The Perpetual Undoing

“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”

– Rachel Naomi Remen

As I learned to conquer my fears by taking a leap of faith and breathe into the unknown, I thought it was the best thing ever and that everyone should do it too, so that they would harness their creativity and break free from the boxes and chains that keep them contained. At the time, discoveries like that felt wholly novel to me. I couldn’t wait to share them. As I was breaking into my own inner world with a new discourse, I’m sure from the outside it looked like I thought I was reinventing personal growth.

When I first started out on the course to being a “helper person” (what a friend of mine called the coach, counselor, consultant-type), I thought I had the world, or at least some very key things, figured out. I’d try to offer up the latest learnings, but that wasn’t always what my semi-captive audience members needed. With a limited toolbox in tow, I learned that helping people change required more than advice on how to “just do this leap and breathe into the fear” thing. Such distilled methodology and one-size fits all cookie cutter solutions aren’t a custom fit. I couldn’t help my people from that place, nor could I fix them.

Yet, part of me believed I could and was focused on being of value in that way. Instead, I was discounting their experience since whatever desire I had to help was really more about me. It wasn’t until I learned that an agenda-free, open-hearted, unassuming presence alone was the most useful stance in meeting people where they are.

“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life,” writes Rachel Naomi Remen, author and one of the pioneers of Relationship Centered Care and Integrative Medicine. “When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”

The stance to be of service, versus thinking I had the answers to bestow upon others, took inner work culminating in the perpetual undoing of my identity. Just when I thought I knew who I was and how the world worked, the model shifted again. In the process, I was skillfully erased over and over again. The helper-fixit ego checked. My book of answers turned to questions in the face of the ever-mutating truth of both me and the world around me.

When we get stuck and attached to our identities, we begin to assume that we are a static, fixed self, and we blatantly deny life’s current of mutability. Constant change is the only constant, and our very sense of self is a fluid unit.

Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, in an impeccable conversation with Krista Tippett, refers to this discomfort as uncomfortably un-knowing ourselves and the “willingness to keep being willing to come undone — to do what we can to understand the world around us and how we operate and what is impacting who we are and how we are, and to allow that to keep coming undone.”

The edge of who you think you are is an interesting place. It’s the boundary between known, unknown (and the ignored, denied parts of us), and un-knowing the constructed faces, personas, dogmatic beliefs. Some folks have edges they defend because their ego depends on it. I’m sure we have all encountered at least a few of these folks and perhaps can identify when we do the same to some degree. Other people can reside in the space of un-doing, putting who they think they are and what they know to the side, and they can meet life with what Roshi Joan notes in this recent Reboot podcast conversation as curiosity, the beginner’s mind, and bearing witness.

“Awe is the moment when the ego surrenders to wonder,” writes author and activist Terry Tempest Williams. Roshi Joan attests that is a moment of freedom– a supple place that leads to a pathway to resilience. In a sense, there’s less of a struggle there because our sense of self is not always at stake; our identities aren’t rigid. If we can let go of our attachments to our role as a leader, or perhaps our over identification with our company, we can arrive at a place where we can connect with those we’re wanting to serve, and thereby serve them better. A hard concept in practice, that suppleness. Yet, as Betsey Shirley (foster mother to cowboy Buck Brannaman) quips: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not get bent out of shape.”

When we focus our energies on upholding a certain identity anywhere in life, we can create a stiffness or tension around that very image of ourselves that we cling to. When life happens in the random and unexpected way that it does, that part or those parts of us can then limit our capacity to deal with things with the clarity and grace of compassion.

“compassion. is the longest emotion there is.” – Nayyriah Waheed

This way of being in leadership isn’t something you get from a book on how to do things. This is an embodied way of meeting life, the humans you encounter and collaborate with, and all the varied and sundried things that happen on any given day at work.

Our way of being affects our way of doing. It affects those who are working alongside us towards the same vision, like our employees or our life partners. If we persist in ways stressful and struggle-full – perhaps not scaling as a leader by managing all of the decisions, not delegating, demonstrating poor communication and collaboration, lack of time management, in the weeds thinking, and failure to manage emotions – we’ll find ourselves on the fast track to burnout (possibly taking a few folks down with us along the way). The time comes when we need to explore a new frontier and new way of meeting the very real challenges of leading and running organizations. We must ask: How am I creating this [panting, manic, insert your adjective of choice here] drive that keeps me going? What change am I trying to make in the world, and what changes do I need to make within me in how I approach this? What identity is tied up in this way of doing things?

Our being (how we are in the world) affects our doing (how we do things in the world) when it comes to our presence. With less stress and anxiety, our ways of being with each other can make work easier. We often talk about the Red-Yellow-Green check-ins as a human way to begin meetings. If you incorporate this practice, notice what happens for you as you do. Do you find that you want to interject? What is it that you want to say? How did what was said make you feel? Is what you want to say for the person who is speaking, or is it for you (and what you’re feeling)?

If you’re on the lookout for where your edges show up, notice what happens when you try to listen. I’ve experienced a great dearth in quality listening. When I don’t feel heard, it often doesn’t feel safe to speak (I know how some of my semi-captive audience members felt when in the early stages of my helper person career), and that doesn’t make for a two-way conversation (I call those ‘non-versations’).

A good listener is an oasis where there’s space to speak, where silence is welcomed, and there’s a big ear witnessing it all through an empathetic and curious human. It’s a space where I don’t feel rushed to speak lest someone fill the space, where silence has a place, where I don’t feel trampled by assertions, advising, attempts to fix because what I say makes the other anxious (or a ream of possible feelings that arise).

I encourage you to try this exercise at work or at home:

Set aside five minutes with someone. One of you will be the listener, one of you will be the talker in round one (you’ll switch in round two). Set a timer for two minutes. The talker talks for the full two minutes. Even if the talking stops before two minutes is up, let silence fill the space until the timer runs out. All the while, the listener simply listens (no talking!). After the first two minutes, switch roles and set the timer for another two minutes. After the final two-minute timer is up, share with each other what that experience was like for you as listener and talker.

How can you find that presence? What do you hear at your edges? With what part of you do you listen? What’s different for you there?

Rachel Naomi Remen notes: “Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the Unseen singing softly to itself and you.”

That is an awe-fully wonderful, and compassionate place to be.