Real-Life Mutuality

Mutuality. Like “democracy,” it inspires us and evokes our highest ideals for how humans relate with one another. How wonderful, we think–everyone is invited to speak their deepest truth, and to make room for others to do the same. It sounds sane, civilized, and humane. And when it’s coupled with the concept of “holding,” where deep listening is polished to a high art, well, it sounds heavenly. “Wow, they’re going to listen to me, get me, understand what I’m about, reflect me back to myself and help me heal all my wounds from childhood and life, and we’re going to live peaceably together in community with each other.”

Once the ideal vision has been evoked, no amount of cautions and references to “messiness” will displace it from those who want to believe in the potential for human virtue and goodness. Hey, don’t we all want to live up to our ideals? So who can blame anyone for expecting that of us?

And in truth, we in the Trillium community have cultivated a remarkable capacity to meet one another deeply and invite the raw truth to be brought into the room, even when it’s difficult material to hear. We demonstrate our capacity regularly at our workshops and retreats and in the private work that teachers do with students. But–and this is a big but–it doesn’t always work as smoothly as that. There are some very real limits on mutuality in the trenches and some very challenging interpersonal dynamics that play out at times, and it is to our mutual benefit to investigate these dynamics in greater detail.

Mutuality requires that if you are feeling unseen or misunderstood, you bring these feelings out into the open and speak them to the relevant parties, instead of keeping them to yourself where they fester, or just grumbling to your friends. It is this speaking up that–hopefully–clears the air and restores mutual understanding and resonance. But it’s not always a straightforward thing, because the listener is human and has limits on what they are able to take in at any given time. Sometimes it takes several back-and-forth passes before there is resolution.

Adding another degree of difficulty is the presence of broken zones that might get triggered in a difficult interaction. When this happens, the interaction rapidly zooms out of the ideal zone into a hot zone of anger, fear, righteousness, defensiveness, and worse. When this happens, it can require a great deal of skill, time, and patient work on the parts of many people to unravel the whole thing and bring about healing. These are the most painful types of interactions we encounter in this work. They also have tremendous potential for deep healing, the kind that really gets to the root of the issues and brings them fully conscious, so they no longer unconsciously drive our behavior.

It’s good to keep in mind that, where there is a power differential such as between teacher and student, there is a responsibility for the teacher to do the lion’s share of holding and, if there has been injury, coconut yoga. Meaning that the teacher is called upon to withhold their personal reactions and really hear the other, even if they feel the issue is unfounded or unfair to them. It is best if they turn to another party, a trusted colleague, friend or therapist, to process the reactions that may be triggered. But then again, this is an ideal, and is not always what occurs in real life, where the teacher is, in the end, still human and not always able to be perfectly holding, understanding, and compassionate in all situations. When a teacher reacts, the idealistic bubble gets burst. If they have been looked upon as an idealized parent figure, “perfect mom” or “perfect dad,” they may suddenly switch in the viewer’s eyes to “bad mom” or “bad dad”–and bring up the most uncomfortable feelings left over from a childhood spent with parents that let them down.

These dynamics, called “transference” in the psychotherapy field, are inevitable in the type of healing work we are doing. And they are not inherently bad, but actually useful as long as both parties are willing to hang in together and work it through. This is a disillusionment that is beneficial–it brings about a more realistic appraisal of what people actually are, and the inevitable shortcomings of every person in relationship with others. Once this disillusioning becomes conscious, we become more tolerant of others, and in turn, ourselves. We really get that no one can behave “perfectly” for everyone else all the time. Just doesn’t happen.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t be loving and respectful of each other, and have deeply satisfying relationships. Nor that we can’t trust each other, though the trust may not look the way we thought it would, back when we were looking for something ideal. Trust doesn’t mean that the other will never cause you pain–that’s unrealistic. Trust, in the world of mutuality, means that there is a demonstrated commitment to leaning in and continuing to communicate with each other until resolution occurs.

