“Strength without softness becomes aggression. Softness without strength becomes victimhood.”
On her Facebook post this evening, Elizabeth Lesser – a wonderful wise woman and co-founder in 1977 of the Omega Institute – shared a practice from her recent workshop. It was so beautiful, this way of bringing us into the paradox of strong and soft, that I needed to share it here.
“While leading my annual weekend workshop there, I taught my students a practice that I have been using in my own life—a way of cultivating a fearless and strong backbone, and at the same time staying open and soft.
Have you ever seen a statue or picture of the Buddha sitting or standing, with an expression of peace, extending his right arm and holding up his hand in the gesture of STOP? That is called the abhaya mudra and it symbolizes an attitude of fearlessness and strength. Take a few quiet breaths right now, come into stillness, straighten your back, extend your right arm, and make the gesture of abhaya mudra. Just holding my hand like that for a few seconds gives me a feeling of inner power. It reminds me that I am a noble human being; that I already know the way if I follow my heart with clarity and courage. It says: it’s is good to be strong. To know my own mind. To speak and live my truth.
Now, put your right arm down, and take your left hand, and rest it on your thigh, like an open cup. This is called the varada mudra, and it signifies an open, patient, and compassionate heart. When I put my hand like that, close my eyes, and feel into the gesture of an open hand, I feel connected to all beings. I stay open to their pain and their beauty. My defensiveness and aggression soften; I rest in patience and trust.
Now put your right hand in the abhaya mudra again (arm out, hand in “stop” position) and your left hand resting on your thigh, cupped in varada mudra. This is the grand combined gesture that signifies balance. Holding your hands like this, sitting or standing in stillness, breathing slowly, whether for a half hour or half a minute, reminds you how you can be both strong and soft, active and receptive, powerful and vulnerable. One way is not better than the other. Rather, when you see the Buddha standing like this—when YOU stand like this—a great truth is expressed: Strength without softness becomes aggression. Softness without strength becomes victimhood. Becoming strong and soft, fearless and open, powerful and compassionate—this is the great balancing act of a conscious life. As you cultivate that kind of balance, you are able to feel your own pain and the pain of others and not be overwhelmed. You don’t turn away from suffering; you transform it into love and beauty and sanity. Strength and softness combined are the magic ingredients for happiness, hopefulness, success and generosity.
This meditative practice of abhaya mudra and varada mudra is something you can do whenever you feel out of balance. Whenever you want the strength of a truth warrior and the softness of a humble and loving human—do a little Buddha thing with your hands. No one will know what you’re doing, but your body will. Do it for yourself at work or home, and do it for our world—as a prayer for all people, and for the earth itself, to be in balance, to be whole, to be healed.”