Self-mastery is not about agreeing with other people’s opinions or keeping silent — it demonstrates your humility and respect for a common humanity through understanding.
Do you remember how angry, divisive, and polarizing social media became in the summer of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown — especially culminating with the death (killing) of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests?
Not to purposefully trigger you, but I invite you to remember what you were thinking and feeling during that period of your life.
Do you recall your conversations, what you posted online, and your thoughts about what was happening in the world at the time? Were you angry and outraged, or were you calm and considerate? Did you share your frustrations and opinions online or in conversations, or did you seek to understand and find commonality with both sides of the debate?
None of the above is meant to make you feel ashamed for how you responded or reacted during that difficult period of time.
Instead, I invite you to reflect and consider who you were being during that time in history.
Were you acting humanely or like a reactive animal? Were you taking care of yourself and seeking to understand what caused that level of extreme stress (besides the obvious existential threat of COVID-19 and the lack of personal freedom during lockdown)? Or were you acting in ways that, looking back, you might now regret — what we could call, behaving unskilfully?
I found myself on both sides of the equation.
My emotions and feelings at that time were similar to riding a wave.
At the peak of the wave, I was outraged and in judgment of others. I felt the need to stand up and defend social justice and critical thinking. At other times, I was in the valley of calm reflection. I was practicing the wisdom I found in my contemplation of the Tao Te Ching and my study of the neuroscience of human behaviour to make sense of what was happening in the world.
I was doing my best to respond humanely and lead by example, and keep myself calm in the process.
During this challenging period, I studied behavioural change science with Coach Dax Moy.
This led to becoming certified as a MindMap Mastery Neuro-Coach.
The lessons I was learning in real-time about human behaviour (our habits, values, beliefs, and emotional needs) helped me understand and master the material in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
The MindMap program was delivered online and there was a group comments section where the other coaches could interact. In late August 2020, Dax posted a long explanation about why he had gone silent on his public Facebook page and in his private Facebook coaching group. He decided to pull back from public comment because he realized he wasn’t being skilful in his responses to what he was reading online. He was triggered and angry, and in that emotional state, he was reactive and defensive, not operating from his logical, critical thinking, ‘human’ brain (the prefrontal cortex).
What follows is a response I wrote to Dax’s private post (modified to stand on its own without needing to reference the original). I share my insights on the challenge of going from theory to practice, i.e., how to act humanely and honour the dignity of others even in the height of extreme contention and division.
During the summer of 2020, I couldn’t help but witness how problematic polarizing behaviour was becoming for humanity.
As an observation, the more we seek to label, identify, and categorize individuals or groups, the more challenging it is to see nothing but separateness and division.
If we constantly try to prove our difference from others, how is that a skilful way to cultivate respect for our innate human dignity?
How does the rigidity of a label foster acceptance, connection, common understanding, and inclusion?
Labelling differences creates more than a single binary.
The challenge is that most assume a binary is rigid: it is either one thing or the other. They fail to see the space between the sides, the shades of grey that create the mutually arising relationship of the either/or polarity. What exists at the centre of any binary that defines identity as a label (e.g., the initialism for LGBTQ2S+) is the one thing that connects us all: our common humanity.
🎙 On an episode of Think Queerly in 2019, I asked, “If There Is No Binary, Where Does Gender Exist?”
To get to a place of no contention and to view every human being as having innate dignity is difficult — especially when most of us are stuck in behaviours meant to protect us and preserve our moral beliefs. 1
Over the years, I have made remarkable progress in cultivating a more compassionate and understanding attitude towards others and I have learned to manage my tendency to quickly judge others (prejudice) and feel defensive.
For years, I carried a proverbial chip on my shoulder.
Much of that had to do with growing up gay and in the closet in the early 1980s and not seeing any positive representation or role models. I felt alone and isolated, and I didn’t know who I was allowed to be. I dealt with gay shame, unknowingly, for several decades. From a neuroscience perspective, my reptilian and mammalian brains were constantly looking out for threats and triggering defensive behaviour in relation to protecting my insecure identity.
There’s no doubt this is the reason I so quickly latched onto personal development in my early 30s, starting with old-school greats, like Jim Rohn and Zig Ziglar, and then the very popular and accessible, Tony Robbins.
They are all great teachers, but I quickly moved beyond the surface of what they had to offer. I wanted to understand more about the how, the processes, and the strategies for self-examination and personal transformation — I wanted both the science and philosophy of personal transformation. As a result, I’ve hired many coaches throughout my life and invested heavily in training and programs of all kinds — probably in the neighbourhood of $100K over the last 25 years.
In late 2018, I had a transformative experience around self-forgiveness for my own internalized gay shame.
Not that I was ever ashamed of being gay publicly, but there were old patterns and narratives from my adolescence that were holding me back.
When I experienced the epiphany of self-forgiveness for having internalized socially constructed shame for my queerness, I was gifted the insight of understanding and recognition that my past does not dictate my present. I learned that lesson by consciously waking up to how much I had allowed my gay shame to limit what I believed I could accomplish in life.
🎙 Listen to the Think Queerly Episode, “Is Forgiveness of Homophobia a Gay Male Gift?”
In the same year, I chose to close my queer writers' publication on Medium, which early on cultivated an in-your-face, defensive tone against prejudice and homophobia.
