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Five questions with a change-maker: Michele Lisenbury Christensen

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 by Marianne Elliott

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One of the things I’m realising, through the discomfort of this uncertain place I’m hanging out in at the moment, is that teaching is a big part of how I now serve. And a very big part of what has helped me grow into myself as a teacher in the past year is Teach Now, a course led by Jen Louden and Michele Lisenbury Christensen.

I first did the course around this time last year. At the time I had been teaching a lot. I was teaching classes and workshops in person here in New Zealand and I had taught hundreds of people online through my 30 Days of Yoga course. I loved the teaching and had a strong sense that I wanted to do a lot more of it.

But it was wearing me out.

I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up. I also had doubts about my own qualifications to teach, not my technical qualifications so much. More a concern that because I still struggled with the same challenges that my students struggled with, I wasn’t really qualified to teach them.

Teach Now was just what I needed.

Every single call with Jen and Michele felt like a mini-retreat for my teacher-soul, and I emerged more confident, refreshed and reassured that I was in good company – even some of the teachers I most admire have moments of doubting themselves and their qualifications. What makes them great teachers is that they have learned to do their work even though they feel that doubt. They understand that the teaching is bigger than them and, quite frankly, more important than their doubts.

By the end of the course Jen and Michele felt like friends as well as mentors. And I think anyone who enjoys my work and my writing will love them too. So I was excited about introducing you all to Jen back in March, and now to Michele.

Michele impresses me. By which I mean, before I first heard her live on a Teach Now call and realised what a joyful, accessible delight she is, she kind of intimidated me.

By the age of 23, she was the protégé of one of the most influential coaches in the world (CoachU founder Thomas Leonard). She has taught coaching skills, yoga, meditation, and feminine power, as well as business-building with a spiritual foundation. Her executive coaching takes her into Fortune 500 companies to help senior managers and executives integrate masculine and feminine power as they lead.

She is a powerhouse. And super-whip-smart.

I am always interested in learning from powerful, smart women who can be playful as well as fierce, grounded as well as visionary, open as well as strong. That, I believe, is the essence of feminine power and Michele embodies it beautifully.

Here are Michele’s answers to my five questions for change-makers:

1. What is it that breaks your heart? And what are you doing about it?

More things break my heart than I can “hands-and-feet” DO anything about on a daily basis. But within that, I’ve learned to see how my bias toward “fix it” sometimes disempowered me from doing what I could at the most basic level: remaining open to the heartbreak itself. Keeping my eyes open when they alight on suffering. Yesterday, Tara Mohr and I were walking through Pioneer Square and a woman I’ve talked with before was asking us for money and then later we saw her leaning over someone else, almost shouting, demanding cash while the other woman sat at an outdoor cafe. I just want to clench up in those moments: $1 or even $100 isn’t going to really help this woman. I hope there are things that can. I don’t know what they are. But I try to feel her, to feel the woman who’s trying to drink her coffee with her friend, and to feel my own pain in not knowing what to do.

On the can-do front, I have autopay set up for Amnesty International and Heifer International, two organizations whose work feels crucial right now, and I rely on friends like you, Marianne, to help me know where else money and awareness are needed.

One of my greatest heartbreaks and challenges is looking at my own “footprint,” not just ecologically, but in terms of social justice. I do my best to be a conscious consumer, and I know all the places I fall down on that.

I also try in my retreats and other work with women to help privileged women be open to the awareness that our beautiful lives are built by the hard work of many less-privileged women, from the clothes on our backs to the tomatoes on our salads to the clean hotel rooms we stay in. Appreciating and being aware of those women and seeking to ensure they’re paid a living wage are some of the things I do about that and try to teach other women to do – without guilt or shame but with awareness and love.

And in terms of that intersection between, as Frederick Buechner says, my “greatest passion” and “the world’s greatest need,” although I don’t know I’d classify it as breaking my heart, I love to help people get teaching and reduce their suffering in teaching.

2. What fills you with joy? How do you bring that joy to teaching?

I think one of my blessings in life is a great capacity for joy and enthusiasm. So lots of things fill my heart with joy… even the experiences of really touching the hardest pieces of sensation or emotion in my life. And in particular, these days, I get a lot of joy from being with my 3 year old son and catching his contagious joy. I love looking into my husband’s eyes as we watch our son learning or playing and sharing that joy. And there’s a new family member literally waving fists and kicking feet in my belly as I type. Those experiences all fill me with joy.

And I ground and sustain my joy through my practices: yoga, orgasmic meditation, and writing.

I bring that joy into my teaching through turning that love and enthusiasm toward my students. I think part of transmission is being full enough to open to where students are and to make ourselves available to them. I say “full enough” because if we do that when we’re NOT in an abundant, full place ourselves, it can be hugely depleting.

