Letting Reality Speak
The question of “unfolding” can be seen as highlighting our fundamental relationship toward reality. Reality is always knocking at our door: do we bolt our door against it, or open the door to let it in? The question of whether or not we “trust what comes” might also be rendered in terms of whether or not we are willing to “let reality speak”– to us, and through us.
To come to peaceful terms with reality is no small thing. To act from such a trusting embrace of what it is that is real –around us, and within us– can be enormously powerful.
One thing about reality: it’s the only thing we’ve got.
But That’s the Reality
This dimension, too, emerged in the course of the radio conversations Tina and I had when we did that show on “The Issues We Face in Our Relationships.”
It was during a call from a woman whose elderly mother was still living on her own, but no longer really able to handle it. The mother was difficult for our caller. On the one hand her mother was unhappy with her situation and sending out implicit calls for help. On the other hand she was never willing to implement any possible solution to her problems. The caller had tried various postures toward her mother –exasperation, criticism, backing off– but none helped. The communication between them always seemed muddled and unproductive. What would we suggest?
I handed the ball to Tina for her to practice her art– an art that I could appreciate, and sometimes join in, but at which I was not, like her, an adept.
After Tina had expressed her compassion for the caller’s dilemma, she said that she did not want to pose as an “expert” who would provide her with a solution. Part of Tina’s expertise lay in the way in which she fully understood that in the dance of human relationships, there are no “experts” in the way that our technocratic society usually thinks of such things. But maybe, Tina continued, she could help the caller find an initial move that could help the caller and her mother to enter into a conversation that might move in a constructive direction.
After Tina and I explored further just what the caller’s feelings and needs in the situation were, Tina proposed a little first-speech that might be helpful. “Perhaps you could tell your mother, ‘Gee, Mom, it is very painful for me to see you so uncomfortable with your living situation. I really want to help you, but I’m confused about how to help, since none of my efforts seem to be exactly what you want. I wonder if you would be able to tell me what I can do that would really be helpful to you.’”
The caller appreciated Tina’s effort, but expressed a concern. “Isn’t that kind of selfish of me? Talking about my being uncomfortable, and my feeling confused. Shouldn’t I talk about her?”
In response, Tina and I indicated that we regarded her expressing her feelings and needs not as a matter of selfishness but as a way of sharing the reality of herself in that situation, as a vulnerable fellow human being, as a part of a human relationship. This is something that, for example, criticizing or advising does not accomplish: “Don’t be so unreasonable” or “You should get rid of all your stuff and get into a retirement home” do not place the speaker into the situation, and it’s for that reason that such statements often serve to stop communication rather than to help it to unfold. But what Tina was proposing, she said, was that she find the words to share with her mother what was really going on inside her, to speak from those feelings and needs that were at the heart of who she was in relation to her mother in that situation.
“After all,” Tina said, “that’s the reality.”
Protecting Our Borders
Reality. There’s nothing else like it. Being open to reality is a posture that’s both extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily vulnerable. It is the vulnerability that leads many of us to give up the vital kind of power that openness confers and to opt instead for exercising a different kind of power.
If we choose not to share our inner reality with others, we make ourselves like powers who guard their borders. Fearing that we’ll get hurt if we show our vulnerabilities, we keep the vital information about our needs and feelings classified.
One way of keeping hidden is to maintain silence altogether, giving no clues to what it is that lies within. The problem with that is that if we want something different from the world than we’re already getting, leaving the world completely clueless about us is not going to work. Hence we come up with alternative strategies to get the world to meet our needs without disclosing the soft targets we want kept hidden.
One such alternative strategy is to speak in objective terms, to address those external conditions we wish to influence but to do so in a manner that ostensibly says nothing about what is inside us. “You’re a bitch!” for example, tells nothing directly about our internal experience, unlike “I’m feeling a lot of pain about what you said.” “It’s irresponsible for you to break your promises” says nothing –directly– about the speaker’s needs, nothing about, perhaps, his craving for dependability.
