Gilligan, S. G. (1999). The experience of “negative otherness”: How shall we treat our enemies? In J. K. Zeig (Ed.), Brief therapy: Lasting impressions. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig Tucker Publications.
Not too long ago, an American psychotherapist invited a Tibetan monk to his home for the weekend. During this time, the therapist did what I guess you do when you invite a Tibetan monk over for the weekend—namely, watch “The Exorcist”, the movie where the actress Linda Blair is possessed by a terrible devil who is then violently exorcised by a priest.
Halfway through the movie, the therapist suddenly realized that Tibetans take their demons pretty seriously—they’ve got a cartography of demonology more sophisticated than the psychiatric DSM-IV. He looked over at the monk, who sure enough was recoiling in horror at what he was seeing.
After the movie, the therapist, feeling terrible, expressed his apologies and hopes that the demon hadn’t disturbed the monk too much. The monk replied that he wasn’t disturbed by the demon, he rather liked him. The confused therapist pointed out that the monk appeared upset, that he was hiding his eyes. The monk again stated that he wasn’t disturbed by the demon. But why did you look upset, asked the therapist.
“Oh, that,” replied the monk. “I felt so badly for the priest that he so misunderstood the demon.” Each of us confronts a lot of demons in the course of our lives. They may be the demons we call anger, depression, fear, or criticism. They may be the demons of addiction or compulsions, the demons of managed care or the patriarchal system, or the demons of social injustice. These demons may possess us, tell us we’re worthless or no good, or induce us to sell our soul or prostitute ourselves.
Indeed, psychotherapy is in large part a conversation about our relationships to such enemies. These enemies embody what we might call “negative otherness”. It is “otherness” in that it doesn’t fit with our identity, ideals, values, hopes or plans; it’s negative in that it seems to want to negate our presence, our humanness, our integrity, our very lives. Without the presence of “negative others”—whether we think of them as internal states, behavioral patterns, external institutions, other people or groups—we would have no basis for a psychotherapy conversation. So how we think about this negative otherness, how we understand our relationship with it, how we develop our responses to them, makes a great deal of difference.
In long ago times, the negative others were thought to be helpful. In her beautiful book, The origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels (1995) described how the early Hebrew term for Satan meant “one who stands in the way of”. It was thought that Satan was a great angel, a trusted servant of God who was sent down when God thought a person was on the wrong path. Satan was a bit of a trickster type, a rascal who could engage you and get you out of your fixed ways so you could get back to where you belonged. This early figure was not an enemy to be destroyed, but an honorable adversary who was there to help. It was only later that Satan was seen as outside the field of life, someone to be destroyed at any costs. I guess the question is, has this latter way of understanding Satan been helpful? Has it worked?
Also in earlier times, the struggle with the dragon was seen in many cultural myths. Again, the dragon was regarded as a presence that challenged you to grow up, to become a person, to learn how to transform crises skillfully. The dragon was not to be killed, but engaged in a way that would allow the transformation of both the person and the dragon. A dangerous undertaking, to be sure, for if one slipped the results were catastrophic. But still, the relationship with the “negative other” of the dragon required not violence but intelligence, courage, and self-transformation. It was only later, for example in the Christian myth of St. George slaying the dragon, that the relationship shifted to violence and what Thomas Merton (1964) termed the “irreversibility of evil”—that is, the assumption that the enemy would never change, it would always stay in its state of “negative otherness”—an assumption that Merton described as the basis for the justification of violence.
Again I would ask, is the attitude of primarily opposing and destroying our enemies and their practices workable and helpful in the long run?
