AFFINITY GROUP PROCESS
Behind the Process
Living in the Heart
Staying in our hearts is not easy. For it is in the heart that we come to terms with our experience. If our hearts are open, we embrace our experience. We take it in and allow it to integrate in our psyche. If our hearts are closed, we push our experience away. We defend ourselves against disappointment or hurt. We escape into our heads.
The intellectualization of our experience robs us not only of the lows of emotional life, but of the highs as well. We lose the capacity to feel compassion for ourselves and others. We lose our sensitivity not just to pain and suffering, but to beauty and joy as well.
When our hearts are truly open, joy and pain are experienced without story or embellishment. They do not mean anything apart from what they are. Pain doesn’t mean that we’re bad or that someone else is bad, and joy doesn’t mean that we’re good. There is no interpretation: just a willingness to embrace and bring the experience in. In the open heart, laughter and tears commingle. It is a place of intense contradiction, a rich place, a multifaceted banquet of experience that cannot be rationalized, tamed, predicted or figured out.
Fear and conditioning encourage us to push away those aspects of our experience that are new, unexpected, or that do not feel safe. By creating an area of our experience that is unacceptable,
division is created in the psyche. Now we have good and bad, unconscious and conscious, wanted and unwanted. Now we can have an experience without feeling it. We can escape into our heads, space out, disconnect emotionally. While this kind of dissociation is understandable when it comes in reaction to traumatic events, it is dysfunctional in response to the ups and downs of daily life.
When we are willing to take in only what is familiar to us or what we think we want, we get stuck in the grooves and patterns of our past. We stagnate emotionally and intellectually. We become rigid, ego-centric and predictable. Our life energy gets invested in maintaining our ego-defenses and insuring that the status quo remains intact.
Living in the heart means letting everything in. It means being with our experience, even when it is difficult or confusing. To be in the heart, we often have to postpone making decisions until we have become fully familiar with the whole contents of our consciousness.
Staying in the heart helps us assimilate the vagaries of our experience. Often, it takes time for this to happen. When we take this time, we find that the initial contradictions sort themselves out. Clarity happens as we honor all the different thoughts and feelings in our psyche. It is a function of our felt wholeness.
Deciding something before we have taken this time to be with all of our contradictory thoughts and feelings often exacerbates whatever conflict we are experiencing in our outer lives. When we feel an urgency or pressure to decide or figure things out, it usually means that we are escaping into our heads, trying to “make something happen” that is not ready to happen. And this inevitably leads to outward struggle and disappointment. The doors do not open, no matter how hard or how frequently we
knock on them. Because we are not in inner harmony, we cannot be in harmony with others. Because we are not in our own “flow,” we cannot flow with life as it manifests around us.
It takes courage to be present in our inner emotional landscape when rain or fog obscure the long view. When visibility is at a minimum, all we can do is put one foot in front of the other. When lots of conflicting thoughts and emotions are churning in the psyche, all we can do is bring our awareness gently to where we are. If we rush through the rain or the fog, we will stray from the path and fall. An accident will delay us from our goal much longer than bad weather will, and then, we will wish that
we had been more patient.
To be patient with ourselves and our own process is the key to living in the heart. We can be in our hearts and not “know” the outcome of a situation. Indeed, the willingness “to be without knowing” is essential to being present here and now for whatever we are experiencing. “Knowing” is almost always about the past. When we no longer have to know, we can stay in this moment.
The Present Moment
In our society, doing is prized more than being. Our self image is built more on what we do than on who we are. When we are concerned with doing and getting things done, we tend to live in the past or the future. Sometimes, that is inevitable. But if we spend most of our time in this space, we will experience very little peace.
Peace comes when we can take a deep breath and just be present right now. Peace comes when we realize that we do not have to bring our past fears into this moment, nor do we have to make decisions about the future. Peace is always present-oriented. Peace comes when we can stay in our hearts without having “to know” or “to do.”
Without the pressure “to know” or “to do,” life is much more simple. It is easier to accept and assimilate the experience that comes our way. We don’t have to resist what happens or defend ourselves against it. We don’t have to intellectualize it or figure it out. We don’t have to know what it means. We can just dwell with it, let it be, let it come in.
Living in the heart is a very different way of living than we are used to. It is a slower, simpler pace. When we think, we are practical in our thinking. We are concrete, down to earth. Abstract thinking has very little place in our life, because it takes us away from this moment. In the same way, when we act, we do so without ambivalence or deliberation. We don’t blindly follow a set of rules. We act because it feels right to act in that moment.
