by Bob Holzman
This article started as a section of a personal fundraising letter on behalf of Be Present, Inc. In three paragraphs, produced with support and feedback from my wife, Clare, as well as Margherita Vacchiano and Carletta Joy Walker, I described how 14 years of working in the Be Present Empowerment Model had affected me at the personal and professional levels.
I have worked to learn and practice this model for the last 14 years. While I was aware of the overt and implicit sexism, racism and classism in American society, it was still a revelation to uncover the effect of these “isms” when they were unconsciously incorporated in my own words and behavior. I came to better understand how my actions elicited reactions in others and how to make changes in my behavior. I became conscious of the signals my mind and body were sending when those actions were driven by otherwise unconscious processes.
Within my immediate family, I noticed a change in my willingness to discuss my feelings and engage in genuine and emotionally intimate communication. I also saw an increase in my sense of equanimity and emotional stability. These changes were noticed and encouraged by my wife and children.
I also noticed changes in my professional relationships as mentor and collaborator. I started to work from a perspective outside my own history and preconceptions and found I was better able to listen to new concepts and accept alternatives to my own ideas. As a result, I worked more collaboratively and more effectively. As a physician, I found I was better able to listen to and hear my patients and better respect their humanity. This moved our relationship from the traditional physician-patient hierarchy towards one built on our status as partners in health. As a result, I could more successfully communicate complex medical ideas in ways they understood. This engaged them and created trust.
The Be Present Empowerment Model gave me the tools I needed to see the impact of my actions and begin to bring my behavior more in alignment with the kind of person I want to be.
It has never been easy for me to be open about my internal processes and emotions. My first words in a Be Present Circle were “I don’t disclose…” It is of course easier now, after 14 years of practice, but I still feel a vulnerability, a fear of being controlled by others, when I do disclose my emotions. It still takes effort to be forthcoming and there is the temptation to be less than fully honest about what is happening within me, especially when feelings of impatience with group process and discussion interfere with my ability to hear others. Also, I have learned that I am not always accurate in my perceptions about my own feelings or motivations. I need to be willing to reconsider, to examine myself from other angles.
The true route to my growth and change started with the first step of understanding the contradiction that I was oppressing others despite a strong desire not be an oppressor. The first step in that realization, and the thing that started my work in Be Present, was with my poorly controlled expressions of anger within my family. Its extent is still being uncovered after 14 years in support groups, institutes and workshops. The second step was my becoming aware of my actual emotional state and aware that it was that state that was actually driving my behavior. For most of my life I had worked hard to ignore bodily and mental signals of tension or relaxation, anger or joy, so I could maintain an outward image of personal and professional neutrality, impartiality and authority. Most of my “light bulbs”, such as physical or mental tension were actively ignored and much destructive behavior resulted. I was reminded by my facilitators that I was selectively forgetful of such incidents. Change started when I began to acknowledge the intellectual rigidity and bodily tensions that I attempted (unsuccessfully) to suppress. I continue to become more skilled at recognizing when I am acting from past distress rather than responding from within the present moment.
It is not easy to label myself publicly as an oppressor. Through our Be Present lenses of race, gender, class, and power I can now see myself clearly as a white, male, authority-claiming, professional leader with stereotypically oppressive behaviors. I am now able see that I work actively to control any situation that I am in and I continue to learn the depth and subtlety of this controlling behavior in my personality. I can identify a racist origin in a pattern of selective inattention to Black women when with a diverse group of women. This was not an easy truth to acknowledge but becoming aware of it (and its negative, undesired effects) has led to change.
While growing up in my Jewish family I learned a love of argument and disputation for its own sake. In most cases, though, it is harder for me to identify what relative proportions of racism, sexism, classism or professional patriarchy have combined to create those oppressive, controlling behaviors and I have experienced situations where attempts to control or direct a situation were identified as sexist by some and racist by others. What I know now is that It is far more important that I identify that behavior as oppressive, disrespectful or controlling, and stop it, than that I understand what “ism” generated it. It is that shift in my movement that opens the door to change.