Thirst. And. Tenderness.
This is my core contention: We live in a Mysterious, yet deeply coherent universe. Absence implies presence. Need implies holding. Our hidden longing is indication of Hidden Intimacy awaiting us.
Almost thirty years ago, during a week-long meditation retreat with my Zen teacher Joko Beck, something snapped in a very negative way. Seemingly out of nowhere, the chronic, relentless pain that had been in my head for the past 10 years seemed to intensify, and over the next few hours my mind felt as though it might shatter. The very pain that I’d been learning to hold and be-with was suddenly unbearable. Everything in my life that had begun to make sense, now seemed an illusion.
Immediately I reverted to my earlier certainty that life was suffering and suffering only.
I was desperate to talk with Joko in the midst of this all-to-familiar free-fall; it was as though I was reliving my childhood. While making arrangements for this conversation, the monitor with whom I was interacting seemed to be exceptionally kind, calm, and focused. Was it her tone of voice, her quiet smile, her unrushed manner? I didn't know, but as I entered the consulting room to talk with Joko, I mentioned my momentary interaction with the monitor. Then I named my overwhelming despair about how the pain in my head was suddenly, yet again, swamping me.
Joko listened with great care, saying nothing. Finally, after several minutes of silence, she asked a question that included a central observation: "Kent, you don't really know much about tenderness, do you?"
The world literally stood still. In that stillness a childhood of loneliness and ever-present fear exploded through my body.
I began to sob. "No, Joko, I do not. I don't think I ever have."
Her next statement would alter my life forever: "What do you think this is all about?" (As she said the word "this" she gestured with her arms in a full circle.)
"What do you mean Joko? Are you saying that enlightenment has something to do with tenderness?”
She slowly began to smile, nodding in agreement.
I continued to cry throughout the remainder of the retreat and into the weeks that followed.
During another retreat, maybe a year later, Joko said what I now consider to be a summary of her teaching. "If there's an orphan in our lives, it's our pain. Nobody wants their pain. We want it gone. That's a big part of what meditation offers, no longer pushing pain away. Sitting, just being-with this exact pain. Every moment is just another opportunity to stay simple and hold the orphan of your pain."
All these years later, the continual pain on the right side of my head continues. On most days, most of the time, it is no longer an orphan.
These days, as I observe a teenage, recently homeless mother with a history of severe abuse and neglect offering simple, genuine, ongoing tenderness to her baby, I trust that I am seeing the hardwiring we all share. Over the years I've observed dozens of young mothers choose to dig deeper than a personal history of pain. In every case these parents find an innate capacity to become increasingly secure and lovingly available for their (increasingly) secure children. I fully trust that these courageous souls are manifesting what D.H. Lawrence called, "the living, incarnate universe."
Love is given, not taught. AND emerges naturally, rather than being learned. Original presence is always awaiting discovery.
Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once described our capacity to love as "the most divine captured in the most human."
Seen in this way, the universe is a fractal. The smaller is a direct manifestation of the Larger. Like Russian nesting dolls, the Larger-as-original pattern is contained within the smaller. At every level: everything is the same, only different.
Tenderness is a fractal. Being-with is a fractal. Presence is a fractal.
Is it a coincidence that Jesus used the word Abba to describe the ultimate nature of the universe? (Abba or "Daddy" is the most intimate term for father in Jesus' native Aramaic. Who knows, he may also have used the word Amma.)
Fortunately, for many of us the ultimate nature of reality is infinitely larger than our early experiences here on planet earth. As a clinician and one who meditates, I have come to trust that my (and your) hardwiring for presence isn’t some random occurrence within a cosmos empty of compassion. Rather, this deep coherence is built into who we are. We are, as James Joyce said, living within the "Mama matrix most mysterious."
Throughout history, the originators of the major faith traditions have sought to offer a path to this hidden-in-plain-sight deeper dimension. (Sadly, their followers have often been swamped by the same procedural strategies for self-protection and control that blunt or fully block access to this hidden reality.)
A man had spent years in search of what he described as "the key to the universe." Seeking only the world's greatest teachers, he continually found himself disappointed in their answers. He was finally led to the cave of an old monk secluded deep in the mountains of Tibet. All who knew this monk assured the man that his answer would finally be found here.
"Most Revered Master, please, I've traveled for years in search of the key to the universe."
