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The Moon, Earthshine and the Empathic Field of Resonance

As a psychotherapist I do a lot of listening. I listen to the words of my clients and the deeper longings they convey, the unmet needs, the hurt and shame, the strength, the joy, and the veiled potential for a more fulfilled life. And also I notice the breath of my clients, the way their bellies and chest move up and down, knowing that when a person begins to breath deeper, like an ocean wave filling and emptying a tide pool, something is happening in the soul, something that draws me in. Alterations in breathing can happen when a client is “getting a beef off their chest,” and the breath comes forceful and fast. Or it can come when a person begins to shudder or sob: the breath goes ragged at first, gasping, but then arises smoother and longer from down below the navel.

I watch for these things but more than watch them I listen to them with my ‘energy body’. I practice ‘earthshine:’ my energy field resonates with emotional and physical vibrations that are moving through my client’s being and I feel into this, allow myself to be affected by it. At the right moment I draw attention to it, “when you said that you began to breath deeper.” But even before I use words to awaken my client’s awareness to their own energy body, my empathic resonance registers as care and authentic connection. People get the sense that I’m willing to go to the mat with them, experience sadness with them, not distance from emotion when things get rough. They intuitively sense my empathy. At the same time, when I make direct observations about breath or subtle body cues, I often catch clients off guard. They didn’t know their breathing changed. Over time, however, trusting that I am tracking them accurately, they feel supported by me and come to know and own their own emotions in a deeper, more authentic way. I am not unique in this; many therapists offer this to their clients. I refer to this kind of listening presence based in a shared empathic resonant field as ‘earthshine.’

The moon that we observe in the sky does not itself generate light, rather it absorbs sunlight from behind the Earth. At night it emanates a glow that fills the sky with splendor. When we see a crescent moon, the majority of the Sun’s light is obscured by the Earth, leaving only a crescent that is receiving the sun’s light directly. But, if we look closely, we can faintly see the remainder of the moon, the whole circle, illuminated. Why? Because of earthshine: sunlight diffracting through the Earth’s atmosphere emanates a pale light that illuminates the moon. The phenomenon of earthshine is an apt metaphor for the encounter of self and other wherein two people’s resonant fields of awareness illuminate what is in the shadow of consciousness. We all have hidden, denied shameful and shadowed parts of ourselves that we cannot see until someone is closely attuned to us and willing to be affected by us. This is the miracle of shared vulnerability. It is the substrate of love, awe and insight. The light of awareness passing through the space between us allows us to glimpse what is hidden. It has the potential to heal us and set us free.

Earthshine is veiled and mysterious but in that light, things can be felt that are not accessible in the full light of day. Sunlight symbolizes the powers of the ego, rational discourse, what is known and solvable. It is the fixed, direct analytical gaze that dissects and problem solves. Moonlight, by contrast, symbolizes what is never fully knowable. The eyes in the gaze of peripheral awareness as opposed to a sharp focus on what is directly in front of us. Allowing thoughts to arise without knowing what they mean right away. Staying with feelings without analyzing them, acting upon them or avoiding them. Vulnerability or abashedness that indicate something precious and highly personal is moving in the soul. Reflections on the miracle of birth and death. The shuddering awe that overtakes us when we encounter a person or an experience we have been blindly seeking all our lives. The kind of reckoning that St. John of the Cross coined, “the dark night of the soul.” And, also, the simple laughter of a child or the tender caress that unravels our defenses, helping us forgive and take up life anew. All these are the territory of earthshine.

In marital and group therapy, I teach my clients to practice earthshine. This includes the essential work of self-regulation that makes empathy possible. When David listens to his wife Jenn’s longstanding frustrations and disappointments in their marriage, he starts to breathe visibly deeper. When his breathing stays smooth, long and deep, I take this to be a good sign and commend him for it later on. He’s “self-regulating” – staying calm and open when under pressure– and “bracketing,” – putting his own perspective on hold to make room for hers. This is hard to do, one because he’s heard the complaint many times before and two because it contradicts his view of the problem. His deep breathing arises spontaneously to help him circulate and release the pressure building up in his torso, pressure that is being released from deep within her through a catharsis of emotion, small or large, that fills the air. The receptive listening presence and empathic field of resonance of earthshine. Through this sunlight diffracts, what has been held internally and hidden from awareness opens into the space between us and is released. Something beautiful occurs that draws us closer.

David’s self-regulation and empathy and Jenn’s capacity for vulnerable sharing that does not blame and is willing to be soothed allows the lament to succeed. The qualities of lovingkindness radical honesty, humility and a willingness to surrender to each other’s truth set up the pre-conditions for earthshine to occur. In this shared empathic field pain that has been suppressed and internally held within both of them to move out, to express. Like a log jam on a river that sorts itself out, rearranges and loosens. Their minds and organs (strained heart, touchy liver, bloated intestines, anemic pancreas and spleen) that have been tied up in knots, unfolds into an interpersonal field of shared meaning where they can both feel heard and release the charge.  The husband’s deep breathing helps him bear this pressure without going into emotional cutoff or blame. He can self-regulate and validate her truth. He is willing to be influenced by it. And simultaneously, alongside the dimension of meaning, his willingness to allow her pain to enter his being without being knocked down by it, creates an opening for what has been an unresolvable impasse between them. What has been energetically locked up begins to move. How does it move? Like a wave through their shared resonant energy field, what the Taoist’s depict as chi moving through the riverbeds of meridian lines in the body. Only this is a shared body.

