Container Holding as a Hosting Practice

In the work and exploration of the Art of Hosting (AoH) Conversations that Matter we often talk about the container, creating the container, holding the container – but what does it mean, really? We tend to speak of it in the same breath as hosting, as if it is the same thing.  But, is it?

In preparation for a gathering of sixty five AoH Stewards from thirteen countries that took place in Minnesota in October 2013, Jerry Nagel, Stephen Duns, Bob Wing and I became deeply curious about what it would take to hold a dynamically complex field that included three breaths of Art of Hosting – founders, early adopters and new or emerging stewards, many of whom did not know each other and had never met in person – who were holding, each in their own way, many similar questions percolating in local fields around the world, centering on what it means to be a global self-organizing system.

panoramic photo of circle

We began a series of calls to see what we could learn about container holding that we could apply at the Stewards Gathering, recognizing that some who would be holding the container would not be present in person but would be holding from the rim – wherever they happened to be geographically located.  For our inquiry, we separated out container holding, design and hosting recognizing they often are intertwined, happening together at the same time and that they are distinct in and of themselves.  It was – and is – rich learning.

Container holding is part of the subtle arts.  It is metaphysical, meaning of or relating to things that are thought to exist but cannot be seen. So much of what we pay attention to in hosting, beyond process, people and design, is the invisible – the energetics, consciousness.  It is why we have offerings of Hosting from a Deeper Place or the Art of Hosting the Subtle.

The invisible is alive all on its own and it shows up in the physical in group dynamics, ease or tension, flow or disruption, to name just a few ways it manifests.  We know that in any offering that is co-hosted, the frequency of the team is also alive in the field.  When the team has challenges within, those challenges show up in the larger field.  When the team has an ease of relationship, infused with trust (and usually joy), this also shows up in the field.  What is in the team is reflected back to the team.  A well connected, trustful, aligned team – which does not mean members all think alike – can hold the larger field from a place of trusting what wants to emerge and not be knocked off balance when challenges spark – at least not so off balance that they cannot recover.  The more coherent the team, the deeper they can host and the more process will flow through them rather than the team trying to control design or over-design.

Container holding might look inactive whereas design and hosting might look more active.  When we are hosting, it doesn’t mean we ignore elements of the metaphysical or subtle realms – although we are often not full intentional or conscious about it.  Attention to the metaphysical or subtle realms can also be a sole component of container holding. You can be a container holder and not be in a visible hosting role.

In the work we do, the container can be porous or permeable – and given it is metaphysical in nature that would likely hold to be true all the time.  When the container is held with the crystal clear energy of intention, this intention infuses the field and what happens as much as, and sometimes more than, design does. The hosting can be flexible, which is what we always advocate –  with a willingness to be disturbed or disrupted, trusting the chaordic path – chaos can be good, especially as we learn to sit with it until a natural sense of order emerges. If the intention is strong and held with clarity, disturbance can lead to emergence.  When the intention is less clear, disruption can lead to chaos with no pathway back to order. It is important to not be attached to design, to hosting or to process  – to hold it lightly – which is simply good hosting practice at the best of times.  We can ask the question, what does the container need to be infused with to hold chaos and disruption so it is of service to what wants to happen? It could be different depending on what is the work we are about.

A well held container invites coherence into the field. Coherence is a frequency. When we tune into the frequency we can host it into being to allow or invite it to become present, or more present – like when we hold tuning forks up to each other, they pick up the frequency of each other and become entrained.  How do we grow coherence without control, to celebrate different thinking, recognizing it can all be aligned with a common purpose and clear intention?  Is this not our work as hosts?

Container holding is part of hosting – especially when we are intentional about it.  And container holding has its own energy, its own path and its own coherence.  So much more to explore.  We are deep in our learning.  And how beautiful is that?

17 thoughts on “Container Holding as a Hosting Practice

  1. I have been playing lately with the metaphor of creating dialogic “containers” that can hold a “super-saturated solution.” This is a phenomenon in chemistry where the amount of solids dissolved into a liquid exceeds the normal level that liquid can hold. When this state is achieved, a single “seed crystal” can cause the entire solution to crystallize very rapidly.

    I believe that we are in a time when the yearning for transformational action is so great (as an antidote to cynicism, resignation and denial) that such solutions can be created whenever a suitable container emerges and a clear invitation is extended. I plan to experiment with this in the coming year, with my first iteration involving the challenge of plastic pollution in the oceans, inspired by the soon-to-be-released film Midway.

    • Yes Ben, I would agree we are in a deep yearning for transformational action. Love what more you offer here on container holding. It resonates with what I am experiencing and exploring. Thanks for adding in. And your video is powerful.

  2. I have been in circles where the container has not been created or held well (fear, suspicion, and cynicism are present and get in the way of groups exploring themselves or new ideas) and circles where the container is strong and there is a powerful difference: love, trust, safety, courage, openness, doubt and vulnerability can all be present and embraced. I am loving that you are able to articulate aspects of this invisible, intangible thing we call container. And Ben, I was so moved by the Midway video: thanks.

    • Thank you Linette. I also have experienced both kinds of situations and many in between. When we began the container holding calls for the stewards gathering, in the first one people grew silent each time we returned to the question of container holding – which made us realize maybe we know less about it than we think we do – but I think it was in the articulation – making visible what we know that we haven’t spoken as much about. There is still lots of learning ahead and I’m loving that we are in an explicit inquiry about it. And we missed you.

      • Like it – a lot, think this is about field work – containers are fields by any other name. We have been in enquiry about fields and hosting and finding Rupert Sheldrakes work really helpful xx

      • Thanks Linda. Containers are fields. Some intuitively get that and others struggle with the idea. We always speak of fields in the work we do – continuing to bring more consciousness to the fields we are in. I’m somewhat familiar with Rupert Sheldrake but will search him out now for sure.

  3. Thank you, again, Kathy, for languaging this dimension of hosting.
    Lovely timing as tomorrow I, with local co-hosts, Beth, Marg and Hugh, step into the container we have been lovingly nurturing and holding for months, knowing we, too, are holding with help from those afar. Warmly…

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