Mutuality among peers has more latitude to engage directly in the hot zones than teacher-student mutuality. Perhaps “imperative” is more applicable here, than latitude–there is so much potential for deep healing and empowerment that engaging this way can be highly desirable. BUT -there needs to be mutual agreement that the parties are going to engage this way. Sometimes I call this “in your face mutuality,” and it is often (or maybe should be!) reserved for intimate partners. With a deep commitment and trust of each other, people are then freer to speak directly whatever is arising, and by so doing, bring that material into consciousness for healing. At least, that’s the theory! In heated moments, it may take quite a bit of savvy to get beyond just mutually triggering one another. Hence the need for commitment to work things through and not just quit in anger.

I recently had an interaction that brought some of these dynamics into sharper focus for me. I had brought some difficult feedback to a peer. I find that bringing feedback is a scary thing to do, because you never know how the other person is going to respond. The hoped-for ideal is that they will listen respectfully and say “I hear you, I get why you feel as you do, I will take that in.” Know what I mean?

But since we live in a real world with real people who have broken zones, that’s not always how it plays out. And in this case, I was listened to but the listener didn’t feel me. Instead, they began giving a defensive explanation that left me feeling unmet. When I spoke that, there was more reactivity, turning it around on me and implying I was out of line. Whoa! What happened?

When Broken Zones Interact

As we took the interaction apart, it became clear that I was bringing a defensive pattern of my own into the equation–the critical/judgmental self. This, in turn, triggered the other person into their “scared kid in trouble with mom” self. Hence their defensiveness. After a couple of passes, I owned my righteousness and the other person owned their fear, and we returned to being peers and not projections. Then we were able to look at the original issue from a much-less-charged space and come to understanding about it. And to feel more compassion for each other in the process.

In owning my part of the equation, I didn’t have to give up the original issue, which was valid. But it created a softening and a space in which resolution could come about. If I had held on to a righteous position, it would have been much less likely that the other person, who was triggered by that, would be able to hear the feedback I was bringing. Now, I would have much preferred that the other not have this broken zone in the first place, because it took extra time and energy to work through this whole thing, but this is what we’re dealing with. None of us has escaped the formation of these zones and defensive patterns, and even if we are relatively free of them, from time to time they are going to crop up, usually out of the blue and much to everyone’s surprise.

So, in summary, I see that there are many different types of mutuality and that understanding the potentials and the limits can take us a long way toward actually fulfilling the potential here. Where there is a power differential, it is appropriate for the one in the power position to bear the responsibility for the bulk of the holding. The student shouldn’t be asked to hold more than they’re able, especially when they are newer in the work and probably not very able to hold themselves, period. That said, there also needs to be some latitude for the fact that teachers are human and often holding a great deal, and may (will) fall short at times. This is not a justification, but a request for some leniency and compassion.

In any situation where triggering has occurred and passions have been aroused, sooner or later both sides will need to look at their end of the equation and take responsibility for it. It is rare for one side to be completely innocent and the other completely wrong, and we should assume as a basic premise that both are being hooked in some way, and that it will be healing to discover the manner in which that has occurred. Once it comes fully into view, there will be a greater likelihood of being free of that pattern in future interactions.

In mutuality among peers, there is more latitude to freely express what’s arising and not hold back. In fact, it is desirable not to hold back, because that withholding of information can be interpreted as a form of dishonesty that prevents real and deep intimacy. So the entire interaction becomes more hot–more direct, more honest, more potential for accidental injury, and more juicy in the best sense–of having real potential for getting one another more deeply than ever before. This sort of mutuality doesn’t really reach its potential until the players have matured in the second life–having gone through enough inspection of their patterns that they can trust themselves in the midst of strong feelings and expressions.

This sort of awakened mutuality is not at all what’s usually implied when people talk about “enlightened behavior.” I get an image of always kind, gentle, compassionate, patient, loving, etc. when I think of what I’ve read about enlightened people. But that seems dry and dead to me when I compare it with mutuality. Mutuality is strong stuff, a leaning in when you might want to be anywhere else, to really find the bottom line, to speak the truth, to growl and howl as well as purr. It takes a lot of time and work to be able to lean in with one another like this, but the payoff is living at a level previously unimagined. We’re just beginning to be able to live this, and we’re continually challenged to live up to our own expectations and to face how we fall short. It’s a grand adventure, however, and we invite you to join in, if you’re willing to see us and yourselves as well, as the whole beings that we are. We will try to meet you, and we ask that you do the same, with us.

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