A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships
A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships is the sub-title of John Amodeo’s brilliant and courageous new book Dancing with Fire. With incredible deftness, drawn from years of study and practice in both Western psychotherapy and Eastern spiritual traditions, John explores the powerful and tricky confluence of awakening into liberation through non-attachment, particularly in the Buddhist wisdom tradition, and awakening into fulfillment through the attachment of healthy, intimate human love and connection, especially in the emerging Western psychological understanding.
When I spent many days kayaking in San Francisco Bay, I became familiar with navigating the coming together of two cross currents, the choppy water known as a “potato patch” that took a lot of skill to not tip over or lose momentum. Dancing with Fire refers to the skills it takes to be open to and embrace the human (and biologically driven) longings to connect with others in loving respect and intimacy without clinging or grasping or pushing away in fear or aversion. To experience relationships not as a diversion from enlightenment but as a gateway to it.
I know the wise effort it takes to reconcile fully letting in and embracing all expects of ourselves with letting go fully of any limiting beliefs and self-preoccupation of the personal self. John shows us how to do this dance with as much skill and wisdom as I’ve ever encountered.
May these reflections and tools be useful to you and yours.
John’s initial premise:
“I have come to see relationships as the premier place for spiritual practice. The arena of relationships is where the fears, wounds, and resentments associated with our frustrated longings arise. The disruptions of trust and connection that visit every relationship reflect the ways we have learned to habitually distance ourselves from the vulnerable places within. Bringing loving-kindness to these shadowy places with the context of an intimate relationship and sound spiritual practice offers a rich opportunity to heal and grow. There is no better place to learn about ourselves and to untangle our inner knots, thereby easing our way toward the loving connections and liberation we long for.”
He looks at how mindfulness can help alleviate relational suffering.
As sentient beings, we feel life deeply. Another’s presence can touch us profoundly if we’re open and available. Intimacy awakens us to the vibrant life that flows within us and between us. Cultivating a spacious mindfulness around our felt experiences allows us to embrace how things actually are rather than how we would like them to be. We find peace by dancing gracefully with our experience in the ever-changing moment. Doing so we build a brain and nervous system that is more resilient and responsive.”
The title of Chapter Seven poses the central question of the book: “Spirituality Meets Attachment Theory: Is Suffering Caused by Attachment or Non-Attachment?” I.e., how do we live skillfully in both the spacious stillness of meditation and the fierce passion of intimate relationships?
John is well versed in the science and research of attachment theory and describes clearly the biological necessity for healthy, secure attachment and connection and the cost to human happiness from the anxiety and depression of isolation and disconnection.
“Child development research confirms that we need to extract steady nutrients of care and affection from early caregivers in order to build a robust neural network and secure internal base. Without this foundation, we may develop an attachment style in which we anxiously cling to love when it saunters our way, or in which we push love away or become ambivalent about it.”
He goes on to describe the process of attachment and the suffering generated from less-than-secure relationships:
“If we enjoyed reliable connections as a child, we tend to feel more secure and trusting in our adult relationships. Having internalized a sense of safety and trust, we’re less defended; our heart is more open and available, and we reach out to people with relative ease. Relationships become a source of satisfaction. We are less clingy and demanding when our attachment needs have been met and continue to be met.
“Poor early attachment can lead to a disconnection from our most natural human (and biological) longings. If we were not emotionally met and understood, we learned to protect ourselves by dissociating from these painfully unmet feelings. Our tender heart shuts down to shield us from unbearable isolation.
“Then, if we lacked a safe bond as a child, we tend to orient ourselves in one of three ways as an adult:
1. We cling to people to secure connections and evade an inner emptiness.
2. We isolate ourselves through avoidance and self-protection; we give up on love.
3. We bounce between the extremes of clinging and distancing. We become ambivalent about love. We engage in push-pull; we demand connection, but when it is offered, we pull away.
What Generates Suffering
1. We are unclear about what we really want or need; we pursue secondary desires rather than our primary longings.
Believing that our wants are suspect, we may dismiss them without tracing them to their core. We don’t allow ourselves to sense into them directly and patiently explore what they are about. We don’t consider whether our desires originate from a deeper intelligence that wants to move us toward something more expansive and joyful.
