Monday, September 19, 2011

Understanding How to Hold Space

Holding space is one of those spiritual 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. It doesn't require you to be anyone other than who you are, although a lot of times people have to learn to let go of their own beliefs to really hold space for another.

I'll do my best to explain this term and why it's a powerful addition to your spiritual practice and to living your life in general.

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Letting Go of You

Mainly when I use this term "holding space," it's in reference to how we interact with others and a variety situations. I suppose it could be used in reference to holding space for yourself. At the heart of the matter is putting aside your thoughts and judgments. That's key to allowing someone to be as they are. To do this, it helps to understand yourself. If you don't really understand your beliefs and how you think and act, it'll be very easy to become triggered and judgmental of another person.

To learn how to hold space, it's important to learn how to watch/witness your thoughts. That step is part of letting go of your own self-judgments and to see how your ego self functions and judges you and everyone else. The less you judge yourself, the less you are likelty to judge another. The less your ego is running your inner show, the more you easily and naturally hold space for others.

The Timeless Witness

You can discover a lot about your ego self just by noticing the stuff running through your brain. Meditation and journaling are ways to mindfully notice and question what is happening inside you. You may also want to read different spiritual texts to help you better orient towards spiritual truths rather than cultural and familial beliefs. There's a lot of inner garbage filling up a lot of people's inner space. When your inside space is super cluttered, it's hard to hold space for another. Thus, the more inner work you do, the clearer you become to be with others in whatever way they need.

Unwriting Family Beliefs and Behavior Patterns

4 Simple Steps to Holding Space

Doing your own work is key, and I can't emphasize the importance of that enough. The more at peace you are with yourself, the easier it is to hold space for another and allow them to be with whatever may be going on in their lives.

As you cultivate that part of your spiritual practice, it is easier to hold space. Here are four simple steps to doing that:
  1. Let go of judgment
  2. Open your heart
  3. Allow another to have whatever experience they're having
  4. Give your complete undivided attention to the situation/other person (aka be fully present)

Those are 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, and it certainly doesn't mean being physically hurt by another.

Contrary to any fears that you may have about getting hurt while holding space, you're very powerful in this space. 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 our own wounding being triggered. Emotional hurt is taking what someone else says personally. But truthfully, 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. The more you understand that, the more compassion arises when you are holding space, and compassion is a clear sign of an open-heart.

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. 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 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. By not repressing or avoiding their emotions, they can potentially process through and release the real pain.

In general, the human being is a self-cleaning being. If we get out of the way of that natural inner healing, it seems to do itself. I always think this is good news because it requires us to do much less. So doing less is often another aspect of holding space. In a society that is focused on doing things, this can feel counterintuitive at first. But try it out. Sit in a space of a period of time with a co-worker, friend, or lover who is upset and needs your loving presence. See what happens if you don't fuel the situation and just allow it to unfold. Sure some people can get lost in their own ego issues, but when you are holding space as a friend, it's not your job to get them out of those ego mental loops. You certainly can try, but do so only if it naturally arises to share something.

Always go toward your own clear presence first.

Be Here Now

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 wounds. 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. As always, it's up to the other person in the equation to make the choice as to what results from it.

You can only own your pieces of the puzzle. A happy, transformative ending is not necessarily the outcome that will arise when you hold space. You may want to explain what you're doing with the other person if this is the first time that you've done it with them. It may be a relief for the other person to not have you butt in and try to run their life. Holding space cuts in many different directions, but it is always an enlightening experience--just not necessarily very comfortable 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 wallowing, they can get upset. They may leave. And you need to be just as comfortable with that outcome as with the positive outcome that brings closer friendships and intimacies.

Absorbing Other People's Issues

A common issue that crops up, especially for the highly sensitive/empathic people, is the feeling that they absorb other people's issues when they are holding space. Whenever you feel like you are "taking on" someone's energy or issues, that's a sign that you have an issue or a need yourself. Our needs are like Velcro that grab the debris of life. Truthfully, there is energy of all kinds flowing around you all the time. Most of it doesn't trigger anything. The stuff that does trigger you and gets stuck on you shows you where you are not clear. So rather than seeing holding space as a potentially depleting or toxic thing, consider it a form of illumination and self-education on your spiritual journey.

Additionally, you aren't supposed to take on other people's issues to "help" them. This is another common misconception. You are not here to fix other people's issues. When you are holding space, you are simply allowing people to have their issues. Let them have their experience. Their pain--if this is a moment where someone is experiencing pain--is teaching them an important lesson. By trying to take that pain away, they will not be able to learn from it, and you cannot complete the lesson for them. You'll just exhaust yourself, and both of you are now in an unhealthy codependent situation. That situation won't resolve itself until you let go of the pain and they finally feel it to the point that they are ready to let go of their suffering. Never forget that pain and suffering are some of the most powerful spiritual teachers for humanity.


Failing at Holding Space

You probably won't be very good at holding space initially. You'll notice just how much ego crap you've still got that either wants to fix, change, wallow, or otherwise get lost in the issues someone is sharing with you. However, 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.

The Uncomfortable Truth About Being Open-Hearted

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 yet. 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 an issue--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 pain 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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