by Sibel Ozer
In our culture the trajectory of life seems to be geared toward getting us to a place of expertise, certainty, and all knowing. It may seem unfortunate that certainty is inversely proportional to knowledge (Jung), and that knowing prevents seeing (Huber).
I love learning, crave certainty, and like others have to make peace with the fact that there are few truths I can depend on despite years of study and self-improvement. I know for sure that things change all the time, unpredictably at that, and that everyone eventually dies, who knows when. I know that the mind prefers simplicity to complexity, new life to death, clarity to ambivalence, and siding with a polarity rather than coming to terms with multiple realities. It is preferable emotionally speaking as well, easier and more pleasant. Our tendency toward dualism in seeking answers to the mysteries of life is problematic in that it prevents the consideration of the complexity that accompanies it. Lack of flexibility in thought and action adversely affects all our relationships including Spirituality, as well as our improvement as an individual.
Great minds of the past point to the importance of being open to considering both sides of dualities. Thomas Moore, for example, reminds us of the efforts of Renaissance thinkers to reconcile medicine and magic, religion and philosophy, everyday life and meditation, ancient wisdom and the most recent discoveries and inventions. Eastern philosophical traditions see the transcending of dualistic thinking as key to enlightenment. In Chinese philosophy, the yin yang symbol captures the complementary nature of opposite tendencies, not only by joining the two colors into a circle representative of wholeness but also by placing a smaller circle of the contrasting color within the other shape. We forget that progress often arises with two or more trajectories in motion, and get caught up in defending one side’s merits over the other. We need both liberal and conservative perspectives for healthy politics, no different then a healthy psyche needs access to its wild side alongside wisdom.
Working with polarities is central to a lot of therapies. Shedding light to parts that are repressed, alongside increasing our felt experiences along a continuum. Knowledge seeking must embrace this core commitment to exploring opposite realities. Pondering alternate viewpoints avoids the pitfalls of polarization.
How can we learn to sit with the discomfort of not knowing, and resist our propensity toward dualistic thinking?
One of the answers, familiar to most readers, is to acquaint ourselves with mindfulness, which is possibly the greatest way for self-examination. Awareness reveals polarities, and softens the mind’s tendency toward simplistic conclusions. It cultivates essential qualities of curiosity and non-judgment.
Another answer came to me through my own self-exploration. As I was examining my particular way of practicing psychotherapy, I came upon the presence of an attitude of flexibility that is complimentary to, but separate from, mindfulness.
Flexibility is about remaining open, humble, and receptive, allowing us to suspend knowledge of what has worked in the past, in order to be able to discover what might work in the present. Being mindful helps me to be more present and aware, and not to buy into all that my mind is saying. Flexibility helps me widen the range of my thoughts and behaviors as I hold on to the constant of exploring what works, what helps with each client, session, or day, anew. Flexibility is the extension of open mindedness to our actions in that it includes the willingness to adapt and change, as the situation requires. It is not about the absence of convictions or principles, but a plasticity that allows adaptation to the uniqueness in each of us and each new situation.
I started out and continue to be a theoretical practitioner, maintaining a key interest in the ideas and methods that inform my practice. The scientific community favors evidence-based practices that are more directive, commandeering, and research friendly over concepts such as attunement and intuition that are more receptive, relationship-based, and hard to define, let alone measure. According to Marks-Tarlow, intuition is central to the practice of psychotherapy because true change emerges unpredictably, on its own timetable, and in full context. Its course cannot be mapped out with theory or planned systematically in a step-by-step fashion.
Flexibility allows me to draw from different schools of thought, and different trauma intervention methodologies relying on knowledge alongside intuition. The lack of flexibility on the other hand can show up in a strong adherence to a particular school of thought, or an attachment to a particular technique, resulting in their singlehanded application to all clients of all backgrounds in all situations.
I’ve even encountered lack of flexibility among mindfulness practitioners, and it can cause people to get lost in particular forms as the best, or right way of practicing, while devaluing others. The point of all forms of meditation is to cultivate mindfulness that can be applied to our everyday lives. Mindfulness practices do not remove all blind spots anymore then aging guarantees wisdom! When flexibility is absent, even the best of practices can have its limitations. And like mindfulness, it needs to be cultivated and practiced, rather then mastered.
I have been painting regularly for seven years now favoring process and abstraction. Recently, I enrolled in an online course with the Art of Allowing Academy whose focus is empowering the awakening of our intuitive and receptive skills as the primary teacher of creative expression. I was surprised to find that this approach embodied the spirit of flexibility. Painting this way, my imagery started getting more representational with archetypal figures emerging in unexpected ways.
From being a process-oriented painter, I found myself embracing the finished product in a way I hadn’t experienced before. So, a pole I was veering away from began to be included. I started to develop a deeper fondness toward my creations, which seems to have a positive impact on my relationship with myself: less criticism, more love.
I used to have a deep attachment to figuring out the meaning and significance of paintings once completed. From flexibility, a newfound affection for the unknown/unresolved is added. With some paintings I’m finding that an entire story reveals itself upon completion. With others, I have to continue to have patience with everything that remains unsolved, in the way Rilke recommends to a young poet:
Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
The more I paint embracing an attitude of flexibility, the more Rilke’s words are sinking in. These lines of his have been a favorite of mine for many years and it seems I’m only now really getting them.
A teacher of digital storytelling used to say it is the stories we tell over and over that have the most to teach us about ourselves. It is probably the quotes that are dearest to us that have the most to reveal about our Soul/Spirit Selves as well.
It was a year after I finished this painting that I recognize the reason Rumi’s quote “The soul has been given its own ears to hear things the mind does not understand” is my favorite. I’m not sure the answer would have come my way some distant day if I hadn’t had the patience, openness, and flexibility to hold the question — what is my soul hearing that my mind does not understand — the way Rilke recommends it, and to ponder it every now and then, without an attachment to an answer. I now know that it goes beyond a simple yearning I have for the Spiritual, but that it connects to our family legacy to find the area where we have a contribution to make. I have been practicing psychotherapy in the way of flexibility for decades now, and it is time for me to begin to teach it.
As I continue to paint this way, some paintings emerge from a carefully built up background as a gestalt emerges from an inkblot; some paintings start with the figure wanting to jump onto the blank canvas. Even as I’m trying to grasp what this art of allowing is, I’m realizing that there are no steps to follow, no one way that leads to the end product. It is about entering an attitude that is comfortable with not knowing, with trusting the process, and remaining open to engage in ways that are new and different, over and over. When I tried to paint what flexibility itself looks like I ended up with another word, Surrender.
Moore says that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I’m finding that the more imaginative I am in my approach to psychotherapy, painting, and life in general, the more soulful my experiences become. The more flexible I am, the more access I seem to be having to my soul’s ears. So maybe it is just perfect that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. This way, there is always space for mystery.
What are some ways you can imagine bringing flexibility to your life?
What are the images that are longing to emerge from your imagination?
Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice in downtown Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.