If you've talked to me at all in the last six weeks, I’ve probably insisted that you read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. (P.S. You should. P.P.S. It takes a lot to impress me, but when I get hooked on something, I don’t shut up. So humor me.) Anyway, I could sing the praises of this extraordinary gem of a book for innumerable reasons, but there is one, in particular, that compels me, perhaps above all others.
You see, it’s an “advice” book. Before she revealed herself as the phenom who wrote Wild, Cheryl Strayed was the author of the “Dear Sugar” column at The Rumpus where she “advised” readers on everything from how to become a writer to how to recover lost faith to how to live with (and love!) one’s Inner Perv.
The book’s queries cover vast terrain, and serve as testimony to the beauty and grit of human experience.
Strayed is a master of multi-dimensional listening. She hears what is above and below the actual questions; what is absent in light of what is present. She pays attention to negative space. But even that isn’t her gift par excellence.
Here’s what is: She gets in the mud with people. She lets us see her mess. Rather than dispensing expert advices from Up On High, she offers stories from her own life; ones that serve as corollaries to the precise lessons sought by her querents. And in that offering of fellowship, she turns the traditional Advice Column genre on its head.
There is no expert here; there is only an invitation to meet in the trenches of our shared human life. This is Story Medicine, wherein the roles of Witness and Confessor become, at times, indistinguishable.
In a word, Cheryl Strayed is humble. And to be humble when cast in the role of Deliberate Knower is an even more radical thing.
This is wildly refreshing as I’ve always had a deeply ambivalent relationship with my role as a leader-- as a teacher, as a therapist, as a healer, as someone in a professed position of power. As someone who is supposed to have the “answer.” There’s something about having some sort of supposed authority that has always felt a bit disingenuous at best and slightly grandiose at worst.
And so to guard against the possible obnoxiousness of actually believing that I know what’s best for anyone (the horror, the horror!), I become almost self-effacing. Only that doesn’t work either. Although I suppose I reason that it’s better than the self-inflated thinking that would have me believe that I’m somehow saving the world. And so I commit myself to it on days when I don’t know what else to do. (There are more of those days than you might imagine.)
There’s no potency at either pole. It’s either I’m up too high or I’m down too low. And the work gets done at the ground level (thanks for the reminder, Cheryl.). Neither position is truly humble, precisely because neither one is honest. They are equal opportunity afflictions.
As fate would have it, I was reading Tiny Beautiful Things on a flight to Italy, where I was going to be co-leading a Transformational Yoga and Coaching Retreat. And wielding my power in the balanced and honest way that I want to stymies me tenfold when I work with groups. (Which, of course, was what I was about to spend a week doing.)
One-on-one work (which is mostly how I fill my days) has always felt more organic and relational to me. And that comes fairly easily. But when I have an “audience,” this strange thing happens. I get “performance anxiety.” I contract. I don’t take up my space. And in that tightness, I rob myself and others of an effulgence that might just free us both.
Fittingly, in the kind of poetic way that these things go, the quality that I am by far most critical of in my teachers is always some version of the un-humble virus. (My favorite strain to protest is performativeness; that part of them that wants fandom rather than the essential nutrient of honest contact.) But any strain will do.
I often pride myself on being able to suss out the answer to this key question upfront when I consider a teacher: Is this person willing to let herself be moved by me and our process? If the answer is no, she is in violation of one of Jung’s incontrovertible truths about alchemy.
Ironically, my own lack of humility announces itself in the witch hunts that I have, at times, gone on in order to expose a few crossed wires. (Let it be known: I have made my fair share of messes here.)
It also announces itself in my refusal, at other times, to stand in what I know. To own it. To engage. (Recently, a teacher in the coaching program I’m currently enrolled in said to another student something along these lines: “When you know as much as you do and you hide, you look creepy and dangerous.” I feel like she might as well have been speaking directly to me. Goodness knows my quietness doesn’t usually fool people. And it unnerves the hell out of teachers when I sit in the back of a room.)
So given all of this, I’m more than a little bit mortified to admit that I struggle with letting the essence of who I am simply flow through me when people are looking.
But I do.
Last year, while in the midst of my Conquering Lion Yoga training, I had a conversation with one of my teachers (one who, incidentally, transmits a rare reverence and humility). Maria recognized the struggle in me; the fear of pushing out more unabashedly. Perhaps more importantly, though, she recognized the heart that wanted to push out.
One day she said to me, “Ashley, when we’re stuck in our self-consciousness, and we’re worried about doing it right, or how we look or don't look, we’re not being of service. Because then it’s all about us.” It was something that I’d heard before, put in a different way, and knew to be true. And yet in that moment I heard a truth underneath a truth that I hadn’t acknowledged fully: there was a selfishness, not to mention an arrogance, to my having to come across a certain way; of needing to present as The Woman Who Actually Has Her Shit Together.
The thing about being on a residential retreat is that, like it or not, you’re in community. For at least a little while. And as fast as you might want to run away when you’re in cahoots with some unflattering bullshit, it’s hard to completely hide. Much to my chagrin (or maybe not), others saw when I got cranky about shitty WiFi, found myself seasick on a boat coming home in the rain, fell prey briefly to my Obsession Du Jour, or cried at lunch when my co-leader unexpectedly penetrated me with a question about desire.
It’s a tricky thing, this being with; this being in communion while also holding the rails. I don’t really know how to do it. There are few, if any, good models. I have a lot of teachers who are doing the best they can with what they have but who are still at the mercy of the heartbreaking phenomenon that I witness again and again: they’ve built and nurtured these beautiful communities but they remain constantly at the periphery of their own creations. They’re “within” by virtue of association, but they’re “without” because, somehow, they won’t come down fully into them. They’re too busy “holding space” and/or taking care of everyone else’s needs to let themselves get worked.
