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Gendlin, E.T. (1984). The obedience pattern. Studies in Formative Spirituality, 5(2), 189-202. From

[Page 189]


by Eugene T. Gendlin, University of Chicago


At the start, I have to tell the reader that I have not experienced a spiritual guide relationship with one other person. For better or worse, I have been taught, initiated and guided always by many people. Also, in my thirty years as a teacher and a therapist I have never, in my field, assumed a role that would be comparable to such a relation.

You are not me. You may have this experience I lack. In this or other ways what I write from my experience is bound to fall short of yours.

In beginning this way I am not just opening what I will say to your critical judgment. I am pointing to your inside, which necessarily includes more than I can know. Notice, one can point at what one doesn't know in another person. And that, in you, which is always more than I can know, needs to be involved here. That needs to check what I say.

That, in you, is also not fixed, not a question only of what experiences you have had. The inwardly arising steps that come there can exceed whatever you and I know, or have experienced so far.

So I am not appealing only to your critical thinking or your feelings. Rather, inside you there is that, to which you also must point, because it is always more than you can fully know. It comes in little steps of inward opening and change.

One may miss these little steps. They may be very small, and that "place" in us feels murky. We can easily fail to honor it above our sophisticated thoughts and our more definite feelings.

In this article I am going to say that our obedience must be to that, and even so, not passively, to whatever comes, but only in a certain rather rebellious dialogue and over a series of steps, and then not always.

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Obedience to Other People

Meister Eckhart writes:

True and perfect obedience is a virtue above all virtues. No great work can be accomplished without it . . .When I give my will up to the care of my prelate, and have no will of my own, God must will for me . . . (Eckhart, Talks of Instruction I. Of True Obedience, p. 1.

Notice: he does not say that the prelate's guidance would be right for him. On the contrary he pretty much assumes that it is going to be wrong. Not the content of the guidance, but the letting loose of self-will is valued here. Not what the prelate says, rather something utterly different does the guiding. We give up our will to do it ourselves, not to some other person who knows better, but to the spiritual source.

Eckhart does not assume that his prelate knows what is best for him. Nor does this obedience belong to an early stage of development when one is an apprentice to a master. "No great work can be accomplished without it." Obviously this obedience is to an inner openness.

We must be very exact, inwardly, about how to find this openness. It is easily confused with other processes. I know something about the beginnings of finding this openness, and that is what this article is about. Before I specify what I know about this inner openness and the steps that come there, I would like to discuss what I view as mistaken modes of obedience, first the obedience of one human to another:

Social forms of obedience often become mixed up with spiritual help and guidance. Such mixtures can be very wrong and confusing. But let us think about social obedience itself for a moment. Obedience to another human being is basic to the social organization we have always had. But we need another kind!

In revolutions idealistic people have often subordinated their wills to leaders who promised to bring about a society in which people would no longer have to subordinate their wills to others, but the stated ideals did not determine the outcome. What did? Always the movement's own hierarchical mode of organization. This mode soon makes leaders of those who operate it with the most skill and the fewest cares for anything else. We don't have an answer to this problem yet, but the hopeful direction is to concern ourselves with how humans could organize with, (rather than by suppressing), the inwardly arising development of more than just a few individuals. (See Gendlin, E. T., The Politics of Giving Therapy Away, in Larson, D. G., ed. [Page 191] Teaching Psychological Skills: Models For Giving Psychology Away. Monterey: Brooks/Cole, 1984).

In psychology the results of obedience to others have been equally negative. Guidance, interpretation and authority were vested in the psychoanalyst who tells the patients about themselves. In this way the therapist's knowledge defeats itself. Research shows that psychotherapy can be an irreplaceably valuable change-process, but more than half the cases fail because that process does not happen. I think it is because taking another's guidance is just the opposite of listening for one's inner steps.

We do need company, help and instruction. We need a way that another's knowledge can be helpful to us. It can be, if we make our inwardly arising process steps the criterion of what is right or wrong, just then.

