When we sit in Buddhist meditation, we are taught to keep our back straight and our stomachs relaxed. Keeping our spine straight helps us maintain our focus and clarity during meditation, and keeping our stomachs relaxed represents the need to develop compassion and loving-kindness in our daily practice. Joan Halifax Roshi, Abbot of Upaya Zen Center, often speaks about "strong back, soft belly". This is a powerful analogy for a spiritually intelligent life characterized by compassion, wisdom and courage. Strong back reminds us to stand up and stand strong for those values we hold dear. It is the inner courage we draw on when saying no to that which is unjust or not in our best interest. Saying no judiciously is the mark of a mature spiritual being. Soft belly reminds us to incorporate compassion in all our dealings. It is the acceptance we extend to both ourselves and others for our human foibles; it is the loving-kindness that we strive to incorporate in our personal relationships.
We can apply the concept of "strong back, soft belly" to both business and personal affairs. A friend describes this approach in her business: "I always draw up a contract with my business partners to describe what I expect of them and what they can expect from me. Once the contract is signed, I deal very compassionately with people, giving them lots of support and leeway to get their job done. However, if partners do not hold up their end of the agreement, they experience my anger. I hold them to their promises. Often, these people are surprised by my fierceness because, most of the time, they have no reason to see that side of me." This businessperson’s strong back is the contract she insists on and holds her partners accountable to; the contract allows her to exercise soft belly relations with the partners unless she must say no to a contract infringement.
In our personal lives, we incorporate "strong back, soft belly" by being both selfish and selfless in our relationships. We must be selfish by standing up for ourselves. We do this by asking our family, friends and co-workers for the kind of treatment we desire from them and by drawing limits on what we can personally give to others, knowing that we must fill our own well before we can give to others. Once we have established our strong back by loving ourselves enough to set these limits, we can be abundantly selfless and compassionate in our relationships. Once the boundaries are set and the relationship’s vessel is created, we are free to lavish love on others.
This principal can apply to raising children, in which the parent sets boundaries on the children’s behaviors and conduct. It’s similar to my friend drawing up contracts with all her partners in that the parent draws the limits on acceptable behavior. In my parenting experience, enforcing the boundaries of acceptable behavior by applying the logical consequences for bad behavior enabled truly loving relationships with my children to flourish.
Where can you apply the concept of strong back, soft belly in your everyday life?