There is a disposition in the West to direct our spiritual efforts towards solitary practice—eg. a daily meditation on the cushion—placing less emphasis on the role that interactive, human connections play in spiritual growth. While mindfulness developed in isolation can result in great breakthroughs, it certainly makes for a withdrawn and difficult journey. For we are inherently social creatures—the size, structure and impressive functional capabilities of the human brain were developed specifically to allow for interaction, support and learning from others. To guide one’s spiritual endeavors away from awakening amidst human contact is to limit its possibilities growth and joy.
Over decades of spiritual practice it becomes clear that some of the most profound experiences occur within the arena of engaged interaction: It is in hearing fears and yearnings—too long considered shameful, swallowed, and unspoken—being expressed that allows us to climb out of our sense of isolation and uniqueness. The expression of sadness, loss, rejection, frustration, confusion, anger, and so on permits us to grasp and relax into the fundamental universal quality of our experience; our suffering is more uniform than we often suspect.
Until we develop the courage to open up in partnership with others, we bury many of natural and authentic vulnerabilities beneath all of our reactive coping strategies: suspicion, doubt, micromanaging, suspicion, defensiveness, knowing-it-all, seeking attention at all cost. As a result we wall ourselves off from deep emotional connection, believing we are safer when our thoughts take charge but our hearts are not engaged.
Choosing to awaken through conscious interaction is not a specifically Buddhist practice. It involves listening deeply when someone speaks, pausing to hear more than what the words alone are conveying. Communication often conveys far more than a single idea; what people say and mean can be tangled or entirely at odds. Can we take in facial expressions, body language, pauses, underlying pleas for love and/or attention? Can we open to the sensations that are occurring in our bodies, propelling us to speak. Can we relax into awkward silences? Can we live in the moments of vulnerability and lack of resolution? Can we reach agreements through eye contact or a knowing smile, or are we limited to connecting only through words?
When we take the risk to step out from behind the wall of our social mask, we grant ourselves and others a safe space to be authentic. In being vulnerable we may experience, at times, the feeling of not being met, understood, or wounded. Yet we must continue. For the real misery and emotional pain lies in staying remote and hiding behind our views and opinions, rather than our empathy and compassion. The reward of taking risks and daring to be emotionally exposed is that, with persistence, it will lead to real deep connection and growth in unison with others.