In therapy, one person cannot guide another. It succeeds only if both people know that the criterion of therapy at every juncture is the "patient's" inwardly arising steps. It is odd that we would willingly surrender that process for any purpose, but especially when the purpose is that very process! And yet, in psychotherapeutic and spiritual matters we are most prone to do so. Since we seek a change in ourselves, of course we must mistrust our own judgment. But to go by another person's judgment gives up on just that inward development which is the purpose of the activity.

In spiritual concerns, par excellence, this contradiction must be seen. We do need others to relate to, and we need them to help us, but help with what? With an inwardly arising process. How can we be helped, if we try to give that up at the start? Of course, we cannot ultimately give that up. But the forms of obedience do make postponements, blockages, confusions, and for a long time they can make us deaf to that source of inner development.

Obeying the Inner Authoritarian

But inside us, something like the same problem exists as well. There too, a voice claims our obedience, supposedly because it knows everything better. Freud called this the "super-ego" (in German the "over-I"). By various names every student of human nature has also found this inner agent.

This is the voice that attacks us, tells us that what we feel is probably wrong, anything we try will probably fail. It tells us something along the lines of: "You're made out of bad stuff." It attacks most of us pretty constantly and assumes a tone we would not tolerate from another person. It [Page 192] only seems to say: straighten up and fly right. Actually, it attacks us. If we have a difficulty, this attack makes us less able to do well. We become cramped, constricted, dull-thudded and millstoned. I say about this part of me: "Anyone who talks to me in this tone is not trying to help me."

The super-ego has been confused with conscience. Actually super-ego and conscience are very different. The super-ego is not the "still small voice," but the loudest voice inside. Many people find the super-ego attacking them for not being rich and successful, for not winning more. But even when the words of these inward attacks are the same as what would come from my moral sense, note the difference! When I have hurt someone my conscience lets me care and I feel a reaching out to that person. When my super-ego attacks me about it, I become concerned mostly about myself and how bad I am. I feel constricted and cannot act from my care.

The super-ego inhibits genuinely felt care, and it is also not our rational judgment of fairness. In superego attacks we usually apply irrational demands to ourselves which we would not think of applying to others. The super-ego absorbs some features of our actual parents, but most of it is not derived from them. It is a primitive pattern of human beings, and it channels energy in a negative, hostile and destructive way.

Freud thought that God is nothing but this superego, projected onto the cosmos. He was only partly right. People who have a sense for the spiritual do indeed project their super-ego onto it. But as this changes in therapy, the spiritual sense of these people does not dissolve. On the contrary, the spiritual dimension develops more and more, as its difference from the super-ego becomes clear. The narrow, punitive, attacking quality is recognized as a hostile and stupid voice, utterly different from the vast spiritual sense.

I quote Eckhart speaking of self-inflicted "chastisements":

. . . any practice that limits your freedom to wait upon God in this present moment and to follow him into the light, by which he may show you what to do and not to do — how to be as new and free with each moment . . . any such commitment or premeditated practice that limits your freedom . . . In it, your soul will bring forth no fruit other than the discipline . . . for no one can be fruitful until he is done with his own work (Sermon 23).

Our self-inflicted super-ego regimes are not the spiritual source to which to listen. To locate that inward listening we need first to sense the difference between attacks that constrict us, and that much softer, different inward opening of growth steps.

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Obeying Our Own Designs

Maintaining myself against the super-ego requires a lot of strength. "I" must grow stronger. Also, to listen inwardly to a quieter place, I must become able to tolerate silence and murkiness for some moments now and then. Intent listening is active and requires a strong ego. On the other hand, to listen I must stop talking all the time and let the reigns loose, give up directing everything.

How can we be exact here? In what respects must the ego give up, and in what respects must it become even stronger? First, let me say the one side: I must make room for a different source. "I" cannot be the sole director of my own development.

"No one can be fruitful until he is done with his own work" refers not only to the super-ego but also to this "I." The changes we design for ourselves express how and what we are now, of course. Our own plans usually call for changes that make us more of the same. If we have valued and developed competencies, we tend to resolve to develop more competencies. If we have cared about others, we resolve to care more perfectly next year. The approach people design for their own change usually re-instances how they are now. Therefore "I" must give up directing my developmental steps. But now I come to respects in which "I" has to grow stronger in the development process. Its development is essential.

