8 Reflections on Intimacy

by Nicole Daedone  Sep 10, 2016
Hands Painted Red Heart Tim Marshall

September 12, 2010

We usually reserve the word intimacy to describe the relationship that develops when we and another fall mutually in love. We open our hearts, our minds and our senses to our beloved, and they open to us in return. Connecting in this way makes us feel special and irreplaceable. It gives us a sense of having a place in the world. Because we tend to equate intimacy with romantic relationships, when the quality of intimacy is missing from our lives, our first impulse may be to try to find one. But if we limit our search for intimacy to the search for romantic partner, we are thinking way too small. We can become intimate with our food, our homes, our daily tasks and the tools we use to accomplish them. We can become intimate even with that which annoys us: the interruption, the traffic jam, the inclement weather. We can become intimate with our aches and pains, our hopes and desires, our fears and failures. When we show up in this way for our everyday experience, the entire world becomes our beloved.

Intimacy has been my lifelong quest. I am still learning how to achieve it. Each of the discoveries I will share has helped me to become more intimate with myself and the world. I hope they will be helpful to you as well.

1. Loving creates lovability

I grew up an only child in suburban Los Gatos. One of my closest friends, Maria, came from a large, warm, rambunctious Chilean family. I envied the love that seemed to surround her.

Maria’s most cherished possession was her bicycle. She rode it everywhere and took very good care of it. She had such a passion for that bike that she learned everything about how it worked and what it needed, and eventually got a job repairing bikes for other people. The love she felt for her bike made it glow – made it seem like the most desirable object on earth. I wanted that same feeling. In fact, I wanted to feel even more of it than she did. I figured that if I bought a better bike than hers, my bike would glow even more.

So I bought one that was top of the line. But somehow its glow eluded me. I rarely rode it, and its presence in my garage began to feel vaguely reproachful, a thorn in my side. I almost came to hate it. In my mind, this was definitely the bike’s fault.

One day, my friend’s beloved bike was stolen. She borrowed mine and rode it everywhere. To my amazement, it began to have the same magical glow I had so envied in her old bike. So naturally I wanted it back. But once I got it, I still didn’t really feel like riding it, and it soon resumed its reproachful sulk in mygarage. It refused to glow for me.

A lot of people approach looking for love as I approached bike shopping. We want a top of the line model. We have a list of desirable qualities and imagine that desire itself will arise when we find someone who possesses those qualities. If love is absent from our lives, we may believe it is because we have not yet encountered someone sufficiently lovable. We are expecting love to be activated by its object.

What made any bike that Maria possessed seem so desirable was the love she lavished on it. The glow was not in the bike itself, but in her relationship to it.

Like bicycles, people become more desirable when we are attentive to them. Their most lovable qualities reveal themselves to us only after we have begun to love them. Loving is the polish. Anything and anyone we cherish and care for will glow for us.

2. Desire is a teacher

My bike didn’t satisfy me because a bike was not what I truly wanted. It was a symbol of what I found so enviable in my friend: the way she was surrounded by love, so rich in love, that even inanimate objects were somehow animated by it.

She had a power of connecting to her world that I seemed to lack. I imagined I could attain that inner state by imitating its outward form.

Our knee-jerk reaction to desire is to focus all our efforts on obtaining whatever it is we think we want. While that is happening, we experience the feeling of desire and the object of desire as inseparable. Had you asked me “What is the true nature of your desire?” I would have responded, “I want a bike.” So long as we are in hot pursuit of the object, it appears as simple as that. We rarely contemplate desire itself unless its object is hopelessly unattainable or, like my bicycle, proves disappointing once attained. Thwarted or disappointed desire is good for us – though it doesn’t feel good when it is happening. Only when separated from its object does the quality of desire itself begin to speak to us. It has a lot to tell us about who we truly are.

There is a deeper, often concealed aspect to all impulses. We tend to move in the direction the impulse tells us to go rather than into the impulse itself. The more we fixate on the object of desire, the more we are carried away from ourselves. We miss what the desire is trying to tell us. At these times we can’t actually be intimate with anyone else because, in the very act of pursuing them, we have fallen out of intimacy with ourselves.