Our situation might be likened to the game of “Battleship” where the rules require that we tell the other player when he hits one of our vessels, thereby giving him a clue that will better enable him to destroy our fleet entirely. In a world that we see as dangerous, we may reject such disclosure and speak instead cryptically, so as not to betray the true location of our vital forces.
But guarding our borders involves controlling movement in both directions. If we open communication, who knows just what we’ll hear back? Some choose not to take that chance. This kind of fear came up in relation to another call that Tina and I received on that show.
The caller was a man who was interested in getting our thoughts about a friendship of his that had dwindled. He and another man had been good friends for some years. Then our caller had become the father of two children, and the demands of his family life had made him less available for some activities the two men had previously shared. Our caller still very much wanted to maintain the connection, but the other man had backed off, not even reliably returning his phone calls. The two men had never discussed together what was going on, and with more than two years having transpired with little explicit happening between them, our caller wanted to know what he might do about it.
Tina explored, in an empathetic and supportive way, our fellow’s feelings and desires concerning his friend, who had become guarded in their occasional contacts. When he again expressed his wish for the old openness, Tina ventured that what might help open things up would be for our caller to simply be unguarded himself, expressing openly to his friend his strong desire that their closeness be restored.
“Golly,” our caller said, “that sounds scary.”
Tina and I invited him to tell us about the fear, and what it came down to is this: “I don’t know how he’ll respond. What if he rejects me?”
Tina agreed that, indeed, in honest sharing with each other we indeed do not know where things are going to go. And she empathized with the fear that this uncertainty can bring up. And then, after Tina had offered the partial assurance that oftentimes people will respond to another person’s being vulnerable and compassionate with their own vulnerability and compassion, the conversation ended with the caller evidently intending to take the plunge with his former, and perhaps future, friend into an interaction whose unfolding he could not foretell.
Power and Fear
It occurred to me, in the days following my show with Tina, that it’s not only in personal life that people often dam up the flow of communication in order to protect the status quo. It’s an issue also in the arena of politics and governance. If the temptation to exercise control rather than openness is strong even in relationships of essential equality, it’s even greater where the relationships are structured by inequalities of power. There are many reasons why human relationships are often fashioned according to the imprint of power. One reason for this is suggested by an intriguing definition of power, proposed by the political scientist Karl Deutsch in his book, The Nerves of Government: “Power…is…the ability to talk instead of listen.”
It’s one of the most powerful ideas in the modern world, however, that the common person has the right to speak and to be heard. This idea has engendered one of the most hopeful trends of the recent history of civilization: the rise of democracy.
There remain, of course, plenty of regimes that attempt to control the flow of information, and to intimidate or eliminate those who would “speak truth to power.” But the fact that nowadays, even totalitarian societies and dictatorships attempt to cloak themselves in the garb of democracy –with rigged elections, etc.– only underscores the increasingly global belief that government is legitimate only if it rules with the consent of the governed, that it is the people who, ultimately, are sovereign.
In this domain, it occurred to me, history seems to be moving toward the respect for the “unfolding,” for the consent of the governed emerges out of an ongoing, unfettered conversation. Protected by a whole fabric of rights (speech, press, religion, etc.)–held to be inalienable as a part of the nature of our humanity– the consciousness of the people is allowed to unfold according to the flow of its own logic. It is the process, above all, that is trusted.
Consider the heart of the American democracy: the Constitution of the United
States. It is the Constitution that those who govern the United States, and those who wield violence in its defense, must take an oath to defend. But what is this Constitution? Aside from some general propositions in the Preamble about promoting the general welfare, establishing justice, and providing for the common defense, the Constitution us mute about content and direction. It is, rather, is a framework for the process of a society’s collective unfolding through time. It is not a roadmap about where the society will go, but rather a channel laying out the means by which the society will travel to whatever destination may unfold over the generations as the people deliberate together on their collective destiny.