"Well," said the Master, "I have some good news and some bad news."
"The bad?" inquired the man with a very worried face.
"There is no key."
"And the good?" the man blurted out, now desperate.
"It was never locked."
PRESENCE IN ABSENCE
After years of focusing on presence and absence, I was walking down a street in Amsterdam in 2014. There, on a vacant storefront window, was written - in English - the following piece of graffiti.
Often, as people learn about the specifics of procedural memory, a certain despair sets in. “If I didn’t get what I needed early on, and I’m now stuck with an automated belief system that isn’t particularly good at trusting, where’s the hope?”
Adding insult to injury, procedural memory turns out to be remarkably resistant to change. As infant researcher Daniel Stern states it, “History creates inertia.” Experience follows expectation.
So, yes: many of us have something of a tall mountain to climb.
This is where our deepest hardwiring comes in. Said another way, this is where the underlying nature of our need, and the larger universe from which it emerges, comes into the picture.
Robert Frost wrote that each of us have “an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” Developmental psychologists the world over know we’re hardwired for relationship, that built within us is an undeniable thirst for the AND of love. Our need for presence isn’t a luxury, or some “add on” should we be fortunate enough to find it. We don’t choose our longing for presence any more than we choose our need of water.
"We cannot live dry." - Mark Nepo
Only love fulfills.
As I’ve said previously, I believe our need for intimacy is the manifestation of a universe ready to meet it. Our thirst for presence is map, not aberration. Neither is it failing or indication of something wrong with us. Our thirst for belonging is our greatest guide.
Original need requires original presence.
At this point, the only issue is whether we’re willing to allow our deep need for presence to change us, or if we'll keep our longing buried in negative certainty, locked inside lives as we’ve always known them.
It’s one thing to recognize our thirst for AND; it’s another thing altogether to make the decision to access it.
Give your weakness
to one who helps.
Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.
Just a little beginning-whimper,
and she’s there.
God created the child, that is, your wanting,
so that it might cry out, so that milk might come.
Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent
with your pain. Lament! And let the milk
of loving flow into you.
A summary of where we’ve come
Without knowing it, we typically recreate our painful past again and again throughout each day. But, our early procedural programming can only continue to call the shots if we stay inside the spell it keeps weaving, recommitting thousands of times each day to see the world through a lens of negative options.
Not only were neural pathways formed in our earliest years, but new neural pathways are now being created by our current agreement with what we originally learned about relationship. The prisoner has unwittingly become the jailer.
We may not be able to stop the old messages that the Voice continues to whisper, but once we recognize these messages as early programming, any ongoing acquiesce to their validity becomes consent.
Once again: We are always either strengthening our procedural mind or finding ways to build a new one.
Waking up includes becoming aware that we live inside a pre-programmed jail cell. It also includes finding a way to live outside its limitations. In order to do so, something essential remains to be done if we wish to gain access to a more freeing option. Initially, we’ll need to ask several questions in order to find the way beyond the limitations of procedural memory:
- What if reality is actually larger than the one we were first taught to know?
- What if there is a context bigger than the narrative/text we were taught to believe? (Not that our early learning was inaccurate, because it clearly does tell the story, true in its own way, about what our initial experiences felt like.)
- Does the sense of certainty instilled in our early neural pathways define the full range of options available to us now?
- Do the limitations of our original caregivers accurately describe the entire spectrum of holding and possibility available to us in this moment?
Said another way, can fresh options be added to our sense of what’s possible? Can we experience a new mind, even though the learned difficulties of our old mind continue to persist?
Daniel Siegel, a brain researcher at UCLA, puts it this way: “Where attention goes, neurons fire. And where neurons fire, they rewire.” Our sense of “reality” is indeed fully capable of being expanded. Our brains, regardless of age, are available for rewiring. Our worldview is not limited to our initial, procedurally learned conclusions. Deeper down, the cement remains wet.
But, there remains a central caveat. The rewiring of procedural negativity doesn’t seem to happen without two key ingredients:
- Actual experience of authentic presence and possibility, holding and potential space beyond our original sense of negative certainty,
- A willingness to actively try to accept this new experience of presence in spite of a continuing felt certainty about absence.
In other words, we need to find a way to practice presence in absence.