The choice was painful but necessary because I was transforming into someone who no longer believed I had to fight all the time to make progress. We can decide to find the middle ground between the polarities of opinion and argument, or we can choose to keep fighting. I could no longer support a publication that was rooted in constant anger, defensiveness, and righteousness — especially when that anger turned inwards and started to eat away at my well-being.
That challenging experience led me to consider the intersectionality of leadership and self-mastery, which I wrote about at the time:
When you freely love who you are, you can freely create a life you love.
I’m Darren Stehle and that is the essence of my coaching philosophy. If you’re like me and want to make a difference in the world, you’ll understand that change starts with the responsibility to know thyself first.
I follow two principles that support my philosophy: Lead by example, and; Give people better ways to think.
This blog is a place where I share my evolving insights as a coach through the intersection of self-examination, queerness, neuroscience, and my study and contemplation of the Tao Te Ching.
My role is to help you see the world differently, to think queerly, to lead from your uniqueness, and to create solutions for the betterment of humanity that impacts the world.
Seeking better strategies for my self-mastery and leadership inadvertently led me to study multiple translations of the Tao Te Ching. What resonated with me, like a clock tower bell ringing 12 times as noon, was one of the core concepts of the Tao: non-contention. This idea is beautifully expressed in verse 81 (two translations for comparison):
“The Way of Nature helps and does not harm;
the Way of sages is to act without contention.” 2
“The Way for humans is to act without contention.” 3
The wisdom found in the Tao is not doctrine or dogma, instead, the Tao makes observations based on the natural world to offer a personal responsibility or organic virtue philosophy of human heartedness.
Nature is the dominant metaphor of the Tao Te Ching.
For example, the sun provides heat and causes chemical changes (photosynthesis) in plants. Rain provides an essential element to the cellular evolution and potential of all living things. Nature does all this cultivation without judgement, compassion, or contention — it is simply of itself spontaneously so with no mind to right or wrong (which are concepts or ideas of the human mind).
Humans can choose to act in accord with observable natural laws, and instead of creating division, contention, or harm, we can seek to benefit the common good of humanity.
These past experiences taught me there is no shame in taking time to consider my words, to cultivate space between thinking and speaking.
Understand that I still struggle — a lot.
In the past, I found it almost impossible to not respond or express outrage to something I decided was wrong or unacceptable — usually on social media. It has taken time to realize how unskilful I was in my communication, reacting in social spaces when I was incapable of being my best self. There’s no shame in pulling back from saying or writing something I might regret when it doesn’t serve my highest purpose and when I may only harm another person or add fuel to the fire.
None of that means that I won’t feel angry or that I really want to make my point understood and argue for my belief in the correctness of it.
But to what end?
Argument begets argument. You can’t reason clearly when you are fighting with someone else, be that intellectually or physically.
Practice finding softness in every moment.
Practice makes for improvement, and we will always be learning.
Self-mastery is not an end goal to be reached, it is a journey of constant and never-ending improvement.
I cannot expect myself to be perfect, non-contentious, and constantly looking for the middle ground — the bridge between sides. But if I feel I cannot come from a space of open-heartedness, then I need to pull back and take care of myself first. Afterwards, I can decide if I have something to say that might benefit others.
There will never be a perfect environment in which we can always experience joy, connection, and non-contention, but we can work on ourselves to understand what we can control to be the best version of whom we want to be.
How to Free Yourself From the Trap of Contention.
After closing my publication in 2018, I wasn’t certain how to respond to polarizing comments online anymore.
I didn’t yet have the skill to know how to say what I wanted to say without causing more contention. I would read something that I wanted to attack in writing, but I chose not to. Occasionally, I started writing, only to delete the draft and let it go. That in itself was an important lesson.
I began to practice allowing the contention to exist independent of me, to become more open-minded, to notice my judgements and opinions, and to slowly become unidentified with the problem itself.
That is what freed me from my triggers and gave me the space to figure out how I might respond if I believed it was critical for me to do so.
The thing is not always the thing.
The arguments, shaming, racism, homophobia, and cancelling we often witness online are not the thing — they are not the cause of our emotional reactions. They are only words. As my coach, Dax wrote,
“When you ban speech you don't get rid of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that that speech represents, you simply drive it underground. On the other hand, when people have their speech explored and challenged in dignified ways, they often spontaneously redefine both their intention and their interpretation of the words they use in ways that can and do directly affect their behaviour.”
When you show up amidst challenging speech and emotions, particularly if directed at you, and can find common ground with integrity and dignity for both parties, you are practicing emotional self-mastery and human-heartedness.
I highly recommend the article, "Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language" by Brené Brown, in which she cautions against dehumanizing behaviour:
“There is a line. It’s etched from dignity. And raging, fearful people from the right and left are crossing it at unprecedented rates every single day. We must never tolerate dehumanization — the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history. When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce immigrants to animals like Trump did earlier this week 4, it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity.”
For more about gender, and how the nature and economy of language provide clues about which pronouns might endure in the Queer community, read my linguistic analysis, “Too Many Gender Identifying Pronouns: The Decision Fatigue Paradox.”
- See, “LGBTQ Diversity Demonstrates that Dualities Are Artificial Constructs.”
- Lao-tzu and Takuan Soho. Translated by Thomas Cleary. "Tao Te Ching: Zen Teachings on the Taoist Classic." Colorado: Shambhala, 2010.
- Cleary, Thomas, trans. "The Essential Tao: An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism Through the Authentic Tao Te Ching and the Inner Teachings of Chuan-tzu." New York: Castle Books, 1998.
- This article was originally published on May 17, 2018.