What Does “Conscious Loving” Really Mean? A Conversation with Kathlyn Hendricks

Kathlyn talked to our me about the one thing that’s more important than commitment, the importance of play in relationship, and why processing could be a bad thing for couples.

Kathlyn Hendricks burst into BC3, scarf flying behind her. She was not wearing a halo, nor was she glowing or levitating. She was human. And she was late.

Kathlyn has been a pioneer in the field of body-mind integration for nearly 40 years—she’s known as the “therapists’ therapist.” She and her husband, Gay Hendricks, have worked with more than 30,000 individuals and 3,000 couples in developing their method of body-centered, relationship transformation. The centerpiece of that method? Their book, Conscious Loving: A Journey to Co-Commitment.

Conscious Loving is used as a textbook in graduate programs around the country—and it has been my relationship Bible for a while. It has gained international respect and has a massive following. (BC3 stands for Boulder Center for Conscious Community… and guess which book is the cornerstone of their teachings?) Their work is known for being especially accessible due to the Hendricks’ ability to communicate on an experiential, body-based level.

I sat down with Kathlyn in a dimly lit room full of pillows, and we talked about how to show up authentically, what telling the microscopic truth really looks like, and the best way to infuse vibrancy into our relationships.

Note: I wrote this first for Twine Magazine. All original content is included.

Twine is about the merging of play and purpose in our lives, and how this inspires creative, expansive experiences. Do you think this concept applies in intimate relationships?

Kathlyn: That’s the core definition of our work. [laughs] There’s this myth in relationships that you have to “work” on it: work through things, work on these issues, etc. Hardly anyone says: “Let’s play through this together.” That’s the attitude we’re promoting. You can create so much vitality in your relationship the moment you become open to playing.

Do you think that requires a mental shift first?

Yes. The moment you shift from your analytical brain to your wonder brain, where play occurs, you put your experience first. And insight follows experience. The more you let yourself experience fully, the more you open up to what is going on with you, what is going on with him and between the two of you—you wonder about that.

Often, especially in our therapy-centered culture, we talk a lot about “processing” for getting through our issues. I have friends who say, “Yeah, we didn’t get any sleep because we were up until 2 a.m. processing.”

Processing, in my experience, can re-traumatize people. One of the big things we’ve learned in the field of psychology is that what you focus on grows. You can get good at processing, but worse at enjoying your life, being present and just seeing what happens. It can be particularly draining to our creativity. People waste an enormous amount of creative juice going over old stories and patterns.

But some people get attached to that process.

And that is where play comes in—play loosens the grip of personas. The roles that we all learned, who is the provider, the initiator, the one who waits and the one who makes the decisions. People get stuck without play—they stop seeing the other person as someone with lots of different facets.

How has your relationship with Gay helped you figure out what kind of work you wanted to do in the world?

We’re in our 33rd year together. And we made a very strong commitment from the beginning. We chose to see ourselves as whole mind, whole heart, whole body. We decided to use our relationship as a kind of laboratory, to find out if it was possible to run a relationship on primarily positive energy.

So do a lot of your teachings come from your own experience in the relationship?

They come out of our experimentation and work with thousands of people. We found if people make a commitment and make a re-commitment, it’s almost the re-committing that’s more important. Rather than drifting, feeling bad and feeling distant, the more quickly you re-commit, the more quickly you invigorate the commitment. You reveal rather than conceal. In any kind of relationship, if you’re more open to learning than you are interested in being right, that is a great impetus to keep dismantling things that don’t really work for you. A lot of people get into a relationship, and experience the same-old same-old—but if you are open to learning, a relationship can be the best way to discover who you really are.

In my community, I’ve heard people say, “Relationship is the path to enlightenment.” Is that what you mean?

How I know if a person is really enlightened is how they treat other people. If you’re going into your cave to meditate, that’s one thing, but when you come out into the world… that’s where it shows up.

The One Belief You Should Change—Right Now

In Conscious Loving, Gay and Kathlyn write that the most destructive belief is that what is happening to us is not supposed to be happening. There is no positive payoff for seeing the world this way. When events happen, we have a choice of how to view them—and we often tie up enormous amounts of energy blaming the world, saying that life is unfair, etc. Choose a better contract with the universe: “The experience I am having is the one I’m supposed to be having.” Start here, then move forward.

You and Gay are a great example of co-creating and living what you preach. Do you think a relationship can be successful if two people are not co-creating together? If there’s a strong support system, but you don’t feel you have the same life path?

Not at all. I feel so totally connected with him that we will often call each other at exactly the same time, even when we’re in different countries. We’re deeply connected to not only each other but to our purpose, so when each of us is doing what we both love to do, we can each feel that. I love to be creating vibrancy at home and being with Gay and our cat, Lucy. It’s a dynamic balance that changes over time, as your career might change, as your passions might change, that continues to be able to take advantage of collective creativity.

And what do you think will collective creativity will look like in this century?

Gay and I think that in this century it’s not going to be about women’s or men’s empowerment, but about relationship itself. The new frontier is the space between us. When we let ourselves be present to another person while being present to ourselves, the relationship entity opens up, and there’s enormous power for solving problems, especially the collective problems that are facing us as a global tribe. Humans love to solve problems, but we need a better order of problems. How can we create a world in which each person can discover what they love to do, where people communicate authentically, take healthy responsibility and lead with appreciation? We’ve created a Conscious Living and Loving Initiative based around these principles and are trying to gather one million signatures so we can lobby political leaders regarding the importance of these three things.

That’s amazing.

For example, right now I am appreciating how incredibly fast you can type and still remain present with me.

Thank you! [laughs] It seems so important to introduce people to these concepts. The two books that I wish were required in schools are yours, Conscious Loving, and Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. What are the differences in the way both works approach talking about feelings?

I know many of Marshall’s students who have also come to us. What’s different about our work is that we’re more body-focused; we use breath and movement and it’s highly experiential. So we don’t talk about concepts. We go straight to the intelligence that we carry in our bodies.

You write in your book that the microscopic truth is most likely going to be a “clear statement of feeling, of body sensation, or of what you actually did.” For example: “I’m scared,” “My chest feels tight as you talk,” or “I saw my ex-girlfriend today.” And that the closer you get to telling the microscopic truth, the less likely it is to cause or perpetuate an argument.

If the other person argues, then it lets me know there’s a deeper level of truth that I could access, something more fundamental, like, I’m feeling my breath stop. We’ve learned to conceal and say things sideways and upside down to “win” in our society. But learning to tell the microscopic truth is worth the effort, because it’s the quickest way to reconnect, to establish intimacy again, and it’s the quickest way to rekindle romance in a relationship.

In NVC, there is a list of things that “aren’t” feelings, that are masks for true emotions. For example: “I feel ignored.” NVC says that “ignored” isn’t a feeling, it’s your perception of what someone else is doing or not doing. What do you think of that?

The problem lies in the fact that when you say, “X isn’t a feeling,” it can be received as blame or criticism. People start by any doorway they come in, but if you really tune into what is going on in your body, there are three different zones where we feel emotions: if you feel tightness in your shoulders or jaw, that’s your anger zone, or you feel pressure in your chest, the sadness zone, or you might feel butterflies in your belly, and that’s the fear zone. In all three zones, though, even anger—it’s usually something you’re scared about. “I’m scared that I’m never going to get it right,” or “I feel sad because I’m afraid I’m going to lose you.” When you start tuning into what’s going on in your body, you’ll get so much more vitality.

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