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A while back, I was guiding a mindful leadership session with a group of experienced leader-meditators. It was late afternoon, the end of a work day, and we slowly moved from sitting practice to mindful yoga and then to a reflection on the following line written by David Whyte: “There comes a time when you find that you’ve promised yourself to things that are just too small.” Perhaps not surprisingly, this group of people found as many insights from that line as there were people in the room.

As the sharing unfolded during a period of inquiry and dialogue, I was struck by a few of the questions that arose and were left for the group’s further reflection. For example, have we in fact “promised ourselves?” One leader said that she had not promised herself to anything or anyone. Another asked, “Do we actually have the capacity to promise ‘self?’”

In our reflections in that room, we were exploring the places in which we found ourselves: our work, our family and our communities. What had we promised ourselves to, is it still what we want, what were the factors that led to the promise? Is that promising a conscious choice or is it more a matter of convenience or an offer too good to pass up? Is it “too small,” or just right?

Another rich area of inquiry involved the words “just too small.” What makes us label something as too small? Too small for what? Is our quest for something bigger just another thing that drives us?

Or is the “too small” something we realize as we examine what we might do, as leaders, as influencers? Is it possible to bring the discipline of mindfulness training to everyday work and in seeing with a bit more clarity and compassion, enlarge that which is “too small?” Are we staying small because we are living on autopilot, or are sometimes afraid to “be big?”

So many unanswered, wonderful questions arose that late afternoon.

If this reflection is resonating with you, here are 3 simple steps to begin to explore it for yourself:

  1. Find a time to sit quietly with the quote. It is helpful to have a paper/pen nearby. Close your eyes and simply say the David Whyte quote aloud, speaking with a soft voice. As you do, pay attention to what arises in your body and in your mind. Try not to edit what you notice. After a few minutes, make a list of what arose-words, emotions, sensations, etc.
  2. As you review your list, what questions are arising for you? What do you already know about what “showed up?” Is that sensation familiar? Have you had that thought before? Are you wondering if you have made conscious choices about where you are and how you are showing up for your life? Do you notice a nagging little pull to be different? To do something differently?
  3. Choose one small step to experiment with your discoveries. What do you notice? What might be the next “small step?”

We are privileged to lead, and also burdened by the weight of wanting to do it well in the midst of the chaos. It is easy to slip into an autopilot existence and find ourselves not living our best life-as leaders at work and at home. But, if we are present, it is possible that when “there comes a time,” we can meet it with an expanded repertoire of responses learned through the work of cultivating our capacity to be mindful leaders.