This is not a moot question, for the modern myth of the “negative other”—whether it be our enemies, or a symptom, or an out-of-control experience—as an inhuman “it” that requires violence to be changed lives deeply within us. It is a core assumption of the modernist era, one that has led to much suffering and injustice. But does it really change in post-modernism? It doesn’t seem so. I would like to suggest that in many ways this “us vs. them” or “self vs. it” frame continues unabated in many post-modernist myths and practices. I further suggest that this metaphor is both unnecessary and unhelpful in many ways. What Deborah Tannen has called the “argument culture” can only lead to greater violence, less community, more suffering, and deeper hopelessness. But until we develop more effective ways of transforming conflict nonviolently, we will perpetuate and exacerbate suffering in the name of ending it once and for all.
It is easy to talk about honoring differences and multiple possibilities, but the real test of it comes in our relationship to our “enemies”—the people, institutions, experiences, practices that seem to threaten our very survival. For example, I would like to invite you to take a moment to think of some person, experience, system that you really can’t stand. Maybe it’s someone who hurt you. Maybe it’s an unjust system. Perhaps managed care. Maybe it’s the ideology and practice of, say, racism. Maybe it’s a part of you—some lazy presence within you that’s stopping you from being an important person, some fearful presence that just doesn’t understanding your repeated pronouncements that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
It’s not too hard to come up with such examples, is it?
As you bring that “negative other” into your awareness, just notice what your internal response is. It could be many things: fear, anger, disgust, numbness. What fantasies do you entertain about engaging with this negative other? Would you like to hurt them? Scream at them? Run from them? Teach them a lesson they’ll never forget? What do you do with those feelings, those fantasies, those thoughts, those reactions?
In traditional terms, we generally respond to an enemy or threat in one of two ways: We fight it or flee from it. To fight it, we try to dominate it, repress it, destroy it, demonize it, analyze it, numb it, dissociate it. In trying to flee from it, we check out, drug out, give up, feel anxious, become paralyzed, get depressed.
Neither of these response styles is very helpful in the long run. The negative other keeps attacking, the conflict keeps recurring, and our human presence keeps diminishing. Such is the legacy of the fight or flight response.
Post-modernism is in a significant way about more options, more possibilities, more truths, more perspectives. For the promise of post-modernism to be realized, we need to develop more practices and understandings for how to deal with conflicts and “negative otherness”, within ourselves and between ourselves. Ghandi (in Merton, 1962) used to say that if the only alternative to passive submission to injustice were violence, he would recommend violence in virtually every case, for none should have to endure oppression and injustice. But he suggested a third path of what he called satyagraha (or “the force of love”), which involved neither submission to or violence against one’s enemies, as a more helpful alternative. I would like to speak to that third possibility here today.
In the martial art of aikido, this third way, this alternative to fight or flight, dominance or submission, is sometimes referred to as “flow”. This is not a wimpy flow where whatever the other wants, he gets. It’s a flow that allows one to stay relationally connected during conflict, both with our adversaries and ourselves so that the conflict itself is a creative, nonviolent event that leads to new understandings, new conversations, and new realities.
I’m suggesting that this is one of the great challenge of psychotherapy, and one of the great contributions that therapy can make in our culture today: offering creative ways to transform conflictual relationships. We need to accept that conflict is natural, inevitable, and helpful to human progress, both individual and collective. This is not to say that you go looking for conflict or go to provoke. On the contrary, hopefully we can advance peace however and wherever possible. But when conflict arises, we can look to accept it and work with as an opportunity for real growth. I hope to touch on various paths by which this might be done.
