by Faith Harper
There is an enormous power to being the person up here, the one doing the talking. Which is pretty
ironic considering that when I told you I wanted to talk about intimacy with y’all today, I am really
sneaking in a lot of my thoughts on power.
My father is a Roman Catholic deacon and an ecumenical catholic priest. For many years he would dress in his alb and stole and speak from this position. There were always two things you could count on in my household. Somewhere on his alb would be a pagan symbol…a reminder of our spiritual roots. And he would never wear underwear. I think he took great pleasure in how much this upset my mother. He would always make some comment about the fact that he was wearing a dress in public and his lack of underwear was probably the least of his problems. But I think that in reality, it served as a reminder that despite all the trappings of his surroundings and his vestments, that he was not any more special or holy than the congregation that he served. That it is easy to believe in a kind of power structure that creates barriers instead of connections.
And so many of us have lost our ability to hold that truth on a daily basis. That we are not different,
better, or separate in any way from the rest of the planet we reside on.
There is a story I tell my counseling students. It is about a man who falls in a deep, deep hole. It’s dark, scary, and unscalable. He can’t get out alone. He screams and cries for help. A doctor comes along, writes out a prescription and throws it down into the hole.
But that doesn’t get him out of the hole.
A lawyer walks by. The man is screaming and sobbing “help me, help me, help me out.” The lawyer
writes a brief in support of his position and throws it down into the hole.
But that doesn’t get him out of the hole.
Then someone new walks by. When I tell this story to my students, I tell them it’s a counselor. But in
reality it’s any one of us. Any connected, empathic person. You or I, regardless of what we do for a
living…we walk by that hole, we hear the man screaming, pleading, scared, and stuck. And we jump
down in the hole with him.
For a minute the man is quiet. He is surprised, shocked, and it probably feels good, for a moment, to not be alone in his misery. Then he realizes that you are both down in the same hole. He turns and he asks “Now what? Now there are two of us stuck down in this hole.”
And we say, from a place of empathy, connectedness, and intimacy respond “But I have been here
before and I know the way out.”
So there is a hole I have spent many years working my way out of, and I think I am close to getting there. And wanted to share my map out, in case you find yourself stuck in the same place. I freely admit that I am a terrible Buddhist. I have always felt that if the goal of Buddhism is enlightenment, I am in serious trouble. Traditionally, enlightenment means a true awakening into that which imprisons us into suffering and attachment. It means a realization of what exists in the here and now, and a freedom from this suffering and these attachments.
I am pretty sure I will never be able to achieve that.
Jack Kerouac wrote a poem that stated, simply, that once you become enlightened you will realize you have been enlightened all along. I used to get so irritated with that. Like he was teasing me about
something that was quite likely out of my reach as an overthinking, overfeeling imperfect human.
Then I read Zen Master Dogen’s take on enlightenment which is that all enlightenment really is is
intimacy with all things. And that started to make things crack open for me.
I wanted to do some reading on Zen Master’s Dogen’s perspective on intimacy. Jack Kornfield
explicated it beautifully in his book, A Path With Heart:
If we investigate what keeps us from intimacy, what keeps us from love, we will discover it is
always an expectation, a hope, a thought or a fantasy. It is the same expectation that keeps us
from awakening. Awakening is not far away; it is nearer than near. As it says in the Buddhist
texts "Awakening is not something newly discovered; it has always existed. There is no need to
seek or follow the advice of others. Learn to listen to that voice within yourself just here and
now. Your body and mind will become clear and you will realize the unity of all things. Do not
doubt the possibilities because of the simplicity of these teachings. If you can't find the truth
right where you are, where else do you think you will find it?
So I think that what Zen Master Dogen and Jack Kornfield are trying to tell us is that we achieve intimacy (and therefore awakening) in unity, in equality, and in shared power.
So we are automatically set up for our failure in our current culture.
We have a common misconception that the DNA organization of primates…what Richard Dawkins terms the “selfish gene”…creates a loading of dominator cultures in all primate species. In essence, in order to survive, we are wired to wield power over others. This plays out in every arena in our lives. We have, historically, set up situations in which it is evident that some individuals have more power than others and wield that power in their benefit and interests. We have markers of these power differentials in everything we do. Whether it be the alb and stole of a church, or the suit, tie, and cufflinks of a corporate executive.