In a democratic society, reality is allowed to speak and governance is compelled to follow. That such a mode of governance has swept the planet in the two plus centuries since that Constitution was written is powerful evidence of the power and the blessings of letting reality speak.
With an Open Mind
There was another factor that led me into doing radio, besides that program where my wife had been ambushed by anti-environmentalist bullies. Aside from them, the other person whom I have most to thank for prodding me into radio is Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh had become, as he termed himself, the “Godzilla of talk radio.” I felt alarmed for the country not because of.the specific content of Limbaugh’s politics, but because of the nature of the conversation he conducted. His posture of glib certainty about all his pronouncements, his scornful dismissal of all who disagreed with him, his pandering to the prejudices of his listeners –his “dittoheads” as they called themselves, so fully were they in agreement with the great Rush– all indicated a kind of complacency that could only undermine our ability to come to genuine understanding of the questions we face together.
Rush Limbaugh’s meteoric rise to prominence did not take place in a cultural vacuum, but at a time of an escalating “culture war.” This polarization on fundamental moral and political issues was making it increasingly difficult for Americans to discuss such matters together constructively. Limbaugh had seized the opportunity of that moment to exacerbate the divisions, rising to fame and fortune by reassuring millions of people that whatever they thought and felt about these difficult problems was right and sufficient. No need to trouble yourselves to inquire any further.
“This isn’t the kind of conversation we need!” I felt. And my next thought was, “I’d love to have the chance to help foster a different kind of conversation.”
So this was the other factor behind my starting to do radio here in the Shenandoah Valley back in 1993.
When a show of my own was added to my niche some years later, a couple of stories were written up for newspapers in the area. The headline of one piece ran, “Ditto Won’t Do for this Talk Show Host.” Another referred to “The Dance of Conversation.” It seemed to me that those reporters got it right: what I am about on the radio is engaging in a process of inquiry. Let’s explore together in a spirit of mutual respect, as if we might really learn something from one another.
If a large group of people hold a belief different from one’s own, one can take the comforting position, “What I believe is altogether true, and these other people are wholly in error.” But isn’t it more reasonable to suppose that the truth is not so neatly divided, and that these others are part of that reality we’re wise to let speak to us?
This is a perfect area for me to do my “Not-Rush-Limbaugh Show,” as I used to call it, for in their world views most of my listeners are very far from being dittoheads to me. I come from a family background of Yankee Jewish intellectuals of secular orientation and progressive politics, while the Shenandoah Valley is even more conservative, politically and religiously, than the rest of this very conservative state that still celebrates itself as the capital of the Confederacy.
A radio show with me talking to the folks around here would seem to be as good a forum as any for testing our capacity to engage together in genuine inquiry across ideological divides.
What has gratified me most in this work is not the appreciation I get from the people who agree with me. It’s the calls that come in from people who indicate strongly both how much they disagree with me, and how much they like the show.
It helps that, despite my disagreeing with these people on a great variety of “issues,” I also have a deep appreciation for how, with their traditionalism, they have carried into our times much of the accumulated wisdom of our civilization.
For each show, I try to frame the conversation in a way that’s challenging to everybody, including me. Usually I choose for discussion some question about which I am especially unsettled myself, one to which my own answers feel especially unfinished or unsatisfactory. Let’s see what we can learn from open-minded discussion.
I realize, however, that this very posture of mine reflects a basic belief as profoundly controversial as any belief could be: I believe in the value of the open mind.
A crucial juncture in the unfolding of my relationship with my listening audience occurred in 1994, when I did a program that I called “God Said It.” This particular program was one I did despite my great apprehensions, out of trust in the unfolding. For months, I’d felt a recurrent barrier come up in my radio conversations with some callers. The barrier involved an attitude on their part that could be well summarized by a bumpersticker I’d seen that read, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” I felt frustrated by that conversation-stopping attitude, but also afraid to confront it publicly. But eventually I concluded that this was a conversation that wanted to happen, and I took the plunge.
