a compassionate consent to Reality

madonna and child Sassoferrato

I’m using a writing format learned from peacemaker, John Paul Lederach (see his example), to explore a phrase that has become very important to me. I anticipate this to be the first of four parts – and the next one will explore what I mean by “Reality.”

A Compassionate Consent to Reality – I

We often experience ourselves to be “out of alignment.” Something is disconnected – maybe has been a long time. We’re aware enough to long for (re)connection, to believe it possible or right.

Do words like beauty and truth have a deep, intuitive association with this remembered /longed-for connectedness? Are they words that we reach for when we catch glimpses, feel awakened longings?

Late at night on a deck overlooking a misty New Brunswick lake, we heard the cries of several loons. It was the first night of a week’s vacation. I said to the others, “This alone makes it worth being here.” What’s going on here? What was I experiencing in that moment?

A “compassionate consent to Reality” is the phrase that I am playing with to explore realignment, this opening to integration, engagement, and wholeness. I first coined the phrase when preparing for a short seminar trying to get at “the heart of trauma healing.” Then the idea behind it seemed at the heart of even more.

Integration, engagement and wholeness are synonyms for healing.

Healing is nature’s default. This is why healing is about consent.
We don’t make healing happen; we allow it and we clear the way.
We open to healing and embrace it.

One thing that I experienced that night on the lake was “consent.” Sitting in the stillness, listening to the loons and the breeze, nothing in me was braced or resistant. I was wide open and still. Lake, clouds, wind, birds… I’m here to experience you. How do we connect? Do we just be together and ask nothing more?

Older, more traditional, words for this kind of consent are surrender, submission, yielding. They aren’t naive; this is no small thing. They all have complicated associations, but the key is that they are voluntary and immersed in love.

Consent is vulnerable, wise and courageous love. Consent is the essential act of trust. Where there is no reason to trust, it is not wise to consent. When we think we are right to trust, when it seems true and good, and yet we know there is still risk and pain and loss involved – this is when we feel the full challenge of the invitation. Can I consent to the joy and the sorrow, the peace and the pain? Do I trust that they are inseparable – that this growth and stretching is Life?

The lake is cold. It is still June and a string of cool nights have kept the water chilled. But we’re at the lake; swimming is what we do. So, cloudy, windy, cool though it may be, we put on swimsuits and head to the dock. We’re not inspired. The water is choppy and uninviting. We look at each for encouragement; the results are mixed. In the end what we see in each other is not “this will be great” but “this is right.” If we back off now, will we back away from life? Disengage when it’s difficult? The water was cold, colder than we’d expected. I endured treading water long enough to know I wasn’t “getting used to it.” I kicked a rock and hurt my toe. When I walked out, I felt the same wind that had earlier been cold and uncomfortable. Now, with our bodies so chilled, the air was a warm caress. We were more alive and animated as we towelled off and headed to the cabin. It was not an idyllic swim, but it was good to consent to the lake.

Another word(s) for consent is “letting go,” which also brings mixed reactions. It sounds like it’s meant to be easy (“Just let go!”) but it’s not – usually. Yet it is meant to be passive – something we allow to happen rather than make happen.

I have a friend who hates those words – let go. They aren’t heard easily when desperate for something better to happen, trying to hold on.

I think letting go is a process that, like music, often has three movements: 1) First we stop. This is the active step that allows the receiving of the gift to take place. We stop feeding the story that makes us braced and resistant. We stop feeding the anger and resentment. We stop feeding the fear, and we imagine trust and (self) compassion. We stop running and hiding and denying. 2) Then we let ourselves experience what is. We “feel what we feel and know what we know.”[1] We accept, even welcome, the feelings, the awareness – the wholeness of things. 3) Then, having accepted this full and painful gift, we notice unhelpful aspects begin to fade or dim. Those things that we are meant to let go of, slowly (sometimes quickly!) spill out of our now-unclenching hands.

So, ironically (in contrast to “letting go”), another word for consent is “receiving.” We allow ourselves to receive the offer of compassion and presence. To receive our memories and feelings.

Recall or imagine a moment when an upset child refuses to be comforted. Even when there is love, with full acceptance of the emotions being felt, and even when there is no correction or discipline involved, there is resistance. What’s in the way?

Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

“I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain.”

A stiff, braced and tense body or mind is the opposite of compassionate consent. How much pain comes from this?

My granddaughter (and her parents!) came to visit us at the lake for a couple of days. She is four months old. Watching her personality emerge is pure joy. A smile or laugh from her is like sunshine. These moments aren’t unattached to pain or worries. There are times when tears seem without cause, unfixable. We join her parents in trying this or that, usually with patience, always with love. The reward, eventually, is her stillness and peace as she sleeps.

Stephen Porges, developer of “polyvagal theory” that has provided seminal understanding of the body and trauma and healing:

“…the metaphor of the mother calming the child is neurophysiologically embedded in contemplative training and practices and is frequently used in various spiritual narratives.”

Grandma (my wife, Carol) scooped the baby up early one morning when she fussed a bit. I drifted off for a few more moments (or maybe an hour). Then I got up and saw them out on the deck overlooking the lake in the rising sun. I grabbed my camera and got a pic of a baby in utter peace in Grandma’s arms. This picture is an icon for me – an icon.

[1] A phrase from Dr. Bessel van der Kolk associated with healing from trauma.

5 thoughts on “a compassionate consent to Reality

  1. Life does not always seem to ask for consent though. Do you think this is a root of trauma? The forcing of reality against consent feels violent and violating.

    1. Life does not ask our consent. But accepting the full experiencing of life is something that we can resist. And, yes, I think that is close to the definition of trauma. But I don’t think trauma always feels violating. Sometimes yes; but sometimes just overwhelming. And I’m not sure that I would use the word “forcing” (of reality). I think it’s more like the “solid wall” of reality that we sometimes crash against.

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