(Part three of my series on looking for integrity in teachers, coaches, and other “inspirational authorities“.)
I’ve been moving in a lot of different contexts that involve the body and intense learning experiences – in other words intense experience of transformation and dealing with personal dreams. And in almost all of these contexts, this subject has appeared:
How to deal with teachers who hurt others using their position of power? How to treat leaders who get others to kind of voluntarily but not really be exploited – be that financially, sexually or just for power?
Places like the theater, dance festivals, and workshops, international youth work, personal development… These places have in common that the people go there with a dream. A dream to change something in the world or in themselves for the better. While the content may differ, they want to go beyond what they experience right now and do so in strong connection with other people. Learning by doing. Learning by being inspired by other people’s stories or by being in some way touched by an inspiring leader who has achieved something they long for.
These inspiring, charming leaders collect or focus the energy of two or more people to create a transformational experience in some way. This gives them great power and at the same time a great responsibility.
I think leadership (whether that is in being a teacher, a therapist, a theatre-director or a politician) is helpful to channel or focus the energy and attention of the people involved. Creating focus can be facilitated and having a clear way of distributing responsibility among those gathering around an idea very often makes it more powerful.
When paired with integrity and the willingness to continue learning and integrating the impulses of the members of the tribe (or simply the individual they’re working with), I think it is amazing that someone would take responsibility and become a leader for a purpose.
I have met amazing leaders and teachers, who have inspired me in so many ways through their example of humble and honest learning.
But I have also met the other kind. Those who ignore the fact that they can still fail, that they are profiting from people’s fears and that there is an asymmetry of power in the different roles that influences the relationship. And they ignore that they’re acting within a culture that influences how many people act habitually if no new, empowered culture is established. Those who use another person’s dream to access their energy for a project that they envision.
At times, I would even give them the ‘credit’ of not doing it intentionally, the first time around… But it would still be painful for those whose dream or wish is being drained for energy. (And latest when things repeat, it’s time to pay attention…)
In the past years, I have heard stories or received warnings about specific teachers (in embodiment practices, in dance, in other self-development techniques,…), who have behaved unethically in different ways.
And I have met amazing, ethical and empathic teachers who hold back their own teaching out of fear to turn into an ‘exploiter’.
As a client of embodiment practices I remember lying on the working table, my hands falling outside the frame of the table and when my practitioner passed, occasionally their legs would slightly brush against my hand. I was extremely aware what kind of touch that was – and which part of their lower body actually touched me. I checked all the time, whether they were pretending to just ‘happen to touch me’ with their crotch, or if that really was something that just happened. I was ready to leave as soon as their touch feels inappropriate.
This cautiousness came from another context and I have not experienced inappropriate sexual advances of practitioners personally, but my fear was keeping me alert and at times made it difficult for me to relax.
When I started to train as a practitioner, I was very self-conscious not only about touch but also about where the gaze of my eyes went, when I was next to a client with their eyes closed. When I had to stand in a way that I couldn’t avoid looking at my client’s crotch – like standing by their feet or walking around the table with a focus on the middle of the body… During class, I was afraid that a colleague would see that my eyes went that way and that they would accuse me of abusing the trust of this person lying on the table by looking at their genitals without consent.
I’m not so afraid of this anymore today. I have my intention clear, I know I don’t mean to make unwanted advances or work without consent. I still know, however, that for a client something I do might be perceived differently than I intended out of their own history or misunderstandings. Or because I was inattentive. That can be about touch, but also about something I say or don’t say. However, I know also that I am willing and able to talk with that person and figure out how we deal with the situation together.
I know that in a position of authority and power, I’m not infallible. I’m human. I’m still struggling with shame or pain, misjudgment or just blindsidedness. No matter how experienced I would become in a field, I cannot know exactly how anything would be for someone else. (Listen to Amy Matthews on teaching personal agency – she brings it to the point.)
The challenge I see with ‘warnings or non-ethical teachers’ is that we can only warn of those we know… and as long as people are still afraid, we might not find out about someone’s manipulative behavior until a large group of people has already experienced it first-hand.
Meanwhile, we lose the power of those inspiring leaders who preventively hold back, because they’re afraid they can’t trust their own integrity, once they become more powerful (comparing themselves to examples they have met).
