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 way that provides comfort and compassion for all.
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.
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 from Alcoholics Anonymous the importance of anonymity. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. I treasure this tradition and I strive to live it as best I can. I try my hardest to treat others as I would like to be treated. Anonymity, confidentiality and, more importantly, respect are the behaviors I endear; therefore, I sow.
I have also learned in A.A. to practice rigorous honesty. So I do. Opening up myself whole-heartedly to those who enter my Dee Bubble has gained me much trust and more openness from those I encounter. When I share my experience, strength and hope, they seem to feel less threatened by sharing the events in their lives with me.
The Four Agreements written by Don Miguel Ruiz has taught me to live impeccably with my word. Impeccably…without sin. I try to live the way Thumper’s mom taught him, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” That doesn’t mean I won’t stand up for myself or my rights, or for those I feel cannot do this for themselves. I do have boundaries. I do have self-respect and self-worth. And so do you.
But I try not to waste my energy on negative things, and this includes words and thoughts that don’t serve my highest good. So I have blocked myself off from gossip. Bullying and name-calling has never been an option. Having been bullied as a child, I realize how harmful words can be.
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.
Not only have I learned in AA that I have no control over people, places, nor things, I have also learned that the world does not revolve around me. I am so grateful for having worked the 12 Steps with many women and each time learning so much more about myself and becoming a better human being. Please note that I do not represent Alcoholics Anonymous. I share my experience, strength and hope with you as a true believer in this Program and in its miracles.
So one of the things I learned to help me get out of myself and out of my head was to be of service. It works. It feels good; I feel good. I learn to give back what was so freely given me when I needed it most…hope, compassion, empathy, a safe place to hang out.
I also learned from working the Steps what a selfish, fear-based, all-about-me piece of work I was. Yet I had no purpose, no reason for living. I was so empty in my active disease and even before as I had no god nor power greater than myself, no god of my own understanding, no nothing.
Today I no longer have to live in fear. I no longer have to hate myself. I no longer have to have your approval. I can just be me and be okay with that. But I’m not just okay, I love myself for who and what I am with all my defects of character, with all the incomprehensible demoralizing things I did in my past.
Today I have a Power Greater Than Myself, a Higher Power of My Own Understanding and making. I turn my will and my life over to the care of this being. I have faith that everything is happening for a reason, that there is a journey out there for me that serves my highest good. So if I just go with the flow and trust in the process, my head is quiet, my life is calm, and a beautiful and purposeful life appears before me.
Living in the moment has been such a precious gift in my sobriety. I no longer have to dwell on my past but to embrace it and use it in a positive way. I no longer have to worry about the future as there might be no future. Again, I am not in control. So I make sure that I stay present and not shit on the moment before me. This helps me to stay humble and grateful for what is right before my nose.
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.
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.
As I drive to the Pure Kona Green Market early every Sunday morning to sell my art I center my thoughts to the folks who will enter my Dee Bubble that day. I ask my Higher Power to help me to be mindful, respectful, compassionate and loving. I no longer base my prosperity of the day on financial rewards; I base my prosperity on the interactions I have with those I get to know and meet, with nature and nourishment I put in my body, and with the day as it unfolds. When I start my day with this attitude, my day always unfolds in spectacular ways. The financial rewards come if that is what is meant to be. But the new interactions I have with other like-minded human beings never disappoints me. I learn. I grow. I add these new experiences to my Experience, Strength and Hope Box to share with you.
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. (https://chopra.com/live-events/seduction-of-spirit)
Another valuable gift I have learned from AA is not to judge, not to take other people’s inventories. In other words, I mind my own business and make sure my side of the street is kept clean. I have no clue what other’s have gone through, what makes them tick, what makes them who they are. But when I quiet down my head and listen to their stories with a mindful, present, and respectable heart, I get to experience their journeys and, again, add them to my Experience, Strength and Hope Box to share with others in an anonymous and general way to help them along their journeys.