There is no complexity of mind in this way of being. There is no great drama, no scheming and dreaming, no perfectionism or second guessing. We put our best foot forward and we trust. We know that any more than this is just not possible. Doing the best that we can in the moment is and has to be enough.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes. Of course we make mistakes, but these mistakes are not our enemies; they are our friends. They help us to find correction. They empower us to do better the next time. We don’t feel guilty and hide our faces when we err. We don’t feel shamed or rejected. We stand up and say “thank you for telling me.”
An empowered person does not feel shamed by his own mistakes, nor does he feel superior to others when they make mistakes. He accepts himself as he is in this moment. He accepts others as they are. Sanity comes from living simply with dignity. It comes from respecting oneself and others. It comes from staying in the present moment. It comes from staying in the heart when life shows up differently than we expect it to.
When we stay in the heart, we know that there is no one to fix. We don’t have to fix other people. We don’t have to fix ourselves.
To live in the heart, we must drop our self-help programs, and just focus on accepting ourselves as we are in this moment. To live in the heart, we must drop our missionary programs and just focus on accepting others as they are in this moment. Programs for the improvement, salvation, redemption of self or other are just diversions that take us away from the real spiritual work of practicing acceptance moment to moment.
If people want to take a trip, they are free to. We don’t have to interfere or try to dissuade them. We don’t have to try to fix them with our teaching of “not fixing.” Any teaching can become a stick that we use to beat up ourselves or others. That’s why we need to stay away from dogma. If we want to stay in the heart, we need to stay out of dogma. We need to burn our scrolls, our
commandments, our holy books. They are distractions too. Anything or anyone that tells us what to do, or what to say, or what to think must go. To be in the heart, we must clear the mind of the judgments and prejudices of the past. The more open our minds are, the easier it becomes to fall into the heart.
To be in the heart, we can have only one authority. And that authority cannot be outside us, vested in the ideas, beliefs or experiences of others, nor can it be inside our ego structure, vested in the limited ideas or beliefs we have about ourselves. It must be inside our minds, but outside our judgments and narrow beliefs. It must be inside our hearts, but outside our reactive emotions and addictions. We can’t submit to someone else’s truth. Nor can we submit to the limited “truth” of our ego.
The kingdom of heaven is within our hearts, but that does not mean it is easy to discover. First, we have to accept everything that is happening in our experience. We have to accept our relationships just the way they are. We have to accept all our thoughts and feelings. We have to let it all in, get our arms around it, however tentatively. We have to live with it, be with it, breathe with it, move with it, and shift with it as it shifts.
It requires all our presence, all our attention, all our patience, all our gentleness. And when we have given all of this, there is a clear space that opens in the heart. There is a silence. And into that space and that silence the answer we need rushes in, like air into a vacuum. It may not be the ultimate answer, but it is the answer for right now. It shows us the way to proceed, to take the next step. And the answer that enters the silence of the heart is the movement of Spirit into our lives. Lest we hold the space open, Spirit’s answer cannot come.
When we get quiet, we understand that Spirit’s answer does not come from our limited, fearful, ego-mind, but from the mind of God, from the part of us that is joined with love and is not invested in our drama of pain and suffering. So we wait. We lay aside our one-sided solution and await the solution that honors all beings. We submit to the One who knows, who is in us, yet outside our narrowness. We wait for the Christ consciousness to be born within our hearts and minds.
Holding the Space
In the Affinity Process we call this “holding the space” of unconditional love and acceptance. We do this by being gentle with ourselves and others, by accepting and respecting our experience exactly as it is here and now.
Holding the space is not as easy as it sounds. It is a tremendous challenge, because it is so different from anything we have been taught to do.
When I hold the space for myself, I get quiet and be-come aware of what I am thinking and how I am feeling. I also become aware of any judgments I have about what’s happening. For example, I hear the critical voice within me that says “If you were more spiritual, you wouldn’t be angry.”
I allow all the voices in my psyche to speak to me and I accept them into my awareness. I do not make them good or bad. I just recognize that they are there. No matter how many layers of self-judgment come up, I take them all in.
In my awareness, I am the witness of my experience, not the judge or the jury. As the witness, I do not know what any of it means, nor do I need to know. As the witness, I do not have to do anything about the situation. Instead, I become aware of everything I would like to do to change the situation, but I don’t feel any pressure to act. I just notice my dissatisfaction, my need to fix, without judging it.
As the witness, my awareness is enough. And it is all that is asked for. Deepening in my awareness of the contents of my consciousness in this moment, I become still. I sink down through all the layers of judgmental thought and reactive feeling until I realize in both mind and heart that everything is okay exactly as it is. This is the place of self-blessing, the place where I
reconnect to love.