One is the practice of aikido which, by the way, can be roughly translated as “the path of resolving conflict by blending with energy”. In aikido, you look to open your heart, mind, and soul to your attacker in ways that protect you and the attacker. The interest is in how to join the attacker’s energy to transform it. It’s a beautiful and challenging practice, especially for big American guys like myself. For example, one of the major learnings is letting go of taking things so personally. For example, my aikido teacher is an extraordinary woman by the name of Coryl Crane. Coryl is a 5th degree black belt, and an inspiring person to learn from. One day in class we had about 8 big guys who were dealing with each other’s attacks in the traditional aggressive America way, slamming each other around to teach lessons that would never be forgotten. Coryl knelt on the side of the mat, watching the spectacle unfold. At the end of class, as we bowed out in front of the altar, she said, “I just want to mention one thing: A lot of you are taking this very personally. When the person attacks, you think they’re attacking you. So you’re either backing up or trying to oppose them. “If you look at me,” she said, “you can see that I wouldn’t last 2 minutes with such an approach. So you just might consider that the attacker is not attacking you, they’re just trying to get somewhere. And so if you can get out of their way, then can also join them and help them to get to where they want to go, maybe lessening a little bit of the violence and agitation as you walk with them.” Is such an approach workable? Is it possible to work with violence and injustice without punishing people, without hurting them, without getting hurt or destroyed? Is it possible to open your heart, mind, and soul to negative otherness as a way to help both yourself and them? Of course it is: we see examples of it everywhere. Not only in famous lives, like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or Jesus, but in countless lives of lesser-known people. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, love is the only rational response.
Our challenge, then, is to articulate what love looks like as a skill, as a vibrant practice of not only protecting life, but of transforming life. It’s an enormous challenge, to be sure, one made all the more difficult by the deeply held assumptions of our time. The roots of modernist thinking run deep within our consciousness. Of the many possible ways of describing, defining, or deconstructing modernism, I would like to offer a single phrase to describe its core: disembodied, isolated intellect. The great accomplishment of modernism, for better and worse, was to separate the intellect from the present moment of the body, nature and life itself. Once this separation was done, it was never undone. The mind was elevated to a supreme position of will and solitary intelligence, its task to monitor, control, and dominate all that it related to.
The hope was that if we could just think clearly and rationally enough, we could overcome the major problems of life. If we could just get the right idea, the proper text, the accurate theory, the clearest diagnosis, then we could control things. And if we could control and predict things, happiness would follow. Did it? Well, certainly advances were made in technology, in rational thinking, in materialistic comfort, in medicine, in food production, in many areas. And extremely important differentiation occurred between the fields of science, art, and religion, such that thinking and artistic expression were liberated from the dictates of the state. But with these advances came certain pathologies. Modernism bred urbanism, a strange lifestyle in which concrete is poured over everything, people live within walls and cars all day, and communicate primarily through machines. The disembodied intellect dictates a mind/nature split in which body is objectified, the intellect seen as the only valid intelligence, human life is primarily viewed in utilitarian values (what’s in it for me?), spirit and soul and heart-mind are denied, interconnectedness is rejected, nature is exploited, death is feared above all, materialism becomes a cult, relationships are seen in dominance-submission terms, ritual is ignored, and everything outside the self-identity is seen and feared as an “it”. In short, the disembodied intellect leads to a disconnection and denial of the precious life of the present moment.
See how that feels after 30 years. Or 40 years. Or 450 years.
If we allow these disconnections and denials to continue unabated, postmodernism can easily deteriorate into what Charlene Spretnak (1997) has called “hypermodernism”, or what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he wrote the song, “57 channels and there’s nothing on”. It can be a practice of advanced consumerism and its main tool, television. More shallowness, more cynicism, more channels, more wasteland, more splintering into ever growing factions without any common base. Less soulfulness, less mystery, less healing, less deep listening, less sitting still, less wisdom, less hope for peace and understanding. Granted, we’re not sure what these words mean anymore, and we’ve almost forgotten how to use them poetically. But I’m trying to point here to a post-modern practice of what the psychologist Marion Woodman (1993) calls “embodied consciousness”, a consciousness that is full of living energy, connected to the world, to the present moment, filled with vitality, sensitive to shifting differences, discerning of subtle patterns, expressive of wondrous mystery. Embodied consciousness allows one to deal with differences creatively, without demonizing one’s adversary or getting locked into fixed understandings or rigid positions. I am suggesting that without some conscious practices of embodied consciousness, the hopes and dreams of post-modernism will go down the tubes.
