How do you demonstrate your inner strength and live courageously? Is it through sheer determination to overcome any obstacle that is thrown your way whilst gritting your teeth and bearing the pain? Or is it through acts of compassion and openness in vulnerability, and the acknowledgement that life is tough, but it doesn’t have to make you hard?
This past weekend, The HERD Institute led an Empowered Women Retreat at Lingering Hill Equestrian Center, NY. This event was planned for women to come together to experience the power of a sacred feminine space. Believing that raising our awareness of self and others in the presence of the horses would lead to soul shifting experiences, we focused on creating clear intentions and authentic ways of connecting with each other.
So often in our society, women are placed in the caregiving role; as mother, daughter, sister, and wife, we are told to “stay strong” for others; we’re admired for being “brave”, and complimented on our ability to maintain an optimistic outlook on life while being overworked and overwhelmed. Whilst these platitudes may be appropriate at times and are often a true reflection of our resilience, I notice myself recoiling from such comments. For me, strength and courage do not come from maintaining a stiff upper lip, or a false smile through gritted teeth. Nor do they come from the denial of fear through forced positivity. Don’t get me wrong, I am not judging these strategies – I get that this is what is often expected by others – and sometimes there is not enough breathing space to do things differently. However, I do believe that true strength and courage comes from opening oneself to the existential crises that one faces. If courage, as Brené Brown has been quoted as saying, really is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart, then it must include our heart-breaks as well as our triumphs. Strength is then the ability to allow ourselves to tell that story wholeheartedly, whilst opening up to that emotional vulnerability.
The participants on the retreat highlighted this for me. As we worked with the horses, the same themes kept coming up around how hard it is for them to trust the process, or to show their true feelings for fear of being seen as weak. They saw in the horses their authentic way of being and found connections through them with each other to solidify their experiences. Their strength and courage shone through as they talked about their struggles to speak their truth in a world that is demanding so much of them.
Each woman on the retreat had her own story of anxiety, depression, grief, and loss. Each story came with feelings of hope, resilience, determination, and courage, mixed in with an inner knowing of finding their own strength in the struggles. As each woman opened their heart in the group, it further allowed others to speak up and share their vulnerable selves. In this precious space, we came to feel the authenticity of each moment of connection, with each other and with the horses.
I will never forget the magical moment of this group of incredible women leading a five-month old foal around an obstacle course of tarps, barrels, poles, and tires by joining hands and collectively enveloping the foal with their gentle love and connectedness. No lead rope, no touching. Pure, unfiltered, feminine energy and love. As I watched them encircling the foal, who happily walked in step with them around and over the obstacles, I felt as if I was witnessing a moment of gestation; with their hands joined in circle around the “baby”, they had created a safe and nurturing “womb” for him to grow. I was in awe of the level of trust that only true vulnerability can attain, and the powerful connections this made. Empowered women indeed.
All of this gave me pause for thought and reminded me of Sophia Diotima’s poem below.
I read this poem to the group as a way of closing our time together with heartfelt appreciation of their strength and courage in sharing their struggles with me, and as a reminder that strength is not always found through other’s expectations of us to “stay strong”.
“You must be strong” by Sophia Diotima
“You must be strong”.
Where does it say
In your book of rules
That I “must” be “strong”?
And who are you
To question my strength?
What you wish for me
Is not that I should be strong
But that I would be easy…
Easy to deal with
Non-taxing, not embarrassing
That I should not break your convention
You wish me not strength
And I will not comply.