Mindful Leadership

There is a line from Rilke’s First Elegy that I have carried with me since college–  something I  return to remind myself of the importance of letting go– of opening my heart to the moment. “Don’t you know yet? Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.”

Even 13 years ago, traveling in Mexico, i was struck by the powerful visual representation of this concept when I saw a statue of a saint, his arms open to the sky and birds (real flesh and feather ones) were flying through. I knew then, in my cells, in my very flesh, that letting go was the most important lesson I could learn

My spiritual practice has been the study of that idea of letting go:  sitting with it, moving with it. Reflecting on it. Experimenting with how it looks in teaching a yoga class. What does it mean to show up with knowledge you are tasked to share but to do so in a way that creates space rather than takes it up, in a way that invites others to the process. What role and responsibility does one have in sharing what one has? It is not so simple as showing up and doing nothing. We have to do something. We have to engage. Sometimes withholding information is limiting. I think of a friend, a massage therapist, finding a hard lump in the armpit of a client and grappling with what to do– she had knowledge she needed to share. How should she share it?

There is a tension, a paradox in the crossing of these lines. There seem to be no hard and fast answers, just an invitation to be present in each moment, again and again, and to train the heart and mind to stay with the moment as it changes into the next.

In the last year, I found myself in the center of this tension as a leader in the school I co-founded three years ago. Tasked with being the one to keep an organization financially afloat, a family stable, and a sense of honoring myself and those around me, I started to feel overwhelmed. The business role kept bringing up the question: How do you create space around business deadlines and bills to be paid that invites the whole person to the process–myself and those I worked with?

A dear friend and mentor often tells me “ grief is cumulative.”  I felt this in my struggle to run a business. I felt how my struggle with leadership grabbed on to every moment before  in my life that had ever made me feel trapped, and I found myself stuck underneath it all. And yet of course life was going on, business needed to be done, children loved, friends supported.

What got me through it was nothing so profound. It was just returning again and again to sensation:  ‘I am overwhelmed.’ ‘I am totally sad.’ ‘Here is my son’s hand, and his voice, “mama, looking: me do trick now.”’ For the first time in the deepest realest way, I really had to be right in the moment, just to get through the place where I was.

In the muck of it, sometimes I got stuck in negativity, and I would fixate on something , that wasn’t working. I started trying to actively stop that fixation. To move instead– and again and again —  to the sensation. So , for example, I might feel overwhelmed by the number of tuition payments not in, and the need to pay bills that were due. Habit and exhaustion would push me to think things like “ They didn’t pay again. Why do they have to be reminded every time? Don’t they realize this and that…. and on very bad days I made it all about me– “they don’t respect me” “I am not capable of this; if I was this wouldn’t happen.” and on. So I started stopping that. I literally would say, “stop Traci, breath. Feel that frustration. Feel the sad.’ “feel the X, Y, Z.”

With time, the practice really started to work. I suddenly would end up crying instead of fixating, releasing instead of holding on.  I started to have a deeper understanding of the spiritual traditions I study– I started to see that the way we face each moment trains us for the way we face all of our good byes.  It reminds me of one of my favorite poems from W.S. Merwin:

Waves in August by W.S. Merwin

There is a war in the distance

with the distance growing smaller

the field glasses lying at hand

are for keeping it far away

I thought I was getting better

about that returning childish

wish to be living somewhere else

that I knew was impossible

and now I find myself wishing

to be here to be alive here

it is impossible enough

to still be the wish of a child

in youth I hid a boat under

the bushes beside the water

knowing I would want it later

and come back and would find it there

someone else took it and left me

instead the sound of the water

with its whisper of vertigo

terror reassurance an old

old sadness it would seem we knew

enough always about parting

but we have to go on learning

as long as there is anything

 © Traci Childress, 2013.

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