2. Our desires take us on a wild chase that leads us out of the present moment.
We become lost in fantasies about how we want things to be, and life passes us by. Being present means being aware of our present experience as it is, which means being intimate with ourselves. The path toward being present leads us to attend more and more to whatever we are experiencing right now. When we’re present with ourselves, rather than trying to figure out what is wrong with us, we’re well positioned to be present with others and sense what is meaningful and alive for them in this moment.
We allow the emergence of our natural inner process and learn to track it and trust it while noticing how it changes and evolves. This is different from a purely mental self-exploration that is disconnected from feelings. Being present can only mean present to what we are experiencing right now. If we’re trying to ignore, disallow, or relinquish a feeling that has arisen, we’re not longer here. Our process takes a natural direction as we open to it experientially. The quality of longing or craving loosens as we hold it more lightly.
3. We are not able to receive in a way that might nurture the place in us that experiences longing and wanting.
Who among us doesn’t appreciate knowing that we are cared about or valued? Yet when someone offers a compliment, expresses gratitude, or reaches out to touch us, do we allow it to seep deeply into our body and being? Are we mindful of how we are touched by it? Perhaps our stomach relaxes or we notice a warmth in our heart. Can we permit ourselves to savor that precious moment? Or do we dismiss a compliment by telling ourselves, “Don’t get a swelled head.” Or do we wonder, “What will they expect form me in return?” or, clinging to shame, we may think, “Wait until they really get to know me?” Suffering results from not relishing the good things in our lives. The parched earth can’t let in a life-giving rain if it is covered by plastic tarp.
Offerings of love and gratitude bounce off us if our clinging to a misguided non-attachment or independence disables us from soaking it in. Our childhood legacy may lead us to believe that we don’t deserve love. We may feel insecure about being loved or feel shame and anxiety around sexual love, especially if we have endured sexual abuse. We may fear that if we let in love we will be rejected once again. We may be afraid of letting go of control. But our heart beseeches us to selectively loosen the reins of control and let people in.
By finding a pathway to healing our blocks to receiving, we become more available to let in love and nurturing. Something within us softens and smiles as we lower our guard and allow a person entry into that sacred place within us that longs for a kind word, a tender touch, our some sweet gesture of love.
4. We have unrealistic expectations that have us living more in our heads than in the present moment.
No doubt, many experiences have left us feeling disappointed and frustrated. But perhaps disillusionment occurs to the extent that we hold expectations or illusions about what people or things can provide us. For example, if we expect others to fulfill every need and read out mind, we set ourselves up for disenchantment. If we desperately cling to a thrill, we’re bound to feel let down. However, if we simply remain open to an encounter, whether pleasant or unpleasant, then there is less likelihood for discontent. Even if we are disappointed, our feelings are likely to shift if we meet them with gentleness.
5. We don’t know how to relate wisely to our desires, feelings, and psychological processes.
The path toward liberation involves a warm sort of mindfulness – gently embracing our felt longings, feelings, and wants, and learning how to deal with our psychological process rather than trying to fix, escape, or extinguish it. This acknowledgement of our human desire for connectedness means thoroughly accepting ourselves as we are rather than striving for some kind of impersonal enlightenment.
It is not desire itself but rather our inability to deal with it wisely that makes the crucial difference between liberation and dissatisfaction. Suffering diminishes as we develop a skillful and harmonious relationship with our changing desires. A Western-influenced Buddhism would be more inclined to guide us to attend to our feelings and then allow them to unfold. Every spiritual path reminds us that we are much more than our feelings. Suffering is not created by our feelings. But it is perpetuated when the same painful feelings recur over and over again because we don’t have the skills and savvy to deal with them.
By welcoming and allowing our longings to be and breathe, we allow them to loosen up and transform. More space is created in our psyche as we give them ample room.
6. We feel shame around our longings and desires and, therefore, deny them or act them out indirectly.
Understanding the life-suppressing effects of shame may transform the way Buddhism and other spiritual paths are practiced. Shame is that sinking feeling in our gut that tells us we are flawed or defective. It is the recognition that we’re being perceived negatively. It is the painful sense of being suddenly exposed and seen as defective inadequate, or unworthy. Neither liberation nor intimacy flourishes in the soil of self-contempt.
