Holding Space: The Art of Being Present with Others
By Adam Brady
Holding space is a conscious act of being present, open, allowing, and protective of what another needs in each moment. The term has been growing in popularity among caregivers, healers, yogis, and spiritual seekers. It’s a broadly used phrase to define the act of “being there” for another. The effects of this practice, however, go much deeper than simply offering support.
Consider the individual words for a moment. To hold means to embrace or encircle someone or something in your grasp. Physically, this might take the form of a hug or the cradling of a hand in yours. But you can also embrace someone non-physically with your intention, attention, and energy. Space refers to the immediate environment you are sharing with another. This, too, may be the physical space of a room, but more frequently refers to the mental and emotional environment you are in with others. Put together, these words embody the principle of surrounding the environment with your awareness (https://chopra.com/articles/the-three-qualities- of-awareness) in a way that provides comfort and compassion for all.
I’ve been practicing being mindful, attentive and respectful to all that enters “Dee’s bubble” for awhile now. I pray on my way to market every Sunday to sell my art, to be present, in the moment, for prosperity. Prosperity, no longer means financial, as the rewards I’ve been given for making eye-contact, lending an ear, and offering a hug to those that enter my bubble have taught me more about human beings and compassion than money could ever buy. The bonds I have made have lifted me to a whole new level of living and mind-set. That we are all on this planet together, for each other, hopeful, optimistic, loving, and together we can ripple our message across the planet.
Holding space involves several specific qualities of consciously relating to others, the sum of which are greater than the individual parts. Let’s explore these attributes and see how they can deepen your ability to hold space for others.
A key component to holding space is the quality of safety. For others to be open, genuine, and oftentimes vulnerable (https://chopra.com/articles/5-ways-to-feel-less-vulnerable), they must feel secure and have a sense of trust. People won’t let down their defenses until they know it is safe to do so.
The first thing I thought of when reading this was about my physical safety. Being born and raised in California in an area where crime was rampant caused me to be aware of my safety and surroundings at all times. It has taken time for me to let my guard down now living on the Big Island of Hawai’i (I shall never be stupid enough to entirely be blind to my safety altogether) and feeling safe and protected. I have found that when someone offers a helping hand there is no ulterior motive. The Hawai’ian way of living with aloha has been so beneficial and healing for me.
Being an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous has helped me to let the guard of my feelings and actions down, to trust others with me and my bubble, to people who honor each other’s anonymity and trust that other’s will do the same for them. With that trust we can become rigorously honest about ourselves and our lives. We can close the door on the past, learning and growing from our experiences, moving forward to a hopeful, optimistic and free future.
Like a medieval cathedral nestled within the city’s fortress walls, you need to create an environment in which all who enter feel protected from harm. This safety implies an unspoken “sheepdog” mentality that serves as a guardian and authentically maintains confidentiality, transparency, and impeccability in all you say and do.
I’ve learned to live my life with the principles of Hawai’i and AA. This new outlook on life and others has invited beautiful and meaningful relationships and experiences into “my bubble”.
A vitally important aspect of holding space is the understanding that it’s not about you. When you hold space you must make the conscious decision to leave your ego (https://chopra.com/articles/is-the-ego-your-friend-or- foe) at the door. Holding space is about serving others and your personal concerns or needs are not part of the process. Suspending your sense of self-importance can be challenging and should be considered a prerequisite for the practice. If you aren’t able to put your ego in the back for a time, you’ll be ill-suited to be present for the needs of others. Holding space requires radical humility and the willingness to be a temporary caretaker of the feelings and concerns of another.
Ok, getting out of self took me a long time to grasp and will always be a work in progress; I shall always be a work in progress.
Finding I could not go a day without drinking brought me to the rooms of AA. Getting a sponsor and working the Twelve Step of Alcoholics Anonymous has totally changed me. I found that I lived fear-based my entire life before recovery; I feared what you thought of me. I put your needs before my own, and not in a good or healthy way. In a way that told me I wasn’t worthy, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t love myself nor feel comfortable in my own skin. Yikes! I was so into my selfish self, again, not in a good or healthy way. I was sick. My thinking was sick.
Working through the Steps has afforded me the ability to love myself for who and what I am and know that all is perfect at this very moment…especially me! I can be present for those who haven’t received that gift…yet…and be there with every fiber of my being to help them on their journey of self-love and self-worth. It no longer is about me, but I reap the benefits!
One of the most precious gifts you can give another is the gift of your full and complete attention. However, listening attentively without the need to respond, interrupt, or comment is a skill that takes considerable practice to master. Even with the best of intentions, your ego may sneak back in; it looks for opportunities to subtly make things about you instead of the other.
I love the saying, “Excuse me. Did I interrupt the middle of your sentence with the beginning of my sentence?” when someone abruptly butts in. I diligently practice not doing this. My head might start to spin out of control with thoughts and ideas I want to add to the conversation, but…”Hey, Dee, you’re not in the moment, you’re not being respectful nor mindful to the person in front of you. Knock it off and get back right-sized”.
When holding space you must work diligently to maintain eye contact, be free of distractions, be fully attentive, and cultivate an openness or “space consciousness” in which there is no “me,” but rather the ever-present witness of the sounding board of consciousness.