One way to become intimate with your own desires is to introduce a gap between impulse and action. We do this when we meditate. Maybe while sitting you start to wish you were drinking a cup of coffee instead. In its absence, that coffee becomes more and more desirable. You fantasize getting up and making a beeline for the coffee urn, inhaling the coffee-scented steam as you fill your cup, taking the first, best sip. But you can’t do any of this until the gong rings, and that ring is still twenty minutes away. At the moment, there is nothing to do but to hang out with your coffee fantasy and the inner state that has given rise to it. Maybe you are thirsty. Maybe you are feeling foggy or sleepy or bored. Maybe something in you resents the discipline you are imposing on yourself and wants to feel indulged. By sitting with the impulse instead of acting on it, you experience its unique taste and texture—which is your unique taste and texture. You become intimate with yourself.

3. What you truly desire will be found in the dark

A teacher I knew of was dying, and I had flown to Hawaii to meet with him in person for the first and last time. There would be three group interviews over the course of three days.

Whatever transpired between us during those three meetings would have to last me for the rest of my life. On the first day, he asked me, “What do you want?” I froze. To offer any response that fell short of my deepest, truest desire would be to waste one of my precious few encounters with him. I wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But at that moment, I could not for the life of me identify what it might be. The only desire I could get in touch with was the desire to please him with my answer. Between me and my deepest desire – whatever it was – an internal censor had interposed itself, intent on naming a desire that the teacher would deem worthy. I mumbled something about moving into the Zen center and devoting my life to spiritual practice.

That was what I thought I was supposed to want.

The teacher responded, “Very interesting” and then, apparently losing all further interest, added, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” From this I gathered that my answer had been wrong.

I had been caught off guard, unprepared. Determined not to let that happen again, I lay awake that night revising my answer, mentally rehearsing my new, improved version of it. Sure enough, the question came again the following day, and I offered the response I had memorized. I can no longer remember what it was, exactly. Something about wanting to get enlightened. “Very interesting,” he replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

By now I was starting to panic. I’d blown my first two chances with him, and only one remained. It dawned on me that if I was losing this badly giving the “right” answers, there was little more to lose by giving a wrong one. My internal censor dropped its guard just long enough for a wrong answer to make itself known. It was an appalling answer, but the truth of it was undeniable.

On the third day, the teacher asked, “What do you want?”

I said: “I want to take over your seat when you die.”

A sort of gasp arose in the room, followed by a stunned silence. I felt hideously exposed, and utterly mortified. A lifetime seemed to pass before the teacher broke into a smile and everyone in the room exhaled.

“Now we have something interesting to talk about,” he said.

Desire and dissembling seem to go hand in hand. Even when we fully intend to tell the truth about what we want, we have a hard time doing so. Our deepest desires reside at a layer beneath judgment. It’s so dark and obscure down there that we assume whatever lives there must be really bad. To get to it, we have to slip past the internal censor whose self-appointed mission is to conceal what lies at our core.If we can’t slip past that, we may spend most of our lives pursuing what we think we’re supposed to want, perpetually dissatisfied because what we truly want is a difficult-to-penetrate mystery. We keep throwing offerings into that underground volcano of yearning without ever appeasing it. Like an inefficient charity that squanders most of its funds on administrative costs, we never reach the hunger.

4. Being good doesn’t get you loved

I almost blew my chance to connect with that teacher because I was trying so hard to be good. My concept of what “good” might mean was largely a projection of what I figured it meant to him.

It wasn’t what he truly wanted to receive from me, nor was it what I truly wanted to give. This whole notion of “good” was an officious middleman so intent on managing our encounter that the love I felt could scarcely get a word in edgewise.

To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s good got to do with it?”

Just as we may list the “specs” that we would like our hypothetical beloved to possess, we hope that matching another’s list of specs will cause them to love us. We try to present the qualities on our “good” list, and to suppress the evidence of those on our not-so-good list. In the short run, it is often possible to pull this off. But we can never really feel secure in love that is won this way. Sooner or later, a crack will appear in the beautiful illusion we are creating – and what then?

The love that truly hits the spot for us, the love that feels like love on those blessed occasions when we receive it, is love that is unearned, love that we’re not entirely sure we deserve. We long to relax into a love that doesn’t avert its gaze from our flaws, faults and foibles, a love that persists after those pastel veils with which we first sought to attract it have been torn to shreds.

If we yearn to be loved when we are in the wrong, why do we struggle so hard to remain constantly in the right? Perhaps it is because we are resisting the painful truth that it is not in our power to make someone else love us. We settle instead for trying to make them approve of us. Yet, until we have disappointed someone, the love they profess for us just glances off the gleaming surface of our armor. Unless we reveal the chink in that armor, their love can’t penetrate to the soft vulnerable places that crave love the most, and are helpless to earn or deserve it.