Embodied consciousness can be talked about in a lot of different ways. I’d like to address two complementary aspects of it here today, namely the experience of a mind/body center and the experience of a relational field. It should be emphasized that these distinctions don’t make that much sense in academic, literary, or intellectual contexts, which are the bases for most of the thinking and practice of psychotherapy and social change. They are distinctions that come from performance art contexts, such as playing music, dancing, oratorical speaking, martial arts, and the like.
The experience of a mind/body center is the experience of a non-intellectual intelligence and presence within one’s self. It is a felt sense of dropping down under the words, into a balanced, calm, aware connection with self and others. The experience of centering has been described beautifully by the artist M.C. Richards (1962) in her priceless book entitled Centering in pottery, poetry, and the person. The Chilean novelist Isabelle Allende (in Toms, 1994) has talked about how she writes primarily from her belly mind. When you hear a great singer or a great speaker, you can sense immediately their connection to their center, how they are expressing themselves from a deep connection.
The idea of a center is central to many cultures. Malidoma Some (1994), a beautiful man from the African Dagara tribe, describes in his autobiography how he was kidnapped by the French Jesuits in Africa when he was four years old. They tried to raise him to be a priest, but he escaped his captors in late adolescence and returned to his people. When he finally underwent his initiation rituals, Some described the initial instructions given by the ritual elder as follows:
“Somehow what he said did not strange to me or—I found out later—to anyone. It was as if he were putting into words something we all knew, something we had never questioned and could never verbalize.
What he said was this: the place where he was standing was the center. Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born was to lose contact with our center and to grow from childhood to adulthood was to walk away from it. The center is both within and without. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.
He explained that the purpose of Baor (the initiation process) was to find our center. This school specialized in repairing the wear and tear incurred in the course of thirteen rainy seasons of life. I was twenty. Had I been home all that time, I would have gone through this process seven years ago. I wondered if I was catching up too late but then thought, better late than never. No one’s center is like someone else’s. Find your own center, not the center of your neighbor; not the center of your father of mother or family or ancestor but that center which is yours and yours alone.” (pp. 198-199)
The basic idea of a mind/body center is that there is a non-linguistic presence within you that you can tune to, connect with, rest in, and receive from. It is not a linguistic distinction so much as a post-linguistic distinction, something that the poet Rilke (1981) perhaps had in mind when said:
“It seems that things are more like me now, that I can see farther into paintings. I feel closer to what language cannot reach.
Dancers dance from their center. Writers write from their center. Political prisoners engage from their center. I would hope that this skill would be available to the rest of us in our diverse situations.
In psychotherapy, this might be done in relation to the problem or complaint a client comes in with. A complaint always involves a somatic component. That is, the problem always carries a disturbing feeling or lack of feeling somewhere in the body. Were this distress not there, I don’t think most people would be bothered to seek psychotherapy. They are not caught in a philosophical conundrum; they are experiencing suffering in their moment to moment life experience.
In our self-relations approach to therapy (Gilligan, 1997), we typically ask folks to notice that when they experience the problem, where do they most feel the center of disturbance in their bodies. Interestingly, most folks point to their hearts, solar plexus, or gut area. Rather than regarding these as bad feelings that need to be removed, we become curious about listening to these felt centers of disturbances as ontological presences, that is, as the presence of another intelligence that is awakening in their life. In other words, the onset of a symptom may be regarded as the awakening of a person’s center. We see problems and crises therefore as positive events, as heralding the breakdown of the isolated intellect and the development of a more relational intelligence that is distributed throughout the mind/body.
