Empower the Practice of Inner Work

On October 6th, Kollaboration Atlanta hosted the EMPOWER Creative Leadership Conference, all-day gathering that brought together some of Atlanta’s best and brightest creative minds, social entrepreneurs and community leaders to General Assembly. Empower offered panels and workshops focusing on topics such as Turning Your Passion Into a Career, Cultivating Self-Care, Design Thinking, Digital and Social Branding and Financial Literacy for Freelancers taught and led by industry professionals from esteemed brands like Home Depot, Facebook and ChooseATL as well as self-starting business owners. Toward the end of the day, I had the opportunity to lead a Guided Meditation for all the attendees, speakers, panelists and volunteers who wished to participate. Because of the incredibly positive responses that I received after my segment and because I am not currently teaching a regular class in Atlanta, I decided to post my dialogue along with extra desk-friendly stretches and snippets of inspiration that helped me design the session. You’ll also find some resources at the end of the post that have helped me to conceptualize the importance of meditation in a way that makes sense to my visual and creative style of learning.

Part I: Counteracting Imbalances

I am here today as part of Kollaboration Atlanta and I am also here as an equal participant in our stretching and meditation session. Although I do at times take the seat of the teacher, most of the time the practice of yoga and meditation puts me in the student’s seat because there is so much to learn (like, an infinite amount to learn). I also believe that taking the student’s seat means maintaining a sense of curiosity, humility and wonder, which is not only important in this practice but in our own work and creative processes. I do not consider myself to be a meditation expert nor do I intend to be, but I do believe that I am “successful” at meditating because I show up for my practice five to six times per week. Whether you’ve never tried meditation before or you’re a regular practitioner, I hope that you are able to take away some useful tidbits for starting and maintaining your own personal practice.

Finding a practice or ritual that nourishes your self-care routine takes time and patience. One way you could approach discovering your own self-care practice is figuring out first what your IMBALANCES are in order to find techniques that counteract them to bring yourself back into balance. Although everyone is unique, I have found that in general, creative/artistic people tend to spend a lot of energy in our heads - thinking, analyzing, problem solving, imagining. When all that energy is spent driving upward and in the cognitive space, many of us experience feeling a loss of control or disconnectedness, anxiousness and tension as well as fear and anxiety, which are all manifestations of imbalances in the body, mind and spirit.

So if the imbalance of energy in creative and thought-driven people tends to manifest into stress, anxiety, nervousness and fatigue, among others, exercises or movements that encourage GROUNDING would be the natural counterbalance. Grounding postures in yoga involve sending energy downward, using the body as a channel for plugging ourselves into the Earth and surrendering our weight into the ground beneath our feet. Grounding exercises are certainly not limited to traditional yoga postures - you could bike or run or hike or simply sit or lie down, as long as you can consciously channel your energy into the Earth beneath you, allowing yourself to be supported by the ground. You can associate the ACT of grounding with the cultivation of stability, focus, humility and closeness with our roots in the Earth.

Clear your things off of your lap and any things that are placed around your feet. Make sure to have enough space to stretch your arms to the sides. With each pose, check in with your breath by simply asking yourself “am I breathing?”

  • Cat & cow, seated - scoot forward in your seat so you have room for your back to round / lead with your abdomen, not shoulders or hips / round upper, mid, and low back evenly / pair gentle neck stretch / pair the breath (inhale to cat, exhale to cow)

  • *Shoulder shrugs -inhale to bring shoulders to ears, exhale to relax the shoulders away from ears / think about drawing the entire ribcage and chest up and down, not just tops of shoulders

  • *Gentle neck stretch - keeping shoulders even, bring ear toward same shoulder / keep chest lifted and torso straight / optionally, use same hand to add to the stretch but use gravity to do most of the work / make sure to do both sides as well as center (chin to chest, interlace both hands behind head to gently add weight)

  • Mountain pose - bring feet hip-width distance apart, point toes forward, point fingertips down / press inner and outer feet down evenly / stack ankles, knees, hips, ribs, shoulders, and head / tone legs / tone abdomen / extend spine / lift chin slightly / send energy downward / breathe and feel supported by gravity

  • Eagle arms - keep the integrity of mountain pose / cross right arm under left arm to wrap arms around yourself, hold opposite shoulders / stay here or optionally, bring your forearms and backs of your palms together / squeeze all the connected bits together / release, switch sides

  • Crescent pose, wrists - keep the integrity of mountain pose / reach arms overhead, hold left wrist with right hand, stretch up and over to the right / do not crunch the right side, keep extending both side bodies / keep legs strong, press left foot down / lift chin, keep head in-line with chest / tone abdomen / release, switch sides

  • Leg extension and flexion with chest opener - bring hands to low back, elbows pointed back / stand firmly on one leg, think mountain pose / point and flex the other leg imagining band from the top of the hip to the end of the toes / entire leg is engaged and toned / tone abdomen / keep chin lifted / release, switch sides

