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“Banana bread?” I asked as I walked out of the house and offered a plate with three thick, just-out-of-the-oven, buttered (non-dairy!) pieces to my daughter, her roommate, and my husband after they had backed the moving truck into our driveway.
By the looks on their frazzled faces, it had not been an especially enjoyable morning. All three devoured their slices with relish, rolling their eyes with delight.
“Oh my god, after spending all morning dealing with moving boxes, just hearing your voice is so relaxing!” my daughter said.
“It’s like walking into a spa!” her friend added.
I smiled, glad that I could calm the waters with nothing but my voice and some slices of banana bread.
Later, my daughter’s friend said to my daughter, “Your mom could give me the largest insult in the world, and I’d still say, ‘Ahhh, she’s so sweet!’”
I loved hearing this, and it’s not the first time I’ve received these kinds of compliments. My husband has always told me that he is calmed by the sound of my voice. For the dozen or so years that I taught yoga, the most frequent compliment I received was about the soothing quality of my voice.
But, since I stopped teaching yoga, I’ve practiced bringing other facets of my voice to the fore. I’ve played with satire, fierceness, and directness. I’ve even had, more than once now, the editor’s “naughty language ahead!” warning affixed to my articles. It feels like I’ve earned my cursing badge for my Girl Scout uniform.
I’ve been exercising new vocal muscles, and very much enjoying the sass, fun, bite, play, and power available in my voice.
Until something happened that made me question this shift:
I was leading a Zoom workshop, and my topic was: The importance of challenging our innate collective conditioning in order to heal—something I feel passionate about.
Afterward, I did a check-in with the group, and one of the members said, “While you were talking, I got anxious. I started to feel uncomfortable.”
I immediately felt guilty and had to swallow down an urge to apologize.
This is not what I do, I thought. I don’t rile people up; I soothe them. I don’t create conflict; I negotiate and mediate.
Never before had I knowingly agitated someone. Accidentally, sure. With my family, yes. With customer service people, many times.
But not in my capacity as a spiritual teacher/leader.
I sat with my guilt for a while, seeking its origins. Then, ironically, I realized that the origins of my guilt were from the same place I had been talking about in that workshop: my cultural conditioning.
Collective conditioning is what Daniel Quinn is referring to in his book Ishmael when he writes:
“The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it.”
After a certain point, we don’t even know we have ingested these beliefs and ideas about who we should be, or can be. Yet, it’s possible that a huge majority of our beliefs are simply cultural or generational hand-me-downs that have gone unexamined our entire lives—driving our behavior, shaping our worldview, making us repeat the same mistakes, and causing the same pain, again and again.
One of the things my cultural conditioning has taught me, through tacit or overt approval and disapproval, is that, as a woman, I should be a balm of sweetness in the world. Women are encouraged to be peacemakers and feather-smoothers. We’re expected to create harmony and connection wherever we go. Having been praised for this ability for so many years further solidified this belief that my role in this lifetime is to provide environments of calm tranquility.
Yet, this can’t be the only way I’m meant to use my voice in the world. There are some issues that I can only talk about if I take on a satirical tone. There are other topics that, unless spoken about with power and conviction, wash away like a grain of sand on the beach, never to be seen or heard by anyone, let alone make a difference.
I’ve always known I have a sharp tongue—who doesn’t? But I’ve never used it in my work, or at least not as often as I’ve coated my words in honey. I’ve believed, perhaps without knowing I’ve believed it, that this—guiding with calmness and gentleness—is the best way for me to use my voice in the world.
It certainly is one way. But it’s not the only way. The longer I sat with this conflict inside myself, the more I realized that there is strength in my sharpness.
As I said in my talk that day: our cultural conditioning— especially our unconscious conditioning—is the one thing that stands between us and our healing. This is because healing depends on change, and change depends on overcoming the ingrained beliefs that caused the pain or developed out of the pain.
Without something or someone coming along now and then who challenges us, upsets us, or even offends us, it is likely that we’ll simply carry our conditioning with us, year after year, not bending, not changing, and definitely, not healing.
The group member who spoke out was merely uncomfortable. That’s all. He wasn’t hurt or bleeding. He was just…uncomfortable. I caused that with my words. I disrupted his collective conditioning. I disturbed some equanimity within him. I challenged some previously comfortable seat within him.
And this is what opens the possibility for change.
According to Ayurveda, there are six tastes in our food, each with a purpose in the detoxification, healing, and building of bodily tissues. This is true for our communicative diet, too. Sweet language is valuable, but we must also include bitter, astringent, pungent, sour, and salty language. None is better than another. All of the “tastes” can play a role in our communication style.
It should go without saying that I’m not talking about being personally offensive, rude, or hateful. I’m simply talking about shaping our voice in the way best suited to carry our message. So, I will not apologize for tapping these other facets of my voice. None of us should.
We are supposed to be ruffling each other’s feathers from time to time. We’re supposed to occasionally upset other people’s apple carts. We grow only when we apply tension and stress to our innate beliefs. We heal only when we can see our beliefs clearly enough that they lose their power over us. That can’t happen if no one ever bumps up against them.
For many of us, our cultural conditioning is deeply ingrained and strong enough to keep us quiet, small, soft, and gentle for our entire lives. But, if I’m aiming for the heart—and I am—then there has to be more than one arrow in my quiver.
There are always opportunities to be the calming presence who offers sweet banana bread to a hungry, stressed trio. But when it comes to moving forward with my work, I’ll use whatever voice promises to be the most effective—even if it ruffles some feathers.
(In the meantime, could I calmly interest you in a 30-minute guided Yoga Nidra meditation practice?)
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