The Restorative Power of Recalling Who We Really Are

"living stone" photo
Photo by Andesine on Flickr

This weekend I attended my first overnight mindfulness meditation retreat and learned some wonderful ways in which early Buddhist teachings overlap with restorative practices.

For instance I learned from our teacher  (Santikaro of Liberation Park, WI) that the original word currently translated as “mindfulness” has two root meanings:
  • the more commonly understood Western concept of “being fully attentive to what is” and
  • the less well known concept of “recalling to mind”
What is it, exactly, that we are recalling?

Among other things, we are recalling—or bringing to mind—the “heart virtues” that already live within us, including Compassion, Forgiveness, Loving Kindness, and Appreciative Joy.

These heart virtues, Santikaro reminded us, do not need to be “manufactured” in any way; they simply need to be brought forth from within ourselves – so we can more easily recognize and access them, as well as honor and nurture them.

This brought to mind a restorative practice we enjoy in our family, inspired by the  story of an African tribe in which, when a person commits harm, the villagers gather around and remind the person of their beauty (by singing that person’s special “birth song”). The description, which varies from telling to telling, goes something like:
The tribe recognizes that the response to harmful behavior is not punishment but love, and the memory of one’s true identity. When we recall our own song we lose our desire to hurt others. Our song reminds us of our beauty when we feel ugly, our wholeness when we feel broken, our interconnectedness when we feel alone and our purpose when we feel lost.
While the story does not seem to be rooted in any real African tribe or tradition, according to my own searches and those of others, the legendary practice resonated with me when I first heard it years ago, and I adopted it as part of our family’s Restorative Toolkit...

[Continue reading what happens next - at our sister website:]

How Do You Want to Be Held?

Photo by Nuno Duarte on Flickr

For the past three weeks, I've been taking beginning dance lessons in a group setting - meaning that I get to experience lots of different dance partners within a given class.

To my surprise, rather than learning a lot about where to put my feet, I've been learning a lot about how I want to be held and how I may want to hold others - on the dance floor and off.

From parenting to love to leadership, these beginner dance lessons have led me to look at my relationships through a refreshing new lens.

On the dance floor, I discovered that I want to feel my partner's presence and intentions through a firm connection between us (hand on my shoulder blade, arm nestled in outstretched arm). I can then sense where my partner wants to go and can respond by moving in sync, rather than trying to guess where to go (hold too light) or being dragged along (grip too tight, partner pushing and pulling).

In my other relationships, if I want to communicate an intention, do I move ahead before connection has been established, leaving the other to feel confused or angry? Do I grip tightly so that the other person feels like I am pushing and pulling? Or do I make sure we have a firm connection which allows meaning to pass between us?

On the dance floor, I want a partner who adjusts the length of strides to mine, rather than taking big, gulping steps which leave me hopping just to keep up.

In my other relationships, when I want to take things in a new direction, do I leap ahead impatiently, forcing the other person to hop after me or lag behind? Or do I pace my stride, taking smaller steps so they can experience choice and mattering if they want to join me?

On the dance floor, when I spin, I want a partner who can offer my fingers a cup-shaped hand (not a vise or a bowl) that is open enough for me to rotate freely, but not so loose that I become unmoored during my spin.

In my other relationships, when people want to explore - to take a solo spin (with my support) - do I hold their hands so tightly they have to wrench their wrists to turn? Do I let go completely so they spin out of control or lose their connection with me? Or do I provide a cupped hand that is neither too tight nor too loose, allowing them to rotate within our shared orbit without flying out of it?

Finally, on the dance floor, when I move away from my partner temporarily (as in a rock step in Swing) I want to feel a stetchy-rubber-band tension between us - a little tug with some give in it, which leads me back to my partner in time.

And in my other relationships, when others want to stretch a bit into their autonomy, moving away from me temporarily, do I form a tight rope between us that threatens to pull them short? Or do I hold their hand with a bit of give, so they feel their freedom and my presence, as we come apart and back together again in a dance of respect and co-creation?

The Danger of Compromise

Photo by TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr

Picture a stand-off between multiple parties.

Perhaps it is between representatives of two nations sitting across a long polished table as they butt heads over a piece of land, or perhaps it is between red-faced members of an organization fighting over a budget item, voices raised, or maybe its kids on a grassy field arguing about which game to play.