And while many people don’t know this yet, anthropologists have figured something out. Most notably,
through the work of Riane Eisler, we have found that primates are not actually wired to dominator
models of society. While chimpanzees engage in dominator social structures, bonobos do not. Bonobos have partnership social systems. And human beings, across time, have demonstrated both partnership and dominator social models. The great secret is that we are wired for both. So we have a choice, every day, in how we want to interact with the rest of our world.
Do we wield power over or do we share power with others?
There is something else that research has born out in recent years. It is that Jean Baker Miller’s notion of relational cultural theory is neurobiologically correct. Our brains are hardwired to need relationships, we are wired to connect.
We are our healthiest, happiest selves when we experience intimacy with others. We are awakened in connection. But we cannot achieve intimacy when operating in a “power over” social system.
So what’s the difference between these power-over dominator social systems and these power-with
partnership social systems? Riane Eisler’s research has born out some interesting facts. Partnership models of society have minute levels of violence, aggression, fear, and abuse. Roles and expectations are negotiated and built on trust and respect. Do we still have conflict? Of course! But individuals have shared power in arriving at solutions. Are we still competitive? Of course, Richard Dawkins was totally right about that. But competition is achievement based rather than fear and attack based.
So I think…and a lot of people way smarter than I am think…that our lack of connectedness, our lack of intimacy, our lack of enlightenment…comes from our inability to share power. But the good news is, no matter what anyone else tells you, humanity is not a lost cause. Cultural evolution drives biological evolution, because it changes how we interact with each other and with the
world. Instead of ranking human beings over or under other human beings, we begin linking them. We
share power. We cultivate intimacy.
The question, then, is…how?
When I work with couples, I have them reconnect through touch. When I work with families, I
reintroduce play and fun. When I work in corporate systems, I encourage managers to find out what
their staff members are passionate about and give them opportunities to develop those passions, even if they aren’t doing their day to day job requirements so effectively. These are all activities that
restructure relationships. By sharing power, we build connections. And we create a movement of
The problem with most great ideas is that we talk about them, but our follow through is minimal and
sporadic. We yearn for big, systemic changes that we do not have the individual power to accomplish, rather than focus on the things we can change. My friend Adrian Warren introduced me to the concept of microadvocacy recently. His term is nicer than mine, I call it publically shaming people into action by taking small steps toward changing broken systems.
Because this is what I am going to ask you to do.
I am passing around slips of paper and a jar to put them in. I am going to ask you to commit to
something different you are willing to do, that will dismantle power structures in your life and instead
build intimacy. So research shows that when we write something down, we are 42% more likely to
follow through. So I am challenging you to choose one thing, write it down, and add it to the jar. I am
going to leave the jar here with you, in the sacred space this congregation has created, as a tangible
reminder of your commitment to cultural evolution.
I am not going to tell you what avenue of change to choose, and in which of your relationships to take
action. I think you likely already know. I am guessing that an image flashed in your mind as I offered this challenge. It may be in your romantic partnership, it may be within your family or circle of friends, or it may within your greater community.
But in case you are still pondering, let me share my children’s commitment to cultural evolution,
because it is a simple one. It’s cereal bars. We keep them in the glovebox of the car, and hand them out to anyone who seems hungry. We roll down the window of our car, step out of our own story, and make a connection with people standing at stoplights, asking for money, washing windows, selling
newspapers. We chat, we smile, we make eye contact, and we ask them if they are hungry. In the area we live, many people have come to know us. Giving out cereal bars is my son’s very favorite thing in the world to do. When I asked him why, this 14 year old boy, whose answer to everything is “I dunno” said “I like feeding people. And I like making them happy.” He got it. He got intimacy with all things.
My work as a therapist often has to do with sexuality and how people express that aspect of themselves. But there are many opportunities for intimacy and connection in our daily lives. Big sweeping ideas of change won’t save the world because they feel overwhelming and impossible and they do typically fail for that reason. But small, daily acts have so much more impact than we realize.
So I am challenging you today to start changing the world through a small daily act that builds more
intimacy in your relationships. I think the Buddhist teachings are correct. If we can’t find it within
ourselves, where do we think we are going to find it? And I am going to come back and visit you again in November. And I bet that when we share our microadvocacy stories, we will realize that we really have been enlightened all along.