As I slowly wind down toward a summer break from client work, the past two weekends have been on retreat – not a geographical move, but still a shift into (another) space. Since the pandemic, my teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, has been conducting Vajrayana Buddhist programmes online. Whilst I miss the element of being-with sangha (the community of practitioners), not having to travel, and a small daily journey to my mediation cushion each day affords more time for practice. And any practitioner of Ngondro, the accumulation of many repetitions of many practices, appreciates time as a vital resource on the path! On one of my walks during a break from the teachings and practice, I listened to a podcast interview with Ben Connolly (author of one of the most helpful Buddhist abhidharma books I have read). He talked about his latest book, “Mindfulness and intimacy” – one I have not read yet and hadn’t intended to…but then he shared a Zen koan that had me prick up my ears “Not knowing is the most intimate”.
I shared a while back that I relate to the Type Six position on the enneagram. This system has helped me come to understand how much of my character and behaviours are rooted in a basic mistrust of my being (or what in Buddhism we would know as buddhanature). It isn’t that enneatype Sixes have the sole claim to this disbelief, but rather we are the one type (out of the Nine) whose entire character structure is based upon doubt of one’s existence. The reaction to this (often out of awareness) belief is to plan and control life and its outcomes. This is nigh on impossible – and yet in nearly 5 decades of trying, it is only now that I deeply see the futility of the project. Training as a psychotherapist in the existential-phenomenological tradition first had me take a good look at the uncertainty of the human predicament; and Buddhism meant I couldn’t avoid the trajectory of life toward the ultimate unknown – death is certain, its timing is not. Knowing this “how are you going to use this life, Helen?”
Coming to know and feel my “Sixness” in its full technicolour grip of anxiety, fear, terror has been incredibly powerful: this has given me a map. And alongside, the Buddhist path offers a practice to unfold and unravel the scripts – or fixed gestalts – I have developed since childhood in attempt to ward off uncertainty, the not-knowing, what life might (will) bring. Certainly, receiving more instructions from Mingyur Rinpoche as I did these past two weekends on how to look at the nature of mind, I appreciate the ideal technology on offer: to look directly at consciousness at the knots and tangles coming in to being. I would say this: as a Six, sitting right in the middle of the mind triad, of course I like looking at my mind, it fascinates me!
But hearing this koan “Not knowing is most intimate” prodded me more deeply. Maybe I was simply more receptive to its deeper meaning and consequence given I was on retreat and spending serious amounts of time turning awareness back on itself. Intellectually, I know life is uncertain and the practice is to “dance with life”, and be open to life ‘as it is’. No expectations. Its one of the things I love about the Gestalt psychotherapy framing of health – responding to situations with spontaneity. But how is that intimate?
Unknown to many clients when they first come for psychotherapy, the healing task centres on intimacy. Clients, understandably, think they will come to talk about problems, and through that they will find a solution. It can be helpful to deal with this myth early on, perhaps even sharing with clients the mechanics of the process. But even with a little “psychoeducation”, it can still be quite a jolt when a therapist challenges a client to become more intimate.
This week, a supervisee shared with me their growing discomfort about a client’s desire to hug. The first time it happened, it seemed like an appropriate (we might say spontaneous) action based on the client’s need to establish connection on moving from online working back to face-to-face after 2 years. However, my supervisee’s discomfort was how it became ritualised – their client forming a habit (fixed gestalt). My supervisee didn’t want to hug, yet felt they ‘should’ out of the fear the client would be hurt. A fear that the underlying issues from an abandoning childhood would be re-triggered.
“Not knowing is most intimate”
When we act from scripts, we don’t allow the ‘not knowing’ to emerge: our discomfort with not knowing is railroaded, suppressed. In the case of the hug, it might be seen as actually quashing intimacy. I asked my supervisee how they thought their client might respond to simply sitting together before hugging (this is an example of a Gestalt ‘experiment’ – the invitation to try something different and see what emerges in experience). Sitting face to face in quiet presence and ‘not knowing’ is arguably MORE intimate than hugging. To lean into the discomfort, the lack felt within, might reveal more about someone’s abandonment fear than operating from a “hugging script”.
Dropping into the not knowing is known in Gestalt as entering ‘the fertile void’ – notice if your mind sees the ‘fertile’ or the ‘void’ in that statement. Fertility speaks to the creative possibilities; void is the gap that is needed to ‘re-set’. Only stepping into the unknown allows the new potential to arise.
This morning, as I took an early morning breakfast outside ahead of the heatwave temperatures to come, I noticed the revving up of my mind – getting busy deciphering plans and how I was going to timetable my day. I felt the clench in my body (like an internal hug protecting my vulnerability) as I reacted to my narrative. These days, I use this felt sense of “closing and contracting” as a flag – I come back. I shift allegiance to awareness itself, allowing myself to open to the play of life that is right in front of my eyes, as well as the buzzing in my body, “now”. The sun rising down the street, the bees harvesting the lavender, the birds (like me) enjoying the cooler hours of dawn. This is intimacy – opening to what (actually) is; including the discomfort of the anxiety of not knowing.
I’m currently enjoying Michael Clemmens’ excellent edited text “Embodied Relational Gestalt“. There is a very insightful chapter on attentional scope that feeds into this discussion. The following quote speaks precisely to the shift in allegiance…
“They [the client] open to the field of awareness, the situation. In this, the certainty and solidity of the fixed gestalt dissolves into an opening. Without conceptual fixation the phenomenal field is experienced as both energetic and open to possibility, a creative void.”
Each time we feel a contraction in our body, it indicates a narrowing in our attention. With me, others will see it as a furrowing of my brow. When I am focused into my worries and plans, in that moment of recognising it I can look up and out, I can open out the scope – from focused attention to a more panoramic awareness. From the figure, we can open out to include more of the ground. Attention on thoughts can become awareness of the totality of experience.
THIS is the nature of change; accessed through a willingness to ‘not know’, to become more intimate.