When we were children, if our longings and emotions were not met with kindness, then something is us began to feel unwelcomed and unwanted. Shame prompts us to seek affirmation and approval rather than connection and intimacy. Craving acceptance, we lose connection with out own wanting in favor of what we think others want from us. Continually testing the waters to check how we are being perceived, we lost touch with our own experiencing. Rich connections are possible only as we stay connected to ourselves and allow our actions to unfold from what resonates deeply within us.
7. We can’t let go of something that is beyond our reach. We have trouble accepting limitations.
Sorrow is generated by holding on to what is unattainable, clinging so tightly to our hopes and desires that we refuse to accept what is. Perhaps we keep fantasizing about reuniting with a former partner who is unavailable. Or we want to shape our lover into the ideal mate we have always dreamed about. We may continue to seek understanding from parents who are incapable of giving it, or we can’t let go of our oversized expectations for our children. The simplicity of the phrase “letting go” doesn’t match the complexity of the task. It is often difficult to assess what is attainable versus what is unrealistically rosy. Are we needlessly limiting ourselves or overreaching? There is a learning curve here that requires allowing ourselves a generous palette of mistakes and regularly basking in the healing waters of self-forgiveness.
Letting go involves uncovering beliefs and feelings that are keeping us stuck. Letting go proceeds by “letting into.” We open to our current experience and hold it gently, while being curious about its ever-changing nature. We experience our experience without inflating it or denying it, while remaining open to the forward movement that is inherent within it. The suffering generated by being in conflict with ourselves subsides as we allow our feelings to unfold in their own way. The good news is that they will let themselves go when they are ready.
Although we may believe that we fear intimacy, it is not intimacy itself that is frightening; we fear the real or imagined consequences of our movement toward intimacy. We dread what it might bring up inside us:
* painful memories of loss and grief
* the prospect of conflict and the heartache of shattered trust
* feelings of shame and inadequacy if the relationship flounders
* losing control and being flooded by unpleasant feelings and sensations – or even pleasurable ones
* shaking up our familiar sense of self
* reactivation of pain or trauma from prior relationships
John then explores mindfulness as a particular way of focusing our attention on experiences of suffering in relationship.
“Meditation and mindfulness practice are not about withdrawing from the world. In fact, it is just the opposite. Mindfulness helps us disidentify with limiting self-images and preoccupations so that something more deeply alive may emerge into being. As our mind settles and nervous system relaxes, we perceive things more freshly and connect with the world more wholeheartedly.
“Meditation cultivates an inner stillness that allows the muddy waters of our mind and emotions to settle. Peering into the quiet depths of our felt experience, we may glimpse emotional stirrings before they kick up the usual sludge that clouds our understanding of what is happening inside us. As we create spaciousness around our experience, we may hear what it is telling us rather than act out our feelings destructively.
“Meditation helps us become less self-centered in the sense of being less self-preoccupied. Growing into a more comfortable connection with our own experience, we are less concerned about how we’re coming across or what image we’re projecting. Resting more securely within, we are less consumed by how we appear and thus more inclined to reveal ourselves genuinely.
“Our meditation is misguided if we hope to extinguish the fire of our longings rather than dance with them. But dancing with fire may set us ablaze unless we calm it enough so we enjoy its cozy warmth. Mindfulness allows us to hold our feelings and needs gently. But cultivating a calm, silent attention, we find a comfortable relationship with our longings, so that we can enjoy their heat without the fear of getting burned. They are not so overwhelming when cooled just enough by the waters of mindfulness. Gradually, we may notice how feelings and desires come and go, and we warmly welcome them as they pass through. Cultivating spaciousness around our longings gives greater choice about how, when, and whether to act upon them.
“The Buddhist notion of emptiness is instructive here. By emptying ourselves of limited self-identities and misguided beliefs about what it means to be spiritual, we become more empathically attuned to what is around us. As Stephen Batchelor puts it, “Contrary to expectations, an empty self turns out to be a relational self.” Opening ourselves to life, we regain the child’s propensity to receive openly, blended with the adult’s capacity for gratitude. Such innocent receiving can become a holy moment insofar as it makes both giver and receiver more whole and connected.”
