This article was originally posted on this blog on 25 October 2021. It was lost because of a technical error, and hence I am posting it again.
Kirti is a 51-year old woman. She sits on the sofa, looking forward, towards you.
She is fair, thin, with curly hair. Her eyes and face reveal a tenseness, as if they are perpetually in motion, jittery, unsettled. As if she doesn’t experience, perhaps has rarely experienced, the quiet warmth of a mother’s embrace that makes the child feel, “all is fine, the universe is a friendly place.” The shaken-ness rarely gives way to stillness and peace.
Kirti is also remarkably transparent. Even when quiet, she cannot hide her anxiety. She cannot hide her deep wish that someone would love her, someone would make her feel safe and protect her from the threatening anxiety that subliminally never leaves her. In her guileless, mask-less being, Kirti has preserved the innocent wish of the child to trust and be taken in the refuge of the other.
While Kirti looks at your face, searching for signs of safety and trustworthiness, you also see that she is a woman with some convictions about life. As she speaks, you see that she has thought about society, politics, culture. Her education and work have facilitated thinking through and giving words to these matters. Despite her fragility, and her hope for a protective warmth, here is a woman with strong convictions, aware of the dynamics of the world around her.
Those convictions perhaps do not provide her with a personal sense of security and peace, even if they give her social being an anchor, a compass, to navigate the world with. Their intellectuality cannot be a replacement for the warmth of human touch, and the intimacy of a human voice truly voicing your own feelings.
All of this – her basic anxiety, her childlike transparence, her wish to live by what is good and what is right – continually flow through Kirti as she sits there, talking, being silent. The eyes are a vehicle for this, the face is a vehicle for this, the voice, the body, the words chosen, all convey these qualities, incessantly, as if a stream is flowing outwards from a covered source. ‘This’, is the ever-alive, perennially pulsating set of impressions that reach out to us that we call another human being.
When I sit in front of Kirti and listen to her, there are various possibilities that can become actual. I may listen in for that which I can make sense of, that which fits into my knowledge of psychological disorders and defences, that which can allow me to say something that will make both of us feel secure and productive. But all of ‘that’, is simply in my mind, a remnant of past reading, thinking, experiencing.
I can also make a simple, full act of attention. In a full act of attention to the other, the knowledge of the past is peripheral, if at all present.
Behind all this knowledge of disorders and defences, there is a witnessing self that looks not only at the person in front of me, but at my own thoughts, emotions, sensations. It is possible to respond from this witnessing self, to convey its stillness, its intimacy, its vastness, in one’s words and expressions.
The Jewish mystic and philosopher Martin Buber, in his book I and You, writes of his relationship with the moon. He steps out in the quietness of the night, and looks at the moon, in stillness and silence. This still, silent looking, uncrowded by knowledge from the past, brings the moon alive. All his life, he says, he has looked at the moon. But tonight, as he looks with a full act of attention, uncrowded by thoughts and implicit beliefs about the moon, the moon seems to look back. The moon comes alive, as a living, pulsating reality with which the seer is in relationship. It is a You to an I, rather than simply a thing that is looked at and used for one’s benefit. It allows the universe to be an alive, magical space, an unfoldment, rather than merely a continuing explosion of gases and rocks, on one of which we coincidentally happen to have been born.
In a simple, yet full, act of attention, a human being truly becomes a You to us. What they offer – whether it gives us something we seek or not – is irrelevant at this layer of relatedness. What is truly significant is who they are. It is not relevant whether Kirti has moderate depression, or she suffers from generalised anxiety, or she shows glimpses of bordelinity of psychic structure. These are simply vestiges of knowledge from the therapist’s past.
What matters is the personhood of Kirti. Her personhood is the fact that she is an expression of life, an emergence from silence, of streams of living that include fear, hope, and faith. These living streams, in a simple act of attention, can be felt together with her. One can experience, emotionally, what it is like to be Kirti.
For Martin Buber, this is the mystery at the heart of human existence, which comes alive in a relationship where one brings a full act of attention to another being.