5. Falling is the best way down

Falling in love is good. Most other kinds of falling we think of as bad. We don’t like falling into – into debt, or error, or despair. Nor do we like falling from – from favor, from grace, from some pinnacle of achievement.

Our entire anatomy is unanimous in the desire to avoid a fall. We don’t want to belly flop, land on our asses, or pitch flat on our faces.

To fall in love is to reverse this natural and universal aversion to being unexpectedly conquered by gravity. It is to surrender to the very thing we spend most of our upright hours trying to avoid. If you would like to fall in love, other kinds of falling are good practice.

As a toddler, you learned to stand, and then to walk, by falling a lot. Often children bawl and weep when this happens, and you might think it’s because falling hurts them physically. But the curious thing (perhaps you’ve noticed this too) is that if a toddler isn’t aware that you are watching, she doesn’t cry when she falls. She just picks herself up and starts to walk again. The toddler who cries when there is an adult witness is probably doing so out of embarrassment. To fall in front of people who never seem to fall themselves feels shaming. That’s also true of the various falls we suffer, or do our best to avoid suffering, as adults. What gets bruised most is our pride.

Yet something in us seems attracted to falling. Many of the things we do for sport involve the risk of it, and the very point of some sports – skydiving, bungee-cord jumping – is to fall on purpose. It’s a thrill. In the non-sporting aspect our lives, we precipitate accidents that, on later reflection, may turn out to be not altogether accidental, as if some part of us were out to trip up the rest of us. We see this in stars or politicians who, just when everything seems to be going their way, commit some stupid crime or indiscretion that is sure to be found out. I’m feeling the same temptation myself these days, on the eve of some publicity that’s about to put me in the limelight. That’s where I’ve wanted to be, but now that it’s shining on me, I feel the urge to take a pratfall.

This part of us that is shamed yet enticed by the prospect of falling is vital to our capacity to connect. Our deepest desires lie beneath the layer of judgment, and falling is how we get there. The moments of intimacy that thrill us most and connect us best come when we have invited another into some region of ourselves where shame is a clear and present danger.

6. You’re going to get wet

Intimacy requires lubrication—and I’m not just talking about sexual intimacy. Moisture moves, and facilitates movement. It is the medium of connection. It allows us to melt into one another. If we try to connect without it, we just rub each other raw.

The human body melts a little wherever it comes in contact with the soul. The sign of this melting is an involuntary physical reaction: laughing, weeping, blushing, goose bumps, sexual arousal, orgasm. Some of these reactions are literally wet. And while some of them can be faked, when they occur spontaneously, they never lie. For better or worse, what we really feel is on display, impossible to conceal from ourselves or others. It can be embarrassing.

But why is it embarrassing? Why do we so often feel like apologizing when our bodies reveal our souls?

The first thing we learn to feel shame about, when we are very little, is the inopportune appearance of bodily fluids. At precisely the same time we are learning to say “I” we are also learning that this “I” is not supposed to leak. The very first task we undertake as “I” is to try to get the leaking under control. “I” means the one in charge, the controller of the previously uncontrollable. To our toddler minds, “I” equals dry. Involuntary equals wet. Wet is the icky failure of “I.”

So you see the problem. Intimacy happens when we get “wet,” when what we are truly feeling leaks out and reveals itself to another. The command-and-control center called “I” is intent on preventing this and feels shamed when it can’t. The shame has little to do with the actual reactions of others. They might be touched when we weep, charmed when we blush, thrilled when our bodies belie sexual arousal. Nevertheless, we feel that we have lost control, are afraid of being judged for it even when no one else is judging. Intimacy requires a letting go which, to the “I,” feels like the shaming, and potentially dangerous, failure of “I” altogether.

Perhaps you can also see the tremendous spiritual potential here. If our aspiration is to liberate ourselves from our oppression by the inner command-and-control center, we must be willing to step out of the hot dry world of thought and into the juicy, fecund festival of spontaneity that reveals the true world.

7. When your heart hurts, it needs to get bigger

Pity the poor command center. It only wants what it thinks best for us—to make us safe, and good, and approved. It is ever-vigilant on our behalf, hardly ever falling down on the job, or complaining of fatigue. It needs love too. If you would like it to relax and let you enjoy the world, you need to understand what it is so agitated about. So let’s see if we can address one of its biggest concerns.

