Introduction: The Art of Holding
I hold you in my mind reading these words long before you will read them. Of course, it’s not quite you I imagine. Unless you’re a friend, relative or colleague, we’ve never met. And I don’t really hold you “long before,” but right now: You’re in my mind reading this in the present, while I’m writing it. In fact, by the time you actually read this I’ll likely have forgotten you.
“By the time you read this…” – that’s not exactly correct. I know you’re here right now with me, but I’m far from certain that an actual you in the future will ever read what I’ve written. This is a blog post, and even the way those words sound in my mouth feels unserious: I’m working on my blog—oy. Couple the sheer electivity of this task and its place in our collective mind as something often self-absorbing and unserious with the narrow window of my attention span and my tendency to get distracted by shiny objects, and I really can’t predict that I’ll keep going much further from the last word of this sentence….And yet, here I am! And what keeps me here is one giant act of imagination: You reading what I write while I’m writing it.
Holding you in my head this way, it’s not like I’m seeing you across from me in the split-light shadow of my desk light. Rather, it’s a kind of awareness of you there, reading. But not just any old you: For me to keep writing, I need to experience you in my mind as entering into a kind of relationship with me, one to which you bring important attitudes or characteristics as the reading half of this relationship.
I think of you as a discerning and earnest reader of what I’m writing. I like that. It makes me feel confident that I’m in good hands. I can also sense that you’re putting your criticism and cynicism aside to give me a chance; not just reading what I have to say, but contemplating it, making educated guesses about what I mean, then putting your own creative spin on my ideas. It’s considerate of you to consider me in this way, and it’s hospitable of you to allow my thoughts into your mind. That means a lot. It builds my confidence to know that someone is interested in my ideas. While you are quite willing to read what I have to say, you’re also no pushover: I know I need to bring my A-game, and I like this challenge, partly because I know you’re basically rooting for me.
Everything I’ve imagined about you gives me a sense of security. This security, in turn, gives me the confidence to take the risk of writing despite the unsparing, outlandish tangle of my neuroses. It also fills me with motivating gratitude. As I hold you in my head this way, I feel I owe you a good blog post, reciprocating your kindness and creativity by writing kindly and creatively, making it as easy as possible for you to understand what I’m trying to say. I also want to finish the post for you as a kind of gift, a giant thank you to my imagined reader.
That’s my side of this encounter and what I need from an imagined you to write. But what about you? What will make it worthwhile for the actual you to read it? For that to happen, you can’t just hold it physically; you’ll need to hold me in your mind in a way similar to how I held you in mine when I wrote it: as if I am there with you. In fact, the value of this whole project for you depends as much on how you hold me in your head as it does on how I hold you in mine, since it’s only going to work for you (and thus for me) if you can imagine me trying to do more than just pass words and sentences across the desk for you to read. You need to imagine me as someone wanting to engage with you — to reach you and meet you. If you want to make the absolute best of it, you’re going to have to be willing to also engage with the me you imagine as someone you’re reaching and meeting; someone you are listening to, but also someone whose words are colored by y your interpretation of them on your screen.
I know it may sound strange, but for this enterprise to have any chance at all, we’re going to need to be in a dialogue. Two strangers, one in the future, one here now, both imagining that we are interacting in the same time zone, having a talk. For that talk to be productive, we must trust each other, since we both need security to engage in the effort — though the author always a little more than the reader.
If you’re still reading, you and I are already conversing. So I’m sure you know where I’m headed. The paragraphs above point you there, and of course the big idea is printed in the blog title: we’re entering into a dialogue about holding.
By holding I don’t mean the purely physical act of holding, but rather the mental one that makes physical holding a way of providing a psychological sense of being held. Holding isn’t easy to define. So for now, let me give you the simplest version of this complex event, with both a warning that it will take a much longer discussion to really understand holding, and a promise that I’ll stick around for that discussion: Holding is an experience of being contained by another person, group, imagined other, or cultural custom, in a way that makes the person being held feel safer and more secure than when not held. Holding comes in all shapes and forms. It’s at the very core of what we mean by intimacy, but it also happens in ways that are far from intimate, and we can feel it even when there is no identified person holding us.