John then describes how self-intimacy – self-knowing and self-acceptance – naturally allows us to relate to others more intimately, more caringly.
“We are invited to dance with complexity. We can learn how to turn toward ourselves by holding our heart with the tenderness that we want from others. By cultivating loving-kindness toward ourselves, we build a secure internal base (attachment theory language) and an inner refuge (Buddhist language) that no one can take from us.
“A vital step toward inner peace, fulfilling relationships, and happiness is realizing that the problem lies not in our wanting, but rather in how we hold our wanting. Any hint of judging ourselves paralyzes our ability to uncover our deeper felt experience. Intimacy with others is more likely as we steer clear of analyzing people and reside in the spaciousness of our heart. Instead of clinging to our familiar ideas about others, can we see them clearly and open to their world of subtlety and nuance? Even more challenging, can we break free of the rigid perceptions and judgment we hold toward ourselves and gently embrace our actual experience rather than shame and condemn ourselves? Our suffering is softened when we explore its experiential components. Neither my desire nor my clinging are problematic if I can allow them space, bring calm awareness to the feelings and meanings implicit in them, and express what is really going on in a self-revealing, openhearted way.
What is really happening in our interior world when we are pulling on or attaching our partner? What feelings arise and how do they live in our tissues? What are they trying to tell us? What needs to happen so that a tight or anxious place inside us might shift and our process move forward? What we call “clinging” [or aversion] may then reconstitute itself is ways that connect us with ourselves and others and ultimately free us.
“Creating spaciousness around our longing can safeguard us from sliding down the chute of craving immediate gratification or subtly punishing others. How sweet love can be as we learn to hold our yearnings and feelings gently and allow contact to arise from this more equanimous place within ourselves.
“The ability to love and be loved grows as we cultivate mindfulness. Connections grow more naturally as we learn how to rest in our own being. Intimacy with ourselves allows love to grow. Intimacy with ourselves means being awake to our felt experience of the moment. We bring calm awareness to the tender feelings and longings that visit us. We touch the pulse of life as it courses through us. We courageously face our feelings without trying to fix or change ourselves.
“Our capacity for intimacy requires trusting ourselves and trusting life. We need to trust that we can be with whatever experience arises within us before we can really open ourselves to another person. Trusting that we have inner resources to face what life delivers bestows a gentle, resilient strength. Intimacy is an “invitation only’ event. We create a climate for trust by conveying our felt experience and allowing others to come toward us if they feel so inclined. Staying close to ourselves and conveying our tender feelings and desires allow grace a chance to work its wondrous magic. We cannot control the dance of intimacy, but we can create conditions in which it is more likely to occur.
When someone protests, “You’re not hearing me!” what they often miss is common to the human condition: they’re not really hearing themselves. They are not present with themselves in a way that might allow their emotions to settle. They haven’t opened a channel to a wellspring that flows within. By connecting with ourselves in a gentle, caring way, we are better positioned to recognize and expose our most tender longings and feelings. Rather than maul people with the sharp edges of our needs, as expressed through demands and indictments, we may then express what we are experiencing in a manner that is unguarded, tender and dignified. Speaking in a way that is congruent with what we’re experiencing can actually feel good, while also dramatically improving our chances of being heard. Staying connected inside as we peer out, we can delight in the play of contact without abandoning ourselves or overpowering others.
“It is no small task to hold our feelings and longings gently enough to directly communicate rather than react from them. Embracing our feelings and longings means relating to them with an intimate loving-kindness. As we reside within the sanctuary of our heart and soul, we develop inner resources that enable us to be in our longing and respond from it rather than get caught up in the knee-jerk reactions of our fear-based reptilian brain. We can then relate to others with more equanimity and less fragmentation.
“Right Speech means taking time to attend gently to our gnarly feelings before voicing them. As we embrace the fear, shame, and anger associated with our longings, the sludge settles, and we can see more clearly what we really want. We can then reach out in a more gently, inviting way as we touch the purity and beauty of our longings.”