One of the biggest impediments to finding the place of self-blessing is our need to blame other people for our thoughts, feelings or experiences. The wounded little kid in you and me wants to say to the other person “You made me angry. It’s your fault that I’m upset.”
When we blame others, we try to push the responsibility for our experience onto someone else. Blaming others is our way of denying our responsibility for our unloving thoughts, feelings and actions (“It’s not my fault that I’m angry”). It is also our way of justifying our trespasses (“I have a right to be angry”), instead of admitting them and atoning for them.
We cannot hold the space for ourselves as long as we are blaming other people. As we get quiet, it is important for us to become aware of all of the ways that we want to blame other people. As the witness, we see our need to blame without identifying with it. We just notice all the anger and woundedness inside. We notice the desire to strike back and punish others for our suffering. We go through those layers of shame and blame until we come to a place that is empty. In that place, we can
face how we feel directly, without making anyone else responsible for it. In that place, we can release others, and be with our feelings compassionately.
The goal in all of this is to encounter the contents of our consciousness without judging them, to cultivate compassion first for ourselves and then for others. The irony, of course, is that as soon as we desire to love and accept unconditionally, we immediately become aware of our judgments.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in our relationships with others. While our self-judgments are often hidden in our psyche, our judgments of other people are constantly visible on the surface. Just in the course of a single day, we have hundreds of judgments. We don’t like how loudly this person talks. We don’t like his table manners. We don’t like the way she wears her hair. And so forth. Our judgments are so commonplace that we are rarely aware of them. We’re on automatic pilot.
To live in the heart, we don’t have to stop our steady stream of judgments about others; we just need to become aware of them. Awareness allows us to go deeper.
The more aware we become of our judgments, the more we realize that they really don’t have very much to do with the people we are judging. Rather, they have a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves.
It is not the object of our ridicule that tells us something, but the consciousness in which that ridicule originates. The mind that judges others does not have a very high opinion of self. Rather than face that lack of self-esteem directly, we project it onto others.
As we practice awareness, we begin to see that we judge only when we are not feeling good about ourselves and/or when someone reminds us of some part of ourselves we have trouble accepting. In this manner, we begin to “own” our judgments, instead of projecting them. As each judgment comes up, we say “I know that this is not about you; it is about me.” We take responsibility for the contents of our consciousness. We take others off the hook. Now we are able to deal directly with the phenomenon of our self-hatred. Now we can seeintimately which parts of ourselves we can’t accept. Other people are just mirrors that help us see how we judge ourselves.
By acknowledging that our judgment originates in our consciousness, we see that there is a part of ourselves that does not feel loved and accepted. That part of us judges other people and perhaps, more importantly, that part of us feels judged. It may be the spiritual adult judging the wounded child or it may be the wounded child judging the spiritual adult. It doesn’t matter. If there is judgment happening, there is separation, conflict, within our consciousness. Some part of us is in conflict with another part of us. Acceptance is needed to create the conditions for reconciliation of this conflict within our own consciousness.
When I am judging myself, I am not feeling whole. I am feeling conflicted or divided. Different aspects of my self are in conflict and must be accepted as they are. When I accept, I don’t resolve the conflict. I just see it and acknowledge it.
Here is an example. Let’s say I judge John for being angry, because I think being angry is bad. As I look at why John’s anger triggered me, I see that there is a part of me that is angry and needs to be acknowledged. I also see that I am afraid of/ashamed of my anger. As a result, I repress or disguise it. When John is angry in an all-out, undisguised way, I get upset, because he is doing what I would like to do but will not allow myself to do. When I see John’s anger, my uneasy relationship to my own
anger is triggered.
Now, thanks to John, I can begin to look at my relationship to my own anger. I can accept the part of me that wants to get angry and stand up for myself, as well as the part of me that is afraid to get angry because I want to please others. I acknowledge these seemingly opposing aspects of my own consciousness.
Now this does not immediately heal the rift within. It simply places my compassionate awareness there. And that, in itself, is healing. That, in itself, is a bringing of love.
Living Our Awareness
Now I am aware of what my inner conflict is. So the next time someone gets angry and my buttons are pushed, I am going to acknowledge first to myself and then to the other person that I am angry and it is not easy for me to express my anger. I might say to the other person something like: “I’m very angry at you right now, but I’m afraid to express my anger, because I think that if I do you’ll leave me.” I state the truth of my experience, however conflicted it may be. I learn to stand up for myself in
a way that does not terrify me. The key is that I need to honor all of myself.
