The thing between us
I am sitting on a cushion flanked by two strangers - discreetly avoiding any direct contact with the naked bodies around me - while trying to listen intently as they take turns sharing things that get in the way of our intimacy.
I have just returned from IntimacyFest, three days in the California desert connecting with thirty-five strangers in an attempt to break the physical and mental barriers that keep us from the thing we most crave: human connection. Pushed past the limits of my own comfort, I find myself strangely liberated as I stare into the eyes of these new friends and share the most vulnerable and shameful assumptions I have made up about them.
With each share something inside me loosens, the space between us getting clearer and clearer as authentic connection blooms. I can now fully see the person in front of me, at last unencumbered by the story I had constructed about them.
In a culture that regularly collapses sex and intimacy, we are starved for the deepest forms of connection that we desperately want - being held, being seen, being touched, being heard. This intimacy is denied to us because we fear where it may lead: In my own life, I have been complicit in holding friendships with men at a distance, sanitizing them of any true intimacy for fear of what might happen or how it might be misconstrued.
When we tease apart sex and intimacy, however, identifying clear boundaries and naming the thing between us, we can learn to lean into intimacy and experience it without fearing inevitable sexual consequences.
As the fear, shame, judgements, and withholding dissipates, we can then connect clearly with the person behind the story: A loving, available human in all their infinite, flawed perfection.
If you seek more connection with your loved ones, your colleagues and your world, I encourage you to try this power tool in service of building greater intimacy in your life.
How to Clear Assumptions
Intimacy - which can be thought of as "in-to-me-see" - is defined as the ability to fully see and be seen by another being. What gets in our way of authentically seeing and experiencing another being are all the stories and judgements we make up about the people around us.
Clearing assumptions is a process where you sit across from a person you want more intimacy with and give voice to the assumptions you have been holding onto about them that get in the way of your relationship. The listener's job is to merely receive and hold a loving space for the clearing, not to defend or challenge or dialogue (or even take in) the assumptions being shared.
In the past two weeks, I have had nearly 70 assumption clearing conversations. I have done it with my leadership group, with festival strangers, with dear friends and with my beloved partner. While the vulnerability felt excruciating at times, and looking into someone's eyes to tell them the thing between us often felt like it would create more distance not less, the conversation always, always, always opened up new, precious possibilities for connection.
A few tips for using this tool to create greater intimacy:
Context is key. When you initiate these conversations, make clear to your partner your primary goal is to create greater intimacy between you. You can share this as an intention as you begin, and use the question - how does this get in the way of our intimacy? - to help guide the sharing.
Play with "I make/made up that...": By using this frame to introduce your assumptions, you make clear to your listener and yourself that you are identifying and taking ownership for your own stories. In this way, you identify your own created narratives and experiences that you are ready to release in service of being closer to them.
Take nothing personally. When you share and receive assumptions, it is critical that you self-manage to not take these stories personally. This is very hard. Remember: the goal is not to provide critical feedback about your partner or the relationship, but to provide a clean container for your partner to release the assumptions that get the way of the relationship.
Use this as a moment to get closer, but do not defend. It will be very tempting to want to discuss each point shared, dissecting the assumptions for truth/lies. This is not a feedback exercise. When you move into back-and-forth dialog, you rob the person of an unmitigated clearing, a chance to say the scary thing and let it lift without fear. Later you may want to discuss new paths for moving forward, but hold this as a separate process from assumption clearing.
This tool is not for the feint of heart. You may make messes. You may hurt feelings. You may have to go back for several rounds. The question becomes, what are you willing to risk in service of greater intimacy? How much do you want more connection versus politeness and avoidance? How much do you want to experience the people around you without the polluted filter of your own judgements?
Not only does this process liberate us to see and experience and love the people around us - now in this moment, as they are - but I have found myself incredibly resilient in the face of others sharing their stories about me, able to sit and bear loving witness to whatever people need to say to be clear.
When intimacy and love is the heart of the equation, when the relationship is paramount, judgements float away and two beings meet each other at one hundred percent presence.
With all the courage and love for you as you are, I encourage you to go forth and dissolve the things that stand between you, holding greater connection for us all.