Ordinarily, when we encounter another person, we unconsciously begin to tighten. Rather than opening wider to the encounter, we contract and withdraw our energy, in much the same way that a snail retracts its body inside the protective covering of its shell when it senses danger. As we become more sensitive to the tactile changes that are constantly occurring within our body, we can begin to monitor these shifts, and realize how painful it is to close our hearts and tighten our bodies in the presence of another person, no matter how subtly.
The opening of the heart is literally dependent on the softening of the musculature around the chest. As Jesus said, “Fortunate are they who have softened the rigidity within, for they can gain access to the universal healing power of Nature.” (This is a closer and more literal translation from the original Aramaic language in which Jesus spoke than the more frequently translated version, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.”) The [upright, relaxed, and open] posture of meditation allows us to begin to soften our rigidities. The more we are able to soften the holding and tightness in our bodies, the easier it is to open our hearts. The cycle feeds on and reinforces itself, for the more our hearts come softly open, the more our bodies shed the tightness and rigidities that make the experience of relaxed and resilient balance so elusive.
— Will Johnson, in “The Posture Of Meditation”
Many of us with a desire to be truly emotionally close with other people eventually come to the conclusion that interpersonal relating can either be under control, safe, and artificial, or it can be raw, real, and genuine. A corollary of this is that there is no way around the anxiety that comes from being truly close with people – being intimate involves making space for a certain amount of anxiety without trying to manage it or make it go away.
Twenty years ago, a friend told a story that helped me understand this paradigm of intimate relating. He recounted that he had gone for a walk with a wise older friend who had been involved in interpersonal awareness for decades. As they walked, the younger guy, as any good personal growth-y Californian would, began to discuss the tension and discomfort that he sometimes felt between himself and the older man, why he thought this tension was arising, and what they could do about it. The older man stopped the discussion short, however, saying that he felt that there is a fine and patient art to simply sitting still and feeling the tension that comes up between people, whether the energy is aggressive/hostile, sexual, or otherwise. He also expressed the opinion that a compulsive and anxious drive to try to talk tension out, act it out, or otherwise try to resolve it quickly, are often attempts to short circuit the difficult work of simply relaxing and being willing to feel it.
Relaxing, holding space for, and deeply tension is of course a central aspect of meditation practice. Throughout the 2,500 year history of Buddhism, however, meditation has usually been practiced in solitude and silence. Monks may sit in a meditation hall full of other meditators, but usually there is no overt, observable interaction between them. Solitude is also generally true of psychospiritual cultivation techniques that are similar to Buddhist meditation and are found in other world religions, for example the Eastern Orthodox “Prayer of the Heart”.
Many of us meditators come to realize at some point in our solo practice that much our deepest karma seems to be created and arise not in solitude, however, but in interaction with other people. We may notice that, while sitting alone on a cushion, we are unusually aware, concentrated, and peaceful with our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but that it may be difficult to remain that open with the unusually strong experiences we have during social encounters. Developmental psychologists and neurobiologists have hypothesized that humanity’s evolutionary history as social creatures has left our brains hard-wired for strong responses and reactions when we so much as see another human being in our visual field.
For most of us, we only contract and energetically lock up around certain challenging relationships – for example, people we are intimidated by or sexually attracted to – while for a few unfortunate people the shutting down happens in all social encounters. Regardless, freezing up socially often both arises from and creates the most primitive levels of the solidified, suffering sense of self that meditation practice seeks to dissolve. Accordingly, remaining mindful and fluid when interacting with our fellow humans is a key aspect of breaking up our deepest mental/emotional stuff, and becoming truly liberated, open, happy, and clear.
So, a question I have often heard asked in personal growth environments is, “What is the relevance of meditation practice to staying open in social environments?”. Meditation is a systematic cultivation of an open, clear, stable, and spacious state of mind, and so it would be nice if there was a simple way to help us to develop the same clear mind states while socializing. Some of the growth practices that I have heard described as “interpersonal meditation” include honesty circles, the “T-groups” of the sixties, and the “circling” process practiced by me and my friends through The Circling Institute, Arete, Authentic SF, and the Wednesday Night Men’s Circle.
One exercise that I have found useful towards cultivating the goal of staying open with social tension is for meditators to pair off and sit facing each other, with knees touching, for a period of formal meditative practice. I have students do exactly this in the meditation class that I teach. If students are taking the class with a love partner or a friend, I have them sit across from that person, otherwise I suggest same-sex pairs so as to make the exercise be as simple as possible (which – we all find out – is not very simple).
The first thing that I have the meditators do, after they are settled in, is notice and play with the balance of awareness between themselves and their experience of the person in front of them. Then I instruct meditators to maintain eye contact with their partners, but to otherwise do their best to basically do a formal solitary meditation technique. I ask each sitter to simply be aware of the body sensations that they feel within themselves while seeing this person in front of them, keeping their awareness completely under their own skin. This means that they are to not try to receive or perceive anything about the other person, not try to show or manifest anything about themselves, and not otherwise actively communicate or interact. Doing this, most sitters eventually become more conscious of the patterns of body sensation they feel with another person sitting right in front of them. Perhaps more important, many sitters notice, often for the first time, how difficult it is to not try to interact or connect when in such a situation.
