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The Holding Environment

The Holding Environment


We will focus now on the primary barrier to fully experiencing basic trust – we want to understand what it was that scared the Living Daylight out of you! As we have described in detail in earlier books (Essence, The Pearl Beyond Price, Diamond Heart Books 1, 2, 3), each differentiated quality of Being, or essential aspect, becomes disconnected from our experience and arrested in its development as we move through the various developmental phases and subphases of early childhood. Whatever environmental factors were problematic in these stages contribute to the psychodynamic issues related to the particular aspects that predominate in each stage. The essential quality of Strength, for example, becomes more or less lost to our experience depending on what transpired during the period when we were separating from mother. Issues related to merging, associated with the essential aspect of Merging Love, are shaped largely by what happened during the symbiotic phase, when we felt united with mother. So the psychodynamic issues that we have in relation to any aspect of Being are determined by what we experienced during the associated developmental period. However, when it comes to the essential quality of Living Daylight, which gives the soul basic trust, the situation is different. The specific issue associated with this quality has more to do with the overall container for the whole of our childhood development, rather than with one particular period. Our connection with Living Daylight is affected by the overall ground or background for the entire process of maturation and development.  

The actual experience of Living Daylight can help us understand this ground and the issues associated with it. When you become aware of the quality of Living Daylight that gives rise to the sense of basic trust, the feeling is that everything is okay in a deep, intrinsic way – not that there aren't difficulties or pain, but that things are workable. You have the sense of being taken care of and of being held, as we have said, and if this experience deepens, you will feel that you are enveloped and comforted by a soft, loving, gentle presence. It feels as though the environment around you is soft, supportive, protective, and understanding. You might experience it literally as the sense of being held by a wonderful light love. You might also have the sense that all parts of you are held together so that they can grow and develop to become all that they can.  

Basic Trust and Holding 

From the direct experience of Living Daylight, we can see that the situation in childhood that contributes to the sense of basic trust is what is referred to in the psychological literature as the "holding environment." The person most responsible for this concept of holding is D.W. Winnicott, an important figure in the British object relations school. What he calls the holding environment is the environment during the first year or so of life, the period of infancy before the child begins to develop a separate sense of self. Initially, the environment is the womb; later on it is the arms that held you, mother's lap, perhaps father and other people, the environment of your crib, your bedroom, your house – the whole situation. So "holding environment" here means the totality of the surroundings and the general feel of it through the formative years. Mother is central to this environment but it isn't limited to her.  
The child can experience the environment as more or less holding. If the environment is a good holding environment, it makes you feel taken care of, protected, understood, loved, and held in such a way that your consciousness – which at the beginning is unformed, fluid, and changeable – can grow spontaneously and naturally on its own. The soul in this respect is like a seedling. A seedling needs a particular holding environment in order to develop into a tree: the right soil, enough water, the right nutrients, the right amounts of light and shade. If it doesn't have the proper holding environment, it won't grow steadily and healthily, and it might not grow at all.  
A good holding environment, then, is the environment that is needed for the human soul to grow and develop into what she can become. It needs to provide a sense of safety and security, the sense that you are, and can count on, being taken care of. Your soul needs an environment that is dependable, consistent, attuned to your needs, and that provides for you in a way that is empathic to those needs. This is the ideal environment for human growth. If the environment has a good sense of holding, you will experience basic trust. When there is no extreme disruption and no intense unresolved frustrations or problems, insecurity is not generated and you rest in a fundamental sense of well-being. Your world feels secure, safe, continuous, and dependable in a loving way, so you develop with a fundamental trust and confidence in reality. You feel supported in your sense of connection with the universe, and your inherent trust in it is strengthened by a good holding environment. Your trust in reality has not been challenged, so it doesn't even come into consciousness; the holding environment is integrated into your sense of the world.  
Basic trust is inherent in the sense that if everything is going well with respect to the holding of the environment, the child doesn't even think of trust or confidence. Quoting Winnicott,  
It is axiomatic in these matters of maternal care of the holding variety that when things go well the infant has no means of knowing what is being properly provided and what is being prevented. On the other hand it is when things do not go well that the infant becomes aware, not of the failure of maternal care, but of the results, whatever they may be, of that failure; that is to say, the infant becomes aware of reacting to some impingement. (Winnicott, 1965, p. 52)  
It is only when there is some disruption in the holding that the lack of trust or confidence begins to be experienced. In other words, before things feel like they are going wrong, the child doesn't register that things are going okay. If there is some disruption and then it ends, the child forgets about it and goes back to taking the holding environment for granted. However, if some lack of holding remains constant, or consistently intermittent, the child will not take the holding for granted, will become apprehensive, and will begin to lose the sense of basic trust in reality. 