I launched the show straight-forwardly, expressing my desire for us to be able to engage in continually unfolding conversation and my hope for finding a way around the attitude articulated on that bumpersticker. Then I presented my view of the human condition in the quest for truth. For finite creatures like ourselves, I suggested, the quest for understanding has no right stopping point. On the important questions we face in our lives, I argued, we humans never possess so absolute a truth that we’re ever wise to close our minds and declare, “That settles it.”
The program went wonderfully. The callers included some who supported my position, but more who declared their devotion to some received revelation that they regard as indeed settling a great many of the Big Questions. The quality of the conversation itself, however, was very human; our different points of view were shared in a spirit of, if not open inquiry, at least mutual respect.
Yet that gulf in our beliefs about whether the quest for truth has an end or should continue has remained unbridgeable. And while I continue to feel deeply heartened by the welcome that I, heretic that I am, get from this audience, I know that not everyone here welcomes my being on the air.
I did one show where I invited feedback –”what do you think of what I’m doing on the air here in the Shenandoah Valley?”– especially from those who might have criticisms they’d been reluctant to express. I’d noticed that in the previous couple of years I’d been getting fewer callers from people wanting to “take me on.” I doubted it was because everyone loved me, or had been persuaded by me, so I wanted to open the door to whatever people might have held back either from a “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” kind of reticence, or from a fear of being bested in disputation. I put out my invitation in a receptive, non-combative kind of way. Then came the calls.
In my mental preparation for the show, I’d thought mostly of calls that would complain about my supposed liberal views. But politics played little role in the show that ensued. The people who called were the religious fundamentalists.
One man expressed a very loving concern for my soul, hoping that somehow, sometime I’d find my way to the revelation on which he based his life. We had a fine conversation. Then there was a woman whose concern, rather, was for the souls of those who might be “seduced” by me. I explored a bit further what she meant by calling me a seducer, whether she thought that I was consciously and intentionally leading people astray. No, she conceded that I was doubtless sincere, but that the effect would be to lead people away from the one true faith by my treating questions as open, by my acting as if there might be more than one answer to some questions, by my treating the various religious faiths as if they all might have something of value to offer. And she quoted that passage from the New Testament that has an especially “that settles it” ring to it, the one where Jesus declares “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
So I know that between those people, whose lives are based upon the premise that they possess final answers, and me, whose life is premised upon the continual asking of questions, there is a fundamental difference. And it’s a difference –it struck me one afternoon a few days after I’d done that show with Tina– that was absolutely fundamental to this whole question of “unfolding.”
It struck me also that it was the whole spirit of my radio work, as much as any of those false starts in my writing, that had carried me into this new project about the value of allowing, or helping, things to unfold well.
The Dance of Conversation
My shows require some advance preparation. I have to line up a cohost for many of my shows. For all of them, I need to write up and record some promotional message to run during the week proceeding the broadcast. But mostly, I have to come up with a question –or cluster of questions– that promises to open up some vital area for us to explore together in a constructive, mind-expanding way.
I’ve come to regard this framing of questions as an art form. My mind is working like a nest, in which a whole clutch of such questions are in various stages of incubation. Some of them sit there for years before they’re ready to hatch.
As I sat at our picnic table out on the deck, a few days after that show with Tina, drinking my customary beverage of hot water, I was pondering a possible program for a few Sundays hence. A call that I’d received on the air during a recent “Caller’s Choice” show was lingering in my mind. A man had called to express the condemnation of homosexuality frequently heard in these parts, from moral traditionalists and biblical fundamentalists. He quoted from Leviticus and then did the oral equivalent of sit down and cross his arms, as if that “settled” it.
Now I wondered, could a program be framed that would lead to a fruitful discussion of homosexuality? By fruitful, I didn’t necessarily mean that people’s stands on the issue would immediately shift. My criteria for a good conversation were different: would people be led to think new thoughts, perhaps articulate ideas they’d never formulated before, instead of just trotting out their long-established and well-worn position papers? This was a subject on which everyone sounded like a broken record. Almost five years earlier, I’d tried to find a way into the issue of homosexuality. On that occasion, I’d tried to by-pass the usual, repetitive arguments by asking people not about what they believed to be true and right on the issue, but about where their passion about the issue came from. My hope had been that this would lead listeners to contact and express a different level in their relationship with the controversy, but I was disappointed. The conversation kept spilling over the lines I’d laid out, diverting into the well-worn grooves of the customary polemics.
