A 4-Word Mantra From a Buddhist Master for Finding Love
Roshi Joan Halifax, who has spent countless hours with the dying, tells us to have a “strong back, soft front.”
Four words keep coming up when I meditate recently — and when I find myself off the meditation cushion feeling sad, mad, or lonely.
I heard them years ago in an interview with the Buddhist priest Roshi Joan Halifax:
“Strong back, soft front.”
They remind me to adjust my posture. To make sure I’m not slouching. To not strain my back but to straighten it.
And, at the same time, to relax the muscles in my face, my hands, my stomach.
Within minutes — or even seconds — I slouch again. My shoulders fall forward, crunching my lower back. My stomach tightens, shortening my breath.
But then, after countless minutes of mindlessness, Halifax’s words flash in my head. I somehow remember: “Strong back, soft front.”
I drop whatever I’m thinking about — my to-do list, my girlfriend, the pile of bills on my desk, kettle cooked versus regular potato chips.
I come back to a strong back and soft front. I feel the in and out of my breath. I listen to sounds with my whole body.
What Halifax really meant, though, is that “strong back, soft front” is how to fully live life.
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love,” Roshi writes in her book Being with Dying.
“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.”
That’s why I can’t get those words out of my head. They both terrify me and give me goosebumps.
As social worker and author Brené Brown says, “I’d rather have a strong front and a strong back and a strong everything.”
I was raised a man, after all.
Like other boys, I was socialized to hide emotions, particularly the soft, “girly” ones, like fear and sadness. To this day, I oscillate between trying to please everyone as a “nice” guy and appearing stoic, under control, tough.
I also live in capitalism. Regardless of the gender expression we were socialized into or chose for ourselves, we’ve all been socialized to compete against each other for artificially limited time and resources.
Just look at the mask and vaccine fights. We’re told we’re individuals with “freedom” and “choices,” not members of a community or broader society.
No wonder we walk around “brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence.” No wonder we’re scared to share our true emotions with others, to be vulnerable.
And no wonder so many of us are burned out, lonely, and starving for real connection.
“[Because] our deepest human need is to be seen by other people — to really be seen and known by someone else,” Brown says. “If we’re so armored up, and we walk through the world with an armored front, we can’t be seen.”
If we really want to be seen — to love and be loved — we have to be vulnerable.
We have to relax our defenses enough to be our messy self in front of others.
And that’s why “strong back, soft front” is good advice. It’s a reminder that sharing how you feel doesn’t mean you’ll get hurt.
You can be both strong and soft at the same time. You can say things like, “That hurt when you said that,” and, “That made me angry.” You can trust that people can handle your feelings.
As Brown says, “The most compassionate people I’ve interviewed over the past 13 years were absolutely the most boundaried … loving and generous and really straightforward with what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
The most compassionate people — those who give and receive the most love — are those willing to have a strong back and soft front.
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.