The Art of Intimacy is not what you think
When people hear the word intimacy, most will bring to mind the physical relationship with a romantic partner. In this first of four talks in the series of lessons Expanding Our Circle of Community, Rev. Joanne explains that this is not the context of intimacy being considered for this lesson.
That humans are comprised of body, mind, and spirit is not a new idea, nor an idea unique to Unity teaching, New Thought, or any particular culture. We have known instinctively since time immemorial that in order to be healthy, happy and whole people need a balance among our tripartite selves.
In the modern west, and increasingly in other parts of the world, heart disease is the most common cause of illness and death (number one cause of death at 23.1% in US in 2017, followed by all types of cancer at 21.8%).1 Modern medicine has done an excellent job of identifying and treating the most common risk factors for heart disease including obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and poor diet. However, there is another risk factor for heart attacks that would seemingly be unrelated to a physical condition – isolation and depression.
As non-medical professionals, we may not be able to offer “treatment” to the people we meet in life, but we all can strive for more intimacy within our immediate family, friends, spiritual community, co-workers and acquaintances helping to reduce the number of people feeling isolated from normal, healthy relationships of all types. It is in this context of expanding our circle of community via the Art of Intimacy that Rev. Joanne is speaking.
Well, if intimacy is more than simply romantic relationships, what is it? Rev. Joanne explains that there are at least five different types of intimacy: emotional, intellectual, physical, experiential, and spiritual.2
Emotional intimacy is the ability to be with one another and with all of our feelings – anger, sadness and hurt, as well as happiness, joy and contentment. When we are listening to another person share something that is troubling them, often we have a knee-jerk reaction to want to “fix” the other person’s problems. If they ask for such help and we are able to provide it, then doing so can build trust. However, what a person may need at the time of sharing is not our help or sympathy, but simply a kind and empathetic listening ear. This also builds trust.
Intellectual intimacy is the sharing of ideas. Many people within our community have said that they enjoy coming to Unity Spiritual Center because they are comfortable being among “like minded people.” There is value in that and absolutely nothing wrong with seeking friends who share common ideas and values. However, intellectual intimacy is certainly not limited to sharing ideas only with those with whom we agree. We at USC do have at least one common goal or value – the desire to seek out and know God, however we conceive of that Spirit. But it is also true that our community has a diverse spectrum of ideas, opinions, values and worldviews. To create true intellectual intimacy we must not avoid conversations with people with whom we might disagree, but actually embrace the opportunity to have those conversations. In 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos3, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson tells us in Rule Nine: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't. I believe this is sound advice, because it is almost certain that every person we encounter will know something we do not. Be open to this learning and that will go a very long way to building intellectual intimacy.
Physical intimacy does include romantic relationships, but is not limited to that. It can include a heart-felt handshake or hug given and received on Sundays during the “greet your neighbor” portion of our service. This is done with the understanding that we encourage people to benefit from this friendly contact, but also that we respect whatever boundaries others have in this area. Some people have said that this brief period of “handshakes and hugs” is the only physical contact they have with another human being throughout their week. If you are fortunate enough to enjoy healthy physical relationships with partners, family and friends, do not take that for granted, but be grateful for them every day and bless those you hold dear.
Experiential intimacy is the process of building a bond with other people through shared activities or experiences. Rev. Joanne shared that on her recent vacation to northern Michigan, she and her husband Gary met an older gentleman named Joe. Joe, who lived alone in a rustic cabin, described himself as a loner who did not make friends easily. However, while sharing the beautiful lakeside landscape of their wilderness vacation, the shared experience of this setting allowed Joe to open himself to the genuine friendliness and hospitality of Joanne and Gary, spending time with them and sharing dinner three or four times. Other examples of experiential intimacy are classmates from school, teammates in sports, overcoming shared hardships such as natural disasters, and of course the idea of a Band of Brothers felt by soldiers and warriors since before the Stone Age.
Spiritual intimacy is sharing a common view of life, its purpose, and our place in the world. It can also mean having a common idea of a metaphysical reality not definable in scientific terms. This may include some image of what “God” is or is not, and ideas on the existence of an afterlife. On a practical day to day level, it might mean the willingness to respond to the question “How are you today?” with something more than the reflexive, “Fine thanks, how are you?” We may have reached spiritual intimacy with another person if when asked “how are you” we are comfortable with telling them how we really are. Choosing who to share good news AND bad news with is important. We don’t want someone to “rain on our parade” or to “one-up” us on challenge or tragedy. When we are confident we can do this, we have achieved a form of spiritual intimacy. This dovetails with the “listening ear” described in emotional intimacy.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:2-3
This week, become aware of how you show up in relationship with others. Are you expressing friendliness, warmth, and understanding? Are you compassionate and kind? You can practice this with the checkout person at the grocery store, your friends, your spouse, your USC community members.
The five varieties of intimacy can be separate but are often intertwined. When interacting with others I will make a conscious effort to identify which type(s) of intimacy I have the opportunity to cultivate. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, so intellectual intimacy is something I already do on a regular basis. This week, I will work on opening myself to expanding within the other four intimacies. Which intimacy(ies) will you work to cultivate this week?
1Center for Disease Control, NCHS Data Brief, Number 328, November 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db328_tables-508.pdf#4
2Healthline.com, How to Understand and Build Intimacy in Every Relationship; https://www.healthline.com/health/intimacy
3Peterson, Jordan (2018), 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos; Random House Canada, ISBN 978-0345816023