“…all distinctions, all meanings, all identities and especially all our self -identities, have no fixed boundary or definition, except ones that we create and try to hold onto.”
Barry Magid, Ordinary Mind
”Two minds create intersubjectivity. But equally, intersubjectivity shapes the two minds.” Daniel Stern, The Present Moment
When I was a young woman, I donned the habit and the identity of a Catholic nun. I “was” a Sister of Mercy. For eight years, there were external expressions of my nun-identity through qualities of my clothing, attention, beliefs, movement, speech and behavior. Each of these, in turn, were informed and supported by internal regulation of body/mind states: the sensory data, feeling tone, perceptions, emotions, memories, stories and qualities of consciousness that made up “me” at the time. This capacity for internal regulation and external expression was, in turn, continually informed and shaped by ongoing interactions with others, even as my own qualities reciprocally affected and changed those very relational interactions. This rhythmic and highly coordinated dance of internal and relational regulation began at the earliest moments of my life on this planet and has continued in every moment since. In this way, my sense of myself as a nun, like every version of “myself” before and after, was – and is – a process of relentless construction and re-construction that emerged from the dances of internal and relational co-regulation. This was attunement in action: the functioning of an ongoing reciprocal, open system of mutual influence and organization which nevertheless came to be perceived both subjectively and to others as static: myself as a Catholic nun.
This ongoing dance of reciprocal attunement and co-regulation provides the balanced conditions for every developing human to grow continually into greater and greater complexity as s/he encounters, digests, navigates and incorporates infinite amounts of both internal and external data. Dan Siegel offers the acronym of FACES to describe a balanced state in which this happens well, allowing a person to navigate successfully between organismic chaos at one extreme and rigidity and resistance at the other. He describes well-functioning systems as ones which are flexible (F) and adaptive (A), enough to take in and grow in coherence (C) with new and often apparently contradictory information even as it maintains energy (E) and a measure of stability (S). An individual or relational system without a balance of FACES will either withdraw from crucial aspects of internal or relational experience or become overwhelmed and spiral into internal or relational chaos. This wholesome FACES balance is thus critical for the internal and relational well being of humans and, indeed, for all levels of living systems. This balance of information is the means through which organisms, individuals and social groups at all levels develop their own organized boundaries and identities even as they remain open to new information. At their most wholesome, these cellular, systemic, individual, family, tribal and global boundaries balance nourishment, stability, continuity and agency with flexibility, openness, curiosity, creativity and ease.
Accepting a FACES-like balance in relation to his body’s sensory experience was a crucial step on Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment. This opening to balance arose when he was near death from following extreme ascetic practices that denied any value in the world of form. Here is how Ajahn Sucitto describes Siddhartha’s moment of clarity:
“(Siddhartha’s view was)…that the way to liberation opened through disregarding or suppressing the senses. Eating solid food was to be done begrudgingly, if at all; the body was to be chastised and its needs given no attention. In this… (he) excelled…and yet…he knew that he had attained no superior state and gained no liberating wisdom.
At this critical point, (he was) reduced to a scrawny creature of little more than flaking
skin and bone, (his)…mind bent on investigating whatever might arise in his consciousness. Yet as he tried to apply himself, he found that his body was now too weak to even sustain sitting upright. Nor was his mind steady and clear…Strained…it could neither open nor settle into calm; instead his mind formed voices that whispered in his inner ear, some accusing, some mocking. Strange visions flittered through the shifting veils of consciousness. He was unable to repel or investigate them. A despondent inertia hovered over him like a vulture.
(At this point…) Groggy as he was…he made out the form of a young woman, kneeling in front of him with a dish. ‘Sujata asks for your blessing, noble one!’ she said gently as she laid the dish in front of him. ‘Please partake of my offering.” …Her kindness touched chords in his heart and a sense that had been ignored for years stirred. Before he could form a thought, his head had made a movement of assent and one skinny hand had lifted in response. Sujata smiled and withdrew, and while allowing the natural instinct to move through him, (Siddhartha) found himself carefully scooping a meal of sweet milk rice from the dish, one slow mouthful at a time, until he had consumed it all.
Life flowed through his system like the sap that fed the tree under which he sat.