Keeping my side of the street clean means accepting and loving myself for who I am. Self-care is key. I cannot be there for others if I have unresolved doo doo going on in my own life. So that is where my priority lies before I can reach out to others. Am I in a good space? Is my life free from poison arrows? In other words, am I mindful of what is right in front of my nose? If I am then I am in tuned with my Higher Power. I am aware that everything is perfect at this moment. I am able to love myself and my life for what it is, but not only love it, but embrace it for all its glory. Then I know I am humble and grateful. I can now help you to that place.
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.
I love that I am able to see the glass half-full, that I can turn any negative into a positive. That is me and that is how I choose to live. With hope. With light at the end of the tunnel. So again, I quiet my head (it’s not all about me) and I open my heart. I get mindful and respectful. I make eye contact. I give you my full attention. I listen. I feel. I have new experiences. I grow. I become a better human being. I share with you how you can turn your negatives into positives. We thrive…together.
Although you non-judgmentally 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.
I remember how alone I felt when I was a practicing alcoholic. I was ashamed that I could not go a day without drinking. I was confused as to why I could not get a grip on my drinking.
The miracle came when my Higher Power stepped in and told me this part of my journey was over. He felt I had suffered just enough to not take my own life, but to share my experiences with others feeling just as alone.
He sent me to rehab. He taught me about alcoholism. He had me feel that there was hope and gave me a group of like-minded folks going through the same confusion and hardship. And when my 28-days was done with these professional counselors and GOD (Group Of Drunks), He sent me to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is where the real magic begins. To learn I have a toolbox for living. I have a book (The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous) that spells it all out for me as suggestions, with testimonials, and the whole nine yards. Yes, this is where the real magic begins.
Because I grew up in a society (yes, America) where we are taught at a young age to suck it up, be strong, achieve more shit, more material stuff, more power, step on those who get in my way, I was a hot mess. How do I share with those who might get in my way of achieving this “stuff”. How can I let them or anyone know I am suffering? What a crock of shit! I had to unlearn all that bullshit!
We ALL have our obstacles. We ALL have life to endure. But why do we feel we have to endure? Let’s embrace it in all its glory…together. I feel such a part of in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are one big family (no, not a cult) who genuinely care about the well-being of others in the rooms. And we take that compassion to the real world, where it trickles out over the entire planet, one small wave at a time, one day at a time. It’s magical!
But whether you are an alcoholic or not, you may have some obstacle that feels so huge that there is no hope in sight. You are not alone. There are many others out there going through what you are experiencing. You’ll know when you let your guard down, when you shut your head off and open your heart, who you want to open up to. Just let it happen. What do you have to lose? Remember, it’s not all about you. If you keep it closed up because you want to save face, get over yourself. In a minute that person you shared with won’t remember what you said anyway. You’ll probably never see him/her again. Unless this was a like-minded, caring and compassionate person who realizes there are no coincidences and that you were put in his life for a reason…so that you can thrive together.
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.
Spend six transformative days expanding your awareness and deepening your presence at Seduction of Spirit, our signature meditation and yoga retreat led by Deepak Chopra. Learn More. (https://www.chopra.com/live- events/seduction-of-spirit)
I remember learning early on in sobriety that if something is bothering me (let’s say, a resentment), write it down, say it out loud, better yet, share it with another human being, and that will take the power out of it. Why do we keep all this shit bottled up in us? Am I the only one going through this and every other human being out there is perfect and might think less of me? Bull shit. We are all human beings and we’re in this together.
Why do so many humans sit at the bar and share their shit with the bartender? Why do so many humans pay millions of dollars and spew their junk with therapists? Why do so many humans go to confession on Sundays? To take the power out of what’s ailing them. So share it. Embrace it. Then release it. Let yourself be free of negativity and open up your limited disc-space for positive things.
Mahalo for reading this and allowing me to share my experience, strength and hope with you. Have a great day and share your gifts!
Aloha, Dee Harris
For those interested in Art with a Message of Hope and Inspiration, please visit my website at www.DeesignsByHarris.com. Mahalo and enjoy!
About the Author
Adam Brady (/bios/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)
Taken from the Chopra Center