Since then, I’d steered clear of the issue on the air. In my mind, though, I continued to search for some different place from which to start the journey so we might actually break new ground together. I myself have felt unsure how the phenomenon of homosexuality should be understood, or how a wise society would relate to it. Over the years, however, I felt a growing sense of there being logical inconsistencies in the traditional moralistic view. I hoped I might hatch some question, employing those inconsistencies, that would by-pass the debate over Scriptures and lead on to new thinking.
As I gazed out over the valley off our deck, there popped into my mind a question that held some promise of challenging those listeners doctrinaire in their insistence that homosexuality is an immoral choice. “Assuming you are right about that,” I thought I might ask, “how do you explain why some people come to make such a choice?”
I liked that. It’s not a question that can be answered just by quoted Leviticus; it concedes to them their main point, and then asks them to flesh out a larger understanding. A kind of Aikido for the mind.
My move was based on those doubts of mine about the traditionalists’ position. If sexual orientation involves a moral choice, why would anyone choose homosexuality? After all, society is so punitive toward homosexuals that it would seem a most unappealing option. And if homosexual desires are “unnatural,” as they maintain, from where would the temptation arise? I can understand society’s punishing those who yield to the temptation to steal, for the thief takes goods that any of us might desire. But society does not seem to have any need to declare hitting our fingernail with a hammer to be an immoral choice, or to punish people for eating rocks.
This idea of the immoral choice underlies the traditional punitive stance toward homosexuals. Could my traditionalist listeners provide a comprehensible psychological account of this ostensible choice? If they could, I’d learn something. But either way, it seemed reasonable to hope that my question might prove, for those listeners, the kind that leads the mind to untie itself from its pier and follow the stream further on down.
But how might I challenge myself and listeners with a point of view like mine? Hatch, hatch…. Oh yes, I’d come across an argument a few years back that I could not just dismiss. Dennis Praeger, an articulate orthodox Jew, and political conservative, from Los Angeles had pointed out that most of the world’s great religions rejected homosexuality. “Fifty million Frenchman can’t be wrong” is not the most powerful of arguments. But believing as I do that religions contain much wisdom, I felt challenged by Praeger’s observation. Accordingly, I decided that the challenge for a person like me might be stated: “If a wise and just society would accept homosexuality, regarding it as just one of the ways some people happen to be, how are we to explain the widespread rejection of it among diverse religious traditions?”
In answer to that challenge, two hypotheses arise in my mind: 1) in earlier eras, unlike today, society had a substantial interest in maintaining high fertility rates, and homosexuality conflicted with this social need; and 2) there is a general human tendency to demonize and reject whatever is different from the norm –a kind of narrow-mindedness exemplified by the traditional linking of left-handedness with the “sinister” and the “gauche”– and perhaps in their strictures against homosexuality the world’s religions embodied such a prejudice of a majority against a minority.
Plausible answers, I thought, but not so obviously adequate as to sweep aside Praeger’s assembled traditions. So that question continued to pry my mind open, and between the two questions, a real exploration might unfold.
Challenging questions are, for me, at the heart of the life of inquiry. Inquiry means questions. And for me, one of the chief ways that questions arise is through noticing what does not fit. If this piece of the picture does not fit with that piece, then, according to my logic, either one of the pieces is inaccurate or the framework itself needs to be rebuilt to accommodate them both.
Every contradiction is an invitation back into the dance of inquiry. It is reality speaking to us, telling us that there is more to know.
Science as a Form of Unfolding
Reflecting about these dances of inquiry I attempt on the radio, I am soon led to recognize yet another avenue of the process of unfolding: the enterprise of science.
