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Author:Richard Chadek

What Life Wants

It doesn’t take much looking, these days, to see problems around us for which there are no easy fixes. In fact, the problems we’re confronting are wickedly complex.  Consider the precarious nature of our ecology, the increasing concentration in our economic system, the lack of equity in so many different realms, the state of politics throughout the world…

Today, the truth is that anybody who wants to know what’s happening to our world can see it.  But, apparently, not everybody wants to know, and none of us can bear knowing it all.  That’s simply the way it is.

Not infrequently I’ll become aware of some symptom of one of these problems—an Orca mother carrying her dead calf for days and days; pictures of people or animals starving to death; the rubble of a neighborhood in a place of war; albatross chicks with stomachs bloated on the plastic lighters and bottle caps their parents mistook for food. I’ll feel a familiar bulge forming behind my heart and, if I’m not paying attention to my intention, the next thing I know I’ll have moved on to something else.

There’s only so much loss we can take before we become saturated with an accumulation of grief and anger and helplessness. 

It’s easy to become frozen or stuck. But that’s not something that happens to us: being stuck is something we have to actively do. Being stuck is a consequence, not so much of what’s taking place ‘out there’, but rather of our saying ‘no’ and turning away from what’s taking place ‘in here’.  

There’s an intelligence in Life, an ability to adapt in ways that ensure survival. That’s why we don’t put our hand on a hot stove more than once.  It’s why we have fear and anger and desire. Obviously, we recognize what feels painful or humiliating or ‘dangerous’.  This is hard wired.

And yet, what do we feel whenever we grow or reach for anything new—like a new job, falling in love, speaking in public about what really matters?  Inevitably, among other things, we feel fear, pain and sometimes even humiliation.

If we say ‘no’ to experiences that make us feel those things, what happens then?  We stop whatever Life wants to be expressed through us.  And Life doesn’t really care about our feeling these things, it just wants to grow and flourish and, when it’s time, let go. 

Our experience of Life wanting what it wants is what I call developmental pressure. It’s rarely comfortable. And turning away from the discomfort of this pressure is one of the most potent forces in the way of what’s trying to emerge, within us individually as well as through the collective culture.

And this would be a force even if we’d had the most loving parents, grew up in communities that actually looked after our well-being and stood by our side as we faced into the great mysteries of adolescence, adulthood and death.

None of us can hold all that’s happening to our world, all that we’re participating in because we live in this time on this planet. We simply are not capable of feeling all that we’d feel if we were to let it in.  Turning away is part of the intelligence of survival. 

And yet…

There’s a paradox here: the pain of these times is actually the result of our love.  Our love of the world and each other.  When we turn from the pain, we also turn away from something essential about loving, and then loving, too, is less accessible to us.

If we are to turn toward the kind of change that’s trying to emerge now, it will surely involve finding a way to turn toward our loving—including the pain that loving involves.

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Being Love

I think it was either Crazy Horse or the Oglala chief Low Dog who said, “Today is a good day to die.” The story we have about this may be apocryphal, but we say whoever said it was facing the battle of the Little Big Horn. Everything of importance was on the line that day and this was his way of surrendering to what his life stood for and to the place that life had brought him.

Now, it’s not like we’re preparing for battle, but I think we’re in circumstances very much like the ones they faced 150 years ago.  Today, everything we hold dear is on the line. And the outcome we hope for is by no means certain. Much that’s irreplaceable is at risk and, no matter which way things go, much will be lost.

Because, let’s face it, this is the month of Valentine’s Day. And if we push past the superficialities of the little heart-shaped candies and the Hallmark sentimentality, this is a day about love. And when we speak of love, it’s a good day to die.

Anyone who’s really committed themselves to a loving relationship will understand me when I say that love is not as much about feeling good as it is about what’s been called love’s harsh need to change us. This kind of change means a part of us dies so something else, something greater, lives.

What we often have in mind when we say love is the experience of being ‘in love’. But if we pay careful attention to what’s happening when we’re in it, we’ll see that ‘in love’ has more to do with us than it has to do with the other. You see, there’s a reason ‘in-love’ is an early-in-the-relationship experience.

When we’re in it, we’re generally making up a story about the other person, one we believe in completely. They’re a perfect fit with whatever we think is ideal or what we think we want.

Or they’re almost perfect.

And whenever we’re with them, everything feels so right.

Until it doesn’t.

That perfect partner turns out to be the kind of man who doesn’t think to pick up after himself. While he may say yes to almost anything, it’s really hard to tell what he’s feeling. And even though it seemed so great spending all that time together when we were dating, now that we live together it seems like there’s just no space.

It’s somewhere around this point in relationships that we usually get started on The Project. This is the project of making the one we’re ‘in love’ with act like someone else, someone we want them to be.  When you think about it, the arc of “in-love” traces a movement from naive acceptance to total intolerance.

