holding space: one


[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter—which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work—in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]

20 November 2013: I’ve published a more concise and revised version of this essay on the Goddard MFAIA blog.

28 September 2013

I’ve been thinking about the practice of holding space. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this concept is preoccupying me. I’ve spent a much of the last month with a friend who was dying (and his family). In the face of powerlessness, there’s often nothing more that one can do other than hold space and be present. However, it’s not just this event that has me thinking about what it means to hold space. I certainly started to think about this concept before I knew that my friend was sick, and oddly I planned to write on the subject at this moment in the semester when I started to map my fall plans during our summer residency.

Given my process of discernment and grief, I suspect that I may not adequately convey the fullness of my thinking in this letter. I hope that you will be understand that this is a draft of something bigger, something that can only be developed with a bit of distance. I hope to continue to write about this subject over the coming months.

I’ve only been consciously aware of the concept of holding space for the past year or so—and it’s an idea that I’ve picked up more from my environment and experience than from any conscious learning. When I first really heard someone use the term (or at least first became conscious of someone using it), I assumed it was metaphor being employed from the theater—mostly because it seemed to be the sort of thing critics might say to describe actors’ ability to command presence on a stage. I’ve come to learn, at least in the way I’m thinking about it, that it comes both from spiritual and psychological practice; and refers to our ability to create and maintain spaces in which others can feel safe, reflect, learn, and transform perspective. When I think about it from this point of view, it feels clear that holding space has value in the context of my work as a facilitator, and it feels self evident that this extends to my life as a teacher. I also think that it might be pretty important in the context of my creative practice.

Part of me feels uncomfortable writing about the process of holding space. Conceptually, it feels slippery—too subjective and without tangible shape. I suppose this is at the heart of the matter. It feels like something I do intuitively, rather than with conscious intention. Yet, I also suspect that I could become a better practitioner of it with greater reflection, consciousness, and intention.

It’s from these perspectives that I’m proceeding with these reflections.

While I’m convinced that holding space is a process related to transformational learning, I’m also aware that at its core is a commitment to acknowledging personal, subjective truth. Concomitantly, it resists the urge to fix things—either in the sense of superficially making us feel better or by tethering our perspectives to particular objective categories; that is by offering definitive knowledge or answers. It’s more concerned with enabling imaginative possibility and the emergence of personal understanding that resists being mastered, theorized, reduced, or compartmentalized. This doesn’t mean that it rejects objectivity (although it probably questions the usefulness of objectivity as a category of meaning), but rather it allows our experience to be recognized without outside mediation—at least until such time as we choose to bring our experience into dialogue with the experience of others.

In my life and work, and with an acute particularity in the past few weeks, I’ve encountered people who are adept at holding space for and with others, and many who are not. In the past month’s many moments of silence and contemplation, I’ve considered the principles people employ that enable safe, healing, transformative, and reflective spaces. Here’s what I have learned so far; people adept at holding space for others:

  • Embrace complexity, paradox, mystery, and the unknown: When we’re discovering something profound about ourselves and our 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 crave. 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), or may more simply be reflected in the grace of their gestures, manner of presence, or way of being.
  • Restrain toxic and negative projections: Each time I engage in 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 on ourselves as a means of surviving in dysfunctional contexts. A facilitator who is effective at holding space for personal or collective transformation is able to help others trust their intuition, and is able to help them connect their wholeness with the wholeness of others.

So, what does this mean to us as artists? As teachers?

It’s easier for me to see the application of these principles to teaching. As anyone who’s witnessed a baby learning to walk knows, profound, transformational learning is a painful process—and one that defies simple instructions expressed through language. Learning within such a context, in addition to being full of physical and psychological discomfort, is undertaken intuitively, with no real knowledge of the power of the outcome. This kind of learning is aided by encouragement and support. Learning to walk, regardless of its “pain” results in a perspective and ability that literally transforms our worldview and allows us to navigate the world’s possibility in new ways.  In a sense, this is a simple illustration of the process I’m describing.

When we extend the example to other modes of learning, we might better see the discomfort, the “painful process,” that’s at the heart of all transformational learning. In many instances we have to set aside some aspect of ourselves, grieve it, and learn to embrace a new way of being. Sometimes we have to grieve negative aspects of ourselves, parts of our being that we’ve previously cultivated for some reason or another, but that do not serve us. This may seem counter-intuitive—to grieve a negative trait—but we can be comforted by the regularity and dependability 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 the sense that we will have to allow ourselves the time, energy and focus to develop our facility and expertise. We often also have to find the safety required to risk and, for some period of time, to fail before we succeed. Undertaking this work in a supportive social context can advance and quicken our process.

Intuitively, I know that these matters have a direct application to art practice in the sense that creative practitioners are often trying to create contexts in which perspective can change. We are concerned with creating aesthetic experiences that can both affirm and disorient ways of being. And artists are often drawn to an exploration of paradox and mystery. Yet, it’s in this realm where I want to take more time to consider my intuition about these matters before trying to explicate more. So it’s here that I’ll set down my reflection, and perhaps invite you to take it up.

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