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Two ways of holding space

When we interact in daily life, we are often in a sort of business or transaction mode: I do this, you do that; I give you X and you give me Z. We relate to each other based on socially recognizable functions, roles, scripts. This is effective, insofar as it allows for a relatively smooth and quick running of daily businesses. But is also a very limiting way of relating to each other. In fact, when we enter this transactional mode, we’re not really facing the other as such, but only a recognizable shape, mask or function that could be performed by anybody. Insofar as I put too much of my own self (my history, mood, sensitivity) in performing that function, I’m undermining its efficiency, I’m doing something else, I’m breaking the rules.


The idea of ‘holding space’ is the opposite of this transactional mode of interacting. To hold space for someone means to create an opportunity for the other to be as they want, to manifest what they wish to manifest, and to ask or say what they need to ask or say. When holding space, there is no specific goal or action to execute, but simply an invitation to listen, and express what needs to be expressed, improvising on the basis of what’s alive in the moment.


There are two different ways of holding space, which I shall tentatively call ‘serene’ and ‘involved’. The ‘serene’ space holding consists in simply allowing the other to be what they want to be, without interfering any further. One provides the room and ease to let them be, but without attempting at changing them, rescuing them, or interfering with their process. The ‘serene’ space holder is just an equanimous witness, enabling the other, without getting passionate about they will manifest (or not). In this way of holding space there is a subtle distance that is kept between the space holder and the other(s), which makes the act of holding space in a sense lighter and more sustainable on a long term and in a greater variety of circumstances. This is also a relatively more superficial way of holding space, in the sense that the space holder doesn’t have to follow the other in their process, nor does even need to know much about its unfolding.


The ’involved’ space holding consists in providing active feedback to the other, or even a scaffolding, based not only on listening and witnessing, but also on supportive responses aimed at positively intervening in the other’s process, supporting it, guiding it as needed. Being involved means also being willing and able to bear the weight of what one is allowing the other to share. Involved space holding does not simply give an opportunity for whatever needs to be expressed to be expressed, but also follows up on what is expressed, adapts to it, and helps digesting it. This requires clearly a deeper connection with the other, greater resilience and energy, more closeness and even intimacy, and it might not be always sustainable in all circumstances, with everybody, or for long periods of time.


Ideally, holding space would include both these modalities at some point, or in the appropriate measure (no a priori recipe). And ideally, holding space would be mutual: as I hold space for you, you’ll in turn hold space for me. The problem is that reality is not ideal, and so we’re often stuck in circumstances in which nobody is holding space for the other, or they can do only to some extent or in certain ways, which might not fully match the needs of the moment.


Personally, I observed that I am quite confident with the ‘serene’ space holding, and sometimes when I sense that it might be appropriate, I enjoy very much the ‘involved’ space holding. But then I get stuck in that role and it becomes very difficult for me to sustain it. I miss the opportunity of reciprocation, and I’ve observed that my willingness to be involve in the space holding is also fueled by my own need to be held myself in turn—both in a ‘serene’ and ‘involved’ way. As a result, I sometimes get almost exhausted, and often frustrated.


For some years I’ve pursued an ideal of self-sufficiency and complete independence. In fact, this goes back to my childhood, where I was playing with creating little fortresses where I could have lived alone and secure on my own. The thought of not having to rely on anything else is very alluring as it dissolves entirely the problem of space holding. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it could ever work, no matter what theories or propagandas might say to the contrary. We’re relational beings, and we’re not designed to be self-sufficient, we essentially depend on each other. That’s just it. We can’t avoid the problem of how holding space for each other in a sustainable way. I don’t have an answer to this problem, nor I know whether there is a definite answer at all. All what I see for now is that this is the essential problem, or rather the fundamental question to be asked: how do we hold space for each other? The question is open, like the field of experience. In this field there are clearly many obstacles and tricks, and sometimes no clearly marked paths. I’m wondering whether there are also oases of peace, where the magic can happen—and we fall in space, together.

Image: Ginny Marsh @ Gorgeous You Photography.

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