Living my awareness means making room in my life for all of me to be present: the part of me that is afraid and the part that is confident, the part that wants self-expression and the part that wants approval or acceptance. By allowing all of me to be visible to myself and others, I have less chance of feeling betrayed or misunderstood.
My awareness of, responsibility for, and acceptance of my judgments help me to be more honest with myself and more present with others. I take small steps into greater authenticity, and as I do, I find it easier to accept others as they are.
After all, every fault I find with another is a grievance I have against myself. Every fight I pick with my brother or sister underscores the conflict I have within myself. I cannot make peace with others until I become aware of its source within myself. Then, and then alone, can I begin the work of inner and outer reconciliation.
The Work of Reconciliation
As we practice being aware of our judgments, seeing where they originate, taking responsibility for them, and accepting all the unloved and conflicted aspects of our consciousness, we gradually stop externalizing our pain and begin to heal it internally.
These understandings are essential for our release from pain and conflict and our ongoing healing:
Each of us is responsible for everything we think, feel, and experience. Every judgment we have about someone else shows us some aspect of ourselves we have not learned to accept and love. It is our responsibility to accept and love all aspects of ourselves, especially the parts of us that feel unloved and unlovable.
If we can live these simple understandings on an ongoing basis, we can come into more loving relationship with ourselves and others. But living them requires practice. And practice is called for not just when we are coasting through life and feeling spiritual, but when life is showing up differently than the way we expect it to and our buttons are being pushed.
Here are two simple guidelines for ongoing practice of staying in the heart: When we are confused, upset or reactive in relation-ship to others, hold a space of unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves so that we can begin to take responsibility for our experience. When others are confused, upset or reactive in relationship to us, support them in taking
responsibility for their experience by holding a space of unconditional love and acceptance for them.
This practice is not very difficult to understand. We don’t have to be geniuses to know what we are being asked to do. Yet if you try practicing these two guidelines, you will find that they are very challenging. It’s not easy to hold a space for yourself when you are upset, nor is it easy to hold a space for others when they are reactive.
Nobody said it would be easy. Simple, yes. But not easy! That’s why we designed the Affinity Process . . . to help you practice . . . not with your spouse, your parent, your child, your boss—the people who really push your buttons—but with people you don’t
know who, like you, have the willingness to begin to look at their judgments. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for you to learn this simple, but challenging process of living in the heart.
We figured that once you had gotten the hang of practicing with strangers, you could take the practice home. Then when your partner yells at you and gets in your face, you would know what to do, right? Well, maybe not right away. But you would have some tools to use when little disagreements come up and threaten to escalate.
Because you have some degree of skillfulness in holding a safe space for yourself and others, you can weather the small storms in your relationships. And you and your family/friends can begin to build sufficient trust to take on the typhoons that arise unexpectedly on the ocean of life.
Origins of the Affinity Process
The Affinity Process was developed to help us move through our conflicts without destroying the love that we feel for each other.
In any relationship, no matter how good or trusting it is at first, our ego issues are bound to surface.
When we start feeling safe with a person, our subconscious fears begin to come up for healing. Whenone person is in the grip of fear, it doesn’t take long before the other reacts in fear too. Indeed, fear is contagious. If you don’t know how to love yourself unconditionally, you don’t have much chance of not reacting to someone else’s distancing or attacking behavior.
When we are scared, we either try to take control or we run away. Fight or flight is the norm. Rarely do we hang in there, recognize that we have fear coming up and take responsibility for it. How often do we say to our partner: “I have a lot of fear coming up which you seemed to trigger, but I know it’s my fear and I need some time to deal with it. If I try to talk to you about it now, I’ll make it about you, not me, and I don’t want to do that. I want to feel it, own it, understand it and then come back and
talk to you about it when I am ready.”
Usually, when our fear comes up, we get defensive or we run away. Either way, we want to make it the other person’s problem. The other person, in turn, wants to make his or her fear our problem. The result is that we both feel separation. We both feel attacked.
No matter how hard we try, we are not going to get rid of our ego material. It’s going to come up. Today, we might accept each other and see eye to eye. But, tomorrow we might not agree. Tomorrow, we might not feel supported by each other. And in the face of disagreement and lack of support, will we still accept each other?
Most of our love is conditional. We love each other when we agree and feel mutually supported. When agreement and support ends, love generally gets cut off. Jesus told us to “love our enemies.” He might as well have said “love your friends and lovers when they stop being supportive to you.” It’s the same challenge. Can we love and respect people who disagree with us? Can we love people who have judgments about us?
When fear comes up in our relationship, can we love each other through the fear? Or does love disappear as soon as our fears arise?