For example, I recently worked with a fellow who said he was really depressed. He was 38 years old, just gotten through his second divorce. He was trying to start a new business, but wasn’t into it. He was trying to go out on dates, but just wasn’t into it. He was trying to connect with friends, but he just wasn’t into it. He was very concerned about it, because he couldn’t get himself motivated to “get on with it”. When I asked him what the problem was, he said “depression”. When I asked where he felt the center of the depression feeling, he at first said he felt nothing or just a big empty feeling. When I asked him to take some time to sense where he felt the center of the emptiness, he pointed to his solar plexus. When I asked him to listen to what that center of his experience was saying to him, he looked at me like I was nuts. I asked him again, and he reported hearing a voice saying “it’s no use, nothing will ever work”. I suggested that the felt sense in his belly and the voice that went with it perhaps spoke with a lot of integrity, and that it was worth listening to. The conversation continued to be organized around listening to the felt sense, and gradually its position of rejecting an old identity based on pleasing others emerged. In short, the depression in the belly transformed into a felt sense of acting with integrity, rather than following what his head identity had been conditioned to do.
In this view, the mind/body distress in a problem or complaint is indicative of the waking up of one’s center. We welcome disturbances as signals of new life. But rather than trying to understand or interpret such disturbances from the head, we connect and engage the language of the mind/body center. Through careful attentiveness, listening, and conversation, this center can be developed as a primary base for knowing and expressing identity.
Attending to a mind/body center has many other values as well. For example, it offers an important point for stabilizing attention, especially in stressful situations. In self-relations therapy, we ask the question, To whom or what or where do you give your first attention? First attention is like the cursor on the computer screen: you can move it all around. For example, if a person is yelling at you, where do you focus: on the person yelling, on a memory from childhood that is activated by that yelling, on a theory or text that says this person shouldn’t do it? If it gets locked onto another person or an old memory, you become reactive rather than responsive; that other person or memory becomes the “higher power” that dictates your action. If it gets locked onto a text or theoretical model, you slip into ideology and fundamentalism, trying to force the world into your frame of reference. By letting your first attention gently drop down and touch your center, whether in your heart or belly, you can allow your attention to stabilize and still have the freedom to be flexible and responsive.
Mind/body centering is another way of talking about tuning to different types of intelligences. Centering in your heart yields a different type of thinking than centering in your head. Centering in your belly tunes to a different brain, if you will, what scientists are now calling the enteric nervous system, or brain in the stomach. The type of mental processing that comes from centering is quite different from just intellectual thinking. It tends to be more archetypal than personal, more intuitive than causal in its logic, more tuned to the present moment than to some grand theory about the ways things work. Mind/body centering allows connection and responsiveness to other people as well. It’s what allows you to dance freely with a partner, not knowing what the next movement might be, but secure in knowing that you can find it in the moment. Centering allows you also to stay connected with yourself and a partner during conflict, so you can stay in tune with each moment. In aikido, we follow the relational principle of “heart to heart, mind to mind, center to center”, which means that as you connect with your attacker in these ways, you can deal most effectively with protecting yourself and transforming the conflict. When you’re just in your head, it’s hard to stay connected with others, whoever they might be.
Mind/body centering also allows you to create a place or sanctuary for holding experiences. Without a place to go, experiences–like people–get a little agitated and crazy. The mind/body center can be used as a container in which any feeling, image, or presence can rest. It’s kind of like when your 6-year old comes in with a skinned knee: she’s crying like there’s no tomorrow. You allow her to climb into your lap, where your feeling is a container for hers. It allows her experiences to play itself out.
In a similar way, we can ask, when you are visited by fear, anger, depression, or confusion, what do you with these visitors? One possibility is that you can give them place within your mind/body center. As you breathe, you can feel a nice sanctuary opening up in your belly, a safe place where any experiential presence can come. Rather than having, say, a fear fly all over the place or all through your body, you can let it rest in your sanctuary. You can then connect with it relationally, developing what Martin Buber (1923/1958) would call an “I-thou” relationship with it. This type of relationship is central to work in self-relations psychotherapy.