The sense of the holding environment is an overall experience. Winnicott describes it as follows:  
Holding: Protects from physiological insult. Takes account of the infant's skin sensitivity – touch, temperature, auditory sensitivity, visual sensitivity, sensitivity to falling (action of gravity) and of the infant's lack of knowledge of the existence of anything other than the self. It includes the whole routine of care throughout the day and night, and is not the same with any two infants because it is part of the infant, and no two infants are alike. Also it follows the minute day-to-day changes belonging to the infant's growth and development, both physical and psychological. (Winnicott, 1965, p. 49)  
Physical holding is the most obvious instance of the holding environment. Infants like being held by the mother or father, but they need to be held in the right way. Anyone can carry a baby, but not everyone can hold a baby in such a way that the child senses that it is loved, it is being communicated with, it is understood, it is merged with, it is secure, its body is molded with. As Winnicott says,  
It should be noted that mothers who have it in them to provide good-enough care can be enabled to do better by being cared for themselves in a way that acknowledges the essential nature of their task. Mothers who do not have it in them to provide good-enough care cannot be made good enough by mere instruction.  
Holding includes especially the physical holding of the infant, which is a form of loving. It is perhaps the only way in which a mother can show the infant her love. There are those who can hold an infant and those who cannot; the latter quickly produce in the infant a sense of insecurity, and distressed crying. (Winnicott, 1965, p. 49)  
When a baby is held in a way that is holding, it feels held in a way similar to how it was held inside the womb, and there is less discontinuity in the holding from its life inside mother's body to outside of it. This sense of holding will not disrupt the child's sense of basic trust, and the effect will be that Living Daylight – the loving and supportive dimension of Being – remains an intrinsic part of its sense of reality. The holding becomes integrated into the depths of its consciousness, and the result is a sense of basic trust in reality. The child's sense of basic trust will begin in relationship to mother and the holding environment, and will extend to the world and the whole universe. This will allow the child to grow and develop into its full potential.  
A good holding environment is not just a matter of the mother loving and providing physically for her child; the emotional climate in the family is a part of the holding of the environment as well. If there is tension between the parents, for example, the child will feel it and the sense of holding will be somewhat disrupted. The presence or absence of other siblings and their interrelationships also affects the holding of the environment, as do the environment's actual physical qualities. Whether it is chaotic or dreary, too noisy or lacking in stimulation for the child, all affect the amount of holding he or she experiences. What the family as a whole is going through will affect it. If the family is going through a difficult financial period and there is a sense of fear and insecurity in the parents, this will not only affect the parents' relationship to the child directly, but will also create an anxiousenvironment full of expectations of difficulty or danger. If the child grows up during war-time, the holding will also be compromised. Physical traumas, such as the child getting sick, or one or both parents becoming ill, will be experienced as disruptions in the sense of being held and therefore in the sense of basic trust. The effect of whatever disruptions occur will be cushioned and mitigated to the degree that the environment is generally holding.  
The holding environment includes the psychological, the physical, the emotional, the spiritual – the totality of the world the child lives in. To the extent that the environment holds the various manifestations of the soul, the soul feels supported by the environment and therefore, intrinsically connected to the universe. The soul can then experience its Beingness in a continuous way, without disruptions from the environment, and that sense of Beingness can develop and mature. The child feels himself to be an inherent part of the universe as a unique expression of it.  
Although his concept of the continuity of being is slightly different from ours, Winnicott's understanding is close:  
With 'the care that it receives from its mother' each infant is able to have a personal existence, and so begins to build up what might be called a continuity of /being. On the basis of this continuity of being the inherited potential gradually develops into an individual infant. If maternal care is not good enough then the infant does not really come into existence, since there is no continuity of being; instead the personality becomes built on the basis of reactions to environmental impingement. (Winnicott, 1965, p. 54)  
The holding environment, then, is fundamentally important for the infant's continuity of Being, for his sense of isness. This continuity allows the child to develop into a mature human being; this is what we call the process of individuation. When the environment is not holding enough, not providing enough of what is needed by the child, there ~s a disruption in the child continuing to be himself. This disruption appears as an actual disintegration of the sense of Beingness, and that then manifests as a reaction to the disruption in the environment. As Winnicott puts it,  
As a result of success in maternal care there is built up in the infant a continuity of teeing which is the basis of ego-strength; whereas the result of each failure in maternal care is that the continuity of being is interrupted by reactions to the consequences of that failure, with resultant ego-weakening. Such interruptions constitute annihilation, and are evidently associated with pain of psychotic quality and intensity. In the extreme case the infant exists only on the basis of continuity of reactions to impingement and of recoveries from such reactions. This is in great contrast to the continuity of being which is my conception of ego-strength. (Winnicott, 1965, p. 52) 