Just as certain forms of meditation involve an intentional cultivation of a narrowly-placed awareness, for example returning the mind from distracting sounds, itches, and thoughts back to the sensation of the breath in the belly, so intentionally placing awareness on one particular aspect of a social interaction (for example, just oneself) can build strength in the ability to concentrate our minds where we chose to place it, as well as an increased awareness of where our minds wander off to when left to their own unconscious habits.
After a period of this self-exploration, I instruct the meditators to change it up, and to now try to place their entire attention on the person sitting in front of them. I ask them to remain conscious of the other person’s three-dimensionality, feeling the energy (prana, chi) coursing through their partner’s body, and paying attention to their actual raw and immediate experience of their partner, rather than their ideas about them. And if a sitter notices that they themselves are coughing, laughing, blinking unusually often, swallowing uncomfortably, briefly looking away, or otherwise fidgeting, their instruction is, as much as possible, to notice the impact of such actions on the other person while simply letting go of their own various subjective reactions to such events.
Finally, after sitters have spent some time with their attention fully on the raw alive reality of being themselves, and then on the raw alive reality of the other person, I ask them to balance their awareness between both people simultaneously. I tell them that their minds may naturally drift off balance, into paying attention just to themselves or just paying attention just to the other person, or even off to distracting thoughts, feelings, or sounds, but that I would like them to, where possible, intentionally return to holding both people simultaneously in awareness.
I tell the sitters that, if needed, they can anchor their awareness on simultaneously paying attention to both their own and their partner’s breathing. I suggest that they can even synchronize their breathing to their partner’s, if they find that the assists them to cultivate presence.
It is a rare and beautiful accomplishment for a person to be truly present to themselves. And it is a rare and beautiful accomplishment for a person to be truly present to another person. But the rarest and most beautiful accomplishment is someone who can simultaneously be truly present to themselves and truly present to another person.
— Zen teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson
This knee-to-knee social meditation exercise may sound straightforward enough when reading about it, but strange and challenging experiences arise for most people when practicing it. And the weirdness often gets so intense that folks are unable to perform their usual unconsciously habitual patterns of blocking uncomfortable sensations, tightening up around them, pushing them down, or otherwise managing them in an attempt to keep up normal social facades.
I tell people that their assignment in the meditation is simply to keep their spine extended, their heads up, maintain eye contact, and stay sitting knee-to-knee, and, other than that, to let whatever may arise for them express itself fully. I suggest that they can take their foot off of the emotional brake pedal and to go deeply into experiences that they would usually avoid – that it is OK to get weird, to burst out laughing, to swallow uncomfortably, to get sleepy with heavy eyelids, to feel embarrassed ashamed or flushed, to be sexually aroused, or to feel hateful and have violent impulses.
I ask the sitters to be conscious and aware, to not push away or grab onto any of the experiences that they are having, and to generally just let go and let it all happen. I suggest that they let all of their experiences burn themselves thoroughly and cleanly, like a campfire burning until it burns itself out. Taking a cue from Hindu tantric teachings, I suggest that students open to the experience with an clarified identity of pure love and pure empty aware consciousness, no matter how emotional, intense, or strange things get for them.
The more meditators are able to stay open, aware, present, and allowing during the intensity of the knee-to-knee meditation, I am convinced, the more they are able to hold uncollapsed big mental space for any future tension and weirdness that may arise in their common daily social interactions.
Gestault therapist Brad Blanton once said that honesty between people is like meditation within a person – it’s letting things be exactly what they are, and discovering a freedom and unraveling of tension that emerges from that.
I find however that the honesty that he was talking about is something that can happen between two people without saying a word. Social meditation is ultimately not a matter of what we say to another person, but more a question of the openness that we emanate out of our souls. We can cultivate and radiate a space of fluidity, openness, spaciousness, and a desire for well-being to the people around us in all situations.
Notice if you react to a person or situation that hurts you by withdrawing, hiding or closing in on yourself. Notice if there are times when you find it difficult to look into someone’s eyes, or times where your chest and solar plexus become tense and contracted. These are signs of an unskillful reaction to hurt. Contracted and closed in on yourself, you are unable to act. You are trapped in your own self-protective tension, no longer free.
The wise person practices opening during these times of automatic closure. Open the front of your body so your chest and solar plexus are not tense. Sit or stand up straight and full, opening the front of your body, softening your chest and belly, wide and free. Breathe down through your chest and solar plexus, deep into your belly. Look directly into the eyes of whomever you are with, feeling your own pain as well as feeling the other person.
Only when the front of your body is relaxed and opened, your breathe full and deep, and your gaze unguarded and directly connected with another person’s eyes, can your fullest intelligence manifest spontaneously in the situation. To act as a wise person, a samurai of relationship, you must feel the entire situation with your whole body. A closed body is unable to sense subtle cues and signals, and therefore unable to act with mastery in the situation.
— David Deida