As my frequent readers know, I launched a new series this year that ties my yoga practice to my work as a career coach.
I had planned to go through the arc of a yoga class, with a new post each month that highlights one of the instructions yoga teachers often give their students. These simple phrases can serve as mantras for our daily lives, including our careers.
January – Set an Intention
February – Take a Comfortable Seat
March (this post) – Let Your Eyes Close
When I conceived of the Yoga Mantra series back in December 2019, none of us imagined we would be facing a global pandemic such as COVID-19.
At the time, I felt as though I was taking a bold step by expanding my highly practical, hands-on coaching approach to add (what could be seen as) a less obvious angle. Would my clients and greater audience – who are mostly attorneys and other highly trained, process-oriented and results-driven professionals – find a discussion of yoga to be at odds with my commitment to focusing on steps they can take right now to get the greatest return on their efforts?
After all, yoga (like meditation, T’ai Chi, reiki and other healing practices and arts) is not intended to bring immediate results. It can, in fact, transform our lives from the very first time we try it. Yet its effects are more often the result of accumulated effort. Or rather, accumulated periods of time in which we release ourselves from effort, trying and striving. Periods of time in which we allow ourselves not to calculate the distance from Point A to Point B but instead to live the journey.
So much has changed in the world since December 2019 (three months ago) or even February 2020 (one month ago). In my case, as an all-too-common example, our local public schools have been closed and converted to distance learning since March 13, 2020. And while the school district has given us estimated dates of reopening (currently April 20, 2020), like other schools cross the U.S. and beyond, they may remain closed until the next academic school year. This is simply one change among countless to our daily lives.
On a global scale, our ability to predict what will happen next – indeed, to live a “predictable life” – has greatly diminished. At the same time, our need for adaptive skills in our careers and general lives has greatly increased:
– facing the unknown,
– rising to the occasion,
– making thoughtful decisions, and
– persevering (ideally thriving) with limited information and constantly changing circumstances.
These needs harken back to the reason I originally launched this series. I have found that too often, people want quick fixes, an “answer” to solve the problem de jour (i.e., urgent matter of the day). Yet changes that actually move the needle in our lives cannot be rushed. A quick flash of insight can create a transformative moment, but the transformation itself (almost invariably) requires a longer period of implementation to take root and create the greatest effect.
Let me give you an example. Say that you move to a bigger apartment so you can have more space. In the first few days or weeks, you might arrive with all of your furniture and boxes, unpack and feel the glory and heightened freedom of your new surroundings. You may feel a new “leash on life” and relish a home environment where so many more things are possible. But if you (quickly or over time) start to fill that space so that it is just as crowded as your old one, the realm of possibility diminishes. You will again feel constricted and constrained.
The same thing happens in the rest of our lives, including in our careers. If you move to a bigger or different role with more space to create impact in or through an organization, but you quickly crowd your days with non-impactful meetings and activities, your new position can feel just as constrained and ineffectual as the old one.
So what do this pandemic and my current mantra of closing your eyes teach us about true freedom, while so many of us are suffering on the front lines or sheltering in place? And how does that relate to what we do on the career front?
First, we cannot control outcomes. We can do our best to create what we seek, but we ultimately can either make our peace with our lack of control or continue to resist (and increase our suffering as a result). Some of us are unemployed or underemployed. Others are “overemployed,” i.e., burdened with the herculean responsibility of strategizing, leading, fixing, triaging, foraging, vetting or otherwise holding the fort during this unprecedented time.
In either case, we can only sit with what is true at this moment. That’s all we have.
Second, turning inward is a healing act. When we close our eyes or soften our gaze, we are not shutting out the world over the longer term. We are restoring our strength so that we can go back out into it. While the world needs more heroes, those heroes need to give themselves permission to recharge. In yoga classes, if you listen closely, you may notice that instructors often suggest you “let your eyes close” rather than “close your eyes.” The first is an act of allowing yourself (to do something), not an act of will.
Allow yourself to turn inward – even if it’s only a few moments of an hour or a few minutes of the day – without worry that you are missing something or failing to complete an urgent task. Changes and tasks will always be waiting for you, and your ability to rise to those changes and tasks will be greatly enhanced if you periodically take time to refresh and center yourself.
Third, our wish not to be vulnerable is illusory.
I took this self-portrait (eyes closed, feeling vulnerable) in my office a couple of months ago, well before coronavirus dominated our daily lives and our 24/7 news cycle. As I envisioned the post I might write to accompany it, I planned to take some time to explain vulnerability and the macho (toxic) culture of many work environments that seek to stamp out any whiff of weakness.
Yet this week, as senior leaders of across all ranks and ranges of organizations took work-from-home (WFH) videoconference calls with anxious children and barking dogs in the background – and came together over it, rather than judging their colleagues and counterparts for a lack of “discretion” – our collective take on vulnerability has been momentarily suspended. Being vulnerable is a trait we all share, and we can clearly see that through this pandemic. Families are to be protected, not silenced. Lives are to be valued, not treated as something to be fit between more pressing obligations. Vulnerability is something to be recognized as part and parcel of the human condition, as it cannot be avoided.
Fourth, for a change to last, it must continue to represent our values. Many of us have learned this in other contexts, through other challenges, but what lasting individual and collective change we will carry forward from COVID-19 remains to be seen.
We know that life as usual has been irrevocably altered, but whether those alterations bring us to a better place or simply call for heightened vigilance is a matter of our long-term values. Again, by periodically softening our gaze to the whirlwind of activity, news, adversity and (in some heartbreaking cases) trauma, we can start and continue to ask ourselves where we can find meaning, experience large or small joys of the present moment and build bridges to the direction we are called (both personally and professionally) to follow next.
Be safe. Support those on the front lines. And, from time to time, close your eyes.
Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach and writer based in Connecticut, not far from New York City, and is sheltering at home with her family (dog, cat, husband and two teenagers who are remarkably committed to flattening the curve).