‘Why not?’ he thought. ‘Let Nature look after nature. What good is there in
fighting against its laws? Why not let it support me in this quest?’ With his body
refreshed and his mind clearing from its near-death delirium, he sat cross-legged
and upright under the canopy of the tree and steadied his awareness on the
experience of breathing in and out. It suddenly occurred to him that when he
was a child he had done just that, quite spontaneously, and it had taken him to a place of natural calm. Eagerly, he picked up the theme….”
from Parami: Ways to cross Life’s floods
This was not the final step on Siddhartha’s journey, but it was a crucial one. Allowing himself a sense of belonging in the natural world formed the basis of his understanding of the Middle Way, the path to freedom from suffering that avoided the extreme of rejection of the body and its ordinary needs even as it also avoided the opposite extreme of relentless craving and sensual indulgence. In this way, the path that he finally saw was one that both surpassed and reconciled any sense of duality. Siddhartha saw that while full liberation ultimately rests in full relinquishment of sensual desire, following the path to liberation nevertheless requires balanced care of the human body/mind that explores and follows that path. Liberation, he had come to see, involves learning to cultivate a mind that is able to navigate paradox: a mind both fully present with the forms of this world and one that can release identification and, at the very same time, be fully free of clinging to any worldly conditions.
So it is, I think, with relational attunement. Our practice invites us to open to the Sujatas of our own lives who offer us the sweet milk rice of relational attunement, recognition, belonging and care. It invites us to be Sujatas for every being and every experience that we encounter. In this way, we cultivate wise relationship with all aspects of our own internal experience as well as with all that is perceived to be external. These wholesome relationships then offer what Bikkhu Bodhi calls “sturdy support” for spiritual practice. For most of us, however, it is hard to include all internal and/or external experience in our relational awareness. We can become deeply aware of these limitations when they arise as personal or relational suffering. The gift of such suffering is that it can point us to our wounded or limited internal and external relational patterns. Like Siddhartha as he sat near death, our failure to address these will leave us with energies and awarenesses – even in the context of otherwise advanced spiritual practices – that are barren, incomplete and filled with unnecessary rigidity, confusion, pitfall and suffering.
People sometimes ask me why I left the convent, why I no longer “am” a nun. I can point to my relationships with external events at the time in Vietnam and Rome and New York and Kentucky. I can also point to internal movements; struggles that led to the opening of awarenesses in my own being. As is often the case, suffering and a willingness to investigate pointed the way. Over time, this investigation led me to see more clearly an imbalance in my early relational attachment pattern which had resulted in limited patterns of perception of both self and other. I saw that I was caught in many forms of denial of my own internal experience through an abundance of vigilance and rejection. I was caught in a deep duality: a “good” this and an inferior “that,” both with respect to self and my perception of others. Over time, and helped by wise and kind relational repair, I came to see that infinite causes and conditions from long before I was born affected and disorganized my developing patterns of both internal and external regulation. Internally, being a nun at the time had allowed me to be a rather rigid “good” and to ignore or attempt to override many frightening internal movements of energy and emotion. Similarly, being a nun allowed me to present myself in relationships as “good” while permitting – even requiring – what for me was a familiar position of relational vigilance and aloof distance. As I came to bring more balance to both internal and relational regulation, it required a letting go of what had come before. I took another of the infinite steps in the ongoing dance of my life.
For each of us, the challenges of our lives invite similar journeys to wholeness and balance, both internally and in our relationships with others. While the details differ, we each are called to discover in direct experience and at every level the truths of internal and external relational attunement and interdependence. Internally, we are invited into wise and kind relationship with the interconnections among our cells and neurons and organs, our thoughts, perceptions and emotions and our personal sense of “myself.” We are invited into similar relational recognition of our interdependence with all that is “other.” All, in every way and at every level, rests in fluid, inter-being. Our spiritual longings are, at the deepest level, a manifestation of our inner longing to real-ize this truth in deeper and more and more inclusive and profound ways. Like all else in the world of form, wholesome internal and relational attunement skills are simply food for the journey. At a psychological level, they are the sweet rice milk that helps to stabilize our awareness even as these qualities of balance offer dim hints of the full wholeness that we seek. Enlightenment is the splendor and freedom of that ultimate dance with nothing-left-out.
….You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
from “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte