“Listen without judgement” With Beau Henderson & Sara Russell

To create a fantastic work culture you need to have clear expectations and a transparent power structure. People need to know how to succeed, and where to get support if they are struggling. Leaders should reveal the process for promotion as well as for handling complaints and navigating conflict: what the process is, who needs […]

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To create a fantastic work culture you need to have clear expectations and a transparent power structure. People need to know how to succeed, and where to get support if they are struggling. Leaders should reveal the process for promotion as well as for handling complaints and navigating conflict: what the process is, who needs to be involved, who gets the final say. When people feel seen, heard, and understood, it results in the spaciousness to be adaptable and resilient, and creates opportunities for people to be successful.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Russell.

Sara Russell is a Skills For Change Coach from a Radical lineage, a Qi Gong instructor, and a Relationship Anarchist in the Santa Cruz Mountains, who helps her clients analyze behaviors, relationships, systems, and transactions to see where old habits are no longer serving them.

She guides them in cultivating awareness of where they have power, how to use it, and how to create spaciousness to accept where they are powerless. Sara teaches radical self-love, bringing compassion to all of her work, because change is hard, and being in a body is hard, and we don’t have to do it alone.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I was performing in a dance company when a childhood knee injury re-asserted itself. I would be onstage, in the middle of a leap, and I would lose my vision and see stars from the pain of it, just hoping I would land on my feet. I went to various doctors and specialists without any success, and finally stumbled across Qi Gong, a kind of moving meditation. I was willing to take classes because scientifically, anatomically, it made sense for me. Qi Gong has a “horse stance” standing posture which strengthens different muscles than the ones I was using in dance, and I was hoping that would mechanically correct my problem. I didn’t realize that in addition to healing my body, I would also begin a journey towards quieting my mind and teaching my heart how to be at peace. Training in Qi Gong was beautiful and powerful, but it was hard to take the insights I was learning in the classroom out into real life. I became curious about other mindfulness practices, and eventually found Skills For Change, which teaches actionable tools to embody the ideals and insights I was experiencing in my Qi Gong practice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There was a day I stepped outside to look at the redwood trees surrounding my house, and all of a sudden it became obvious to me that there was nothing I needed to do to earn love or belonging. It was extremely funny to me that I had ever thought otherwise. I stood in my pjs, holding a cup of tea, laughing. I’m sure the neighbors were curious what was going on. I had been doing a mindfulness practice daily to remind myself of my inherent worth. Initially, it felt a little bit like “fake it ’til you make it.” Then I started believing it might be true and it felt less forced, until this one morning I woke up and actually felt the truth of it in my mind, heart, and body. That was the day I stopped questioning my belonging.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

To create a fantastic work culture you need to have clear expectations and a transparent power structure. People need to know how to succeed, and where to get support if they are struggling. Leaders should reveal the process for promotion as well as for handling complaints and navigating conflict: what the process is, who needs to be involved, who gets the final say. When people feel seen, heard, and understood, it results in the spaciousness to be adaptable and resilient, and creates opportunities for people to be successful.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Rick Hanson’s book Resilient got into my bones. He teaches a mindfulness practice in that book, where you think of something that makes you feel safe, something that makes you feel content, and something that makes you feel connected. It’s a way to acknowledge the three different areas of the brain — reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian. Since I first read that two years ago, I have done that practice everyday. Before I get out of bed, before I even open my eyes, before I check my phone or my to-do list, I focus my mind on those three things. It helps me start my day calm, centered, and focused on what is going well.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Being mindful is the ability to hold as much truth as possible. This means being able to observe yourself and your experience, and accept the reality of what is. It’s being in the present moment without projecting your past experiences or future expectations onto what’s happening in the here and now. It’s the capacity to witness your internal and external landscapes without judgment or reactivity. How much awareness can you hold? It’s the ability to notice and name what you are thinking and feeling, and to be aware of what story you are telling yourself about what is happening. From there, you are able to to respond from choice instead of react from habit.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