Fortunately, we have that exact option: the intentional, gradual acceptance of a deeper, always-present, underlying AND; presence that holds the possibility of new possibility. Being-with that meets us (and our orphaned selves) exactly where we are, offering tenderness.
Moments of meeting. Moments of trust.
We are, of course, venturing into that place where the core themes of psychology merge with the core themes of sacred practice.
There is, indeed, a place of "forever empty," a lived absence that brings only terror. Deeper still there exists hidden grounding: Sacred ground, holding all things, even the black hole itself. Catholic monk Thomas Merton described it as "hidden wholeness," the unseen, unrecognized source from which all things unfold.
This hidden dimension has a thousand names, yet remains beyond all names.
"God," "Original Presence,” “Ground of Being,” no matter what name we choose, the Source of all things cannot be owned, trademarked, or controlled. Great Mystery simply cannot be possessed. (This has not stopped many within organized religions from attempting to do so for millennia.)
Named or unnamed, hidden wholeness is always grounding us. It always holds what is and offers newness from the roots we find here. This dimension, further down, cannot be attained or acquired. It is given. We either awaken to holding or we don't. We either trust in roots that are already deep and sustaining us, or we deny them by believing they must first be earned or we refuse to believe that grounding is even possible.
How long does it take to discover hidden holding? Only as long as it takes to realize it takes no time at all.
We dare not call this deeper dimension anything. If we were to call it Level Three, we would immediately "thingify" what is continually emerging, fresh, unbound. ("It just moved.") Wholeness-as-potential space is always dynamic, alive, and outside the control of any set definition.
Maybe it’s Level AND.
Now. AND now. AND now.
In the decades since my “tenderness opening” with Joko, I have continued to sit in meditation as a way of gradually accessing the presence I didn’t know as a child. Slowly, year-by-year, I have increasingly opened to the underlying tenderness of hidden holding, a presence I could never have imagined in my earlier life.
Through the years I have come to realize that psychotherapy and meditation practice are ultimately about the same theme: coming to trust that we are lovable and loved, that belonging is our original nature. Until and unless we begin to know this, nothing else actually matters. John Main says “the first step” is all about this learning.
I do not expect to ever move beyond this first step.
This picture of a young child’s hands in the larger hands of his loving parent is the image I now look upon in order to be reminded of my deepest need. It is this image I bring with me into my daily meditation practice.
Until and unless I know the truth of holding, what I do with my life is just more of being busy and self-protective at Level One, trying to stay away from each “you’re unlovable and unloved” being whispered from Level Two.
This is big work.
Trusting, for those of us who first learned not to trust, is no simple task. Thomas Merton says it well: "Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone." There are many days when I’m forced to realize that my heart is hardened and that I’m unable to even consider trusting in love.
Here is the learning: the most unbearable can (and must) be brought into direct contact with the most sacred; the orphan needs to finally come home. It is here that we discover a hidden alchemy.
It is precisely in these moments, when being met seems impossible, that I am learning to choose the discipline of inviting Presence. This is the hardest work I know.
And it is no work at all.
The hard work is that I must choose to allow the unbearable (a dark memory or a seemingly impossible circumstance in my current life) to come into focus. The "no work" is that I realize it's no longer up to me. I'm learning to allow AND (hidden wholeness emerging in this new moment) to do the deeper work - often at a level my conscious mind can't fathom. I sit inside the pain, but I no longer sit alone.
In practical terms, how do I do this? I stop doing. I simply allow my breathing to slow to a gentle pace. I ask this next tender breath to meet me in the darkness of the painful ordinary.
Above Video: Tender in-breath, tender out-breath, tender in-breath . . . whether for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, this is the hidden-in-plain-sight gift of finding a simple, always available practice. (More on this in the conclusion.)
This moment, exactly as it is (good, bad, or ugly), is met with this tender breath.
The tough news: In certain moments "the most unbearable" will inevitably emerge. The good news: There is a radical difference between sensing "the unbearable" while feeling alone in the darkness . . .
. . . and experiencing the same sensation with-in the holding of a tender breath.
The outcome? Change happens. Real change at a level I have not found any other way. This process of change, of necessity, requires a daily discipline, the importance of which is not widely understood.
