Getting Back to the Body: Leadership Lessons on Power from the Martial Arts and Somatic Tradition

January 2012 / Feature Articles

John Tuite

John Tuite

Why the Body Matters to Leadership

Some twenty plus years ago when I began training as a secondary school teacher, I had a few run-ins with a difficult class or two. There is a particularly sharp anguish that one experiences when a classroom of teenagers disintegrates beneath your hands. But it does compel a healthy desire to study good teachers handling challenging situations or tricky transitions in class. “Okay, that’s how you do it! That’s what you say!” I thought to myself at first. I entered my next classes re-armed. I had the tools I needed; I had seen them work. Opportunities to execute those same instructions soon arrived and I mimicked accurately the borrowed formula whose classroom potency I had seen working. It worked – not so much!

That’s because teaching (and leadership of all kinds) is an embodied skill. There are considerable verbal and cognitive skills, but these domains don’t capture some major essentials. If they did, just putting poets and scientists into our schools would do the trick. Many of the fundamental dimensions of the classroom are communicated through other means: posture, tone, breath, alignment, and the kind of energetic presence you bring to the room. Without this foundation the words and well-articulated ideas can just bounce off a tricky class.[i]

Later when I was in school leadership, I was responsible for pupil behaviour and the inclusion of challenging children. Often I was asked for advice on handling a difficult student or group. Sometimes highly competent teachers who had a host of working strategies for classroom management were simply looking for some understanding of a student that would reopen the way to some empathy or compassion for their weekly nemesis. Too often my best advice was well understood or the road to empathy re-found, but I suspected the commitment to it would not survive a hot Friday afternoon in Room 21 with Year 10.

Of course, sometimes in a school, like in any other organisation, there are whole days or weeks that feel like that archetypal discordant Friday afternoon. And then there are other days, where something different happens. Where the hard thing we struggle with suddenly finds its way and becomes easy. On these days the world has not abruptly changed, yet something in us has. Somehow we allow the internal space for something to come through us, and the exhaustive wilfulness of other days melts away. We have discovered the possibility of flow. Athletes know it as being ‘in the zone’. We glide down the school corridor dispensing justice and support with ease and grace, we find the right words to win the challenging parent, we catch a developing situation just before it congeals into something intractable. Yesterday we edged along overwhelm, today we feel “Bring it on, I can take more!” If we don’t take these moments of grace for granted a realisation occurs. We cannot change the ‘incoming’, but by shifting our state, we change how it impacts us and how we respond can be radically different.

I wanted a form of training and development that could survive that Friday afternoon confrontation. One that gave a better chance of sustaining the empowerment and compassion of the teacher or leader under whatever ‘incoming’ she was likely to meet. And one that worked with this understanding that by changing my state I could change the impact of the ‘incoming’ and my effectiveness in relating to it. Training that cultivated the purpose, aliveness and inclusiveness of a leader even under duress in the corridors and meeting rooms. In my twenty years of development as a teacher though, I didn’t get it.

My mind was consistently fed, but no one really addressed my ability to sustain an intention under stress, to build a larger and more generous presence in the midst of pressure, or to ‘embody’ my knowledge. The smooth plastic take-away folders, the boiled sweets and bottled water of the professional development hall allowed for a kind of learning that ignored the heart rate of a corridor confrontation, the snagged breath of a classroom challenge. Most teachers and all the school leaders I know have shelves of neatly bound training manuals, most of which haven’t been opened since home time on the day of the course. Training the emotional energy, the physical alignments, the ability to create presence and inclusiveness in our being, all these were largely by-passed. It was as if we were limited to being craniums trailing beneath us disenfranchised bodies, feelings and energies.

I believe this partial attention is rooted in the exclusion of the body from our developmental methods and that this exclusion leads to a frequent visitor in our professional lives: a pattern of great intentions followed by constricted performance, a pattern of mental development and ambition that is vulnerable to collapsing back under pressure because it has too little support or grounding in our other systems. I recognised and had studied this pattern intensely elsewhere. Elsewhere I had often known what I would like to do, what I should do, but under pressure I proved less graceful, generous, empowered, and certainly less dignified than I had seen in my mind’s eye. Elsewhere I had also experienced moments of grace and flow, of something marvelous and bigger than me coming through. It was the same dynamic I had worked with since my early teens in a very different kind of school.

