There are three major issues facing our world today, according to Buddhist teacher Michael Stone: Climate change, economic inequality, and a crisis of intimacy. Further, it may be our intimacy issues that are preventing deep engagement with our communities and the environment. So how can we learn intimacy?
Intimacy is, at its essence, a practice of presence: showing up and paying attention, whether it is to your best friend, the moss on the trees, or to the heaviness in your heart. We’ve learned tactics for distraction and disassociation, exacerbated by our beeping phones and the TV in the background, not to mention our learned cultural terror of awkward silences.
In order to avoid these silences (and perhaps to head off the vulnerability of intimacy), we tend to insert ourselves into our conversations: when a friend tells us they’ve had a bad day, we jump in to relate it to our own lives, or to try to fix the problem so they’ll stop feeling what they are expressing. None of that is really listening. Listening requires that we shut up some of the time, and simply hold space for the other person.
Matthew Remski recently wrote a piece on meditation as a form of conversation between two of your selves: your conscious self and your feeling self. Your feeling self is that which experiences, that which holds sensation and emotion in the body. Your conscious self is the self that has language, that understands the world through narratives.
When we meditate by focusing on the breath, for example, we are trying to call the conscious self into the presence of the feeling self. As we allow them to come into contact, old habits may arise: we tell that old grief it has no right to sit in our hearts, or reprimand the mind for obsessing about what the boss said. The work is to keep these two selves in each others’ presence, allowing them both the space to express whatever is going on. When the mind starts wandering away, chattering into worry or judgement, we can call it back to the body by taking a breath.
This way, we can cultivate intimacy between our selves. Staying in the presence of what we are feeling and becoming aware of what we are thinking can shine a light on the relationship patterns that we enact every day inside our own skins. As we discover the ways we avoid connecting internally, we start to see the ways we do that with other people. As we learn compassion and kindness for our own faults, shame, joy, and madness, we can stay open to those of our lovers and our families.
Some of us are great about offering compassion and kindness to others, but we are not so good at extending the same to ourselves. We can, however, allow these practices to mirror each other: we can call up the tools we’ve learned to use in the presence of our best friends and apply them alone in the quiet.
Remski writes: It’s helpful to remember that the best conversations end in radiant aporia – an impasse of language and thought brought about through empathy and interconnection. When conversants exhaust their content and fall silent in an awareness of the world that conjoins them, they enact socially what meditators have always sought in private yogic experience.
The trick is to get the two selves to sit next to each other. Then, get off your meditation cushion and sit next to the one you love.