Occasionally, I go through periods where all interpersonal interaction feels like hard work.
I don’t mean anyone is vicious or mean; there are–usually–no great dramas or power struggles. It mostly feels like an accumulation of moments where a comment isn’t ‘landing’, the subject changes abruptly and somehow I’m swept into a few hours of internal rumination at the expense of whatever new moment is occurring right now.
A few days ago I picked up a book that I’ve been slowly digesting over the past couple of years titled, Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom by Gregory Kramer. He is a long-time Buddhist practitioner whose own path has been to work with the relational realms of mindfulness.
Much of the meditative and contemplative practices through the ages have been solitary. This may be key to cultivating a balanced and clear awareness, but as Kramer writes: “We meditate alone, but live our lives with other people; a gap is inevitable…..Meditating alone reinforces an unreflected assumption: that the deep work of awakening is a private affair.”
It is quite easy to feel deep peace and joy alone in the middle of a forest, but another thing altogether to be in that same elevated state among your co-workers. It is quite normal, if not a bit humbling, to be in a transcendent and blissful state on the meditation cushion, only to contract into an armoured state of tension the nanosecond one enters into the realm of the relational.
This book acknowledges, normalizes and describes not only the rich texture of interpersonal suffering, but applies the meditative practices normally practiced alone, to the context of dialogue and group interaction. Called Insight Dialogue, this contemporary practice integrates both the the inner and the outer realms of the human experience.
He writes,”Our relationships are full of such small discomforts: we don’t feel like talking to the cashier; we put off returning that phone call. I recall a time when my teenage son closed me right out of his moment with a dismissive grunt. No great drama: but right then, I was sucked away from the world around me into a little cage of dissatisfaction.”
This touched a resonant chord with me. At the time I’d been feeling confused about a conversation I’d had with someone earlier in the day who suddenly zoned out while I was sharing something important, which reactivated a story I have that I don’t get enough support and appreciation.
Often as meditators, we suffer because of the story, and then we suffer because we think we shouldn’t suffer. We tell ourselves that we are too sensitive, that we should grow up. We tell ourselves that other people don’t make such a big deal out of little things. We pierce ourselves with the second arrow of suffering.
For me to read that we don’t need big dramas to be ‘sucked away from the world around [us] into a little cage of satisfaction’ felt like he was speaking right to me. In other words, if an established practitioner and writer of a book on interpersonal suffering can have these experiences, I have a choice about that second arrow.
Instead, I can nurse the wound of the first arrow, and appreciate how the mirror reflects anew the parts of myself that need some loving and integrating. Relating to others gives us this opportunity to do this over and over again. In these complex times, meditating in a cave may no longer be the path to liberation. As Kramer suggests, it might instead “blossom from this fleshy, fecund human experience.”
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