When someone tells you “You’re on my mind,” “You’re not alone,” or “I’m looking out for you,” and you feel comforted throughout your day knowing they are there for you in spirit — that’s holding. So is when you feel carried through your day in the mind of your romantic partner or, if you are a religious person, when you feel the warmth of God’s loving gaze. When your neighbors leave you meals when you’re bereft or ill, and you feel that you are being tended to by a community of people who have you on their minds, that’s holding. It’s holding when you call your mother, and she leaves the call knowing she still plays a valuable part in your life. It’s holding when you participate in a meeting, a jam session, a protest or prayer group, in which the members feel embraced by a powerful cohesion and trust. You can also feel held by familiar beliefs and customs; and by parents long dead who held you well when they walked this earth and continue to hold you when they don’t.
You’re holding someone when you’re straight with them about their behavior. You’re being held when you imagine a benevolent reader as you write. And you’re holding when you hold someone’s hand, cradle an infant in your arms, cuddle with your child, put an arm around a friend, or spoon your partner in bed — and from these physical acts of affection they feel a sense of being warmly contained. There are infinite ways in which we hold each other, and there are infinite ways in which we can feel held, physical holding being one small way, and no more potent or direct than others.
When holding is done right—and holding can go horribly wrong and still provide safety and security (think cults and authoritarianism) — it is a containment that doesn’t limit who you are; just the opposite, it’s the very backbone of your autonomy and creativity. The safety and security that good holding provides allow you to wander the world in your own way. And wander the world you do, since holding is remarkably mobile, experienced miles and eons away from those who hold you, needing no physical nearness to be vigorously experienced. In fact, we often experience being held by others without having any contact with them, and even—like me and you—never meeting at all… except in that netherworld of minds, hearts and souls.
I believe holding is the most human thing we do. Our brain’s neocortex, which is larger in proportion to our bodies than that of any other animal gives us the ability to imagine the inner empires of others, as they imagine ours. More miraculously, it allows us to populate our skulls with other people in order to bring them along for the ride of our experience. To feel held in this most profound way is to welcome others into the home of your consciousness, then give them a place to live for as long as you need them. It’s to feel accompanied. That doesn’t just make holding completely human, it also makes it a kind of magic, so that holding becomes a powerful act of conjuring, creating a sense of the living presence of the people who hold us and the people we hold. Most miraculously perhaps, you don’t need to imagine specific people or groups of people to feel this accompaniment. You’ve got cYou feel held when you engage in a cultural ritual or practice handed down by ancestors. But you can also feel held in secular ways: when listening to music, looking at art, playing a game, reading a book, and also as you participate in non-artistic customs, such as following an agenda or even engaging in project management at work. In all these activities, you’re connecting culturally with the world of human-made things and customs, and thereby feeling a sense of being linked to the humanity around you. To put it another way, you feel accompanied by humanity itself. This, in fact, may be the central reason we humans created culture: to give each of us the feeling that we are not alone, that we are part of a commonality, and protected both physically and psychologically by the group.
Think about the experience of measurable time. That’s a human-created thing, and it’s cultural — different cultures have different relationships to time. Social psychology tells us that you can’t hope without a time perspective regarding when you may reach the thing you hope for. Time holds you in this way, giving you a sense of external boundaries that contain you as hope works to drive you through uncertainty. We are without hope unless we hold in our minds a “before,” “now” and “future” that contain our experience. The importance of time as a holding force is why the 50-minute therapeutic “hour” is so important in psychotherapy: it contains the session, giving it a partition from our regular, unexamined life of before and one that is hopefully a little more examined after. If you practice mindfulness you may find yourself disagreeing with me regarding time as a holder; but even being in the present is about being within a timeframe: “here” and “now.” Besides, most forms of meditation have distinct beginnings and ends. Without that, the gong, chime and bell shops would be out of business.