Whenever we get wounded, or thwarted, or disappointed in our quest for intimacy, the inner manager assumes it is somehow to blame. Immediately it sets to work trying to identify where it went wrong. It chose the wrong person, or failed to heed the red flags, allowed us to give or to reveal too much, or to take some reckless risk. Momentarily suckered by the hope that this time would be different, it allowed us to fall into a familiar negative pattern, not recognizing the same old same old until it was too late.

No matter how it diagnoses the problem, the inner manager tends to apply the same remedy: contraction. It tightens and folds in on itself, trying to protect the wounded spot from further harm. It drafts new policies, rules and regulations, intended to prevent a reoccurrence. It adds new items to the evergrowing list of danger signs it must take note of next time. The more diligent it is about this, the fewer the options it will allow us to exercise. The more it contracts, the more our world shrinks. If you would like it to stop doing this, you need to give it a better idea.

My own command center faced its absolute worse case scenario when my ex-husband got together with my former best friend. Since we still had many mutual friends, I was constantly getting updates on the progress of their affair. The only way to block it out seemed to be to block out these other friends as well. My world kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. But the whole thing was so excruciating, what else could I do but block it out? The worst of it was that I still loved my ex-husband and former friend. The only way to block that was to keep up a running prosecution in my head. Day and night, my would-be inner protector kept up a steady stream of speeches addressed to an imaginary jury, as if nothing short of a felony conviction could keep me safe.

One day my friend Lauren said, “What if instead of trying to push them away, you put them in the center of your heart?” That was a pretty scary prospect, but the effort of pushing them out of my heart was exhausting me, so I decided to give Lauren’s suggestion a try. Tentatively, I opened my heart, exploring how it felt to hold them there. To my surprise, what I had conceived of as unendurable pain melted into a tenderness, a sweetness, and my world, which had gotten so small, expanded until it was vast—vaster than any world I had previously known, and filled with this tender sweetness. In this enlarged world that was my own heart, my victim story shrank until it was all but imperceptible. It felt less like something that had happened to me, than something that had just happened, period – a passing event in a world large enough to contain that and so much more. The worst pain I had ever felt was not, after all, unendurable. I could bear it, and then some.

When you want to dilute salty water, you can add fresh water a drop at a time. Or you can pour the salt water into a bathtub. Better yet, you can pour it into a freshwater lake. The larger the container, the more diluted the salt — the pain — becomes.

Your inner manager will never give up its effort to protect you — for that’s what it sees as its job. But you can teach it to relieve rather than avoid pain, to expand instead of contracting.

8. True love dies

I was already committed to my current partner, Reese, when I realized that I had fallen out of love with him. It seemed to happen suddenly, and it was a great loss to me. I blamed him for his failure to go on inspiring in me the feeling that I had called “being in love.” In fact, I hated him for it.

As luck would have it (bad luck for Reese), I was at that time doing a radical honesty practice that obliged me to blurt out exactly what I was feeling at any given moment, no matter what the consequences. Thus, Reese was subjected to hourly bulletins on the status of my disillusionment with him. “I hate the way you chew your food,” I would announce over dinner. He responded to my insults with equanimity, neither complaining nor retaliating. “You hate the way I chew my food,” he would acknowledge calmly. “I hear that.” I found this utterly inscrutable. Why wasn’t he freaking out, as I was, over the demise of our romance? How could he stand it? How could he stand me? He had become a mysterious stranger, with unfathomable powers. He fascinated and excited me.

A love that never dies is no love at all, for love is the life force, and whatever lives is also constantly in the process of dying. You may, one night, lie down next to your love and wake up the next morning to find it gasping and blue in the face. When that happens, we tend to commence emergency procedures. You might return to the scene of your first date or first kiss, hoping to recapture the old magic. You might reread your old love letters, trying to remind yourself of what you’re supposed to feel. When the old formula fails—as usually it does —your efforts to revive the love become increasingly frantic. You pound on its sternum as if administering CPR. The more you bang away at it, the deader it looks.

Like falling in love, falling out of it is a downward journey. It carries us past our inner managers, judges and censors to connect with who we are at our core. That place is the source of our life and the source of all love. If we refuse to be carried down there, nothing new can be born. Sometimes what is reborn, when we surrender to the fall, is love for our current partner. There are no guarantees, but that’s often what happens. Before a new love can be born, though, you have to show up for the funeral of the old one.

(Photo Credit: Tim Marshall)