In the 1970’s I began to study Nanshaolin Wuzu and Wuji, martial arts from the Buddhist temples of China. I have walked this particular path most of my life, with the same teacher, (now) Grandmaster Han Kim Sen. It’s where my own understanding of the importance of including and working through the body began. I am also a Conscious Embodiment teacher, a system of somatic practices founded by another masterful teacher, Wendy Palmer, based on mindfulness and Eastern martial arts (Wendy is a 6th Dan Aikido teacher, and was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche). It’s in the testing arena of a martial arts hall that I learnt some of the lessons I believe fundamental to great leadership. Lessons to do with:

• Understanding our patterns of contraction under stress and the possibility of opening even inside pressure,
• Exploring skilful power,
• Developing the relationship between my internal depth and connection and my external possibilities,
• Letting go to allow something bigger to emerge.

Studying Contraction and Possibility

When our eyes are sensitive and there is more light than we can bear, our pupils contract. In the same way, when we experience overwhelm at work, or when the demands of our life exceed the inner resources we feel available to meet them, we can narrow the aperture of our entire being. We reduce our intake. We organise our self so as to not be touched quite so intensely by the world. This mental and energetic withdrawal is mobilised through patterns of smaller or larger muscular contractions, preparing us for fight, flight or freeze. A raising of the shoulders, a shortening of the breath, a holding in the belly. Each of us has our default pattern, as individual and as universal as a fingerprint. A pattern built to protect the particular arrangement of vulnerabilities in our core. Spend long enough inside this contraction and it becomes the way we make the world familiar and manageable. We can build a home with walls of muscle, an identity spread like a palimpsest across a hidden underlying structure of tension. And having built that identity we naturally find ourself defending it, protecting our very self-constriction.

As a somatic discipline, the path of martial arts studies this contraction intensely and repeatedly, continually exposing us to the places and activities where we hold tension. As we dissolve one constriction we are introduced to another one – perhaps deeper, more fundamental or intransigent than the last. We are placed in overwhelming situations. We are attacked by one, two or more people. As we develop in skill so does the skill and intensity of our assailants. The world contracts to the size of the space beneath our nose. Typically, we fail at first, or awkwardly, gracelessly, wriggle out of it. Inside this pressure zone we experience few choices. Perhaps we think our inelegant response was the only one possible? We get snagged; we get tense; we get caught.

Seeking a path of glory, the martial artist finds himself instead walking a path of repeated insult!

But then we are invited to the possibility of replacing our clumsy forced response with something more expansive, graceful, relaxed and skilful. And we learn that even under such pressure there were many choices, many paths through the problem. We can actually connect and build access to our larger self right inside the zone of overwhelm. Then we practice, practice!

In this process we pulse repeatedly between two possibilities, each latent within the situation we are confronted with. We start with an experience of acute personal scarcity and a universe that appears un-negotiably constricted. We then build right inside that situation a different experience, one of personal abundance and spaciousness. Each session we revisit this duo, at graduated but ever increasing levels of intensity. Each session we learn to tolerate a little more incoming energy, a little more discomfort, calling forth a little more grace and skill. And, often unacknowledged, if we undergo the process enough times we accumulate a quiet, subterranean foundation to our relationship with the world…everything is workable, if we can bring enough skill, awareness, and presence to it!

Here is the point. We build inside the pressure of the incoming. We develop while immersed in the energy of confrontation. Because of that energy.

