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Posts Tagged ‘balance’

Principle THREE: Restoring Balance

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is part 4 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle THREE: Restoring Balance
Conscious change also requires change agents to remain grounded and discern when it is necessary to take a step back from their social change efforts to restore themselves. Just as attachment and aversion are the root of individual suffering, so can these extremes affect the work of change agents.

A common pitfall of change leaders is over-attachment to a single agenda or way forward. This can cause competitiveness between groups with a common purpose, diluting resources and rendering leaders blind to opportunities to collaborate. It can further lead to rigid organizations unable to examine changing priorities at the root level of their chosen issue. I’ll explore attachment further with the next principle.

Detachment, a form of aversion, is the opposite extreme. Advocacy-based organizations are always challenged by the attitudes of the general public that “this has nothing to do with me” or “that’s not my problem”. Increasingly, without renewal, individuals within their own ranks can experience burn-out and disillusionment. The need to restore balance exists among all who serve and bear witness to deep injustice or suffering, including humanitarian aid workers, trauma counselors, emergency first responders, community organizers, peace-keepers and others in service at the front lines. There are many contributing factors including dangerous working conditions, lack of resources to conduct work, repeated exposure to horrific scenes, stories and experiences, moral anguish, overwork and separation from family. These circumstances can result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or secondary (vicariously-experienced) traumatic stress, insomnia and other psychosomatic symptoms, anxiety, depression, compassion fatigue, and even depression. The impact of such stress indicators is broad, including not only high turn-over rates, but also higher rates of illness, poor decision-making, increased risk-taking, and higher accident rates.

Individuals and organizations can embrace consciousness practices that allow them to both foster a healthy balance and proactively address the need for renewal. A consciousness-based approach allows time for personal restoration so workers on the front lines can tap creativity and energy to continue to serve those in need.

Supporting Practice THREE: Self-Care
One of the most important things in preparing to do and continuing to do conscious social change work is self-care. This includes not only the personal transformation and self-awareness practices that have already been explored, but it means understanding and attending to our own needs for wellbeing. When we are not whole, we are doing a disservice to our work. While this would appear to be a “no-brainer”, conversations with activists and aid workers throughout North America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East indicate this is the easiest to ignore and first thing that is sacrificed in advancing their work. Self-care takes many forms and it is equally important to aim for a holistic balance between our physical, mental and emotional centers:

Taking Care of the Body: Our bodies are our sacred temple for being able to bring change into the world. It is critical that we take care of them so that we can draw on their strength when we need to. This includes getting exercise, good nutrition, deep rest and the medical attention we need to stay well.

Taking Care of the Heart: Our emotional center is what drives our desire to support others in need and in reaching their greatest potential. It provides us with a sense of harmony, interconnectedness, love, forgiveness and compassion. It includes the ability to bear witness to another’s suffering and to discern when to abstain from trying to fix things. Our emotional health requires that we attend to imbalances in our own relationships, that we learn how to give and receive gratitude, that we make room for creative expression, that we remember to embrace joy in our lives, and that we find the space and serenity to experience ourselves, our feelings and our natural surroundings.

Taking Care of the Mind: The mind can help us discern the truth and keep us open to new possibilities. The mind can also block these same abilities when we cling to the past, worry about the future and pass judgment on ourselves and others. Caring for the mind includes living with integrity in the present moment, investing in not only our accumulation of knowledge, but in viewing our experiences as opportunities to learn.

Exercising the Awakening Muscles

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I’m slowly discovering that this idea of structuring my day with half personal transformation and half societal transformation is a construct itself just like the 9-5 work day I wanted to reinvent.  When I choose to meditate, I’ve got neighbors coming over knocking on my door.  When I choose to work, I’m not getting things finished if I take time to meditate or breathe, or I’m running out of time to practice each day if I’m working to finish a project. I’m constantly feeling like I can’t find the right balance.   I’m realizing that the balance I’m seeking is a matter of moment to moment, not 4 hour block to 4 hour block.

I went to a powerful speech by Sandeep Kumar in White River Junction, VT sponsored by the Transition Town Project – an amazing project that is applying the principles of conscious change to transform an entire town into a sustainable community.  Sandeep has been a practitioner and advocate for integrating personal and societal transformation in his own life in India.  After his speech, I asked him his thoughts on finding balance between the discipline needed for deep personal practice and the lack of structure needed to respond to what is always new and arising in every moment, especially with relationships and work.

First of all, he explained that we ourselves are not static beings in a dynamic world.  We are in a continual process of transition as individuals between the ego self and divine Self.   He also explained that there is no duality between the two extremes of which I am seeking balance: discipline and flow, effort and effortlessness, self and other, solitude and relationship.  He said, “When we are working on ourselves we are always with everyone and when we are with everyone we are still in our selves.  Fixing things with just discipline will not work because then we can’t evolve spiritually.  Even relationships are formed from within you.” 

I am realizing through this sabbatical experience that the key to balance is bringing consciousness to every moment.  This openess allows me to grow continually through life’s experiences, while allowing that ever-deepening inner awareness to inform my outer response.   It is my commitment to personal practice that fine tunes my ability to listen and strengthens my ability to be present.  It is the quality of that presence with the messy flow of life that will determine the intention, clarity, compassion and wisdom with which I can act. My spiritual teacher, Jessica Dibb, equates all this to exercising your awakening muscles.   

