The Art of Speaking Up

Speaking up is a crucial art form. 

This year speaking up forced me to step away from a beloved spiritual community.  The irony of this is not lost on me and it is important to remember that mindfulness communities are not immune to human abuse of power. In fact, there are reasons that these abuses of power are even more likely to plague communities where non confrontation is a core value.  

Challenging any belief system where a particular group holds power or are given greater value over others makes speaking up more difficult and at the same time, this EXACT social formulation makes the art of speaking up even more critical to the health of ourselves and our societies. 

As a parent, I want my child to speak up.  As the reality of bully culture has become more mainstream, there are countless articles on how to bolster our children up to the task of standing up for themselves yet NONE of these articles address the root cost of speaking up.  Nowhere in these parenting articles does it ask the parent, how comfortable are you with being really sweaty uncomfortable and still speaking up?  Julien has come home crying more than once about something that has happened at school and my first question is often, “Did you tell anyone?”  Usually he has not for a host of reasons that I did not fully, compassionately understand.  I had never given thought to how HARD the task of speaking up actually is, until now. 

The heartbreak of my initial sense of loss of my meditation community and becoming intimately aware of my vulnerability in needing to belong started me into a 3 month investigation exploring the art of speaking up with a trusted movement teacher.  This investigation is still underway and I now realize that developing my art of speaking up will stay with me much, much longer.

I sat in a culture of silence around an abuse of power that I knew was unhealthy for months.  Interestingly, my discernment was never an issue.  The deeper trouble was my unconscious fear of losing my dear community, thereby losing the value that I had placed and cultivated in the space. This was shadowed as well with likely a wise unconscious fear of confronting this person in power.  Losing our belonging is a HUGE and important vulnerability for a human being.  Our need to belong is ancient and real and tied to our survival.  Wildly and courageously we have to be willing to risk this primal need to whisper into our evolution.  It would be wonderful if it weren’t the case but all too often this is the real risk we face, and experienced predators know how to utilize this fear to manipulate.  Also, behind every single human abusing power is a well of anger that can be truly intimidating.  It is meant to be. This is part of how we hold power over others.  And the knowledge of this threat begins in our parenting, the playground and is perpetuated by our cultural narratives of power and value. 

I am a 44 year old feminist and yet I witnessed unwanted sexual advances from a male leader and I failed to speak up immediately.  I let a seemingly small transgression go that I knew represented an abuse of power and more pronounced issues followed months later.  This time, in the now glaringly obvious, I spoke up directly.  I was met with anger and I was initially kicked out of the group by the individual.  When we spoke, mindfulness was out the window.  There was no productive conversation around power dynamics, no agreement to a code of conduct. I was screamed at.  Called a judgmental bitch.  I was in awe of the incredible well of anger I had tapped in this person.  I am now aware that patriarchy persists because it has been ruthlessly defended.  

Now I am left wondering how is an 8 year child supposed to speak up and face an angry and defensive bullying threat like this?  Even a child’s version of defensive anger can sting and do damage if the receiving child is not fully boundaried.  How is a young child going to be ready to navigate a primal fear like belonging?  Clearly the playground is a more PG version but the suffering is relative and the fears are too.  The need to belong to my 8 year old is as powerful a driving force as it is in my own life.

My own bravery is encrypted in my DNA.  I come from a long line of “crazy bitches” that fought patriarchy openly, loudly.  And yet, my need to belong can still make me vulnerable to silence.  When we recognize our vulnerability, we ironically become more resilient.  I feel strongly that all beings deserve a safe spot at any table.  I believe as a woman, I deserve a place where I can let down my guard and come to presence without combating someone else’s unwanted sexual desires.  What I want anyone reading this to realize is, we are not there yet.  If we cannot have the conversations openly, then we are clearly not there yet.  My writing today is still a courageous part of this standing up.  As my own compassion grows for how hard it is to stand up, may my own ability to hold space for my learning child grow.  May we all find our bravery and our voice.  May we recognize the greater risk.  In the end, the sexual and emotional safety of women (and myself) was more important to me than my need to belong to this group.  And developing this type of awareness is a beautiful entry point for teaching my child, by my example, the value of speaking up.  

More will always benefit from the clarity of our own voice than our silence.   

Photo of Audre Lorde

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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