A friend of mine recently said that “power doesn’t corrupt. Power shows where corruption was in the first place.” To which another one responded, „Yes, power is like a blender with the lid off – whatever you put in there it spreads around everywhere.”
I keep wondering how we can create a culture where we are more aware of what is in the blender. Can we empower our students, clients, colleagues to keep their critical thinking alive, at any point? Even (or especially) when they’re listening to an inspiring, charming and impressive teacher who they respect? Can we encourage them to speak up when something seems off, instead of warning others of specific individuals (which also can easily backfire because it, too, can hurt innocent individuals)? Can we create a culture that supports critical thinking and the knowledge that we can decide what we do and what we don’t want to learn from someone – also in transformational, personal development?
Can we find ways to support the visibility of teachers working with an ethical approach, who commit to receiving feedback, intervision, supervision of some sort and continue learning? Those who truly practice empowering their students and clients? Can we find a way to counterbalance the ‘exploiting industry’ by supporting the teachers with integrity to grow and become stronger?
(this is part two in my series on looking for integrity in teachers, coaches, and other “inspirational authorities“.)
If someone has not learned to say „stop” or „no” according to what their actual, physical and emotional need is, it is tricky to talk with them about consent. Consent is based on knowing when to say stop. Knowing that whether I want something or not makes a difference.
To say stop can be uncomfortable for many reasons – it can trigger a fear to wake up the others’ anger or disappointment, it can imply that I’m not tough enough if I need to say stop, or that I’m in some other way not as strong, smart, relaxed… as I’m supposed to be in this moment. And in the case of being in a learning environment: that I cannot live up to the apparent expectation of my teacher, coach or parent.
So, both saying stop or giving consent are based on trust and courage, when I express how this situation is for me.
When I enter a learning process with my students or clients, I assume and clarify that we’re working together. Even though for me it is obvious, I explicitly mention, that I learn about their body just as they do and we are finding a language together, that makes sense for us.
I respect them very much. Most of them are adults, living their lives, in many cases having responsibility for other people as well and no matter what they went through, they found a way to live. I know that they’re able to take care of their lives and find ways to cope, even if they might be in a moment of challenge or frustration.
I appreciate that they come to me and trust me with their bodies, their stories; that they allow me to accompany them in a process of change. And I appreciate that they in this process might question some of their old ways of doing things, in order to create a change, move a limit and experiment with the unknown. They meet me with their trust, for me to watch out that in this process, they won’t lose themselves.
A couple of years ago a client asked me to stop,
because something was hurting too much, and I reduced the pressure until she said it was ok. A short moment after she asked me to go a bit deeper again, then said stop again and so on. Slowly we managed to work with a muscle that had been very tense for a long time and it became soft. She left very looking very happy.
Early in my practice, I had learned that I need to be able to touch pain and that people can deal with more than they think. And I think, very often this might be true, but it still depends on consent and is a movement along a fine line.
The experience with this particular client surprised me with a realisation about myself as a client: I would not have said stop. I would have either told myself to be tough and endure until it’s over, hoping that my practitioner would notice that it’s too much and will stop. Soon. Or I could’ve tightened inside and left with a grudge and finding the person incompetent and avoid them further on.
Since that session, I can see this happening not only with myself (after this, I have not had another session where I stayed in something that felt too much) but with a lot of my clients and I realised that actually, the first step I need to teach some of them is about consent. What should be obvious, isn’t, in so many cases.
And I discovered a new world.
First of all, I started to remind some people, not only in the beginning but also while we’re working, that they can stop me when something feels too strong. With some people, this is enough.
Some will then say stop at a point where they’re afraid that it will be too much, rather than actually feeling the pain is too much. But that allows us to then discover this fear and move at a pace that they can follow, without feeling panicky.
Some people still don’t say stop. And I actually practice with them. We do a couple of „rounds“ where as soon as they feel my touch they voice the word „stop“ or „enough“ or something that makes sense for them. And just this exercise is incredibly powerful for many of them.
To hear their voice and to notice, that what they say matters. When they say stop, I stop.