I’m also learning that there is a natural balance between solitude and relationship. And if I tune in, I really do know when I desire to be with others and when I need to be alone to renew myself.  We need the outside world and our relationships to teach us what we need to learn to continue to evolve.  We need time alone to reflect and integrate these learnings. But consciousness is not something we only do in a quiet room on a nice pillow.  It is something we can bring in every moment to every relationship to every action.  The key is staying conscious when our plan is disrupted and not getting pulled back into unconscious reactivity.

So then, what of discipline?  I still need to exercise those muscles so I can live from a place of presence in every moment or notice when I am not. One of the practices I share with Global Grassroots change agents in Rwanda is to notice when a “charge” is arising in you -  this may be a rush of feeling in reaction to a situation – annoyance, anger, embarrassment, repulsion, impatience, etc.   We’ve all had these situations – someone cuts us off in traffic and we’re furious, or a boss or colleague criticizes and we want to act quickly to defend ourselves.  The first step is to stop and notice the feeling that is arising first.  To do so, I suggest practicing taking three breaths.  Notice what is arising, see clearly what is underlying this feeling.  It may be fear, discomfort, anxiety, a feeling of rejection, or something that reminds us of a past event that upset us in a similar way. Rather than reacting from that feeling and redirecting that pain on someone else – snapping at them, cutting them off, etc. – our three breaths allow us to discern instead what conscious response may be necessary. 

Let me share a story.  I teach this simple practice of three breaths for conscious response to our students in Rwanda and then encourage them to practice this in their own lives.  A few days later I ask how this has had an impact, if any, outside the classroom.  One woman raised her hand one day.  She said, “When I returned home after class, my kids had messed up my whole house.  And I had cleaned it completely before I had left.  Well, usually I just beat my children.  But today, I took three breaths and closed my eyes.  I then spoke in a calm voice and told my children why I wanted the house clean. Then I asked them to clean it up while I sat with my eyes closed.  And they did…  And I didn’t have to beat my children today.”

In Global Grassroots work in support of women’s rights for a more conscious society, the way in which we embody consciousness is so critical to ending cycles of violence.  This woman was, in fact, working on a project combating domestic violence.  Suddenly she realized how much a role violence already influenced the way she was raising her children, especially her boys.  A simple act of conscious practice around reactivity helped transform not only the way this change agent approached her own children, but now the way in which she approaches her work on domestic violence within the community.

Presence in every moment.  We never know how deeply or how broadly that one unconscious act or conscious act may ripple out and impact others.   My task is cultivating a higher quality of presence and ability to listen in every moment, not just 4-6 hours a day.

Demons in the Sacred Circle

Monday, September 14, 2009

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape.  It is a powerful book of wisdom from a meditation retreat she led in Canada.  Today’s reading titled “Taking a Bigger Perspective” offered the following to me:

People often say, “Meditation is all very well, but what does it have to do with my life?”  What it has to do with your life is that perhaps through this simple practice of paying attention – giving loving-kindness to your speech and your actions and the moments of your mind – you begin to realize that you’re always standing in the middle of a sacred circle, and that’s your whole life…Everyone who walks up to you has entered that sacred space, and it’s not an accident.  Whatever comes into the space is there to teach you…Our life’s work is to use what we have been given to wake up…to let the things that enter into the circle wake you up rather than put you to sleep…You can leave your marriage, you can quit your job, you can go where people are going to praise you…but the same old demons will always come up until finally you have learned your lesson, the lesson they came to teach you.  Then those same demons will appear as friendly, warmhearted companions on the path.

Yesterday my husband joyfully came to tell me that he’d invited some good friends to dinner.  I immediately felt a rush of disappointment.  Though I truly appreciate these friends, I had been carefully attending to my personal practice, had planned my Sunday to encompass time outdoors, time alone meditating, working out, reading and numerous other things that did not allow time for entertaining guests, and the shopping, straightening up and cooking that it would require.  I wanted to protect the introspective time I had committed to, but I wasn’t sure how to compromise – we couldn’t retract an invitation and I certainly couldn’t hide in my meditation room during dinner.  This whole scenario hampered my mood, which then lingered on to affect my day’s joy-intended activities.

Reading Pema Chodron’s teaching came at a perfect time.  I realize that this whole situation was a growth opportunity for me, a chance to wake up.  My husband and I both had underlying good intentions – his beautiful spontaneity had responded with joy to an opportunity to connect with friends – my commitment to inner practice wanted peace and tranquility.  But I was trying to separate and isolate my introspective time from the rest of the world.  Instead, as I shifted my perspective to see this whole occasion as events entering my sacred circle as a teaching, it became clear that my attachment to my own agenda was what was causing me angst, not my husband’s sociability.  With a broader perspective, I saw as well that I was sabotaging my own desire to have balance between inner and outer, self and other.  You can’t just disappear into a cave and shut out life.  Well, I guess you can.  But the key lesson and practice for me is how to bring the peace, harmony and introspection INTO life – how to integrate it. 

