Be Present. Be Engaged. Be Dangerous.

Circus Bongo, Holland 2010

In the yoga community, we love to talk about being present. Be present. Be aware. Be in the moment. These are things we say a lot, but what does it mean? I learned the answer in an unexpected way at my old job as a project manager.

Story time!

So, there I was, 25 years old and learning to be a project manager. I was the only female in the company, the youngest employee, the only white person, and the only one with a liberal arts background. It was a highly educational situation, and also quite challenging at times. As a project manager, I needed my coworkers to be on my side, and even though I thought of them as my equals (and frankly as my superiors in some ways), I needed their respect.

Some people were easy to work with and happy to help get the job done. Some other folks, however, let their pride and biases get in the way of a functional working relationship, and it fell on my shoulders to straighten them out.

One guy, Neal, figured out that I was a bit of a pushover, being young and naive and all. Neal was a charming, good looking guy with a booming voice and intimidating presence. He could also look you right in the eye and lie to you with a smile. People like him are dangerous to people like me. Or rather, to people like I used to be. I had a tendency to just shut up when he and my boss were talking, and as long as he and I were on friendly terms, that didn’t cause any problems.

But as the project manager, I was given some authority over Neal — just a little — and he didn’t like it. Rather than cooperate to make a project schedule that worked for everyone, he would disregard the project plan and then tell our boss that I had screwed up, misinformed him, or forgotten some key component. I learned to cover myself by putting everything in writing and CC’ing my boss on every email. That went a long way toward protecting me, but it felt lame, like I was a little kid who had to be watched over by daddy at all times. I wanted to be respected on my own rather, not thought of as a tattle tale!

That’s when I learned how to be present. Powerfully present. That’s when I learned to really take up space in a room, assert myself, and be part of the conversation.

These three (the Trikaya) being complete and fully present as one are its very essence.

I used to sit and wait for my turn to speak. I would space out while listening to other people talk. I deferred all installation-related decisions to the installers on the assumption that they knew better than I did. I did not insert myself into the conversation. But one day my boss called a meeting with Neal and me, and he wanted to hear our project plan. I knew what was going to happen. Neal would shrug unhelpfully, our boss would intervene and come up with a plan of his own, and I would jot it all down and play the little gopher girl, doing things how they said, even though I knew it was an ineffective plan.

This time, I decided not to let it go down that way. This time, when we sat down to talk, the three of us in a little triangle of ugly office chairs, I could practically feel the energy of the conversation weighing heavily between the two of them, and nothing on my side of the room. I added my energy to the conversation. I opened my eyes a little wider, sat forward in my chair, leaned into the space between us and was a participant rather than a spectator. My boss asked the question: What’s your plan?

Without hesitation, I jumped in an presented my suggestions. I had a basic timeline, I needed some details from the installation team, I requested a bill of materials from the engineering team, and I was waiting on a call back from some of our partners. My boss seemed quietly satisfied with my answer.

As for Neal? He didn’t have much to say. He objected briefly to the timeline I put forward, but our boss said simply, “Why not? Of course you can do it.” When he couldn’t come up with a good enough excuse, we went with my plan.

The project went beautifully, if I may say so myself. And that’s how the rest of my projects went. I collaborated with people from our various partner companies and internal teams. I never had to force anyone to do things my way, and I never made all the decisions, nor did I want to. But I never got steam rolled again. Once I refused to be his scapegoat, Neal was unable to keep fooling everyone else.

That meeting was when I stopped being an office girl and started being a stellar project manager. Later, my boss would say, “I don’t know what changed, but you really turned around over the past year.” I think he thought I suddenly found meaning in the work and discovered some previously unknown loyalty to the company. Nah, I just got tired of being pushed around and feeling sorry for myself.

That day, I learned that being present isn’t just a matter of sitting and listening. Being present is about being fully engaged in your life. For me, being present meant being heard and taking part in decisions rather than letting others steer my ship. Being present turned the tables on people like Neal and made me the dangerous one, and I liked it.

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why i embrace rage

I was thinking about PJ Havey last night, and the night before that, too. I think about her a lot. I have a great memory of some time in the mid-90s when my big sister was in high school, and I was in middle school. It was spring. We were rollerblading around the state park (yeah, rollerblading) and she was teaching me the lyrics to “Sheela na gig.” We were rocking the fuck out and making more than a few people uncomfortable, including our dad, who objected to his 12-year-old daughter singing about “dirty pillows.” Go figure.

I included PJ on my Women Who Inspire Tumblr today because I love her, and I love her music. But most of all, I love her rage.

I’m not what you would call an angry person, but I do believe in embracing anger. Women in particular seem to think they should never be angry. How many times have I heard some woman saying, “I don’t mind,” when they clearly do mind? In the interest of being polite and being liked, women shut up and pretend everything is OK when it’s not.From an early age, PJ’s music impressed upon me the importance and power of anger.

This may sound crazy coming from a yoga teacher. We’re supposed to be all about peace, right? But while peace is our goal, anger is a part of human nature. It’s a part of what happens out there in the world — life is complicated, you know? Sometimes you get hurt. Sometimes you get angry. But when you deny the anger and pretend you don’t mind, nothing helpful comes of that. You just stuff it and feel shitty about it because on one hand you’re angry at whatever is going on, and on the other hand, you’re upset with yourself for being angry.

That. Is. Ridiculous.

I’ve been told that some people find me scary. I have been mystified as to why until I realized how many people, especially women, deny their anger. I don’t do that. I’m very honest with people, and I guess sometimes that’s scary. That’s fine, though. I’m not a mean person. I never try to do actual harm to anyone. In fact, I hate to see anyone get hurt physically, emotionally, financially or otherwise. My anger isn’t a tool for harm or destruction. It’s just a fact of life and one that I prefer to be honest about.

The thing about anger is that once you recognize it, you’re free to act. I can’t do better than Thich Nhat Hanh to describe how to manage anger, so you should watch this video. If you don’t have time to listen to everything  he has to say, here’s my one-sentence summary:

Acknowledge and accept the anger, sitting with it lovingly until it dissipates or the appropriate action becomes clear. (This really isn’t sufficient to summarize what he said, so I strongly encourage you to press play on this one.)

When PJ Harvey is on stage, she performs. She’s not necessarily angry. Just look at how calm and collected she is. She knows what she’s doing. Do you think that means she wasn’t angry at some point? No. There is probably real anger and real events behind her music. But what we see when she’s on stage is the result of intelligently (mindfully) processing that anger. I’m not saying PJ is perfect or that any of us can always do the right thing with our anger. But I do believe that isf we embrace it mindfully, we can become better for it. We can make it into art, political action, or maybe just a much-needed conversation.

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