Sometimes we end up in discussions – „but I don’t know what will be too much, I might just be scared, maybe I could learn faster if I let you just push through“… And I discover that part of this practice is learning, that it is also ok to say stop too early, notice it and then ask to continue.
I have had full sessions with clients, where we work with this. Where they learn to stop me, – someone who they know has good intentions, who they know they trust and who still might have a different perception of the situation.
Secondly, when I ask my clients to describe a physical sensation, I can see them looking for ways to describe it in a way, that matches my expectation. Or when I ask them, what they mean when they say they are sad or frustrated – I can see them looking for a description of frustration or sadness, that matches my „expert book on feelings“…
So I have started also there to be extremely vocal about „I’m not looking for you to confirm what I experience, I’m interested how it is for you“, “which words or ideas are important for you?“.
I have also started to be precise when I describe what I experience, to start with „to me it seems like there is a cold airy sensation on your skin“ – inviting them to sense something they might not have noticed. And if they can’t feel that, I ask how it is for them or what else they’re feeling.
In the beginning of this practice, I noticed, that it felt „wrong“ to ask them because I was supposed to be the expert. And I was supposed to be confident and trust my own sensation. And, of course, I work only with their consent and don’t force anything on them…
But after a while, I realised that there is no conflict with that at all. I can have experience with bodies, many different ones even and flows and processes of the body. This offers me more ways of paying attention and angles to approach my client and their learning. And I can be confident in my experience. But how my client experiences something is the relevant aspect for adapting the learning process. And if someone hasn’t experienced, how to fully say yes, because they didn’t know they are allowed to say no – how could they give full consent?
If I’m honest about wanting to teach them, I need their perception and to offer them something they can connect to. Confirmation of my personal sensation irrelevant in this context.
I can be confident, that what I felt was relevant for my experience. And it might give me a guideline and will influence how I think about the learning process I’m working with. I need to be confident, that I’m working with their consent and for this, I need to find a frame with each client about how we express it.
In the end, hearing the words my clients uses allows me to learn better with them and to describe my experiences in words that make sense in their awareness.
Both the exercise of saying stop out loud and daring to describe experiences in their own words have been very powerful. The relief that they have expressed (after a short moment of disbelief), has been remarkable and made me wonder why it seems so special?
I understand because I have also had this experience of relief in my own way. And of course, I am happy that my clients feel safe with me and that I manage to teach them something that changes the way they approach challenges and even pain.
But why is it so special, that we can say NO to someone who we trust and who we want to learn from? Why is that not the normal thing to do?
And how can we, as a community of people working in the empowerment of others, ethical leadership and the likes, foster a culture where this becomes stronger? How can we invite others to guard their borders, while maintaining our own confidence allowing our students and clients to grow alongside us?
Especially: How can we make it public and normal, that you can say no to someone’s suggestion, that you can say respect my experience and find a way to expand, that doesn’t involve questioning me?
Looking at the kindling politicians in this world, I have these same questions…
But to start with… Looking at my field of expertise, my community of colleagues, who are working towards a more healthy and sustainable world… I want to raise that subject, as it is larger than my working room. This is beyond an individual experience. We can each do our thing and we can each work with high integrity… But is there a way that we can become stronger? So that the approach of consent and acknowledging what can happen when there is a power- or authority-asymmetry, strengthens those who work ethically.
Can we gather?
I would be happy to be “a hub“, collecting and connecting people with similar interests for action. So if you’re interested in this kind of thinking process, please write and let me know. I have no plan, I just have questions and will continue exploring. (And if you know someone, who I should talk to, because they’re doing a similar thing already, I would be happy for a connection!)
What makes a good teacher? And when do we really learn something new? How do I expand my comfort zone, to grow in an empowering way? I remember these questions already from high school, but over the last two years, I have increasingly thought about, where I learn the most fundamental, transformational things for my life. Where do I have the most meaningful and confident relationships, that make me feel strong and allow growth when I’m vulnerable? And in this regard, what makes a trusted teacher or companion (for me)?
Recently I have been prompted to think about this subject again and decided to dig a little deeper… In continuation of my thoughts on integrity, I want to start a short series of posts about looking for integrity in teachers, coaches, and other “inspirational authorities“. Today I want to share a thinking process about my own experience of finding teachers I trust.