I can’t separate them, because they are not separate.  To live a life that embraces consciousness in every moment, you cannot depend on being able to go deeply within and inquire only when the circumstances are perfect – still, quiet, alone, on a soft pillow.  Every moment means every dynamic, messy moment.   While quiet and solitude are restorative and important, we do not have to disengage as a condition or requirement to find clarity and reconnect with ourselves in each moment.   

In the end, our friends decided not to come to dinner for entirely other reasons.  And though my day was cloaked with unneccessary angst, I now express my gratitude for the lesson that entered my sacred circle, which now walks with me as friendly, warmhearted companions on my path.

Taking Time for the Self

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The more that I do my personal growth work, the more that I believe it is an essential part of my social justice work in the world. Each time I emerge from a powerful breathwork session or sitting meditation, not only do I feel refreshed and full of energy, but I have more clarity for the decisions I must make. Going further, I often realize how my own fears or unconscious patterns of behavior and thinking have limited me in my perspective or choice of action. The deeper I can go in my own transformation or cultivation of consciousness, the deeper I can go into a place of wisdom and Essence to inform my work in the world.

One day it occurred to me: what would it look like if I divided each day evenly into personal growth work and social justice work? What if I spent 4-6 hours each day in deep consciousness practice? How might that affect my productivity the other 4-6 hours? How might my perspective change about certain priorities? How might I manage stress and balance in my life? What would it look like to take time for the Self – and I’m talking Self with a capital “S”. Not just taking time for myself, but taking time to connect with the inner, life source beneath everything else.

So, I’ve decided that if I am working to advance this concept of Conscious Social Change – I should walk the walk. I have chosen to take September as a sabbatical to do just that – to embody a balance between personal transformation and societal transformation; inner and outer; Self and other as an experiment. So here we go.

I’ve decided to set a few ground rules and goals, but I’m also not eager to structure everything so that I can respond to needs, inspiration and the unknown that might arise. But here is the vision and loose commitment I am holding for this time:

1. I will spend time outside each day to reconnect with the Earth, which has so much wisdom to offer.
2. I will meditate and breathe each day in a sacred space.
3. I will read and reflect each day – I have chosen Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, as my readings and teaching each day.
4. I will ask the teachers in my life for guidance on personal growth areas.
5. I will sleep or rest as long as is needed each day.
6. I will drink lots of water.
7. I will exercise or do yoga and take vitamins each day.
8. I will eat vegetarian meals that I prepare using as many ingredients as I can from my own garden and local farms.
9. I will set aside time as a priority for my husband and close friends.
10. I will draw or play music each week as I feel called, to embrace artistic expression.
11. I will speak my truth with loving-kindness in relationship with others.
12. I will play with my animal companions (1 dog, 2 cats).
13. I will laugh.
14. I will try to read that stack of 5 books I have been wanting to read.
15. I will complete my research and writing I’ve been eager to do.
16. I will invite this process to help inform the strategic direction of Global Grassroots.
17. I will design new Conscious Social Change workshops to be offered in the US to help generate interest and revenue for our work in Africa.
18. I will not get caught up in responding to emails every day as they are received, but choose to dedicate my time to the highest priority in every moment.
19. I will continue my mentorship with those who need me.
20. I will work on my relationship to money and fundraising.
21. I will blog every day.

The minute I wrote these all down, they felt like 21 rules, which started to make the whole liberating idea of a sabbatical sound just like work. So I threw out blogging every day and so I’m now writing for the first time on September 12.

So how is it going? Big lesson on day 2.

The first day I slept in – pure luxury. I often espouse the need for people to work according to their own circadian rhythms as opposed to the social construct of a 9-5 work day. I feel so much better working that way, and tend to write with the clearest mind at around midnight.

I was very disciplined the first day. I spent a few hours in the morning conducting a clearing ritual for the start of my sabbatical, and meditating and breathing on my intentions for this time. I went for a jog, weeded my garden, walked in the woods with my dog, read a bit, had dinner with friends and accomplished a few creative work projects. Very refreshing.

The next day I was so obsessed with completing one of my work projects that everything else went out the window. No meditation, no jog, no outside, no glass of water. When I caught myself – like when you catch yourself thinking during meditation – it was already late into the evening. I noticed. I allowed myself to inquire. Tried not to judge.

I realized I have this unbelievable, unquenchable drive to complete a task, to accomplish something. I forget to eat. I get irritable if someone should think to call my cell phone. And if I do get derailed, I can’t stop thinking about what I need to get done. This inclination to be productive (while a very valuable trait, mind you) was sabotaging my ability to find balance. What’s up with that?

My first instinct was to feel frustrated that I couldn’t stick with my plan for investing in personal growth work each day. Oops, there I am judging. Then I committed to being more disciplined at setting that time aside. Oops, there’s that need to accomplish popping up again. Arrrgh! I found myself trapped in a circle of self-reprimands and new plans.

And then I realized I was in the lesson. How quickly what we need to work on will arise. If only we notice! Stop trying to fix it. Just be. Breathe.


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