Holding Ourselves Back

If you like, you can listen to me read this post.

Recently, I’ve been greatly inspired by the passionate writing of Evelyn Rodriguez at her Crossroads Dispatches blog. In a couple of recent postings, “The Time Has Come to Be Fearless” and especially her eloquent and heart-felt follow-up, “Still Fearless,” she explores what I would term the radiant energy that connects us to Source and of which we are but one small expression. She writes honestly, courageously, and I was especially moved by her poignant observation that:

I write because I see women particularly hold back, period. And hold back their gifts. And, I know, I am one of them.

I make no pretense of understanding everything of which Evelyn writes. In a posting, “On the Capability to Lead,” I explored this energy from my own vantage point, but have not used the same lens, for sure — my post is really still too intellectual — not exploring deeply enough, as Evelyn does, the way such energy might manifest in a person’s life. And I agree with her many insights, that this is energy that surpasses the “you” and the “I,” that it originates in Love, and that it represents the unfolding of a person in a way that is not to be contained. It’s devastating to me to think that such energies also create risk, especially for women, with the implication that they also represent threat to the fragile ego systems and cultural norms and defenses that keep ourselves, others, and society small. And my sense is we do keep trying to contain the radiance and channel it for all kinds of purposes, not the least of which is economic.

It is easy to see how the energy gets channeled and quashed under the weight of how careful we believe we need to be in our organizational lives. Careful, for example, in writing the email that merely asks up the system the sensitive question that is on everyone’s minds; careful in calling an executive team to its agreed upon promises; careful in reflecting back to the vice-presidents their levels of competitive self-protection; careful not to mention the wrong thing to the wrong person lest it come across as political betrayal. Careful, careful, careful not to offend. Since anything too open will generate some form of defensiveness, we must all learn the art of not offending — and in acquiring the very smoothness and polish needed to survive and progress, we also lose the capacity to deal with what’s Real. We learn to be careful not to bring too much too fast; learn to garner support before attempting to make basic changes in the tone and fabric of the empire; learn to be careful with ourselves. All of which limits us to making mostly cosmetic differences and then wondering why we got so little done. It’s for fear of offending with that bright, radiant energy that could in an impersonally joyful moment actually spill out into the meeting room with the pure observation that some new plan or program or desire to maintain the status quo is just a really bad idea — or spill out, heaven knows, into actual and personal feedback for those in the room. Instead of becoming increasingly radiant, we teach ourselves — and are taught by others — to be “smart,” to influence behind the scenes, to unconsciously adopt compensating behaviors of becoming obsequious or of deflecting or of using careful manipulations to get what we need. And then we wonder bitterly about the leaders of the organization and their shadows, while we yet become them.

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And we create two organizations — an “official” one and a “below-the-waterline” one, as I’ve noted elsewhere. And just so, the energy cannot really be reduced to some culturally preferred forms. It keeps escaping the kettle in which we try to boil it down. While we keep trying to reduce our mind-sets into managed programs, budgets, bureaucracies, power structures, particular vantage points, such as the value of “winning” the contest with competitors, we just can never quite get there. The soul of the place keeps showing up — through the people, especially the people who don’t “fit,” especially the people that keep challenging the values of the place. The people are wonderful, and they are trying to exist in organizations that frankly have become banal; organizations like strip malls, all lit up as a collection of little shops sharing a common parking lot, but certainly not yet a village. The village is hidden, below the surface, harboring conversations among and about people (especially the leaders) on the edge of the organization, not at its center. All this is our social and personal conditioning.

Look at most office buildings: they exist as efficient reductions of an “environment” to its least common denominators. A client of mine is trying to change this, creating elegant workspaces filled with art, comfortable places to sit and talk, with plants, books, sofas, with decent, not overbearing lighting, with views of a river still flowing in a natural way. And the goal of this? To create a space where people feel good about where they are, a place that gives a sense of wholeness, so that when anyone enters this space, a client or someone who works there or someone delivering a package, what that person feels is a sense of relief, as in “My God, it can be this good.” And what’s the economic value of this? Well, I think that’s the wrong question, and if you ask it you may quickly find yourself in a conversation with the company’s founder about the nature of human healing.

Evelyn Rodriquez is right about reluctance to express the energies wthin us. We hold ourselves back. We live with the conditioning, based as it is on scarcity, with a sense of all pervading victimization, with depletion, with belief that it’s all unchangeable, when in fact the world in its utter beauty still exists right outside our doors and windows, however monotonously designed they might have become. We hold ourselves back from noticing the energy itself, from recognizing our own sensitivity to it and how sensitive it has become in others. In this state of group woundedness, to begin may mean feeling, if we give ourselves half a chance, the emotion of grief; grief that we’ve let our world become this way, this controlled, stale, and quiet, this blank, this reduced.

But if we can stand to look into the Void, into Reality, just stand there and keep looking, I imagine we can begin to feel the absence its time to correct — in ourselves. Mary Oliver, in her recent collection of poems, Thirst, experiencing and documenting her own griefs, gives language to all of us who need to grieve the loss of the radiance never found or acted upon in our lives. In one poem she writes:

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled–
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply…

No reply, indeed. The loss isn’t to “organizations,” those make-shift structures. The loss is to the lives of people, you and me, who don’t know we have the radiance to alter the “reality,” (small r) we’ve assumed is all there is.

Maybe one definition of leadership, a tough one, is acknowledging how simply distant from the truth of this energy we and our organizations have become. Maybe we could break through to build new structures — in the name of life and beauty and abundance. We’ve lost an aspect of life, become too disconnected from the electricity of living. And, if that is so, then that too is testiment to us, that we can know it and we can begin to change it, that we can still receive life. Then, perhaps, our leadership becomes an offering, an expression, not a “taking,” and thrives because it isn’t “in us,” as some form of personal charisma that we “own,” but is based on the charisma of Life itself that exists in everyone. Charisma is an interesting word — it comes originally from a Greek word, kharis, meaning “favor” or “grace.” And, just so, is not radiance often filled with these qualities?

We hold ourselves back until we start to deal with the loss of the part of ourselves that has been held back. Luckily, there are many ways to enter this part of us. Mary Oliver writes so simply and so well about this, leaving a sharp lesson for us, and a condolence, in only a few lines…

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

It isn’t organizations that are in trouble, you know. It isn’t these “constructions” of ours that have become mundane. It’s us. We have too thoroughly lost our capacity to feel our own energies, our own passions, our aliveness. We can alter that, if we can break just one of those windows and feel the rain come in….it’s a window on the outside, and a window on the inside, as well.

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