I realized that it is closely connected the possibility to disagree with them.
In the very beginning of learning to explore my body with awareness, a teacher told me that I had anger in my body. It was a moment when we were working with my legs, I was learning to notice my pelvis and the connection downward. And what I experienced was simply a strong sensation of flow. It was hot and there was a lot of movement in my legs. But I did not associate this sensation with anger at all. It was a very pleasant experience actually, I enjoyed the powerfulness. Anger, for me was something different, something aggressiv and destructive and I didn’t want to feel that. I was afraid of anger and that I would destroy things or people, if I let myself experience it.
Instead of asking me, how I experienced the moment, my teacher said, that this is anger. And that I probably will know eventually. This gave me a feeling of being wrong, small and dependent on him to let me know what I’m experiencing.
And after that session, I went home with a doubt about my experience, instead of the powerful, pleasurable sensation that I actually had experienced just before that short conversation. And with a nagging sensation of doubting him, in the back of my mind…
Even though I today realize that anger can be a quality, and that aggression or destruction are different things, this is exactly the kind of situation where learning something new didn’t happen smoothly and without extra effort.
I was busy with his interpretation of something and whether or not he was right, instead of being able to explore what I could learn from this powerful, pleasurable sensation of flow in my legs.
I find this a very innocent example of an important issue in the context of learning and personal development. When I really want to learn something new, something that is essential to my well-being, to living and expanding myself and expressing more freely – I have to move into the vulnerable field of „unknown“, I have to fully say yes and trust my teacher in moments that are tender. I want to accept their expertise and for a moment let go of some of what I previously knew; safe ways of acting and defending myself – in order to discover something new.
In a way I have to say yes, to being totally confused or lost or open to be touched and transformed.
And this, to me, is the most frightening and often most transformational field to go through, especially when it allows me to deal with something like a fear of destroying everyone around me.
Sometimes life serves me a kind of challenge – it’s not a choice, but a combination of events happening around me, that lead to an overwhelming sensation of being lost and having to find a new way. And then, the best thing I find is to go, continue, experiment, walk on… And I, of course, learn profound things in this process of finding some ground under my feet and a way to dance with the challenges. Sometimes then I will act in the way I usually do, trying to just survive, sometimes I get forced by circumstances to do something, that I would never have chosen to do – that can make me creative. But it can also create a sensation of disempowerment, defeat or frustration – until I again find a sense of agency and participation; even if it is „just breathing”.
In an intentional learning process, I bring myself in a situation of unknown, with the wish to grow beyond my previous limits. My aim is, to empower myself and others, by seeking this field that can be frightening and face my challenges in order to find new solutions.
And my experience is, that only when empowerment is part of the whole process, does it feel real at the end.
If I feel that I was forced to do something beyond my comfort zone, or asked to “just believe” like in the example above, on the other hand, I need an extra step of dealing with this sensation of being forced, before fully embodying what I actually wanted to learn.
I have been forced and I have forced myself to do things. And I have experienced, that forcing something can also get things done. But that force always comes with a price. A kind of effort and a feeling of disempowerment. Leaving traces and a bitter aftertaste or even pain, or just years later a frustration with someone who otherwise taught me many valuable things.
I don’t want to expose myself to this intentionally. Especially since I know that I can learn something much more efficiently when I learn from someone I trust. When I can really learn with them.
In this field of unknown one of the scariest things is, to be manipulated. To be lead to a place that I didn’t want to go, that is actually dangerous and where I am used… to be ridiculed, to feed someone else’s ego, to be exploited for money… the fear can go in many different directions. But it is real in the way that there can be people who exploit the trust they receive in these ways. And there can be situations where I am left with that feeling because I didn’t stop or say no, when it was necessary (maybe because I didn’t notice, didn’t know how or was not aware that that was an option…).
I find the fear to be manipulated can infest and compromise the empowerment of an experience. Even if I learned something great and I changed a lot of things if I am left with the doubt whether I really wanted this or I did it because I was „made“ to… it doesn’t taste good. It can either just slow down my process of learning or actually add a source of constant doubt to my experience.