The somatic approach of Conscious Embodiment loses the martial content, and slows down the rapid interactions of the martial arts hall so as we can more easily study ourselves, try out alternatives and build our capacity to access these alternatives under pressure. One of its revelatory insights is discovering just how little it takes to initiate our pattern of contraction. We learn it clearest in physical practices. Ask someone to push gently and steadily on your shoulder now, gradually increasing the pressure until you are off centre, and that’s where it will be. Often people find themselves organising physically around the push even before the hand touches. Our awareness funnels around the point of contact. There it is, our body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, showing up for duty. Sensitized to this, realising that even small amounts of mental and emotional ‘incoming’ create a similar physical response, a similar funnelling of awareness, and some of the exhaustive qualities in life as a leader are suddenly clearly explained.

If exhaustion were the only result of this contraction perhaps we could just tough it out. Drive through it on adrenalin. It isn’t. Most crucially for leaders entering a future of rapid complex change, contraction leads to loss of information. Our field of enquiry narrows, our creativity shrinks. We literally take less in. Accessing the bigger picture and our compassion become more difficult. In a body squeezed by tension, the energy of inspiration flows torpidly. Under pressure, the risky outlier components of us, capacities trying to establish themselves right at our developmental frontier, turn tail and repair to base. Our ability to hold a spectrum of possible views and choose from a range of viable actions reduces. (This is why great leadership is not simply a question of how advanced we might be along the various lines of development, but one of what our body can sustain, contain and support amid the pull and push of relationship and pressure.)

Often this contraction comes at exactly the moment where accessing these virtues are imperative. Like today.

If the world were not so rapidly changing and the demands not so urgent maybe we could continue a little longer with the adrenalin led, compartmentalised body of leadership we have cultivated so far. And continue with its companion; the wilful, efforting, partial ‘strategic’ mind. In the shifting terrain of the future a new leadership body, supporting a new leadership mind and heart, is required.

But there is something rooted and fundamental about this structure. If a fire breaks out in a stable, horses need to be pulled out by humans. If not they will stay there, the flames triggering a deep need for comfort, which they associate with their familiar place within the stable. When a flood comes, cattle often head down hill towards rising water. They were fed below, and previously found their comfort there. Blessed with a neo-cortex, human beings may think themselves beyond such mammalian folly. But too often we are rationalising rather than rational animals, and the pull of the familiar becomes even more magnetic the less familiar or safe our environment becomes. The body itself resists changes to its habits, returning to the neural grooves it has scored over years, giving off signs of distress when we ask for something different. From the body’s point of view we are always practicing something, and our reactive pattern provides a stubborn comfort despite being contextually dysfunctional.

Recognizing our Patterns

One of the major advantages of somatic work is its emphasis on the element of practice and its ability to work directly with this conditioned contraction of body and awareness, not getting caught up in the particularities of story. We recognise the repetitive nature of our response to incoming stimulation, discover how rooted it is in our own nervous system, and how shockingly independent of context and detail it is. Our attention begins to shift from the drama to our embedded reactions. (To give an example, my own pattern under criticism will be there regardless of the merits, groundedness, or intent of my critic: It starts with “My god, you’re right. I am not good enough!”, followed by, “Actually, you’re being unpleasant, and I don’t like you anymore!”. Followed by mentally trying to win the argument, in order to delay feeling it in my heart, and then worst of all, my guts. That all comes later, after the first few seconds or minutes. I over-engage in my head and shoulders and withdraw in the heart and hips area. This pattern is there beneath whatever social or professional veneer I have constructed. I might once have said I’m not proud of it, but now through somatic work I can catch myself sooner in the cycle, find it amusing and greet it like an old friend who shows up on the doorstep.)

Through familiarity (“Ah. There it is again!”), we begin to make friends with ourselves, including the dysfunctional, neurotic and embarrassing behaviours we maintain. In this way we begin to ‘have’ the pattern, instead of being had by it. (It’s simple subject-object stuff here.) We begin to see how we over-extend or hold our self small, both literally on a physical level and metaphorically in other domains. We begin to recognise how hard and funny our struggle is, and perhaps find a little more space and tolerance for the dysfunctions and struggles of others. If I know I am still working on my patterns five decades into my life, maybe I can cut others a little slack.

