By Valerie Brown and Gayle Williams
“Is it possible to become more intentional about creating spaces – in relationship, community – where our fearful shadows can emerge into the light to be seen for what they are, when the truth and love within us can appear and make a claim on our lives?”
– Parker J. Palmer
We began the Academy for Leaders on November 10, 2016, two days after one of the most emotionally divisive, tumultuous, and contentious presidential elections in U.S. history.
As leaders from around the U.S. and Canada took their place in the circle we had planned and co-created, “fearful shadows” were present. We felt the weight and the urgency of the moment. On the opening night, the room was filled with grief and anxiety, and a cold silence was palpable. Some leaders were totally exhausted, having gotten very little sleep the night before.
Following the election events and sensing the growing nationwide sentiment of anxiety and tension, Gayle and I re-worked the opening to focus on inviting space and time to breathe, to talk about the immediacy of our feelings. This re-working of the opening was very carefully crafted—not knowing Trump or Clinton supporters in the room. Our goal in this opening session was to create trust and emotional safety for everyone.
This meant allowing for expression of true self – not masked by political correctness, winning approval, or looking good. We wanted a real-time discussion of the election to allow the group to express out loud was what palpably felt in the room, not avoiding or sugar-coating conflict, and yet speaking with honesty and integrity. As co-leaders, it also meant being aware of our own underlying assumptions, expectations, and biases, what unconscious beliefs we might bring into the discussion and into the room. We knew that to create trust it was important to discuss our feelings, emotions, and vulnerabilities, and yet we did not want the discussion to spin out of control, or degrade into an ‘us against them’ free-for-all.
Gradually, over the four-day retreat, using Courage & Renewal practices and principles, and with the amazing, loving, and generous support of Pendle Hill staff, our group of nearly thirty leaders shifted dramatically from fear and grief to self-care, renewal of soul and role in the world, and support for each other. Many people looked visibly different – lighter, calmer, less tense – by the end of the retreat.
Courageous Authenticity – Discussing the Elephant in the Room: A Blueprint
We tenderly opened what we anticipated might be a strongly emotional discussion about the election by first reading an excerpt from Parker’s A Hidden Wholeness about “the blizzard of the world” that we now find ourselves post-election. We invited the range of emotions and sought to create safe space for everyone by actively exploring the Center for Courage & Renewal’s Touchstones, guidelines for engaging self and others. Using the Touchstones, we offered participants time to reflect individually, in dyads, and within the large group. Finally, we invited the leaders to trust the wisdom of their bodies with this three to four minute breath and body practice.
Let’s take a few moments to pause and to gather ourselves, to come home to ourselves.Check in with yourself and notice what would support you, and do that—to sit or to stand.
We invite you to close your eyes if that is comfortable to you, and allow your spine straight but not rigid.
Let’s begin by checking in with yourself and noticing how you’re feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Just a glance at how you are doing at this moment.
Recall Thomas Merton’s words from New Seeds of Contemplation: “Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe easily, naturally, quietly.”
Take a moment to sense your breathing, and…
“Where do I feel my breathing?” and simply wait.
Returning to the question over and over: “Where do I feel my breathing?”
Let whatever perceptions you have be here without editing them. Don’t discount tiny movements.
Perhaps place one hand on the belly and the other at the chest and feel the movement of the hand at the belly and at the chest.
Now, ask yourself: “What does my breath feel like?”
And simply wait. Is your breath rough, smooth, labored, or easy? Return to the question over and over: “What does my breath feel like?” Take note of whatever words or images arise to describe your breath. Again, let whatever perceptions you have be here without editing them.
And, now return your attention to just a glance at the body and mind, gathering an impression of how you are doing at this moment. There is no need to change or edit this moment, this glance. Simply observe.
And, when you are ready, please inhale the arms up and stretch, and open your eyes, slowly. Thank you.
While we were so exhausted by the end of the retreat, we both felt the tremendous inner glow of community. When we arrived back home that night from Pendle Hill, we received these words from a national activist for women and children.
It hit me this morning that I have never been in a group in my life of people who all find deep meaning in what they do in their work lives. This was so rare – beneath everyone’s frustrations and senses of inadequacy and challenge to do better was a real love of the work and a sense of mission. Every single person was engaged in deeply meaningful work in the world… amazing. Because of the deep happiness of the people there, it was a joy to be in this group. It is wonderful to have the chance to grow stronger together, too, when some common core of values that have been strengthened and nurtured during the time we had. Thank you for your role and your soul in that process of forming a community of people who care about what they do in this world.
In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous climate, where the reigning question of the day appears to be “what comes next” and “what is my personal response,” courageous conversations offer a way in. These conversations are curated through the very personal practice of listening deeply. Often seen as act of passivity, true listening intensifies connection and broadens our capacity to know ourselves, others, and the other in ourselves.
At a time when many are calling for greater activism, perhaps the action that is required now is to listen as an act of love and to speak as act of integrity. We know that the “fearful shadows” will always be there, and so will the light. Opening to the elephant in the room begins with what we already know: speaking your truth while respecting others’ truth and listening without intruding, invading, fixing, or correcting. Growing these practices in our circles, in our conversations, in our lives create spaces that are safe, potent, and wholehearted.
Valerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator, international retreat leader, writer, and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership (staging2.valeriebrown.us).
Gayle Williams brings 30 years of leadership and management experience to her current practice as a philanthropy/nonprofit leadership coach and Courage & Renewal facilitator. As Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation from 1993-2012, Gayle’s work focused on values-driven social and economic justice in the Southeastern US. Prior to the Babcock Foundation, she was Program Director for Education at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, where her portfolio focused on community-based initiatives for educational equity. Before entering philanthropy, her nonprofit work concentrated on youth development