This is a mystery, because beneath all these layers of the human presence is a simple silence, a pure witness from which these streams of emotion and thought are emerging. To attend to the layered emergence of the other human being is to fully participate in the relationship and allow the mystery of life to unfold. To fix one’s attention upon one part of this layered emergence is to allow the knowledge of the past to take over the unfolding of this mystery.
Martin Buber’s writings have been studied by psychotherapists of the humanistic, existential and gestalt orientations to deeply understand what a human encounter means. In this perspective, the experiences that are more conventionally called ‘mental illness’, are the result of a person’s sustained inability to experience this full encounter with one’s own self, and with the other.
For Kirti, who is now in middle-age, human intimacy has been a dream, only intermittently fulfilled. Relationships have become chores and role plays. Difficult partners have left her feeling incapable of being loved in body and soul. Her whole life, on hindsight, feels like a hole runs through it, an absence of a voice that could voice her own emotions, and of a touch whose warmth could reach through the porosity of her being and bring her to communion and peace.
As she grows older and her body changes, she feels that it might be too late now, that she cannot hope for love in the future as optimistically as she did when she was fifteen years younger. Years and decades of loneliness emerge as waves of warmth welling up in the chest and moistness in the eyes, in response to which she only wants to curl up, withdraw from the world, and remain in bed, and never get up.
In this withdrawal and dimming of her consciousness, the enormity of her sorrow becomes less, for to be half asleep, dull, means to feel less of the devastating sorrow that pulsates in one when one is going about the everyday business of life. Hence, in her attempt to dim the intensity of her sorrow, Kirti becomes depressed – lacking energy, lacking hope and desire, not wishing to get out of bed, not taking care of her needs but letting herself whither away.
It is not sorrow that causes depression, but the attempt of the person, often encouraged by society, to not meet the sorrow in its fullness, to regard it as something less than an organic expression of life, an essential aspect of what it means to be a human being.
Kirti does not wish that life unfolds in her, that she feels all emotions to their fullest. It is too much. Kirti has stepped into a freeze.
The therapist can bring a simple act of attention into his interaction with Kirti. This means a bare presence, where he is not using past knowledge to label, dissect, and micro-label Kirti’s words, life, behaviour. Rather, he is simply attentive, not only to the words spoken – if any are spoken – but to the eyes, the face, the energy of the person. To the quality of energy between us. To the emotions that colour the contours of this space. There is no impulse to label or to change, but a simple observation coupled with a caring presence that is careful to not stretch too far the boundaries of how much emotion the other is willing to feel.
It is not always possible to make a full act of attention. But one can always come back to the simple awareness in oneself, and try again. The practices of self-inquiry, meditation, therapy and similar processes can allow this to happen more.
The analytical gaze arising from past knowledge reveals a fixed person, with particular characteristics that can be labelled and manipulated for purposes deemed productive and useful. In contrast, the act of simple attention reveals a perpetual unfoldment of layers and layers of being, starting from a deep, vast silence to the most explicitly conveyed anxieties and concerns, to an underlying, subliminal desire hinted at, barely.
This simple act of attention allows for the unfoldment which has frozen to resume. It allows Kirti to re-experience her sorrow, and slowly, conversation after conversation, accept it, integrate it into who she allows herself to be, and then transmute it into hope, longing and constructive action.
The philosopher J. Krishnamurti often spoke of the enormity of sorrow. Sorrow, whenever it brings its presence to the threshold of our lives, brings with it an enormity. To allow this sorrow to come into our lives, to not block it away and fall into dysfunction, but slowly, gently, embrace it as the unfolding of existence in us, is to enlarge our being. It is to realise that we are far vaster than we have so far felt, and beneath all the power of painful emotions, is a vast peace from which we can act, in sensitivity and beauty.
A relationship that attends to this unfolding of sorrow in us, and of other forms of pain, helps us expand our capacity to live in this way.
Living in the mystery of life is a choice one can make, every moment. To be alienated from this mystery brings disorder and loss of meaning.