So, here’s the thing.
We might do Instagram-perfect yoga.
We might meditate for at least an hour a day.
We might pray. Say mantras. Do mudras. Send love to the world.
We might have a hoard of crystals and other spiritual trinkets.
We might do elaborate daily rituals, eat a whole food cruelty-free diet, and fast every month.
We might burn incense, smile all day, say affirmations, and say “love and light” or “namaste” a lot.
But in my humble opinion, all of this doesn’t mean shit if we can’t show compassion and be there for others.
The Hypocrisy of Saccharine Spirituality
Firstly, I want to start by saying that I am by no means innocent. I have judged others before, turned a blind eye, shown unkindness, and committed spiritual bypassing – all while under the self-designated label of being “spiritual.”
I think to some extent, we all have. That is why I feel that the topic of this article is so important to cover – hypocrisy is something that we’re all capable of. The tendency is latent within each and every one of us. And I think we all need to understand and work to be aware of that.
But there are some things in life that tend to trigger, bring out, and exacerbate this hypocrisy. In this case, I am referring to a certain popular variety of spirituality.
What exactly am I referring to?
I call it Saccharine Spirituality – and it is a type of spirituality that is defined by a sickly sweet emphasis on “good vibes only” and “love and light” without much depth or real-life rawness.
Saccharine spirituality is the type of spirituality out there that involves worshiping the “feel-good” and “high vibe,” but actively avoids, denies, or shuns anything negative and uncomfortable.
Saccharine spirituality is all about feeling empowered, developing self-love, and celebrating trendy forms of spirituality that look good on the surface – but at the same time, it produces a phobia of anything too real, too emotionally challenging, too blood-and-dirt, too “unawakened” or “low vibe.”
And it doesn’t take much to see that saccharine spirituality is alive and thriving more than ever. We can literally see it everywhere: on social media, in real life, and in all spiritual and religious spheres.
I first witnessed saccharine spirituality growing up in the Christian church I was raised in. I remember how the church abandoned, passively shunned, and ignored one of the women who had been attending the church for 20+ years. This woman’s husband had been prosecuted for child molestation and was going to prison. I was the only one who spoke to this gentle soul, despite the fact that we were all supposed to be “brothers and sisters in Christ.”
I now witness this type of abandonment and hypocrisy in the spiritual realm.
I hear and witness self-described sensitive “empaths” show an extraordinary lack of empathy and self-entitled judgment towards others.
I watch “old souls” tear each other apart like animals.
I see spiritual seekers ostracize and react harshly to any person who thinks critically.
I look on as “healers” rush to fix, ignore, predict, or diagnose the suffering of others.
I watch as “psychics/mystics/witches/yogis” (*insert spiritual label here*) love talking and posting about themselves, but ignore meeting others on a deep level.
I’m sorry. I don’t care if you’re a talented healer or psychic. I’m not interested in whether you’re a self-identified empath or spiritual seeker. I don’t want to hear about how much mystical power or intuitive prowess you have. Being spiritual doesn’t mean shit if you can’t hold space for people.
What Does Holding Space Mean?
Holding space is very simple. It means being completely present with another person.
Holding space means giving another the opportunity to be completely heard, seen, and understood.
I’m not talking about trying to fix, give advice to, or pathologize the other person – when I say holding space, I mean it in the most simple way possible: just being 100% there for the person, without trying to change or force advice onto them.
To witness another person and be completely receptive to what they have to share is scarcely practiced. How often have you felt deeply heard, seen, and understood by another? How often has someone sat down with you and genuinely asked: “hey, share with me how you feel” and held space for all your joy or sorrow?
If you’re like most people: pretty rarely.
It’s no wonder that most of us are so emotionally starved. It’s no wonder that most of us are so desperate to be seen.
In a world full of stress, incessant business, emotional isolation, and self-absorption, holding space for someone is the most precious gift you can give.
That is why I say that being spiritual doesn’t mean shit without this one important practice.
Who cares if you possess extrasensory gifts or can meditate for six hours straight? Who cares if you have deep self-knowledge or can enter alternate planes of consciousness at will?
If you can’t bring those skills into your life in a down-to-earth way, they mean nothing.
If you can’t practically apply them in the blood-and-grit of daily life, they mean nothing.
If you can’t connect or show kindness to others, they mean nothing.
If you can’t sit down with a person and ask “Hi. How are you really?” and actually listen wholeheartedly, don’t even bother.
In the end, if your brand of spirituality encourages self-absorption and a superficial feel-good denial of other’s pain, it’s a waste of time.
How to Hold Space For People
Your pain, your sorrow, your doubts, your longings, your fearful thoughts: they are not mistakes, and they are not asking to be ‘healed.’ They are asking to be held. – Jeff Foster
Holding space is about giving space.
Too often we jump to the part where we want to fix, instruct, or heal the person – or even worse, hog the conversation, talk about ourselves, and “one-up” the other person’s pain. But the truth is, most people (including ourselves) are just looking for a person who will sit with them in all of their joy or misery, and BE.
Mindful presence is the core of what holding space means. In other words, holding space means that we simply sit with a person and give them our undivided attention in the spirit of kindness.
“Undivided attention!?” you may think, “I don’t have the energy to do that!” Don’t worry. I realize that holding space for others isn’t always possible. You’re not alone. If you’re anything like me, your energy reserves are very limited. So it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to always hold space for others, especially when we are tired, stressed, or sick. In which case, don’t be a martyr. Take care of yourself. Have a break. Step away. Have a nap. Top up your energy reservoir.