As you connect with your center, you also have a powerful place to move and extend your energies into the world. A center is a place to gather your strength, to focus your attention, to balance yourself into. As you sink into it, your voice, your self, your presence is able to extend into the world. Again, this is obvious and inspiring in gifted performance artists: their energetic presence radiates into the world. We are all performance artists, of course. But when we lose connection with our center, our expressions become less clear, less confident, less connected to life. By learning how to keep coming back and connecting with our center, we can regain our power and keep it present in the land of the living.
This extension of the self into the world of the living leads us to the complement of the center, namely, the relational field. The field is the larger space and context that we live in. When we feel connected to it and nurtured by it, we do all right. But when we lose connection to it, as when under stress, we tend to think and react in our isolated worlds with little effectiveness. The poet David Wagoner wrote about the field in his poem, “Lost”:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen.
It answers, I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.”
The basic idea is that there is an intelligence greater than you. Thank god! It’s not about giving yourself, but in joining in an experience of communion with a deeper wholeness than your individual self. If you feel it and can listen to it, your capacity to act with effectiveness and integrity, especially in response to your enemies, is increased tremendously. It’s important to recognize that people know the experience of a relational field in different ways. You may know it through walking in the forest, and call it nature. You may know it by joining with others in social justice, and call it community. You may know through athletic performance, and call it the zone. You may know it through prayer, and call it God. You may know it through an intimate relationship, and call it love.
There are many names for the field, but all involve an experience of being supported and guided by a deeper intelligence around you. If you want to know how a person knows the field, ask them what they do to get back to themselves. For example, say you’ve just worked all week and are really tired. What do you do to get back to yourself? Answers might include talking with friends, conscious breathing, going for a walk, meditating, playing or listening to music, knitting, reading, gardening, etc.
What happens when folks engage in such activities? Well, for one, their intellectual self mellows out a bit. Not so much chattering, controlling, agitating, conspiring, plotting. Second, people feel less of a need to control and more of a sense of relational connecting, curiosity, and quiet confidence. Third, if you ask folks where their sense of self “ends” in such experiences—where their boundaries delineate self from non-self– most people look puzzled by the questions and then start moving their hands outward, saying “it doesn’t end. It is an expansive field that has no limit.” The experience of this expansive, unitive feeling is what we call the field. Interestingly, as William James (1902/1982) and Aldous Huxley (1944) pointed out, this experience of unitive consciousness is a common element of so-called mystical experiences across many historical periods and cultures.
It is one thing to know the field under positive circumstances, where you feel safe and accepted. Is it possible to stay connected and supported by the field under adversarial circumstances? I think so. While the general response to attack is to constrict your field, thus leaving you locked into a small space that is under the influence of negative otherness, you can train yourself to stay connected to both your center and the relational field even in difficult circumstances. When you stay connected to your center and the field, alienating, negative influences cannot take hold of you. What I’m saying is that connecting with a living field is about a good a technique for externalizing alien presences as you can find.
A great example to me is Nelson Mandela. Reading his autobiography (Mandela, 1994) or watching him on television dancing so beautifully during a political gathering, one cannot help but wonder, What is this guy connected to that allows him such grace and strength, such a lack of bitterness, throughout what he calls “the long walk to freedom”. I would suggest that he is a beautiful example of somebody connected to the soulfulness of his center and to the depth and breadth of the larger field of life.
In aikido, we talk about this connection with the maxim, “drop into center, open into field”. That is, when you’re in a stressful situation, don’t fixate on the stressor. Don’t give first attention to the problem. Instead, drop down into your mind/body center as a base to listen, perceive, relax, and respond; and expand your awareness outward to connect with a field awareness that is bigger than the stressful event. Now your attention is not trapped on the stressor; it’s free to receive and give beyond the confines of the situation. This allows you to respond to conflict not in a dominant-submissive way, in which someone wins and someone loses, but in a relational way that protects both you and your attacker, and seeks to bring a resolution of whatever differences or agitation is present.
It’s a simple but difficult challenge, something that T.S. Eliot called “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” Sometimes people say, well, you’re asking a lot. My response is, what else are you doing? And, what are the alternatives?
