The topic of holding space seems to be coming up everywhere I turn lately, Dear Ones. As leaders, centerholders, Priest/esses, family members, friends…as humans…this is an important skill to develop. Please enjoy this (slightly) updated post originally written last Fall, soon after the Equinox.
I’ve been thinking a lot about holding space—what it means, the purpose it serves, and how I can do it more effectively.
Along with the concept of “holding center,” the mindfulness around holding space has been present in my priestessing since my first in-person community trainings, if not before. I’ve noticed lately that the concept of holding space is popping up all around me, a development that brings me great joy. The more people capable of providing this service for one another, the better.
In the online Women’s Mystery School program I founded, we briefly address this topic, and I also teach it—both by example and through opportunities for embodied experience—during in-person ritual and classes.
I write this brief overview with an important caveat: learning how to hold space is intrinsically experiential. We can read about it all we want but actually putting it into practice is where we truly learn to become adept with this skill. Our personal experiences of holding space provide a clue (and not necessarily an answer) to what it actually *is*—an intuitive experience that can be different every time and therefore, often difficult to describe. Holding space is a Mystery in that it cannot be truly explained, only embodied.
One basic characterization of holding space is that it involves being with others in a way that embraces authentic listening as we remain as fully present as possible in the Holy Moment of now whilst also suspending and withholding the judgment that chatters along in our human minds. This can take a lot of energy, even if—or perhaps because—it appears that one is “doing nothing” from the outside. There is a certain quality of surrender in this experience.
When we are holding space for others, we are leaving our ego somewhere else, remembering: No matter what this person is thinking or feeling or doing, it’s not about me. We calmly and deliberately make room for the person to go through their process, whatever that looks like. We create and maintain a safe and sound container for them to experience their emotions, to listen to their Inner Wisdom, and to arrive at their own conclusions, without interference. All the while knowing that this is the total opposite of what many of us have been taught to do when we see someone experiencing powerful emotions!
In a ritual context (a group context), whenever we pass the rattle, we are holding space for the person who has it. I think I am paraphrasing Shekhinah Mountainwater here: “She who holds the rattle, holds the power”. When someone holds the rattle, it is their turn to speak. We pay them our exquisite, full attention, aware that our only “job” is to hold space for that person and their process, engaging with them solely in this way.
This is not an appropriate time to provide advice or encouragement or compliments, to comment on their words when it’s our turn with the rattle, or to offer uninvited touch or tissues without an express request. When we offer tissues or touch without a request, it often stops the process the person is going through and the catharsis that needs to happen. I offer up that this also takes away a person’s agency.
It is always good to examine *why* we want to jump in and stop a person’s process under the guise of “helping” or “comforting”—and it is usually because we ourselves are unconsciously uncomfortable. Although tears, anger, and all emotions are always welcome at our community’s altar, we still live in a culture that is afraid of strong emotions, bound and confined by patriarchy and toxic masculinity where expressions of feelings are often considered to be “weak”. We continually need to dig out these programs by their roots and then compost them into fertile soil for our own growth.
When a person possesses the rattle, we do not engage in verbal interactions with what is shared. Ideally we are also each taking responsibility for our own Sweet Selves as sovereign beings. This means: If we want a hug, we ask for one. If we need a tissue or a blanket, we ask for one or get it for ourselves. Et cetera. As sovereign beings we know that if we desire something it is our responsibility to ask for it. We know that voicing our needs is a sacred and holy act of personal authority, agency, and sovereignty.
When holding space for others, I’ve found it beneficial to keep this checklist in mind whenever possible:
- I release my human judgment. I strive to remember that I am not there to give advice, to solve dilemmas, to remove obstacles, or to arrive at conclusions for the other person. As Anna Holden says, “You cannot hold space for someone while simultaneously trying to fix their problems.” I do not know what is best for anyone excepting myself.
- I bear witness and stay present with the person as best I can while they undergo their own unique process of self-inquiry and discovery of truth. I give them my complete, undivided attention. In staying present—silently listening and validating—I show them that they are seen, heard, and safe.
- I am a vessel providing a (mostly silent) secure, clear container for the full range of emotions the person is experiencing, knowing that there could be tears as well as intense expressions of deep pain, grief, and anger.
- I do not take the other persons’ feelings into my own body, acting instead as a channel for whatever needs releasing or containing including anguish, pain, sadness, joy, etc.
- I allow the person to have their own process without interference (unless they are in harm’s way). I do not offer tissues*, hugs or other touch (unless they are specifically asked for) knowing that this can disrupt, stop, or suspend the healing process, especially when it is one of purging or release.
In addition, I note that an important thing to remember when doing is this work is that the energies we use to hold space should always come from our grounded connection to the Earth and the Stars, Above and Below—not from our human body. We are a channel for this energy, not the creator of it.
Blessed be! I’d love to hear about the ways in which you hold space for others, the ways others hold space for you, and any experiences or wisdom you’d like to share on this topic. The more skilled we all become with this, the better our world!
With Love, Lady Jesamyn
Art: (all photos by me) 1: Sisterhood of the Moon’s Women’s Lunar Rites altar honoring Goddess Kupala; 2: Fire pit prepared for the evening ritual in La Honda, CA; 3: Honoring the Amazons altar detail
* I do think it’s important to keep a box of tissues nearby within plain sight in case someone should need one.
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