But if you’re still struggling to hold space for others, there might be a deeper underlying issue that you need to work through.
For example, do you often feel yourself talking over or interrupting others? Do most of your conversations center around your issues, thoughts, and feelings? Do you feel uncomfortable when others get too emotional? Do you find deep topics of conversation unsettling? These are all signs that you aren’t holding space for yourself. In such a case … how can you hold space for others when you aren’t holding space for yourself?
If we ever hope to grow at a deep level and feel authentically connected to others, we need to learn how to hold space for both ourselves and others.
Here’s how to do that:
1. Mindfully tune into yourself
How can you become receptive and open to others without doing the same for yourself? Tuning into your thoughts and feelings is a practice called mindfulness. It requires you to become curious about what is going on inside of you. And to do that, you’ll need to slow down and breathe a little. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling at the moment?” “What type of thoughts/stories are running through my head?” Also be attentive to your body and notice whatever sensation, ache, or pain you feel. Simply note how you feel and move on with your day. If you need help doing this, I highly recommend that you use an app I use called ‘Calm’ – it will motivate you to develop mindfulness as a skill.
2. Be transparent with yourself
Express how you feel in an authentic way. Allow yourself to be seen by yourself. To do this, find a notebook or journal that you can dedicate to your thoughts and feelings. Journaling every day about what is worrying or concerning you will create more clarity in your life. Not only that but when you make this therapeutic tool a habit, you will feel more emotionally balanced and capable of truly holding space for others.
3. Release pent-up emotions
Don’t allow your emotions to build up inside of you. Find healthy outlets to express them such as through artwork, intense exercise, catharsis, or simply having a good cry. When we are motivated to “help” others out of the need to relieve our own internal discomfort, we’re not being kind. We’re not being empathetic. We’re just not. Instead, we are using others as a way to feel better about ourselves. Finding a safe form of catharsis will allow you to be calm and centered enough to show compassionate attentiveness to yourself and others.
4. Learn to listen more than talk
Master the art of listening. If you are a person who is used to chattering away, experiment with being quiet and allowing others to talk. How do you feel when you don’t talk so much? You might feel a sense of relief, or alternatively, you might feel unseen or ignored. Journal about these feelings. If you feel uncomfortable with allowing others to speak more than you, ask yourself “why?” In what ways are you depending on others to be seen and understood, rather than yourself? Practicing active listening involves making eye contact, letting others speak uninterrupted, indicating that you understand what the person is saying, and listening without judgment.
5. Let your mind be like water
Listen to other people without forming responses in your mind. How often has someone shared something interesting, and you miss the rest of what they say because you’re too busy constructing a clever/insightful reply? It’s tempting to fill the spaces in conversations with thoughts. After all, our minds think around 800 words per minute, compared to 125-150 words we speak per minute. But experiment with listening wholeheartedly to what a person says. If thoughts come into your mind, gently refocus your mind on what the person is saying. Then, after the person has stopped talking, give yourself a few seconds to gather thoughts, then respond. I promise that your response will be much more engaging and interesting to the other person because you have gathered all the nuances and details (instead of prematurely forming a response).
6. Let compassion guide you
The purpose of holding space for another isn’t to be a saint. It isn’t to be a martyr. It isn’t to be entertained or to get karmic brownie points. To hold space for a person is an act of compassion, an expression of love for another human being. It not only makes you feel good, but it also makes the other person feel seen, heard, and understood. What could be more precious than that?
7. Practice with a friend or family member
An easy way to practice holding space is to schedule time every week with someone close to you, and to exchange mindful presence with each other. Notice how it feels to be completely received by another person. Imagine giving that to others on a regular basis!
8. Know your limits and take self-responsibility
Are you tired, cranky, overwhelmed, or otherwise incapable of holding space for another? Relax. It’s normal and 100% fine to feel that way. But make sure that you take responsibility for how you feel.
Holding space for others doesn’t mean that you have to be a pushover, doormat, or unnecessarily submissive person. Sometimes you will need to hold space for yourself more than others. Sometimes you will enter long periods of life where you are incapable of being present with others. That is normal. Not all of us can be Eckhart Tolle 24/7. So do the compassionate thing and draw a line. Learn to say a gentle no to others and be OK with it. If someone is becoming overly clingy or needy, be assertive, draw clear boundaries, and step away in a firm but caring manner. It is OK to be selective about who you hold space for, particularly if you dislike the person and struggle to stay present with them. (Hey, we’re all human!)
You might also be short on time, but still wish to hold space for another. In this case, explain to the other that you only have a couple of minutes to spare, or set another date and time to catch up.
Remember, holding space needs to come out of a place of compassion and the desire to help others be seen, heard, and understood. If you are doing it out of obligation, pressure, or duty, take a step back. Change course. Do something else.
The most important ingredient for holding space for another is the ability to hold space for yourself. By genuinely taking the time to wholeheartedly listen to your inner thoughts and feelings, you will be better equipped to show the same to others.
Spirituality is not just about learning to love ourselves. It is also about learning to extend that love and care to others in a down-to-earth way. One of the best and easiest ways to do that is by simply listening to others. You don’t need to always give them pep talks. You don’t need to always rush to prescribe a solution to their problems. Often, what people need the most is just a person who is receptive enough to simply listen without judgment.
To be completely seen, heard, and understood in the presence of another living soul is one of the most healing forces in the world. I hope you take the time to share this gift with others.