This post was inspired by an article in my column Inner Actions on Feminist.com
Recently I was at a physical therapy-like session with my Pilates teacher who knows more about muscles, tissues, ligaments and fascia than I thought possible. She asked me to lift a bar without using the muscles I would normally engage to do so. A strain in my shoulder had developed from overusing the same reliable muscles, and there were other muscles, ones I barely knew existed, that could give rest to the stressed ones and bring balance to the system. But, try as I might, I found this to be impossible. I closed my eyes, breathed and focused on relaxing the muscles I normally used, and tried to lift the bar. But nothing happened. The bar stood still, until I finally moved it ¼ of an inch. I felt impossibly weak. I tried again.
“It won’t budge,” I said. “I am envisioning my muscles relaxing but they remain braced for action — and nothing else is moving.”
“Of course not,” she replied, as though my failure made perfect sense to her. “Your body isn’t going to be able to let go if it doesn’t know there is another muscle there that can support it. That’s what we’re working on.”
This made sense to me on so many levels.
It invited me to reflect on my inner work, and how difficult it can be to open to the vulnerability and “not knowing” that exists underneath all that surface strength. It also reminded me of how unrealistic it is that we expect ourselves to change and grow without giving ourselves a chance to really develop new ways of being. Even though my muscles remained braced, upon hearing her words, my heart softened with compassion.
Leadership gurus who speak with authority can make enlightened living seem so simple that they convince us that true growth is easy. But in practice we must face how difficult it is to disengage from our emotional habits, and how deeply our identity is tied up in them and other people. It takes years to cultivate the true strength of a great leader. Just like the body, our being will not easily relinquish the patterns that have been operating for years. We must patiently develop new muscle, cultivating a deeper sense of Self and connection to our core values, in order to be strong enough to let the old, well-rehearsed shapes relax and fall away.
Can you be patient with yourself as you lead yourself to being a better leader — of your life, and of others, if you are in a position that requires formal leadership? Can you have compassion as you awaken and strengthen a new muscle of Self, in service of letting go of your conditioned ways of being? Can you fill the gap between who you are and who you strive to be with the softness of your heart?
Then, you simply need to get thyself to the Inner Gym. Stephen Covey called it, Sharpening the Saw, and to do this, you have to spend focused time alone. Although guidance is an important part of coming into yourself as a leader, ultimately, your sense of Self must be developed by you, with you, for you. Can and do you spend time by yourself without collapsing into distraction?
Here is a fresh twist on some very familiar ways of Sharpening the Saw, one that identifies the pros and cons so you can better select a “workout” tool that will work best for you, a little at a time. If you don’t see one you like, create one that works, and tell me about it in the comments!
1) Meditation can be impossible for some. It just doesn’t work for many to sit there and essentially do nothing. However, sitting and focusing on your breath, watching the world of thought weave its worry and spin its stories over and over, with time, creates space from it. This space is where your Self dwells. The more you strengthen the muscle of stillness and forge a path to the part of you watching the feelings and stories, the more you will be able to access leadership in times of real-life turmoil, when you are not sitting on the mat. Meditation can be healing and magically transformative. But it also takes time, effort and consistent practice, and is easily avoided. In addition, for some it may be “too easy,” as when they are using meditation to escape, to disassociate, rather than to develop presence.
2) Walking outside is a better practice for the sitting-still challenged, and it also engages the body, which I love. When you walk, you can bring your awareness outside of yourself. If you notice what’s around you and allow yourself to be inspired by your surroundings, with each step your chatter can become background noise, and allow the colors, your breathing, and your active body to come into focus. The downside is that you have to walk long enough (I’d say at least 40 minutes) to quiet the mind. The upside is, you exercise the mind and the body.
3) Contemplation can be done while meditating, but you can also do this by doing nothing. No TV, no internet, no reading, no eating, just lying on a lawn chair, watching the clouds go by, or simply watching the snow fall outside your window. You can daydream and relax, or engage in meaningful inner dialogue, or simply focus intently on something; a question, a fable, a problem. Listening to music is ok, but anything more engaging won’t leave enough space for your Self to speak to you. Requires the ability to “be” rather than “do”.
4) Creating art, food, music, etc. is a way to open to deeper parts of You. There is a journey with each creation, usually interspersed with feelings of inspiration, doubt, commitment, frustration, flow, feeling blocked and that wonderful sense of breakthrough and accomplishment. The more times you go through a creative process, the more distance you have from it, and you realize that, no matter what, FEELINGS PASS and THINGS GET CREATED. By persevering through doubt, frustration and even severe stuckness, you strengthen your leadership, confidence, sense of self, and faith. But careful: in order to get the strengthening benefits, you can’t do something you are either so familiar you can do it with your eyes closed.
Be with yourself. Exercise in the inner gym. Strengthen your sense of Self so you can be a shining example for others, and so that you can tolerate more joy, and love more deeply, because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
And remember love yourself no matter what.