I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the world is full of problems.
I wouldn’t want to live in a previous era, however. We’re only in 2022 and some of what I consider to be fundamental rights, which some of us finally acquired this past century, are still being fought for in some parts of the planet. I mean, I just read about a US state that’s just passed a law banning women’s right to carry out an abortion, even when their pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. It makes me feel sick thinking about it. But with things the way they are and - shocker - COVID cases increasing again, my mind has been on community lately.
GROUP HUG, ANYONE?
Community is not a word I use often outside of this (writing or consulting) space, because I wouldn’t refer to my friends as my community (though they are, of course).
What is community?
According to a new friend, think of it as a collection of people with like-minded feelings, thoughts, or interests.
Having lived in so many different places, I don’t have a strong sense of what a close-knit community is. For me, this concept exists mainly online - whether on Zoom, Whatsapp, or over the phone with my close ones.
Before I went off on my travels, a courageous and penniless 24-year-old, I always felt like a fish out of water. That is until I found my niche(s) and my people. It took a while…
First on the London music scene, then in fashion, later in online learning (thanks to Seth Godin & the altMBA for the successful start), then meditation, yoga, podcasting, and now writing. Looking back, I see that those who have made me feel like I belong celebrated our weirdnesses, our quirks, our differences, but also the ways in which we are essentially similar to one another.
FINDING A SAFE SPACE
Days ago, I had the chance to spend five days in a room with close to 40 women, hailing mainly from the US and Europe, ranging in age from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties.
I know, maybe your mind shrieked ‘Crikey, that’s too many females’, and I hear you, it sounds intense. But that’s okay, you can let go of that bias. The truth is that’s not at all how it felt: it was a remarkably enjoyable and enriching experience.
Not that I fancy myself being special, but I entered the space thinking I’d be the only non-teaching certified yoga teacher in the room. Perhaps I feel a bit of shame about being trained and not using that skill.
It’s not the discovery that I wasn’t the only one ‘not-teaching’ in the room that made me feel at ease but discovering the breadth of our careers and experiences. Energy emanated from the collective wisdom available in the room, stemming from our diverse backgrounds.
Our training consisted of a strong 2h30 or longer asana (read physical) practice, and after lunch, we sat in a circle, on mats, blocks, or blankets, for the lectures. I was surprised to notice that very much in the coaching tradition, our teacher, Annie Carpenter, liked to ask questions and have us reflect, more than lecturing us.
This left many with poker faces at first, others (hmm, like me) with their hands up, either offering answers or pressing our teacher with more questions.
Observing the group, we seemed to all have a deep yearning for more knowledge, not just about the strong and aligned asana practice Annie is known for (though we certainly all came for that too). I believe we all flew to Vienna and landed in that studio to experience another dimension of yoga and to connect with others who were looking to do the same.
To ask ourselves big questions:
How to be with ourselves.
How to be with others.
How to communicate.
How to connect with tradition and when to let that go to make our own mark in the world, with our students, or in any which way we’ll be taking these teachings into life.
It turns out that being on a yoga journey and wanting to perfect our skills as teachers and yoginis was only the most obvious link between us all, but it was far from being the only one.
Let me be clear, although our explorations certainly contained spiritual and philosophical inquiry, there was also a strategic and practical element to the program.
Our teacher invited us to reflect on the subjects like hierarchy, patriarchy and abuse in the yoga community. We also explored the #metoo movement, transference and countertransference with students, boundaries (stalkers - five women in the group have had a stalker, scary) ego and how to protect our time and energy (something I wrote about quite a bit last year).
And finally, how to communicate, or how to adapt communication styles depending on where we want to lead people, taking into account how they feel as well as their receptiveness and level of experience.
At one point, a girl on my right raised her hand, to say something out loud that I had felt but that hadn’t quite made it to my prefrontal cortex.
She said thank you. Thank you for creating a space where we can talk about ‘this’, all of this. And as she uttered the words, it felt as if the whole room bowed down in recognition.
Our teacher, acknowledging the gratitude, responded by urging us to find a safe place to talk about our roles, our challenges, our questions; to find a community, or failing that, to connect with another teacher, with whom we can share.
CREATING THE CONTAINER
It felt good to explore these big subjects, to say ‘I don’t get this’ and not feel judged, or to speak up about tender and important individual experiences, which required courage to bring up in front of a group.
This brings me back to how seasoned facilitator and experience designer Jenny Sauer-Klein explained how a feeling of safety can be created in groups, by connecting early, connecting often and gradually increasing vulnerability. She teaches this masterfully in her course, ‘Scaling Intimacy,’ which we discussed on the podcast, and I recognise the patterns she identified in my favourite groups.
‘People can feel when there's that depth of caring and careful planning.
And what that does with the participants is that it creates a sense of trust because they think ‘oh, she knows where she is going, therefore I am more willing to fully surrender my will and go with you because you have clarity and direction.
So ultimately, we are talking about leadership.
When people show up to any kind of live event or program, we're asking for their most precious resources: their time and their attention.
It's not something to take lightly because it's very precious.’
Indeed, we felt in good hands. This makes me reflect that a teacher is not unlike a manager. Though it may be expressed differently across businesses and schools, as Jenny said, we’re really talking about clarity and leadership. Both teachers and managers, when well trained, will model, guide, and hopefully embody what they are wishing to transmit to the people they are guiding.
THE JOYS AND FAILURES OF LEADING
As the training was coming to an end, I found myself wanting for our group to remain in contact. Couldn’t someone create a Slack group, I murmured to myself? I looked over the organiser and our teacher and promptly dropped the idea. It’s not easy to hold space for a community. Time, energy, effort, and intention (and money?) are necessary to create a place where members will want to engage.
I’ve had my opportunities to lead as a manager, and as a teacher. Spoiler alert: I haven’t always done the best job, but I have had my moments, you know when you can feel like you are helping others find themselves and connect. Most recently, I’ve attempted to connect with a few of my regular students on a dedicated Slack channel. It was a hard fail.
For personal reasons, I changed the time of my online meditations and mere weeks after I’d opened up the invitation, it was a dead space. My communication, perhaps more than my actions, was probably the problem. Unlike how I build workshops, or even guide meditations, I came into it without a plan. I’d just noticed people wanting to connect, and chose to step forward to be the one to create the space for them to do so. Worth a try…We need to fail in order to adjust and make the changes necessary.
Recently, I interviewed Wesley Faulkner, a seasoned tech community and social media manager, very much a polymath, - also on the board of South by South West, the famous tech meets culture festival in Austin,Texas.
Of course, community is on my mind! I watched his first (excellent if lengthy) keynote 'Be like me, but different' in which he repeated over and over again: ‘community shapes us.‘
STEPPING IN OR STEPPING OUT - MAKING THE CHOICE
I was reminded of this from another angle when I happened upon this quote by Dr Tara Swart in the Guardian this morning. In her 2019 book The Source (which I highly recommend), the neuroscientist wrote about neuroplasticity – one of the great revelations of the past century - which is the brain’s capacity to be shaped or changed by its environment. “If we don’t take responsibility for this [our environment], then our brains are molded by outside experiences, which can be good or bad,” Swart says.
And this ties back to Wesley, who in his talk was saying not just ‘community shapes us’ but when a specific community isn’t good for us, we can disengage, chose to step away. That felt bold when I heard it. Do we ever talk about the communities we need to leave behind to protect ourselves, or allow for growth and flourishing?
We can choose to be molded by outside experiences that bring out the best in us, rather than push us down, make us feel small or unworthy. We can choose to step into rooms with leaders who guide us with clarity and care.
But - as with any form of relationship - it can be challenging to opt out of these groups (or companies!). I’d say that a good half of my coaching clients actually deal with this issue in one way or another.
I guess that’s what I was doing when I left my family to live on my own. And shortly after, when I left university and then my country, in pursuit of something else. I was seeking that feeling of belonging that comes when you can be fully yourself in front of another, and both offer and benefit from the collective wisdom of the group you find yourself within.
On that note, I’m a fresh new member of Geneva’s Toastmasters community. The container is clear, and the structure is pretty intense. But I can tell you that while yes, I first went to them because I’m seeking to better my public speaking skills (dreaming of the TED stage), the reason why I signed up and paid the membership fees is because of the genuinely warm, caring and joyful atmosphere I discovered in that group. I feel like I’m in a safe space, where I’ll be able to stretch myself and hopefully, expand. Kind of like a felt with Annie Carpenter, in that room, in Vienna.
Do you have access to a space, one where you get to explore or enjoy what matters to you? I hope you do or I invite you to seek it out. It feels great to be held in such a way.
Perhaps right there, behind my thirst for knowledge, is the reason why I keep on doing one course after another, since most of them come in with a built-in community so to speak.
Perhaps, what I’m seeking, in this complicated world, is connection.
And with it, creating ties so, together, we can build a better one.
Until next week.