Inner Limpness

Having spoken against obedience to others, to the super-ego, and to our own designs, I must now also speak against a fourth mode of obedience: inner limpness. Setting one's self-prescriptive will aside might be called "detachment." But this word can be misleading today.

Long ago, more traditional people felt more solidly rooted in everyday reality than we do. They had "strong egos," and were pretty sure of being right about what they said, did, or felt. They lived committedly in ordinary reality. The traditional teachings had to shake this up in them before they could find the beginnings of a spiritual opening. Therefore the literature takes for granted that you have a strong ego, so that words like detachment, passivity, surrender, obedience would be quite safe.

Today, at least for many people of the sort I know, everyday reality already feels insufficient. Our egos are not so solid. The awareness that we might be wrong — about anything — is not hard to come by. It may be [Page 194] constant. Everyday reality often burdens us. We might feel better away from it, alone, in the country, somewhere open. We often fail to find something to want in the everyday world. For some of us it is therefore much too easy to be "detached." We may easily put down that ego which identifies with the everyday.

I might say (partly rightly) that we are at a further stage than such solid, traditional people. Not, perhaps, a high spiritual stage, but in need of fewer preliminaries. Or, I could also put it another way. Those traditional people were able to do their ordinary living. We may not yet have achieved this. When we do, it will also have a somewhat different character. I know from my own experience that spirituality requires a strong ego, not just the same but not totally different from that old everyday ego. Many people today need a lifetime to develop it. Ego and spirituality must therefore develop together.

Giving up, giving in to fear, avoiding challenges, these are forms of attachment. Detachment opens to more perception, interaction, and presence beyond constriction. You sense the world as if you had just washed your windows.

The lack of a strong ego is not the detachment of which the literature speaks. We do begin closer to it, but we must not misuse this lack in ourselves. We can be "detached" by letting the body's life energy remain backed-in, and blocked. What was a good first prescription for traditional people is not a good first one for us. They had already developed the inner forward-moving energy. Coming after that, detachment could open them. If that grounded body energy flow is not already moving forward, detachment can close us.

A woman who had just gotten married was considering giving up her school. I knew that entering school had been a hard and good step for her. She has a great love and excitement about it. Continuing had felt right up to now. She told me the realistic difficulties, among them her husband's work and needs. Then she said, "And I feel all right about stopping . . . I tell myself that all that stuff about school and becoming a professional person is not spiritual anyway."

In this example, can you feel that spirituality is probably being misused? It is a great truth that the spiritual doesn't need professional degrees or self-image concerns. Almost any human anxiety eases when it is [Page 195] held next to one's sense of spirituality. But this great fact is not used rightly to get us out of living and developing.

Indeed, just touching the spiritual reduces the size and threat of any problem, but then we still need to work it through. Touching the spiritual puts problems in a right context, reduces them to size, and gives more energy, and a better quality of energy, with which to work, but then we must still work on them.

We can never be certain about another person, but she sounded like she was away from the situational difficulties, from working out a solution with her husband, and from manifesting her life-energy forward. Instead, she seemed to be silencing a sense of wrong by using the relief one feels, when one touches the spiritual side. This cannot be decided about another person, nor can it be figured out conceptually. But in your own body you can sense and recognize the quality of energy that some decision or prospect makes in your body.

In what I will now say, please see if you can get a sense of this difference: If some instance of giving up is too easy, it feels like turning over in bed. Or you might sense something closing, inside, where you might have challenged something. Such a move lets you off coping with fear. You feel the resignation of the backed up life force in you. If so, it is probably not the kind of detachment the literature means.

If giving up school felt like that in her body, I think it wouldn't be right, at least not without some more change-steps. Giving up school might be right if it made an energy like climbing out of a narrow box, or like fresh air after a stuffy room, if it brought the bodily feeling of a vast space. Can you sense the quality of bodily energy I mean?

But what if (in our example) this good quality of energy comes temporarily whenever she recalls her spiritual side, but not from the prospect of quitting school? What if this closes and backs the energy so that the spiritual must again release it? Then it seems clear that quitting school is not a good step, just now.

School may or may not be important, but the kind of inner process and development is certainly important. The kind of process cuts across all the different contents, even though just now it seems to be about this or that.

