/ Photo by S.AlSadhan /
Have you been to a party before where the main topics were breast implants, home improvements, and who is sleeping with whom? Small talk can be fun to a point, but it can quickly descend into verbal junk food. Sooner or later we yearn for more meaningful conversations.
My husband and I met a dear friend who is Buddhist practitioner and published poet for brunch at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago. We found a lovely corner table with cushions. She told us about a talk she had just attended by the transformational poet, David Whyte. We were jealous. He is an engaging speaker.
During his talk, David Whyte told a story from ancient Ireland. One day the people of a village noticed a band of invading warriors lining up along a ridge overlooking their valley. The villagers faced off against the warriors on the opposite ridge. The invaders drew their weapons and let out their battle cry, ready to charge. The villagers, instead of drawing their own weapons, all turned to one side… and simply stepped into the light, disappearing.
This says so much to me about the ways we choose to encounter aggression and the perception of threat.
This story reminds me of the principles of Aikido. In Aikido, harmony is the first goal, rather than jumping fast into an act of self-defense. In an article on the Tao of Aikido, we are reminded that “it’s better to defuse a situation and avoid combat.”
How much is war based on an assumption of what the other party is going to do? How much is the quality of our relationships based on our assumptions of who the other person is?
Our conversation with our friend continued, and we began looking at how we share in relationships.
- Are we always protecting, defending an image or a projection of who we are?
- When do we risk sharing our true selves?
We asked more questions:
- Do we feed into each other’s projections of who we think the other person is or can we relate to each other from a fresh, vantage point?
- Do we wear the masks of projection or can we remove them for a more honest declaration of ourselves?
- When we are relating to each other’s projections, are we really relating?
- Can we let go of the façade and how might this enrich our ability to relate to each other?
The following is from a compilation of notes from our conversation:
The common notion of relating can be like two billboards facing each other across a roadway. Too often we merely advertise our work or social selves. The mask of me is relating to the mask of you. Your projection of me is relating to my projection of you. We expend an exorbitant amount of energy defending and protecting this manufactured version of self.
Conversations are based more on projecting an image of personal and professional status. This is a form of social marketing rather than relating. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and emotions are taboo because they could tarnish one’s image.
Who are we anyway?
Who do you see when you look in the mirror? When other people relate to you, who do they see?
- Are you a wife, a husband, a parent, a sister, a son?
- Are you a lawyer, a cashier, an engineer, a writer?
- Are you wealthy, poor, middle class?
- Are you someone’s boss, or low man on the ladder?
- Have you survived rape, war, violence, or just been an alien to those around you?
Make a list. Go ahead. Get detailed.
Once you’re done, read the list carefully. Study it.
Then ball it up and throw it out.
Recognize that the list isn’t you.
We fall into the habit of defining ourselves by the roles we play in life. We get attached to our personal histories and the social masks we wear. At first, we form the mask. But if we never take it off, eventually the mask forms us.
Ideally, we must cultivate a fluid sense of self. Who we are is not fixed. We can choose from many expressions of the self, rather than a fixed identity. Once we recognize that, we aren’t so busy projecting and defending images of who we are. We just are. Our conversations become more intimate, fluid, and truthful.
Intimacy requires a level of spiritual maturity
It feels good to share a life story, to talk about a divorce, a loss, a phobia, but how many of us have faced rejection in doing so? You hope to unload your burdens onto compassionate ears, but it doesn’t always work out. A young woman shares her rape experience and her friends turn away. A man admits his gambling addiction, and his bar buddies laugh it up.
We do need to set some boundaries when sharing our personal stories. That which is vulnerable, that which is most private or most sacred, these parts of ourselves must be protected, revealed only in the proper environment.
If you reveal your life experiences without discernment, then it can become yet another layer of projection. Your friend stops seeing you just as a best friend, but as ‘the woman who got raped.’ Your friends don’t see you as their buddy anymore, but as ‘the guy who has an addiction.’
In other words, we do sometimes legitimately need our masks. But we must always remember when we are wearing them. And we must cultivate situations and relationships that allow us to regularly remove them.
Seek like-minded friends who share your spiritual values. Seek relationships with people who respect both your struggles and your victories, and recognize that neither defines you.
Don’t forget to ask yourself what your own spiritual credo is. Once you establish your own spiritual values, it will be easier to make contact with those like-minded friends. Your life stories will be in safe-keeping. And you can lower your mask. That’s when real intimacy begins.