The more that I practice conscious leadership (and conscious living, parenting, partnering) the more I’m convinced that there are preconditions necessary to sustain consciousness for the long haul. And that these same preconditions are necessary for deepening our moment to moment practice of conscious leadership.
There are three key preconditions and associated practices that are foreign to our culture and to most of our conditioning that I want to highlight here:
The two cornerstones of conscious leadership are awareness and acceptance; the cultivation of both requires silence, solitude, and stillness. Without practicing silence, solitude, and stillness one can rarely cultivate a depth of awareness and acceptance. As I walk us through each of these, I offer practices you can try out for yourself to deepen your practice of conscious leadership, and to set yourself up to sustain consciousness over time.
There is no such thing as silence. If this feels untrue, check it out for yourself. Put on noise cancelling headphones and cover your head with a pillow. There will still be sound. It might be a slight ringing in your ears or the sound of blood flowing through your veins. Almost always there is sound. So when I advocate for the discipline of silence I’m not suggesting no sound.
What I’m pointing to is abstaining from inbound stimulation in the form of artificial sounds, and outbound stimulation in the form of speech.
Artificial sounds are those that come through electronic devices (phones, TVs, computers, iPads, radios, Echos, speakers, etc.) and machines (cars, planes, boats, and trains).
Silence can be obtained fairly easily with the first category. Turn them off. The second category is a bit more complicated as it usually involves getting away, sometimes far away.
What one discovers if they choose to turn off electronic devices and retreat from the noise of machines is a sudden contraction, even mild to moderate panic, and then (eventually) a deep sigh and relaxation into the vastness of non-stimulated presence. Most of us are addicted to noise, as input and stimulation. Turning it off usually brings some withdrawal effects. This is OK. You’ll survive. In fact, my experience is that you’ll thrive and discover that silence is soul nourishing all by itself.
So, would you be willing to turn off the noise and close your mouth? Start with a simple, doable step. Don’t listen to a podcast on your way to work tomorrow. No TV this weekend. No music tonight after work. No audio book. Just be with the silence. Schedule a noise free getaway for a few hours, a day, a weekend by getting out into nature where there is very little artificial sound. In this place, listen to the sounds of nature. Let them invite you into presence and even into communion. Let the silence invite you deeper into awareness.
Choosing to limit speaking is a powerful practice for bringing awareness inward, for holding and circulating energy internally, for being with experience without expression, and for facing what’s inside without the potential deflection of external expression. Most spiritual traditions have vocal silence practices to cultivate interior depth and awareness.
Choose not to speak for an hour, an evening, or a weekend. If you need to be alone to practice this at first, great. As your practice deepens, experiment with this practice while you’re around people and see what happens. Make sure to let them know what you’re up to so they can adjust their expectations and support your practice.
I’ve touched on this above, but let’s sharpen the point. Be ALONE. No people. Years ago when I was leading men’s retreats for men wanting to find authentic mature masculine aliveness as they came into midlife, we would invite them during the second year of the work to do a solo. We would give them 50 feet of rope, a bottle of water, and a tarp. They were to put the rope in a circle and not leave the circle for 24 hours. They saw no one except themselves, and most of them saw themselves in ways they never had. It changed them. During the 20 years that I was a minister I’d spend three days a month in solitude, silence, and fasting. I’m convinced that discipline shaped me in profound ways. Many of you have done longer solos, and if you could you would tell the story of both the terror and the transformational power of solitary refinement (not confinement).
So, the practice is simple. Again, start small. Go be alone. Really alone, away from people, and stay just long enough (the length of time will vary for each of us) to feel your edge, that place where you want to be around people, and stay a few breaths longer and see what you find.
I can hear the introverts among us saying, “Are you kidding me, you’re describing my happy place.” Yes, I get you. I am one of you. Intentional solitude as a discipline is a different thing than just preferring to be alone or with one other trusted person. Choose solitude as a practice, not just as a preference.
Like silence, stillness is twofold: pausing physical movement and cultivating internal stillness.
Sit until you want to move, think you have to move, and then sit longer. See what comes up. It makes sense to me that Buddhists refer to meditation as “sitting,” and that some traditions have what they call “sittings of strong determination,” where you sit still with no movement for a period of time. No itching, twitching, or shifting. Just stillness. With awareness as the goal, you’ll find yourself aware of things you’ve never noticed or experienced before.
Internal quietude can occur while walking, running, or moving through the world in your everyday life. Whirling Dervishes, a Sufi tradition, practice outward movement as a means to cultivate inward stillness. We can too.
Use your breath, intentional breathing, as an anchor while you move through the world. As you go from one meeting to the next, walk through your office with all of your attention on your breath: breathe in, pause, breathe out, pause. Inner stillness, outward movement.
We can all benefit from taking on silence, solitude, and stillness practices. Start with one or two of the five above, and gradually add more until all five become as natural as brushing your teeth. The fruit of your dedicated practice will be a deep and meaningful expansion of your ability to lead and live consciously.