Many of us need more development of the strength to stand up to the world, to be fully there with others, to stay with an issue till we devise a [Page 196] way that is both fair to others and lets us manifest our life-energy forward. Perhaps you don't lack this; sense how it is for you.

Ego-developing is part of spiritual development today. In one respect just touching the spiritual dimension brings a perfection that is always already total. Yet we are also in need of development. We are always both.

In Chicago we now have specific steps for going back and forth between that big, totally open "space" and the energy-constricting personal problems and limitations. (Amodeo, J. "The Complementary Effects of Meditation and Focusing," Focusing Folio, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1981. Gendlin, E. T., Grindler, D., McGuire, M., "Clearing a Space," Focusing Folio, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1982, reprinted as part of Imagery, Body and Space in Focusing in Sheikh, A.A., ed. Imagination and Healing, New York: Baywood, 1984.)

Inward listening is a dialogue in which "I" and "what comes" both participate and change. That is not just an encountering of Big Things while remaining small and undeveloped oneself.

Inward listening lets go of self-engineering, but not of forward-moving bodily life-energy and active development. It is a dialogue with a sensed "edge" that comes physically in us, which we cannot direct or construct. In that dialogue I do not become less than in my usual ways of living. I become more than I was. I will now be specific about that "edge," and one mode of that dialogue.

The Edge of Awareness

We value this edge because it is a porous borderzone through which new steps come that we could not have made. In this metaphor the word "edge" works oddly. This "edge" is the center of the body. It is also the center of speech and action. What you really meant by what you said — or, the motivation you really felt is that unclear but alive bodily sense.

That edge or border which we do sense has to be distinguished from the other side which is vastly more, and which we do not sense as such. What comes in one moment in such a sense is not the other side! It is only a little bit from the other side, and already mixed with how we are and have been. So we cannot simply obey one such step, sense or edge, either. After a while more steps come, and may change what seems right. In little steps of [Page 197] change the edge or border zone itself changes. So border too, works oddly here. No one metaphor stays put, either.

When I spoke of detachment I asked you to sense the difference between a giving up like turning over in bed, and a giving up like leaving a stuffy room for the fresh air. That was an example of sensing an edge. Without deliberate bodily sensing, you might not find such bodily qualities coming in you with some course of action. Yet, if you put your attention in the murky center of your body, a physically experienced sense of that sort is likely to come there after a minute or so. It might not be one of the two I described. When that opens, it would let you know a lot. That would be one little step. Each such step changes this edge. So one cannot draw conclusions from any one step. Rather one can trust the steps to keep coming till the resolution is clear. But in these steps both what comes and I have a role to play.

For example, suppose I decided to refrain from some act that seems wrong, but refraining feels like a backing up of life, like resignation. Suppose the idea of going ahead frees my energy. Which shall I do? Neither! I must seek a new way that will feel right in both regards, and I don't have such a way yet. I can neither simply override my bodily sense, nor can I simply give in to it. Further change-steps can not come if I give up, nor will they come if I insist on rejecting and closing off where and how my life-energy now is. The development process has many more steps, and if I keep both sides in play, I and that sense will both change.

I can get strong enough to let in what I consider wrong without giving in to it. I settle neither for the energy in its present form, nor for the loss of that energy. I can let my attention down into my physical body so that I can listen to that sense of backed-up energy, and also to that sense of freed energy. There the further steps of development can come. Our major energies are often caught in our trivial, personal places, and cannot be ignored there.

What is it, exactly, which feels right in this wrong thing? I always think I know the answer, already. This old information may be right as far as it goes, but it has to be set aside. Something else comes if I ask the life-forward body-sense directly, and wait as I sense it a while.

And , what feels so defeating in that sense of backed-up energy? Again I think I know. It seems obvious. But something else will come when I let the sense of backed-up energy open and speak in me.

[Page 198] As either or both of these open, something comes from the body energy itself. Such a step seems to be only finding out something, but no! Along with such steps comes a physical change. The backed-up energy moves again. Something that has long been still, now stirs. There is a little bit of oozing, seething, a physical sense of change. Something comes alive, even in a tiny step of this sort. Such steps are not mere information. The steps I mean involve a physical, global shift in how I am, a little bit of energy change.