The idea that the inquiry is good, that “a mind is like a parachute” –only working when it’s opens– has not always held sway. Indeed, it does not altogether hold sway today. But it has certainly gained momentum in recent centuries. As dramatic as the rise to pre-eminence of the ideal of the open society has been the rise of the ideal of the open mind. As the one is represented by modern democracy, the other is represented by the spirit of modern science.
It is not so long ago that the life of the Western mind was dominated by dogma. (Even a century ago, the word “free-thinker” was a term of opprobrium.) In the terms of unfolding, “dogma” might be defined as an attempt to dam up the flow of human understanding by making some particular spot at which that flow has arrived an End Point beyond which it will not be allowed to go. By declaring some proposition beyond questioning, people attempt to replace flow with control in the domain of human understanding.
Henceforth, says the dogmatist, reality will not be allowed to speak. If there is anything more to reality than our current truth, we do not wish to hear it. Thus, to keep belief within its permitted bounds, inquisitors throughout history have wielded their coercive powers.
One scene from early in the development of modern science epitomized Authority’s refusal to let reality speak. It is the image the Churchmen refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope, not wishing to see the moons of Jupiter that current dogma dictated could not be there. (“But they are there,” grumbled Galileo, whom the Church compelled to recant.)
Among historians of science, there are those who like to point out how dogmas continually arise also in science. The reigning paradigm –to use the now over-used word from Thomas Kuhn’s famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions– gains a chokehold on the minds of scientists, so that they can act much like the Churchmen of old. When a new paradigm rises to ascendancy, Kuhn argued, it is not that particular minds get changed so much as that old minds die out and new ones arise ready to hold new images.
Very well. But still, the new paradigm comes. And it comes for a reason, that reason being that the new paradigm makes better sense of the expanding body of knowledge that does the old one.* Science does represent knowledge unfolding, and it does so because it is devoted to the notion that reality shall be allowed to speak.
Science calls for a stance of perpetual uncertainty before the complexities of the universe. Science explicitly embraces the notion that knowledge has no End Point. “That settles it” does not wash. Every explanation remains, essentially, a hypothesis. Even Newton was eventually dethroned from his universal aegis, when the emergence of anomalies led Einstein to alter the concepts of space and time beyond their Newtonian bounds.
The story of science in our civilization reveals a profound paradox. So long as human beings clung dogmatically clung to their allegedly certain knowledge, they condemned themselves to ignorance. It was when people became willing to confess their ignorance that the growth of human knowledge took off.
It is not very difficult to understand the attractions of dogma, however. Uncertainty is frightening and, as before, it is fear that tempts us to demand the sense of control.
A caller to one of my shows insisted that the bones of dinosaurs were left from the Flood at the time of Noah. Why would a man, evidently intelligent, maintain this belief in the face of what reality –speaking in a variety of languages from geological records to DNA sequences– has said to scientists for generations? The reason, I presume, is that this caller wishes to protect a worldview that works for him in its seamless integrity. In the system of belief handed down to him, how he answers the question of the age of the earth is inseparable from how he knows who he is, how he fits into the cosmic scheme of things, and how he should live his life.
To lose a structure supplying so much certainty could be quite scary. One can empathize with those who want such closure and for whom, therefore, the openness of science and inquiry is threatening. The process of inquiry would have to progress very far for a mere creature like the human animal ever to comprehend the mysteries of a universe as deep and complex as this one. How great, then, for such a creature, is the temptation to jump to the premature closure of false certainty.
Falling Back on Order
For a couple of weeks now, I’d been opening myself up to the various dimensions of the unfolding project as they presented themselves. Some of these the universe dealt me, while my mind at play brought me others, dropping them onto my mental carpet the way a cat supplies its owners with the corpses of the mice it’s seized in its nocturnal missions.
While I appreciated the richness of the stew, I was also overwhelmed by the challenge of digesting it.