We pine for the acceptance, approval and affirmation of our partners. Over time, when some part of us is not accepted and valued by our partner, we get caught in a double bind that can lead us towards despair about the relationship, dis-investing from romance, depression or acting out through compulsive work, shopping, fantasy, substance abuse, porn or an affair. We want to love and be loved but it seems we have to ignore a part of ourselves to do so. When that part is central to our identity . . . we are caught in a double bind and ‘can’t win for losing.’ What gets us through at these times is our commitment to hang in there with ourselves and with each other if we are in a relationship. But to do this we each must visit a shadow realm, an emotional territory we long ago decided, consciously or unconsciously, is not worth visiting because its too painful. In such moments, the stabilizing practice of long, deep, smooth breathing to support an open heart is invaluable. Then the tidal wave of catharsis can pass through our body or our bodies and the shared resonant field of empathy can be maintained. Self-compassion and compassion for each other. It may sound like sex. And certainly it can serve as foreplay. But it is a communion of souls that brings deep intimacy and heals attachment wounds. This is earthshine.

When we listen to another person in pain, what helps them heal is their impression that we authentically care and don’t need them to quickly get over it. We are willing to be with them as they suffer, to have com-passion. They are telling a story they may have told many times before to others and felt through privately hundreds or thousands of times to themselves. This story is a production of their mind remembering, the sunlight of their awareness lighting up the contours of their ‘crescent moon.’ But if we are listening and making the resonant field of our whole being available, then the hidden aspects of their story, the shamed parts that their ego does not want to see will be faintly revealed by the pale light of our witnessing, the earthshine we bestow by opening fully to their story and allowing it to pass through us. This is earthshine.

To empathize I have to do two things well: (a)see and feel things as you do with open-hearted acceptance and without resistance and (b)not buy into the ways that your perspective eclipses your own light. To empathize fully, I have to shed a pale light upon how you are still fragmented and eclipsed in the current stance you have adopted towards life based on the trauma you have experienced. The nature of this trauma is contained in your lament but your ego, the very aspect of self that is telling the story is partially blocking the sun’s light. If from my vantage point, I can see something you do not, I can’t say this too directly or too soon. If I do you will feel judged and the trauma will be repeated, you will feel shame and the broken part of you will go back into hiding. You will see the lighted crescent of the grievance you claim legitimately to have suffered. I see it too and I accept it as the revealed truth. But, I also see what you cannot see in the manner that you hold your pain too rigidly in indignation and denial or with too much fragility in victimhood. And so I offer this earthshine to help you begin to see and recover the wholeness that trauma stole from you.

To do this I have to remain calm and present and emotionally available – open hearted. In group therapy, people get to witness one another get activated. A client shares their pain and everyone listens and offers support. Sometimes the support is validating or suggestive. But, more often it’s just the witnessing – the willingness to stay connected, not judge and not back away. For some clients they have to work on their empathy, allowing others pain to matter to them and affect them. For other clients, they have to learn to be more grounded, not so quick to join and validate what the other is saying, not so quick to assume they understand or know how support or advise. In both instances, working on the energy field is important. All this work heals shame binds. And allows us to recognize the difference between healthy and toxic shame.

In men’s groups I give clients direct instructions about how to work with their energy bodies. “Breath while the other man is talking.” “Feel your central column, initially an imagined column of energy passing through the center of your body connecting earth and sky.” “Notice where in your body you feel the other man’s pain.” “At all times when another person is talking, see if you can turn your belly towards him.” “When you give feedback, speak from your heat and open your belly towards the other man.

And I make subtle observations about my client’s bodies when they are feeling things. “I noticed your eyes got damp.” “You said something that seemed very important and then you quickly turned your head and looked away.” “You have a smile on your face, but what you are saying is not happy.” These observations offered with respect draw client’s attention to what is in the shadows. To observe and articulate them, I have to experience how their energy body affects my energy body and say what I will say gently without insistence or defensiveness. Often the client will deny or not be able to take in what I’m saying. I have to accept what they understand while not losing track of what my intuition says is obscured by their defensive strategies and the trauma that underlies this.

Teaching and sharing earthshine requires my own breath-work, tai chi practice and consultation with other therapists. Maintaining this subtle awareness requires constant upkeep and tuning. In particular, I have to keep an open heart, a vibrant body and a healthy relationship with my own shame. But it pays off. Through empathic listening and concrete goals clients develop their own facility with self-regulation, effectiveness, intuition and empathy. Their attachment wounds heal. And their confidence, life satisfaction, capacity for connection and relationship grows healthier. They develop fluency with earthshine, a language they can share with others wherever they go.

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