It is not the sort of "step" I mean, if information comes without that physical release, fresh air, and physically freed energy, as well as a bit of change in how I view the situation.

The process is a dialogue between the deliberate "I" and that bodily sensed murky zone. Both change. As my bodily sense opens and releases, I also find out what felt so defeating about my choice. But this kind of "finding out" is already a physical shift, which lets more steps come later. Through these the situation also becomes differentiated and alternatives appear which did not exist before.

Sometimes the step that comes can seem quite wrong. If it comes with this energy release one must receive it welcomingly, and await further steps. For example, suppose I have been responsibly taking care of someone. Now, from my body-sense I find: "Oh . . . only getting clear away, taking no more care of this person, would feel freeing." I may know that I will not just run out on the person, but I must listen and receive this step, so other steps can follow. It may seem selfish and heading in a wrong direction, but I let myself sense that. Getting away completely, being all free, no more responsibility, that's what my body wants at this step.

I need to let the bodily rightness of this step fully be. Only after that, a minute later, can I ask it further: "Why does it need to be completely away?" As usual I think I know — of course. But I let that old information go by. I wait for an answer from the body-sense. The next little step might be, for instance: " . . . oh . . . that's right . . . I haven't been able to say 'no' to this person on anything. Oh, . . . (a breath comes all on its own here) . . . that's why it felt like I must get completely away. (Whew . . .) . . . sure . . . if I could say 'no' some of the time, I'd be all right. But I know I can't, I haven't been able to."

You see how at one step it seemed I needed to run out on the person, and at the very next step something quite different seems needed. Yet [Page 199] I couldn't have gotten to the second step without letting the first one physically come through. That is why I must receive and physically entertain each step, but with the knowing that I will hold out for further steps, till the problem resolves.

Now, I can ask: "If I practice at saying 'no' some of the time . . . if I made that a new practice for me . . . not just for this situation, but for my growth . . . would that feel like a right move? Or would my body-sense still say I need to get completely away?" I sense the middle of my body again. ". . . hmm . . . something's wrong . . . (and after a while:) . . . oh, yes . . . there's an unsureness in there, would I really practice? Sure . . . that's what the trouble is . . . whew!"

That lets me ask: "Suppose I could be sure I really would . . . ?" Perhaps now, at this fourth step, I might feel a major shift, the tension draining out. Yes, if I could be sure I really would tackle my no-saying weakness, yes, my energy comes even more than if I think of running out!

Or, I might sense something else still involved, that hasn't opened yet, and needs more steps. Most human problems don't solve in just a few steps, or in one day. People think development steps must be threatening. On the contrary, they feel positive, the energy is life-forward. If something seems too touchy or scary to work on, don't push in. But don't just back away, either. There is a third alternative: Focus gently on the sense of "too scary" or "not ready to go on," and keep staying with that, returning to that, until going further feels open. In that place where these little steps come, there is also an openness to the other side, to what we do not even dimly sense.

I do not say that all growth moves are steps of this kind. For example one bit of forced exploratory new action may also change a whole scene. There may be times when one would not stay in a situation endlessly, holding out for one more step. There may be a time for willful cutting, or for just obeying the body. We cannot obey even this process all the time, or make it our only means.

In relation to one's development, I have opposed obeying others, one's super-ego, one's own designs, remaining limp and avoidant inside, and I even argued against always obeying that process of steps I described.

Now what about obedience as a basic set? As a concept, obedience is neither to be adopted or rejected. No single pattern can always be right or always wrong. Everything I have said throughout can also be right and [Page 200] wrong. It depends on what is already old and familiar for an individual, and what would be a further step. Every pattern also has its pitfalls as well as its powers. Obedience has these too. There is an inner asking, waiting, and obeying that can powerfully open a new way, the possibility of which one could not have conceived.