The Loss of Holding 

When the child does not have the support to be herself, she reacts in such a way as to try to establish or reestablish the holding environment. If impingements continue, the child will keep reacting in an attempt to deal with the situation, trying to make things work such that she feels held. The reactivity in response to the impingements or disruptions in the environment is the child's attempt to bring about what she needs so that she can survive and develop. If the holding isn't there or isn't dependable, the child will try to manipulate herself, her parents, and/or the environment to bring it about. The child might develop all kinds of ways to please the parents by doing things for them, entertaining them, or hiding her needs. On the other hand, she might try to distract them from their problems, throw tantrums to get attention, or become manipulative or even deceitful to try to get the holding to return.  
By having to react to the loss of holding, the child is no longer simply being, and the spontaneous and natural unfoldment of the soul has been disrupted. If this reactivity becomes predominant, the child's development will be based on that reactivity rather than on the continuity of Beingness. If her development is based on reactivity to an unsafe environment, the child will develop in disconnection from Being and therefore, her ego will be what becomes most developed. If her development unfolds out of the continuity of being, the child's consciousness will remain to some extent centered in her essential nature, and her development will be the maturation and expression of that nature.  
The less holding there is in the environment, the more the child's development will be based on this reactivity, which is essentially an attempt to deal with an undependable environment. The child will develop mechanisms for dealing with an environment that is not trustworthy, and these mechanisms form the basis of the developing sense of self, or ego. This development of the child's consciousness is then founded on distrust, and so distrust is part of the basis of ego development. The child's consciousness – her soul – internalizes the environment it is growing up in and then projects that environment back onto the world.  

Ego Development and Basic Distrust 

Implicit in the ego, then, is a fundamental distrust of reality. The failure of the holding environment leads to the absence of basic trust, which then becomes disconnection from Being, which leads to reactivity, which is ego activity. The Enneagram maps the various ways the ego develops to deal with the absence, disruptions, ruptures, and discontinuities of holding. The reaction for Point One is to try to make the holding happen by improving oneself. For Point Two, it is to deny the need for holding but, nonetheless, be manipulating and seducing the environment to provide it. For Point Three, it is to deny the need for it but pretend to oneself, "I can do it on my own. I know how reality can be and how I'm going to develop and I'll make it happen." For Point Four, the loss or absence of holding is counteracted by denying that there is a disconnection from Being, while at the same time trying to make the environment be holding through attempting to control it and oneself. For Point Five, the reaction is to not deal with the actual sense of loss and not feel the impingement directly through withdrawing and isolating oneself, avoiding the whole situation. For Point Six, the strategy is to be more in touch with the fear and distrust, being defensive and paranoid about the environment. For Point Seven, it is by planning how to make it good, and fantasizing what it will feel like, rather than feeling the pain of the loss of holding. For Point Eight, it is to get angry about the loss of holding and to fight the environment to get it back, to try to get justice, and to get revenge for the hurt. For Point Nine, the reaction is to smooth the whole thing over and act as though everything is fine, living one's life in a mechanical and dead way. This is how the nine ennea-types develop: out of reaction to the loss of basic trust.  
To the extent that the environment provides adequate holding, the child can develop in the context of a continuity of being which allows and supports the individuation of the soul – one's unique embodiment of Being. Because there are degrees of holding and of impingement, and because no holding environment is without failures, we typically develop a real (essential) and a false (egoic) self in varying proportions. Basic trust is usually not totally missing, but it is seldom complete. To have absolute basic trust is to be completely realized.  
The more we are identified with the false self, the personality, the more we are identified with the absence of basic trust. In order to develop basic trust, and consequently more contact and identification with Being, we need to experience the lack of holding imprinted on our souls. As with any other aspect or dimension of Being, we must first work through the resistance to experiencing the absence or "hole" of it, and then when we fully experience this hole, the missing quality will arise. The effect of the hole of Living Daylight in early childhood is experienced in adulthood in many ways. Emotionally, it will be felt as the need for holding and the sense that no one and nothing is holding you. The feeling of the need itself might be defended against by a lack of trust that anyone will be there for you. This need for holding might be experienced as the desire to be taken care of, the need to be actually physically held, the need for someone to see you and support you. This can lead to the physical sense that there is a kind of emptiness in the belly which makes you feel as if you are suspended in a cold and inhospitable space. This emptiness carries with it the sense that you want to be held, but nobody and nothing is holding you. As we have seen, the central element of the holding in infancy was physical holding and care, but the sense of holding is also global, including the sense of being held emotionally and mentally. Ultimately, it is the sense that your soul is being held.  
Allowing ourselves to experience the hole of holding is a crucial step in reclaiming contact with the holding dimension of Being, Living Daylight. Your sense of basic trust is also increased each time you experience the environment responding to you in a supportive way and each time you experience yourself being held in one way or another. In the process of spiritual work, each time you move beyond your usual sense of reality and of who you are – each time you jump into the abyss with its sense of disintegration or fragmentation and accompanying fear – and you experience Being coming through, giving you a sense of support, a sense of relief, of satisfaction, of meaning, your basic trust is strengthened. The more experiences you have that involve dealing with painful states and memories, and resolving them, allowing you to connect with various aspects of your fundamental nature, the more that sense of trust is created. The more your soul is held and the more basic trust is developed, the more you will unfold. Providing this holding for who you really are is one of the functions of a spiritual teaching and a teacher. So the whole of the Work ultimately builds basic trust. 

– from Facets of Unity by A.H. Almaas 

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