This video is from a series of four sessions on Interconnected Leadership that I led for the US NGO Commission on the Status of Women in March 2020. I have adapted my presentation for this blog and welcome you to listen and enter into the practices of presence and connection. You can see my presentation on Deep Listening here, Generative Conflict here, and Creating a Culture of Care and Wellbeing here.
My Personal Journey to Self-Awareness
This global feminist movement is truly a global movement. We are in unprecedented times of potential leadership to really shape and create the world in the dreams and desires that we have had for so many, many decades.
A little bit about myself and why I am so deeply committed to creating interconnected leadership. I’ve been a part of the women’s movement and human rights space for the last 35 years. A large part of my work was in the area of violence against women and about four or five years ago, I was completely burnt out. I was so exhausted. I couldn’t find the energy to do anything.
I was in this peculiar place where the organization that I had founded and was running, which is called Breakthrough, was in the public arena doing really well. We were being recognized for our work. We were able to raise resources. We were winning all these awards. We had put violence against women along with the global women’s movement onto the public policy agenda. We had created work around culture change. We were engaging men in challenging violence against women. From all of the objective indicators of NGO, nonprofit success one would have said that I was doing really well. I was a publicly known leader in the movement, but my internal self, my physical self, my emotional self was just unable to move. I had no energy to do anything, and I was experiencing all of the symptoms of burnout. And so I made a decision which was not easy, I made a decision to leave Breakthrough and go into a sabbatical.
I was fortunate enough to have saved and raised the resources in order to be able to do that because for so many of us going into sabbatical and taking time out is an almost impossible thing to do financially. I was really, really privileged and lucky to have that space.
As I sank into the sabbatical, for the first couple of months, I couldn’t move. I would sleep all through the night and then I would sleep an additional four or five hours a day. And as I started to just rest, I realized that many of us working on social justice issues were constantly in fight mode. We were in a place of advocacy of having to challenge the patriarchy, challenge the impact of colonialism and imperialism, challenge the way in which racism and class structures and capitalism was ravaging our world.
We were in this place of constantly being in battle, in advocacy mode. I also realized that in the process of doing that, we were also hurting one another. We talked about creating a culture of care and wellbeing in the world, but within the movement itself, we were unable to practice that. In fact, forget about us having to deal with the violence of the patriarchy. Very often we were dealing with the violence that we were doing to each other and that kind of mistrust and that sense of, Oh my God, if we can’t take care of each other, how are we going to create a world that takes care of everybody, was something that I was beginning to think about.
I don’t mean to describe this in a way that sounds like people were being horrible to me. In my reflections, I realized that I myself had acted in ways that were extremely patriarchal, extremely hierarchical, or that came from places of deep trauma that I had not healed or addressed within myself. I was acting out in my family, in my organization and in this incredible movement that I loved so much. In this time of pause and reflection and healing that I was able to do, I learned many different modalities of healing and becoming present.
I want to also share that if you think about it, many of the critiques that we have had about all of the structures that we have been trying to change have led us to this moment. We are in this moment of global collapse, precisely because of all of the things that we have critiqued over and over and over again. Even as we look at the ravages that our societies and our countries are facing, particularly economically, I am wondering if we can think of this moment as a place for our leadership to really shine. For us to claim all that we have done and learned as part of this incredible feminist global presence, to turn this moment into the pivot, into the shift, into a proactive moment of building and creating an interconnected world.
In my own work and my own understanding of how I can show up as a leader, I have begun to understand the importance of creating a practice of presence and self-awareness. This practice creates opportunities for us to bring feminism and everything that we have dreamed about front and center into how we can recreate the world.
Self-awareness is one of the most critical tools of leadership. Our ability to be aware of ourselves and what is happening to us at any given moment makes all of the difference in terms of how we show up for ourselves, for our communities, for our organizations, and indeed how we show up for the world at this moment. This session focuses on the self-awareness that we need to show up for ourselves, because that is really the first building block of presence and awareness.
The Practice of Self-Awareness and Coming into Presence
I invite you to get into a comfortable position, make sure that your feet are on the floor. Try to have your ankles uncrossed. If you have any kind of a sitting practice, you can just sit with your back straight, otherwise lean back against a chair. See if your back can be straight, your head can be straight and just allow yourself to settle in and close your eyes.