Perhaps the crucial step happens next. Somatic work offers centering practices that interrupt our pattern and the mental self-speak that supports it. We shift physically, using breath, postural alignment, our awareness of the space around us and our energetic presence. The shift on its own interrupts our habitual reactive pattern. And in the space provided by the interruption, supported by a consciously balanced, aligned and relaxing body, we open to possibility. Through practice we rehabilitate our capacity to move into a more generous, spacious relationship to our inner and outer world.

Working through the body in this way we can short-cut resistance, cutting directly through reactive patterns. We do not have to change our mind. (If the ‘mind’ could sort the ‘mind’ out on its own the path to enlightenment would be shorter and we would need fewer self-development books on our shelves.) Here, we do not even have to get rid off the reactive patterns of our personality. We do not have to finally ‘fix’ ourselves. Without this pressure we can even begin to appreciate them, as the richness of our life, the compost from which we grow. We only have to restore our capacity to enter a centered state, and learn how to pulse in and out of it.

The Body in Somatic Work

There are, of course, many approaches to somatic work today. Working through the body may start with elevated attention to such elements as posture, breath, skeletal alignment, and the tone and patterns of contraction and extension in the muscles. Yet the body is primarily a powerful point of entry and purchase into the mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual domains. Simply put, we work through the body to grow and refine awareness. The ‘body’ stands as gateway to the human being in its fullest, most inclusive sense. The body is the site, ground and vehicle for all our doing, thinking, feeling, and purposing, the tangible field in which these elements are actually negotiated, integrated or fractured according to the unique path of each. The particular pattern of an individual human life unfolds in and through the body.

Somatic work recognises the body as a source of its own particular wisdom. Intuition blossoms from gut feeling. Empathy from a heartbeat and breath momentarily entrained with another. Our common biology grounds us in the common needs of our species, enabling compassion to grow some roots. Without the contribution of the body, without its senses both externally and internally directed, the mind can float in a self-referential world of mirrors, can slip unhindered into past or future. The body returns us to the energy of the present moment. We are anchored. We break through our isolation, touching and being touched by what is ‘not’ us.

The body has its own level of engagement with reality, living its own story arc, with its own significant and sometimes non-negotiable events. Its physical demands attune us to the wider environment, and to other people. It speaks to us through complex voices, each possessing their own language, of emotion, poetry and metaphor. Through death, it whispers reminders of context, how the finite is made meaningful by the infinite.

Our sense of rhythm and timing comes from the body, each fundamental leadership capacities that are rarely addressed in developmental courses. We can speak right at the wrong time, we can miss the tempo of our colleagues when we are encouraging change. Attuned to our own pulse, we have the possibility of being attuned to that of others, increasing the possibilities of co-ordination and collaboration. Lose that inner sense of tempo and the best ideas are launched jarringly into the world.[ii]

When we are engaged in somatic work we are paying particular attention to the shape, quality and experience of aliveness in a person, their pattern of opening and shutting down their own excitement. Very often there is some underground stream of vitality that is looking for contact with the world, but which has been shut down by a rigidity in the torso, a clenching in the legs, a shallowness of breath. Sometimes the nectar of aliveness is curdling and souring in a thwarted individual. Awareness of the body’s holding patterns can return choice to the individual.

When we fully integrate the body we can hold together both a deep appreciation for our uniqueness, our unlikely and miraculous one-off occurrence in the world, and our commonality, our shared and humbling status as a member of a species and a mere link in the chain of evolution. This duality is the foundation for our intention, purpose and contribution, and for our compassion.

Ways of Power

Over the last decades we have developed many tools for exploring and deepening collaboration and conversation. Whether it is dialogue methods, world café, or the many other contributions, this area reflects an urgent need in the world. Less explored, but equally pressing for leadership, is the development of tools and methods of exploring power.

The skillful exercise of power is a fundamental human capacity, and in the next period one we need more of, not less. Good people need to find and become comfortable and skilled with power, and find new ways of being powerful. Indeed, connection, collaboration, compassion, these all become insipid without an infusion of power. (I have argued this elsewhere.)

