This I Belive: Ken Stewart (2010)

Let me begin by telling you a story.  After all, it’s the stories we remember, not all the high-minded principles.  When I was a young seminary student at Boston University School of Theology in the late 1960’s, Abraham Maslow’s studies of peak experiences intrigued me.  Maslow was a humanistic psychologist who was interested in studying healthy people, self-actualized people.  He studied peak experiences: those moments in our lives when we achieve profound insights and see how things fit together. Peak experiences are described by Maslow as especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth. They usually come on suddenly and are often inspired by deep meditation, intense feelings of love, exposure to great art or music, or the overwhelming beauty of nature.  They were moments of flow, and of connection.

For many peak experiences were deeply spiritual or religious experiences – those times when people had new insight into how things fit together, a new way of seeing the world.  In my inductive process then, I thought that – from the experience to the evidence – God must be that which deeply connects and in that connection, creates change.  I later learned that others had similar thoughts about this – and called it “Process Theology” – God is a verb, not a noun.  Made sense to me.

That’s what I thought then.  Lately, in the last 10 years I’ve been interested in the processes of curiosity, connection, and compassion.  The three “C’s” if you will.  I’ve been a psychotherapist for 35 years and I’ve taught it for 24 years.   To my students and my clients I distinguish between two kinds of curiosity.  The first kind, caring curiosity, is when you have benign intentions, you delight in learning, you seek new knowledge, you don’t make assumptions, but you just ask questions, and you have a genuine interest in the other person.  Sort of like an anthropologist.  If you take a stance of caring curiosity toward someone, the effect this has is to make them feel special, important, and understood.  It actually helps the other person to flourish.

I distinguish that kind of caring curiosity from hostile curiosity. This is when your intentions are to control, to confirm your assumptions, to seek new knowledge to entrap the other, and to get new information in order to have more leverage over the other.  Sort of like a prosecuting attorney.  If you take this kind of stance toward others it tends to make them feel cornered, trapped, and accused. It closes things down and overpowers the other.  Not a good feeling.  I guess you could call it curiosity for control instead of curiosity for discovery.

What moves me, what opens things up in a therapy session, what is the first step in changing lives is caring curiosity.   If you practice this kind of curiosity it will lead to connection.  If you are carefully, respectfully, openly curious – it tends to invite the other to open, to share their deeper thoughts and feelings. The more you stay curious the more the other opens up.  When a client deeply shares with me their anguish, their sadness, their grief, or their wishes and hopes – I am deeply moved.  I understand them more deeply.  At those moments of deep sharing they are at their most vulnerable.   And if I’m working with couples or families, that’s where I hope to take them – to those places in which they are the most open – the most vulnerable.  I teach couples how to do this – how to confide deeply to each other – to confide without criticism – and in doing so – establish a profound connection.

And, it’s like magic – that in those moments of deep connection there is a new understanding about the other leads to compassion.  When we are at our most open, most vulnerable – we are also – in my experience – the most understandable and the most lovable.   These occasions of vulnerable openness are profound peak experiences. I take joy in my own experiences of compassion, and work hard to teach husbands and wives, long-term partners, and kids and parents to take the risk of opening up to one another – because the payoff is being deeply understood and accepted.

I know this is true – it happened to me.  An amazing peak experience.   About a year out of seminary – this would be in about 1971 – I was at a weekend retreat – an encounter group – sponsored by Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, at their retreat center west of town.  In a group of total strangers facilitated by a skilled and caring group trainer, we were to be as open and honest as we could be at that moment, about whatever personal struggles we were having.   For me it was the death of my father about 8 years earlier in a tragic ice fishing accident when the car he was in went under the ice.  About the middle of Saturday morning, something happened in the group – I can’t remember exactly what – but it was an intense encounter with someone, and all of a sudden the floodgates opened and I began sobbing – deeply sobbing for nearly half an hour.  It was a release of all the anger and grief I had bottled up for the past 8 years.  Afterward, I had the most profound sense of relief – and – I felt understood and accepted by everyone in the group.  That was a holy moment for me.  A life changing peak experience.  I was on an emotional high for about a month afterward.

I came to understand experientially – not philosophically or theologically – the real meaning of grace – of feeling belonged and accepted.  It changed my life.  I set out determined to assist others to have a similar experience of acceptance and belonging that I had then – and I’ve been at it for nearly 40 years now.  I’m not ready to retire.