In a further step, how is "further" determined? The steps usually change what I thought was my direction, and then later on, they change the direction some more. The coming of such steps is helped, if one can get a sense of rightness, of total soundness, without any content. It helps to ask (and not answer) such questions as: "What would be right?" "What would be a good step?" or "What does it need, to feel better?" But in such questions "right," "good," "better," are emptied of content. They are not conceptions of a norm or a direction. Instead, they involve an open sense of total soundness as a backdrop, on which to sense the problem as it now stands. Now the whole thing is this way — what would be a step toward a right solution?

In a dialectical way this can be thought about this way: Instead of wanting what I can now think, I can want what I would want, if I knew everything. Of course that is what I want and I can want that now. Along with that wanting comes a bodily quality of being whole, unconflicted, all in one piece, free to be, want, and choose, all in one. We cannot usually live physically this way because we and our situations are too complex, and imperfect. Living this bodily quality for some moments helps specific steps to come.

But it would be something else if I live these same notions as a giving up and pushing back of my wanting, in favor of some other will that I only think of, but do not now physically feel. Concepts and patterns are much thinner and poorer than living experience. Therefore a person-using-a-concept is much more than just that concept. We cannot know from the concept alone how it is being used. The concepts do not make up or determine the living, though they play a role. The living process does as much or more to determine how the concept works just now. For example, from the concept "obedience" alone we cannot know if it is used to set up a static barrier between a person and the wider dimensions, or if it is used to make that distinction porous and moving.

The obedience pattern can split me away from that which is more than me, as if there were two people, two things, two nouns. Obedience can [Page 201] be the opposite of my power, choice, and freedom. In the obedience pattern I can stay small and fixed. My development often seems a most unpromising project. It can seem better to stay in an obedient pose, than to change so that I could become trustworthy myself in certain regards. I might find it easier just to do service and not to develop myself, (which, of course, limits my service to some present level as well). It can seem easier to set myself only to obey and leave all strength and value on the other side.

Or, "obedience" might be exactly this porous movement of the distinction between self and more. After some steps of development, what had seemed other is now also part of me, and what seemed to be just my doing can become sensed as more, coming through me. These are not conceptual differences in thinking, but different ways of bodily sentient living and experiencing.

Our development comes in many ways. I know that the process I describe is an important way. These steps of development arise from sensing the quality which comes in the middle of the body in relation to a problem as a whole. At first it is always murky, fuzzy, almost nothing. It may be difficult at first to let that sense of the whole problem come. The words that flow through our minds distract us from focusing in the body. Also, the recognizable, familiar feelings get in the way. They are usually more intense than this subtle global quality.

In psychotherapy research we found that those who later report large and good changes are also those who sense the unclear edge during their therapy hours. The tape-recordings show that. (Gendlin, E. T. et. al., "Focusing Ability" in Shlien, J. ed. Research in Psychotherapy III, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1967.)

In the last decade, beginning from that research, we have developed finely specific bits of instruction which, with practice, enable anyone to find this bodily sensed edge, and the little steps that come from that. (Gendlin, E.T. Focusing, New York: Bantam Books, 1981.)

We tell people these specifics in the form of "split-level" instructions: We say: please try to follow these exactly. But we also say: if following any of these bits of instruction feels like you are doing yourself some violence inside, if it feels wrong as you do it, stop but don't run away. Just back up slightly and sense the wholistic, bodily quality of what the trouble is. In this way you will find this inwardly opening process sometimes through our instructions, and sometimes by sensing where they don't fit. In [Page 202] principle the literature agrees that one must follow one's "inner guru," that "the still small voice" can overrule every authority. "But in practice . . . " One can make that process sound far from an ordinary person's stage of development, something ideal.

That process of which I speak is close and available to anyone. It does require some practice, and some preliminaries. One must learn to put attention in the body, to sense the middle of the body from inside. That is strange to many people, though familiar to others. One must learn to let words go by until they subside so that one can sense "that whole thing" physically. The coming of such a physical edge-sense differs from the usual feelings, and is unfamiliar to most people. In the first moments it seems a most unpromising spot. One must learn to wait, there, with that, and return to that repeatedly while it remains murky and closed for a time.

That sense and these steps can be small, subtle, hard to detect. Soon big steps come from these. The process is not known to most people at this time. But it is within close reach of anyone. It is not to be kicked upstairs as too mysterious to have.

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