Conscious Embodiment founder Wendy Palmer often remarks our culture teaches that it is good to be nice, or smart, but accessing the raw power that we hold in our core is much less appreciated. This is the kind of power you use when you are lifting heavy weights. It manifests unconsciously when a parent on a road sees a fast approaching car and with no negotiation or concern for their popularity drags their little one to safety on the other side. Sometimes it stirs in us and we shut it down, unable to endure its charge. It comes from our core deep in the belly, what the Japanese call the hara, and the Chinese the lower tan tien. Connecting to this place receives a lot of attention in Conscious Embodiment and all martial arts.

But this kind of power is a little scary for our culture. As a result we have been reluctant to explore or practice with it. Having made this refusal many good people and leaders fail to build a container for its skillful use, and therefore in the inevitable moments where we do use power, it is often less skillfully done than it could have been. We under or over-extend. We are too timid; we are too aggressive. We are rarely sharp, clean and precise like the prow of a well-designed boat. A blunted prow costs more effort and leaves a larger, more turbulent wake and disturbance behind. A blunted knife causes more damage than a scalpel.

Without support from low down in our core, we rely on over-extension in other areas, our heart and head. We mobilise excess emotion or cleverness to compensate. When we accept support from our core, we enter the relationship with more balance. When we don’t practiced connecting to our core, we are left with two sure fire ways to activate it:- fear and anger. Often with unskillful consequences. So our whole exercise of power becomes ‘problematic’. And a radical distinction gets lost:- the difference between force and power.

Cognitively, there may not be too much between these words. But as a felt experience, they are entirely distinct. For a martial artist the distinction between power and force is extremely clear, extremely tangible. Occasionally I have been repelled, and found myself sprawling on the floor, without a real grasp of how it happened:- power! Force on the other hand is both more common and more comprehensible. “I did this, you did that back… I ended up down here.“ One makes you laugh delightedly, the other makes you irritated or competitive.

These distinctions are available in our everyday experience. Teachers know the difference between a class where they have established a firm sense of their own power, and one in which they have to use ‘force’ (albeit of a non-physical kind). Actors or musicians know the difference between a performance unfolding from a natural power, and one that is laboured and inauthentic. A carpenter feels the easy power of the saw’s sharp teeth, or the forcefulness needed to push through wood when the blade is blunt.

Force and power are distinct. Somatically they have very different origins and entirely different outcomes. Force occurs when real power is absent. When people feel powerless at root, or divided in themselves, they reach for force as the nearest approximation to the power they are lacking.

Exploring and developing our own power requires more than thinking about it. It requires a physical, or somatic, exploration, enabling us to become more aware of what happens in our body and heart when we display or experience power. It requires us to work from the bottom up on how we shape our self and open or close down in the face of power, our own and others.

Working for centuries with power, practitioners of internal martial arts have learned to focus initially on building the somatic container to run increased amounts of energy associated with power. If you simply increase the power available without working on the container and opening the channels, people and leaders blow out. They get ill, they get nasty, they get burnt out. So we create better alignment, less constriction, more tolerance for enhanced energy. For leaders, we sometimes work with bokkens, wooden samurai swords that immediately amplify their sense of their own power. Then we help them shape, contain and settle it into something than can be used clean, precise and without aggression. They learn the feeling of ‘cutting an intention into place’ so they can locate that sense in their bodies again when they are in the meeting room, in the conversation.

Connecting, Aligning, Deepening

In Chinese martial arts we spend a lot of time working on the alignment of the head, spine, hips and feet. This emphasis on the vertical orientation blends us with the natural lines of force between heaven and earth, with the downward pull of gravity and the upward, centrifugal force of the earth’s spin. It is the source of much quiet strength. What’s funny and interesting is what happens when we are put in front of an attacker. Bang goes the vertical orientation, replaced by a rampant horizontal one. Suddenly all our awareness and energy is focused along the horizontal plane, determined to manage the incoming. A good punch does that to you, just like a disastrous quarterly return, or an irate line manager.

