I recently witnessed the death of a close friend from an acute illness. In the weeks that led to his passing, with an unexpected particularity, I encountered a few extraordinary people adept at holding space for the emotions and needs of others, and many more who were not. Since those days, I’ve been considering the principles people employ that enable safe, healing, reflective, and generative spaces, both in times of crisis and as an integrated part of living.
While I experienced this phenomenon in the context of grief, I’m convinced that holding space is a process related to transformational learning. Moving from one way of being to another is always challenging, but the difficulty is compounded when we’re kept from experiencing our unfolding reality in a holistic way. Those adept at holding space resist the strong urge to fix things—either by superficially making us feel better or by tethering our emerging perspective to particular objective categories. In short, they restrain their impulse to offer definitive answers and, instead, are committed to enabling imaginative possibility and the emergence of personal understanding that resists being mastered, theorized, reduced, or compartmentalized. They don’t outright reject objectivity (although they might question the usefulness of objectivity as a category of meaning), but rather allow experience to be recognized without outside mediation—at least until such time as one chooses to bring one’s experience into dialogue with the experience of others.
Here’s what I have learned so far. People who are good at holding space:
- Don’t project their experience onto others: Naming our experience can serve to affirm the experience of others, but it also risks scripting another person’s story in limiting and even destructive ways. Active listening and non-judgmental presence can allow others the space to narrate what they’re experiencing and to find their particular meaning.
- Embrace complexity, paradox, mystery, and the unknown: When we’re discovering something profound about ourselves and about existence, we benefit from being able to hold paradox and accept complexity. Sometimes having others reassure us of the transformative power of both the unknown and the unknowable is indispensible to becoming.
- Resist mastery and domination: The experiences that change our perspectives don’t have to be compartmentalized into other people’s theories or conform to others’ belief. In fact new meaning is only likely to emerge when we allow it to unfold in its own way. Our impulse to reactively theorize the experience of others is often related to our need to maintain authority over other people.
- Acknowledge that transformation is a social process: We come to know who we are and what matters to us in the context of community. People who hold space for the learning of others know not to impose their preconceptions onto those engaged in a transformational experience, but to allow learners to know they are not alone.
- Encourage compassion: Fear is grounded in the threat of separation, and paradoxically often results in people cutting themselves off from the support they desire. People who effectively hold space have empathy for others’ fear and the human tendency to separate in times of crisis, and they remain present to the “hard stuff” as it’s happening. In so doing, they model the power of compassionate presence and witnessing.
- Value the aesthetic: People who effectively hold space understand that beauty is central to becoming, and with both care and subtlety they create aesthetically rich contexts for reflection and thought. This may involve intentional manipulation of a physical space (they bring flowers, they make tea), or may more simply be reflected in the grace of their gestures, manner of presence, or way of being.
- Restrain toxicity: Each time I engage in my own transformational learning, I disorient other people’s understanding of who I am, of themselves, and of the context we share. In order to preserve the status quo, even if it’s dysfunctional, others may react with dissention, domination, and attempts at control. Someone who is effective at holding space will contain negative projections, and enable disorientation as a positive force for reflection and change.
- Trust that we are already whole: Each of us already knows how to be fully human, even if we’ve imposed limitations (or accepted limitations) on ourselves as a means of surviving in dysfunctional contexts. Those effective at holding space are able to help others trust their intuition and connect their wholeness with the wholeness of others.
I often hear MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts graduates talk of transformational experiences in our program. As odd as it may be to make this comparison, I think in a sense they’ve experienced something parallel to a death. In many instances they learn that they must set aside some aspect of their experience—often related to a set of expectations or perceptions about their form—grieve it, and learn to embrace a new way of being an artist. Sometimes the process requires them to grieve negative aspects of their being, parts of who they are that they’ve previously cultivated for some reason or another, but that no longer serve them. At first glance, to grieve a negative trait may seem counter-intuitive. But we can be comforted by the regularity and certainty of negative belief, and we shouldn’t discount how hard it can be to let go of anything that feels dependable.
In a more positive sense, identifying and pursuing new skills, aspirations, ways of being, or goals requires us to develop new modes of practice—which can be uncomfortable in that it requires the time, energy and focus to develop our facility and expertise. We often also have to find ways to take chances and, for some period of time, to fail before we succeed. Undertaking this work in a supportive social context can advance and quicken our learning. Working with a mentor, collaborator, or peer who is adept at holding space for unlearning, uncertainty, and risk can be indispensable. It’s also, unfortunately, rare.
And as artists I suspect our capacity to hold space might be our most effective tool. Those of us who are concerned with creating meaningful aesthetic experience are interested in affirming and disorienting ways of being, and are often drawn to an exploration of paradox and mystery. We understand that the arts matter when they allow us to imagine ways of living beyond the prescribed limitations we all experience, and when they advance our understanding of both life’s ineffable possibilities and profound limits.
No matter how competent I feel as a teacher or learner, holding space continues to feel like an aspiration for me. Each time I feel my capacity for it, I soon find myself challenged to consider again some facet of my impatience or resistance. And it’s in this, perhaps, where the value of my commitment to its process lies. In order to be present to the profound possibility inherent in another’s learning one must be aware of the profound fragility of one’s own.
[Images made by the author, November 2013]