It’s been an inconspicuous hiding place for too long now.
And I’ve been guilty too.
There is this yoga teacher I take class with often. I have a deep fondness for her. Many times, after class, I’ll be talking and laughing with friends who show up to practice. And she will be there, tucked behind the harmonium, entertaining the usual “thank you for class” gratitudes until the chit chat fades and she walks out past us on the street corner as we’re still gathered. Sometimes I notice this slight sadness behind her sweet smile and wave goodbye and I feel the sting of a nameless gap that I fear is attributable, at some level, to a sort of hierarchical notion of “roles.”
We learn to stay in our places.
I’m going to say something that’s charged. So here it is: I think that sometimes “boundaries” are simply failures of humility disguised as “evolved relating.” Do not misunderstand; there are “good” boundaries (if we want to get into the qualifiers), like refusing to enable an addict or a Narcissist, or saying no to colluding with a co-dependent family member. And then there are the I’d-rather-you-not-see-me, pride-as-unevolved-vulnerability “boundaries.” I have experienced the latter on many an occasion over the years; they’re rife in the therapy community (remember, we descended from the ranks of Freud and the “blank slate” mentality), the yoga community (hello, guru culture), and even some creative communities I’ve been involved in that prized accolades over authenticity. And dare I say, even in my two most recent trainings focusing on the feminine (which is to say a less hierarchical, less top-down way of relating), it has still been wonky at times.
One of my current teachers tells the story of being traumatized by a trauma lecture. To her way of thinking, there is an egregious arrogance to this expert-on-high who swoops down into the gnarly abyss to “save” these God-forsaken victims. “I know what I’m doing,” it presumes. “And you don’t.” From the perspective of the feminine, it’s a deeply flawed system. Because true fellowship happens when we dare to get in the trenches with each other and admit that sometimes we don’t actually know. Instead, our addiction to competency has it be that we dwell in the higher ranks rather than on the ground.
So I learned something about the feminine that week in Italy. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing on some level. But here is what I do know: I learned what I did not by the brute force of my will, but because I was too tired to be “on” in that laborious, performative way that we learn we have to be. I simply didn’t have the energy to curate my Face Display so as to look only like my “highest” self.
Nor did I have the energy to keeping pulling the proverbial covers up over my head (which takes just as much effort, mind you).
Sometimes my best yoga practices happen when I’m tired, for this simple reason: I don’t have the luxury of willfulness (which takes a shit ton of energy) to muscle into the postures. And in that fatigue, surrender comes with a different kind of ease. The body gets to take over in its less-than-charming involuntary state, and another intelligence reigns.
It’s a marvelous thing, really.
A month before the retreat I stood up in a room full of 150 of my peers at a coaching intensive to, presumably, ask a question of my teacher. The mere idea terrified me. My usual MO is to play it cool in the backseat…at least for a while. But, by withholding, I was creating a force field that was becoming unbearable. And so I made a promise to someone that I would do this. It wasn’t so much about the particulars of the inquiry as it was about the gesture. And it wasn’t so much about a promise to her as it was about a promise to myself.
“Don’t worry if you don’t have anything to ask,” this woman told me. “Nicole will know what the question is when you stand up.”
So there I was, messy, without a coherent query, teary and shaking. I’m not sure I even know, fully, what happened. I remember her saying this: “The first thing I want you to do is to take your space.”
And then the floodgates opened. After that, she asked me what I wanted. And in a torrent of emotion, I unleashed a passionate litany of longings from teaching to leading to writing to sex to love. And somehow Italy came up. She focused in on it with laser precision. It felt important.
She asked me to embody the upcoming trip.
“What does it look like? Feel like? Smell like? Taste like?"
The answers flowed out, unfettered by the usual shackles of self-consciousness.
“You have a ton of desire,” she said, smiling.
Yes. It’s true. It’s always been true.
“Allow yourself to have it.”
Lately the theme for me has been how I’ve kept myself from what I’ve wanted most. But in order to not do that, I was going to have to admit my hunger. And “need” wasn’t my style.
Which is to say: I was above it.
Only I wasn’t.
I went off to Italy tired, hungry, and full of longing. These are not the ingredients that we would typically vote for in a leader. And yet they were the raw materials I was working with.
Luckily, I’m an something of an alchemist. Which means I know a thing or two about that transmuting lead into gold stuff. Or, I’m learning anyway. And the crucible of our container, which I was able to live inside of by some force of magic, was hot enough to burn off a good bit of the residue that week.
There was a moment, on the final night of the retreat, where I was facilitating a game called Hot Seats. It’s a game about seeing and being seen. Participants get to take turns sitting on the Hot Seat, and players get to ask them questions, on any topic, at any level of intensity they choose. It's what we called an "infinite game," in that it has no knowable beginning or ending; rather, it is played simply for the sake of continuing play. Kind of like life.
After everyone had gone, one of the women, Carol, asked me to go up.
Without paying any heed to the fact that I was leading, or that that wasn’t my “role,” or that this was the first time that anyone on that veranda had played before, I got out of my chair. And like a good pinch-hitter, Tanya, my co-leader, took over.
Cheryl Strayed’s words echoed in my consciousness as I took my seat: “The whole deal about loving truly and for real and with all you’ve got has everything to do with letting those we love see what made us.”
I loved these people. That deeper love was the reward I received for getting out of my own way. For getting humble. And this was an opportunity to stand closer inside the circle together. For us to feel each other. For them to see a little bit more of what made me.
Carol asked the first question: “What did you learn, as a leader, being with us this week?”
I told her some version of this story.
I told her it didn't have an ending.
You see, that's the thing about infinite games; they continue to make us. For as long as we let them.