Part of our journey towards some kind of mastery is to gradually make our vertical orientation at least as resilient and magnetic as the horizontal one under pressure. We make the strength of our internal connection sufficient to meet the demands of the external world. It’s the same principle in nature. A tree establishes the downward vertical connection of its taproot before reaching out horizontally to the world. So we work on ourselves first. Before we enter difficulty, we get sorted. A less organic, but accurate, analogy might be the instruction to always put on your own oxygen mask in a flight emergency before putting on your neighbours, especially if they are your children. Somatically, this means as leaders under fire, we recover the dignity and balance of our upright posture as a first step towards meeting the incoming skilfully. Just this step alone can begin a cascade of possibilities.

In Conscious Embodiment we use a simple model of the human being. We associate the horizontal plane with what we call ‘personality’. This bit of us tries to manage the world, make it safe, or make it do what we want. It’s the bit that moves towards or away from pressure and danger. When operating from personality my head wants control, my heart wants approval and my core wants safety. Feeling its isolation, my personality desires connection. Personality is very concerned with managing the stuff of our lives, the people, the reports, the relationships, the things. Personality has an agenda. This part of us is not to be denigrated. It got us through many difficulties. It is part of our human richness. It puts the cornflakes on the table. And its drama is very compulsive viewing.

Yet ultimately the world cannot be made forever stable and safe. So our resulting tension can be exhausting if it is our only option.

The vertical dimension we associate with the state of being centred. Here our orientation starts by connecting and aligning within our self, and allows a connection to something bigger than our self:- the supportive quality of the ground, the generative and spacious quality of the sky. Experiencing each of these gives somatic support for our sense of groundedness, our ability to take a stand, our generosity, and creativity. Because centre is already connected it is not tied up with acquiring and gripping onto our connections with others. It can accept that whatever is arising is legitimate. The agenda is lost. In centre, instead of control, our minds access a natural wisdom and intelligence; instead of approval our hearts access compassion; and instead of safety, our core access confidence.

So somatically the first step in meeting incoming demands and conflict is to recover our vertical posture and energetic orientation.

If personality references on things and control, centre references on space. In personality it can be difficult not to feel that it is all down to “me”. In centre, aware of the space or field, we can begin to let something bigger come through.

Letting Something Through

There can often be an exhaustive wilfulness to leadership. Always pushing the agenda, driving the change, building, accumulating results. Of course this can be very affirming to our sense of our self. All that resistance consolidates the ‘me’-ness of ‘me’. But this individuation in an uncertain world comes with a price. Isolation, exhaustion, and fear linger in the shadows, waiting their moment. It can be easy to forget how we are participating in our own resistance, and to not see what simply wants to grow and emerge. When we are focused on the to do list we can lose sight of the field and its emergent qualities.

There is a moment deep into your training as a martial artist when you stop trying to add things, and start trying to remove them. You’ve worked in the sunlight and felt your movement suddenly lifted and filled by some insubstantial wind. You’ve felt your technique flip into a realm of effortless ease without your permission or participation. You’ve had enough experiences of something bigger than you and already there, to become really interested in it. You have recognised that your own tension and limited awareness have blocked it coming through. Now you want to clear internal blockages, open channels and release tension. The Tao Te Ching says, “In the pursuit of learning, everyday something is acquired/ In the pursuit of the Tao, everyday something is dropped.”[iii] Somatically this is signalled by a shift from reliance on contractor muscles to enlivening your extensors, ligaments, tendons and joints. The joints pulse open and closed rather than squeeze and grind. The emphasis now is on creating space in your body and relating to its flow, rather than the substance and solidity. Philosophically this moment is a fulcrum point, where you move away from feeling you have got to do it all yourself, to understanding that the energy, the alignments, the form of movement was always already there and you just have to find your way to joining it. You are entering a bigger universe than the little efforting self allowed for.

A similar moment can happen in the development of leaders. Arguably, all our greatest leaders have had this quality. Martin Luther King, Mandela, Gandhi. We felt that something grander than them was coming through them. Leaders need tools to relate to this bigger field when under pressure. In Conscious Embodiment we do this through shifting our attention to the space, inside and around us. We suggest that the space has intelligence. It is not empty, but has texture and potentiality, it has an energetic and generative field. When we are in personality, focused on things, the space separates us. In a centred state, it connects and holds us. Our sense of self dilates, like a tight bead of oil touching still water. This enlarged presence can fill the space, and we can invite people into our own energetic field with a sense of ‘we are in this together’.

Working through the Body and the Spiral of Development

A somatic approach to leadership emphasises taking skilful actions under pressure. Like meditation, it tends to help people at whatever level of development they are at, strengthening their functionality and the healthy aspects of that level. Sometimes it may speed their movement through one level to the next. For example, those at membership levels working with rhythm and the physical awareness of themselves and others in the space may be aided in their co-ordination with and sensitivity to others. They increase their capacity to read and integrate with the membership group. Here, in other words, it will increase convergence and harmony.

Those leaving membership levels will have tools that increase their capacity to take a stand, speak their truth without aggression, and to move through resistance. They will find in the body an independent and increasingly rich, diverse source of information and experience that will often be at odds with the socialised mind’s expectations. They may be expected to feel ‘this’, but their growing awareness of the somatic messages may deliver sensations that are “that”. (See panel.) Here, somatic approaches can increase divergence and autonomy. The emerging complexity and contradiction of actual sensations and internal experience propel people into the next stage of their development. Further up the developmental ladder, and the body becomes a rich source of voices, stirrings, flows and sensations. This richness is both generative of, and the supporting structure for, the development of multi-perspectival awareness. Our increased capacity to stay with our discomfort supports our capacity to tolerate ambiguity and conflict. We can as leaders and people take more in, reach out further.

As we reverse our withdrawal from the body we meet the involuntary nature of our own physical processes, the stubborn conditioned quality of our reactions, and the grandiosity and pride of our ego slips. Its fulltime grip on our identity falters. We sense more subtle and spacious flows and energies, and we find our very solidity dissolving in the heat of our awareness. Descending into the body we retrieve our ability to fly, to ascend and transcend our little mind.[iv]

The spiral nature of development is abundantly clear in the somatic tradition. We return again and again at each level to basics, to the building blocks, to practice. Last year, after 35 years training, I concentrated not on some ‘secret technique’ or complex esoteric set of movements, but on developing my ability… to stand up. Not some weird way of standing up. Just straight up and down, two-legs-on-the-ground-head-above-the-shoulders standing up. I am standing quite well now!

In somatic approaches the advanced curriculum looks very much like the beginner’s curriculum.

The Call: A Stable Centre to Meet the Centrifugal Forces

The world calls to us now urgently.

Each of us is called to think, feel, speak and act more wisely, more connectedly, and powerfully. Each of us is called to bring to the table the singular combination of gifts and talents we carry. We are not to hide. And crucially, because we have tended not to do these things well or for long enough, because we need to change, we are called to find ways to support all this, collective and individual practices that sustain and deepen this in order to find tools that allow the collective and individual body to make the shift.

While the call is pressing and many of its implications hard, we should not believe it is only onerous. Because it is a call at last to enter into the fullness of what we can be. It is a call to a greater connection and a deeper satisfaction than we have so far collectively experienced. We are called to remember beauty and joy as much as to realise grief and regret – a call to lighten up as much as to get down, to come home as much as journey into strange new lands. There is much to be glad about in this call.

We know more about the possibilities and dignity of individual and collective human life than ever before. We cannot walk into our future regardless of this knowledge, even if we fail to live up to it each day or year. It is there as a marker. “This is what we can be, this is what we must be.” Human beings have met each self-inflicted indignity of our history with a wave of impassioned reaching further into the kingdom of possibility with a reassertion that our fullest potential is our best worthwhile destination. At each failure someone somewhere responded defiantly by drawing the circle of human life a little bigger, a little more inclusive. “We are all us,” we declare in the face of the lord, the slaver, the bigot, the misogynist, the fascist. Each wave of human history leaves a tidal mark of human dignity higher up the beach, more inclusive, more complex, more comprehensive.

