I received a fun email this week. It said: “Loved seeing a strong woman in a key position of power yesterday. You were fantastic.”
What is it to own our own strength? The key position of power that we most genuinely occupy is the power, authority and responsibility that we hold in relation to the choices we make in our own lives.
A position of true power is not assigned from the outside world. It is claimed by owning our strength in the inside world.
There's a metaphor for this that comes from Buddhist practice. When one sits on a meditation cushion or bench, this cushion or bench is often placed on top of a larger, thin cushion. This larger cushion, about two feet wide and three feet long, softens the impact of the ankle on the ground. So the space that belongs to you in a shared, community shrine room is the size of that cushion: three feet long and two feet wide. In the meditation practice, this is the size of the world for which you are responsible. Can you take your seat? Can you own the strength of that world? Can you rule, like a sovereign, that inside world, within which you sit: three feet long and two feet wide?
Can we own the strength and confidence that we embody through our own voice?
That’s how I described the exercise of final exam preparation to my students this afternoon. We will have a final exam: there will be grades to support them as they move towards graduation, but the test isn't actually about writing the test. The test is one of growing in the capacity to own confidence in the strength of one's own voice. Can they think in an interesting, creative, flexible and sophisticated way, and then say what they have to say? Just like in life, there is no single one right answer. There is only the answer that we claim as being right for us. The real test is how well we can do it in our lives.
What is it to own one's own authority such that one's voice becomes heard? Let me offer some suggestions.
First, I propose that it is an error to confuse kindness with weakness or aggression with strength. Aggression - in the sense of dominance, control, territoriality and the old colonial perception of “success” - the capacity to manipulate, to expand one's territory of control - is an expression of fear. It is rooted in fear. It seeks to compensate for an internal sense of “not enough”, grasping for more on the outside because there is some sense that there's “not enough” on the inside. Because it is an expression of fear, it merits my compassion not my complicity. We don't need to empower cowardice by confusing aggression with strength.
What then is strength? It is that which creates, supports sustains and maintains life.
Genuine strength is honed and polished like a well-tempered sword.
Owning with confidence the authority of one's own voice - the capacity to vibrantly “be” is honed over time. It is polished by means of the friction we have with others.
We become increasingly strong when we have to be, for whatever reason. Then, because of whatever it was, we have become more strong. How could my strength have been developed were it not for the hard things - the undermining or the oppressive presences - that I have encountered?
The overt expression of forcefulness is sometimes required. Strength itself is more often revealed through the spaciousness of our being, not the hardness of our edges. It’s in grace and joyfulness, subtlety, playfulness, elegance and discretion. Genuine strength seldom shows itself through the pushing of buttons, any more than it allows one's buttons to be pushed. It's not a pushing and shoving situation.
The meditation posture – sometimes called the “mountain pose” because it is so strong – is characterized by a straight back. Because of the strong back, there is an open heart. It is an interdependent relationship. It is trained in meditation practice, among many other disciplines.
Can we be where we are when we're there?
Can we know with confidence that we are able to meet what arises, without pushing away, or clinging, without being blown over by the winds?
Genuine strength comes from connecting with the deep, inherent strength of one's own being. So one would neither take from - nor be taken by - others. There's no need to lean on, or steal, the power of others. Strength isn’t what we accumulate on the outside.
Strength is inherent. It comes from the inside. That's why it shows itself through behavior which is creative, life-supporting, and life-maintaining.
It comes from connecting to life itself.
No one is stronger than another from that perspective. It's rather that one more deeply relaxes into the inherent, self-existing strength of “beingness” itself.
This inherent strength - honed and polished by the frictions of our days – can be trained, just as we train strength of body. For what is the difference between the body, and emotion, the voice and the mind? It's only as different as we choose to believe it to be. To strengthen one is to strengthen the other.
So let me offer you a passage called “Build your Strength”. It is an excerpt from my book Mindfulness: How to Cope with Hard Things, A Workbook.
“When we train the body at the gym, we tear down the muscle fibres slightly so that when they grow back they will become stronger. The mind is like that. As we engage the journey, working with hard things, the mind becomes stronger. As we are able, as we grow, it seems to me that often – somehow - weight gradually gets added to the bar. The hard things are part of how we build our strength.
Will we be cut apart? Will we be broken open? Is our life torn down? We will find the strength we need for it to be re-built stronger.
[There is] construction happening on the campus where I teach…: [the building’s] renovation will strip all of its interior down to the bricks. They have begun to paint the bricks.
Why not tear down the whole thing? They would have, if they could. They couldn’t.
Neither can we….
If it is in our experience today, it is because we are able to find the strength, engage our resourcefulness, build our intelligence and awareness, and choose how we will work with it, and when we will work with it, in our own way and our own time.
We don’t tear down entirely. We renovate and re-paint the bricks, are re-born and re-built.
What distinguishes destruction from construction?
We are pushed: we push back. We are constrained: we come through. We are tied: we cut loose. It is how we are born. It is how we are re-born. Everyday.”
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness