Holding Space

dogLately I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of holding space. Whatever does that mean? Are you worried that I am about to launch into more mindfulness chatter with no mention of the dogs? Do you come here wanting a wagging tail to convey a tale with meaning packed into the punch line?

It’s easy enough to show you my small white Havanese dogs begging for my attention, to tell you that they knock the idea of multitasking and its usefulness to the ground. Having each dog with a different need means my mobile New York Times is harder to read while playing with them. But when I think of holding space, my mind immediately bounces to what I have learned through interviewing sources for the articles I write. It’s so easy to pop into all my interviews, adding my own two cents. “Oh yeah,” I say, “that reminds me of this…”

And then the interviewee is hearing my story. Sometimes this prods them to tell me more of their story. But still and yet, the golden rule of the interview is to keep the source talking, divulging information he or she has never spoken aloud before. Often my story moves the story forward. But always I have to be mindful of only jumping in when the talk is at a standstill, or if my story moves their story forward and leads to new questions. When I interview someone, I’m there to hold space open for the person, to hear the story before me, to dive in deep with listening ears.

As a talker, holding space is something that has taken me a long time to learn. You can’t grasp tightly and lean in too far. When I hold space well, I can feel the energy of the tale being told and sometimes it’s hard to stay in the room, to not be turned away from the largeness of the emotion, to try to fix the teller or soothe the speaker or add in my own travails. This holding space is sacred work, and when you are in the middle of it the magic is inescapable. There is a deep gratitude in this work, to be a witness to the story, whatever that story is.

This holding space carries over into my own life. Nothing beats being quiet and letting my kids in. The thing I’ve learned about this technique and parenting is this: questions rarely work when I want to hold space for my kids. Maybe one or two open-ended sentences, but just being in the room with them is really what works. I’m here. My child is here. And if I hold my heart still and focus on love, well, that’s holding space and letting comfort work its magic.

Don’t I sound like a great parent? Often I’m not. But when it works, blessings slowly seep and settle around us. I was reminded of this while interviewing eight women in a row last Thursday night as they told me about how learning about mindfulness has helped grow their parenting skills. These women dropped one blessing after another on my lap as I held space for their stories. I thought of them at 7:15 this morning as I so wished I wasn’t a parent pulling my kids out of bed. The women I talked to last week all lived in transitional housing. They had fewer resources at their disposal than I do every day but yet they told me of how parenting was the most important thing in their lives. Couldn’t I muster up some skills, some patience, some love as I woke my kids up and sent them off to school?

Oh, this holding space needs a lot of other hands to hold us up in the tired moments when we would rather be anywhere but here. I hold my hands half open and let the moment breathe. I can peel the hard-boiled egg and place it on a plate and put it on the shelf above my daughter’s bed and tell her breakfast is above her and ask her to get dressed after she eats. I can make it more gracefully through one more morning. I can unclench my fears and dread and my simple annoyance at my really tired children and take a deeper breath and think about being nice when I would rather go back to bed or travel to Italy solo instead.

When I interviewed those eight women last Thursday night, I thought of all the mindfulness stories I have written over the last few years, but how that night I saw it in action. I was small before them, these masters of stopping before reacting. The hour drive through rush hour traffic was nothing compared to what I learned by keeping quiet as they told me their tales. There is a space in every moment before we react. Can I hold the space right there for whoever is before me asking for grace? I’m taking that question with me, packing it into my front pocket, and hoping I remember to pull it out and use it as I go about the minutes of my day.




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