In our case, this morning, it was between our 9 yr old son (on sofa, arms crossed, body tight, face scowling) and his dad (on living room rug, visibly slowing down his breathing to be “patient,” feet planted firmly).

As with most such cases, the disagreement is initially played out not at the level of intentions, values or underlying needs (safety, choice, consideration) but at the level of STRATEGIES or actions (my son wants to eat his Top Food Choice for breakfast; we want him to eat Third Food Choice, so I could pack Top Food Choice for his school lunch; we have been out of Second Food Choice for a couple of days now).

It may or may not help you to know that, because our son’s diet is severely limited by health considerations, balancing tastiness, variety and nutrition in his meals can be a challenge in our family. Or that my husband is working hard, right now, to be “patient” and engage in (and model) nonviolent, non-coercive approaches to conflict.

The bottom line is that there is always a story. Both sides have unmet needs and, often, underlying tensions on which the conflict seems to build. And that is exactly the point I want to make today.

Read what happens next - when Dad offers a Compromise (on our new Restorative Justice blog)...

The Key to Getting the Relationship and Love You Want

Photo by Yle is dreaming on Flickr
In my life, I spend a lot of energy thinking about how others could be different.

I dream about how I'd like others to respond to me, hear me, treat me, and - while I'm at it - treat each other - differently.

Of course, in theory, I wholeheartedly agree with the oft cited Gandhi quote "Be the change you want to see in the world." *

Yet, when I remind myself that modeling is the most powerful way to create a shift in those around me, it tends to get translated - inside of me - into self-directives such as "From now on, when the kids are upset, respond with empathy" or "When triggered, pause before you speak."

Inevitably, because these are phrased (to myself) as demands, my organism rebels against them (after all, we all want to have choice and freedom) and I am back to wishing my son, husband, daughter, WHOEVER, would make it easier for me to respond "patiently" by being different!

Shockingly (!), having a clear vision of "the change I want to see in the world" rather than a clear vision of how I can BE the change - brings me no closer to having the quality of relationships for which I long.

And it is no wonder. Research with couples and lessons from divorce mediation have shown that there is one simple, essential question that can open the door to the kind of love you want to have.

The simple question is:

What kind of person do I want to be?

More specifically:
What kind of partner do I want to be?

What kind of parent do I want to be?

What kind of friend do I want to be?
What kind of community member do I want to be?
For me, asking the question this way is not merely about "linguistics" - for it is this phrasing that shifts my focus from behavioral strategies ("be more patient" "give more empathy") to powerful intentions such as:
"I want to be a parent who sees the beauty in my kids", "I want to be a partner who appreciates the time we have together", "I want to be a friend who listens with openness" and "I want to be a community member who helps things grow."
This shift from ACTION to INTENTION helps me connect to my HEART, a place from which all things are possible - and from which my actions then flow in ways that inevitably bring more love into my life.

I still spend more time than I'd like living in the land of "why can't others..." Yet, when I do remember to pause and ask myself the Magic Question, things seem to shift almost - well - magically.

* Apparently, the origins of the Gandhi quote are in dispute. I'm still a big fan of the concept, though, whether a senior or junior Gandhi said it. 
"Magic Question" CAVEAT: If You Fear for Your Safety

The magic question is intended as a way to help open the door to self-connection for those who want to criticize less and love more. It is NOT intended as advice for people who feel unsafe in their relationships. 

If you fear your partner, if you feel like you have to walk on eggshells - constantly watching what you say and do in order to avoid a blow-up—you may be in a what is considered an "abusive" relationship. Other signs that you may be in an abusive relationship include a partner who belittles you or tries to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation.

If this might be happening to you, I urge you to find a way to increase your safety and that of your kids, if relevant. If you are not sure, you can read more online. If you live in the U.S. and need help getting away, call the Domestic Violence hotline (1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)) or your local shelter. If you are in immediate danger of being hurt, please call 911.  If you live outside the U.S., international resources can be found at the bottom of this page.

Is Your Way of Sharing Leadership Hurting Your Relationship?

The hidden dangers of lopsided leadership at home - and one surprising strategy that may help re-balance yours.

Photo by cho45 on Flickr

Many families and couples I know have one person who tends to take the lead: a kind of family CEO who seems to be in charge of decisions, suggestion, ideas, and daily schedules.

