I had another glance at the possibilities of intimacy, if only for a moment, at the service on Sunday given by the Unitarian Universalists’ new minister. We shook hands after the service and he mentioned our week-ago conversation about Flannery O’Connor. In that personal, intimate moment, I felt seen. If he responds to everyone as though each matters, the whole will be equal to, if not greater than, its parts! The church will become vibrant with knowing and being known.
A third bout with the idea of intimacy occurred at a Zen Center dharma talk. The priest related an eighth century Koan, one of those paradoxical stories like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” These stories, usually very old, take the mind beyond its habitual way of making meaning. In the story she shared, “Lingzhao’s Helping,” an old man, Layman Pang, loses his footing on a bridge as he and his daughter, Lingzhao, go home from selling bamboo baskets. When she looks back and sees that he has fallen, she runs to him and throws herself down next to him. He asks her what she is doing. She says she is helping. He then says it is good no one is looking.
My reaction to this koan missed the mark. I didn’t see how her behavior could be called helping. I thought she should want to get dad off the ground as quickly as possible. But this story is about becoming intimate with another’s situation before assuming the role of helper. The daughter’s behavior suggests a way to be with another person that isn’t hierarchical. At Dad’s level she sees what it is like for him. She doesn’t become “the helper” making her Dad “the victim,” shifting into an uneven relationship. She doesn’t assume she knows what to do before she sees from her father’s vantage place. But by being down with Dad, Lingzhao metaphorically becomes intimate with his situation. And when Dad says it’s good no one is looking, he isn’t expressing concern for what the neighbors might think; he is complimenting her for staying authentic and free of self-judgment, of not seeing herself from a removed point of view.
At home, after hearing the dharma talk, I read the koan as it appears in The Hidden Lamp, Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. Zen teacher Joan Sutherland’s reflection on this koan, expanded my understanding of intimacy. Not fond of hierarchy to begin with, I loved the idea of avoiding habitual hierarchical relationships that would separate me from another. I thought of the hierarchy inherent in a new minister’s coming and hoped he would not put himself above, but in front, of the rest of us.
Most important to me was seeing the need to become intimate with the other’s situation before assuming the “role” of helper or thinking I knew better what would help. And I wondered if cultivating intimacy with my own thoughts and feelings by just being with them might work better than wanting to change them or deny them.
As for the koan, I am guessing if and when Layman Pang is ready to get up from the ground and gather the bamboo baskets that may have scattered in his fall, he will ask Lingzhao for a hand up. Until he does, they might lie side by side and giggle. As for me, my attitude toward intimacy has expanded.