Therefore I need to know, that a no is a no.
I need to know, that the person I work with is someone I can safely disagree with. I need to know, that if I say stop they will stop. If I say no, they will respect that and adapt to my learning. I need to know that they won’t judge me or leave me. I need to know, that if they disagree with my no, we can have a dialogue about it and explore our common language. I need to trust, that if they make a mistake they will be able to apologize honestly. And that if I make a mistake that they will listen to my apology without becoming patronizing.
Part of this, I can only know through experience over time. Through trying something, daring something or taking the risk that I just have to hold on. Sometimes I have had a feeling of trust from the beginning, and I might dare more with some people than others. But even with them, I notice that the ability to disagree with them is part of my „compass“ from the start. I trust you as far as I can disagree with you.
Especially with a teacher, who I meet for their expertise in a field, I need to know that they respect my personal integrity. That they appreciate the trust I give them, when I say yes, by accepting my No when it comes. I need to know that they will look for ways to collaborate with me around the subject we met to discuss. That they will open up a space beyond my comfort zone and hold that space, so that I can enter it in my style and my tempo, rather than throwing me in it.
When a teacher doesn’t accept my no, I don’t know if they ask for my yes for my own sake or for theirs… If they can deal with my no and allow me my own pace, including the option that I will leave and find another teacher, my trust, and respect for them is there. I will full heartedly recommend them to others, even if I notice that currently, I want to learn in a different way. Or if I’m exploring how to train and practice on my own (as I describe in Everyday Presence*).
My personal process should not be part of my teacher’s ego or need to be right. It is truly about creating a space for me to learn and grow. Their role is to hold the space and learn with me. And in a context with peers, we hold the space together.
My challenge in this is, to learn to say no or yes. This is where my courage is required and strengthened… It is vulnerable, even with those who I do trust, and who I know I can disagree with or be at a distance for a while, without feeling disgraced or thrown out.
When I don’t know, I wait. When I’m courageous I throw myself out there and try.
When I know it is safe to say No, I dare to say Yes, – to letting go, to daring unknown, to exploring a way of being that is weird, awkward and maybe just different, to dance with a challenge and grow.
Photo: Stephan Ansorge
…*I describe my personal approach in „Everyday Presence – a personal description“… My first book, which I’m very excited to publish in April 2017. If you’re curious and want to drop by to hold it in your hands – I would be thrilled to greet you at the Release-Fest April 21st, 5pm in Frederiksberg, DK.
“There is no one, regardless of ability level, that can’t be connected to physical sensations” – Ohad Naharin
I have learned to use the physical experience of integrity as a compass in complex situations.
In situations where there either might be arguments for different actions or I simply cannot think of everything, I might have to go for something in a kind of experiment. Taking a decision and acting, despite the fact, that I do not have all the answers or do not know who else might be affected in which way.
Instead of going only after my principles, which could be a way of doing it, that I used to practice, I aim to go after this integrity-compass. Because integrity includes a sensation of confidence and being able to stand behind my decision, in a complex moment it seems to be the only reasonable thing for me to go after.
As I wrote earlier, losing my integrity for me feels like a kind of fine sandpaper is sanding the inside of my chest. In the beginning it is just a tiny sensation of discomfort. And as it continues, it starts to be more exhausting, painful even and somehow there is a layer of „dust“ in the whole body. A mood that can be covering every subject and make it unclear what actually started the sensation in the first place. Moving the chest would be uncomfortable, also because it would stir up the dust everywhere else. A weird mood, somehow related to nausea but spread in the whole body, potentially questioning my values.
Acting with integrity on the other hand, feels very fresh and airy. Especially my chest feels free.
There is space, I can move my arms, my head freely and I breathe more. There might still be a sensation of pain or sorrow, but it is usually clear, where it comes from. Maybe I just had to make a difficult decision, that I know impacts other people and is not all pink and glitter. But my values are intact. I don’t have to hide any area of my life, in order to protect it from another one. I can say ‘these are my choices, some of them hurt, some of them are difficult, and as a whole I stand behind who I am’.
