“I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?” ~ Hafiz
We don’t know how to talk to each other, we don’t know how to listen, and we don’t feel heard.
The causes of this time-tested curiosity are deep-rooted in our social conditioning and strikingly evident.
We’re taught to be polite, to ask questions when we don’t care about their answers, and to limit conversations with anyone other than those closest to us with what is considered to be politically correct. We’re conditioned to talk about our pasts, our opinions, and our projections of the future, and to suppress our emotions, insecurities, and anything not “normal.”
We’ve come to a point in existence where we can throw out and take in words without considering what we say and hear. We ask each other questions like, “How are you?” without pausing in the street to listen for an answer—and this is okay because people usually don’t respond with anything at all, let alone with something honest.
On top of this, we are self-centered. We spend the receiving end of our conversations in our minds, concocting some cerebral combination of how we can relate to the person who is speaking and what we will say next, instead of listening.
I point this out in a matter-of-fact way, but with compassion and a hope to inspire change.
I work at a yoga retreat center where we host workshops in what I would essentially categorize as “activities that help us remember how to experience human connection.” (I use the word remember because honest communication is not some foreign concept. It’s something we’ve all experienced before and something that, I’d argue, we all desire in our lives.)
On the schedule, these activities are more euphemistically named “authentic relating,” and include various exercises like active listening, eye-gazing, engaging in behaviors commonly deemed silly or embarrassing to break down “barriers,” and speaking honestly in a safe, judgment-free environment.
Over and over again, people from all generations and all cultures are blown away by something as simple as displaying vulnerability. It’s beautiful to see a room of strangers burst into bouts of spontaneous tenderheartedness and to witness the bright eyes, genuine smiles, laughter, and occasional tears that come with the realization that we have never taken the time to recognize the familiar human essence in the souls or eyes of someone we care dearly about, let alone those of someone we just met.
We also have a set of question cards that are meant to facilitate a deeper level of relations between people—a sort of game that allows us the permission to genuinely expose ourselves. Although some of these questions are posed to push us outside of our comfort zones, most of them are about not-so-out-of-the-ordinary topics that we’ve just never taken the time to consider.
By sharing with others, we question aspects of our own belief systems, values, and qualities. This allows us to dig into the depths of our own beings as well, and to explore what it is that we actually care about versus what it is that we say we care about. When we do this, it’s not uncommon to find a disconnection between how we think we should live versus the way we are indeed living.
So, what can we do to experience human connection in a more meaningful way?
1. We can practice honesty with everyone, always—but this is only possible if we overcome the obstacle of being honest with ourselves.
2. Getting to know the self involves spending time in silence. I mean real silence, not silence with a film or silence with a book or silence interrupted by alerts on a telephone. I mean silence without words or labels—the kind of silence that some people spend their entire lives avoiding.
Silence allows us to investigate what goes on in the layers upon layers of these miraculous vessels that we wear during our human experience, which in turn lets us share our own unique selves with others. Words can only take us so far, and silence helps us to put this into perspective.
3. We can be mindful of our words and the ways and depths in which we use them. Small talk certainly serves a purpose in life (I once arrived somewhere, and the first question posed to me was “What are you passionate about?” which was off-putting to say the least), but we could all practice relating on a more intimate level. When we expose ourselves, our doubts, and our passions, we create space for others to do the same.
4. We can ask questions only when we have a desire for sincere answers. (This includes “How are you?”)
5. Instead of listening with expectation or reaction, we can simply hear.
6. We can stop speaking with our minds and, when we do speak, speak from our hearts.
It really is this simple. All humans share a craving for genuine relationships.
If you don’t believe me, give it a try.