Holding Space for Others
Sometimes the best thing we can do is nothing at all
One of the most beautiful gifts we can give the people we love is to hold space for them. This is a courageous and radical act of love. In our culture, we are not taught how to hold space for others. We are taught to speak up and take action. Silence is considered awkward, rather than a beautiful way to be together when words are not necessary. We learn to react in order to empathize, try to fix other people’s problems or minimize their pain. But there is no greater gift we can give those we love than to hold space for them – space to listen and allow them to be heard, space in which they can be vulnerable and honest about their feelings, and space in which they can feel safe, loved, cared for and accepted fully just as they are.
There is definitely an “art” to holding space. It requires restraint. It is listening to the other person’s experience while getting ourselves, and our egos, out of the way. It is not trying to fix or solve anything. It is not talking, even when we think telling our own stories of similar feelings or situations will help, which only takes the attention away from them by placing it back on ourselves. Holding space for someone is also recognizing that we are not responsible for how they are feeling. It is remembering that this is not about us. Instead, we offer our presence and a state of being, not of doing, and we resist the urge to jump in and “do” or say anything, even if we have the best of intentions.
Instead, we hold space for them, allowing them time to feel whatever it is they are feeling. There is so much emphasis today on being happy that people are less willing to share their feelings of unhappiness or pain. By hiding these feelings from one another, we risk sending the message that sadness, frustration, loneliness, anger, confusion and the whole range of difficult emotions are not “OK” or normal. We need to share and acknowledge all of the emotions that come with being human. These feelings need to be felt in order to move through us. In holding space for someone to share their thoughts and emotions honestly, we are helping them process it all. We are offering them the true gift of our presence, love and acceptance just as they are, with whatever they are experiencing. It takes great trust and vulnerability to open your heart to someone else, and that cannot be taken lightly and must be received with great respect. We don’t have to agree with what they are doing or feeling, but we do have to get out of their way and allow them their right to do it and feel it. This is an act of unconditional love.
Mindfulness helps us develop the skills to hold space for others. It helps us clearly see when our egos are getting in the way of being open to someone else’s experience. We learn to recognize when our own anxiety is triggered, causing us to want to control the situation to alleviate our fears. We notice our desire to push away unpleasant feelings, rather than just see them as they rise and fall. We get to know when judgments creep into our thoughts or when we disengage entirely. Mindfulness helps us to see this all more clearly as we learn to let go, so our responses and reactions don’t get in our way of offering others our unconditional love, full presence and open hearts. Sending them the simple but profound message, “I love you and I am here for you always.”
Holding Space for Our Children
One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to hold space for them. As our children grow up, our parenting role changes. When they are very young, we are responsible for their basic human needs, loving and nurturing them, while keeping them safe from harm as they grow and explore the world around them. But as they enter adolescence and prepare to leave the safety and security of home, we realize that we will soon no longer be “in charge” of their safety or their decision-making and we begin the difficult job of stepping back and allowing them to make their own way in the world.
As they become adults, our gift to them, as hard as it is to do, is to allow them to make their own decisions and their own mistakes. For us as parents, this requires an endless series of letting go and the painful process of watching your child experience the disappointment, rejection, and setbacks that come with life. But what greater gift can we give them than to allow them to develop their own ability to figure things out for themselves, to learn to trust their own judgment, to have faith in their own inner knowing of what is in their hearts and what matters most to them. And, when things don’t go as planned, and they often do not, we give them the gift of understanding their own boundless inner strengths and incredible resilience to pick themselves up and move forward.
What can we do?
The best we can do is create an open channel of communication and connection, offer our emotional support along the way and always share our unwavering, unconditional love. As parents, we have an intuitive sense of our children’s wellbeing. We feel their pain and their struggles deeply. But, we need to know when we are supposed to intervene and when it is best to allow them the space to figure things out for themselves.
We often mistake our desire to lessen their pain with our need to intervene and we end up offering our help, advice, or opinions when they are not wanted or needed. We have to learn to recognize that our desire to intervene or protect them is often our attempt to control their experience. Our fears and anxieties are completely understandable and natural as we watch our children make their way in the world. But our fears are also deeply felt by our children and can chip away at their own self-confidence and add to their feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and fear. By intervening, even with the best of intentions, we may be sending them the message that we do not trust them and that they are not capable of handling the situation. But by holding space for them, we are sending them the message that we have confidence in them, that we love them unconditionally, and that we trust they can handle whatever comes their way.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when parental advice is much needed, but most of the time that takes place after space has been created for deep listening, which provides fertile ground and trust for parental input when it is welcomed and valued. Most of the time it is never wanted or welcomed in that moment of raw or heightened emotion when all our children want is to be heard, seen and felt.
What do we do with all of that parental concern and deep desire to protect and nurture that do not fade as our children become adults?
We can channel all that caring energy by grounding in the space around them and holding sacred space for them. We don’t know what decisions they will make, and we have to let go of trying to control their experience. Instead, we can dig deeply into our own hearts, feel all of the love we have for them that is felt so deeply, and trust in them and in their path. This gives us a place to channel our love and is an outlet for our desire to help, rather than creating more confusion, chaos and distrust. What our children really need as they become adults is space, time and to be trusted, heard, felt and loved. Holding sacred space for them allows us to give them this precious gift so that they can learn to love and trust themselves, and hold space for themselves and for others. Whatever their path, the best we can do is send them the strong and unwavering message, “I will be here to love you always.”
Eckhart Tolle explains how to practice being present in this way. He suggests looking at a flower, taking it in and seeing all of its inherent beauty. Observe it and open your heart to how it feels to be in the presence of such beauty. The flower does not know its own beauty or strength, only we can see that. But by seeing it ourselves, appreciating all that is it and reflecting it back onto the flower, we show the flower its own intrinsic value.
In that same way, we can hold space for others, see their beauty and strength, and reflect that back to them. In order to do this, we must stop and be fully present with them. Then, we can open our hearts and minds so that we can hold sacred space for all that is there.
Holding Space for Ourselves
Finally, there is no greater gift we can give to ourselves than to hold space for ourselves. Mindfulness, at its core, is doing just that. The practice of true mindfulness helps us hold sacred space for ourselves. It is opening to our whole experience and welcoming it all in with gentleness and acceptance, and without judgment. It is letting go of our need to fix or control our experience. It is recognizing fear and judgment when they arise and simply letting them be without acting on them. Instead, we learn to sit in an open space of love and listening – listening to our hearts, listening to what matters most to us, connecting inward and learning once again who we truly are. It allows us the time and space to connect inward to our own fullness and abundance that is always present, we just don’t take the time to notice it. Practicing over and over again to be in this space helps us offer this beautiful way of being to those we love and to the world.