When I notice the sensation of dust and wonder where it comes from (sometimes it’s easy to notice, where you chose something that goes against your values, but sometimes, when you’re good at rationalizing your choices, it might unclear which of them it is…)
I do an exercise to gain clarity that I would like to share with you.
Remember a situation where you made a decision, that for some reason or another made you doubt your integrity (or that of someone else).
Maybe you can’t even put your finger on what exactly brings this doubt. Notice the feeling that comes along with this. Maybe the first thing that comes to mind is a specific sentence that you had in your mind or that you tell yourself thinking back to this situation.
Stay with whatever remains as a memory of this situation.
Feelings can sometimes be a bit abstract, so what I would like to encourage you to do, is to describe the physical sensation that you experience now. (Take your time, this can be up to 5-6minutes)
And then, without changing it notice the position you’re in.
- Are you sitting? How are your legs?
- When you breathe, which area of your body do you feel most free and which most restricted? How is the rhythm of your breathing?
- When you feel a tension somewhere in your body, in which direction does it pull you? Or is it pushing against the back of your chair?
- What do you do with your face and in which position do you hold your head?.
- Go through the sensations in all areas of your body curiously, and in a way „freeze“ the feeling for a moment. Keep it in place, now that you’re so consciously learning about it. And discover the physical experience of a feeling.
- As you describe it, the tension might intensify a bit or the position becomes more fixated than it was realistically in the situation you’re thinking about. But bare with me.
- Whatever you’re sensing, investigate curiously and notice this physical experience connected to your experience.
- While you continue breathing, make it even a bit stronger.
Now let go of that tension.
Get out of the position you were in and move freely again.
If you need to stretch or get up for a moment to get out of this posture, do so. Until you can really feel that you got out of the previous experience (this can take 2-3 minutes).
The next step of this exercise is to now again remember the situation you started with.And while paying attention to not return to the same physical effort you just did, allow yourself to just notice what appears.
If you relax your body and breathe fully and pay attention – is there still doubt? Is there a question that you need to answer? Or a clarity that appears. How do you perceive the situation now?
My intention with this exercise is two-fold:
1. you get a clearer physical experience and description of when something doesn’t feel quite right. As you practice this, you can “hear” this earlier and take it into your decision making process intentionally. If you want to share your experience with me: I’m curious.
2. if you find yourself in an uncomfortable or slightly off
position, you can use it to notice, what lies behind this sensation.
If you want to share your experience with me: I’m curious.
(And yes, if you would be curious about a more physical description or being able to notice more details in your body to help you with this, one option could be to come for a session with me. I would be happy to explore with you.)
When I look back at how I lived integrity earlier I see a paradox that is part in making it challenging. And I have observed this in other people, who value it strongly, too.
When we are talking about a subject that is painful or uncomfortable, an act of integrity would be not to avoid something coming my way, that I have called upon myself. Or, even worse, if I have caused it for others as well. We could probably easily agree, that if I won’t wish for others to be able to move freely and express their opinions freely, and instead I just make sure that I can do whatever I want – this would not be an act of integrity.
So, if I’m in a leadership position and I promise and make sure that everyone else around me feels free and healthy, and at the same time I don’t take care of my own well-being, but slowly burn my energy resources, never giving up or resting.
Could that still be considered acting with integrity then?
Am I acting with integrity, if I have high moral intentions but am unable to do so at the level that I would like to, due to exhaustion or lack of emotional „surplus“ because I’m drained?
I believe, especially in the light of the current state of world politics and the way public communication works, that we, as people with integrity, need to be more consequent and add this element to our definition of integrity.
Taking care of our personal well-being is important. We should not be allowing others to burn us out and leave us behind. There are so many causes and reasons to fight for others, that we (as the world) cannot afford to lose our minds, our bodies, our living to being drained by people who just don’t care about the well being of anyone. (By the looks of it, not even their own.)
In my experience, integrity is an intentional process rather than a goal. We need to act and move in the world. As we do so, we make mistakes, we learn about new things that we didn’t even notice could be a relevant subject for our integrity. And we continue.
And I believe we can strengthen our impact on the world and the well-being of the people in it if we use the physical experience of integrity as a compass to take care of our actions.
More on this and an exercise for those of you like concrete, physical tools will follow here next monday.