Moving into full and genuine intimacy…
“Intimacy requires vulnerability. Rather than controlling others, we are invited to trust. Intimacy asks us to surrender our usual sense of self, to loosen the tight grip we maintain in an attempt to secure safety. We move toward comfort and connection in relationships by bringing gentleness toward our ever-changing experience and allowing others a portal into our inner world. By becoming more adept at accommodating feelings that arise on our journey toward another person, we become more confident that we can deal with the multitude of unknowns in relationships. Knowing that we have inner resources to deal with whatever happens, we become more willing to place our heart in the ring, moving forward with courageous tenderness.
“When two people share their authentic hearts and listen with a kindness and compassion that is central to spiritual growth, a vibrant and engaging intimacy arises naturally through mutual openness and presence. A flow of interactions an ease of relating to whatever comes our way, an availability to engage wholeheartedly in our daily encounters.
In summary, rather than distance us from relationships, mindfulness can help us move toward them in various ways:
* Becoming more still and settled inside positions us to be more attentive to people, including their feelings and needs. Being more sensitized to others’ existence allows them to feel recognized, which fosters trust and intimacy.
It takes a courageous, resilient mindfulness to look beneath the instinctual reactions of fight, flight, or freeze. For example, if we feel anger, we can become curious about how it is living in our body before harsh words leap out of our mouth. Giving it space, we might notice how our partner’s sarcastic comment sent a shudder of fear or shame down our spine. We may recognize how our anger covers up uncomfortable emotions that overwhelmed our nervous system. We can then share these more vulnerable feelings as step toward repairing trust and renewing connection.
* When we gently meet and hold our authentic feelings within ourselves, they are less prone to detonate when we’re agitated. Relaxing into the present moment, we are less hobbled by past traumas and ruptures of the past.
* By cultivating equanimity around our feelings and longings, we are better prepared to share them calmly rather than vent them reactively.
* We are better positioned to relish the intimacy that arises as we’re present with ourselves and undefended with others. By greeting our own experience with kindness, we are more kindly disposed toward others’ experiences.
* When we uncover deeper layers of our felt experience, our defenses tend to melt and our heart open. Familiarity with what is happening within us helps us see more clearly what is happening between us.
Feelings are the wordless ways we are touched by life. They are the nuanced flavors of shifting situations and conditions that we encounter in life. They orient us in ways that allow us to move forward. Opening to life means opening to the feelings that life brings.
* Embracing feelings deepens our compassion for other’s feelings, and sharing them allows us to feel closer to people.
Our capacity for self-presence and self-intimacy is self-communicating. People notice when we are present and available. A gentle look, smiling eyes and a warm heart emanating from our quiet depts. Invite people to savor a precious moment of uplifting contact. One of the joys of spiritual life is luminous engagement. We reside in the aliveness of what is and maintain an openness and curiosity about where that takes us.
Intimacy connects us with something larger than ourselves. Moments of deep connection deliver us beyond our separate self into something more vibrantly alive. When we relate openly and non-defensively with someone who is similarly open, intimacy happens.
Poetry and Quotes to Inspire
In Zen Buddhism, intimacy is a very important word. In the early Chinese literature of Zen…it was used as a synonym for the breakthrough that’s more commonly called realization or enlightenment. When you are intimate, you are one with. When you are not intimate, you are in your head.
– Aitken Roshi, Zen teacher
* * * * *
To be enlightened is to be intimate with all things.
– Dogen, Zen master
* * * * *
Every moment of our life is relationship.
– Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher
* * * * *
Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie are the whole of the holy life.
* * * * *
The desire for a fulfilling closeness is not some immature or unspiritual thing we would do well to outgrow. We need intimacy throughout our lifespan for healthy psychological development and to maintain a healthy brain and heart.
– Thomas Lewis, M.D., A General Theory of Love
* * * * *
Close relationships are a vehicle for self-discovery and true happiness. And our relational life grows more fulfilling as we develop a calm and welcoming mindfulness toward the full range of our experience. Being human means that heartbreaking losses and betrayals will inevitable visit us. But we are less likely to lose ourselves as we cultivate a reliable inner refuge. Developing a growing trust that we can embrace whatever feelings arise within us as a result of loving and being loved is tremendously empowering. There is a silent sanctuary awaiting us when life becomes challenging.