It's one thing to have a new insight. But the capacity to trust is a whole new ballgame. When our "unthought known" speaks absence, trust can be gradually built through a discipline of dual awareness. For ten or twenty or thirty minutes a day we can sit and breathe with an intention: 1. to recognize negative or fearful thoughts as memories-of-absence (while periodically saying "Of course," which dissipates their power), and 2: of simultaneously rewiring our brain's architecture by creating new neural pathways bathed-in-Presence. More on this later.
You may notice that I now capitalize the word Presence. I have gradually come to recognize that presence/Presence is a fractal. I have gradually come to trust in a sense of loving, holding companionship in all of this – an Other who is with me and, inexplicably, for me. (I tend to get nervous when people talk this way. It can so easily be filled with a self-certainty that puts me off. Even so, in my own experience, this quiet awareness is simply true.)
Me. AND. Another. Hardwired and simple. Nothing special, yet absolutely essential.
Through the years I have moved from silence to Silence, from presence to Presence. I’ve come to recognize that tenderness doesn’t show up as some-thing; rather, tenderness is found with another.
Moments of meeting. Moments of trust.
Buddhists often speak of enlightenment as the direct experience of intimacy. Christians, in the 1800's, would speak of finding God as "being met by the Great Affection."
Sometimes this intimacy is experienced with another person: the touch of a friend, the memory of a teacher's voice, the glance of a child. Sometimes, it’s the greeting from an animal, walking past a familiar tree, the coloring of the sky. And sometimes, sitting in the quiet of the morning, I find tender companionship in an ineffable, discernible Presence too subtle to be grasped. Uncertain, yet sure.
Absence of proof is no longer proof of absence. Unseen isn’t the same as unreal or unavailable. I’ve come to know Presence by how I shift internally: I settle, I rest, I feel less alone, and – sometimes – I feel deeply connected, as though I’ve come home.
How could it be otherwise? The child/parent paradigm wasn’t pathological when we were young. It isn’t pathological now. The needs each of us originally had for holding from a loving caregiver (soothing, support, organizing guidance) don't disappear. Our early absolute dependence hasn't disappeared, we just learned to defend against it. ("It's up to me.") Our original needs are primal, ongoing, and always relevant. Acknowledging this has become the foundation of my daily practice.
This has led to a new kind of trust. Admitting need on a regular basis, I have realized that I’m no longer the prime mover in my life. As I said a few moments ago, it isn’t “up to me” after all. I’ve chosen to be less in charge and more available to the hidden, yet consistent Presence and gradual transformation being offered.
“Give your weakness to one who helps . . . ” is the very thing I learned not to do as a child. As an adult I’ve had to admit the painful cost of this negative conclusion, and to gradually recognize that hell has nothing to do with weakness or vulnerability and everything to do with isolation.
Vulnerability is sacred. Isolation is a lie. Which is to say that I’ve learned to risk becoming dependent in a way that is risky and soothing in the same moment. I often enter my procedural certainty (“absence is the final word") while at the same time trusting that Presence (vast, fathomless, tender, and intimate) is with me and for me, holding and providing what I most need.
Thirst is, indeed, proof of water.
This learning has made all the difference.
I have a dear friend, a Catholic Cistercian monk, who has dedicated her life to meditation and prayer. I once put the following question before her: "What, in all your years in this monastery, is your greatest learning?"
Veronique's answer was immediate, brief, and confident, "I have learned to ask."
Gradually, over the years, my meditation practice has become what might better be described as a life of prayer. Maybe it's meditation-as-prayer.
Where nothing was, no-thing now is.
This next breath becomes an opportunity to ask the Real to enter my still complicated and often confused life. This next tender breath is an admission that my need is deep and that it won’t ever be met by me alone. My great mistake has been the belief that it could be.
You have done well
In the contest of madness.
You were brave in that holy war . . .
May I speak to you
Like we are close?
Once I found a stray kitten
And I used to soak my fingers
In warm milk;
It came to think I was five mothers
On one hand.
Why not rest your tired body?
Lean back and close your eyes . . .
There is something wrong
With your ideas of
O, surely there is something wrong
With your ideas of
If you think
Our Beloved would not be so
My "unthought known" is gradually becoming Unthought Knowing, trust deeper than words.
I no longer ask for an end to darkness, only to draw my next breath in tender Presence.
"I am with you.
You are with me.
No matter what happens, we will get through it together."
Presence in absence; I find ten-thousand blessings.
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