photo credit: Milada Vigerova, Unsplash

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I have a confession to make. I’m not very good at letting people hold space for me.

It’s true. I’ve built my work around what it means to hold space, and I understand how valuable it is, and yet… I often bump up against resistance around asking and/or allowing people to hold space for me. (Isn’t it true that we often teach what we most need to learn?)

It’s partly because I’ve spent much of my adult life in the roles of teacher, parent, facilitator, leader, manager, coach, advocate, etc., and so I have this internal script around needing to be the strong and supportive one in every relationship. And it’s partly because my life experiences have left me with a somewhat avoidant (and sometimes disorganized) attachment style, and so when it comes to the intimate situations where I need to trust someone to hold space for me, I can get triggered into a “this person might harm me or ask too much of me so I’d better pull back before that becomes a possibility” stance.

I’ve been working on those things in my intimate relationships (especially in the four years since the end of my marriage revealed so many well-ingrained patterns that had become survival skills). It takes a lot of time and effort to adjust those old scripts, and to heal the associated wounds, so I don’t expect it to change overnight.

A few weeks ago, I had a beautiful experience of having space held for me, and it taught me a lot about what’s possible and what I need more of in my life.

I’d been looking for a place to go for a week where I could finish writing my book (tentatively titled Be the Bowl: The Fine Art of Holding Space). I am much more successful at the focused work required for a project as large as a book when I can step away from my commitments, my family, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the many distractions that the internet provides, so I was looking for a private space. 

In the past, I have rented a cabin, stayed a few extra days in a hotel room after a business trip, or stayed at a local retreat centre to get big projects done. All of those are solo efforts (except for the time I shared a cabin with a friend who was also writing a book), and that’s usually the way I like it. This time, though, for reasons I can’t articulate, I had a feeling I needed something a little different. While I needed privacy and quiet, I also needed companionship and nurturing. 

My friends Lorraine and TuBears had offered me the use of the small cottage in their backyard (which TuBears normally uses as an office) and since I’d spent time in their home before and I love them dearly (you can watch a video we once made about our friendship), I was pretty sure it would be the right space where I could write without interruption and still have the value of friendship and support. 

I couldn’t have been more right. It was a magical week. The writing flowed beautifully, I finished the book in record time, and I even had time for a first edit. 

I’m pretty sure that what I wrote in that special space in their backyard is some of my best writing on the subject of holding space, partly because the space is sacred (it’s full of the sacred objects that TuBears has collected from her rich life as a Sundance dancer, shamanic practitioner, spiritual guide, and Choctaw elder), and partly because I had two of the best possible people holding space for me.

If you asked them, they would probably say they “didn’t do anything special”, but that’s not how it felt for me. They were attentive to my needs (Lorraine would sometimes pop in, mid-afternoon when my energy was flagging, with a smoothie or chai latte, and they always had delicious and healthy meals available), they kept the distractions away (they wouldn’t even let me help with dishes after meals, but rather sent me back to my writing cave), they listened to me when I needed to wrestle with a concept I was writing about, and they shared their own stories of what holding space meant for them. Even before I arrived, they’d put intention and love into preparing for me. They’d prayed over the space and smudged it so that it would be ready to support me while I wrote. They’d prepared all of the things they thought I’d need while I wrote – a kettle, a mug, teabags, and a basket full of tasty treats. 

We had long conversations in the evenings, and those conversations both enhanced my writing and gave me a break from it. When TuBears dropped a few wisdom bombs into our conversation, from her years of dancing at Sundance and holding space for people’s vision quests, I knew that I needed to interview her for the book, and so she’s become an integral part of my final chapter. 

We also laughed. A LOT. Together, Lorraine and TuBears have the capacity to created a space that is, in equal measure, both light-hearted and able to hold deep pain. Every time we’re together, I find myself telling them things I don’t normally tell anyone else, because I know that they will hold it with just the right amount of weightiness and humour. They help me to trust myself but not take myself too seriously.

Perhaps most profoundly, Lorraine and TuBears demonstrated a deep belief in me. They are unequivocal cheerleaders of my work and they want this book to be born, and so they were delighted to help midwife it into existence. When you have people with that kind of commitment to and belief in your work, it makes it much easier to shine.

Lorraine and TuBears are able to show up in that way and hold space for what I needed because they have done a lot of work in holding space for themselves. They are both strong and grounded people, and so their offering felt clean and generous, without hidden expectations. I never felt an obligation to pay attention to them, to offer them the right amount of gratitude, to reciprocate their generosity, or to feed their egos. Of course I WANTED to express gratitude and offer back some gifts, but it wasn’t out of a sense of obligation or expectation.

As I’ve written before, this is what it means to be in relationship with people when all parties are able to maintain their sovereignty and act out of love and commitment to each other rather than expectation, oppression, guilt, fear, power imbalance, or obligation. When we can hold space with sovereignty as our grounding principle, then we don’t layer our old wounds and expectations onto each other and we give each other the space to grow and to shine. We don’t feel threatened by another person’s greatness, nor do we diminish our own greatness to make the other person feel better. 

At the end of my week with them, I knew that I’d not only been able to do good work, but that I’d had some profound healing in the container they provided for me. In trusting them and letting them hold space for me, I’d had a beautiful opportunity to continue to re-write the old scripts about my need to be self-sufficient and not get too close to people. 

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what was at play in order for me to allow space to be held for me (and what will allow me to find greater intimacy in future relationships), and here are some of the things I’ve come up with:
– I needed to have a high level of trust that Lorraine and TuBears would provide the space and support without expectation or unspoken conditions. My prior experience with them demonstrated that they could.
– I needed to work on releasing the leftover garbage from old attachment wounds so that I wouldn’t be as easily triggered by having to rely on and trust someone else for the kind of support they gave me.
– I needed them to be sufficiently mature and self-aware, and not needy or co-dependent so that I wouldn’t have to spend the week worrying about whether I was hurting their feelings or not reciprocating enough.
– I needed to pay attention to my own needs and be honest in articulating them.

– I needed to let love in and be gracious in receiving their generosity and kindness.

One of the teaching tools I often use is a collapsible bowl that can be either shallow or deep or somewhere in between. It demonstrates how we can hold space at different levels. Although I often have space held for me at the shallower or medium levels, I don’t often find myself held at the deepest level. (That’s usually what I do for other people instead of the other way around.) With Lorraine and TuBears, though, I was able to trust at the deepest level.

I can’t imagine a better way to finish a book on holding space than with my own profound learning about what it’s like to have space held for ME! 

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