– John Amodeo
* * * * *
A meaningful spirituality means tasting life fully, moving gracefully from one experience to another with as much equanimity as possible. The next trial, the next sorrow, the next heartache awaits us. But so does the next belly laugh, the next heart connection, the next playful banter with a friend. Pema Chodron reminds us that our beautiful sandcastle will inevitably be swept away. Nevertheless, “The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea. When you fall in love, recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness.”
– John Amodeo
* * * * *
If we are not prospecting for permanence, then we’re free to enjoy each luminous moment with a recognition that it will pass, while remaining open to what comes next.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
– William Blake
* * * * *
Emotion is the messenger of love; it is the vehicle that carries every signal from one brimming heart to another. For human beings, feeling deeply is synonymous with being alive.
– Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.
* * * * *
A whole and healthy spirituality is not just about taking the elevator to the heights of the penthouse and savoring the expansive view. It is also about taking it down to the basement and exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of our psyche. Liberation is about being drawn to the sunlight while also exploring the depths of the shadowlands.
– John Amodeo
* * * * *
To stay with that shakiness – to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting revenge – that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path.
– Pema Chodron
* * * * *
It is the feeling level that controls most of our inner life….bringing consciousness to feelings is critical for awakening.
– Jack Kornfield
* * * * *
Holy listening – to listen another’s soul into life, into a condition of disclosure and discovery, may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.
– Douglas Steere
* * * * *
Liberation is not a numbed state of neutrality; it is accompanied by a vibrant peace and joy. There is nothing more to seek when we are filled with a luminous presence and connection with life. There is no need to keep searching for satisfaction when we’re experiencing it.
– John Amodeo
* * * * *
The openness, presence, and letting be that are cultivated through spiritual practice allow us to dwell in a place where we can experience intimacy. This experiencing is the opposite of possession. Any effort to possess or control intimacy stifles its radiance. Intimacy means dancing with fire, not smothering it.
– John Amodeo
Stories to Learn From[from Dancing With Fire, Chapter Seven]
Every few winters, relentless rains batter Northern California. Noticing a flood under my house after a heavy downpour, I opened a small door to air it out. After the flood cleared, I closed the door. Never did it occur to me that any life form would seek refuge in this desolate place. But days later when I reopened the door, an eerie feeling assailed me as I glimpsed two glowing eyes in the dark distance. Was it a possum, a skunk, some dreadful rodent? Using binoculars, I saw that it was a cat! Later I discovered that it was my neighbor’s cat, which had been missing for days.
I left the door open and expected Dickens to make a hasty getaway, leaving a nice thank-you note. But like a homeless person clinging to a cozy spot, he refused to leave. He was still there the next day. Peering more closely, I could see that he had scratched down some sheets of insulation to keep himself warm. Apparently, he saw this as his new digs, and was settling in; but as he had no food or water his judgment seemed rather impaired.
I love cats and was concerned about Dickens’s well-being. Realizing that bold action was required, I fought past the cobwebs and my claustrophobia, creeping inch by inch through the tine crawlspace to rescue him. But it quickly became clear that he had little interest in being rescued. I was his sole hope for salvation, but he kept clinging to his deluded sense of safety. I tried reassuring him: “It’s okay. I’m here to help you. Let me carry you to safety.” But whenever I got close, he would scurry away, as if to say, “Yeah, right, that’s what everyone says! Why should I trust you? I can take care of myself and don’t need your help, thank you very much?”
Though his survival depended upon me, I couldn’t win his trust. Like a spurned lover, I found myself feeling powerless, frustrated, and even angry that he did not recognize my noble intentions. My neighbor finally had the bright idea of taking a less-gentle approach. We would make aggressive gestures toward him that would chase him out.
This “tough love” approach worked, and I was delighted. But I’ve had to let go of any desire for appreciation. I often see Dickens sunbathing in my yard, but do you think he’d be grateful? No way. Whenever I get close, he scurries away. His owner reassures me that he is suspicious of everyone, so I’ve learned to not to take his rejection so personally.