If I mark the time here, telling you that we’re getting to the halfway point in this post, don’t you feel just a bit more oriented, your attention a little more held? It helps me to at least stop for a second on the road we’re on, take a breath and look around. As I contemplate our brief past, I feel we’ve moved forward toward a mutual understanding of what I’m trying to tell you about holding—no small feat considering the diversity and invisibility of holding. There remain, however, a few more things about holding that I’d like to tell you about. These are the things I promised you I would describe to give better definition to holding in its most human-to-human form. The first is that holding is a completely interdependent occurrence.
When I say “holding” I’m referring to an event during which someone feels a sense of safety within some form of holding, not an action that you can see and identify as holding, like “I see a mother holding a baby.” If you can understand holding in this way, I think you can also grasp that holding isn’t a one-way street, but a kind of dance, in which the person being held plays an active part in the tango.
That leads to the second thing I want to tell you: Holding lies in the experience of the held. It doesn’t happen if the person you hold doesn’t feel held. Think about your own experiences: in times of great distress, how often do excellent attempts by others to hold you fail to give you comfort? Often, right? And even when things aren’t that bad, but you could use a sense of warm containment, are you always a complete sponge for holding? I doubt it. A more dramatic example of how holding can be delivered but not received is children who were neglected and did not receive (emotional and/or physical) holding when infants. The central psychological damage from this is often a complete inability to metabolize the safety and comfort that later holding aims to provide no matter how compassionate and trustworthy that futureholder might be. In all these examples, there occurs little of a holding event because there is little experience of being held for the heldee.
If you want more proof that the person being held is the most important person in the room, just remember that for you as the one held, there are many scenarios in your life in which you are the only one whose attendance is required in order to hold an official holding quorum. You don’t even need to imagine others in the room for certain forms of holding events to take place: the holding force of time is the most recent example of this.
The idea that holding is something given but not always received means that holding isn’t a given in our lives even when we’re looking for it outside human-to-human holding, like looking at art or following an agenda. It’s also not something we can always give, one human to another. A lot of very sophisticated things need to happen for you to provide the right kind of comfort to someone else, and for you to be in the right mental place to do that. The idea that neither the ability to provide holding, nor the ability to feel held are guaranteed makes for a very big deal. The next thing I want you to know is: holding takes intention.
The human experience of the holding event is not like imprinting in other species, in which baby animals automatically bond with their parent or caretaker in a secure way. There is, of course, some of that drive in you, and a lot imprinting and bonding goes on in the holding relationships during human infancy. But most human holding is not automatic but volitional (according to infant research, that includes the infant’s capacity to feel held, their gestures often informing the way their caretakers hold them). Holding comes with all kinds of fascinating paradoxes, but the idea that the holding event is the result of a kind of choice (not always made by the holder,—time an example again—but always by the held), leads to an uber-paradox: Holding is a central element in human nature, and it doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes effort. More than that, holding takes skill.
In 1956, the famous psychoanalyst and social critic, Erich Fromm, wrote something similar about love in his popular book, The Art of Loving: “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.”
I take the same position toward holding as Fromm takes toward love: Holding and being held are practices and we have to practice them. Just as there is an art of loving, there is an art of holding.
As with the human form of loving, the fact that the human event of holding is the result of effort and is thus also a kind of choice makes it the root of much complexity and pain, our brokenness as a species partly the result of our lack of skills in this area. Lots of bad things happen when we can’t find a way to hold each other or feel held, just like lots of bad things happen when we can’t find our way to love.
Here’s a glaring example: You’ve likely heard of the “loneliness epidemic” and how it is causing massive psychological and physical problems for vast numbers of people, loneliness tying statistically with cholesterol and smoking as a cause of heart disease (this idea is so repeatedly a news story, you may also be tired of hearing about it, but bear with me).
