Waiting Off Stage: Somatic Lessons in Leadership, #3 On Neutrality and Not Knowing
I’m waiting off stage again, and this time, I’m pondering the importance of neutrality in communications with my associates and students. The creature beside me begins to urge me onstage, but I don’t want to be pushed. I notice that it wants too much. It is needy and a bit greedy, fuming in blurred colors and gestures. I would like to get out onstage, but not before I compose myself in breath and hue.
Why neutrality as a value? And why adopt this as a conscious attitude? Isn’t neutrality a bit cold? How about warmth, hope, and excitement in communications? Leaders need to be themselves and not a toned down version. This may sometimes seem antithetical to the importance of learning about neutrality. Again what kind of neutrality am I promoting? People want to be able to depend on teachers and leaders to be fair. In teaching and in leadership, I believe it is better to be respected than to be loved, even as I wouldn’t want to live without love. But I don’t need to be loved by my students and those I serve. I do require their respect, or else I won’t be able to lead them. Nevertheless, I trust a kind generosity and caring to spring up between us, care for the work we do and for each other. Somatically (experientially), I seek to open a mystery between others and myself, if for no other reason than to affirm our individuality and right to be different, to think our own thoughts and have our own projects. Then we might have something to share.
Kelly Ferris Lester, one of our first Eastwest Somatics graduates and certification teachers, taught an online workshop with me recently. I marveled at how she created a tabula rasa neutral slate for learning. She was the main facilitator, since she has done a lot of online teaching. I tuned in and taught alongside her. We had planned the workshop content in advance, and it was also her job to keep us on track and to teach several sessions.
So how did I sense her neutrality in the workshop as a benefit to all? We had several new students from countries outside of the USA, and several returning students, closer to home. Kelly was pleasant and responsive without being reactive. She didn’t approach the workshop with preconceived outcomes in mind, even as she had practices, processes, and a plan to depend on. She left space for learning, and for group interaction. She listened, not bringing attention to herself, but keeping it on the group. She was at ease, and that put everyone at ease. We laughed together and worked together, not stressing over missed opportunities. We had to let some things go, as in any learning situation. Kelly remained with what was expressed by others, and when it was her time to teach, she was prepared, aware of others, and not apologetic. I think of this as an inclusive generous neutral.
Teachers slip out of the neutral inclusive space for learning when they shift
attention to their own distinctiveness or résumé, to how much they know, or concerns about how they are perceived. It takes a lot to keep attention flowing on a topic without reverting to your own concerns and preferences. I like to say that it is the teacher’s job to disappear. Yes, to go away, so the student is left in the middle (or muddle) of self-responsibility, asking “what have I learned” and “what will I do with this.”
And yet, just then, I hear myself in the midst of telling a story. It is difficult to get out of your own way. Everywhere you turn, there you are, but the focus should be on the learning wherever that might lead. The stories you tell ought to point to the learning at hand. Good teachers are good learners and leaders, and they don’t favor particular students over others, even as they have their own likes and dislikes, which is natural. They also don’t favor their own accomplishments, allowing space for ideas and works to emerge that they themselves would never have thought of. Breath allows space in the body, and when you breathe, time is what you get. Give others time to think and to create and express their own stories.
Neutrality is not denial of emotion. Leaders and teachers are best when they express enthusiasm. Neutrality does not ask teachers and leaders to adopt a narrow margin of emotional expression, but it does ask for a wide margin of emotional intelligence. This requires attention to others in all their complexity. Teaching and learning take place in community amid expressions of all that is possible. Joy, grief, and anger live in the space of community. How could they not gather where people gather? Group leaders and teachers learn how to structure time and safe processes that encourage emotional health. There might be times for unbridled self-expression, but that isn’t the main purpose of somatic learning. Growing in relation to others while also growing a self is the purpose. Dancing and moving toward health and healing is the purpose.
In the next lesson, the text thickens into staging emotion: somatics of neutrality, self-expression, and non-attachment in leadership. I also remember an incident of staging emotion in my studies at the Mary Wigman Studio in Berlin in 1965.