  • Eagle arms with forward fold, seated - sit on the edge of your seat / bring legs into a wide angle (to, not beyond your capacity), knees and toes in line / feet firmly planted / find same arms as stretch #5 / lift elbows and chest / inhale to stretch up, exhale to round back like cow pose and bring head and arms between legs / tone abdomen / round upper, mid, and low back evenly / squeeze legs toward center without moving them to engage inner thighs / breathe / come back to center, release arms, switch sides

  • *Eye of the needle, seated - sit up tall / bring knees, feet hip-width apart / cross right ankle over left-knee for a gentle hip stretch / keep shin parallel to chair edge / knee and ankle in straight line / flex outer edge of right foot towards left toes to protect the knee joint / optionally, use arms to add some weight to the top leg, keeping leg engaged and toes flexing down / release, switch sides

  • *Gentle seated twist - sit up tall / bring right hand behind right hip, bring left hand to outside right knee for a gentle twist / do not crank the spine / keep abdomen toned and shoulders parallel / press feet down, move left hip back as it likely slid forward / optionally, look back / come back to center for one breath, switch sides.

End with shaking out the limbs, loosely and freely without judgment.

*denotes extra postures added post-conference

Part II: Meditation as Inner Work

Before we begin, I want to tell you why I believe that meditation is so important as a method for self-care. As you know, in the modern world that we live in, we are more connected and accessible than ever before. You are on display more than ever before, which to some extent is necessary to promote your work / art / skill but it also means that there is more of you that can be superficially judge and more of you that can be taken at face value. Modern work encourages us to spend time and energy on our outer selves, which includes our physical selves and the work that we produce - all the things we want SEEN. So I offer this to you as an internal inquiry…how much time and energy do you spend on INNER WORK? On learning, understanding, developing, and nurturing the UNSEEN self? If you believe that inner and outer worlds exist then this inner landscape is HALF of your world that could go unseen and it contains HALF of your work necessary to participate in as a human of this life.

Coming from the outside is all of this pressure from being under a constant spotlight with the expectation from others to produce and to perform. These forces of pressure may be feeding you to an extent and ultimately fueling your business or art but they are not always nourishing you. Without any internal defense pushing back against this external pressure, our existence is imbalanced, which as I mentioned before will likely manifest into burnout, distraction, fear, stress and anxiety. As creative people, we owe it to ourselves to not only prepare for new experiences, new people and new challenges but to prepare for and furthermore accept uncertainty. Creative and spiritual freedom lies in remaining open continuously to life’s changes and to the unknown as well as the divine light within us and others. Meditation offers us a way to cultivate wakefulness and practice the acceptance of uncertainty. Because meditation equips us for the unexpectedness of life, it helps us to build an internal defense against the outer world that demands so much from us. Your internal defense is not the ability to escape, shut down, or reside as a hermit (as nice as that is at times). Instead, inner work is your practiced ability to tune in to attend to your self. It is your practiced ability to resolve and make decisions through a force of will. It is your practiced ability to be receptive to the uncertainty that any and all creative careers bring, and it is your practiced ability to stabilize your emotions and find peace in every tumult. In essence, inner work is a preparation for life!

In the words of Rumi:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.

There are many forms and techniques for meditation and you should feel empowered to explore and discover what is right for you because your personal practice is just that - YOURS. As for me, my practice is simple - I sit quietly, allow my breath to breathe and attempt to observe my thoughts as they come and go. Today we will do just that.

Meditation Script

Please find a comfortable seat. Place your feet firmly onto the floor, toes pointing forward and your knees directly above ankles in a straight line, so that your thighs and shins are in a 90 degree angle. Depending on your height, you may need to move forward or back in your chair. Find a centered position for your pelvis so that you are not leaning forward or backward or to either side in your seat. Take a deep inhale and with your exhale, release the weight of your pelvis down into the chair (this is the grounding). From there, find a straight line from the bottom of your spine and through the torso. Do not overarch your low back or jut out your chest. Gently lift your chest and draw your shoulders back and down. Lift your chin slightly. Think: mountain pose (but sitting). Bring the palms of your hands on the tops of your thighs or you can allow the backs of your hands to rest on your thighs or in your lap, whichever is more comfortable for you. Now everyone take a deep breath in through the nose and release it with a big sigh through your mouth. Once more but this time as your chest releases the breath, gently close your eyes.

Thoughts will inevitably enter during meditation - they will come on their own and they will go on their own. You can either decide to go with them or observe them. Continue to breathe. To inhale, then exhale…that is your goal. I will now be quiet for the remainder of our time (3 minutes at the conference).

Keeping your eyes closed and your attention inward, inhale deeply through your nose and exhale out of your mouth. Wiggle your fingertips and toes. When you’re ready, gently open your eyes.

Normally, at the end of meditation, I will end with Savasana by laying down on my back on the floor. I recommend ending your own home practice with at least one minute of rest but perhaps more. Today, I’ll leave you with this: the practice of self-inquiry and of self-knowing is a practice of LOVE and it is a practice of DEVOTION. So be PATIENT with yourself. Be KIND to yourself. Most importantly, SHOW UP for yourself.

We have been born to a life of service and tasks. These are important. Meditation is no escape. It is only a preparation for life.
— Arthur Zajonc