3. What do you do to take care of yourself and make sure your teaching is personally sustainable?

Well! Right on the heels of my last comment! I cultivate joy and equanimity. I do my practices. And sometimes I don’t. I try to stay with my experience, whether joyful or painful. I turn the teaching over, again and again, to something larger than myself so I’m not trying to shoulder it all, to produce something FROM me (better stuff comes THROUGH me, or orchestrated by me, but created through a melding of my energy, my students’, and grace).

It’s a really iterative process… I think the intrinsic unsustainability of teaching is what makes it a wonderful path for evolution. What I mean by “intrinsic unsustainability” is that teaching is perpetually so challenging and so rich with opportunities for expansion and unfoldment that I don’t foresee a time when I won’t have new layers of recognition, “Oh! I’ve made another change, and for that to be sustainable, I need to make THIS change…” I can’t imagine a static “sustainability point” for teaching that one could reach that would never need adjustment.

I have a strong critical voice in my head that I’ve learned ways to work with. It used to make teaching tremendously painful when I believed and made decisions based on what it told me about myself and my teaching. Now, sustainability rests on keeping my tanks full (or full-ish!) and being able to hear that voice for what it is (NOT the calm voice of reason!): a relentless, inescapable fount of thoughts that don’t necessarily relate to what I’m doing.

4. This is a series of interviews with change-makers. I see you creating all kinds of positive change with TeachNow – but how do you see yourself as a change-maker? Do you see yourself as a change-maker?

I do! I’m a change-maker for change-makers. I really consider all my work to be about empowering change agents. Some are teachers, some are healers, some are leaders, some are parents or partners. All do their work by making a difference for others through their presence and the experiences they create. To me, that’s the essence of a change-maker.

5. What would you tell someone who wants to do what you’ve done? Someone who wants to teach but doesn’t think they are good enough, or an ‘expert’ or just doesn’t know how to get started?

I’d say that it’s actually admirable to be asking the question “am I good enough?” because it speaks to your high intentions for your students and your teaching. However, I think the myth of The Expert is one of the aspects of our culture that produces a lot of schlock from people (and I’ve been one of them!) who puff up and put on an “I’m an expert” mantle and spout “expertise.” If you’re someone who’s been holding back, waiting till you felt like a good expert, I REALLY want you teaching! Get to it! And bring that vulnerability, that not-knowing, that doubt and curiosity and student-self to your teaching. Those aren’t liabilities! They’re gifts!

Yes, you can serve with what you know.

But your curiosity and your enthusiasm to learn more are equal, if not greater, gifts to your students, than your knowledge or mastery. Teach from where you are. That’s so important, we named the course after it: TeachNOW!

Maybe you don’t teach yet ’cause there’s a gap between who you think you’d need to be and who you think you are as a teacher. Many people who would be great teachers wait forever on the “not good enough yet” side of the gap. Others puff up, put on some bravado, and attempt to put forth the image “I AM AN EXPERT” and on that basis assume the teacher’s role. I did that in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the first decade or more of my teaching. Thought I had to know it all, so I became a know-it-all. But that takes a ton of energy. Wastes it, really. And you aren’t really available for true connection with students when you’re all puffed up.

So gettin’ teachin’ with your heart intact and in a way that allows for what I think of as real teaching – with intimacy and vulnerability – requires the would-be teacher to learn to dive into the gap rather than struggling to close it. It feels raw and bewildering and not so very safe at first. But doesn’t that description kind of remind you of the best learning experiences, too? As teachers if we can live with our own not-knowing, uncertainty, doubt, and fear, we’re far better positioned to help students go somewhere meaningful with their learning. If we’re not, the best we can do is burp information and hope it’s somewhat engaging.

This is precisely what we dive into in the first class in TeachNow. It’s called The Teacher’s Path and it’s really to help with precisely this question: am I ready to teach? How do I get off the dime? How do I overcome that Gap?

Want to get to know Michele even better?

Isn’t she fabulous? Since doing the Teach Now course I’ve had the great joy of meeting both Jen and Michele in person (at Jen’s writing retreat in Taos this year) and every good thing I ever suspected about them has been confirmed.

If you’d like to get to know them better, and to learn more about the Teach Now course to see if it is something that would help you at this point in your life, they are offering a free Teach Now class this Wednesday. This is not a sales call. It is a real-deal full-to-the-brim-with-teaching-wisdom class. And it is free.

So if you are thinking Teach Now might be right for you, sign up. If you know this is not the right time for you to join Jen and Michele but you’d like a taste of their teaching, sign up.

Because as Michele said:

If you’re someone who’s been holding back, waiting till you felt like a good expert, I REALLY want you teaching! Get to it! And bring that vulnerability, that not-knowing, that doubt and curiosity and student-self to your teaching. Those aren’t liabilities! They’re gifts!

PS: The links to Teach Now in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you sign up, I get a share. I only accept affiliate deals with people and for products I can stand behind 100%, no doubts. I’ve done this course (twice) and it is wonderful.

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