Dickens is a feral cat with no inner template for trusting. I can imagine that he never had a chance to bond with his mother and that he endured multiple traumas before my neighbor generously adopted him. Dickens has an avoidant-attachment style, in contrast with my deceased cat, Blossom, who seized every opportunity to crawl into my welcoming lap. Blossom experience good bonding with her mother, which led to a secure attachment style.
Many of us have a lot I common with Dickens. Old trauma and abandonment have imprinted a core belief that trusting is dangerous. Our lower brain prompts us to escape danger by reacting through fight, flight, or freeze. Like Dickens, our habits of self-protection may now run on automatic pilot, even when someone wants to adopt us as a friend or partner.
Clinging to caution reflects our body’s learned survival mechanism. Lacking the secure internal base that develops from warm bonding, our capacity to discern whether a person is safe becomes impaired. We hold back from taking sensible risks to pursue connections and taste life fully. We revert to the black-and-white world of our primitive brain -better be safe than sorry. But similar to other mammals, when we are disconnected, we are really not safe at all. Tigers prey on animals that have strayed from the heard. Isolated seniors are easy prey for scammers. Lonely individual are more prone to depression and having compromised immune functioning.
Mindfulness as a Path to Loving Relationships
It would be wonderful if, through some sleight of hand, we could instantly connect with our spiritual essence and realize that we’re having an unhelpful thought or ill-advised feeling that is causing suffering. Indeed, if we’re caught up in a destructive thought loop, remembering the beauty of who we really are may sometimes help. But is usually more complex than that. We also need to find a way to be with feelings that are gripping us before a tight or anxious place can shift inside our body.
“Self-intimacy includes shining a light on the shadowy zones within us. We acknowledge and even welcome whatever we are experiencing rather than clinging to some feelings and pushing others away. Rather than get too attached to how we want things to be, we notice our actual felt experience. Rather than hold on to self-comforting beliefs, we find more peace with life’s unknowns. Rather than try to figure out our partner and itemize what we think is wrong with him or her, we try to figure out ourselves. We get clearer about our feelings and wants and express them in ways that invite contact. Gently attending to our breath, our body, and how feelings live within us from moment to moment positions us for connection. By holding our own feelings and others’ hearts gently, we create a space for people to move toward us. We remain awake for special moments of delicious connection and rapture that arise between two people whose minds are still and hearts are open. Living with a heart that is intimacy-ready is the ultimate creative art, the blessing of being available to love and be loved.
“A vibrant spirituality involves a natural movement between honoring our feelings and then basking in the luminous openness that comes when the feelings shift. We neither cling to emotions nor push them away. We allow out attention to move fluidly between content and process – that is, what is happening in our lives and our feelings about what is happening. We find freedom not by clinging to any particular state of being, but by becoming more adept at living in this moment and welcoming what flows toward us – if not with a smile, then with a wise acceptance of what is.
“We have the power to create conditions in which a luminous intimacy is more likely to spring into being. We can learn to rest in ourselves in a way in which people feel comfortable approaching us. We can express our feelings and longings in a kind and congruent way. As we reside in our undefended heart and show ourselves to others, we send signals that help them feel safe coming toward us. Our availability for intimacy is a sacred aspect of who we are. Beautiful things unfold as we get out of our own way, connect with our tender heart, and stay present to life.
John offers the practice of Focusing, developed by psychologist Eugene Gendlin, as a practice of embodied self-inquiry which allows us to embrace and express the nuances of our longings from a mindful place. As we steady our inner flame by attending to ourselves in a particular way, we’re better prepared to speak directly from the place inside us that desires contact without burning people with the fire of our longing or immolating ourselves. We also find a refuge within our quiet depths when what we desire is not forthcoming.[from Being Intimate: A Guide to Successful Relationships by John Amodeo and Kris Wentworth:]
Take some time to become quiet….Allow your attention to settle inside your body. Just be with how you feel….(Pause at least one minute).
