Updated: Jul 27, 2020
September 2019 Soul Notes
According to the Roman philosopher, Cicero, “the eyes are the window to the soul”. I first heard this in Russia and understood it to mean that if you look deep into someone's eyes, you’ll see who they really are, no matter what they wish you to believe. What I notice, is that there is an immediacy when someone truly gives us their gaze and attention. The look brings us into contact with the present moment, with ourselves and with each other. Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh says that “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention". It is a silent statement that I am here. I see you. However, often with the gaze comes a demand or an expectation, albeit subtle. Come and meet me. Be something for me. Tara Brach speaks of this in her podcast “Trust Your Gold". She invites us to wonder what it was that we each first saw in the eyes of our caregjvers and what that lay down for us. For some, there will have been an absence of any attention. That precious gift missing from the early years as parents were too busy; too distracted; too stressed; too inconsistent. If a child does not feel seen, it can lead him or her to question its very existence, for without the validation and mirroring of the loving caregiver, how can they know they are real?
For others, they will deduce and become attuned to the wishes of the caregiver for them. The wish for them to be good/quiet/undemanding/compliant/smiley/fill in the blank. If the child complies, then love is forthcoming. If she doesn’t, then it may be withheld. This happens in degrees, of course. Many parents don’t withhold love intentionally but may send confusing messages so that the love feels conditional. Some of you may have felt a demand to DO something. To smile. Coo. Crawl. Walk. Get good grades, etc. To always be on the move towards something. Not quite good enough in your present state and lurching to the next, flinging yourself to the next achievement only to realise that there’s another, and another...
Now our caregivers are often sharing with us what was shared with them, unless they have done some work on themselves to understand this more deeply. They may believe that this is what you need to learn to be successful in this world; that they are equipping you with a hard work ethic, a thick skin, resilience, people skills, etc…This way of being becomes our ego identity in the world. However, under this expectant gaze, the soul goes into hiding; afraid to be seen; afraid to betray the template of behaviour, attitudes and beliefs that has been laid down. The compliant self is often the self that goes out to live in the world, adapting to the anticipated, imagined, silent or actual demands of others, whilst the unseen self, goes deeper and deeper underground until we no longer know it as “our self". That might be our “shadow” side – the anger that wasn’t welcome; the sadness; the less sure parts. Or creativity perhaps? The whimsical, playful part that loves something for its own sake rather than with any notion of being “productive” or purposeful. In short, any part of us that doesn’t meet with the ego's recognition or approval.
These parts may remain buried or dormant but they do not disappear. They lay beneath the surface, waiting to be called, remembered, rediscovered. Sometimes a piece of music, or art, a poem, or a book, or nature will remind us of what we have buried. Other times, it will be seen by another. Someone who is really paying attention to you as a whole, who sees beneath the carefully constructed veneer of the self who walks in the world. When this happens, our whole body reverberates with the charge of that experience. To be seen, truly seen, is a magical moment. So many of the familiar fairytales touch upon this experience. The Ugly Duckling is one. The misshapen "duck" who is cast out by his own mother, and many others beside, because he doesn't look as he should, only to discover that he is in fact a swan. And when he discovers his own, he is welcomed, and loved and accepted just as he is. This is such a lesson for us in life. There are many places where we won't "fit". Where we will be urged to change. to contort, to become something other than we are, and we will blame ourselves for not being enough. Until the time when we find those who see us and accept us in our current shape. Who don't need us to do anything to be seen or cared for.
I experience this in some of my special relationships, what Aristotle calls “virtuous friendships". The friend who wants to read my writing, sometimes before it's even written, SEEING and nurturing the creative expression in me. The friend who makes a plan and then gives me my evening back because she knows I’ve had back to back sessions and need some alone time. The friend who takes me dancing so I can play and move and recover my body. The one who let’s me meander in my thinking without interrupting. Allows me to be lost in his company. Anyone who sees what does not have space or expression in me and invites/gives me permission to give it space. So I become more of myself, less armoured, more expressive, softer, more relaxed. That’s my experience of being seen. I feel free to expand, the space for me as subject rather than as object, where I don't have to be anything for anyone else.
Philosopher, Martin Buber wrote of this in his classic book, “I and Thou". He explores the nature of relationship and makes a distinction between “I-it" and “I-Thou". In order to truly meet, we need to step outside the conditionality of relating and relate to the wholeness of the other, rather than to the part or parts we know/like/recognise. It also requires that we bring the whole of ourselvesto the encounter.
“No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between the I and the Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunge out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting some about.”
So we need to be open to the other being their own subject rather than a means to our own ends if the other is to be real and not just the image we want to see.
However, Jean Paul Sartre posits that it's not possible for two people to look at each other in comfort and mutual recognition. For him it is always a contest - I look at you, then you turn it around and you look at me (making me into an object) so I resist and one of us must win and the other lose.. He believed that human relations are defined by this conflict, resulting in his conclusion that "hell is other people".
I’m writing about this because so often I hear this complaint from people wrestling with relationships in every forum. Apparently, others aren’t behaving as they “ought to”, and/or they expect something of you that is wholly unreasonable. These misunderstandings arise when we fail to accept the subjectivity of the other and want them to fall in with our way of being in the world. However, it happens more subtly too. When was the last time you felt truly seen and met in your wholeness /realness? How often do you feel like people only understand certain parts of you? Our society is so quick to categorise us; to identify us as social, professional, cultural, racial, economic, political, sexual, gendered entities. It has always been the case of course, but exacerbated further by the structures of social media, as the marketeers try to figure out how to “influence” us to consume more.
What of the whole swathes of society who often remain unseen because of their gender, race, disability, sexuality,etc? Whilst in Edinburgh, I came across a book, called Where Are the Women by Sara Sheridan. In this book she imagines a Scotland where women have not been sidelined, where their achievements are commemorated in statues and buildings and history captures their lives. Things look very different. Sadly, that's not the world we've grown up in.
I believe that counselling and coaching have a huge role to play in opening up a space and a relationship where we can both see and be seen. The encounter can be one where we understand which parts of us are more or less developed, depending on our life experience so far; where we can reveal ourselves more fully, and allow another to see us. In so doing, we begin to see more of ourselves and get familiar with the lesser known reaches. As we do this, the fear dissipates that others might discover parts we do not wish to be seen. And we gather courage and fullness in the self that has been quieted. As Dr Estés points out in Women Who Run with the Wolves, only then can the soul and the ego begin to build a relationship with each other, rather than be in competition, and the energy that we spend suppressing the less desirable parts is freed up for life and love and connection and creativity. We see ourselves, and need the approving gaze of the other much less, which means we can hold the space for them to be themselves, as envisaged by Buber. That's my hope and aspiration at least. For us all.
With much love and until the autumn.