It’s International Women’s Day!

A day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. As women, we have at this moment perhaps more opportunity than ever to improve and shape the world in profound ways. Here are some of my thoughts on how I’ve been working on that myself…

I’ve been thinking of the image of “Strong Back, Soft Front”

I learned this image in a meditation course and have been practising it for some time. It is part of the foundation training to prepare to take meaningful and sometimes courageous action in the world, by remaining connected to ourselves and to others. Things “out there” will always trigger us – and unless we work on this part of ourselves, our courageous actions can often be misplaced, ineffective, wear us out, or lead us down a path that puts us in the same power dynamics we'd set out to change.

Recently I was very touched to hear sociologist Dr. Brené Brown talking about this image “Strong Back, Soft Front” with Krista Tippet in her On Being podcast. Dr. Brown references this as related to her research on vulnerability, and says, “I think one of the greatest casualties of trauma is the loss of the ability to be vulnerable. And so when we define trauma as oppression, sexism, racism, I have no choice but to leave my house with my armor on and carry the 20 tons of that through my day, no matter how crippling it is, no matter how heavy it is, because I am not physically safe in a world — or, this environment. “[1]

When I first learned this vipashyana meditation exercise in which the eye-line is raised up and outward toward the horizon, I noticed that my belly always clenched more than when my focus was downward in the basic shamatha meditation, where the focus is very close to oneself and basically 100% on the breath. The instruction for vipashyana meditation is different: you put approximately 70% of focus on the outside world and about 30% focus on the breath and noticing one’s own sensations. This is to start training the mind and body to be in the world and self-aware at the same time. Eventually, the insight is that separation is an illusion. But I had a very real, physical understanding of the “armor” that is there – and that it’s not my true nature. It’s protection, and that protection creates separation. But the protection mechanism was habituated and not easy for me to inhibit, even sitting in the safety of a meditation hall.

The wisdom of the body

I believe that when we are sensitive to ourselves and our environment we naturally have spontaneous insights that are useful because they are based in empathy and connection. For myself, some of my best wisdom and often my best ideas spring out of an attuned awareness that is rooted in my body. The armor was lowered, the cocoon melted, at least for awhile. 

There are many tools and practices to work on this kind of body wisdom and awareness, to heal trauma, to train to be connected and courageous, to build up new models of power with others, to communicate with presence and show your true colours. I believe that if we want to create a new paradigm then we need to also learn these skills, so that when we apply ourselves it isn’t just making the wheels of the status quo turn, but actually moving the world forward. These are leadership skills.

To imagine different systems we can regularly practice being in touch with a curious mindset, and work to build our creative confidence. While we train rigorously in technical subjects, we can train ourselves to have a creative vision for how to apply that rigor to improve the world. Influencing others to follow these new ideas can happen when we learn to communicate with a “wild heart,” a body that knows how to be present, and a clear and vibrant voice.

Mainstream studies show that investing in women and creating gender equality is the most effective way to solve global warming and other major environmental problems [2]. Women are set to inherit 70% of the world’s wealth in the next 2 generations [3] and already by 2020 we are expected to hold $72trn, 32% of the total wealth in assets. [4] 

What are we going to do with this opportunity? 

I’d propose that it’s essential to work on our self-awareness at the same time that we work on big systems level problems and opportunities. I don’t think it’s one before the other. We can’t wait until we “have ourselves together” are “the expert” and “feel confident and ready.” We have to practice internally and externally at the same time. There are many layers of trauma to soften, but this is also our power. If we can find our courage to cultivate the “soft front” and keep strengthening the back, then we share our vision for a better world in a way that already embodies an inspiring way of showing up in the world.

Join me and Dr. Sharmishtha Dattagupta for a True Colours women's urban creativity retreat in Amsterdam 6-8 April, 2018, to focus on authentic leadership and creative courage.

Laura Carmichael