What is “Holding Space”?

Later this week Briana and I will be hosting the Illuminator Training – part of Dragontree Life Coaching Program – and we’ll spend four days in a very special space. It’s going to be at our house, and while I think our house is a special physical space, the space I’m talking about here is something different. I really mean that we’ll be in a special state of consciousness – one in which people feel safe to really see themselves and others, to be in loving community, to learn and heal. 

I am both proud and humbled to co-create such a space. When I write or talk about it, it’s hard not to feel I’m exaggerating; so much positive change occurs in such a short time. For me, it reinforces the value of what we teach in the course – primarily the value of holding space. 

The first handful of times I heard the term “hold space” I regarded it as New Age jargon and didn’t give it serious consideration. Once I was 20-something at a big dance event and the movie Baraka was being projected onto the walls. Amidst beautiful, sometimes haunting imagery, we were taken to an egg factory. There were conveyor belts and metal chutes along which were tumbling thousands and thousands of fuzzy yellow chicks. Attendants casually pulled them out by a wing and then tossed half of them (the males) down a giant funnel (into a grinder). The remainder were de-beaked, and in the next scene they were sickly and missing feathers, crammed into stacks upon stacks of wire cages. 

There was a sudden collective moan of sorrow through the crowd. Someone shouted, “Breathe! Hold space for them!” And I thought, “What does that even mean?”

Well, now I know what it means and I think it was good advice – not just to hold space for the chicks, but to hold space for everyone involved. I also think that the term “hold space” is perfect for describing this practice. It’s an art, really. It comes naturally to some people but not most, and many gifted healers, teachers, and guides are skilled at it even if they’ve never heard the term.

Holding space has a few meanings for me. First, it means to become a neutral, benevolent container for what’s happening. That is, hold this moment in your awareness – ideally until some resolution or balance has developed. This entails giving your attention to what’s happening right here, right now and supporting its natural unfoldment. 

When we’re holding space, we’re not trying to diagnose, fix anything, or come up with the answer. We’re not trying to be impressive or spiritual, and we’re not hoping to get approval. And we’re not departing from the task at hand to meander into the forest of our own thoughts.

Second, holding space means focusing on and protecting the space itself – maintaining an opening. By space here, I mean the formless consciousness that is the Universe – the matrix from which all objects (things, feelings, ideas) arise. You could also call it God or Undifferentiated Awareness or Spirit. It’s the bulk of the iceberg of reality, while the stuff that tends to get 99.9% of our attention is the very tip. Because space is more ethereal than form, it not only surrounds everything, but also exists within everything. 

When we happen upon a moment when our consciousness is on the space (rather than engrossed in its contents), it usually feels good – our stories fall away and we expand into that space (because we are the space!). But the ego doesn’t like it. “Hey! Don’t forget about me!” it yells. “Come back! I’ve got some juicy gossip and some intense fears and a long list of grievances with the world!” 

It seems crazy to go back to that – a reality marked largely by conflict and resistance – but we all do it. The ego is hooked up our survival mechanisms and it’s able to produce some compelling thoughts and feelings which shrink our consciousness like a turtle pulling into its shell. “It’s smelly and dark and crowded in here,” some part of us registers, “but it’s familiar.”

So, holding space in the second sense means maintaining the space – staying expanded, bringing in and honoring Spirit. We prevent encroachment upon or eclipsing of that space mainly by abstaining from the compulsion to fill it up with our stuff. 

In the case of the chicken scene, it would have been a difficult setting in which to hold space for all the layers needing illumination (from the suffering of innocent creatures, to the knowing that we are complicit in this if we buy chicken, eggs, or pet food, and so on). But there are opportunities for space-holding all the time, and I see the magic of it so clearly at these Illuminator trainings – the magic of a whole room of coaches holding space for one individual to see themselves, heal, and blossom. 

Holding space isn’t just for a formal coach-client or healer-patient setting, it’s a practice by which the mundane becomes holy, and we can do it all the time. At first (and sometimes later) it can feel like hard work. It takes discipline to stop thinking and to instead hold your attention on the Now. It takes trust to not intervene or analyze. But it’s deeply rewarding. 

When you hold space for someone, even if they don’t know what you’re doing, they tend to experience that spaciousness. There’s more space between their thoughts. There’s a broadening of perspective and they access their resources. They begin to open and heal. Your space-holding is like a bridge that helps them connect with their Higher Self. 

You can hold space for anything, for any and every moment. Things that are naturally riveting – like a baby being born – can be easier to hold space for because they’re so uncommon and so obviously miraculous. However, there’s much to be learned and experienced through holding space for the “everyday” – for the blowing of a tree in the breeze, for the dripping of a water faucet, for the barking of a dog. One of the most fundamental yet profound meditative practices is to simply hold space for your own breath. Let’s both hold space for whatever is happening right now for the next thirty seconds. 

Mmmm. That was good. It reminded me of something I wanted to tell you: thinking is optional. I know we all have times when we can’t seem to turn off our mind, but just as you can stop talking aloud, you can stop talking inside. It’s an expression of reverence for the space to take a break from talking once in a while. 

Be well,

Peter

11 thoughts on “What is “Holding Space”?

  1. The Universe delivered this message at precisely the right time. So I’m holding space for it. And for you.

    1. I’m so glad to hear it, Erica!

  2. That was great. Thank you
    JoJo

    1. You’re welcome, JoJo

  3. Peter – Thank you for this. I’m an External Processor and often talk myself through what I’m doing aloud. My husband will say “who are you talking to” and I feel that if I can HS…more for myself I’ll get better at not coming up with fixes for others (which I do) as I so want to help everyone and my job demands I try and work out issues between employers & employees so it’s not always easy to turn that off…Thank you for allowing space in your heart for others. I look forward to your gifts of expression. Love, Heidi

    1. Thanks for your insights, Heidi. I wish you more space for yourself.

  4. Wow, Peter. Missed a great opportunity to hear more of your vision when in Boulder. Highly recommend that you all take the chance to “ offer more “ of your wisdom and perspective to peeps in your immediate teamsphere!
    Totally appreciate your style and take on this. Blessings.🙏🏻

  5. This just help my entire nervous system calm down. I actually felt my stomach rest, maybe for the first time in several weeks. Thank you for this. 🙏

  6. Thank you, Peter. The term is often overused and I’ve wondered exactly what it means. You spelled it out beautifully.

  7. Peter,
    Thank you for beautifully and gently articulating what holding space looks and feels like. I especially love “thinking is optional.”
    This is a blessing.🙏🏼

  8. I’ve been practicing meditation and yoga for over one year now, and just recently felt what holding space is, all the sudden I understood it’s meaning. It is hard for me to always hold space, but I continue to practice. So, this insight you shared is so good for me to read and ponder. Thank you.

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