In our family, that used to be me. That is, until, we decided to shake things up by turning them upsidedown - with some remarkable results.

Pros and Cons of Having a Clear Family Leader

Pros: Predictability, Ease, Efficiency

Having a clear (even if unspoken) family leader had its advantages, including predictability, ease, and efficiency. Before our shake-up, everyone knew where to bring their Big Questions (can I wear my rainboots instead of snow boots today?) and whom to consult on Family Plans (are we doing Indian food with the usual crowd tonight?).

However, it turned out that a consistent imbalance of leadership in our family also led to some unintended consequences for my partner and me.

Cons: Resentment, Disempowerment, Role-Stuckness

For him, this included a (mostly unrecognized) sense of having less "power" and "mattering," which manifested in questions such as: does my voice count? is my role as important in this home?

For me, it showed up as a growing sense of "over-responsibility" which was sometimes burdensome and confining - and was evident in demands such as: I want a co-parent - not helper! I can't make another decision today - can't you just pick?

Time for a Power-Re-Alignment?

Of course we had long been aware of these role differences (which were frequently featured in "bossy-ness" jokes by our friends). However, through a series of intimate, radically honest conversations we began to have over the past 6 months, the problems with our leadership imbalance became clearer and more urgent.

And so, we decided to make a change - to shift the roles and dynamics in the family to a true co-leadership, co-parenting model.

Co-Leadership: Easier Said Than Done

It turned out that (duh!) re-balancing the leadership scale was not as easy as saying "ok, let's co-lead now!"

Habits had been formed over many years together and were reinforced daily, hourly, by our kids and our own inability to move into a new way of being. Accusations and hurt feelings abounded.

"If you would just give me some room!" he fumed, "instead of jumping in every time and taking charge!"

"True leaders don't wait for someone to invite them!" I'd retort. "They listen and watch and then step in with a great idea - like 'hey guys, I've been thinking that maybe we can try...' "

Both sides admitted that the other had a point. Both sides felt stuck and unable to shift the dynamics, despite "good intentions."

Shifting Leadership Dynamics: A Kooky Idea That Worked

Then one Saturday morning, when I was feeling that I could barely get out of bed, never mind lead my family into the battle of daily-living, my husband announced in seeming-full-seriousness:

"I'm in Charge today. I'm gonna take care of everything. You don't have to do a thing. I'm gonna create a strong, cheerful container for all of us - you just relax and let me lead."

In my state of exhaustion and utter gray-ness that morning, this kooky suggestion felt like a welcome relief. A whole day of not making a single darn decision seemed like a spa vacation for my tired self.

It turned out that far beyond having a good day (which we did), like many of the great inventions of history, we had accidentally discovered the formula that would shift us from CEO to Partners.

The Secret: Taking Turns Being in Charge

It turned out that the secret was to switch leadership hats for large chunks of time - giving the reigns to the other person for a whole day or weekend.

This allowed both of us to immerse ourselves in the new roles (which, of course, is the best way to learn a new skill or make a cultural shift) - and gave everyone a chance to experience the other person as a leader.

It didn't hurt that we had fun with it either:

"Mom, can I have seconds of desert?"
"Oh, I don't know, honey. Your dad is in charge today."

"Mom, Rachel won't leave me alone and I wanna have some private time."
"Mmmm. Not sure about that. Your dad is in charge today."

The Results: Amazing Grace

Amazingly, we could feel the positive results after only a few days of Taking Turns.

The old ruts were being eroded. New habits were being formed. Mattering (for him) and Freedom (for me) crackled in the air.

Incredibly, after about a month and a half of playing around with this practice, our leadership scale feels more balanced than it has in 10 years of trying to co-parent together. The Turn-Taking has now been infused into our relationship in a more natural way.

And we are having more fun parenting - and more ease and grace between us - than we've ever had before.

The Next Frontier? 

After watching us play with this practice for many weeks, our 9 yr old asked if he could have a day of being in charge too.

So, this Saturday, our family is being led by a gawky 4th grader in footsy pajamas who thinks "having gas in class" is the funniest thing on earth and "fairness" is being aloud to stay up as long as he wishes.

But that sounds like a possible post for another day.
Thinking of trying this experiment at home? I'd love to hear how it goes!

Have a fun way that helps you co-lead and co-parent in your family? Please take a minute to share in the Comments below. We can all use the co-nspiration and co-support!