Further re-integration and healing of our fractured being is emerging:- between mind and body, male and female, between the sacred and secular, the powerful and the powerless. Even if we see only early, fragile or limited moves, the point is this:- when before have all these questions been simultaneously so high up on the agenda of human society?

So even as we move towards the multiple crises that grip us we can remind ourselves that if we are overwhelmed, it is also tribute to the rapid expansion of our consciousness, our acceptance of responsibility, and the raising of the minimum expectations of our decency. Our present overwhelm is evidence of our future ambition, and that is hopeful.

So we stand in this moment watching the positive and negative strands of possibility unfurl into the future, interwoven like the double helix of life. Perhaps never before has humanity and the planet been on the edge of so much greatness and so much destruction.

Across the centuries this call has been an invitation. But now the world needs us, demands us. Without us at our best these positive threads will fray and break. We are urgently called to be powerful and compassionate in our actions, wise in our discretion and choices, ever-widening in our circle of concern and inclusion. To transform our collective structures and processes we must individually be prepared to take a stand, and to forge relationships that have purpose and perseverance. And as a condition of all the above, standing before all these possible futures, both threatening and hoped for, a responsibility to match the centrifugal forces of the next decades with a centre that is calm, connected, enlivened and empowered. And in doing so, through our full presence, calming, empowering, enlivening and blessing others.

Bibliography

Palmer, W. (2008). The Intuitive Body. Seattle: Flying Kite Publications.

Palmer, W. and Kornfield, J. (2002). The Practice of Freedom. Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press.

Strozzi-Heckler, R. (1993). The Anatomy of Change. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Leonard. G. (2006). The Silent Pulse. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.

Wilber, K. (1979). No Boundary. Boston: Shamhala Publications, Inc.

Disclaimer

While my heartfelt gratitude goes out to my lifelong teacher, Grandmaster Han, and to Wendy Palmer, my Conscious Embodiment teacher, obviously any misunderstandings and mistakes are entirely mine to own. This is a truth Grandmaster Han points out to me weekly.

It also needs to be said that the examples cited above, while based on actual people and events, details have been changed to protect identities. I am of course deeply privileged and thankful to work with such wonderful people.

About the Author

John Tuite taught in London secondary schools for 18 years, serving on leadership teams in four schools. He was an Advanced Skills Teacher. Prior to this he worked as a builder, an arborist and a councilor. He now works full-time as a leadership coach, trainer, consultant and teacher of embodied leadership. He is a student of Wendy Palmer, founder of Conscious Embodiment. He is also the Senior Instructor of Grandmaster Han Kim Sen of Southern Shaolin Five Ancestor, a centuries old martial art born in the Buddhist temples of China. He has practiced within this tradition since 1974. He can be contacted through www.clearcircle.org or jtuitelondon@yahoo.co.uk.

 Notes


[i] There are of course other elements necessary to teaching and learning such as a school culture and systems that are supportive or invitational to learning. These ‘It’ and ‘We’ elements are not the present focus here.

[ii] See The Silent Pulse by George Leonard for a wonderful exploration of rhythm and its foundational importance to all of life.

[iii] Tao Te Ching. Translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Verse 48.

[iv] See the chapter entitled “The Centaur Level” in No Boundary by Ken Wilber.

2 thoughts on “Getting Back to the Body: Leadership Lessons on Power from the Martial Arts and Somatic Tradition

  1. Richard Bordoni

    Thank you for this great essay. I hope in the coming years more and more people will begin to recognize the profound importance of the body (especially in the Integral community).

  2. Glenn H.

    Dear John,

    I have read your article and completely feel I can embrace this natural wisdom you have shared with us and it parallels to the philosophy we espouse. You can check this out on biosync.com with my teacher. What intrigues me more is the desire to learn more about your approaches to and how I can give back this empowerment to the people who come in contact with our work.

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