves first. In fact, it’s an act of generosity and commitment to make sure that you are at your best when you support others. As Parker Palmer says: anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.
Yoga teacher Adam Brady writes that when we hold space for another person or group of people, our role is that of a ‘guardian of the space.’ We are there to hold the other within our awareness and while doing so, we allow them to say what they need to say, and allow their experience to take whatever shape it will. We accept others as they are, without any desire to change them or wanting them to be something different. Our job is to simply hold the space for it all to unfold, to maintain a place of calm in which their hearts may rest. This quiet presence is a powerful gift we can give to others.
By now you may be asking, how do we begin to hold space for someone? Often, we may have a personal desire to hold a person or a situation in our heart with the intention of sharing compassion and comfort for all involved. In this case, we embrace this beloved person non-physically with our awareness, attention, and energy.
Other times a friend or loved one may ask us to hold space for a special intention, sometimes for themselves, sometimes for another person or situation they are dealing with. We can offer guidance, but the person may only be looking for supportive thoughts and prayers. In these cases, we become a ‘silent partner’ in the healing process.
Sometimes, holding space means working directly with another person or group – not to give advice, or fix anything. We offer nothing in terms of direction or desired outcomes. We simply walk the path with the beloved, staying to the side, observing with compassion but remaining detached from the outcome. We remain free of expectations, judgments, and the desire to control the process.
However, there are things in terms of positive recommendations we can do as part of the process. While holding space is about easing someone else’s burdens in the present moment and our role is mostly intangible and invisible, we can help our beloved in perceptible ways if asked to do so.
Heather Plett, the facilitator I mentioned earlier, gives us eight points of guidance based on lessons she learned from those who held space for her during her mother’s final days.
First, she writes, give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. Often, we intuitively know what needs to be done in a difficult situation. When holding space for another, let their intuition and wisdom guide them through their process.
Second point, give people only as much information as they can handle. Do not overwhelm them with more than they can process in this confusing time, causing them to feel incompetent and worthless.
Number three, don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of our beloveds hands it can leave them feeling useless and hopeless. As someone holding space, our job is not to take over, but rather to offer support and help the beloveds feel empowered in making the decisions that are best for them. In almost every case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children), so . . . never tried to direct or control the process.
Now, Heather’s fourth suggestion is a big one: we must keep our own ego out of it. It can be difficult to not get caught in that trap now and then – like when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of themselves. To truly support someone, we need to keep our ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
Five. Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks, and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up and more time learning from their mistakes.
Six. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (that is, when it could make a person feel foolish and inadequate), and when to offer it gently (when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). This is a careful dance that we all must navigate when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which our beloved feels most vulnerable and incapable, and being able to offer the right kind of help without shaming them, takes practice and humility. Being dismissive, pious, or overly focused on solutions often encourages the listener to be stubborn and mentally inflexible.
Number seven. Create a container for complex emotions, fears, trauma, confusion, or anything else. When people feel they are held in a deep way, they can feel safe enough to express complex emotions that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows this can happen, and will be prepared to hold their beloved in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. The person feels safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken. However, we cannot create a safe container if we are overly emotional ourselves, or if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow.
And finally, number eight. Allow your beloved to make different decisions and to have different experiences than those you might prefer. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. When we hold space, we honor differences and relinquish control.
Holding space is not something we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in Heather’s list of tips. It’s a complex process that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation. To hold space effectively, we need the strength to step aside and let others make their own choices and move forward at their own pace, even if that pace is slow. This can only happen if our heart is wide open. That means that we need to be able to find stillness within ourselves and be fully present. And if you find it difficult to remain anchored in the present, consistent meditation can help.
This brings us to the last practice of holding space I want to mention today, and that is holding space for the community. Holding space is subtle activism, and the function of space holder is as real and necessary as any other form of service or activism that assists in healing and transforming self, others, and the world. It requires the same stillness as holding space for a person. It also requires patience in nurturing the space and giving it time to evolve.
Chris Corrigan speaks beautifully about holding space in this way; in his words: to hold space is to rest in the chaos that is darkness; a darkness that represents a vast field of unknown potential. From this field, understanding will blossom, light will emerge, possibilities will grow. We must let go of outcomes; we must breathe life into the principle that whatever happens is [the right thing and] the only thing that could have happened. We learn to let our desires fall away and confront what is present in the space, what is real and living before us. . . . At play in the spaces we create are all the forces of Creation; the fantastic potential of a universe unfolding from the chaos.
Corrigan says it is up to us to generate an opening through this chaos. In doing so, in holding space for this work, we are serving creation.
The way we are with one another is the way we want to be. Some people are full of the violence, railing and fighting against the decay of old order and control. Taking the side of those who espouse violent tactics helps to move their agenda forward. So we must stay on the other side, holding space for the possibility that there is another way to be in the world, that the death and war around us does not want to thrive. Holding space creates a peaceful and safe place where even the staunchest rebels can confront the sorrow and loss of the chaos they champion. It is a place that invites a new beginning. Through holding space for reconciliation we are the seed of peace.
How do we do this? Corrigan reminds us that the Creator sang the universe into creation. So all we have to do is state the principles and laws of the universe. It is not up to us to force them on people, but simply to name our space as one that is bounded by a few simple, universal rules. Simply name the principles and the law, create and hold space, and have faith that everything will take care of itself. All the potential for change, the capacity to do it well, the future that wants to be born – it’s all in the space we hold in our hearts. Our greatest task is to embody the life we are inviting.
So far, we’ve taken a look at the practice of holding space, the techniques and process, but what’s the art?
For me, the art is in the doing. Just as when water flows around every obstacle and eventually moves them all, when we simply stand in the midst of sorrow, confusion, or grief, whether our own or another’s, and exercise serenity, we flow with the power of the water. This is the pure practice of compassion. This is the art of holding space.
Free of judgments and expectations, free of attachments to outcomes, remaining at peace in the chaos, this is the art of holding space.
Walking the path beside our beloveds with compassion and acceptance, helping them create their own footprints, this is the art of holding space.
Meeting the people in all of the possibility of their true potential, creating a safe space to discover and be what they will be, this is the art of holding space.
In the practice of holding space we open to the Oneness; we serve as a conduit through which healing, transformation, and peace can take place. This is a powerful gift, and this is the art of holding space.
I want to close with this story from Rev. Julia. One stormy night a thunderstorm had awakened the 5-year-old son of some friends in the middle of the night and he was very frightened. After calming the boy down, his dad was preparing to go back to his own bed and he said to the youngster, “You know, Robert, even when I go back to bed, God is still here with you.”
Well, Robert thought about this for a moment, and then, with 5-year-old frankness, said, “Yes, I know Dad, but sometimes God needs arms and legs.”
Whether we do it for a minute, a day, or forever, holding space for another is sacred, holy work.
And so it is. And so until next time, stay safe and stay held in the Holy Spirit.
What It Means to “Hold Space” For People, Plus Eight Tips On How to Do It Well by Heather Plett
Welcome! Holding Space for Others by Rev. Julia Corbett-Hemeyer
The Tao of Holding Space by Chris Corrigan
Holding Space: The Art of Being Present with Others by Adam Brady
“Blessing to the World” written by Karen Drucker
“It’s Getting Better” by He Sang She Sang
This service aired on January 17, 2021.