Lightfulness is officially a bit over a year old, unofficially it’s been in evolution for quite some time. This spring, I offered 5 trainings in Flensburg (D), 3 day-long trainings with teams of social workers, as well as two half-day sessions with elementary school teachers. As it was the first time training social workers and unsure just what aspects of Lightfulness would both resonate and be useful, I followed the Zen peacemakers’ tenets of ‘not-knowing-bearing witness-taking action.’ Since social workers often deal with rather tense situations, I was curious as to which aspects of Lightfulness might serve this group. In situations where any offering of humor is near guaranteed to backfire, what can the social worker do??
Going into the day in ‘not knowing’ didn’t mean that I should abandon my ‘lesson plan’. It just meant to open up a degree of flexibility, and to listen to, and to respond to the participant’s needs, wishes and interests. The trainings held a two-fold purpose, to be an opportunity for ‘team building,’ and to investigate how humor and lightness might serve the social workers’ tasks, and to develop skillful tools to improve interactions with their clients.
Although there was initial resistance amongst some of the participants to the concept of opening the ‘fun and funny,’ the participants embraced the play once they recognized the that the goal was to enjoy, not to make fun of each other (positive humor.) As they recognized that the exercises demanded the concentrated presence of their mature human beings, the participants dug in.
From a team-building perspective, taking away everyday tasks and habitual, mostly verbal methods of interaction, opened pathways to seeing each other in a different light, as the human beings we are, and less as workers with specific tasks and roles to play. One needs only to reference the German writer Friedrich Schiller “Play is human, and we are never more human than when we play.”
As to the work: “These are serious situations, we have to be serious about them” was a common attitude. Some of the more challenging situations the social workers faced were often described as lose-lose, that everything had been tried and there were no more solutions to offer. Working with these, I offered up the possibility that perhaps even if we can’t affect clients in strong disagreement, changing our own state of being might open previously closed doors.
The first part of the trainings worked with opening up the participant’s humor flow, to investigate how we express humor non-verbally. We opened up our awareness levels through a number of ‘interactive mindfulness’ exercises. We explored our awareness, and our lack of it, as to the feelings we hold inside, especially in interactions with others.
We dug into the counterintuitive concept that once we recognize our frustration, it’s possible to enjoy it, to inject humor into our expression of it, and how freeing this can be. We then looked at dialing down the expression levels to transform humor into lightness.
Lightness, as an energy we hold inside, and not necessarily share, proved to be a strong take-away, a skillful tool. It follows a basic principle coming out of neuroscience, that if we can name a feeling we are holding, it moves out of the reptilian brain into the prefrontal cortex, out of the reactive into a more responsive condition. So for the social workers to recognize when they are feeling frustrated in an interaction, and have tools to inject lightness into the frustration was a welcome concept. That one might humor oneself as a pathway to change an ongoing client situation, e.g. to give oneself permission to feel a bit lighter in the midst of witnessing an ongoing argument, was an unexpected possibility, one that participants felt held future values.
By the end of the trainings, several of the participants who initially felt that lightness and humor could not affect ongoing client’s situations, expressed the possibility that by holding lightness, they might change the outcome of the client’s situation/relationships.
During the trainings, participants role-played a few typical situations that would not seem to open up the space for shared humor. Yet, in those situations, the ability to call up lightness inside offered multiple possibilities… Just placing awareness on the feelings present inside gave the social worker a tool to view the situation with greater perspective, and created openings to subtly shift the conversation. Developing awareness also opened the capacity for the social worker to recognize when familiar challenging feelings arose, and creating the space to call up self-regulation tools for self care and resilience.
Lightfulness trainings demand that participants engage their intuitive mind. Neuroscience provides plenty of evidence that exercising the muscles of intuitive mind is vital to our well-being, and our ability to accomplish our intentions. Work-a-day life sets us up to operate in the rational, make sense, and ‘be serious’ framework. Yet, often what is lacking in our interactions in working and caring environments is that human factor.
As I reflect on the trainings, one thing stands out: inviting the participants to identify, explore, express how they are feeling in the workplace, brought them closer to their human selves as opposed to the function that they are paid to serve. By injecting lightness into these feelings, by not taking themselves so seriously, they opened up pathways that offered new possibilities to old problems.
For the social workers, connecting in exercises emphasizing fun and funny proved strongly worthwhile. Relating to each other in a relatively stress free environment and connecting around a framework of humor and lightness opened contexts framed by intuitive mind rather than the every day office rational mind.
It’s one thing to explore these dimensions in a training setting. It’s quite another to apply them to situations in a real world situation. A lack of seriousness is most often considered a lack of respect. Hence where humor might be inappropriate, lightness + awareness (=lightfulness) offers value in real world situations.