Mutuality in Love

Feb 27 / Tracy Busse
Spring comes early in Georgia. On this balmy morning, an orchestra of birds finding their way to one another greeted me. With windows flung open, stale winter air ushered out, I waved at the new life budding around me, inviting it to enter. The revival of life both calmed and energized me to join the fullness of creation around me. My body was relaxed and open to receive what God’s creation had to offer.

In all realms of safe connection, mutuality exists. One responds to another, and the other acts in reply to their gesture. We see this dance in friendship among lovers, caregivers, and children. These graced responses occur randomly throughout our world when one honors another by acting in a way that acknowledges, “my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.” In South Africa, this is called Ubuntu, which “gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge despite all efforts to dehumanize them.” ¹ Our nervous system is wired to seek out safety and connection with one another—even God.

There are many faces we attribute to the nature of God. They range from loving father and friend to distant judge or scrupulous task master. Childhood encounters with parents, grandparents, spiritual leaders, and mentors influence our image of God. For many people, God is scary and cruel, and their only concept of God’s love is based on a continuum of right action, which will hopefully reward them with a good and eternal life. This is not a safe connection, nor does it represent what we mean by mutuality.

Mutuality sees the value of another as if they were looking at an expansive treasure. It gazes into your eyes and whispers, “Right now you are the focus of my attention. I see you; I hear you, and I desire to know you.” Imagine what it would be like to hear this from someone you trust and love. Linger with this imagined encounter and pay attention to what it feels like in your body. You may notice warmth and comfort but also might feel a bit vulnerable. When a safe person comes near, our body will naturally relax, but is that what happens to you when God comes near? Your answer to this question is an indicator of many things, including your perceived image of God. You may know in your head that God is love, but this creator of the universe might not “feel” loving.

Our nervous system works tirelessly to tell us when we are safe and when there is danger. This is often referred to as neuroception. “Neuroception is the process through which the nervous system evaluates risk without requiring awareness.” ² When perceived risk is present, our body will either move into a state of fight or flight, or it may simply choose to check out and shut down. In fight or flight, our body is tense, anxious, hyper-aware, and on edge. But in a state of shutdown, it is possible to feel nothing at all. Thankfully we have a third state that is triggered when we feel safe and connected to the environment and/or people around us.

These three states of presence can influence our perception of God in that moment. In a state of fight or flight, God may feel angry and judgmental. When we shut down, God is silent and distant, but in a state of safety and connection, God is love. When we learn how our nervous system operates, the part of us that “knows” God is love but does not feel it can learn compassion for the body that is operating from a state of protection. In those states, I hope God will be curious about our anxiety and hospitable to our anger. When we shut down, I hope God is gentle and present even if I cannot connect.

This morning I found myself in this third state as I soaked in the varied melodies of each bird. During a session with my spiritual director, I told him I wanted to engage in the Ignatian practice of noticing God in all things. While processing this, we agreed listening to the birds would trigger an awareness of God’s presence with me. Now when the birds sing, I smile and say hello to God. More songs emerge, and I relax as God’s melodies wash over me. In response, I imagine gazing into the eyes of my beloved and waiting to see how God responds. I cannot predict the response because God is other, but when we interact from a place of safety and connection, mutual regard and love develop.

While these moments of soaking are lovely and one of the sweetest parts of my day, there has been another benefit that reminds me God is near. When I am in a state of fight, flight, or shut down, birds trigger my nervous system to connect with God. You have probably experienced something similar when an old song comes on, or a smell triggers a pleasant memory from the past. These triggers are anchors and steadfast reminders of sweet moments of connection. I have learned through my bird friends that we can develop simple resources that connect us to God’s presence regardless of our state. To do this, explore with God, your spiritual director, or a friend simple ways you connect with God’s presence. You can also notice the image of God in a loved one saying, “Right now you are the focus of my attention. I see you; I hear you, and I desire to know you.” Just as we spent time imagining this with a loved one, imagine this with an image of God that is safe and welcoming. The more we engage in these practices, the more we relish intimacy with the Divine to the point that our relationship with God becomes as natural to engage as any other significant relationship in our life.

Tracy invites you to notice the gaze of love in her course, Trauma Informed Spirituality: Integrating Polyvagal Theory & Ignatian Spirituality for Soul Companions, on Mondays from March 27th-May 1st. This in-depth course includes an experiential component, teaching, discussion, and strategies to use when walking alongside others. Learn more and register here.

¹ Desmond Tutu, God has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Time (New York, NY: Doubleday Books), 26.
² Stephe Porges, The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company), 19.

Tracy Busse

Tracy Busse’s life and work have fueled an ongoing desire to move in harmony with the Trinity and to create spaces where all can encounter intimacy with God. Tracy is a writer, teacher, counselor, and spiritual director. For over eighteen years, she has provided therapy to children and adult survivors of trauma and human trafficking. She also provides consultation and training to a variety of organizations who serve leaders and marginalized populations. Continued growth in Kingdom life and integrating God’s love and presence into her work are the heart of her practice. In addition, Tracy is currently working on a doctorate in Spiritual Direction at Fuller Theological Seminary, which offered the opportunity to enjoy a 30-day Ignatian Retreat. The fruit of this experience continues to grow and reveal greater depths of God’s love and abundant grace. With the belief that God is in all things, Tracy finds delight on her paddle board, hiking, playing the guitar, painting, traveling, and resting in the company of fellow image bearers.