1. Clearing a Space by Taking an Inventory
a) Allowing your attention to remain inside your body, notice if there’s anything going on in your life that’s getting in the way of feeling really good right now… (Pause: wait for a response.)
b) Can you put that aside for now?… (Wait until there is a sense of putting it aside. If, after several attempts, you cannot set it aside, proceed to step 2.)
c) Is there anything else going on in your life that’s getting between you and feeling good right now?…
d) Just notice that whole things and see if you can set it aside for now.
e) If those were all resolved, would there be anything else getting in the way of feeling really good?
f) Can you put that aside?
g) Anything else?
(Continue in this manner, repeated steps f) and g) until your inventory feels complete. You might ask yourself, “Would I feel really good right now if all of these issues were resolved?”
h) Is there anything else in your life that is not a problem, but that would like attention now? (If so, set it aside as well.)
2. Sensing Which One Wants Attention Right Now
a) Of all of these issues that came up for you, which one feels the heaviest, stands out the most, or is calling for attention right now?
3. Is It Okay to Be with This?
a) Is it okay to be with this for awhile? Just check to see if your body says “yes” or “no”. (Pause…If “yes,” go to step 3. (If it’s not okay, ask):
b) Is it okay to be with how scary or difficult it is to get in touch with this right now? (If “yes,” notice how your body feels about this. Then, when you feel ready, proceed to step 3; if the answer is still “no,” then notice if there’s another issue that feels okay to be with.)
4. Allowing a Felt Sense to Form
a) how does this whole thing feel inside your body right now?….(Pause)
b) Where in your body do you feel it?…
c) What does it feel like?…
d) Take some time to sense it inside of yourself, apart from your thoughts about it….
5. Allowing It to Express Itself
a) As you stay with how your body is experiencing the whole thing, allow a word, phrase, or image to come that expresses how you feel inside…
b) Just allow yourself to be with that whole sense of _____ (whatever word, phrase, image, etc. came u.) If anything more wants to come to you as you stay with that (whether a new word, phrase, image, memory, or felt meaning), then allow it to come. (Continue in this manner, using step b) to open to each new experience as it arises. If something particularly painful or difficult emerges, see if you can be with it in a gentle, caring way.)
(After several cycles, when you sense that there has been some release, you may ask):
c) Does that complete for now, or is there something that would like more attention? (If complete, go to step 6. If not, return to step b); or, if you are feeling stuck, proceed to ask one of the following optional questions):
d) Optional step, asking:
1) Exploratory questions:
– Staying with how your body is experiencing the whole issue or situation, notice if you get any sense of what that’s about.
– What’s the main thing about all this that’ really getting to you?
– What’s the worst thing about it?
– What is it about the whole issue you’re dealing with that has you feeling so ______ (whatever words or phrase that may have arisen that matches your felt sense.)
2) Forward-moving questions (remember to allow your attention to be inside your body as you work with any of these questions):
– Do you have a sense of what direction would feel like a small step forward with all tis?
– What directions would feel like a breath of fresh air?
– What needs to happen in order to feel better about the whole situation? Is anything getting in the way of that happening?
6. Allowing Yourself to BE
Just allow yourself to be with how you feel inside right now, perhaps with a sense of appreciation for whatever steps you may have taken.[from Dancing with Fire:]
The next time you feel angry or frustrated with a loved one, take some time to sit quietly with yourself. Notice what you are feeling beneath your frustration or disappointment. Is there some longing that is painfully unmet – perhaps a yearning for kindness, closeness, or caring? If so, take some time to hold this tender longing within yourself. See what happens as you sense it inside your body. Where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Is there a tight place in your chest, a squirmy feeling in your stomach, or a sweet ache in your heart? Can you let it be there without doing anything about it right now?
Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships by John Amodeo, PhD. Quest Books, 2013. www.johnamodeo.com
In Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, I attempted to integrate tools and techniques from paradigms East and West to create shifts in responses to challenges and crises and foster more resilience. Likewise, the intent of these Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness e-newsletters has been to learn to skillfully dance with psychological and spiritual truths. In Dancing with Fire, John Amodeo integrates the wisdom of East and West to create more intimate love and connection, with ourselves and others.
Being Intimate: A Guide to Successful Relationships by John Amodeo and Kris Wentworth. Penguin Books, 1986.
Focusing by Eugene Gendlin, PhD. Bantam Books, 1978.