Were all these elements indeed part of a single quilt? Did the releasing on the bodyworker’s table have something in common with opening to honesty in our relationships? Were science and democracy –which seem to have arisen together historically—connected, to be understood as different aspects of the same spiritual stance toward the human situation, and were they, in turn, connected with my caller’s unplanned way of traveling?
It didn’t help my sense of overwhelm, though it did further enrich the stew, when I received a couple of new e-mail messages. These were from friends whom I’d invited to comment about unfolding and, in particular, about the idea of “letting reality speak.”
“When you talk about ‘letting reality speak,’ I hope you keep in mind that the reality we ought to listen to isn’t just out there,” one of the messages began. It was from Lyle, a long-time friend of mine who was a practicing psychotherapist in the Boston area. “One of the great breakthrough ideas in my own field,” Lyle continued, “involved the opening up –to our conscious awareness– the depths of our psyches. It’s probably a truism to say that the principal contribution of Sigmund Freud was ‘the discovery of the unconscious.’ In terms of your project on unfolding, I would say that you might well consider the importance of the technique he developed –one still practiced today by psychoanalysts– for accessing the unconscious: the technique of ‘free association.’
“What is ‘free association’ but a method for getting the controlling ego out of the way so the unfolding energy of the deeper and larger psyche can express itself? The person lies on the couch, instructed to voice anything and everything that pops into her mind, without even the sight of the analyst to distract from the inner reality.
“I don’t suppose you need for me to argue how important that reality is. Whether we allow this reality into our awareness or not, Freud showed, it dictates much of our destiny. It drives our behavior even –maybe even especially– when we refuse to listen to it. Only by listening to it, by admitting it into consciousness, do we have a chance to become whole. Otherwise we’re an arena for internal warfare, a fractured and sick creature.
“Hope this helps. Happy to discuss any of this further if you’d like. LYLE”
“Do I remember you did some graduate work with Gene Gendlin?” inquired my friend Marcia in the other inquiry that came in that afternoon. And yes, she did remember correctly– as I’d observed over the years, Marcia generally recalled pretty much everything in accurate detail. I couldn’t recall when I’d talked with Marcia about my truncated, pre-drop-out year of graduate study at the University of Chicago, where Professor Gendlin had been one of the few bright spots of my studies there.
“Anyway,” Marcia continued, “Gendlin’s work on ‘focusing’ seems right up your alley for this ‘letting reality speak’ business. I expect you know his ideas on this, as he was already into it when you were at Chicago.” Once again, Marcia was right. “In case not, it’s a way of contacting an inner knowing that we carry within us, and can access by focusing our attention on what he calls a ‘felt sense.’ One interesting dimension of this ‘felt sense’ that Gendlin is working with is that it is bodily: we actually do have ‘gut feelings’ that we can allow to ‘speak to us.’
“What focusing is about is a way of tuning into our bodily sense of things. Focusing is at once a carefully directed attention, and a tremendously open receptiveness. It is a way of conducting a conversation, as it were, between the consciousness that we carry around in our heads and a wise but only subtly articulate place of deep knowing that dwells in our very bodies.
“If we let this felt bodily sense speak to us, and allow that internal conversation to unfold (to use your expression), we can make real movement toward all kinds of goodies. Goodies like feeling at peace, feeling whole, like becoming more emotionally open and less stuck, like more self-knowledge, like progress in our understanding of things generally.
“If I sound enthusiastic, it’s because I am. I’m now trained in this Focusing’ method, which –as perhaps you’re aware– has become a widespread and even international movement. And I’ve had really transcendent and transforming experiences with it. For myself and working with others.
“It’s a really powerful form of healing, but more than healing, a way of ……”
There was a good deal more to Marcia’s email, as I could see in the little rectangle to the right of the e-mail text. And it looked quite promising, as I noted to myself morosely while storing the message away for a more complete reading at some future moment. “Morosely” because, at that instant, any further enrichment of the variety of avenues to explore seemed to promise only a greater feeling of being enburdened, as the gap between the abundance of the subject I’d tackled and the inadequacy of my ability to comprehend it promised only to grow wider.