I’d like to say that you’ll never get triggered again, that you’ll always know what to do and will always make the best choice, but that’s not the truth of it. The reality is that mindfulness allows you to have compassion and understanding for all of the times you don’t show up the way you want to. It helps you have a bigger container for all of your emotions, good and bad. It helps you notice the heavy, life-draining thoughts in your mind and reminds you not to believe them. It allows your body to feel pain and tension only as long as it needs to, rather than holding onto unnecessary hurt. One of the biggest benefits of becoming mindful is you start to have more choice over your life, rather than being led around by fear and habit. The moment we witness ourselves is the moment we get to decide how we want to be. It’s so easy to let feelings overwhelm us, and so tempting to act with urgency to do whatever it takes to stop our agitation. However, if we can pause, and come back to our center, there are more satisfying solutions available than in our default operating mode.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

With the level of change and uncertainty we are all facing, it’s no wonder our fears and anxieties are feeling extra heavy lately. Many of us are feeling isolated, and are constantly hearing updated information before we’ve had time to fully integrate everything we are undergoing. It’s a lot to organize around, and there is no clear path ahead or end in sight to the confusion and chaos. That doesn’t mean we need to feel entirely powerless, and it’s important to not fall into hopelessness. Here are 5 things we can do to have the capacity to be present with our situation and open up some space for optimism:

  1. Notice: What is the current state of your body, mind, emotions? What sensations are you experiencing? For example, you might notice a buzzing in your chest, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, or tunnel vision. Your mind might be racing, and you may be moving into your survival response, wanting to fight/flee/freeze/fawn/dissociate. We tune into the body first, because while the mind can time travel to past scenarios and envision the future, the body only exists in the here and how. We practice an acceptance of what is, in this moment, so that rather than resisting or denying reality, we are holding as much truth as possible about our starting point. Our moment of awareness is the moment of choice.
  2. Pause: Once you are aware of your state of being, your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, resist the urge to immediately take action. Wait before trying to fix or change things. While your biology is flooded with stress chemicals, it is not the time to try to make a plan, or have a conversation. We want to be able to respond from a place of choice, rather than react according to our habituated patterns, which are predicated on past experiences rather than the context of the present moment. Your body will be urging you to do what it has done in the past, because those historic responses at some point kept you safe, but not necessarily happy or thriving. The compulsion to fix or resist your agitation doesn’t create the possibility for new, more satisfying solutions. Instead, it reinforces your anxiety rather than making enough space in your body to hold it.
  3. Label: What emotions are you feeling? Sadness, anger, frustration? Peace, joy, connection? What is the quality of your thoughts? Are they fast, heavy, jumbled, or spacious and light? What physical sensations are you experiencing? Tingling, buzzing, heaviness, emptiness, fullness, numbness, warmth, cold? By labeling what we are experiencing, we are able to observe our experiences rather than simply be immersed and overwhelmed by them. This creates a bigger container for our experience, putting some space between us and what we are feeling. Thus, rather than spilling over, we have enough room to have our experience and not be consumed by it.
  4. Ask, “What do I need?”: This step comes after you’ve given yourself time and space to notice and be with what is. The answer should center around what you need in order to take care of yourself, and that will be clearer if you’ve taken a moment to observe yourself rather than immediately react to whatever is throwing you off your center. Think of this in terms of self-regulating and self-soothing rather than trying to create solutions. Do you need to move your body? Drink water? Talk to a friend? Rest? What would be comforting as you turn to face and listen to your present moment experience?
  5. Tell Your Story: The stories we tell ourselves reveal our state of mind and underlying beliefs and fears. Who is the hero in your narrative? The villain? The lens through which you view your experience can dramatically change according to your emotions. If the story you are telling feels straightforward, or overly simplistic or dualistic, question it. Truth tends to be messy, complicated and contradictory, that’s one of the reasons it can be so agitating. What do you believe about your experience? What do you like or dislike about your experience? What do you wish were different, and what do you long for? The stories we tell ourselves about our experience reveal our world-views, our organizing principles, and how we move through life. Then, we can decide if our stories are serving our best interests, beliefs, and goals for ourselves. By recognizing how you frame your experience, you can then decide if it is in alignment with your values and how you want to move through the world, or if you need to expand your stories to something that holds more truth.

