When I was 23, I was put on a jury for the first time. It was a fairly straightforward case. The guy had been caught in the process of stealing a car battery; hood of the car open, body bent over, pulling the battery out, when the police strolled onto the scene.
In the deliberation room, each of us took a turn politely stating our opinions, trying to take the facts fairly into account, as we’d been instructed to do. I was dutiful and serious. When we got to one woman on the jury, a large-boned, substantial, black woman, she paused, looked frankly around the room until she was sure she had everyone’s attention, and said,
“That boy is guilty as sin.”
Had we been in church, I think we all would have joined in with a rhythmic “mmm hmmm.”
This woman took the stage when she spoke. Not in a showy kind of way, but in a firm, “I’m just going to bump you off to the side with the strong sway of my hips and take charge” kind of way. She spoke her mind without one drippy ounce of politeness or doubt. In a way that made me settle into the bones of my hips and feel the fire in my belly.
And that was that.
That was when I decided I was going to be a strong, black woman when I grew up. I wanted more of what she had ~ this woman of substance. On a later trip to Jamaica, I even bought a small statue of a buxom Jamaican woman, sitting in an all-knowing position, wearing a fuscia pink dress. I carried her with me to many of the homes I would occupy, as my travels started to take me around the world.
She was my deity.
For years after, I would joke about this wish with my blonde hair, blued-eyed best friend. We would happily consider how that would look in our lives and laugh in agreement, but our laughter held the painful awareness of just how far we were from that truth and strength of expression. From our naïve positions in life, we still managed to grasp how our “niceness” and deeply-ingrained “politeness” were a terrible trap.
Battle of breaking out of our limitations
The more I study human behavior and those innate drives we hold inside of ourselves that are endlessly battling to be expressed, the deeper my connection is to what I longed for back then, a longing I sense I share with many of you. A longing to break through these invisible, yet dominating, layers of learned behavior and be free.
Behavior that distances us from our instinct, our nature, our power.
- We smooth things over.
- We tone ourselves down.
- We become more palatable.
- We carefully word.
- We check first with the rules.
- We give value to reason.
- We cool down our vibrancy.
- We take a back seat.
- We put ourselves last.
- We hide our hurts.
- We mute our rages.
- We are convinced of our shame.
Every time we stop an instinctual response or water down our nature, the struggle to be free continues.
For each of us the struggle is different. For some, we are bursting onto the scene, de-armored and ready, but unsure of where to effectively put this energy. For others, the fieriness is still buried quite deep inside and needs more time. It is a continuum of spirit.
It’s all in the body
It is not comfortable to feel our limitations. It has taken me years and some brutally honest teachers to recognize the depths of my politeness, how it’s led me and the consequences of it in my life.
It is also not comfortable to feel the power that lies underneath. In my case, it could feel so strong that I imagined I would leave destruction in my wake, so of course I should stifle this power. We all have our reasons. Reasons that go back generations and that are also quite immediately ours.
We hold both impulses in our bodies. The impulse to hold back. The impulse to break free. We have made choices over time (and generations) that shaped our behavior, movements and expressions to contain this forbidden power. So how do we crack through the learned behavior that holds us too tightly? And how do we open ourselves to the force of our nature and let it flow?
Pick an area in your life where you are painfully and acutely aware of how you hold back. One in which it is clear:
- You are afraid of stirring up conflict.
- You don’t want to say no, for fear of hurting someone.
- You won’t break the rules in order to not draw too much attention to yourself.
- You hide your wishes, so as not to feel too much embarrassment or shame.
- You tone yourself down so as not to take too much space.
I suggest it be painful and acute for this reason – We are well-practiced in the art of behaving nicely. In order to break through this, we need energy and it needs to deeply matter to us. What you wish for has to feel important.
- Maybe you wish for more honesty in a relationship.
- Maybe your integrity is worth a choice that might hurt another.
- Maybe you want recognition for your input and hard work.
- Maybe the pain of hiding your talents is getting to be too much.
- Maybe you have things to say and want to feel the ground underneath you when you do.
Describe the situation. Where does it take place? With whom? What are you afraid will happen, if you don’t behave as expected? How does the holding back feel in your body? Can you also feel the fire, the power, the instinct you are restraining? Where do you hold that?
Once you’ve written, put it aside.. Close your eyes and feel your body. Go to the areas where you feel held back, tight, restrained. Start to breathe more fully and for just one minute, squeeze and tighten all of these areas a bit more. Make the suit even smaller, more uncomfortable.
And then fully release. Breathing more and letting go. Soften your belly for the next few minutes, fully and with breath.
Move your awareness up to your ribs and diaphragm. Fully contract this area for 1 minute. (Breathe however you are able while your diaphragm is contracting in.)
Release it and breathe to your ribs and diaphragm for the next several minutes. Just there.
Soften your belly even more.
As you are more physical and present in your body, remember what you want. What you’re willing to fight for in order to break free from this behavior. You can repeat it to yourself like a mantra or simply go to where you feel energy moving in your body and nourish it with your breath. Follow where the energy moves, as a practice, and spread it throughout your entire body.
Make a promise to yourself to invest in this wish to break free. To break rules. To show off. To be vibrant. To say NO. To stir things up. To speak your mind. It’s a promise you make to yourself, but the consequences are far reaching.
An unending practice
I lost my Jamaican statue long ago, but I never forgot the moment when this woman left her indelible mark on me. I took some wrong turns. I tried to better my life without breaking the rules for a while, until the pain became too great, and I finally met myself through my body.
Unknowingly, this woman had stirred up my spirit. She showed me something I hadn’t even known was possible, and yet, somehow I knew it was there. The full, powerful, honest, raw expression of who I am.
She gave me a taste of an indomitable spirit. It is one that is worth fighting for and a promise endlessly worth keeping.