To thrive we need a strong back and soft front

Yesterday I saw this strong back of my wife and the soft front of my son. It reminded me again how important both of these qualities are in both coaching and life.

“Strong back, soft front”. These words kept sticking in my mind since I attended the Wisdom 2.0 conference in Singapore. At the time, I attended a guided meditation by Roshi Joan Halifax, who runs the Upaya meditation centre.

Strong back, soft front, she explains, “is about the relationship between equanimity and compassion. ‘Strong back’ is equanimity and your capacity to really uphold yourself. ‘Soft front’ is opening to things as they are.” She further explains:

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet – strong back and soft front – is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.”

A year since I did her meditation in Singapore, the message still resonates, also in my coaching and entrepreuneurial work. I did find different applications of “strong back – soft front” that I want to share with you so you get inspired to find your own.

First of all, I practice strong back- soft front in many physical practices. It’s not just a metaphor for me. From rock-climbing to yoga and the way I sit at my desk. Whether it’s in yoga postures or even how I run or sit in my meditation, I realized that I need to balance strength with flexibility, solidity with fluidity, uprighting my back while softening my heart.

Secondly, ‘strong back- soft front’ also represents for me the balance between our own self-confidence and our own vulnerability. While I am coaching I am sometimes firm and provocative with my clients while at other times I am soft and vulnerable about my own struggles.

I notice that if I only have the ‘strong back’, I become less human. In the worst case scenario, I can be perceived as cold.

I realized that I need to make the empathic connection at all times and when my client is challenged, I need to touch that same place of pain, hurt or struggle inside of me. I might choose not to share my own challenge in that moment, but the mere action of touching it inside of me is enough to let me next few words come from the right place, from the ‘soft front’.

Finally, ‘strong back- soft front’ also relates to my own mindfulness meditation practice. For a few months I was really diligent in concentration-based meditation. Every day I sharpened my mind and strengthened my equanimity using various lasered-concentration techniques. It cleared my mind, strengthened my sense of solidity in my body and I could maintain longer periods of concentration than ever before.

However, I realized my heart was not as open as it was before. My ability to see others and myself through the eyes of compassion and genuine care was reduced. I remember one particular coaching conversation after which I realized that I maybe was sharp and insightful, but not connected at the heart level enough. It was like I cared a bit less about my client and became less forgiving. It’s not the way I want to coach and I am not at my best in those moments.

So I made it my practice to make sure my soft front gets as much attention as my strong back. I added more loving-kindness meditation, gratitude and have my 10-month old son sit in front of me during some meditations. Nothing beats that heart-opener!

In sum, strong back allows us to create the solidity and strength to uphold ourselves in the midsts of any condition. It helps us to be confident and sharp. Soft front allows us to recognize people’s suffering as well as our own and keep our heart open and tender in the midst of it all.

Once the two start informing each other and they ‘team-up’, we can look at the world with wise understanding and heart-felt compassion. A magic mix for both our coaching and our lives in general. In the next few weeks, whenever you need a bit more of one, whisper gently ‘strong back, soft front’ to yourself to remember. We can support each other’s practice in this.

Mindful regards,

Gaston, Coach, Asian Leadership Institute