These steps allow us to hold as much truth as possible about our situation, so that we have more choices available when deciding how to respond. We give ourselves the time and space to acknowledge what is, and resist reacting from urgency in order to be more creative, more resilient, more adaptable, and more satisfied in our decision making and life-design.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

The support you offer is going to depend on the person and the content, so it’s best to ask what they most need from you. Maybe they want you to just listen, maybe they need some help problem-solving. Check-in before assuming you know what’s best. That being said, if someone is coming to you for support, they may not know what they need, and that’s why they are reaching out to you. In that case, here are 5 steps you can take to offer support:

  1. Listen without judgement. Be present, don’t interrupt, and resist the urge to center your opinions and feelings. It can be soothing to know that someone is making an effort to see, hear, and understand you, without acting as if you are broken and need to be fixed or shaming you for how you are feeling. Being witnessed can be incredibly healing.
  2. Empathize with their emotions. So often when we are offering support, we immediately want to offer comfort and get rid of the bad feelings. It can be helpful to take a moment to name the anger/sadness/fear before trying to switch to more positive emotions. Create a container where the person can feel their authentic emotions. A simple “That sounds so hard” or “Going through that seems like it would be exhausting” can go a long way.
  3. Validate their perspective and experience. It feels good to know we have someone on our side. Normalize their response, and how it makes sense why they feel the way they do. Phrases such as “I would have been so mad, too!” or “No wonder you reacted that way!” can help people feel safe to be themselves as well as part of a community that understands and accepts them.
  4. Offer what help is available from you. You can ask what they need, and if they don’t know and want advice, make suggestions. Maybe they need a hug, or encouraging words, or support accomplishing a task they are dreading. Check for consent before trying to problem-solve for them.
  5. End with affirmations. Remind the person why you care about them, and let them know the ways in which you see them standing in their power, even as they are struggling.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

Your best resource is to slow down. Mindfulness starts with doing less before we try to do more. It’s less about finding the right guru or practice and more about cultivating an awareness and expertise in yourself. Before you know what your next step is, accept the present moment as it is, without resisting or denying reality. We can have this idealism around mindfulness, that it means we will always be centered and know the right action to take. But, as O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba is reported to have said,“It’s not that I never get pulled off my center. It’s that I return so quickly you can’t see it.” We are going to get disrupted. How we handle that disruption is where mindfulness comes in. Become curious about your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Name them. Sit with them. To practice being able to witness yourself, tune into your sensations: where in your body do you feel movement, such as buzzing or tingling? What areas of your body feel warm, or cool? Are there parts that feel heavy, or empty? Where do you not feel any sensation at all? Even being numb gives us information about our current state. You can enlist your five senses as aides: taste, touch, listen, see, or smell something as a way to become familiar with observing your experience. Dan Siegel has a wonderful meditation called “The Wheel of Awareness” that is an excellent tool to practice both differentiating and integrating yourself and your experiences.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I love this quote by Lao Tzu: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” It reminds me of the power of the pause, and how what I want when my mind is racing and my heart is pounding is often very different than what I want when I allow myself to return to my center. We live in an impatient culture that wants us to produce results with urgency. But such outcomes are often reductive, and haven’t taken the necessary time to try to hold the entire complexity of a given context. I like to practice waiting until I can hold as much truth as possible before making a move.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like people to be able to center radical self-love, both within the microcosm of their own bodies and in the macrocosm of collective humanity. First, how do we go beyond merely accepting the messy, unintegrated, confusing parts of ourselves and move instead into self-love? Once we trust and honor our own muchness, how do we hold space for others in their fullness? How do we communicate with one another if oppression is no longer an option? How do we honor our own wants and needs without doing harm to others? What does power with, versus power over, look like if we operate cooperatively versus hierarchically? How do we hold sacred each other’s differences and maintain the richness of our individuality? I want to normalize conflict as a necessary part of navigating our wholeness while caring for the whole of humanity, even after we are all well-versed in self-love.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can visit my website at https://www.betheradicalway.com/ to read my blog and sign-up for my newsletter, as well as find me on instagram @betheradicalway.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you so much!

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