Talk about a felt sense! I recalled my Gendlinian background a bit, and started tuning into how this whole overwhelm was expressing itself in my bodily feeling. A bit of a sinking feeling in my gut, like when a fast elevator takes off upward. Or was it like when it descends quickly? But I sensed I shouldn’t dwell on that, at least not just yet. The more intense action seemed to be in my chest. Right under the sternum. Sit there with that a bit. Is it wanting to cry? Anxiety seems there. The phrase pops up, “Failure.” No sooner do I say this than the tell-tale Gendlinian shift occurs. I actually do begin to cry. The shift is the body’s way of telling me that the word was a good fit. “You have hit my battleship!”
I let myself release this crying energy. These are special moments for me. Way back when I was about to leave childhood for adolescence, I’d lost most of my ability to let such feelings move, and since then had only partially recovered it.
The crying relieves a bit of the pain. And then I return to that word that seemed to fit the lock and open the way to the shift. “Failure!” What’s that trying to tell me? I think immediately of Dad. He had such high standards for everything he did and, by extension, everything I did. But Dad had the good sense to tackle more finite projects. What am I doing with this unfolding business? It’s too big. Way over my head. If I were God, maybe I could handle this topic!
Or, maybe I wouldn’t need to be God– just a more whole person. Maybe the problem is I’m going about the whole thing wrong, in some way that has to do with my own limitations. Unfolding. At the moment, the feeling in my chest was telling me that what I was doing was more like holding. Maybe I’m feeling overwhelmed because I see myself as a holding tank that somehow has to contain the whole thing. Maybe this task could be done if I were to see myself as something more like a Channel through which a whole river could flow. I don’t need to do it all, just let it all happen.
Or is that just magical thinking? Books don’t just write themselves, do they? There’s not really some place out there or in here –is there?– from which something well-ordered and coherent will arrive piece by piece, as if I were just some sort of typist who regularly gets chapters in the mail from the Author. Maybe I can be in awe –unburdened by effort– at the “How Great Thou Art” magnitude of the mysteries, but if my goal is to create something that addresses in a worthwhile way the big questions I’m asking, I figured, I gotta do it myself! I think.
Feeling very finite and mortal, I set the whole thing aside. Maybe my felt sense will take over on the project, I snickered to myself, evoking in my mind the image of the little shoemaker whose fortune gets made by the little elves that come each night making footwear more wondrous than mere humans could create. More than once, over the years, when some piece of writing has felt especially difficult, I’ve thought of those little elves. Wake me when it’s over!
Ah, well. If it’s God’s will for me to write this book, I’ll write it, and if not… This, too, in a sardonic spirit. Mostly.
And so I set aside the struggle, and went out to work in the garden.
I tended my phlox, as did the psalmist of old. I handled my flowers with foxgloves. Oh, Lord, for our sins, do not crocus, I joked with myself. Thy willow, O Lord, not mine, I called out as I pruned my corkscrew (a gnarly kind of willow) by the main garden in the area we call the amphitheater.
And then, as I cleaned up around the two little statues –Buddha and St. Francis– that sit in that part of the garden, a piece of grace arrived. Images and ideas started coming together in a charming pattern. Better than just charming, they were bits of pieces of things that had been wanting to be said for a while, but never found the form. And now something was appearing before my mental eyes.
Not the Big Overwhelming Thing the search for which I’d left behind, but still something that felt like it was mine, the way a baby is its mother’s. And of a size, like a baby being born, that corresponds with the capacity of the creature doing the bearing.
And a nice touch: it even connected with the whole business of letting reality speak, as opposed to getting stuck and fixed on a truth, of letting one’s understanding become stuck in concrete. As it were. Because the starting place of the piece, which I wrote over the next few days, were those two pieces of statuary in my garden. And I called my piece, “Images, Graven and Other.”
It felt good for something to come to order under my hands. Here’s the piece.
[This piece will be the next installment of THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL to be posted here.]