During the Season of Giving, Street Yoga’s partners shine their amazing lights and help illuminate the powerful work that we do. Allow me to introduce an amazing supporter of Street Yoga, the founder of The Samarya Center based in Seattle, WA: Molly Lannon Kenny.
I am so honored to have been asked to write a little bit about giving big, and being big, for Street Yoga’s GiveBig campaign this year. As the founder and executive director of The Samarya Center, Street Yoga’s pal up north, I have felt closely aligned with Mark Lilly since I first heard of Street Yoga, and then had the honor of hosting Mark and his wife at The Samarya Center way back in 2002, or somewhere around there. I have watched Street Yoga expand and flourish, and have been blessed to meet and connect with Jaime Hedlund, Street Yoga’s Program Manager and graduate of my yoga based therapy program. My admiration for Street Yoga has only grown over the years, and when I travel all over the country teaching about Yoga and Social Change, and I hear people talking about Street Yoga and wanting to volunteer for Street Yoga, my heart swells with joy and optimism for what we, as a true yoga community, can do together.
I know it isn’t always easy to keep this all going. There’s the money, ahhhhh, the money, (as the saying in non-profit goes, “no money, no mission),” there’s the administration, there’s the inevitable ups and downs and there is the constant leadership, cheerleading and flag waving – easy when things are easy, but easy too, to want to curl up and leave it all behind when things get hard. It takes one hell of a strong ego to keep a non-profit, service oriented, balanced, committed, mission based and joyous organization running after all that time. I know, because I have one hell of a strong ego. And I also know that that is not always an easy thing.
The funny thing about ego is, we seem to always think of it as something bad. See, I’ve been a big presence all my life. But most of that time, I have been told, either overtly or through the prevailing cultural messages, to “be quiet,” “stop showing off,” “don’t have such a big ego!” As a woman, I have tried my hardest to resist my own bigness, and tried to make myself smaller in every way, as if disappearing would be my best way to be in the world. I know I am not the only strong woman to have felt that pressure, and I know I am not the only one who has succumbed to it. But, like a yo-yo diet, that big ego, that strong fire, that burning desire to DO and to BE, just keeps coming back. And, even when I claim my big ego, and tell myself and others, “But I AM this person, I am strong and fiery, and that’s a good thing, because I make stuff happen!” – there’s always been someone right there to respond, “Molly has a big ego.” Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But who will lead these changes? Will it really be someone who is afraid to put themselves out there, afraid to take a risk? I don’t think so, and I am so glad that there are people like Mark and all his volunteers, and me and all my staff and teachers, and all of the other amazing people who are owning their bigness and putting it to work for the greater good. The world needs big egos doing big work. Street Yoga is thriving because of its strong egos. I know that without even knowing all the players. That’s just the way it is!
This reminds me of a thought- just about this time last year, I was watching Barbara Walters interviewing Oprah. As much as Oprah is a part of our common cultural experience, I sometimes forget how amazing she is. Here is this person, from very harsh beginnings, who has become one of the most influential and richest people in the world. And not only is she rich, creative, and talented, she is also larger, black and a woman. Oprah is BIG. And, she uses her bigness – her money and her status to help others less fortunate than she. And she’s constantly thinking of ways she can do more. In her interview she referenced a previous interview she did with Barbara Walters in the eighties (and by the way, they both look a lot better now!), where she stated that she believed she was meant to do great things. She talked about the incredible backlash she received from the media and the community. Who is this person saying she is so great? Why isn’t she more humble? Who does she think she is? How can she say that God meant for her to do great things? What about the rest of us?
Oprah and Barbara didn’t have to laugh at the irony of it all. Oprah clearly is great and she does great things. She told Barbara that she often thinks of the refrain from the Bill Withers song, “Use me until you use me up,” and uses that very phrase in her prayers to God every day. Here is a person who recognizes her considerable gifts and guidance, and uses them to uplift others. She said that her faith in God guides and supports every thing she does, but I think we could all also agree that Oprah works really, really hard. In her efforts to bring about positive change for others, Oprah has both joy and humility, not to mention an ever flowing stream of creativity and money. Oprah is big and gives big.
In Yoga, this is the balance between Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana. We have to put in the effort, evaluate and assess the results of our efforts, and at some point let go of our own holding. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is famously counseled to relinquish the fruits of his actions. In a commentary I love by Mahatma Ghandi, he explains this paradox. It’s not that we completely don’t care whether our work bears fruit, we do want to see the benefits of our efforts as they are directed towards important change. It’s just that our attachment is not about what we, specifically, individually, receive from our actions, or what that return might look like. That takes some strong ego! That’s big!
Another quote that I love from the Bhagavad Gita is “Without concern for results, perform the necessary action; surrendering all attachments, accomplish life’s highest good.” It continues, one verse later, “Whatever a great man does, ordinary people will do; whatever standard he sets, everyone else will follow.” To me, all this talk about performing actions, about surrendering, about leading and setting standards, is about truly being and owning and embracing the people we are and the people we are becoming. We act in alignment with our god given greatness. We allow our own light to shine “to unconsciously give other people permission to do the same,” we cultivate our strong egos, not to outshine or blind or overwhelm others, but to let our greatest gifts serve the world.
When we cultivate our own bigness in this way, we cultivate trust too, that there is some divine mystery about our reason for being, the path of our lives, and how we worked towards fulfilling our own purpose, using the unique gifts we each were given. We trust that our gifts will truly serve in ways perhaps yet unimagined by us.
I think again about Oprah’s words, quoting Bill Withers. “Use me until you use me up.” To me, this really is what this dedication is really all about. We can allow ourselves to be the vessels for God’s work, and we can add our own work to it. We claim our power, we channel our gifts without apology, we turn down the voices of the naysayers, and we attune more deeply to whatever we understand to be the presence of God in our lives, whatever we want to call it or however we experience it. We each have the capacity for that, and we certainly don’t have to be “great,” or “famous.” We only have to open ourselves to our own purpose, and work to be the very best we can at that. It is in this opening that we find fulfillment in our lives, and fulfill our own dharma.
Although I am particularly inspired when I see famous people like Oprah, Bono, Michael Franti, Bill Gates, Sean Penn, to name just a few, who use their considerable platform of fame and money to offer all they possibly can to help alleviate suffering, particularly in a world where we so highly value the vapid and self-serving, especially among the rich and famous, I also know that we can do this by being the best parent, the kindest person, the most dedicated learner, the most humble and inspiring teacher, whatever we feel truly is our life’s work and calling. We use every gift we have, we let God “use us,” and we offer that to contribute goodness to our fellow beings and to the world. That’s big.
Street Yoga continues to be a manifestation of this powerful combination of effort and surrender. I have learned, again, in my own experience at The Samarya Center, that it’s not just work, and it’s not just trust, but it is the magical alchemy between the two that allow us to channel God’s presence and to create the changes we wish to see, in ourselves, in our communities and in the world.
In this season of gift giving, consider that truly embracing and embodying the gift of yourself, your unique talents and skills, your openness to mystery, and your attention to divine presence, might be the very greatest gift of all.
“Whatever a great man does, ordinary people will do; whatever standard he sets, everyone else will follow.” Give Big.
Founder and Executive Director