When I demonstrate holding space, I hold my arms out as if a child is going to run and jump into them, and I smile. I invite and contain this fun explosion of energy as a gift to both of us. I allow for many possibilities – maybe the child jumps high, maybe to the left – and I hold my arms firmly enough to catch him safely even if there’s some impact. Whether it’s holding space for growing, healing, or dying, the gesture and dynamics are the same: open arms, invitation, non-judgment, safe boundaries, and Love. (joyfulness or serious tone is optional)
It’s easy to hold space for a baby learning to walk. We understand that this is a natural phase of growing up; that falls are part of the learning process; and that we simply have to provide a guiding hand to keep the baby out of danger while he figures out the details. Most of us came through that particular process pretty well and can easily hold space for other new beings as they go through it.
But what happens when space isn’t held well? Imagine a girl learning to climb a tree. If her mother hovers closely out of fear that she’ll fall and hurt herself, she will absorb that fear and self-doubt. Similarly, if her dad pushes her faster than she’s ready to learn, or shouts down her trepidation, she won’t get the chance to experience and enjoy her own mastery. In either case, the arms weren’t held open well so she could find her own way and she is less likely to hold space appropriately for someone learning a similar skill.
In the case of a teenager going through a difficult phase, you probably have some experience that can help you open your arms and your heart. Even if you didn’t go through that exact thing, you probably went through something challenging as a teenager and your Inner Teenager may have perspective that you’re your Adult self doesn’t. Empathy opens your arms and compassion throws them wide. Judgment makes you narrow your arms. Fear may make you throw them up altogether. Ask yourself if there was a time you went through a tough time and someone was able to hold space for you and your situation. If you can recall how supportive and satisfying that felt, you can extend that to the teenager. Remember the open arms, held firmly, with love.
What about holding space for someone who sits on the opposite side of the creationist/evolution debate? Or people with completely opposing political views? You hold space for them the same way, by expanding your perspective to encompass a higher, larger view and opening your heart. I had to do this when I was massaging a cattle rancher from Texas who insisted on telling me about shooting a dozen condors, furious that they were killing her calves. My job in that moment was to touch her with love, so I held space for myself by taking a few breaths and letting my anger and frustration flow through me and then expanded my heart space as I reminded myself that she held her viewpoint just as dearly as I held mine. I was able to hold space for her opinion without specifically agreeing with it – and I came out of the massage feeling bigger than if I had contracted into opposition. Contracting into our own viewpoint locks down the defensive armor; when there’s no space for the other, we feel diminished, ourselves.
Then there’s the “pay it forward” aspect of caring for our aging parents. We are each a moving-target space holder on the human continuum, in line with our ancestors and our progeny. When several generations live together, young ones watch their elders progress through all the stages of aging an death and they learn how to hold space for this phase. If we go through life largely separated from our elders, we may have difficulty holding space for aging as we see it in ourselves up close for the first time. If we don’t die young or suddenly, there’s a strong chance we will need care as we age and it’s easier to accept that eventual care if we have already cared for another. Because I didn’t get this in my household growing up, I’m consciously hanging out with other elders as they approach death. I’m learning to hold my arms open for my own aging and death by their examples. This is holding space for all of life and that is a sweet space to be in!