One of the central thinkers on loneliness, neurologist John T. Cacioppo, called loneliness “perceived social isolation,” meaning that you can be in close proximity to large numbers of people, even people attempting to make you feel held, and still feel isolated. This says to me that loneliness is really the experience we have when we are not able to populate our consciousnesses with others who hold us, and as a result, we feel insecure in our world. From this viewpoint I see the loneliness epidemic as an epidemic of feeling unheld (although loneliness is a more eloquent term); the neighborhoods of our consciousnesses becoming more unneighborly as our actual neighborhoods do the same. It’s a problem of minds unaccompanied; a world in which we don’t feel we belong because we are emptied of supportive voices in our heads, our heads often filled instead with tweets and posts and comments by “friends” we’ve put there by “friending.” We’re also rapidly losing the real-world sites of our internal populations, as the sense of home, hearth, village, and the continuity of taking part in our culture are dwindling. Tragically, this pandemic of lonely lostness is metastasizing in political movements that are based less on policies or ideologies than on the promise of holding by strong leaders robustly protecting the flock; a homogenic culture providing security through a sense of tightly held cultural continuity, and the othering of difference in service to the comfort of circling the wagons. This is authoritarianism, and it’s on the rise again.
Yet we also keep holding — reaching for that embrace. We keep allowing ourselves to be reached, touched at our very core by those who hold us. I’m writing to the imagined you at the end of 2023. We have emerged from a massive pandemic—a shock to the social waters in which we swim. Sure, this came with a good dose of estrangement and strange behavior (fundamentalist adherence to masks when they weren’t needed and insanely irresponsible rejection of masks when they were; the rise of anti-LGBTQ movements, antisemitism and racism; plots to kidnap government officials; and a cult of personality around the then-president; to name a few). But we also did everything we could to hold each other, and we did so effectively, often virtually, no less. We visited each other on our pixilated screens and through our glass windows; we developed and shared new recipes for sourdough and Korean whipped coffee; became cult-like fans of Tiger King; held virtual parties; had masked picnics; sewed masks for each other; emptied dog shelters in a spate of adoptions; and held rambunctious evening prayers during which we banged pots and pans for our nurses, doctors and EMTs. We didn’t do a perfect job of staying cohesive, and we ended up with those crazy and often dangerous behaviors, but we did also find ways to hold each other (and our furry best friends, too) in order to survive the storm.
It’s laudable what we did, made more laudable by the fact that we did this largely on our own, with little guidance from our leaders. Like starlings forming a pointillist shape in the sky, it was a kind of emergent pattern, but a human one, formed by infinite points of decisions about holding and being held. Holding took shape during a potentially anomic event, and this shape continues to hold, despite all the threats to holding then and now.
If you look closely, with eyes open to the rose light beyond the shadow of cynicism, you can see that our holding of each other got us through a giant social trauma by providing coherence in an incoherent time. It’s our best chance to get us through the inevitable next one with our humanity intact.
Holding is part of daily life. But there are also people who make holding their vocation, providing a “holding environment” in their therapies, or “holding space” as spiritual practitioners. They offer holding as a kind of medicine, and thus they need to be more intentional about this very natural and human event. Here, holding becomes a skill and practice and nothing to be trifled with. Being held right, and holding are the two faces of a noble craft. Held without its due respect, is useless at best, and at worst, injurious.
You need to know what you’re doing to properly hold a stranger. And I think we’re in a holding crisis right now in the holding professions, one that mirrors the crisis in holding in our culture. In the therapy professions, the once cherished event of holding as the central medicine for psychological suffering has been replaced by techniques for alleviating symptoms. In psychedelic space-holding, holding has been cheapened into something one learns to do through a few weekend trainings, if at all; a lot of “space-holders” believe such work just comes naturally to them.
The posts up ahead are my humble attempt to make a course correction in this regard, and to remind all of us that holding is an art, and as an art, it requires consistent training and discipline.