Saturday, April 18, 2009

Non-Anxious Presence vs. Actual Calmness

Chalice Spark posted a great post about being a non-anxious presence in our work. In the comments, Anna Banana raises a good question about the difference between maintaining a "non-anxious presence" and being calm. As I understand it, the former is a behavior, not necessarily a feeling state.

We may or may not feel calm, anxious, stressed, fearful; but our behavior relative to the congregation can be a grounded one that avoids overreacting, taking "bait," or permitting changes of the subject and the like. Our non-anxious presence can be to keep the eye on the ball, so to speak, to hold up the core values and specific issue at hand, slowly, carefully, with humor even, regardless of our internal feelings about it.

If we act stressed, people around us will feel stressed, even if they'd not needed to in the first place. It's why Opening of the church year is so challenging for me, because I am stressed! I'm working 70 hours a week dealing with things like 17 families that didn't register their kids on time so I need to reconfigure classes the day before teacher training. But the members are there with excitement, looking forward to a new year, anticipating new things.
If my stress/anxiety shows in my behavior then their feelings may change and become MY feelings, and the subject (opening excitement and joy) will change to be about me (and my frustration, anger, anxiety.)

Conversely, when the congregation is under stress, (say because of finances,) I am of course also under stress, and most definitely am not "feeling calm." My behavior in terms of being a non-anxious presence for them helps them keep the focus on their challenges, their feelings, and their tasks and roles.

Many of my colleagues, (particularly among the ordained ministry and those other religous professionals I consider foreparents or mentors,) seem to be able to maintain an actual inner sense of calm while behaving in a non-anxious manner.

I aspire to this, but I have a limbic system that goes from zero to 70 in .1 seconds. So the distinction between feeling and behavior is a really important one for me. Behaviors are something that can be practiced.

These include behaviors that are
a) behaviors of welcome, listening, focusing, acknowledging feelings and elephants in rooms, visioning, constancy, and perhaps above all, predictability,
b) behaviors that access my higher cognitive functioning despite the fight or flight or cry response my emotional self is looking for
and c) back my limbic system down to 55.
(I am told that meditation can be used for helping the limbic system chill out, but cannot attest to that personally. I find nature radio on helps as a limbic system governor, and once the gas has been hit, jumping jacks in the office w/ the shades drawn to discharge adrenaline is useful. Jumping jacks in public would likely be counter productive. I'm just saying.)

The most challenging, as someone for whom inner calm does not come easily, isn't finance committee meetings, or congregational meetings about the latest issue; these can be prepared for. The greatest challenge is keeping space in my brain prepared to the inevitable subject out of left field while I'm full of 79 things to juggle on Sunday Morning. When I'm juggling balls, and someone tosses me a grindstone. When a member starts talking about about something they've been keeping pent up, or something they feel is exceptionally timely and must be addressed on the spot, it can be very difficult to implement the mantra, "this isn't a good time, please call me and we'll find a time to have tea."

"This isn't a good time, please call me and we'll find a time to have tea."
"This isn't a good time, please call me and we'll find a time to have tea."
"This isn't a good time, please call me and we'll find a time to have tea."

As a matter of fact, I think I'm going to start practicing it like an actual mantra. I'll let you know how that works.

(grounded...eye on the ball... left field. Must be spring, Go Red Sox.)


Kari said...

OK, OK! I think I get it! So being a non-anxious presence instead of a calm presence is a more active, intentional state. You're on alert and reacting with a deep connection to the calm. Right? So, not reacting. Really. Except to invite people to tea. :-) Very good explanation for we lay folk. Thanks, Cindy.

Cindy said...

For "we lay folk?" I be lay folk too, Kari. DRE, not ordained, just a religious professional with an overabundance of school loans...

At which school they taught me nothing about being a non-anxious presence. That's all from brilliant people like those at The Alban Institute (

Anonymous said...

I actually think this works in all of our lives - when we can react in a calm and consistent manner we can approach life with thoughtfulness. MUCH EASIER SAID then done... but I will attest that meditation does, in fact, help with this. I also like the mantra and might just implement this as well... thank you so much.

Mossyrock said...

The notion of "inner calm" does not resonate with how I understand non-anxious presence. I can be having a whirlwind of emotion and thought going on inside. If I can stand outside the tornado, and peer into it -- without getting sucked in by its winds, I can offer a non-anxious presence.

This doesn't mean I am calm. That couldn't be further from the truth. A non-anxious presence means that I'm well aware of the muck, the yuck, the sheer awfulness or whatever is going on inside. I don't attempt to control the feelings, or stuff them, or mask them over with (feigned) calm. Rather, I attend to it deeply - but I don't let myself get ensared, like Brer Rabbit. I *witness* the strong feelings. In doing so, I'm not at their mercy. I can then be non-reactive. I can be that non-anxious presence.

This is a rich topic, Cindy, Chalic-Spark, and others. It gets to the core of how we can be real with anyone - not just those we serve -- but our families and loved ones as well.

With blessings of a warm spring day to all.