Successful relationships are those in which love survives the onslaught of fear. They take time to develop. Superficial trust is not enough. Deep childhood fears will easily overwhelm it. Trust must go deeper than our fear, or our partner’s fear.
Holding Our Fear With Compassion
The truth is that if we can learn to be with our own fear in a loving and compassionate way, it is easier to deal with the fear of others. So part of the challenge is entirely personal. We need to learn to love ourselves when our fear comes up.
That means that we acknowledge our fear and refuse to project it onto another person. And this is where the Affinity Process begins.
When I’m doing the Affinity Process and I have a judgment about you, I know that judgment comes from my own fear. I own that fear and take responsibility for loving myself through that moment of fear, instead of verbally attacking you.
The Affinity Process makes me responsible for everything that I am thinking or feeling. If I am sad or angry, the sadness and anger belong to me. Even if you appeared to provoke these emotions in me, they are not your responsibility.
By insisting that each person take responsibility for what s/he is thinking or feeling, the Process prevents fear from escalating. It calls a truce in the midst of the conflict and gives each side homework to do.
My homework is always to be with my fear when it comes up. Your homework is to be with your fear. When you focus on what I do or say, you can’t be with your fear. When I focus on your behavior or your words, I can’t be with my fear.
You may have triggered my fear, but you are not the cause of it. The dynamite was already there waiting to be lit. Even the matches were there. Anyone could have come along and lit a match. It just happened to be you.
When I take you off the hook and face my fear directly, I learn how to love myself unconditionally. I learn to deal compassionately with my own feelings of unworthiness. I stop looking to you to supply the love I’m lacking and learn to supply it myself.
When I am actively loving myself, then I am strong enough to love you through our disagreement. I am strong enough to support myself when you cannot support me. The more loving I become toward myself, the easier it is for me to be with people who judge me, criticize me, or attack me. I know that I am not responsible for how they think or feel about me; I am responsible only for what I think and feel, about myself and about them.
My love for myself and others is no longer dependent on agreement or support. To be sure, I enjoy agreement and support, but I won’t stop loving when they are not offered. Indeed, those are the times when I need to love myself and others more.
Opening Our Hearts
The Affinity Process helps us to be with our fear and move through it. Instead of projecting our fear onto others, we take responsibility for it and learn to bring love to the hurt places in ourselves. Due to past trauma, our hearts are defended. We are suspicious of people, not just people who are mean to us, but also people who really care about us. We are afraid they too will attack us or abandon us.
Trusting others is a big issue for us. Yet we know that it is only through trust that we can experience the fulfillment our relationships promise. In the past, we justified our lack of trust by maintaining that others did not deserve our trust. But
the Affinity Process asks us to be responsible for all of our experience, including our experience of not trusting.
So now I can’t say I’m not trusting because of something that you did or said. You may have triggered my lack of trust. But you are not responsible for it. I have my own reasons for not trusting that have nothing to do with you. In fact, it may not be you
that I don’t trust. It might be me.
Anyway, trust is my issue. My heart is the one that’s closed. I am the one who is pushing away love. I am the one who is suffering. If I want my heart to open, I must be willing to trust myself. I don’t have to start with big things. I can start to trust in little ways.
I see what I like and give myself permission to have it. I trust that I know what’s good for me, even if it isn’t what others want. I move toward my joy and my happiness. I don’t question them.
When I begin to trust myself, even in little ways, I am drawn to people who are learning to trust themselves too. Friendships become more fulfilling. Partnerships become less sacrificial. When I’m trusting myself, I’m no longer living out the unconscious myth that I’m not trustworthy. I’m no longer projecting my fears onto another person. I’m not attracting a partner who mirrors my
lack of trust in myself.
No, instead I’m consciously working with my trust issue. I’m learning to trust myself in small ways. I’m building a consciousness of self-trust and, as I do, I’m demonstrating that in all areas of my life.
When we stop projecting, we can acknowledge our weaknesses and work on them without feeling shame. We can see our mistakes compassionately and learn from them. We don’t need to blame others. We don’t need to feel guilty and blame ourselves. We can move on, become more conscious, and awaken from our unconscious patterns of self-denial.
It is one of the ironies of relationship that no one else can open our hearts. We may have closed our hearts down to protect ourselves from others, but the truth is that we are the ones locked into our close hearts. We are the ones who suffer from lack of trust and lack of freedom.
We are the ones who must open our hearts, but we won’t do so until we feel safe. We need to be able to create safety for ourselves. We need to be able to create safety with others.
The Affinity Process helps us do that by offering us clear guidelines for creating an environment of unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves and others. And, in this environment, the muscles of our heart, long contracted and fearful, can begin to open once again.