To this end, make the commitment to cultivate what British author Stuart Wilde called silent power by resisting the urge to speak unless you are asked to. This, coupled with your full awareness, can be a profoundly powerful experience for those in your presence. Your attention, focused and all-inclusive of whatever is happening in the moment, opens the door for others to see the reflection of their own soul in you—the Self talking to itself.
Learning to be rigorously honest in AA has been very freeing for me. When I practice honesty I no longer have to waste my energy or data space in my brain remembering what I might have said or done in the past. It frees me up for living positively. However, when someone asks for my opinion and I get that gut feeling that my answer might hurt or not be what they are expecting to hear, I allow them the choice of whether they really want to hear my “rigorously honest” opinion or not. They usually do.
Holding space is all about allowing—allowing this person or group to feel what they feel. Allowing them to say what they need to say. Allowing yourself to be whatever they need you to be right now. Holding space, therefore, isn’t about controlling anything. Your role is that of a guardian of the space. Like two cupped hands filled with water, you are there to hold the other with your awareness. In doing so, you must allow that experience to take whatever shape it will.
Accept this moment as it is. Accept others as they are, without any desire to change them, or wanting them to be something different. This, too, can be a challenge since you are conditioned to immediately try to change things you think should be different. But, in holding space, practicing acceptance gives others a priceless gift—the freedom to be just as they are.
If there were a magic pill to “fix” me when I was active in my disease of alcoholism, I wouldn’t be in the “happy, joyous, and free” place that I am now. I realized that there are no coincidences. People, places and things have come into my life just as they were supposed to, and that includes decades of drinking and drugging. I had to trudge my own road to happy destiny, to experience my own journey, and I allow and embrace that is what other’s are doing in their lives. I don’t even attempt to fix; that would not serve them nor help them to become who they were intended to be.
Holding space is an impartial process. You’re not there to pass judgement or to evaluate another. When you judge another’s experience you create additional mental static that will only get in the way and obscure the truth. In the moment when you’re holding another’s fears, suffering (https://chopra.com/articles/a-modern-take-on- the-roots-of-suffering), or grief, your opinions are irrelevant.
Unless you’ve been through what they’re going through, you’ll never truly understand their feelings. Being there is enough. Good and bad are merely a matter of perspective and in this moment, your perspective isn’t the one that’s important.
But I really do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. I will never know everything that person has experienced and those experiences have made the person who they are at that moment. Accept and be present.
No one is better than me, nor worse than me, and vice versa. We are all equal no matter our history, where we live, our gender, our education, on and on… We are human beings sharing this planet, meant to do so in harmony. Let’s just try to do that lovingly, compassionately, the best that we can in the moment…and let it ripple across the planet.
Although you nonjudgmentally practice acceptance with your full attention, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t prefer things to be better. Compassion (https://chopra.com/articles/4-steps-to-finding-peace-through- compassion) is an essential quality for the practice of holding space. To embrace another in acceptance is an act of compassion in and of itself. In your openness to the pain of others you are essentially saying, “How can I help you? I don’t want you to hurt. What can I do to help support your highest good?” Even if not spoken aloud, these intentions to relieve the suffering of others are the essence of compassion.
In many cases, simply being a loving presence can bring about a deep sense of relief that eases the pain of another. The world can use more compassion, so the practice of holding space provides an opportunity to continually build this vitally important skill.
Witnessing allows you to play a special part while holding space—that of the observer. Like in quantum physics, the observer is what triggers the collapse of the wave of potential into a particle, the non-local into the localized phenomenon. But this doesn’t involve any action on the observer’s part. In holding space you’re just there as the witness, almost like a fly on the wall. Naturally, you can participate if requested to do so, but essentially your role is that of the watcher.
It is said that when Gautama (the future Buddha) was on the verge of enlightenment, he was tempted by the forces of darkness and their king, the demon Mara. With his entire demon army descending upon them, Mara demands the Gautama produce a witness to his awakening. Gautama simply touches the earth with his fingers and says, “The earth itself is my witness.” With this gesture, Mara and his arm vanish, and Gautama becomes the Buddha or Awakened One. Like the earth the Buddha touches, you are the witnesses to those who you hold space for.
Through the practice of holding space, you serve as a container for which the healing and transformation can take place. It’s a powerful gift of presence that you can give to others through the quality of your attention.
…and this gift of presence will be returned to you tenfold!
With much aloha, Dee Harris
For those interested in Art with a Message of Being Mindful and In the Moment, please visit my website at www.DeesignsByHarris.com. Mahalo and have an awesome day!
About the Author
Adam Brady, Vedic Educator
Yoga teacher, author, and martial artist Adam Brady has been associated with the Chopra Center for nearly 20 years. He is a certified Vedic Educator trained in Primordial Sound Meditation (/articles/what-is-primoridal- sound-meditation), Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga (/teach/seven-spiritual-laws-yoga-teacher-training target=), and Perfect Health: Ayurvedic Lifestyle (/teach/perfect-health-certification-program), and regularly teaches in the Orlando, Florida, area. Over the last several years, Adam has worked to introduce corporate mind-body wellness programs into the workplace within a large… Read more (/bios/adam-brady)
from The Chopra Center