The first building block of self-awareness is breath. I want you to bring your attention to your breath, actually focus on the breath at your nose. At your nostrils, feel the air coming in and feel the air exhaling. With each inbreath, notice that your body is alive. You are inhaling oxygen that nourishes your bloodstream and makes your heart pump. Exhaling out carbon dioxide. This is a very simple practice of awareness, of just coming to your breath. This is a practice you can carry with you anywhere and everywhere.
Now I want you to bring your attention to your body and just begin a scan from your toes up your ankles, your knees, your thighs, and just notice is your muscle tight anywhere? Is your body tight anywhere? Are you feeling pain anywhere? Are you comfortable? One of the biggest consequences of patriarchy and the systems of domination that we have in this world is that we are separated from our bodies or our bodies have become sites of battle. And so coming into relationship with our bodies, is one of the most radical acts that we can do. Our bodies hold pain and our bodies hold pleasure. And our bodies are infinitely wise beings. We walk in our bodies every single moment of every single day.
Now bring your emotional field into your awareness. What are your emotions right now? How are you feeling? Is this exercise irritating you, making you calm, curious? Are you anxious? Is the world around you getting you down, making you excited, scared, creative.
Just allow yourself to feel whatever it is that is happening in your body. Nothing to change, nothing to shift, just pure awareness. One of the most important blocks of interconnected leadership is self-awareness. Because if you are able to know what is going on with you, then you can often move from a place of reacting to a place of responding or to a place of being more proactive in leading. And now just give yourself permission to be with your breath, your body, your emotions just embrace. All of it, embrace all of you.
Fear and Courage
This moment in history is unprecedented. I don’t think I have ever experienced a moment that is a global moment like this in my lifetime, where the deeply connected nature of this planet is evident for us all to see and where all of the things that are problems with our economic systems and structures and our social systems and structures are also being revealed to us. All of the veils are getting ripped off.
The uncertainty that we are now in together is real. Even though we have dreamt of breaking apart these systems so that we can create new ones, when we find ourselves in that moment of opportunity and the uncertainty claims us, our bodies move into survival mode.
This leads us to get into the sympathetic nervous system of fight or flight or freeze as ways of responding to the situation. This is why self-awareness is so important because the first place to start to be able to step into leadership is to be able to check in with yourself and go, okay, I’m in fight mode. I’m in flight mode. I’m frozen. I’m feeling that this is what is happening in my consciousness in my body, in my awareness right now.
Only then can you choose to allow yourself to stay in the fear or to step into a different place response. There is no judgment around these choices. It is important for us to acknowledge fear and anxiety. Only then can we invite ourselves to perhaps move into courage.
What is courage? Courage is the ability to feel the fear and yet take another step. What happens in the body when one is feeling fear or when one is feeling courageous is the same. Adrenaline goes up, eyes constrict, breath gets shorter, bodies get tense. There are many, many similarities to how our bodies react to courage and fear. If we can understand that, it becomes possible for us to make a choice and in this community, in particular as feminists. This is not the first time that we’re feeling fear, is it?
We’ve been dealing with fear because of what patriarchy does to not just women, but to everybody for hundreds of years. We have been incredibly courageous. We have been on the front lines of defending the jungles, the earth, one another.
We have been on the front lines of resisting authoritarian governments. We have been on the front lines of putting violence against women onto the global agenda. We have been on the front lines of demanding different economic systems that value everybody. We have been acting courageously in the face of fear for a very long time.
I invite you at this moment of unprecedented shift to feel your fear and to see your courage because you have been acting courageously for decades. You have been in courageous leadership. Where can you honor your fear? See your fear? Understand that it is completely normal to be feeling fear and at the same time, find your place of courage. That is why the exercise of self-awareness is so critical. just to reiterate, come back to breath.
And when you come back to breath, remember that every single being that lives on this planet is inhaling that same air. Talk about interconnectedness. Every single one of us in our alive newness is inhaling and exhaling the same air around the world. You come back to breath that allows you to come back to your center, then feel your body. We have to reconnect with our bodies. Our bodies are our most important assets because it is in this body, whether you believe in reincarnation, whether you believe in past lives, this body is the body that you are on this planet in right now.
Honor this beautiful body, bellies, breasts, hips, thighs, face; just the incredible miracle of our bodies, and then tune into your emotions. How are you feeling? so many of us think a lot. We are in our minds all the time. We forget that it is our emotional state that actually allows us to act. And that often it is our emotional state that makes us react in ways that we don’t necessarily even want to be reacting.
This level of awareness that we can create for ourselves is critical to this moment, to every moment of leadership, of bringing in an interconnected world, where we connect to ourselves, where we connect to one another and where we connect to mother earth.