Of course, this is just another way of describing what happens as we become intimate. We start seeing—and showing—more and more of how we actually are. Including, of course, our limitations and distortions. And as projection gives way to reality, especially in our culture, it seems like we can’t stop wondering whether or not this partner is actually the right one.

But what if… What if it’s not about finding the right one?  What if it’s about being the right one?  

What if being ‘in-love’ is merely the threshold of being love? After all, when our projections won’t fit, isn’t that the beginning of seeing, with real precision, this other being?  What if it’s this precision—I see you, and I’m not asking you to be something else—that is actually love? 

And what if being love is, among other things, better understood as a spiritual practice? The slow diminishment of me, me, me and its replacement with Thou, Thou, Thou?  What demands, what requirements of ours have to die for that to take place?

What if the aim here isn’t safety or comfort, but sanctuary; if instead of trying to make relationship be a refuge from things that are difficult or painful, we made it a place to bow down, with our partner, to what’s bigger than us?

Here, then, is what Valentine’s day could be: a good day to die.

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In my work, the problem that brings a client to my door is often merely the symptom of a more fundamental issue.  The hyper busy woman isn’t going to benefit as much from learning to be more efficient as from exploring what gets in the way of her saying ‘no.’  And the man stuck between careers may not need yet another inventory of his skills so much as an understanding of how and for what sake he’s come to not know what he wants.

Many of my clients report problems that point at an underdeveloped capacity for intimacy.  But what do we mean when we say intimacy?  For many men, if you ask them for a definition of intimacy, they say: well, that would be sex.  And what they mean is having sex is what they do to experience intimacy.  Yet for many women, being intimate is something they want to experience before becoming sexual.  So, here’s a problem.

For me, intimacy shows up in every relationship we have, and it simply means the mutual and reciprocal revelation of ourselves. How much do I know of myself, and how much of that am I willing to show you?  And just as important, how much can I tolerate your showing me what’s congruent for you?

To my way of thinking there are different realms of intimacy including physical, emotional, erotic, sexual, psychological and dialogical.  Let me touch on the first four because they tend to get collapsed into each other.

Physical intimacy simply means the granting of physical access for play, competition or tenderness.  A hug may be more intimate than a handshake, but it’s not sexual.

When we talk about emotional intimacy, we’re talking about our ability to speak from the emotional experience we have as opposed to about it.  That means we feel in real time what we’re saying.  Try this at home: Think of something you ache about, and try to keep feeling the ache as you speak of it to someone.

This becomes much harder when the emotion is something we’d prefer to keep hidden like shame, or fear or anger.  And harder still is the intimacy of speaking from feelings that we ourselves don’t fully understand.  But even if we can achieve this degree of intimacy, it isn’t fundamentally about sex.

Both physical and emotional intimacy are different than erotic intimacy. And I can almost hear you thinking: ‘Ok, this is about sex.’ But Eros is about desire. It’s the experience of yearning. It’s yearning you might feel for the wilderness, or the desire to become something, or to be alive to life in your life.

This kind of intimacy—holding on to our desire no matter what happens—is difficult because we all get pretty good at managing the pain of not getting what we want.  And one way we do that is by stifling desire.  We get so good at protecting ourselves in this way that at times we can’t even tell what we want.

And then there’s sexual intimacy.  The good news here is that this isn’t about orgasm, although there’s nothing wrong with that. Sexual intimacy is the capacity to transmit the energy of loving through sex. Many of us may have had an experience of this, but it’s quite another thing to make the purpose of sex be the vehicle for the exchange of love.

You probably already appreciate that intimacy is shaped by lots of factors: our childhood experiences, the degree of trust we feel, the culture we’re part of.  But fundamentally, it’s not binary—present or absent. Rather, it’s a function of capacities we have to develop.  It’s actually more about our relationship with ourselves than the people in our relationships.  And that’s my orientation as a coach. Whenever we have trouble being congruent—which is when what we say and do is consistent with what we feel and think—we’re having a problem of intimacy.

A metaphor I like that points at this is to imagine that you’re sitting on the shore of a mountain lake on a midsummer night.  The lake is totally smooth, no wind ripples its surface.  And now the moon comes up.  It’s so clear, and the lake is so still that the reflection of the moon on the surface of the water is indistinguishable from the moon itself.  Intimacy is like this.

You know, we all understand that there is a world out there.  But the only way we know about it is by means of its reflection on the surface of the lake that’s inside us.  If our lake is agitated, we don’t see a very accurate representation of the world.  And at a certain level of agitation or defensiveness or fear, we can’t see the world at all.   All we get is the choppy surface of that lake.

So being intimate with another—a boss, a client, a partner—starts with being truly intimate with and compassionate towards what’s inside us. And that’s a developmental process.

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