What I’ve been suggesting so far is that throughout our lives we will be confronted with “negative otherness”, with what we perceive to be enemies. Negative otherness comes in all shapes, forms, names, and sizes. It can be internal experiences like fear or anger that grip us, addictive behaviors that overtake us, oppressive systems that try to dominate us, old memories that try to possess us, angry people that try to control us, or fixed ideas that try to seduce us. If you are alive, these experiences will continue to visit you. The question is, how will you respond to these negative others?
You can capitulate to them, you can try to directly oppose and eradicate them, or you can relationally engage them as opportunities for mutual growth.
If we choose the third path, we need to overcome the modernist tradition of the disembodied intellect. We need to find ways to reconnect with a mind/body center and the relational field that surrounds us. By embodying consciousness and situating it in a larger relational field, we can become more attentive, more effective, more loving, and more skillful. We can find ways to work creatively and nonviolently with conflict, so that more connection to life and love may be possible for all involved.
There are so many examples of how this is can be done. For example, Zen Roshi Bernie Glassman in Yonkers, NY, is one of the leading figures in what is called socially engaged Buddhism, an American movement that tries to intregrate Buddhist mindfulness training with social change. Glassman, a self-described “Zen entrepreneur,” owns a number of businesses, including a large bakery, that are completely run and administrated by homeless and ex-homeless folks in New York. He has established a multi-faceted social service agency in Yonkers called the Greyston mandala.
Glassman (1997) has also developed a community called the Peacemaking Order. There are three basic tenets of the Peacemaking Order. The first is not knowing—being in the state of not knowing, letting go of fixed ideas. The second is bearing witness—totally immersing one’s self in the situations that one is involved in. The third is “healing one’s self and others”, out of the ingredients that come up from bearing witness.
To apply these tenets, Glassman (1997) recommends entering into situations that you are afraid of, situations that you think it would be great if healing could happen. For example, Glassman and his students have sat for periods of many days with homeless folks on the streets of New York City. They join the community, guided by the three tenets of opening up into not knowing, bearing witness, and healing one’’ self and others. On the basis of their experiences, they then initiate further action. For example, Glassman’s businesses with the homeless came out of the sittings with them.
Another project involved sitting with a large community in the Auschwitz concentration camp for a week or so. Numerous folks participated in the gathering: Jews, Germans, Poles, Catholics. The experiences and subsequent action that came from sitting in a not-knowing mindfulness state in the middle of the concentration camp were really quite extraordinary.
In a similar way, we as therapists need to continue to cultivate a similar openness as sit with our clients, bearing witness in a not-knowing state to their homelessness, their Auschwitzes, their unnamed, unwitnessed experiences. This cannot be done via the disembodied intellect. By “dropping into center, opening into field,” our capacity to not only tolerate but help heal ourselves and others is increased tremendously.
In connecting to center and to field, perhaps one of the best outcomes is that our awareness returns to the value of stillness and silence. Modernism is in no small part an emphasis on a linguistic universe, where talking and thinking and action, the YANG of the universe, is given total priority. The YIN principle of empty space, listening, receiving, and silence is ignored and marginalized. I know it is heresy in some quarters to suggest that something beyond linguistic construction exists, but isn’t it obvious any time you hold a baby or a dying person, anytime you connect in love or in wondrous amazement? Some deep presence, an extraordinary intelligence lives in the gap between the words, the space between the notes, the silence in the conversation. We lost that connection in the language-dominated, yang-based world of modernism. In this regard, I hope that the post-modern world can become a post-linguistic one, where we use language to go beyond language, to what T.S. Eliot has called “a further union, a deeper communion” with ourselves and others. This is where the experiences of mind/body centering and relational field can help. Towards this end, I will leave you with a beautiful poem by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, entitled “Keeping Quiet”:
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
For once on the face of the
earth, let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about….
If we were not so single minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”
Thank you very much for your listening.
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